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The Weekend Binge: "Yonder"

Part love story, part examination of existential terror, TVING's Yonder is light Sunday-evening sci-fi that grapples with Sunday-mass insights on life (and love) without death.

GwenchaNoona | The Weekend Binge: "Yonder" (photo of Han Ji-min and Shin Ha-kyun)

The Plot

Adapted from the Kim Jang-hwan novel Good-Bye Yonder, this six-episode k-drama explores the story of Kim Jae-hyun (Shin Ha-kyun), a husband who faces unique existential dilemmas after the death of his beloved wife.

It is 2040, and Kim is a widower besieged by grief. A week into mourning, he receives a mysterious email that seems to have been sent from his recently deceased wife Cha Yi-hoo (Han Ji-min). Apparently, his wife had uploaded her consciousness to a digital repository called “Yonder” before she died, and this service allows her to continue communicating with him even after her death.

yonder, han jimin
Is this real life? Or is this a programmed memory?

Startled and confused, Kim sets off to investigate Yonder, which turns out to be a black market service that extracts and preserves the memories of the dying. But more than just a repository of the dead’s memories, Yonder actually assembles an avatar that allows the dead to communicate with the ones they’ve left behind. So is the entity he is talking to his actual wife? Or is she merely a hologram cobbled together by AI, programmed to deceive?

Throughout his investigation, Kim also meets other people whose grief has been upended by this alarming new technology. How can they all move on when the dead no longer remain dead? And when one can get in touch with the dead so easily, what's to stop the living from uniting with them in Yonder? Beset by all these new ethical, moral, and existential dilemmas, Kim ponders the implications of an infinite existence and wonders if a life without death — albeit digital — is still worth living.

The Review

It's not a stretch to say that contemporary k-drama has had a rather lackluster, hit-and-miss relationship with sci-fi. Either they can be terribly simplistic about genuinely complex issues (SF8), or they depend too much on sleek visuals but regurgitate the same old themes while offering nothing new (The Silent Sea, Dr. Brain). Often, they settle on one sci-fi component, such as having a robot around (I Am Not a Robot, My Perfect Boyfriend, Are You Human, Too?), and then just leave the rest to run on a classic rom-com formula. But with Yonder, it seems k-drama is inching towards true sci-fi that is both aesthetically pleasing AND substantial at the same time.

Yonder accomplishes a feat rarely seen in k-drama — the ability to tackle a multitude of themes such as the meanings of life, death, existence, heaven, hell, love, religion, God, and despair — and carefully lays them out in a manner that embraces speculative sci-fi at its very best without being simplistic, overbearing, nor pretentious.

What if love could never end?

There is an otherworldly visual cadence to Yonder that lures you in and transfixes you to the very end. Like many of Lee Jon-ik's films, Yonder is able to cloak a deep philosophy with the trappings of commercial and aesthetic appeal. As his first foray into the small screen, the show clearly benefits from his A-level cinematic prowess and sleek visual signature. In fact, all six episodes of Yonder feel like one beautiful three-hour movie instead of a choppy and episodic story. The clean lines, gorgeous lighting, and wistful staging almost make you wonder if this show is too good for the small screen. It seems almost criminal to watch this show on a mere laptop or mobile phone when it clearly belongs in a movie theater. The wide angles, the gentle neo-noir feel, and the stark lines that contribute to Yonder's visual feast not only surpass the already ridiculously high k-drama visual standard, but elevate Asian sci-fi visual storytelling as a whole.

Some "Black Mirror" feels without the unsettling "Black Mirror" twists

Although the narrative is coherent and nicely holds until the ambiguous end, Yonder seems to be more interested in the play of its own existential ideas than the imperatives of the plot, with an emphasis on the philosophical over the emotional. It does not bludgeon the audience with sci-fi twists that are too twisted for comfort, but rather opts to delicately prod old questions about existence while retaining a vaguely moralistic quality. After all, if we could all upload our memories onto a drive that ensures we live on forever, should we? What happens to us when we no longer die? What happens to a love that has to continue indefinitely? And if we are forever united with our loved ones in a never-ending holiday where there is no more fear or pain — would this be heaven? Or is this a special kind of hell? These are but a few of the dilemmas Lee tackles over six episodes while fastidiously avoiding overt and definitive answers. Overall, the show seems content to raise interesting questions and delivers that inquisitive pleasure till the ambiguous end.

Part love story, part examination of existential terror, Yonder is Sunday-evening sci-fi peppered with Sunday-mass insights on life, heaven, hell, and death. And with the metaverse and virtual reality insidiously encroaching on the edges of what we deem as “real” life, we are very much on the verge of everything Yonder questions. And like every fine sci-fi work, we will need the dramas like Yonder — shows with high concepts cleverly cloaked by commercial appeal — to help us see our way through.

Available on other sites

Stream if: You like gorgeous cinematography, or you'd like to give speculative sci-fi like this a try.

Skip if: Existential dread is not what you need right now.

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