This is the second post from our new guest blogger, Llamaesque, who has a great K-Drama blog over at Outside Seoul with the tagline of “Korean Drama from the Outside In.” Though relatively new to the world of K-Drama, her motto is a simple one: “I want to watch Korean dramas now, and I want to watch them all—the old, the new, the classic, the trash.” We’ll be featuring some of her great content here on Soompi once a week or so, though I trust you’ll be running over to her blog on your own soon enough. -soomp
Amnesia, antiheroes, voiceover bargains with god, and romantic leads staring at each other from opposite sides of busy roads.
Why is it that so many Korean dramas include the same elements and themes?
Having just watched two series written by Lee Kyung Hee—the wrenching, one-two punch of Nice Guy and I’m Sorry, I Love You—I’ve been thinking a lot about one answer to this question: authorial voice. Like most big, brand-name screenwriters, Lee’s work tends to include a number of common threads, most notably everything mentioned in the first paragraph of this post.
The points of similarity in a writer’s work can be little, like the Hong sisters’ affinity for love talismans like You’re Beautiful’s Piggy Bunny and Greatest Love’s beleaguered potato seedling. They can also be big, like the two body swap comedies written by Choi Soon Sik: 2006’s Please Come Back, Soon-Ae and this year’s Oohlala Couple.
And then there’s Moon Hee Jung, who in the past two years has written both Can You Hear My Heart? and I Miss You. I disliked the former about as much as any K-Drama I’ve ever seen, prompting me to give up watching it well before its final episode. On the other hand, I’m loving I Miss You (as of episode 6, anyway). The weird thing? The shows are chock full of similarities.
Both begin with a pair of children being taken from their homes by an older woman who eventually raises them as something close to siblings. In Can You Hear My Heart young Ma Ru and Dong Joo are abducted by Dong Joo’s mother and whisked off to spend their growing up years in South America. In I Miss You, the pairing is Soo Yeon and Hyung Joon, who end up living with nurse Jang. We don’t have many details yet about what their life was like away from home, but I’m hopeful that this will be fleshed out as the series moves on. It’s nice that the nurse saved both the kids, but based on what we’ve seen of her she’s not exactly the mothering type.
In both shows, the young captives grow up as inseparable companions who love each other intensely. The bromance in Can You Hear My Heart? is as tender and visceral as any K-Drama romantic relationship, and the show is peppered with intimate scenes of the two boys—often in bed. (Platonically, I’m sorry to report.) I Miss You has switched things up a bit: as boy and girl, its birds-of-a-feather captives have a similarly touching relationship, but their sizzling chemistry might actually be consummated at some point. (Please, please, please.) They, too, hang out in bed together.
Both dramas also showcase a nuanced mother figure who somehow manages to be simultaneously pathetic, tragic, evil, and loving. In Can You Hear My Heart, it’s the woman who raised Ma Ru and Dong Joo. She carefully manipulates the boys with her maternal charms, and her relationship with them is a key point in the drama. I Miss You may actually prove to have a pair of less-than-perfect but loving mothers—nurse Jang and Soo Yeon’s mom. Once ready to abandon her daughter or die with her, Soo Yeon’s mother has since proven to be an important guardian to both Jung Woo and detective Kim’s daughter.
Other character types are repeated in each of these dramas—the creepy dad, the beside-the-point friend, the joker of a male lead who manages to find a bright smile in the darkest of times. But if Can You Hear My Heart is a reliable predictor of I Miss You’s trajectory, the most interesting of them all will be a conflicted antihero who flirts with the dark side but eventually finds redemption. In CYHMY, this was Bong Ma Ru, who did a litany of selfish, unsavory things to build a better life for himself. As of episode six no character in I Miss You quite matches this description, but I suspect it’s what lies ahead for Hyung Joon, played by the simmering Yoo Seung Ho. Here’s his character introduction, as translated on JYJ3.net.
Expressionless. His gaze is cold, his mind is composed too.
However, only one girl is an exception. Only to that girl is he caring.
He doesn’t express it with words. Whatever the girl wants, he knows and will satisfy her.
Thus, the others regard him as cold, but she merely calls him indifferent.
There is no way for failure, everything is correct.
Therefore, all his big clients have absolute trust in him.
To the extent that all the large players in the stock market want him as a son.
However, he uses his most pained wound as a weapon, and is a man who lives while embracing scary cruelty.
At this point, we’re only beginning to see hints of Hyung Joon’s true nature, and I can barely wait for this week’s episodes to find out more.
While my reaction to I Miss You couldn’t be more different from my reaction to Can You Hear My Heart, the two shows share a common backbone. Even working with so many of the same raw materials, though, they present their stories in different ways: one is kindhearted and sweet, and the other is gritty and naturalistic.
It’s possible to look at the common themes running through most Korean dramas from a cynical perspective, seeing them as evidence that the writers are content to repeat past triumphs rather than innovating. But there’s another way to understand this repetition, especially when it’s the product of a single screenwriter like Can You Hear My Heart? and I Miss You: A full, faceted exploration of a single concept just takes more more time than one drama allows.
For more Kdrama reviews and commentary, visit Outside Seoul.