By Tanu I. Raj
One of the most primal human needs is to be understood. That goes for everybody, no matter how unsavoury – fucked-up people yearn to be accepted too. Take Kim Sum, the protagonist of Netflix’s new Korean psychological thriller Somebody. Despite developing the successful dating app Somebody, Sum (Kang Hae-lim) remains terribly lonely.
Her only ‘friend’ is the intuitive AI software called Someone that she developed as a high-schooler, and she exists in a suppressed world of carefully crafted routines, monochromatic surroundings, and practiced moaning to stroke her partners’ egos. No one gets Sum – until she begins investigating a serial killer who uses her app to find his victims, and meets Seong Yun-o (Kim Young-kwang).
As different as they are – a successful software developer versus, well, a serial killer – both Sum and Yun-o hunger to be understood. As police scramble to find the suspect, a fatalistic love blooms between them. Yun-o unravels Sum, goading her into surrendering to the murderous impulses it turns out she’d suppressed for years.
It’s not a surprise to see Jung Ji-woo spearheading the direction and script for Somebody. Already acclaimed for his portrayals of romantic and sexual deviance – two of his most famous works revolve around a wife cheating on her husband (1999’s Happy End) and a scandalous relationship between a high school girl, a 70-year-old poet, and his star student (2012’s A Muse) – he pushes his own boundaries on this series, raising questions about whether there is such a thing as ‘acceptable’ deviance or if it’s all perspective.
Jung builds this through his characteristically robust and intimate visual language. Kim Sum, who is roleplaying normality, is shown in expansive greyscale spaces, clean to a fault, her things arranged with clinical precision. The spaces around Yun-o, albeit dimly lit, look lived-in – unlike Sum, he’s embraced who he is. Praise must also go to Somebody’s music direction: an oboe, horn, and synth-laden soundtrack creates tension so palpable it could be a character of its own. Orchestral soundtracks compound Sum’s loneliness, and even cheerful piano sounds ominous against Yun-o’s blank expressions.
While the show’s pacing does suffer because of this meticulous staging – you spend the first half of the show wishing for action – it aligns wonderfully with Jung’s portrayal of intimacy. For two people who “want to go around killing people” together, Sum and Yun-o’s foreplay, for instance, is poetically delicate. They’re playful and uninhibited, curious and relieved, as if unused to the freedom of complete expression.
Kim Young-kwang’s Yun-o, layered with a practised nonchalance, is wonderfully understated but no less sinister. While the Jeffrey Dahmer glasses might seem a bit too on the nose, it’s clear as the show progresses that Yun-o makes intentional choices – as if he is embracing recognisable serial-killer motifs to mock his pursuers.
In comparison, Kang Hae-lim’s youthful appearance only amplifies her emotions, whether it’s the disturbing smile she lets slip upon admitting that killing someone made her euphoric or her internal conflict between protecting a remorseless killer who’s also the only man who’s ever understood her. As desperate as she is for companionship, there are moments where her morals weigh on her.
Though a cinematic tale with heavyweight performances, Somebody is bogged down by a glaring lack of common sense. Kim Sum’s motivations notwithstanding, there are numerous instances where characters have the chance to turn Yun-o in but, for the flimsiest of reasons, never do. With Yun-o being a somewhat public figure, one would think even reasonable doubt would be enough to bring him in – but it gets lost in the needlessly elaborate plan to flush the killer out.
And for a show where characters are driven by the fundamental need to be understood, there is shockingly little background information to help it along. We never really find out what brought the reticent Sum and her friends together in the first place, or what propelled Yun-o to do the terrible things he did. The first few episodes are a revolving door of faces that introduces characters way before their connections are made clear.
With no context to fall back on, viewers can’t be expected to extend the characters the courtesy of caring about their dynamics and motivations. While Somebody presents a compelling, even thrilling premise, this murderous love story is rushed at best and unsatisfactory at worst.
‘Somebody’ is now streaming on Netflix.