Rooftop Prince (옥탑방 왕세자) (2012)
So just last afternoon I closed the covers on the highly acclaimed Korean drama serial Rooftop Prince, which I started following last week after a friend — having perhaps known that I was just done with Lie To Me — ardently recommended it. As I turned the last few leaves of this trans-temporal romance and allowed its closure to settle in, I began to realise that my emotional reception of the ending was very much modulated by my vested interest in metaphysics, in particular personal identity. And no, there really is nothing at all ostensibly intellectual about this realisation — it isn’t an instance of critical reading or interpretation. It is simply a matter of making sense of the ending beyond a generic dismissal of the drama as a blissful, fortuitous romance driven by a benevolent fate; I say this because the denouement (resolution) is anything but idyllic — romantic perhaps, but certainly not celebratory. In fact, it left a bittersweet aftertaste on my palette palate that was more bitter than sweet — I thought it was almost tragic.
In a nutshell, the drama is centred on the temporal translocation of the Crown Prince and his three-man entourage (over a span of three hundred years) from the Joseon era to the present time by some twist of fate. This facilitates his investigation of his beloved Crown Princess’s murder, which occurred shortly before his displacement into the future (and is presumably the impetus of the uncanny event). Fate — capitalized — appears to be a very real force directing the narrative trajectory. Anyway, the longer the Crown Prince lingers in the modern present, the more he realises that there is in fact a one-to-one correspondence between the past and the present. He discovers that there is in fact someone (Tae Yong) who looks exactly like him, but who supposedly went missing. In short, every key individual in the present has a corresponding doppelganger/double in the past; but more than that, the scandalous events surrounding the murder of the Crown Princess in the past seem to repeat themselves (albeit in a different guise) in the tumultuous corporate landscape of the present.
Soon enough, the Crown Prince realises that he has been propelled three hundred years into the future to solve the mystery of her death precisely because of this narrative symmetry between past and present owing supposedly to reincarnation. As he begins to unravel the threads of fate, he falls in love with a woman (Park Ha) who is ostensibly the modern analogue of the Crown Princess’s sister (Boo Yong), and soon finds out that the Crown Princess was hardly the person he knew, but had been in truth a scheming collaborator involved in his attempted assassination, just as she is a compulsive liar in the present. Park Ha’s past doppelganger Boo Yong would have been installed as Crown Princess if her sister had not scarred her face with a hot iron and taken the former’s place when they were young. In fact it is revealed that it was she who had been murdered, and not the Crown Princess (who in actuality went into hiding after her sister took the rap for her). All this points to the fact that both the Crown Prince and Boo Yong were destined to be lovers (to phrase it rather simplistically). To cut to the chase, Fate returns the Crown Prince irrevocably to Joseon after he solves the mystery, leaving his lover Park Ha behind in the present. However, the Crown Prince’s present double reappears (after awaking from a coma) and makes contact with her, thereby bringing the narrative full circle by reuniting the lovers who were tragically forced asunder by circumstance three hundred years ago.
The final meeting of the reincarnations — of both the Crown Prince and Boo Yong — marks the close of the dramatic narrative. But it is at that juncture that many philosophical issues begin to break the surface of the reader’s literary consciousness, disturbing the placid waters that have settled in the narrative’s aftermath. Even long after the curtains have fallen, we are perhaps made to wonder if the ending is in any way a proverbially happy one: is the reunion and the ensuing romance an authentic one? Is the man who arrives to meet Park Ha at the end of the narrative (Tae Yong) the same man whom Park Ha had fallen in love with (i.e. the Crown Prince) over the course of the story? What constitutes personal identity, or the same person? Identical memories and experiences? Identical physical constitution? Identical souls? I am obviously tempted to discount the identical soul theory as a possibility since I’m very much a self-professed materialist who believes that physical configuration determines consciousness — that is to say, consciousness and thus personal identity is an emergent property of our biological arrangement. Our bodies grow, die, and decay. The end of life is the terminus of consciousness/identity.
