TV Review: Life on Mars (Korea) (Spoilers!)

In the past few years, there have been several Korean remakes of American and British television shows, but it looks like they are on a remake spree this year, and it doesn’t look like they’ll stop anytime soon. To be honest, I haven’t seen all the remakes, but from what I’ve seen with the Korean version of “Suits”, and now, with this remake of “Life on Mars”, I firmly believe that they can pull it off given the right director, cast, and writer. Thankfully, the Korean version of the British scifi modern cult classic exceeded my expectations and more. It  was  an  adaptation done right, with great performances, great direction and cinematography, and which paid respect to the core concepts of the show while putting its own unique Korean flavor on it.

“Life on Mars” aired on OCN for sixteen episodes from June 9 to August 5, 2018. The show is a remake of the BBC scific modern cult classic of the same name which starred John Simm and Philip Gleinster, and was created by Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan and Ashley Pharoah.  That version ran on BBC One from January 9 2006 to April 10, 2007. The Korean version was directed by Lee Jung Ho (“Heartless City”, “Criminal Minds-Korea”, “The Good Wife”, “A Witch’s Love”) with a script written by Lee Dae Il (“Bring It On, Ghost”). This was also a reunion of sorts for Lee Jung Ho and Jung Kyung Ho, as Jung Kyung Ho starred as the lead in Lee Jung Ho’s “Heartless City”. 

“Life on Mars” follows Lt. Han Tae Joo (Jung Kyung Ho), a stoic by the book detective who currently works for the National Forensic Service. However, while investigating a serial killer he gets into an accident and inexplicably ends up in 1988 in Insung. While there, Tae Joo becomes part of Insung Seobu station’s Violent Crimes Unit 3, as he tries to figure out why and how he came to be there, and what he can do to get back home to 2018. The members of the Violent Crime Unit 3 in Insung Seobu station include Captain Kang Dong Chul (Park Sung Woong), Officer Yoon Na Young (Go Ah Sung), Detective Lee Yong Gi (Oh Dae Hwan), and Officer Cho Nam Sik (Noh Jong Hyun).

A while back, I praised the Korean remake of “Suits” as they were able to take the main premise, core characters and concepts, and made it their own, and interestingly enough, I ended up liking the Korean version over the American one.

While that was a good example of how remakes should be done, “Life on Mars” is probably an even better example of how a good remake should be done. It respected the show’s concept, core elements and storyline and made it completely their own, which allows fans of the original British version to appreciate it, while allowing viewers new to the “Life on Mars” franchise to appreciate it on its own as a well made show, and hopefully, will pave the way for them to enjoy the original as well.

I actually watched all two seasons of the British version, plus the ending of “Ashes to Ashes”, but I loved this version even more.

It was also interesting how the ending was left open to interpretation, even more than the original show and “Ashes to Ashes”, and how they left it open to a possible second season.

Jung Kyung Ho has been on my radar ever since “Missing Nine”, and since then, from “Prison Playbook” to this show, he hasn’t failed to disappoint. In fact, my respect for him as an actor has increased as he gave such a great and nuanced portrayal of Han Tae Joo here, which makes me want to check out his other dramas, and in particular, “Heartless City”.  

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Jung Kyung Ho as Lt. Han Tae Joo Image Source: OCN Facebook Page

His character, Tae Joo, was just as awesome as John Simm’s Sam Tyler was, but was, at the same time, very much distinct from him. In a way, I appreciated the way Tae Joo was written more, especially as his character development throughout the series was done so well, and felt more organic as compared to Tyler’s.

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Park Sung Woong as Captaing Kang Dong Chul Image Source: OCN Facebook Page

The rest of the main cast all gave in great performances. Park Sung Woong looked like he was having the time of his life while giving a hundred percent in his performance as Captain Kang Dong Chul, and Go Ah Sung just shone as Officer Yoon Na Young.

Ms Yoon Uniform
Go Ah Sung as Officer Yoon Na Young Image Source: OCN Facebook Page

The entire series was really well made, from the cinematography, to the writing, to the direction, and most of all to the attention to detail that was put into it. The entire thing was executed well; felt like it was shot and edited like a movie; and the stark contrasts between 1988 and 2018 were felt not only in the difference in tone, but in the difference as well in terms of color and cinematography.

Many probably were scratching their heads and wondering if  Korea could make a trippy scifi show like “Life on Mars” work, and thankfully, this project had the right production team and cast to pull it off, and make it even better than before.

