[I'm very pleased to welcome - or, rather, welcome back - a special guest reviewer for this one. Our very own X makes an all too brief return - he's doing well but time is still scarce for him - with this look at recent Korean drama Alone in Love]
연애시대 (Alone in Love)
SBS 2006 - 16 Episodes
Written by Park Yeon-Seon - Produced by Han Ji-Seung
Starring: Son Ye-Jin, Gam Woo-Sung, Gong Hyeong-Jin, Lee Ha-Na, Seo Tae-Hwa, Moon Jung-Hee, Oh Yoon-Ah, Kim Gab-Soo, Gi Ju-Bong, Jin Ji-Hee
Ice coffee and donuts, reading the newspaper; looking outside the bus' window on the way to work, noticing the same old bicycles, thinking about the past. Going to the same little pub every day, drinking more or less the same, seeing the same faces; sitting at the same exact seat every day, feeling awkward in another. Life is all about habits, sometimes even when it comes to relationships. Dramas ooze with 가족주의 (familyism) from all angles, they tell us blood is thicker than water, remind us of how important the family unit is. But then you turn off the TV and you start bitching with your sister for the silliest of things (you stole my MP3 player! Waahh!), and every time your mother enters your room she angrily points out it looks more like Seoul City Hall after a soccer game with the National Team than something an human being can live in... only she's the one who cleans every day, sans the 'Hi Seoul' t-shirt.
Think love is that much different? When people write Dramas with their feet and the result is something like 어느 멋진 날 (One Fine Day) or the million clones of 겨울연가 (Winter Sonata), then we apparently get to realize one thing: that love is forever, and somewhere out there a soulmate is waiting for us. Even if your loved one gets deported to Austria, changes his name, goes through plastic surgery and starts calling himself 'Ah~nold'. Fear not my dear, It's the same guy who smiled at you 10 years earlier at the bus stop in that little town in the countryside. It's your soulmate! And once you actually find in which one of the over 200 countries of the world he moved to, then you can finally fulfill that destiny. And then it's really love, foh evah.
But then, thankfully, whatever force (scientific or not) created this world didn't have to do it with a script by Yoon Seok-Ho, so things tend to be a little different in reality. So both love and family become two strange concepts, especially when you live alone, like the characters in 연애시대 (Alone in Love). Prisoner of those habits are also their relationships, the key to that cage being reaching a certain maturation. Because more than an excellent trendy drama, Alone in Love is the next step in Coming of Age Dramas.
When you think of that genre, films like 태풍태양 (The Aggressives) and 고양이를 부탁해 (Take Care of My Cat) or Dramas like 네 멋대로 해라 (Ruler of Your Own World) come to mind, but those works deal with the kind of slice of life of the characters' twenties, that period full of contradictions and bittersweet memories. But like you can never learn enough, maturation never stops. The characters in this Drama go through that period when the roads start converging into two or three directions. Of course it's a little better than having to deal with ten or a dozen and not knowing where those will lead. But then again, even if you know where those two-three roads will lead you to, it doesn't mean choosing your way, the right way will be easy.
People who already reached a certain independence: their work pays pretty well, they live in a nice and clean neighbourhood, the epitome of that 웰빙 (well being) which makes it to CFs more often than Lee Hyo-Ri. But then when all those things are taken care of, another set of problems emerges, as if that damn glass never gets past half no matter how much water you pour in. Dong-Jin (Gam Woo-Sung) and Eun-Ho (Son Ye-Jin) have been divorced for a couple of years, but they still meet like old friends. They share their Donuts at the cafeteria, see each other at the pub, go out and drink like nothing serious between them ever happened. More like former lovers they're like old neighbours, or friends of each other's siblings. You know those relationships you carry to your grave? Those that no matter what happens always stick there?
That's how they live. But then the two keep trying to set up each other with new dates, not so much to finally get some kind of burden off their shoulders, but because they want to see the other live happily. Eun-Ho is introduced to Hyun-Joong (Lee Jin-Wook), who might be a 2nd Generation Chaebol, but then again he clearly doesn't seem to care about such label and talks to his father like a worker would with his employer. Dong-Jin is introduced to one of Eun-Ho's old friends, the attractive Mi-Yeon (Oh Yoon-Ah). She might be really bright on the outside, but because of her daughter's psychological problems and the pain of her divorce she still can't find happiness.
But it doesn't just stop there. Part of the game are also Dong-Jin and Eun-Ho's friends, like Gong Jun-Pyo (a wonderful Gong Hyung-Jin), a gynecologist who faints every time one of his patients tries to give birth; Ji-Ho (first timer Lee Ha-Na), Eun-Ho's alien-like younger sister who makes Lee Na-Young's characters look like the perfect girl next door. There's a female wrestler, a barman who never talks, and then far in the distance those strange creatures called parents. The world of Alone in Love feels like characters from a Japanese novel directed by someone like Jung Jae-Eun of Take Care of My Cat. It has enough pleasant familiarity and basks in the beauty of everyday habits, but then characters are still unique, although in a certain sense also removed from the Korean reality, which betrays the fact this Drama was adapted from a Nozawa Hisashi novel. But writer Park Yeon-Seon never lets that interfere with the show's dynamics, with all those wonderful characters coming to life, from the leads to small roles like Jin Ji-Hee's Eun-Sol, a young kid far too mature for her own good, who teaches Dong-Jin more than a precious lesson in his road to become a better person.
