Are You Human Too: Episodes 1-2

KBS’s new drama about an android who longs to be human makes a strong start, with solid characters and a compelling premise that quickly distinguishes itself from other recent android dramas. Are You Human Too looks sleek, feels purposeful, and the actors’ performances are strong and assured. The show manages to ask some weighty questions without taking itself too seriously, doling out cute, funny moments to give itself balance. It’s early yet, but I have a good feeling about this one.

 
EPISODE 1: “Human beings can be manufactured”

The camera slowly pans across a child-sized android body. Its fingers twitch as power flows through it, and when we get to its face, its eyes glow a robotic red.

A woman places a lifelike replica of a human boy’s face onto the android, which is now dressed and covered in synthetic skin. It opens its eyes and introduces itself: “Hello. I am an AI robot, Nam Shin-I.”

Tears fill the woman’s eyes as she gasps, “Shin-ah. I’ve missed you so much. But…” Nam Shin-I steps forward and puts his arms around her neck, and she hugs him as she lets her tears fall.

One year earlier.

The same woman, OH RO-RA (Kim Sung-ryung), stands on a stage in front of a projection calling her “The Korean Einstein of Artificial Intelligence.” She gives a speech explaining her goal to create an android that can’t be distinguished from a real human being, displaying a picture of a boy on the protector behind her.

A tiny voice rings out from the front row… “No!” The boy whose picture is on the screen stands to protest that he’s a person, not a robot. Ro-ra affectionately introduces him as her son, joking that she sometimes wishes he were an obedient robot.

Shin says cheekily that he’s a person who doesn’t obey commands, and she fondly threatens to make a robot that looks like him someday, but he just retorts that he likes Daddy more anyway. After her speech, he asks if she’s mad, but she says she’s not because Daddy likes her the most.

Ro-ra’s phone rings with a call from her husband, but it suddenly stops, and they look up to see a man standing nearby. Ro-ra’s smile drops and she hugs Shin protectively. They’re surrounded by several more men, who wrestled Shin from her grasp and throw him, screaming, into a car.

As he’s driven away, the first man, SEO JONG-GIL (Yoo Oh-sung), explains that the chairman requested Shin. Ro-ra asks why, when he’d said he’d never accept them as family. She says that’s why they don’t live in Korea, and that they’re only in the country for this lecture.

She belatedly realizes that Jong-gil is holding her husband’s phone. When she asks why, Jong-gil tells her thats her husband committed suicide, and was cremated last night. In shock, Ro-ra gasps that he was just visiting his father for a few days, then realizes that her son is currently being taken to that very same man.

Jong-gil says dispassionately that the chairman has decided to raise his grandson, and that Ro-ra’s new bank account balance will be comforting to her. He leaves her crumpled on the pavement, clutching her husband’s death certificate.

Later she finds her husband’s ashes at the columbarium and cries that he must be lonely. She sobs that Shin must be lonely, too, and she vows to get him back no matter what it takes.

The following day, Ro-ra drives her car right through the closed gates to the chairman’s home, a sprawling mansion overlooking the ocean. She’s met outside by Jong-gil and throws the payoff money at his feet. She screams for her son, and Jong-gil motions for his thugs to let her through.

Shin comes out, but instead of being happy to see his mother, he says he likes it here and wants to stay with his grandfather. He says he hasn’t been threatened, but when Ro-ra tries to take him with her, he yanks away and yells, “I don’t want to die like Daddy! He died because of you. I know everything. Daddy had a hard time because of you.” He tells her not to come back, or he’ll die, too.

While Jong-gil’s thugs hold Ro-ra back from following him, Shin goes back to the house and joins his grandfather, CHAIRMAN NAM (Park Young-kyu). Shin says meekly that he said what he was told to say, asking for confirmation that his grandfather won’t do anything to his mother. Chairman Nam growls, “That’s right.”

Ro-ra fights to get to her son, until Jong-gil warns, “Shin will get hurt, too. Does the chairman ever not get his way? That happened to Jung-woo while fighting him. It’s more important that he’s alive, than being by your side.” Understanding dawns, and Ro-ra forces herself to leave and fly home alone, without her husband or son.

