She loves him, he loves her. Something is in the air, something making them forget about everything else, about work (they don't need money to live), family (they just need each other) and friends; something that bonds them in ways stronger than any other force governing the world, defying physics (get hit by the killer minivan, but you're back 3 episodes later), laws and blood relations (you're my sister? No problem, I love you anyway). Like the title of a recent Daily Drama suggests, on Korean TV '사랑은 아무도 못말려 (nobody can stop love)', even reality, as most Trendy Dramas are simply content with wrapping ridiculously trite plots around the idea that love is forever, and when people get rid of obstacles life puts on their way, they can live their relationship with purity and innocence.
Just like a Yoon Seok-Ho Drama, or SBS' latest ridiculous attempt at shaking things a little with 백만장자와 결혼하기 (To Marry a Millionaire), starting as the Korean Joe Millionaire, and ending as the Bizarro World version of a shinpa from the 70s. Love can be a really simple ordeal on Korean TV: get an attractive couple, throw in an antagonist in the middle to sustain the usual 삼각관계 (love triangle) and you're done. Here's your Drama. Real life problems, conflicts, all the things which happen in a real relationship and can influence it? Nahhh... no need for that, because 'nobody can stop love.' Yet there's salvation somewhere out there, if you dig deep enough, salvation which comes from names like Kim Soo-Hyun, In Jung-Ok, and of course Noh Hee-Kyung, whose 굿바이 솔로 (Goodbye Solo) is delighting those viewers 'brave' enough to experience a taste of realism, throwing Cinderellas and Bad Girls in the trash bin.
The 'Queen of Home Dramas' Kim Soo-Hyun and her 가족주의 (family-ism), with veteran Kim Hee-Ae as her muse; In Jung-Ok and her urban melodramas, perhaps the best writer in the entire country (Film or Drama) when it comes to capturing the struggles of young Koreans in the metropolis; the bleak 'Drama Verite' of Noh Hee-Kyung, so realistic they hit dangerously close to home, unless your home lies somewhere in Andromeda. Of course there's other names, like Weekend Drama Wizard Kim Jung-Soo of 한강수 타령 (Ode to the Han River), Lee Kyung-Hee of 미안하다 사랑한다 (I'm Sorry, I Love You) (yeah, let's forget that there's anything 'To Kill' in her career, OK? Shht...) and others. But when it comes to delivering quality on a consistent basis, those three are the big names. Now we know In Jung-Ok is preparing her upcoming Drama, which will probably star Go Hyun-Jung, and of course Kim Soo-Hyun is busy with the remake 사랑과 야망 (Love and Ambition) -- which is a big disappointment, but writing is not to blame. But expectations for Noh Hee-Kyung's next work after the wonderful 꽃보다 아름다워 (More Beautiful Than Flowers) were high. Yes, I did promise I wouldn't talk about the show until it was over, as Noh's Dramas always take a while to make a strong impression on the viewer, no matter how navigated and experienced he or she might be. But just like rewatching 부활 (Rebirth) through that magnificent Director's Cut DVD is bringing back enough thoughts to write a book (and you'll get a Film-sized review of the DVD in a couple of weeks), watching Goodbye Solo has such a strong effect on yours truly I had to write something about it. Now.
She's just 39, but it feels like she lived long enough to last for 5-6 people, as her characters show. While the country is 'enjoying' the latest entries in the puppy love saga -- Yoon Seok-Ho's delirious mess 봄의 왈츠 (Spring Waltz) -- the 'Bok-Shil Goes To Seoul' shenanigans of 넌 어느 별에서 왔니 (Which Star Are You From), and the usual extra-marital escapades shown every Friday night on SBS, there's a little show on KBS2 which might be largely ignored by the mainstream audience, with ratings around the 10 to 12%, but the 'brilliant' marketing we sometimes see in Korea worked its magic once again. Last year Min Gyu-Dong's glorious 내 생애 가장 아름다운 일주일 (All For Love) was compared to Love Actually, ending up as a Magnolia without frogs; this year, we were supposed to get a similar serving on TV with Goodbye Solo, yet it turns out there's very little similarity, with the possible exception of the basic formula (focus on many couples at once instead of the usual one or two). But the biggest surprise is that Noh Hee-Kyung might have just started to consider optimism as something possibly entering her world, which would be a huge change of pace from her past works, if the first half of Goodbye Solo is any indication.
A gangster trying to live life as he's supposed to for once (Lee Jae-Ryong), a young girl who's the only one thinking she's 'boring' (Yoon So-Yi), a seemingly superficial 'cool guy' who hides behind a facade (Cheon Jung-Myung), a woman who survives day by day, slowly eroded by the pain of her past (Bae Jong-Ok), just a few of Noh's seemingly cliched characters. But then again, take a look at the show, just a quarter hour, and you feel as if you lived with them a lifetime. That's the major talent of Miss Noh, that of injecting terabytes of 사람냄새 (smell of real people) in what might look like caricatures, which then gradually turn into people right under our eyes. Because if you decide to live it that way, life can turn into a cliche pretty fast, no matter how 'creative' you think you can be, but Noh finds beauty even in the simplest, most ordinary things. Yet, Goodbye Solo feels different. She already used the 'Love Actually' structure in past Dramas, although it was all tied together by family, but its use here creates a different rhythm compared to past works. It's difficult to explain, especially if you don't have enough patience to see all the doors to this strange world slowly open, which is probably the biggest reason why the show is doing really bad in the ratings, just like most of Noh's other shows. Goodbye Solo is not about love triangles, bad girls and good girls, 2nd generation Chaebols trying to marry off poor girls from the countryside. It's about finding that something that makes life worth living. Confidence? Sure. Happiness? Definitely. Love? Actually... I don't know.