If one subscribes to materialism, then the concept of the soul (eternal or transient) is irrelevant and superfluous as a marker of personal identity. Therefore philosophically speaking, I am more inclined to say that the continuity of memories and experiences (biologically limited consciousness) defines the individual, rather than this fuzzy, intangible entity known as the soul (regardless of whether it is eternal or not). Although I believe we do have souls in some sense, but like heart, I am of the opinion that it is a linguistic metaphor, in this case one for the intimate consciousness of our present existence.
But I am not writing now to elucidate the metaphysical logic behind whether or not Tae Yong (the reincarnation) is the Crown Prince. Much more immediate and intuitive than the intellectual food-for-thought was the emotional response that the ending invoked in myself, which bordered on a kind of resignation at some irredeemable loss even though a serendipitous reunion had taken place across the chasms of time and space. This stemmed primarily from my instinctive belief that Tae Yong and the Crown Prince are not the same person. I was thus made to imagine how Park Ha must feel when she encounters someone who looks exactly like the person she fell deeply in love with (and married briefly), but who is at once a different person — Tae Yong does not have the memories and experiences essential to the romance that blossomed between his past double (the Crown Prince) and Park Ha. To be honest, this is my one major qualm with what would have qualified as a poignantly affirmative love story that is so not because it transcends space and time, but because Fate here is a constructive force in all its determinism. The tight symmetry and circular closure of the narrative, in its literary perfection — like the union of two complementary puzzle pieces made to fit — I think obscures with its romantic idealism, and even renders irrelevant some of the intimate phenomenological consequences of such a resolution.
Suppose Tae Yong and the Crown Prince share the same soul. Yet what is an identical soul without a persisting memory? Memory is an imperative keystone of personal identity — it affirms the Past of an individual, which is the premise of the Present; for how can there be Present without Past? Who we are is defined hardly by who we are now, but much more so by who we have been (and to some extent, who we can be). If we grant that reincarnation is possible — that there is the transmigration of souls from body to body after biological death, then all that follows is the existence of a perduring soul; we are not allowed to conclude that the memories associated with each life is an aggregate of previous iterations of memory. After all, according to doctrines of reincarnation, subsequent incarnations do not remember their past lives. As such, there would be an ostensible disjunction in memory between each life even though the soul is carried over. Therefore, to love an incarnation of someone (who is in every way outwardly identical to his/her previous iteration) would not be a simple matter of continuation but transference. We would not be loving the same person (who has passed on), but in fact relocating the love object and transferring desire onto the (re)incarnation. Even if we manage to accomplish this shift, I’d imagine that there would always be a lingering sentiment of interpersonal disjunction at the level of shared experience and memory, which may culminate in an uncanny resistance to the person; she is at once herself and not herself — herself in body (and even soul), but another in consciousness. The person we have loved all this time would be dead and absent to us, and what remains for us to grapple with is a fiction in the guise of a painful physical echo — an active simulacrum that torments by reminding us not so much of what we have lost, but what we are left with: a vacuous shell of the original that can never return our love in the same way.
To end off, another sentiment that struck me profoundly was the feeling of irrevocable loss when the Crown Prince disappeared against the fading light of sunset right before Park Ha’s eyes, after they exchanged wedding vows. How it must feel watching someone you love slowly ceasing to exist — or worse still, returning three hundred years back into the past. To return to the past would effectively be to die, or to be dead in the present, and dead for almost three centuries — to be dead before having met the other and loved. Once that person disappears — at the very moment when no tangible trace of him remains — he would have lived out his entire life and died, all in the atomic fraction of a heartbeat. And for the time traveller there is no gradual languishing from life to death — there is only life or death, and the passing from one state to the other is so acute and sudden, that the magnitude of loss becomes so excruciatingly apparent to the observer. For someone to have vanished, it is most painful for the one that remains because any empirical testament to a shared history would have accordingly ceased to be accessible, and one would be compelled to wonder if anything ever happened, or if the memory of that time spent together were at all real. Even a lifeless cadaver would qualify as immaculate evidence of having known and loved someone. After all, tombstones are memories and histories made corporeal; they are the desperate scratchings on lacquered marble proclaiming that this sorry pile of ash beneath them had once reveled in the privilege of sentient existence.
One day, they too will be forgotten when those who spend their lives remembering them become memories themselves.