If you have a chance to erase all the painful memories stored in your brain, would you? I wouldn’t, but probably members of the Cult of Happyness would give it a go. “They said they wanted to be happy. They said all they wanted was happiness. That’s what I gave them”, said Park Deong Geon (Han Sang Jin).
The cinema has long been fixated on the mystery of memory, especially when it’s manipulated. “Memento” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” are my two personal favourites and both are mind-blowingly brilliant (though for me, “Memento” is the first and the last for Nolan). Circle unavoidably gave the first impression of drawing its inspiration from the latter. I even had to re-watch the movie just to see how much of its ideas the drama adopted.
Circle, or Circle: Two Worlds Connected (써클: 이어진 두 세계), is set in two different times and is divided into two parts. The first part, “The Beta Project”, shows college student Kim Woo Jin (Yeo Jin Goo) investigating odd cases prompted by the arrival of alien on Earth in 2017. His twin brother, Kim Beom Gyeon (Ahn Woo Yeon), believes that it’s the same alien that used to live with them 10 years ago. The second part, “A Brave New World”, is set in the year 2037, where future Seoul is divided into the “Smart Earth” where people’s emotions are controlled and no crimes or illness exist, and the “General Earth” where people still suffer from rampant plague and lawlessness.
Not only it draws similarities with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but the synopsis and the utopian-dystopian society theme that it carries are also a slight reminiscence of the Divergent series, in which one of the factions is called “Dauntless” or “The Brave” (which again, I decided to watch too, just because). In Divergent, set in a futuristic dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions: Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave) and Erudite (the intellectual). The remaining population is the Factionless, who have no status or privilege in this society. While in Circle, as a result of severe pollution, people emigrated to Smart Earth, so places on Normal Earth have become very hollow. As a result, the crime rates have significantly increased. But Brave New World is completely different from the Dauntless faction. It’s even an irony because in this so-called brave world, some people are even afraid to face their painful memories.
Whether it’s a coincidence or not, both Circle and Divergent suggest a way to store people’s memories which later can be viewed in video format. In Circle, Byul (Gong Seung Yeon), the alien, was able to completely analyse a human brain. She was able to store her memories in a video file format and could use that in order to block out memories. She could choose which ones, too. While in Divergent, they inject trainees with a serum that stimulates the part of one’s brain that processes fear. It induces a hallucination, and then the transmitters in the serum allow people to see the images in the trainee’s mind. Though terrifying, it is not impossible to see this happening in the future, as we have seen some ideas in older movies have been brought to reality or currently being developed. And of course, in this severely corrupt world that we live in, the villain would abuse the technology to serve his/her own greed, or in Circle’s case, his/her illusion of the greater good of mankind. What kind of good can one brins if he or she forgets his/her faults?
But thankfully, that’s just as far as the inspiration goes. Circle, of course, is not as thought-provoking as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind nor is as sophisticated as Divergent in terms of the production neatness, which makes it even more interesting. As the first (claimed) sci-fi drama in the K-drama land, the lack of visual effect sophistication makes the year 2037 look more feasible and visually real. Remember how the 60s-80s movie’s portrayal of what the 2000s look like? Well, we’re in the 2000s now, yet nothing seems to change much since the 90s. We still don’t ride on a capsule car on an overpass literally hanging in the sky.
The writers’ decision to make this drama run only for 12 episodes was a smart choice, because it allows the writers to create intricate plots that are tight, effective and efficient with twists and cliffhangers at the end of every episode, in both parts, keeping the audience’s eyes locked to the screen the whole time. Probably the first of its kind in the K-drama land. No room for nonsense dragging drama as they carefully packed each episode with new findings and revelations while keeping the intensity high at the same time and carefully calculating the timing of when to emerge both worlds. Clever!
Not a critical note, but I just want to acknowledge the impressive job the casting department did. Certain characters in the present, which also appear in the future do share facial feature similarities.
Circle is not perfect, nor flawless. There were tiny holes here and there, but I couldn’t grab what they were as the story moved fast and gave the audience no time to catch their breath, even for a short moment. None of the actors gave a stellar performance (I do like Yeo Jin Goo and Ahn Woo Yeon, too bad Ahn seems so underrated), but still good enough to create a great ensemble, though for a second Kim Kang Woo (Kim Joon Hyuk) stole the scene for me in episode 11. Also, it’s good that Gong Seung Yeon has been constantly selective about her projects as most of them, especially the recent ones, have been one great drama after another, but she really needs to step it up a notch.
What Circle does very right is blending the perfect dose of sci-fi, suspense, drama and even threw in a bit of cheesiness element into it, to deliver a sci-fi with a heart, something that K-drama have (almost) always done right. It’s not the end of 2017 yet, but Circle is definitely one this year’s best.
I feel that the open-ending gave a hint of a sequel’s possibility. Maybe exploring the ‘cloning’ theme brought in the last episodes? If that’s the case, I’d be excitedly waiting to see what they have in store for the next installment.