I gather all the pieces of you I can find
But they do not add up to you who is gone
The equation of loss does not balance
These pieces are not you
But they’re all that I have left
When my grandfather died, long even before my mother met my father, my grandmother discovered a terrible secret.
The man she had married, loved, and raised three children with was not who he had said he was.
Who was this man to whom she had been married for almost 25 years? What was his real name? His real age? Who had he been before she met him? What things had he done? What had driven him to such a drastic lie?
Aside from his wedding photo, there is only one picture of my grandfather in my mother’s home. My mother adored him but there is only one photo, one piece of him there. A few memories. A few stories. And that one strange photograph of him on the street, the print colourless and faded, wearing a suit. Heading somewhere. In action. We don’t know where or why.
We can never really know other people, even the ones we shares our lives with and are closest to. Not completely. But at least while they exist there is the potential for that knowledge. We can ask them how they think and what they feel – even if we never do. We could. But once they’re gone, even that potential is gone. All we have left are pieces.
This is the uncertainty of grief that A Piece of Your Mind examines in 12 dreamy, surreal and almost ethereal episodes about love, loss and healing. Unfortunately, like an emotion, A Piece of Your Mind has to be felt to be understood. Just like words frequently falter at expressing our feelings so they also falter at describing this beautiful drama.
The show is less a drama than a poem: something enjoyed as much for its rhythm and its pace as its plot points and narrative. In fact, it would be more accurate to say it is like a piece of music; one that drifts through your thoughts like a fragment of a song that you can’t quite remember. Like a song that connects you across space and across time to your memories. One that makes you cry in a dark theatre at the sheer beauty of it or sob into your pillow with the sadness.
A soft filter and warm light gives the whole thing the feeling of a dream or a memory, backed by emotionally evocative music and populated with sparse but beautifully-written dialogue and small ordinary moments of ordinary people. It is an almost-perfect study of grief and how we grapple with the hole people leave in the world when they pass.
My grandmother died when I was only 14. Just old enough to remember her but not yet old enough to have asked the difficult questions. How did you feel when you found out? Did your stomach fall into a pit? Did you yell? Cry? Embrace stoicism? Was there a secret rage inside you that we never saw? A great yawning sadness?
She is gone so I will never know. All that is left of her are pieces.
Those pieces of a person are what the male lead in A Piece of Your Mind is working on in his small, dark, quiet room in Seoul when the show opens. Moon Ha-won (Jung Hae-in) develops artificial intelligence applications for medical use. His latest project is an individualised intelligence for therapeutic purposes.
He believes that if he can create an AI that embodies a real person he can help them work through their grief and loss by talking to themselves or those they’ve lost.
Jung Hae-in always gives lovely understated performances and his portrayal of Ha-won is no exception. Ha-won has loved and lost but always from afar as he observes life but fails to live it. He is driven by the need to understand both the sudden death of his mother when he was 18 and the loss of his childhood friend, Kim Ji-soo (Park Joo-hyun), whose husband insisted she break ties with him after their marriage.
The show tries to put some sciency sounding terms around the algorithms Ha-won has developed but ultimately this is magic. A small magic box that embodies a person. Ha-won has managed to input the various parts of an individual’s personality and emotions into the program but then needs to find the reaction point: a moment, phrase or person that will stitch those components into a real person.
As science it’s questionable. As a metaphor it’s perfect.
When A Piece of Your Mind begins, Ha-won is searching for the reaction point for the AI he’s created of himself. He follows music one day into a small recording studio and meets sound engineer Han Seo-woo (Chae Soo-bin). Thunder cracks above him, lightning strikes, the rain comes down, the music echoes in the hallway as he looks out to the darkening sky and the small box activates.
He’s found Ha-won’s reaction point, his own reaction point. The thing that turns his disparate parts into a whole person.
As the rain slides down a dark windowsill in his lonely room, he’s reminded of gloomy, stormy afternoons in Norway walking home from school and playing the piano with his childhood friend and unrequited first love, Ji-soo. He believes he’s found his reaction point – the long-lost Ji-soo – and begins to seek her out, hoping to understand himself through understanding her; her life, her thoughts, her feelings.
