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My Perfect Stranger (2023) A Review
I was inches away from dropping this one after Episode 3 but being something of an adherent to the 4 episode rule, I hung on and by the end of Episode 4 I was finally convinced that this show might have something to offer. In all frankness the first few episodes were cringe. Not so much because of how derivative the story seemed to be — a mishmash of Back to the Future, 365, Tunnel, Life on Mars, Kairos and 18 Again without the wow factor — but I detest time skip or multiverse stories where characters are written to rush in where angels fear to tread. This is how I judged Eternal Monarch to be nonsensical rubbish from the second episode and was doomed to go nowhere. Let’s pose this simple question: If you were to find yourself in a different time and place where people you know don’t know you, what would you do? Would you announce that you’re a time traveller? Would that be your first instinct? The next question would be: Would you be turning over rocks trying to “fix” the past the moment you arrive? For me the logic that follows can make or break immersion.
As a time travel police procedural, My Perfect Stranger is rather ordinary. Perhaps an argument could be made for the fact that it is unnecessarily convoluted with red herrings galore creating expectations that ultimately don’t feel met. The temporal device, a 1980s sedan modelled after Marty McFly’s DeLorean is really just a MacGuffin. The head hurts when one thinks too hard about the hows and the whys although there some answers on offer at the resolution. Kim Dong-wook’s tv journalist stumbles upon such a vehicle conveniently left for him in a tunnel which leads him to a series of murders that occur in 1987 in a small town where he almost collides into Jin Ki-joo’s present-day book editor. The two are somehow linked to the people in this town and see themselves being handed the opportunity to make things right by saving lives. Kim Dong-wook’s character Yoon Hae-joon finds out that he is fated for an untimely demise in 2022 while Jin Ki-joo’s Baek Yoon-young comes face to face with teenage versions of her parents in their final year of high school. The leads have trust issues initially which is convenient for the plot and the episode count but a definite minus as far as the pacing is concerned.
The clock is on to prevent three people from falling prey to the machinations of a serial killer but as this is a K drama, the results are mixed. Hae-joon is a planner. He’s thought all about it including moving into the neighbourhood and taking up a teaching post while Yoon-young charges like a bull in a china shop flying by the seat of her pants.
It doesn’t take long for the discerning viewer to realise that the whodunit angle is all a plot lure for what’s really on the agenda — a second chance family drama. This is the heart of the drama and this is where it truly shines. It’s what K dramas have been good at traditionally. Exploring dysfunctional family dynamics while coming to grips with the complexities of human behaviour that drive the dysfunction. Both Hae-joon and Yoon-young carry all kinds of baggage complete with wardrobes containing skeletons rattling around inside clamouring to be set free. The past is always far more complicated than people in the present like to believe. History is far more layered and nuanced than is comfortable. People are motivated by all kinds of reasons for the choices that they make. For good or for ill. And then there’s that very inconvenient law of unintended consequences which rears its ugly head far more frequently than naivete allows for.
This is also the part of the show that convinced me to stick around.
It’s become fashionable in recent days to be overly judgemental of our forebears because apparently we in the 21st century know better. We should with the hindsight of history but ignorance abounds. Yoon-young epitomizes something of that zeitgeist. She can’t understand what her mother ever saw in her emotionally absent father who prioritized his older brother over them. Until she’s in 1987 becoming besties with her mother that she didn’t know all that well… as it turns out. It is hard to accept that we could be so wrong about everything but to her credit Yoon-young is able to grow from the experience and empathize with both parents while affecting the course of future outcomes. High school Hee-seop (Dad) and Soon-ae (Mum) are key characters in this murder mystery set in 1987 but they are also pivotal figures in Yoon-young’s formation as an individual past and present. By helping them, she helps herself heal from deep resentments that have festered over time. It is also the case that parents have a tendency to hide things from their offspring. Of course there are things in the past that they would rather not talk about but these negative emotions have a way of seeping out in other ways.
Hae-joon too has a history with the townsfolk. His grandfather is a prominent member of the community and the school principal. His mother abandoned him when he was still a bub while his father trotted off and did sciency things in the States. He grew up not feeling a lot of love even from his grandfather. For him solving the murders also means troweling through the family graveyard. Metaphorically at least.
On paper, their slow burn romance should work. Their teamwork improves as the story progresses and the two have plenty of heart to heart conversations. It’s not hard to catch glimpses of their attraction over time. But sadly the romance is one of the weaker aspects of the show. There’s chemistry between the leads but that seems not to be properly exploited by the director (or directors) considering how crucial it becomes. There seems to be a lack of enthusiasm for it. I’m for wholesome pairings but this one feels oddly restrained… even to the point of being prudish… compared to many Joseon era stories I’ve seen. Which leads me to speculate if both have “no kissing” clauses stipulated in their contracts.
Unlike what I’ve seen around the web, I think Kim Dong-wook does put in a good performance as a semi stoic emotionally closed-off character. His expressions are on point and comes across as a decent Every Man who is just trying to do what’s right. I last saw him in The King of Pigs and I connect much more with him here. But whoever did his makeup needs a refresher. Jin Ki-joo is adorable especially when she smiles and I liked her performance despite finding Yoon-young a little too much at the start.
By far the weakest part of the drama would be the identity of the murderer and their motivation. It’s weak, flat and feels shoehorned to fit in with all the themes and character arcs of the drama. If you’re in it just for a juicy murder plot, it’s guaranteed you will be disappointed. Furthermore don’t hold your breath for a detailed, well thought out explanations regarding the time mechanics either because that’s a bus that’s never stopping at this station.