Do Min-joon as The Alien Messiah in My Love from the Star
The alien messiah has not ceased to be a spectre of popular consciousness since the late 20th century. As a character archetype in science fiction films like Superman, the alien messiah is often depicted as one who comes from a place that is both distant from and technologically superior to what is possible on earth. This character, either through circumstance or an existential sense of duty, is often called upon to deliver humanity from the perils of technology and the banality of modern life. Indeed, it is this superiority, or the power derived from what is beyond human capabilities that makes the alien—as one who comes from another place—‘divine’ to its human counterparts.
In this sense, the alien messiah is one that willingly gives up, or offers his powers as a gift to a humanity that is not able to save itself. Rather than speak of these powers as supernatural phenomena, writers and filmmakers have been more inclined to conceive them as advanced forms of technology belonging to extra-terrestrial entities. There is naturally, less an avowal of the supernatural existing outside the technological quagmire than the expression of a present despair with the finite and flawed human, but the myth of the miracle prosthesis remains. The salvation that the alien allegedly brings about is thus an idealisation of a deus ex machina, alluding to an agency, or technology that is divine and beyond human comprehension.
However, the South Korean television series My Love from the Star brings to light a critical turn concerning the relationship between technology and its messianic associations. The protagonist of the story, Do Min-joon, is an alien who arrives on earth during the Joseon Dynasty and is anticipating his return to his star 400 years later. Possessing abilities such as telekinesis , teleportation and time-space compression (these are also aspirations of current communication technologies), he reluctantly gives superhuman aid to a handful of humans who cross his path, notably the lawyer Jang Yo-mok, who becomes his most loyal friend and Cheon Song-yi, an obnoxiously narcissistic and mercurial celebrity who eventually falls for him. The stoic and indifferent Min-joon is a far cry from the benevolent Clarke Kent in the Superman films; while the Kryptonian adopted by earthlings openly desires human companionship, Min-joon is, for the most part, a solitary figure who will not hesitate to express his disdain for humans, claiming that his intervention (or lack thereof) in their affairs will do nothing to alter the course of history.
Hence in comparison with his Kryptonian predecessor who believes he is called to save humanity from itself, Min-joon personifies the deist god at odds with the vicissitudes of lesser beings—he quietly adopts and simulates their ways, but constantly yearns for the day he can return to his home and be apart from them. Min-joon’s deist incarnation is also a form of capitalistic parasitism, as witnessed in the way he continues to amass great wealth and resources for himself (he is described in one episode as having the wealth equivalent to a chaebol, a term for a Korean business conglomerate), with no intention of using his abilities for the greater good of humanity. The juxtaposition of Min-joon’s personal wealth and disinterest in human affairs is in effect, analogous to the often lauded neutrality obscuring the profit-driven imperatives of corporations involved in the commodification of technology.
At the same time, Song-yi is the hyperbole of a self-absorbed individual subsisting in a mediated environment where computer screens function as a mirror to admire one’s own image, rather than a tool for nurturing bonds with others. In spite of her fame, Song-yi is alienated from her own social reality and is blind to the sentiments of others around her. At one point, she even becomes an embarrassing spectacle by miscommunicating her intentions on a social networking site.
When gadgets serve to give users’ nothing but an image of themselves, the spectacle of the self is simultaneously the alienation from everyone else. The ubiquity of communication technologies and the incessant need for image management on various online platforms carry the implication that users of these tools like Song-yi are in turn, conditioned by these tools to be an actor for an anonymous audience. This technological narcissism also catalyses Song-yi’s attraction to Min-joon, for she is initially fixated by his apparent nonchalance, just as how those who are individuated, yet alienated by technology can be helplessly attached to images on the screen that are in fact oblivious to their gaze.
There is arguably more in the romance that can be contrasted, rather than aligned with the iconic coupling of Clarke Kent and Lois Lane. At the end of Superman II, Clarke forsakes personal intimacy with Lois in order to fulfil his duty as a hero to mankind. When confronted with the dilemma of choosing happiness with one lover and following his innate sense of responsibility to the rest of humanity, the alien Superman decides to carry the burden of the latter when he erases Lois’s memory of their past before pledging his allegiance to the American Government.
