Lately, I’ve lost my marbles again, but this time it’s for a good cause. When you sink your teeth into a drama on a whim (more or less), and find yourself richly rewarded, the feels… they are damn good.
Lee Young-oh (Jang Hyuk) is a genius neurosurgeon with impeccable observational, deductive and logical skills, but is unable to feel empathy. A series of patient deaths at Hyunsung Medical Centre, where Young-oh works, force him and traffic cop Gye Jin-sung (Park So-dam) to work together to uncover the mystery behind it all…
I had not expected to be watching another k-drama so soon, and a currently airing one at that. On hindsight, I probably should have waited for the drama to finish its run to spare myself the agonising weekly wait, but one glance at Jang Hyuk in a doctor’s coat did me in. Besides, I’ve always liked medical thrillers, so I was in after watching bits and pieces on KBS World and then marathoning the earlier episodes. Now I’m all caught up and bereft… it’s wholly ironic that for the next couple of weeks, I cannot wait for Mondays and Tuesdays to arrive. Also, a pox on KBS for shortening the drama to 14 episodes from its original 16. It’s a dick move that makes my blood boil.
Beautiful Mind is an intriguing, thought-provoking drama that uses a medical context to explore heavy-duty topics like humanity, morality and ethics, and the human psyche. The writing for Jin-sung was perhaps a bit over the top in first four episodes, but overall the drama has been producing some quality stuff and character development has, in particular, been very solid. Acting has also been consistently good across the board. The storytelling is not without its flaws and some bits are a little heavy-handed, but for the most part, it is told with heart and aims to show more than tell, which is always a plus in my book. The show raises plenty of pertinent questions on what it means to be a good doctor and whether empathy is a prerequisite; what makes us human and normal; whether saving lives will always trump over ethics, morality and protocol; and the assumptions and prejudices we hold against what we don’t know and fear. In several instances, it is Young-oh, a controversial and supposedly unlikable protagonist, who pares off the surrounding fluff and gets right to the crux of the matter. In questioning the decisions of his fellow doctors and patients, thereby pointing out issues they’d never considered, he offers them and us the unvarnished perspective – unhindered by emotions and guided by facts, logic and a clinical, detached worldview.
It’s been a while since any drama, regardless of country of origin, had a protagonist who had real issues to work through, whose growth was fascinating and heartwarming to watch, and whom I could totally get behind because I could really relate. It also made me do some research on some of the medical jargon, especially on Young-oh’s diagnosis of having anti-social personality disorder. There’s some creative licence involved, but so far Young-oh has coped with the disorder exceptionally well. Neurosurgery is a rather fitting specialty for him and he has deployed his ability to read body signals with near clinical precision to great effect. There’s also the odd occasion for comedy gold, as seen in his failed Dr Nice experiment. His is the classic fish-out-of-water situation, highlighting as well the struggle for meritocracy and equality in a system that prizes money, prestige and hierarchy. The fact that he’s allowed to practise despite his condition gives rise to several issues, chief among them being what one expects of a doctor beyond the necessary qualifications. He’s an anti-hero, a misfit, a flawed character not above manipulation or lack of remorse, but also an underdog, and one that is refreshingly true to his personal and professional convictions. Time and again, Young-oh challenges the status quo, and in return, is challenged to revise his preconceptions to improve his patient care, and by extension, his understanding of himself and what he can achieve despite his limitations. In him and around him, we see reflections of how society deals with people who are different, the stigmas involved, expectations of humanity and normality. There are monsters, and then there are humans.
There are several parent-child relationships portrayed in the drama, but the most intriguing one is that of Young-oh and his adoptive father Dr Lee Gun-myung. It’s a difficult relationship fraught with tension, fear and years of unresolved issues – Dad’s mistake in the OR many years ago reeking of malpractice; father and son not seeing eye to eye on ethical issues, among others; Young-oh’s struggle to blend in as the best form of survival and the emotional scars he carries unbeknownst to Dad. I’m curious how the drama will handle the fallout when Young-oh realises Dad contributed to his disorder, because it seemed Dad was really gutted when it dawned on him that he had not, in actual fact, tried his best for his son and had let his own demons get the better of him. In contrast, Jin-sung shares a warm relationship with her mother, who is “with the times” and doesn’t assume the worst of her daughter when Jin-sung brought a strange man (Young-oh) home to recuperate.
The romance, for what it’s worth, is slow-burn and handled with the care and sensitivity it deserves. For now, it doesn’t profess to be the “love conquers all, even brain damage” type. This is a case of opposites attract, yet are complementary in the ways that truly matter. Jin-sung learns to revise her initial perception of Young-oh and becomes not only his means to understand emotions, but also his friend and safe refuge. At his most vulnerable, she reaches out to him and offers warmth and help unreservedly and without prejudice. She tempers his cynicism with simple home truths, and doesn’t seek to pressure him or blindly appeal to his nonexistent emotions, yet she manages to touch that side of him secretly craving for an emotional connection that he struggles to process. When he feels forlorn, she cheers him up without hesitation – how much do I love that she immediately assures him of his Wi-Fi access anytime, anywhere? Through him, she learns to view things differently, takes the time to slow down and think before she leaps, and while her initial idealism is dampened by events beyond her control, she’s not afraid to continue pursuing her convictions. Their interactions have been nothing short of adorable – Young-oh’s very logical reasoning that he needs Jin-sung around because she’s so good at reading patients’ emotions means he keeps fashioning meet-cute encounters that turn me into a giggly pool of goo. I really like how this has developed into a relationship where both parties grow and learn from and with each other – that he wants to make an effort loving her even though his mind blocks the emotions he wants to feel for her is at once bittersweet and heartwrenching.
Jang Hyuk is doing a phenomenal job as Young-oh, delivering a very impressive performance that is nuanced, sensitive and to the point. He’s mesmerising to watch and time passes slower when he’s not on screen. As Young-oh is unable to feel empathy and process emotions due to frontal lobe damage, it has been hilarious watching Jang not emote, because he’s normally such an expressive actor. His dialogue delivery, at times deliberately slow, has little inflexion and most of his facial expressions are monotonous, but there’s a wealth of emotion lurking in those seemingly soulless eyes, and it’s credit to Jang’s intimate grasp of the essence of this complex character that the audience is able to root for Young-oh to rise above his limitations. He’s also a sight for sore eyes, decked out in fitted suits of all black the bulk of the time – I love a man who can carry off black with style. I cannot believe the production team went through the current It boys, none of whom could reasonably pull off this character, before it settled on Jang – he should have been the first and only choice. I’ve liked Jang’s acting since Please Teach Me English and Chuno, so it is a real privilege to be able to watch him act his socks off here and pretty much blow everyone else out of the water. That’s saying a lot because the drama has assembled a very talented cast in all the key roles – face-offs between Jang and Heo Joon-ho (as Dad) have been fascinating to watch because there’s so much simmering beneath the surface, while Jang and Park So-dam have believably adorable chemistry and are clearly comfortable with each other despite being first-time co-stars. The writing aside, Park has done a wonderful job for the turnaround of Jin-sung, which is realistically done, and you begin to understand why the production team fought hard to get her on board.
It’s a real shame Beautiful Mind has been cut to 14 episodes because of poor ratings (why are people not watching this drama? why?), and I blame KBS entirely for this. But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying what’s left of the drama and I’m glad to have discovered this little gem. A drama that makes me think, that seeks to experiment and cover new ground, has my respect because it bothers to make the effort to try. I only hope it will end well, or as well as it can, because the cast and crew deserve a good drama send-off for all the hard work they’ve put in.