Review – L.U.C.A.: The Beginning

L.U.C.A.: The Beginning.

This drama started strong, but then it stumbled under its own weight. The first episode, in particular, was thrilling! That opening scene? The mystery of it all? Super powers, action, intrigue, kooky cults and mad science? What’s not to love? I was hooked and sure the show was going to be one of my all time favorites. And for a while… it was.

The first few episodes were amazing. The action sequences were long but interesting, following characters as they chased people through apartment complexes and busy streets, up and down stairs, into train tunnels, hospitals, elevators, and more. You really felt the scope of the city and got to know the characters by how they responded in these intense situations. The camera work was also incredible and insanely cinematic.

Within the first few episodes, I had been given an epic Korean drama that was surely bound to build up on its rock solid foundation. The cornerstones were set:

Mild spoilers for first few episodes.

Corner 1: The Cops and Our Female Heroine: Juan Police Station.

Truly an unusual female lead, who was given the personality generally reserved for male characters. She was distrustful, antisocial, self-centered, and obsessive about her own private agenda. People seemed to like her despite this, but she remained distant – only slowly drawing closer to the male lead who basically had to stalk her, woo her, and fight her to keep her attention. She was not instantly falling for this hot suspect cause she had shit to do, ya hear me? Her personal life was booked up at the moment and she wasn’t too keen on penciling in some new guy. See what I mean… sounds the like the traits of a lot of male leads in dramas, not the female leads. Naturally, this confused a bunch of people and I noticed a lot of hate mail flying her way via the interwebs. But I thought she was great. At first (like everyone else, she suffered under the writing and direction of plot archs). The other cops are great – all the cliches we love, like the cranky head of the department, the funny guy, the super loyal guy, just… all the guys you like to see in a cop ensemble.

Corner 2: The Male Hero: The Mystery Man.

What’s not to like? A handsome guy who has crazy powers, who seems more confused by them than we are. People are after him and he’s just running away on a survival instinct, because they’re chasing him and so running away seems like the appropriate response. He has no idea who he is or what he’s done. He knows he’s not normal, but other than that… he’s got a blank slate where his memory book should be. He’s drawn to the female lead because she seems familiar, or rather, he seems familiar to her… and that’s a lead he’s willing to follow. Like an adorable puppy with alarming super powers.

Corner 3: The Mad Scientists: Human Tech.

I sincerely appreciate that this show was willing to go Full Tilt Boogie Old School Mad Science. We’ve got secret laboratories hidden in basements. We’ve got mysterious jars filled with mysterious items, back lit with neon lights for effect. We’ve got huge syringes of glowing green liquids and subjects restrained on the operating tables with bulky leather straps. We’ve got a lead scientist with a white lab coat and wild hair. The laboratories are all dark with unrealistic colored lights everywhere and I adore it. Embrace the science-fiction glamor! Mad science is a statement and there’s a certain dress code we expect – it’s visual short hand that tells us whatever they’re up to it’s surely not legal… and probably not ethical… and definitely exciting.

Corner 4: The Cult, The Killers, and The Politicians: Project L.U.C.A.

There’s nothing like a nefarious religious leader to add a little extra drama to your show. We know little about this cult other than it’s got an awful lot of young ladies in it and a fabulous dress code. We also know it helps fund the mad science. The politician is the “outside” man, or the dude who represents the outside involvement on this mysterious side project. This is played by the ever-so-funny and talented Park Hyuk-Kwon (my favorite character in Six Flying Dragons). Does anyone play a shady, loveable villain better? The answer is no. No one. Just cast Park Hyuk-Kwon every single time, please. And of course, you can’t have a secret organization without enforcement, and our villains have super powers too. What is their end game? We are dying to know…

A quick side note about the villain enforcers. They kick ass.

