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L.U.C.A: The Beginning (2021) The First Act
Although the premise is brimming with potential... crazy sci-fi always appeals to me on some level in the same way B horror films have their devotees... something about the approach of this drama thus far bothers me. It's not hard to see the Awaken comparisons but to be fair to both, they are doing different things. Sadly as a long-time sci-fi buff I can't say that either are particularly impressive and each has its own share of problems. The best thing Awaken had going for it, arguably was Namgoong Min. Some might even want to argue that it was the only thing going for it. L.U.C.A. on the other hand is somewhat tighter writing wise but the set-up feels like the wash cycle I use on my front loader. Other dramas I've watched have fallen victim to that charge in the past... somewhat unjustly in my view... but in this drama I really get the sense that I and all the characters are stuck on this treadmill of "I run... you chase. I blow things up. I hide... you find me. I blow things up again." On and on it goes. Just when you think they've finally got him, failure overtakes them and we're back to the drawing board learning little from the experience. That oft-used quote that's been attributed to Einstein, the one about the definition of the insanity -- doing the same things over and over again but expecting a different result. That one. Yeah, that's how I feel about the hunt for Zi-o. And I'm not just pointing my finger at the so-called villain minions either. Gu-reum aka Ha-neul is equally guilty of leaping without looking. To be honest, I'm not sure what to make of the protagonist, Zi-o either even while the show attempts to elicit some sympathy from the audience regarding his plight. He's a pathetic figure to be sure but one gets the sense that Sister Stella can't entirely be blamed for thinking he is demon possessed either even if her words pack a brutal, unkindly punch. Right out of the blocks the man or monster theme continually plays out in those sorts of emotionally-charged situations and there's a sense that Zi-o does live up to his reputation of being a creature of destruction. I don't deny that he's been left to his own devices for too long and there are good reasons for the distrust, suspicion and fear. Especially if he's been hunted mercilessly like a wild animal.
Of course this is where the audience is drawn to make some kind of judgment of Zi-o. The amnesia is fitting as he himself wrestles with the issues that assail him. Is he a man or a monster? A walking, breathing chimera that has the appearance of an adult male but at a cellular level he is nothing more than a genetic cocktail that's been shaken, stirred and ill-used. Is a man merely the sum of his DNA? Well that is the billion dollar question that is clearly intended to reverberate all throughout the series. The creation of this kind of being is costly as we're constantly reminded by Ryu Joong-kwon's minder but I don't think it's just about dollars and a lack of common sense. The ethical issues of taking a child apart notwithstanding, there's also the indeterminable cost to the social fabric as we've seen rehashed repeatedly in the X-Men franchise. Of course it's worse here because Zi-o man-induced mutation. As Grandma would say, just because we can... doesn't necessarily mean we should. Also the fact that he's referred to so casually as a source of spare body parts only serves to reinforce his non-human status by the evil people at the top.
What Kim Rae-won brings to the table is that lost innocent boy demeanour. Zi-o is a child at his core, groping around in the dark. That is until he goes ballistic and blows things up with electricity. It's not full Hulk mode every time but it does enough damage. So with each new event that occurs, Zi-o confirms that he is a ticking time bomb not only to himself but to others. Which is all part of the blame game that's being played here. Can Zi-o be held responsible for littering the streets with debris every time his tortured pursuers get too close?
An "aha" moment came to me at the end of Episode 3 when Zi-o lit up the church for the second time that this most inopportune moment gave oxygen to the fact that Sister Stella isn't superstitiously unhinged. So why give us this moment? Why put him in that position? Why does he put himself in that position of trying to make a point and then proving that his detractors have a point? Those of the sort of questions I ask myself. It's evidently not a good look. My thoughts then went to Frankenstein. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein that is. The pieces fell into place. Zi-o is the creature, a newborn in search of existential answers and Ryu Joong-kwon is the obsessed Victor Frankenstein. That's the template from which we're to make sense of it all. The creature didn't ask to be made and the world of humans seem to be a confusing morass of moral complexity to navigate. The anger and the frustration comes to the fore but Zi-o has no guide. His father figure is no better. An ambitious narcissistic man who shakes his fist in defiance of a world that has no place for him in the privacy of his hidden laboratory. He has something to prove but he doesn't have the courage of his own convictions to embrace his hubris.
The drama is certainly not disadvantaged by the fact that it comes hot on the heels of Awaken because it is sufficiently different in style and emphasis. Where it falls down, as far as I'm concerned, is in its overuse of the hunter-hunted dynamic in this first act as its primary vehicle for messaging. The message itself is always topical of course. It's a familiar but sobering tale of human audacity and overreach that gives no thought to consequences for individuals and society as a whole. However, after 4 episodes it feels to me a tad overdone especially when it's obviously used as a delaying tactic and doesn't bring out the best in the lead characters. A bit like when you start feeling sorry for Wile E. Coyote despite his sheer (but punishing) persistence when the Road Runner continually eludes him often as a result of luck.
Although I don't think the police procedural side of things sits easily with the crazy sci-fi (but it's far better than what was on offer in Awaken), the show's greatest strength it seems to me is how Gu-reum juggles her role as a cop and as someone who is eye-witness to the crazy sci-fi while trying to process it all. There's even some comic relief to it. Even though some of her early antics cast doubt on her professionalism, it seems to me that she serves as a bridge (a reasonable one for the most part) between the madness of the aberrations being conducted and ordinary civil society. Dad (and Mum) were embroiled in something which inadvertently dragged her into the fray. Children shouldn't have to go through this... that's the implication. But the unnaturalness of all of this and her ill-fated connection to Zi-o means that Gu-reum feels compelled to resolve this one way or another. It's her role in the machinations of fate and one that she's inadvertently carved out for herself that she might have to undo (if that's possible) what's been done. After all, the entire fiasco is much bigger than she, her parents and even Zi-o.