It storms that night, and little Shin sits in his room, crying for his mommy.

A year later, in her laboratory in the Czech Republic, Ro-ra finishes her incredibly lifelike android replica of Shin. She cries when Nam Shin-I calls her “mommy,” and he recites, “Rule #1: Hug the person if the person cries.” He steps forward and hugs Ro-ra, exactly as he’s been programmed to do.

On his first foray outside, Nam Shin-I is flummoxed by the stairs, unable to navigate them by his limited body. Ro-ra finds him crumpled at the bottom of the staircase, and she has to perform some repairs to get him working again.

Six years later, 2004. Seoul, Korea.

A fourteen-year-old Shin sits on a fence, watching his grandfather’s horses running in the pasture. In Czech, Ro-ra looks through current photos of her son, deeply affected by how much he’s grown. Using the photos, she upgrades the android’s body, making it taller and more filled-out, and crafts it a new face to match its real-life counterpart.

She slides a watch onto the android’s wrist, which activates him. He opens his eyes and introduces himself: “I am AI robot Nam Shin-II. Oh, Mom. Why did you get so short?” Aw, he’s adorable. Ro-ra explains that he’s taller and stronger now.

She takes him to the staircase and says that he’s capable of walking down them now. After a tentative first step, Nam Shin-II hops down the stairs easily. He turns back to see her beaming at him, and he asks, “How do you smile? I want to smile like you.”

Eleven years later, 2015.

Eventually Ro-ra invents something called “bio-ink” and submerses an updated android body in it. Synthetic muscle fibers grow over the metal core, and when the android sits up, it marvels at its nearly human movement. With his new face, NAM SHIN-III (Seo Kang-joon) can move and smile just like a real human being.

But at times, seeing Nam Shin-III makes Ro-ra cry, thinking of her real son who she hasn’t seen since he was eight years old. When he registers her tears, Nam Shin-III hugs her according to his program, and although she seems a bit comforted, it’s clear in Ro-ra’s eyes that she’s painfully aware that he’s not the real thing.

Three years later, 2018. Seoul, Korea.

NAM SHIN (Seo Kang-joon), now twenty-eight years old, reads an article about his mother on the way to the airport. A team of bodyguards is ready to greet him when he arrives, armed with payoff money in case they have to break the cameras of any paparazzi. Shin gets out of the car, stopping to scoff at a video billboard touting his grandfather’s company, PK Group (an automobile manufacturer), before heading inside.

One eager young bodyguard, KANG SO-BONG (Gong Seung-yeon) spots a woman with a camera and runs to stop her. She hops in the woman’s car and grabs her camera, then looks up to see that Shin and his entourage have gone inside. She grins at the reporter, who turns out to be a friend. HA, sneaky.

They split the payoff money, and So-bong’s friend, Reporter Jo, marvels that Shin’s own guard is the one selling photos of him to the press. So-bong touches a heart-shape locket she’s wearing and grumbles that she can’t get caught using the hidden camera. Reporter Jo puts a watch on her wrist and tells her that Shin is dating a singer, offering to pay double for pictures of the chaebol with his new flame.

So-bong reports to the head bodyguard that she broke the reporter’s camera and paid her off, and he sends her to stand guard outside the VIP lounge with the other bodyguards. Inside, Shin is joined by a girl that the other female bodyguard recognizes as a famous idol singer, and So-bong uses her fake watch to take several pictures of the couple snuggling and kissing.

Once she’s gotten the photos, So-bong excuses herself to the restroom, twirling the camera-watch triumphantly. But a hand grabs her wrist and takes the watch — it’s Shin, who grins as she lies that she took it from the reporter earlier. Suddenly he slams it to the floor, smashing it to bits.

He growls that the photos that have been posted online recently must be hers. He calls So-bong a liar when she says he’s being unfair, and says that he had to kiss a girl he doesn’t like just to catch her. So-bong continues to protest her innocence, but Shin yells, “How dare you lie to me!!” and slaps her hard enough to leave her sprawled on the floor.