The casting was exceptional all around, but in particular the choice of Kim Sung-Oh as the lead henchman in the black gloves. He plays the complicated, stubborn, tragic super-villain to perfection. Unlike our leading male, who walks around with the blank face of someone who can’t remember what they ate for breakfast and it’s slightly irritating him, the lead henchman seems to be carrying the weight every single mistake and tragedy of his life on his shoulders. He looks absolutely tortured, and resigned to being tortured.

With those rock solid elements as the foundation to a show, you’d think it would be a sure shot to be the most epic, talked-about, fan-favorite show of 2020. It had no where to go but up. It could have built us a mysterious pyramid, a spectacularly futuristic skyscraper, a creepy castle of gothic romance and intrigue, or a secure fortress in the super hero pantheon. But… it just kinda made a box and then asked us to imagine what was inside. I’m sorry, but if J.J. Abrams has taught us anything its that the Mystery Box approach to film making only works as a good hook, not a good plot vehicle. You use it lure bait into the boat… you’re not supposed to use it as the boat itself.

Though the title hints this is only the first chapter in what could be a continued series, I’m not sure it has enough strength in its legs to walk. I mean… I’ll definitely watch it, don’t get me wrong. But if it does get made, I’ll resent that it was it was broken into two parts instead of offering me a more complicated, if not longer, unified story.

Have you seen Gu Family Book – also called Kangchi, The Beginning? In a lot of ways, these two dramas have a similar feeling to them. Gu Family Book has its origin story, leading to the main protagonist, and then loops back around to pick up the dropped threads of the origin story again before reaching its dramatic ending. I think L.U.C.A. would have been better served to follow this format, expanding into a longer series but also weaving its plot lines together to improve viewer satisfaction.

So… where does that leave us with L.U.C.A.?

If you like science fiction or camp, you’re going to enjoy this show. You may not love it, but you’ll have fun with it.

If you like action and adventure, then this show is also a safe bet. The fight sequences are great and the choreography, stunt work, and direction – as well as the camera work – are top game.

If you like mystery… you might like. There’s a bunch of mysteries, don’t get me wrong… but it’s a bit wishy-washy on whether or not those questions marks paid off with answers worth the effort.

If you like romance… you might like it. The romance is a side plot, in my opinion. It didn’t have to be, but that’s how it turned out. It’s arguably the weakest link in the show, feeling oddly paced and somewhat confusing most of the time. We will discuss this more in the deep spoiler section below.

Do I recommend this show? Yup. It was a mess, but I had fun with it (clearly I am a science fiction fan).

Overall Rating – 8/10. The Korean Peninsula of Doctor Moreau.

MORE MUSINGS & MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW!

Welcome to Spoiler City – where we deconstruct this crazy show.

It had sooo much potential. And in a lot of ways – it met its goals. It completed the assignment. Sure, I wanted a more from the essay but still… I recognize quality when I see it. And this show had that, in spades.

Here are some things I really loved about this show… in no particular order.

THE EXPERIMENTS – THE GOAL OF SCIENCE IS SCIENCE

“Why did you mix eel DNA with human DNA, doctor?”

“Because I can!”

I love a scientist who is firmly committed to his experiments for the sake of science alone. He wasn’t much concerned with anything else – not who would benefit, not what it would mean for society, not who was funding his research, nothing. He just wanted to WORK and see what kind of weird creations he could cook up in the laboratory. He had the indifferent cruelty of a child kicking an ant hill or ripping the leg off a grasshopper.

My favorite was the backflash to his infamous moment of disgrace – where he gave a speech about how humanity had stopped evolving once we built societies and tools. It was pure garbage and didn’t hold up to even the tiniest bit of scrutiny – but everyone in the room gasped and was outraged and wanted him expelled from the professional community quick smart.

Our mad scientist had vision! Sure, it was dumb – but that never stopped a mad scientist before! He did not care that his own science would be impossible, unthinkable even, without the tools humanity had created (what is this DNA you speak of? Hmmm.)… he was just annoyed we hadn’t gotten taller, I guess. Or faster. Don’t introduce him to Usain Bolt, people, the doctor’s head might explode.