In a world where writers have a couple of days to complete a script for an episode, which is given to the cast in the morning for an afternoon or evening shoot, the amount of stress people like Noh go through while shooting a Drama is difficult to imagine. Yet, with every new show, she's not only been able to escape the pitfalls of the 'on-the-fly' modus operandi (she announced the main script is already completed, all it needs is some basic touching up, which leaves more room for the actors to understand what they're trying to play), but she constantly gets the best out of all the actors cast in her shows, which is why people like Bae Jong-Ok and Lee Jae-Ryong keep coming back. Ask Kim Heung-Soo, who before More Beautiful Than Flowers was simply considered a familiar face on TV, much less an actor; ask Han Go-Eun, who before the 2004 KBS Drama was never considered more than a pretty face, but actually created 'disappointment' with following performances as they didn't measure up to the standards she showed working with Noh. Ask, last in line, Kim Min-Hee, who was criticized left and right (by myself as well, mea culpa) before the show for being nothing more than a pretty face with important connections (her favourite 'oppa' is a certain Lee Jung-Jae) infesting the screens. With the first ever real 'performance' of her career, thanks to Noh's magic even Kim Min-Hee looks like a pulsating, breathing, living human being, not a former model trying to remember what's her next line.
As it stands right now, Goodbye Solo is contending with MBC's Historical Drama 신돈 (Shin Don) for Best TV Drama of 2006 in my book. And it might just have become my favourite Noh Hee-Kyung work. With only a couple of weeks left before its conclusion, and another few weeks before my review of the show, here's a little interview with writer Noh appearing recently on Cine21.
The dialogue expressing love in the show seems particularly meaningful.
Noh Hee-Kyung: I don't really like using words which usually qualify as 'expressions of love'. Ever since I was little, no matter what happened my father continued to cheat on my mother, so I'd keep asking her 'why do you keep living with that man?' I remember she once said 'because I love him', just that. I just think the clearer, the more explicit you get about expressing the reasons why you love someone, the better. When you're in love your point of view is the present, and that only, so I don't know why Dramas keep following this 'love is forever' mantra. So that's why I write dialogue like 'I don't know if that's love, but it's something that changes people', or 'Wouldn't you get tired only loving that man forever?'.
You're showing many different things in this Drama.
Noh: I tried a lot of new things with this show. I lowered the age of the characters, and focused a lot more on relationships between young characters at the beginning; I threw in some mystery ingredients as well, and since I was dealing with seven main characters, I increased the tempo and summarized their development a lot more than usual. In short, I tried to combine elements which would appeal to both old and new, as the story covers all ages.
Every character lives away from home, alone.
Noh: Right from the outline writing process, there were no characters with stable relationships or marriage ties. Instead of simply focusing on the family relationship between the characters, I tried to go beyond that, when acquaintances become something closer to family. Instead of showing the usually 'vertical' relationship between parents and sons, with a 'bottom to top' setup, I tried a more 'horizontal' approach, where mother and daughter see each other on the same level. That opens new opportunities to explore in terms of how people deal with relationships.
Isn't that too difficult a concept to portray on TV?
Noh: I've heard many things from people who think reality is not too appealing, who think I fabricate intrigue and create a sort of 'wicked realism' destroying all the characters inside it. I don't know if there's a wicked side to people, but doesn't someone who believes in beauty live a sort of fantasy within the real world? That's what I am, a writer of 'fantasy realism'. My writing is simply a mechanism to understand other people, I'd just like people to look at my Dramas and think I've portrayed realistic characters.
There's many viewers saying Noh Hee-Kyung is changing.
Noh: After the end of 고독 (Solitude), I went to a monk I knew and said to him crying 'I tried my best to make a good drama, but viewers betrayed me.' After that, for 3 years I kept reading the 금강경 (Diamond Sutra, one the most famous Buddhist sutras and an ode to 'non-abiding'), reflecting on the reasons why I kept writing Dramas, about what I was trying to say writing those shows. If you use the 'ratings are going down, but the show's quality is up' mantra, then you might think I'm trying to distance myself from the mainstream, that I'm trying to do 'literary' works, but that's not my goal. It's a duty of a commercial writer to produce shows that can appeal to the station and viewers since they're the ones who put food on your table, I'm not trying to alienate viewers on purpose.
I've heard your next project will finally reunite you with PD Pyo Min-Soo after a long time.
Noh: That'll be a good chance to see how much we've developed compared to our past works. The main subject hasn't been decided yet, but the thought that there's nothing more pressing in today's society than trying to live a respectable life keeps haunting me, so that's your answer, probably.
굿바이 솔로 (Goodbye Solo)
Wed/Thu Drama - KBS2 [Cast: Cheon Jung-Myung, Yoon So-Yi, Bae Jong-Ok, Lee Jae-Ryong, Kim Min-Hee]
PD: Gi Min-Soo
WRITER: Noh Hee-Kyung