“Life on Mars” is a 16 episode South-Korean remake of the highly praised British series (2006-2007) with the same name and has the merit of having surpassed the original.
Premise of the Story
Han Tae-Joo is a modern day detective from Seoul who guides his life and career according the rules of law, which, in his book, is above people and feelings. One night, while chasing a serial-killer, he suffers a severe head injury. As the images and sounds of the night around him are slowly fading away, he wakes up in broad daylight on the streets of a small town in 1988. In this timeline he has the same name and is the newly assigned chief investigator of the Crime Unit of an unknown precinct in the periphery.
Han Tae-Joo leads a solitary life due to his inflexible personality. Unwilling to compromise when it comes to principles, he is not afraid to call out his colleagues (who try to bend the rules) even if that means jeopardizing the course of a trial. He is reluctant to rely on people. Trusting those around him is not something that comes naturally to him. Once he finds himself 30 years into the past, he will try to solve a case similar to the one he was working on in the present day in order to return home.
Kang Dong-Chul is an old-school detective in 1988. He is a captain and the team leader of the Crime Unit. He is impulsive and leads investigations based on his instincts. His straightforwardness and rough-around-the-edges personality is the highlight of this series. He will teach Tae-Joo the true meaning of trust and brotherhood.
Yoon Na-Young is the only female officer in her precinct. She is kind and sweet, but she inspires fear even to her colleagues during fighting scenes. In fact, although the series is not a comedy, some of the most delicious comedic scenes involve the effect her demeanor has on her male comrades while capturing suspects.
Lee Yong-Gi and Jo Nam-Sik complete the Crime Unit. The former has the heart in the right place, but he sometimes acts more like a gangster than a policeman. The latter is a rookie who is looking up to Tae-Joo and tries to impress him with his skills.
Life on Mars is an amazing mystery-psychological drama. Some critics have drawn similarities between “Life on Mars” and “Tunnel” or “Signal”. However, this drama gave me “Inception” vibes. Up to the end I was still wondering about Tae-Joo’s real predicament. The recurrent visual and auditory hallucinations tells you that the protagonist is without a doubt in a coma after his accident, however, the viewers are bound to double-guess themselves whether he is trapped in an illusion or his mind indeed traveled back in time while he’s lying unconscious in the hospital.
What is real and what is not? And how can you tell? Just like in “Inception”, the hero of the story has a means to check if he’s in an illusion, but towards the end even that certainty is put into question. Thus, the viewing experience is intense! Up until recently I considered “Signal” as the best time-travel Korean thriller, but “Life on Mars” just came out of nowhere and crowned itself as the queen of this genre.
As for the romantic aspect: “Life on Mars” is not a romance driven story by any means, however, the romance is definitely present in the background, giving the drama a much needed warm undertone.
Cast and Acting
It was a delight watching Jung Kyung-Ho (Cruel City, Prison Playbook) and Park Sung-Woong (Man to Man) work together. They have such great chemistry on screen! I hope they can work together again in a future project. I am a long-time fan of both male protagonists; however I was not really a fan of Go Ah-Sung until this drama. Particularly, I did not find her acting very compelling in her last drama “Radiant Office”. Before watching this series, I was doubtful she was the best addition to the cast. I am very happy I was proven wrong. Her performance was a pleasant surprise and I doubt a more experienced actress would have given us a better interpretation of officer Yoon. She portrays a brilliant and feminine 1988 female officer very convincingly, managing to inspire affection and admiration to both her colleagues and the viewing public. I’m looking forward to her new project.
Directing and Cinematography
The director Lee Jung-Hyo is a veteran of the “remakes”; he directed the adaptations of the American series “Criminal Minds” and “The Good Wife” in 2017 and 2016, respectively. Both were greatly appreciated by the critics. “Life on Mars” is beautifully and flawlessly directed. Every piece of the puzzle fits together perfectly, with no loose ends or plot holes.
The cinematography is stunning. The present day scenes were filmed with a blue filter; thus, the image is cold and sharp. The 1988 scenes have a warm yellow-green filter that gives a vintage feeling to the entire series. While other time-travel or alternative-reality dramas use filters to help the viewer distinguish between the two realities, “Life on Mars” uses such device purely for artistic reasons, which is something that did not go unnoticed within the critics’ circles.
Sound Effects and Music
The music fits the depicted era perfectly. Moreover, the characters are often singing the hit songs of their time, whether to express excitement or as a way to cope with their stressful job. What impressed me most in this regard were the sound effects throughout the drama. Most of the time I don’t pay attention to it, unless it bothers me. However, the sound effects in this drama are of such high quality production, that it actually enhances the level of suspense and heightens by ten folds the viewer’s senses.
“Life on Mars” is one of those dramas that are almost perfect in every way. I say “almost” because there were a few minor imperfections here and there. For instance, on occasion, the editing and the transition between some scenes is a bit lacking. Another imperfection (from a merely subjective point of view) is the lapidary, yet over-simplistic phrase towards the end of the drama: “whatever makes you smile is your reality”. I expected a more elaborated ending scene; but this is mere details, if we take into account the overall quality of this drama.
Much of the skeletal structure of the drama is similar to the original; however, the Korean adaptation has a more dramatic spin to the story. It is more elaborated and better executed. I watched the BBC series back in the day when it first came out and I remember I liked it quite a lot, though I couldn’t say the same about the US remake.
What sets the Korean series apart from the original is the writing, directing and acting. The characters are much more relatable to the point that the viewer cannot help but share their worries, anxieties, joy or feelings of accomplishment.
If you enjoy suspense and well-executed psychological thrillers, “Life on Mars” is mandatory for you.