Reflection on You, a new moody melodrama from JTBC featuring Go Hyun-jung and Shin Hyun-been, opens with every mother’s worst nightmare, as a teenage daughter winds up in hospital after being beaten by none other than her teacher.
The mother in question is a successful artist but unable to protect her child and, despite clear video evidence, the school board – led by her overbearing and uncaring mother-in-law – seems unwilling to act.
This all happens a few minutes into the opening episode. As the series really begins, we see fragmentary images of what looks like a bloody crime scene – though we don’t yet know if what we’re seeing are snatches from a flashback or a terrible event yet to pass.
With female leads, art, high society, fancy schools and layers of buried secrets, Reflection of You is the latest prime-time women’s melodrama-thriller to hit the air, following recent hits The Penthouse, Mine and the currently airing High Class.
Though many of the elements remain the same, the focus on children and themes of possessive motherhood are downplayed somewhat in Reflection of You, which has stylised elements and more personal backstories.
Go Hyun-jung (Dear My Friends) returns to the screen as Jeong Hee-joo, the aforementioned mother and painter. She lives a seemingly stable life with her husband Ahn Hyeon-seong (Choi Won-young), heir of the influential Taerim Corporation and principal of the Taerim Girls’ Middle School, and daughter Lisa (Kim Su-an) and son Ho-su (Kim Dong-ha).
When called to the hospital – which belongs to the Taerim Corporation and is run by her mother-in-law Park Young-sun (Kim Bo-yeon) – where Lisa is brought after being attacked, Hee-joo is incredulous that more of a fuss isn’t being kicked up following this clear case of abuse.
Both the school and hospital are effectively under the control of Young-sun, who uses every opportunity to criticise her daughter-in-law and who couldn’t care less about her granddaughter. The person Young-sun does care about is her grandson, the spoilt and atrociously behaved Ho-su, who she seems to have poisoned against his mother.
Hee-joo eventually succeeds to get some kind of disciplinary process under way and soon meets Gu Hae-won (Shin Hyun-been), the substitute art teacher who ruptured Lisa’s eardrum.
Shin Hyun-been (left) and Kim Su-an in a still from Reflection of You.
Rather than apologise, Hae-won is confrontational and, after a flustered Hee-joo slaps her, Hae-won decides to sue her. That’s not the only thing that feels off – Hee-joo then realises that she somehow recognises this teacher.
After Hae-won visits Hee-joo’s home, the truth comes out. Hae-won was once Hannah, a young art student trained in Berlin who tutored Hee-joo when she was an aspiring artist. They used to be very close but something bad happened, and it has somehow brought Hae-won back into Hee-joo’s life.
Throughout her career, Go Hyun-jung has played a variety of charismatic leading roles, but she plays a quiet, diffident character for her latest part. Despite her secrets, so far Hee-joo hasn’t commanded the screen like some of Go’s earlier characters.
Go Hyun-jung in a still from Reflection of You.
As the mysterious Hae-won, Shin Hyun-been has the more intriguing character and the Hospital Playlist actress is given a chance to shine in her biggest leading role to date. However, after a few episodes her unpredictable nature begins to feel forced and haphazard and the present day Hae-won – who seems sleepy and morose – contrasts with the brighter character presented in flashbacks. It’s a superficial distinction, though.
Reflection of You mines some familiar stylistic and thematic tropes, which include a preoccupation with fine art – the opening credits are all moody art tableaux – and a wistful and idyllic backdrop, with the stark cliffs and rolling green prairies of Ireland appearing in a few scenes.
Beyond those, the show sets itself apart with a controlled use of light and shadow and carefully designed colour palette, which is most evident in the wardrobe, such as Hae-won’s ever-present green jacket and Hee-joo’s frequent bright red tones.
The ingredients are all there for a compelling and atmosphere-soaked mystery. What’s missing is a compelling hook in the narrative, which is slow to unfold and a little obvious when it does. Some characters are hinted at early on, but their revelations are far from surprising.
With three quarters of the series left to air, it’s hard to imagine how far what remains of the story will be stretched out. But then again, perhaps some real surprises lay ahead.
Shin Hyun-been in a still from Reflection of You.
Reflection of You is streaming on Netflix.Internet Explorer Channel Network