Travelers crowd around, taking pictures with their phones, and Shin yells that they probably want to make money. He even feints at a few onlookers as if he’s going to hit them, too, until his bodyguards finally break in and lead him away.

Still on the floor, So-bong reaches for the broken pieces of her camera watch. But another bodyguard, whose name is JI YOUNG-HOON (Lee Jun-hyuk) crouches close and says they’ll discuss this later. The head bodyguard tells Young-hoon that Shin is boarding his one-way flight to L.A., so he trots off to join him.

He doesn’t see Shin in the airplane, but Shin calls and taunts him. He gives Young-hoon a hint that he sees white clouds, and Young-hon figures out that Shin boarded a different flight. Shin asks if social media knows yet that he’s a jerk who beats women, when Young-hoon asks about the presentation he was heading to.

But Shin says that he can’t give the presentation or their new product, the driverless car, will go down the drain. He says he’s disappearing for the good of the business, and he expects his grandfather and Jong-gil (whom he calls “the venomous Mr. Seo”) to be happy.

Meanwhile, So-bong gets a vicious verbal beatdown from the head bodyguard for taking pictures to sell while on duty. Young-hoon returns to the group and calmly tells him to process So-bong’s resignation, and to notify the association so she can’t be a bodyguard again. He tells her that he hopes they never cross paths again, though there’s no anger in his tone.

So-bong takes the camera watch pieces to Reporter Jo, who asks what she’ll do now. So-bong chirps that she’ll be fine, she can always guard some rich family’s dog, hiding her pained expression until Reporter Jo can’t see her anymore.

After So-bong is gone, Reporter Jo gets a call from Shin, and she tells him that So-bong didn’t catch on. She asks Shin why he hit So-bong when they planned this in advance, and tells him that So-bong was fired, but he hangs up on her.

On his plane, Shin sits calmly, seemingly unaware that he’s being watched by a man with a snake tattoo on his neck, sitting a few rows away.

 
EPISODE 2 RECAP

Jong-gil gets a report that Shin boarded a plane to the Czech Republic, as well as one of their men. Jong-gil doesn’t know why Shin wants to go to the Czech Republic, but he tells his toady not to lose him. They stand on a stage (probably at the presentation Shin was supposed to attend) and Toady croons to Jong-gil that soon he’ll stand in Chairman Nam’s place.

Videos of Shin hitting So-bong make it on the news, and Jong-gil apologizes profusely to Chairman Nam for being unaware that Shin was leaving the country. Young-hoon assures the chairman that Shin will be home once he clears his head.

Jong-gil thinks that Shin felt pressured about the presentation that Chairman Nam usually gives, and he kneels and takes the blame for not understanding Shin’s feelings. His daughter, YE-NA (Park Hwan-hee) snaps at him to drop the act, only for Shin’s aunt to bark that she’s brave, considering that she doesn’t even know where her fiance is.

Ye-na just says breezily that Shin will come back, and offers to reschedule the presentation. After Chairman Nam dismisses them all, Jong-gil reminds Ye-na petulantly that he’s her father, but she admonishes him for getting ambitious just because his “insurance policy” isn’t present.

So-bong heads to her father’s gym, where she freaks out when she sees that someone threw something through the television. The guys tell her that “the boss” did it when he saw her get hit on the news, then ran over to PK Group. So-bong freaks out again and goes there herself, where her father is currently fighting with the bodyguards.

They tell him that Shin left the country, so he demands to see the chairman. He says that he taught his daughter not to abuse her strength or throw punches, and that she’s honest even after losing her mother at a young age, and he wants to know what the chairman taught his grandson.

So-bong arrives and tries to drag her dad away, but he’s bent on getting an apology from the chairman. The head bodyguard says that they’re the ones owed an apology, so So-bong quickly apologizes. Her father continues to object, until the head bodyguard tells him why So-bong got hit and fired.