This show isn’t just for Kdrama fans looking for something different and new, but it is also for “Life on Mars” fans, for those who love mysteries and crime procedurals, and for those who just generally want to watch a great and well made show. “Life on Mars” checks all of those boxes and more, and has earned itself a spot in my top dramas of 2018 list as of the moment.

Now, you know the drill! Beyond this point, there will be spoilers, but there will also be spoilers for the British version of “Life on Mars” and “Ashes to Ashes” as well, so turn around before its too late!

Spoiler Warning

As mentioned earlier, what made this remake great was the fact that it respected the show’s mythology and lore and completely made it its own. In fact, while watching it, I realized that they were able to cover most of the important storylines from the entire two seasons of the British show. Interestingly, they were always able to come up with a more Korean spin to it, and added a lot of things of their own as well. Some of the differences that enhanced the show was the fact that the overarching mystery surrounding the main case that made him slip into 1988 in the first place was very different and wasn’t solved until the end; and the fact that the entire mystery of whether he was in a dream coma, alternate reality, or if he really did travel to the past remained ambiguous with possible explanations that aren’t as solid  as the British version’s, but still very respectful of the original material. (Also, I’m so glad that the creepy Test Card Girl wasn’t in this one. I much prefer the Chief Inspector in this show.)

The characters themselves also felt original, as they were given different interpretations, but still respected the original material, while they also developed in a more organic manner.

The writer and director specifically chose 1988 as it was an important year for Korea, and I am glad that they chose that. It probably was a more iconic year for Korea than the ’70s, where the original show is set in, and that choice just enhanced the show even more. Just like the original, which was full of David Bowie songs and songs from that year and era, I also appreciated taking a sneak peek into Korea’s culture back then, and appreciated the old songs that came with it too.

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Lt. Han Tae Joo (Jung Kyung Ho) in 1988 Image Source: OCN Facebook Page

Just like the original show, “Life on Mars” really focuses on how Han Tae Joo’s character develops during the duration of the show. In the beginning, he was a stoic by the rules detective who had built up so many walls around him because of his past, to a person who knows how to bend the rules just a little to ensure that justice is served and to a person who is able to let his guard down, and allow the people who do care about him in. This can be seen in the minor details in Kyung Ho’s performance and in the way his wardrobe subtly changed towards the end of the show. In the beginning, he would wear buttoned down polos that were neatly tucked into his pants, but in the last few episodes, he favored looser polos and allowed them to be loosely tucked into his pants instead. He had changed so much due to his little jaunt in 1988, and that’s because of the great people he was surrounded by, as well as the fact that he was also able to face his own personal demons.

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Lt. Han Tae Joo (Jung Kyung Ho) in 2018 before the coma. Image Source: OCN
Tae Joo 2018
Lt. Han Tae Joo (Jung Kyung Ho) in 2018 after the coma. Image Source: OCN Facebook Page

Jung Kyung Ho pulled off a tour de force of a performance, and you can see that he gave it his all. His acting could also be seen in the physicality of the character and in his eyes as well. I haven’t seen the full range of his acting abilities yet, but based on the fact that most comments I’ve read have praised him for being a versatile actor that can pull of roles like this as well as romantic comedies, and based on what I’ve seen of him and his acting, I’m tending towards believing that and am looking forward to watching his past projects to see what he can really do. He also has that ability to play unlikeable leads that you end up loving towards the end, which, I think, is pretty hard to do without being downright annoying.

Dong Chul
Captain Kang Dong Chul (Park Sung Woong) Image Source: OCN Facebook Page

This was my first time seeing Park Sung Woong in anything, but after this, I would love to see his range in acting as well. He pulled off being the counterpart to Philip Gleinster’s Gene Hunt well, and in fact, I’ve grown more fond of this character, just as I’ve become more fond of this team over Tyler’s and Hunt’s team.

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Officer Yoon Na Young (Go Ah Sung) Image Source: OCN Facebook Page
Fighting Ms Yoon
Officer Yoon Na Young (Go Ah Sung) is not afraid to use her skills against criminals! Image Source: OCN Facebook Page

I saw Go Ah Sung in a few episodes of “Radiant Office”, which I mean to actually watch in its entirety sometime this year, but based off of the few episodes I’ve seen of “Radiant Office” and her performance here, this is one actress I’ll definitely keep my eyes on for a long time. Her performance was both great and subtle at the same time.

Her Officer Yoon is supposed to be the counterpart of Liz White’s Annie Cartwright, but I love what they did with her character. She’s smart, yet not a know it all, knows how to be part of the team while still trusting Tae Joo and his own outlandish claims, and knows how to her handle herself when she needs to. They also gave her more autonomy here, and allowed her to be more active and be more respected as a person here.