He does this in the usual abstract and analytical way in which he approaches his life: by creating an AI of her. For that he needs her voice so he acquires the recording studio and employs the sound engineer he’d met that day, Han Seo-woo. Seo-woo is a warm and likeable person but has her own deep grief: the tragic and senseless death of her parents who died too suddenly and too soon.
Respecting Ji-soo’s decision to cut off contact between them after her marriage, he puts a trail into the world for Ji-soo to choose to follow if she wants to, one that leads to Seo-woo. Seo-woo is the kind of person who will drop her whole life to help another person, even over a trivial thing, and so she agrees easily to meet with Ji-soo without even knowing the reason why.
Chae Soo-bin is wonderful here as the warm but still grief-stricken Seo-woo. Seo-woo is outwardly personable and loving and has many friends and close acquaintances. She bonds quickly with the almost other worldly Ji-soo, who we soon realise is deeply depressed but trying to hide it from the world. Seo-woo connects with people easily but, we slowly learn, keeps a part of herself back from any truly deep relationships with others. Her wounds are also still too raw.
Ha-won and Seo-woo slowly, cautiously, embark on a healing relationship of mutuality and reciprocity. As Seo-woo watches Ha-won grieve the loss of Ji-soo, she finds herself falling for him from a distance, by herself. Unrequited love. As she talks of this to the box housing Ji-soo’s disparate parts, she finds the box’s reaction point. Not Ha-won. Not herself. But love, unrequited.
It says something about Ha-won as a person that he creates a virtual version of the woman he loved and lost but gives her the same autonomy of the real Ji-soo. He’s never interested in owning, controlling or dominating Ji-soo – not in the real world and not in the virtual one. The newly-activated Ji-soo AI rejects him as the real one did. She refuses to speak with him, runs away from him, and he’s left no closer to understanding her actions than before.
Our core couple orbit the black hole that is the loss of Ji-soo. But around them swirl a host of other damaged characters: Ha-won’s niece, Moon Soon-ho (Lee Ha Na) who has taken nine years to get over a bad breakup; Ji-soo’s controlling and almost-abusive husband, Gang In-wook (Kim Sung-gyu); and the found family of guests living in the boarding house that Seo-woo took shelter in after the death of her family. One of these Kim Min-jung (Lee Jung Eun) is a patient of the psychiatrist that Ha-won is working with and for whom they are creating a therapeutic AI.
While the show examines grief in all its iterations – whether through the death of a loved one, a relationship, or even the person you used to be – it’s also about the way in which we grapple with the hole a person leaves in the world when they’re gone. How we want just a piece of them to hold onto and how we struggle with the realisation that we will never know what they were thinking because we can never speak to them again.
“Were you friends?” In-wook asks Seo-woo of her relationship with Ji-soo.
“I’m the only one who considered us friends,” she replies, “I know how I feel. She went far away so I have no way of knowing how she feels.”
We know our thoughts and feelings but the thoughts and feelings of others are known only through the small parts of themselves they let us see. And once they’re gone, that potential of knowing them is gone too. What’s left is all we have.
The Ji-soo AI that Ha-won creates becomes that piece. But it’s through Ha-won and In-wook’s reactions to that piece that we see how differently both men approach life, relationships and their grief. In life, In-wook tried to dominate, control and completely possess Ji-soo, never trusting in her or in their relationship. Ha-won in comparison never needs to possess or control the people in his life.
In-wook avoids answers, is terrified of the truth, pushes people who are trying to help away, refuses to be honest about his own emotions, and was possessive and controlling of his wife; even insisting she break off contact with her oldest friend because of his fear of their shared memories.
In contrast, Ha-won seeks answers, wants the truth even if it’s uncomfortable, is drawn to seek comfort in other people, is endlessly – almost unnervingly – emotionally honest, and allowed both Ji-soo and AI Ji-soo complete autonomy.
“It’s not that I want someone physically next to me,” Ha-won says to Seo-woo, “but more like in the air around me, warming my surroundings.”
For Ha-won, having people in his life and in the world is enough. He doesn’t demand reciprocity even if it makes him happy to receive it. Seo-woo also gives without expecting anything in return.