Dad turns disappointed puppy-dog eyes on So-bong, but she just hangs her head as the head bodyguard scoffs at the idea of her being honest. Dad raps So-bong’s head with his knuckles and stalks away, disgusted. She looks up to see the video of Shin hitting her on a news screen and gives a shriek of frustration.

As Chairman Nam watches the news broadcast calling So-bong’s assault an abuse of power by the privileged, he thinks of the last time he saw Shin. Shin had sneered, “Just wait, something fun will happen soon,” before walking away.

On their way to a company meeting, Shin’s aunt coos at Chairman Nam placatingly, trying to cheer him up after Shin’s disappearance. He asks for Jung-woo, and she wonders why he’s asking for his dead son. Chairman Nam reacts badly, yelling that all he did was disown Jung-woo, angry at her for “acting” like her brother is dead.

Young-hoon steps in and tells Shin’s aunt to take Chairman Nam to the doctor, doing his best to make sure nobody heard the chairman’s outburst. Unfortunately, Jong-gil witnessed the struggle, but Young-hoon fibs that he’s just upset by Shin’s “accident” and asks Jong-gil to handle the meeting.

He goes down to help Shin’s aunt wrestle Chairman Nam into the car as he fights and screams for Jung-woo. Jong-gil watches, frowning, as they drive away, and Toady finds him to say that Shin and their man landed in the Czech Republic.

At Ro-ra’s home, Nam Shin-III uses his technological abilities to remotely turn on the kitchen lights and some music, then makes breakfast. He closely monitors her calorie and caffeine intake as she eats, and she warns him to be careful on their outing today so that nobody catches on.

Their ride is DAVID, who designed most of Nam Shin-III’s android body, but Nam Shin-III objects when David playfully calls him “son.” He’s very protective of Ro-ra, refusing to tolerate David’s jokes that he and Ro-ra are his parents. He even insists Ro-ra sit in the back seat instead of next to David, but he’s practically bouncing with excitement at the prospect of going out in public.

Shin has trouble finding his mother, but he hires someone to help locate her. The spy with the snake tattoo tells Toady that Shin is still at his hotel, and Toady instructs him to find an opportunity to make sure Shin never returns home. Snake asks how permanent it should be, and Toady looks to Jong-gil, who muses that his glass of wine looks like blood today.

At the marketplace, Nam Shin-III is excited when nobody seems to notice that he’s not human. He gets impatient at a crosswalk and hacks the signal, and Ro-ra accuses David of giving Nam Shin-III the IP address for traffic control, ha. They continue on, unaware that Shin (and Snake) is less than a block away.

At a cheese stand, Nam Shin-III accuses the vendor of giving them exactly fifty grams less than what they paid for. The vendor is offended until David suggests they weigh the block of cheese and the vendor scrambles to give them the correct amount. Ro-ra tells Nam Shin-III to be careful, but David praises him for catching the slight.

He pulls Nam Shin-III aside and asks him for a favor — to shop by himself for an hour so David can have an impromptu date with Ro-ra. He gives Nam Shin-III some money and pulls Ro-ra away, and Nam Shin-III spends some time marveling at the sights and watching the people walking past.

As Nam Shin-III is smelling some flowers at a stand, Shin stops within a few feet of him, but they don’t see each other. Snake follows close behind Shin as he continues on, but Shin is aware of him now. He buys a white hoodie and hat and quickly puts them on while Snake isn’t looking. He hides in a crowd of people watching some dancers, and Snake momentarily loses sight of him.

Close by, Nam Shin-III also watches the dancers, after having purchased and put on the same hoodie and hat Shin is wearing. Someone bumps into Snake, and when he looks back up, Shin has slipped away. But he doesn’t know it, because Nam Shin-III is standing there, looking identical to Snake’s prey.

Snake follows Nam Shin-III when he leaves the crowd, but he gets left behind when Nam Shin-III crosses a busy street right before the light turns again. Meanwhile Shin gets a call that his man found his mother, but he tells his man that he has a tail and instructs him to go to his hotel room and dispose of everything.