Conversely, Min-joon lacks any interest in Clarke Kent’s messianic altruisms and his initial interest in Song-yi is nothing short of personal: He pays attention to her because she resembles a maiden he sought to protect 400 years ago, which is much to the chagrin of the over-protective Jang, who hopes that his long-time friend can return peacefully to his planet. For those moments where Min-joon uses his powers on the side of the law, they remain in line with the aim of protecting Song-yi and thus continue to be a subversion of Clarke Kent’s messianic agenda. Min-joon’s unrelenting and exclusive devotion to Song-yi provides a contradicting twist to his otherwise detached demeanour, but it is also an apt complement to her self-seeking ways, for only by being void of any inter-personal subjectivity (that is, by not getting involved with or belonging to anyone) can one become an absolute object for another subject. In other words, the alien Min-joon is fully complicit with Song-yi’s narcissistic tendencies, since as the exclusive object of her affections, he can be anything and everything Song-yi desires him to be.
Yet Min-joon’s growing devotion to Song-yi is also concomitant with the loss of his powers and this is where the allegorical potential of the narrative makes a decisive break with its messianic overtures. Not long after he begins to acknowledge his love for Song-yi, Min-joon discovers that he is more vulnerable to changes in the earth’s weather and is occasionally incapable of exercising his abilities. Unlike Clarke Kent who in spite of his personal affection for Lois, regards his power as a difference that has to be rendered unto humanity, Min-joon’s apathy for a greater cause and romantic encounter inadvertently culminate in the gradual but definite loss of the qualities that once made him superior to humanity. By giving himself to one, the alien thereby relinquishes his ‘messianic’ difference, since this very difference can be manifest only when he alienates, or sets himself apart from humanity.
And this is not to say that Song-yi’s desire has nothing to do with such an incarnation either. The perception of romantic love as an existential question is in many ways a de-politicised and asocial one, for it is essentially an objectification of the other derived from a conceited position. By desiring Min-joon for herself, Song-yi objectifies him without regard for his otherness, or how his place in the world may tangibly impact others. As their relationship blossoms, what is left of Min-joon’s powers is made more public, but only as a bid to protect Song-yi’s interests. Hence, the final decision Min-joon has to make marks an inevitable tragedy: He can return to his star and be separated from his love, or lose his powers permanently as an earthly, mortal being.
Min-joon’s fate is therefore an unambiguously technological one, as the technological fascination is situated between the messianic possibilities of its difference and the anxieties wrought by its extensive humanisation. There is on one hand, the messianic imaginary of the tools emancipating humanity from any predicament, but on the other hand these shackles are also symptoms of a malaise inherent in the pervasive, yet personalised use of technology. Much like how Song-yi relies on Min-joon, contemporary society is both aided and served by gadgetry delivering an intimate mode of time-space compression. Mobile phones and the Internet, for example, allow more ‘alien’ powers to be at one’s disposal, not just because they permit faster or more seamless communication, but also for the fact that they continue to exacerbate physical alienation. To quote from psychologist Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together, individuals in the wired generation have come to ‘expect more from technology, and less from each other.’
Doubtless the alien in My Love from the Star is no extra-terrestrial saviour heeding a messianic call, but the embodiment of technological aspirations that are at the same time, held culpable for humanity’s continued isolation from itself. The Man of Steel may for the time being, still thrive in the imaginary behind the veil (or cape) of a superhero held in awe by everyone, but Min-joon, in belonging only to one, is conclusively demystified as another humanised gadget, without any possibility of redemption from the social fragmentation that technology has and will continue to bestow.
Joel Gn is an East Asian geek who indulges in Japanese and Korean pop culture. He also spends his waking hours dreaming, writing, acting and quite questionably, teaching at the National University of Singapore, but secretly hopes to build his own toy factory and entertainment agency one day. His letter box is located at email@example.com.
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