The loss of the hero in MBC’s Time

MBC’s recent melodrama Time is an interesting drama to examine as it met with one of the worst situations for a live-shoot drama: losing their main actor mid-show. Kim Jung-hyun, who starred opposite Seohyun, was forced to bow out of the show due to health reasons (and it sounds like they are legitimate health reasons, not a blanket excuse for dealing with an uncooperative actor). The show must go on, as they say, and I was curious to see how the writers would deal with this scenario. On-the-fly rewrites and plot juggling can make for some serious drama disasters — or open doors to some interesting plot changes. Spoilers ahead!

Written by Choi Ho-chul (whose works include Mask and Secret), Time is about power versus poverty, truth versus lies, and all the stuff that hides beneath the shiny surface of the chaebol existence. Kim Jung-hyun was the chaebol heir Cheon Soo-ho, who may or may not have been responsible for the death of a girl who was called to his hotel room one night. The girl turned out to be the younger sister of Seohyun’s character Seol Ji-hyun, who works as a greeter at the department store which is part of Soo-ho’s family empire. When the murder is covered up as a suicide by the company’s lawyer, she sets out to find and expose the truth. In an extra layer of betrayal, the lawyer was also Ji-hyun’s ex-boyfriend. And since this is a melodrama, who better to help her on this quest than the man who thinks he’s responsible for it all?

Kim Jung-hyun wowed me with his breakout performance in School 2017, and I was looking forward to seeing what he would do with a melodrama role. For me, a great actor in a melo can take the most over-dramatic plot line and bring it down to earth. Man with an inoperable brain tumor falls in love with the girl whose sister’s death he is responsible for? Policeman falls in love with a girl whose parents were murdered by his serial killer father? I can believe all of that and more when the roles are in the hands of talented actors. In other words, solid actors are needed to ground these kinds of stories; they are essential to telling them in a way that’s relatable to the everyday person who hasn’t experienced anything close to these extremes (and thank goodness for that).

Kim Jung-hyun’s performance did not disappoint — and he had no shortage of material to work with. Melodramas enjoy asking huge “What if…?” questions, and then spending the story making them real for their characters. What if you discovered you had an inoperable brain tumor and only a few months to live? What if there was a chance you were responsible for a murder, but you had no memory of the event and couldn’t prove either your guilt or innocence? What if you wanted to help the grieving sister that was left behind, only to find yourself falling in love with her? What if you were torn between helping her uncover the truth, and exposing yourself as the probable murderer? Considering the smorgasboard of extreme emotions here, Kim Jung-hyun gave a fantastically subtle performance as someone who’s used to living “with the lid on,” even through all of this mental and emotional torment.

Time would have been a perfectly effective drama without the terminal brain tumor — it would have played out a little differently, but it wasn’t essential. I’m not a fan of this trope by any means (less because it’s gimmicky, and more because I find it emotionally disturbing), so I had to investigate what terminal illness does for this story, and why it has to be there. In terms of the plot, it obviously adds a sense of urgency, and gives us our theme and title. Soo-ho has a lot of questions to answer and battles to fight, but the clock is working against him.

Soo-ho’s impending death also adds to his character development. This is the more interesting usage of the trope, and I wish they had had a little more time to unpack this side of it. While watching the clock ticking on a murder cover-up is exciting, witnessing the hero of a story coming to terms with his death adds an emotional and psychological depth that not many other plot elements can. So, while our hero is involved in the cover-up and all the secrets and lies that ensue, he’s also part of a deeper battle: learning how to die.

We witness not only Soo-ho’s moments of physical anguish, but also his internal struggle between letting go and holding on. He has no one to tell about his illness, no one to grieve with, and watching him agonize alone is pretty unbearable at times. While on one hand his impending death sets him free from family politics and vying for ownership of his father’s company, on the other hand, he’s grasping to hold onto life. The story moves quite gracefully from Soo-ho rushing to solve the mystery of the girl’s death, to his more internal focus on what he needs to express, say, and do, before he dies. His final days are quite lovely and simple. He has learned how to express gratitude, show kindness and generosity, and finally, he reveals his love for Ji-hyun.

Kim Jung-hyun’s performance as the suffering Soo-ho was visceral and compelling, but once the news broke about his real-life illness and departure from the show, it opened up a whole new dimension. Beyond the impact that Kim Jung-hyun’s leaving would have on the plot, his illness also added a meta layer to his performance that was difficult to decode. Were the pallor and dark circles all from makeup? Looking back, it isn’t entirely clear if he was he really about to collapse or was he just acting. Is this a genius performance, method acting to the extreme, or just a twenty-eight year old actor who has pushed himself to the edge? The line between reality and fiction was uncomfortably blurred for a few episodes, and while it was compelling, it was a good thing when Soo-ho was laid to rest, so Kim Jung-hyun could find some of his own rest, too.

But what happens to a drama that’s lost its hero mid-show? It’s pretty unprecedented. While dramas (and melodramas in particular) are often known to kill off their hero and then save him in an epilogue — or more rarely actually sacrifice their hero for keeps — this usually happens in the final episode. In Time, however, we lose our hero at the end of episode 12. That leaves an entire quarter of the show to wrap up without him in it.

What did Time originally have in mind for its hero? We may never know. It could have headed towards a happy-in-the-now happy ending, like Padam, Padam and Scent of a Woman, where the hero/heroine are left happy and peaceful, but still terminally ill. Or, they could have pulled a nice rabbit out of the hat and cured Soo-ho. It’s dramaland, after all, and there were some clues in the drama that made me think they might have planned to go this way. There was the mention of experimental treatment and an overseas doctor who is waiting to take him in. While I’m not privy to any inside intelligence on how the script changed due to Kim Jung-hyun’s departure, it’s interesting to think about where the plot shifts might have been.

Whichever ending Soo-ho was originally intended to get, real life intruded. The drama became an all too real look at what happens when the hero runs out of time before the story is resolved. It was already a major theme of the drama, so in a way, the writers were faced with exact problem they had created for their fictional character. I’m not sure if this is mere coincidence or some crazy kind of storytelling karma. Either way, Time did a great job of taking a potential disaster and turning it into a way to complete the drama’s themes, and bring the story to a satisfying close.

Kim Jung-hyun/Soo-ho’s absence was clearly felt in the remaining quarter of the show. Instead of trying to gloss it over and try to hide it — or even worse, shove in a new actor and pretend it’s him, they capitalized on it. Characters that were stuck in apathy or fear were shaken into action by Soo-ho’s sudden death. And Ji-hyun, armed with the knowledge of his love, found the last bit of strength she needed to bring the truth to light. Thus, Soo-ho’s untimely death became the catalyst that pushed the plot towards its resolution. The hero might not have been on screen, but his presence was always felt. The story had lost its hero, but the show went on. Art does indeed imitate life.


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