A few minutes before he’s to rejoin Ro-ra and David, Nam Shin-III stops to buy some flowers, as David instructed. The pretty flower shop girl finds him handsome and offers him a rose, but he says, “No, I must purchase exactly one bouquet.” She tries to give him her number at the store, but he just says that he doesn’t need paper and pays her for his flowers. Hee, cute.

As he leaves the flower shop, Nam Shin-III spots something across the street that stops him in his tracks — Shin. He turns, and when Shin sees him as well, they stand staring at each other. After a long moment, they start walking slowly towards each other, eyes locked. But as Shin steps down onto the road, a truck hits him, and Nam Shin-III drops his flowers in shock.

 
COMMENTS

Well, I’m glad I knew that was coming, because that final scene was intense with Shin and Nam Shin-III seeing each other for the first time. Thank goodness I had been warned and knew to brace myself for the Truck of Doom. Normally I find the Truck of Doom a cop-out, but I’m willing to let it go this time, since Shin’s accident is part of the setup and not an eleventh-hour storytelling shortcut (though, sometimes I wish drama writers would find a new, creative way to put a character into a coma). Until that moment, I found Are You Human Too to be refreshingly trope-lite, so I’ll allow it so long as we can avoid such predictable plot points in the future. I really like the story so far, with the bereft mother, her long-lost son, and the android she creates to ease her loneliness. I can’t wait to see how the plot develops, and particularly how Nam Shin-III integrates into Shin’s life.

I haven’t read much about this drama other than the basic premise, but I found myself hooked into the story within the first ten minutes. It’s really not surprising, given that the show is from the writer of one of my favorite sageuks, The Princess’s Man, and the second director of several great shows including Gaksital. I expect that Are You Human Too will offer some interesting insight on subjects such as what it means to be human, and what love is (and having just completed a fantastic video game tackling these exact questions, I’m really looking forward to some fresh angles on the subjects). I like the fact that it’s fully pre-produced, which means there was time to make everything just as the writer and the director wanted without the pressure of a live shoot, especially when it comes to getting the very best performances out of actors and allowing them to stay healthy and rested.

Speaking of performances, I’ll admit that as pretty as I think Seo Kang-joon is (because goodness, he is lovely), my opinion on him as an actor has been mixed — he’s not terrible, but his performance quality is unpredictable. So I’m pleasantly surprised by his portrayal of Nam Shin-III, particularly the way he seems so human yet his eyes still carry an innocent blankness that gives away the fact that he’s a machine. Playing one role isn’t easy, but having to create two distinct, unique characters in one drama is more than twice as difficult, and so far I have no problem knowing whether it’s Shin or Nam Shin-III on my screen at any given time (and not just because of the hair!). Seo Kang-joon is doing a great job embodying two very distinct, separate people — his Shin comes across and jaded and slightly angry, while Nam Shin-III has an endearingly innocent and earnest quality to him that I’m already falling for.

I already find myself invested in the other characters as well, as they seem interestingly faceted and not just tropes. Jong-gil in particular is a conundrum — he wants to gain control of PK Group through his daughter’s marriage to Shin, but he’s also shown moments of kindness, such as when he warned Ro-ra to leave lest Shin be hurt, and he seemed downright meek and almost sweet in front of his daughter. But then he turns around and orders Shin’s murder, and I don’t know what to think. The chairman is also delightfully unpredictable as senility creeps up on him, at times sharp as a tack and at other times regressing by decades. I love nuanced villains, and villains like these are certainly fascinating, because you never know what they’ll do. Even our heroine, So-bong, is no typical drama girl, using her job to exploit her employer and make some money on the side.

My only complaint is that there wasn’t much explanation of what Nam Shin-III is capable of, either physically or emotionally. He certainly seems to feel basic emotions, appearing to display feelings like excitement, jealousy, surprise, and concern. I want to know more about how he operates, like whether he’s really experiencing human-like feelings or if he’s just programmed to react a certain way in certain situations. But that’s really a minor complaint, as this is only the beginning, and we have lots of time to learn more about our sweet cinnamon roll hero and what (literally) makes him tick.

 
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