So off the lab he went, to throw a bunch of species together in a breeding program and see if it mixed without exploding. Spoiler warning… most of it exploded.

THE CULT OF EXPLODING PREGNANCIES

Hands down my favorite scene was when our pitiful, brainwashed cult women were ready to give birth to their monster babies… and their big pregnant bellies were lighting up like Christmas trees inside and the doctor is eagerly running from one to another, encouraging them to hold on and push or whatever. And they explode in a cartoonish, yet gorey mess of blood of sound effects. You just see the doctor’s horrified face as blood splashes across him. I mean… snaps to the whole team for that scene.

Giving birth to a new messiah can be dangerous work.

THE CRAZY NUN

If at some point your brain was saying, “Hey… that cult seems kinda dumb… why would anyone join that nonsense and give these people money?” well, don’t worry, cause the show will quickly remind you of a much bigger cult that is equally rubbish but for some reason people get really upset if you say anything bad about all their unprovable, preposterous beliefs. Just kidding. Ya’ll lighten up. We are talking about the new version of the half human, half god who is being promised to save humanity… Messiah 2.0 or 3.0 or 3.5 depending on who you are asking… the one who was raised by some rather unstable nuns after being cooked up in a lab.

Now… here we get the chicken or the egg parable, which is presented to us several times in the narrative. Was the nun crazy because she watched all her sisters get burnt to a crisp by a creepy little kid? Or was she crazy before, and this craziness lead the kid to accidentally set the house on fire? Who knows – but I do love that her immediate response was that he was clearly an agent of the devil.

And so the kid ran away from the catholic orphanage – and his best friend went with him.

THE LOYAL LOSER LOVABLE BEST FRIEND

What an unexpected delight, am I right? I loved this character. This realistically shady, cautious, but ultimately lovable guy! To be fair, can you imagine having a best friend who constantly forgot you? Over and over? Especially one who seemed to always get into trouble?

The best friend acted as a humanizing element for otherwise blank slate protagonist. I mean, if he could win over this wild guy then he had to have something going for him, right?

I loved his betrayals. I loved his frustration. I loved his support. I loved this character all around and we need more complicated characters like this in every show.

THE COP TRAGEDY & BROMANCE

Speaking of bromances with complicated levels… these two cops hurt my soul! I liked both of them immensely, and thus was hurt and betrayed when I discovered one of them was sleeping with the enemy (so to speak). When he had to cover his tracks by killing his long-time coworker and friend… oh my god… my heart. I was horrified and felt just as conflicted and messed up about it as the evil cop!

I also loved the twist on how his friend was brought back to life – thus giving the shady cop a shot at redemption. He may have fallen into shadow, but he wasn’t completely lost after that… you could see him struggling to do right, even as habit kept steering him in the opposite direction.

This entire character arc WORE ME OUT emotionally. I honestly think I had twice as many feelings over these two guys (and the two star-crossed villains, but we’ll get to them) than I did for the leading lady and leading man.

THE SHIFTING ALIANCES OF EVIL

I’m sure if you work with a group of people, or remember your school days, or are still in your school days – you can point out the people who don’t like each other. We all know who they are. We know the ones who dislike each other and don’t even want to be in the same room with each other. We know the ones who dislike each other and want everyone to know they dislike each other. And we we know the ones who dislike each other, even though they are friends. The villlains in this group are that powerful, perhaps popular group of friends who all hate each other. The Mean Girls, The Heathers, The Goodfellas. Maybe one or two of them occasionally get a long, but it’s never too far a stretch to imagine they’d stab each other in the back over something as arbitrary as an extra scoop of ice cream.

The villains in this show were true villains. Baddies through and through. The scientist, the politician, the cult leader, and even that new younger girl that showed up in her impressive pant suit – just pure evil.

