[Disclaimer: I’ve never watched the original series (nor the various remakes) so these thoughts are purely based on my opinion of the Korean remake. Currently, I’ve seen up to episode 10 at the point of writing this article].
Caution: There may be minor spoilers ahead.
Not Just Your Typical Crime Series
What does the 80s make you think of? CRT TVs with rabbit antennas, cassette tapes, shoulder pads, and clunky mobile phones? A distinct lack of internet? Phone directories? Well, you’re in for a trip down memory lane!
Firstly, if you still haven’t checked into OCN’s Life on Mars, then you’re seriously missing out! But worry not, hopefully, my article will do a fine job of convincing you to check out one of this season’s best airing dramas!
Reminiscent of time traveling dramas such as Tunnel and Signal, Life on Mars follows Han Tae Joo (Jung Kyung Ho), a detective from Seoul in the year 2018, who, after encountering an accident, wakes up bewildered in the year 1988 to discover he is a detective working in a police station in a remote town a fair distance from Seoul. It then occurs to him that to get back to the present day, he must solve a serial murder case and the mystery as to why he is there.
Although I have personally not seen the original UK series, and thus have nothing to compare it to, the Korean remake of Life on Mars has really impressed me up to this point. Watching with a fresh set of eyes was a great decision, but I think it’s a must-watch even for those who may have already seen the original. Though it’s set in the late 80s rather than the 70s, I feel like this was a good move, everything feels gritty and it ties in with an important time in Korean history, what with its sociopolitical changes as well as being the very year it held the Olympics, which was a huge revolutionary change for South Korea.
Anyway, enough of my waffling, here are some reasons you should definitely be picking this fine series up.
Jung Kyung Ho as Han Tae Joo: You can’t help but love Han Tae Joo. He’s the type of person who doesn’t play well with others; his prickly personality and by-the-books approach to crime solving don’t bode well with the rest of the team, even more so when he winds up in 1988. But his determination to catch the criminals and wrongdoers is admirable, and despite his obvious introverted personality, he stays professional and level-headed throughout. Since he’s from the future, there’s a stark difference in policing techniques. It’s interesting to see how his character’s personality changes slightly over time, especially his approach to solving crimes and loosening up around others.
Park Sung Woong as Kang Dong Cheol - Tae Joo's stark opposite, he's someone who thinks with his fists first, relying on his own instincts a lot. He tends to have a slight temper and won’t stop at anything to get answers even if it means hurting the assailant. He’s someone who could care less about forensics and frequently resorts to coercion and evidence fabrication. Despite their differences, I feel like he and Tae Joo are at their best when working together, even when they’re constantly squabbling and at loggerheads, as there’s clearly a growing friendship there and hints at a meaningful partnership that'll grow with time.
Go Ah Sung as Yoon Na Young - Tiny, feisty and quite possibly my new girl crush! Yoon Na Young is the female police officer on the team who, although seeming quiet, bashful, and disciplined, is a passionate strong-willed independent woman. Clearly, it was a hard time being a female back then, and the misogyny is very apparent in the way she’s treated initially. I like that she’s tenacious and that she works hard at what she does, continuing to show she’s not about to be held back. Being a college psychology dropout is her clear strong point, as she’s great at using her insight and knowledge to assist on the cases. Her character’s evolution is an interesting one to watch, as Han Tae Joo’s obvious impact has consequently changed others perspective on her place in the workforce.
Rounding off the detective squad are the brash Lee Yong Ki and Jo Nam Shik, played by actors Oh Dae Hwan and Noh Jong Hyun respectively. It’s clearly apparent that this team of actors have great chemistry with each other, which shows in their strong performances and the way it carries so well it feels like you’re watching a team of detectives in real life.
BROMANCE THROUGH FISTICUFFS
Move over romance because there’s some bromance in the house! If there’s one thing Jung Kyung Ho does well, it’s a heartfelt bromance. Although their initial introduction causes sparks to go flying in a full-on brawl, the character development and relationship between Dong Cheol and Tae Joo is enough reason alone to invest time into the series. Because we all love a good bromance, don’t we? Their constant bickering is entertaining and the differences in approaches to their work intrigue me to no end. It’s been interesting watching the subtle changes over time as the two learn to work and co-exist together. The question is, who would take the bullet for who?