As mentioned earlier, the entire show was well written, well directed, and was shot like a movie and not a series. The pacing was tight, and the cinematography and color palletes were great, especially as they were able to show the contrasts in how Tae Joo perceived 1988 from 2018. 1988 was washed in earthy warm tones, while 2018 was mostly washed in blue and black.

Now, let’s get to the meat of everything and let’s talk about that ending, the possibilities of what really happened, and where the show could go if there is a second season. (Major spoilers for the British “Life on Mars” and “Ashes to Ashes” will be here as well!)

One of the most probably explanations for everything is that he really was in a coma and everything in 1988 was part of his subconscious, especially as he was able to face his own personal demons (death of his father and his childhood at Insung), be able to remember who Kim Min Seok was, and was able to delve into some of the cold cases that he had requested that all had ties to Insung Seobu station. Now, if we follow this line of logic, then it means that the ending followed the ending of the British show and decided to stay in 1988  as he remained depressed and committed suicide, and it also follows that the entire unit he worked with there died the way it was stated in Tae Joo’s case files. Now, I do not approve of suicide at all, and I’m surprised that they went this route especially as suicide is a big issue in Asian countries, but at the same time, I’m also glad that he got his happy ending.

Now, oddly enough, I have another theory that we could also possibly run with for the ending- that he NEVER came out of the coma at all. While this is less plausible than my first theory, there’s just something about the cinematography of 2018 when he woke up that just made me feel like something was off. I went and checked the first episode and saw that the cinematography was washed in blue, but in the last few episodes, it was more pronounced; also it felt weird that everyone, including his Dr. Jang hallucination was urging him to stay where he was happier. If we follow that theory, then he never really woke up, was being given a possible choice by his subconscious of whether to wake up or stay in 1988 (which means he goes into an even deeper coma or dies), and decided to stay in 1988. This also removes the whole suicide angle as well.

These theories also make sense if we go with the explanation given to us in “Ashes to Ashes”, that the entire thing is a limbo or purgatory of sorts where cops who died violently go to in order to face their own personal demons and accept their deaths before by they move on. This works on a personal scale for Tae Joo as he went to 1988 because the bulk of his own personal demons were there; and it works on a larger scale as well, especially as the entire show began months before the Violent Crimes Unit 3 died. However, whether we ascribe to the coma dream theory or this theory, both theories agree on one thing- that the 1988 world is a place between life and death.

Violent Crimes Unit 3
The Violent Crimes Unit 3 of Insung Seobu Station. (L-R) Oh Dae Hwan as Detective Lee Yong Gi, Park Sung Woong as Captain Kang Dong Chul, Noh Jong Hyun as Officer Cho Nam Sik, Jung Kyung Ho as Chief Han Tae Joo, and Go Ah Sung as Officer Yoon Na Young. Image Source: OCN Facebook Page

For the second season, with that epilogue, I think that we’ll see Tae Joo and the team going after Hyun Seok and figuring out who covered up his death, as that’s the last piece of unfinished business Tae Joo has in order to finally close the book on everything related to the Manicure Serial Murder. I also think that we’ll get to see them solve the other cold cases that he had wanted to solve.

From there, for both theories, we could then go into “Ashes to Ashes” territory. If we subscribe to the coma dream theory, which means that everything is only really happening to Tae Joo, then we’ll probably see him encountering a version of the Jim Keats character in the end. Keats was a character that served as a demon or the devil, who wanted to bring the other characters down with him. So, Tae Joo will probably face a big final test, and if he passes, he’ll get to move on to their version of heaven.

However, if we go with the limbo/purgatory explanation and that it’s happening to everyone there, then we’ll get to delve more into the pasts of Yong Gi, Nam Sik and Na Young; and the series will probably end with them discovering that they are dead, and the entire team will probably encounter their version of Keats before moving on. Now, in “Ashes to Ashes”, Gene, aside from remembering his own death, ends up remembering his role in that place, that he helps souls move on to heaven. As much as I wouldn’t this happening to Dong Chul, for some reason, I think it would be interesting for Tae Joo to take on this role.

Regardless of anything, as long as they keep the same creative team and main cast, I’ll be more than happy to watch a second season of “Life on Mars”.

“Life on Mars” is definitely worth the watch, whether you are a fan of the British show or not, as it gives us a Korean mystery drama done so well in terms of everything, that its definitely earning a spot in my list of best Korean dramas of all time.

What did you think about “Life on Mars”? Have you seen the British version as well? What do you think of my theories? Do you agree or disagree? Let me know what you think in the comments below!

Image Sources: OCN Facebook Page & OCN

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