In a lot of K-dramas, they give us sympathetic back stories or show us the personal lives of the villains – humanizing them, forcing us to understand them even if we disagree with their choices. Not in this show! In this show, we get old fashioned cartoonish villains who are just bad for one reason alone – the power. I loved watching them sit around in their gold gilded chairs and plot world domination just as much as I watched them plot against each other later.

The villains were cake.

LOVE AMONG VILLIANS – REMAINS OF THE DAY

Speaking of cake – the romance between the two henchmen was soooo sweet! I was rooting for them, ya’ll. I wanted them to run away together and be happy mutant freaks somewhere. I was honestly scared of both of them (cause they’d rip your head off and use it as a soccer ball) and sincerely moved by their reserved affection for one another.

I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie Remains of the Day. Or read the book. But at the heart of the story, there are these two servants in a fancy household who are in love – and they find little ways to show it now and again but mostly they just stare at each other longingly and hold torches in their hearts as they go about their daily routines of serving someone else. Perhaps now the parallel is obvious.

These two! Our red haired girl begging her man to escape with him, knowing deep down he wouldn’t do it. Our slinky bad guy hoovering around her yard at night, sneaking peeks through her window. You knew they’d die for each other and you also knew they didn’t stand a chance. Gah! I was hooked.

EVOLUTION OF HUMANS & RELATIONSHIPS

Humans can be pretty dumb. I think we can all agree on that. It doesn’t take much for us to draw a line and try to separate ourselves from each other. You are Korean and I am American. You are fair haired and I am dark haired. You are wealthy and I am poor. You believe in the Catholic faith and I believe in science. You are heterosexual and I am pansexual. Lines lines lines. Lines are fine, people. It’s that we draw those lines, generally, in order to separate ourselves and pass judgement. Often it isn’t said aloud, but the implication is one is better, or more correct, than the other. And whatever side of the line you find yourself on can effect your entire life.

So yeah, you introduce some dude who was half lab creation and half human and you’re going to trigger the old line-drawing reflex in people. Arguably, for once it’s actually a legitimate reason to question whether or not someone “belongs” and if so… where do they belong? With us, on this side of the line… or on the other?

Cause mixing together a bunch of random animal DNA with human DNA is a whole new deal. And it might require an entire new label.

Is our protagonist human? Or is he… something else?

Our leading man never refers to himself as human. He openly states that he is not, that he is something else. Even without his memories, he knows he’s not like other people.

Anyways, our leading lady wasn’t sure what to make of him. He looks human, and sometimes he acts human, but then he just keeps reminding her he’s not. Even when she finally came around started having feelings for him, our cop remained wary. Perhaps you thought this was callous of her – but I think we all need to really push our imaginations more and think of what that would be like. This isn’t a vampire or some supernaturally altered human being. This dude was made. By means that would have NEVER happened in nature. In no conceivable future will humans start mating and reproducing with electric eels or whatever else they threw in his guys salad. There is no other creature like this guy on the planet – and it requires a lot of equipment and some very illegal and unethical means to produce him. If you think that wouldn’t sort of eat at you – in the back of your mind – all the time – then you may be deluding yourself.

FARMVILLE

So if you’re trying to win the heart of a girl who knows you’re a science project, might I suggest you isolate her from the rest of humanity for a long time? Get her away from social media and televisions and other people just going about their days. If you subconsciously make it seem like you are the last two people on earth, then you might trick her hormones to be more lenient with your… circumstances.

I’m kidding, of course. I don’t think our eel guy is nefarious or took our cop girl out to the farm to mess with her head. He was genuinely trying to help her. And as absurd as it was, he just happened to know of a quaint working farm they could move into. Since the show had already asked me to believe in an eel-guy, I didn’t think I could start getting picky about the conveniently empty house with a herd of sheep.

Anyways, what I’m saying is it makes sense that she might start to develop feelings for him while they were out there – isolated from humanity. It’s the same subconscious reason people can act a bit wild on vacations. You’re far from your real life, far from whatever constraints and molds and rules generally guide your life. It’s where expressions like “let your hair down” and “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” come from. Sometimes people make pretty horrible decisions and take insane risks while on vacation. Like, say… a rational, serious young lady deciding to get naked with a eel-guy even though neither of them have birth control of any kind.