EVERYTHING IS NOT QUITE AS IT SEEMS
Though I’m not sure how much this series borrows from its source material, the drama manages to throw you into a reoccurring state of confusion with its interesting over-arching mystery and its constant twist and turns. As mentioned, when Tae Joo arrived in 1988 he was chasing a serial killer, but as it turns out, he arrives at the station he’s apparently assigned at to find that he’s likely chasing down the same criminal due to the similarity in the murders. Did the criminal travel to the past with him or was he here already? Concurrently, we’re also thrown into the question of whether he’s actually stuck in another alternate time or whether he’s hallucinating. The story drip-feeds you slight pieces of the puzzle in such a way that it keeps you on your toes guessing and also helps with the pacing of the episodes so that they never feel unnecessary or padded out. You can tell it’s gonna come to a head eventually, and I’m all here for it!
I also have to mention that the manner in which they convey this web of mystery with the use of mindbending flashbacks and toe-curling hallucinations is fantastic, and the way they are integrated among the current scenes occurrences is seamless. The constant reminder of this strange phenomenon manages to keep pulling you through the episodes continuously asking the question “what is real?” Everything has gone a bit ‘Inception’ here!
Every twist and turn and its exciting and sometimes shocking cliffhangers leave you reeling for more, so this is definitely one I could suggest for binge-watching, but will also insist you pick up as soon as possible.
A REVOLUTION IN THE MAKING
1988 was a hugely important time in Korean history, which hasn’t gone unnoticed due to the number of dramas set around that period of time (Reply 1988, Tunnel) as well as others that have significant tie-ins or gestures towards the year itself. It was an achievement in time for South Korea when they finally gained international recognition for the first time due to their first hosting of the Summer Olympics, as well as it alludes to Korean history and events of the time when there were changes in the economy, social issues, and politics.
Though the remake is obviously going to be quite independent of the original due to the differences in past events, history, and the general way things were, it manages to still be 'Life on Mars' without the worry that it’s straying too far from its roots. By that I mean, it feels like a drama in its own right as it manages to keep the elements that make it ‘Korean’, yet still feels as though it’s sticking to the concept of the original that many know and love.
It’s interesting to see here how different things were in the time period, and I’m not sure if this is just exclusive to South Korea. As mentioned previously, women in this time were treated pretty appallingly, which is largely displayed when Han Tae Joo’s little acts of kindness towards the women cause all sorts of various reactions from them.
Though I was born in the 80s, I still was too young to really know or understand how things have changed, as we live in a constantly evolving world. But I think Life on Mars captures this time period rather well and manages to transport us to a time some of us can only remember through our nostalgia or parent’s stories.
OCN dramas never disappoint when it comes to the dark, gritty action themed dramas and Life on Mars is no exception. This series is the high quality typical of what you’d expect from an OCN drama, and its combination of brilliant cinematography, retro styling, and tight script all combine to bring the perfect result.
Han Tae Joo makes retro look cool. If there’s someone who can pull off going back to the 80s and still look sexy, it’s Jung Kyung Ho. Not only this but the drama somehow manages to feel raw, gritty and authentic of its time. The evocative outside street shots look incredible and the styling, costumes and design really bring this period in time to life.
There are still so many questions left to be answered in Life on Mars, and I’m hoping the next 6 episodes will continue to keep us on the edge of our seat as it continues to progress into the final stretch. The storyline has stayed strong throughout the 10 episodes we’ve seen so far so I have no doubt that it will continue to impress and engage us further. With its balance between its light humour and its serious undertone, the drama itself has had me laughing and crying, has surprised and shocked me and above all, constantly has me reeling for more episodes.
Watch this if...
- You like bromance (because Jung Kyung Ho dramas always bring the BEST bromance - and you can tell it won't disappoint)
- You love Jung Kyung Ho (who doesn't?!)
- You like dark gritty mystery stories that don't give everything away too soon.
- You enjoyed the original (and even if you didn't!)
I hope that after reading this you’ll be interested in giving the show a try! And if that doesn’t convince you, maybe this teaser will.
If you liked dramas such as the acclaimed Signal and Tunnel, then you’ll definitely wanna check this one out. And for those who are currently watching, what do you think of the drama so far?