People are not pieces or object to possess, control or dominate. We will never own them, just as we will never know truly what they think and feel. But that isn’t necessary to gain comfort and strength from them and to give that comfort and strength in return.
Which is not to say that Ha-won doesn’t need to learn to live in the real world, rather than the abstract one of his programs. From the beginning, Ji-soo isn’t a real person so much as a fantasy. It’s Seo-woo who encourages him to start living his life, rather than just observing it.
In return, Seo-woo’s struggle is with her survivor’s guilt and having the courage and the strength to truly love somebody again when she knows too well the loss that could be waiting for her. At every milestone in their relationship, she stumbles and withdraws, believing her happiness is a betrayal of those she has lost. She is scared of happiness, her own feelings and of the eventual grief she knows lies in wait. And every time she does, Ha-won simply stops and waits for her to catch back up.
Love, support, comfort and healing is also found in the boarding house in which Soo-woo has lived since her parents’ died, run by the warm and maternal Jun Eun-joo (Lee Sang Hee). Eun-joo has her own losses and her own grief but she and Seo-woo are there for each other always, and the boarding house becomes a found family for the orphaned woman.
Grief is overcome by connection and community but most of all through true give and take. Ha-won and Seo-woo’s ability to understand and accept the other’s losses and to give as much as they receive is heartwarming to watch unfold.
At one point in the drama, Ha-won suggests Banbogi: a meeting between two people who love each other at a midway point between the two. Banbogi encapsulates the reciprocity and mutuality between the two. One does not go to the other, whether physically or emotionally. They always meet in the middle.
The Ending – Spoilers
A Piece of Your Mind is so beautifully layered and so full of perfect metaphors that it would be impossible for me to canvass them all in one blog post – unless I want this beast to get even longer.
Despite this – the utter beauty of the show, its gorgeous writing, its emotional core, its profound themes, and its almost perfect coherence – the ratings in Korea were dismal and the show was cut down from 16 episodes to 12. The writers had to accelerate its storytelling to compensate for the shortened run and jettison some of the development of certain characters and the entire storylines of others. It says something about the quality of the writing that the show is still almost perfect. It makes the loss of those four episodes even more tragic.
To say that A Piece of Your Mind “ends” is to be reductive. Life continues and with it comes loss of many kinds. We will grieve again and fall apart again and hopefully be brought back together again by the people around us. At least if we let them.
For this, the show used the brilliant metaphor of the tailored artificial intelligence. The box of pieces that needs a reaction point to make it whole. The reaction point of the AI is the thing that brings all its elements together. Thus, just as the AI is a metaphor for ourselves in pieces following a loss, the reaction point becomes a metaphor for what helps us stitch those pieces back into a whole person.
At the beginning of A Piece of Your Mind, Ha-won believes his reaction point is Ji-soo. But as he searches for – and finally finds – the answers he needs about the loss of his mother, we and he realise that Ji-soo was merely an avatar for his loss of family. His real reaction point is his mother, she who used to play the piano on those grey stormy days in Norway, while he and Ji-soo played safely inside. Coming finally to understand the truth about her tragic death means being able to put it behind him and heal.
For Seo-woo, the reaction point is Ha-won. Not because of true love or its healing power or any other Disney cliche. But because Ha-won taught her it was okay to receive as much as she gives. He taught her that living for herself and her own desires is not something to feel guilty about. Ha-won gave her the courage to pursue her own happiness, but also to stop fearing the possibility of future sadness. When Seo-woo finally gives herself permission to be happy and to stop being weighed down by the guilt of her own survival, that is when she is able to heal.
And for Ji-soo? It was her husband, In-wook’s love. That unrequited love that he had for her for years before he finally had the courage to approach her. And In-wook accepting his wife loved him sets him on the path to his own healing too.
Following loss, we are pieces of ourselves. The hole inside us yawns. We crumble. We try to find the other person in pieces of them scattered across the world. A voice message. A letter. A photo. A piece of music. A place. We gather them and try to put those pieces back together, try to understand the one who is now gone.
But ultimately we’re just trying to find ourselves again.
And that is not something that we can do alone.
A Piece of Your Mind is available to stream with full English subtitles on Viki