HUMANITY, PREGNANCY, & FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN

If you were one of the viewers who got angry with our leading female when she started to freak out in the laboratory and not trust her new “boyfriend,” then you need sensitivity training. Even if they were still on the farm, even if they’d been perfectly safe and no one else was involved… her baby was not NORMAL. This does not mean her baby was not a sweet and innocent soul, but damn – it’s part eel. I think the scientist said he was part eel and jellyfish and even used flies. I mean, if you think you’d be calm giving birth to a jellyfish, then you are a truly unique soul.

Pregnancy fears are very normal. Women carrying perfectly healthy, average human babies can have terrible dreams that there is something horribly wrong with their kid – covering a wide gambit of internal fears. In this case, our cop lady had every reason to suspect there could be something horribly, horribly wrong with her kid. Would it even look human? Who knows what part of the genetic mix might turn up more dominant?

I think it’s safe to say both parents were relieved when the baby looked human. From there it was just a waiting game to see how much of daddy’s weird DNA was dominant. So yeah… momma bear is gonna be stressed. If you’re then captured and imprisoned in a secret cult, then I think we can say her mental state was bound be to fraught. Suddenly trusted people start telling her that her baby daddy may have murdered her parents – and though she wants to trust him, she also knows he DOESN’T KNOW for certain. Eel-guy has no stable memories of the things he’s done or the lives he’s lead. He might have done it. It’s not that far of a stretch.

Needless to say, the honeymoon was over the second our cop gave birth.

This story might have love in, but it’s not a love story, ya dig?

INSTINCT

Just in case our viewing audience was unclear on how to feel about eel-guy, we get more examples of him acting… off. He’s just a strange guy. He’s violent, too. And it’s not always clear what he’s thinking or what his motivations are. Like an animal, a lot of times he acts on instinct. Self-preservation being the core of his internal motivators.

Just like self-destruction was the core motivator for the lead henchman.

I said before I thought these two were an awesome yin and yang. Our leading man has no past, no extra weight of guilt, joy, mistakes and other consequences of long-term memories defining his existence. Whereas our leading henchman obviously had a LOT of things on his mind. All the time. And you got the distinctive impression most of it tormented him. Watching his body literally change, his arm turning black, his strength and abilities altered by unknown elements injected into him. He’d gone too far down the path and knew there was no way to turn back. Watching himself morph into something other than human obviously horrified him, and fascinated him too.

I personally think he was suicidal. The reason he didn’t run away with the pretty red head is because he knew running away wasn’t an option. He didn’t remember how to be normal any more. He knew he could never assimilate back into the fold with the rest of humanity. He was a killer. And he’d been altered to be something other than human. He was a weapon now and he was… tired. Our leading man represented both his greatest fear and probably his deepest desire – to change into something post-human and be okay with it. I never got the impression he thought he could really kill the eel-guy – not towards the end. But he wanted to test them both, to push them both to their limits before surrendering to the void. He was a warrior and he wanted to be defeated by a worthy opponent, to know he hadn’t just given up easily but that the only person stronger than him had taken him down.

PROTAGANIST OR… ANTAGANOIST?

If you’d been thinking this was a love story, the end of the show probably felt like a firm slap to the face. Or a bucket of ice cold water dumped over your head.

Our sweet eel-guy, as likable as he was, had his own motivations and they were… as they always had been… a little more complicated than we imagined. And yet a little more simple to. He simply wanted to belong. To exist. And to not be alone. He was not human, but he could have children.

What did Frankenstein’s monster want? He wanted a partner, an equal, someone just like him. He wanted a mate.

So did our eel-guy. But since that wasn’t an option he’d settle for the next best thing. Kids.

I really do hope there’s a sequel. Cause who are supposed to root for?

I’d really like to find out.

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