Just about everyone watching Korean Dramas knows that their most unique aspect and one of the biggest limitations is the 'live shoot' syndrome. Now this practice is clearly not exclusive to Korea, and actually in the West more and more production companies are moving to this format (whereas Korean producers are doing the opposite). The obvious benefit of shooting 2 episodes per week ahead of the following week's broadcasts are that you can better communicate with the viewer, in an almost interactive way (in the worst case scenario). Feedback is so immediate that you learn instantly what works and what doesn't, so good writers and producers take precious lessons from that and fix small details -- bad ones even change endings or make u-turns in character development, on the other hand. But then again be it the potential risk for actors and the production itself -- as 늑대 (Wolf) made painfully obvious -- or that feeling that continuity is only an afterthought and a rarity only the best writers can achieve rarely make Trendy Dramas worth your time. So things like 다모 (Damo) and even 연애시대 (Alone in Love), closer to 사전제작 (full pre-broadcast shoot) than the regular format, helped the industry sense what's wrong with the old system.
For instance, there's no sense of urgency whatsoever here. If this was your average Trendy Drama, then the fact a divorced couple was still seeing each other would bring out parents, lovers, friends, secrets of birth, love triangles, yada yada yada. You know how the blues goes, right? But no, Alone in Love doesn't care about those quick fix solutions to grab the viewer's attention. It instead focuses on an incredibly affecting sense of 일상성 (everyday life). Characters don't just feel like pawns moved around to make a ridiculous puzzle of a script feel realistic, but are portrayed as real people with real feelings. Take Seo Tae-Hwa's character Yoon-Soo, and imagine what your average trendy drama writer would have done to him.
But you just need a quick look at the characters' background to feel how different this Drama really is: there isn't a single hint of class divide (and there'd be plenty of possible sparks to ignite here), no fatalism, no last minute turnarounds with 360 degree camera pans and some horrible ballad playing in the background. To those expecting the emotional rollercoaster (which is a nice way to say ridiculous script) of Yoon Seok-Ho or Lee Jang-Soo's Dramas, then Alone in Love will feel a little boring, as the quite average ratings showed. But the kind of atmosphere this kind of show is able to build throughout its 16 Episodes is something you rarely see on Korean TV.
Writer Park Yeon-Seon, who previously worked with PD Han Ji-Seung on 그녀를 믿지 마세요 (Too Beautiful To Lie) and was also responsible for the smart and entertaining 동갑네기 과외하기 (My Tutor Friend), beautifully conveys the uniqueness of Nozawa's original, bringing to the table a more Korean touch. Even details like Dong-Jin riding a bus home despite his social status is something other Dramas would have never dared to attempt, and very Japanese touches like the silent barman are well represented. The force of this script is combining some of the elements from the country's top writers, and finding an unique milieu which perfectly balances all of them: In Jung-Ok's unique dialogue and characters, Noh Hee-Kyung's magical 사람냄새 (smell of people), Jung Sung-Joo and Kim Jung-Soo's quirky humanism and that sweet aftertaste the Hong Sisters of 태릉선수촌 (Taereung National Village) always give to their Dramas. It's like a melting pot of all the best Korean TV has to offer, mixed by an able director like Han Ji-Seung, making his debut on TV after films like 하루 (A Day) and years as a producer.
But more than anything this Drama belongs to the actors: Gam Woo-Sung needs no more compliments, he's wonderful here just like in all his other previous performances, and thanks to the success of 왕의 남자 (The King and The Clown) he finally got rid of the label that painted him as an eternal underachiever and one of the country's most underrated actors. Son Ye-Jin is another story. She was clearly starting to understand acting is not all about silly melodramas, choosing projects like Hur Jin-Ho's 외출 (April Snow), but until now Son was more known for her beauty than for her acting skills. Well, it seems the problem was finding the right stimulus, the show which would finally challenge her enough to let all that energy inside come out.
When Eun-Ho breaks down towards the end of the show, I felt the same fire Kwon Sang-Woo finally showed in 야수 (Running Wild), that of actors with potential who forget for a moment about the CF contracts and let go. She's wonderful here, and hopefully she'll continue choosing good projects like this in the future. But you couldn't possibly leave out first timer Lee Ha-Na, who does a splendid job portraying one of the cutest, strangest yet most familiar characters of 2006. And Oh Yoon-Ah, who adds another wonderful performance (that's three on a row) to the list which arguably crowns her as this year's best new actress. Did I forget anyone? Yes. Many. Gong Hyeong-Jin's superb comic timing, Moon Jung-Hee's disarming smile, Kim Gab-Soo's memorable one liners and incredibly emotional closer... it's a long list. And the best thing is that all the soldiers are on one side of the field, there's not a single bad performance here.
Some feel the ending is a cop out, I tend to disagree. Why? Because it's not simply about happy or sad endings... it's the fact it's not over until it's over. Things like marriage, family, all those attachments and commitments at the end of the day are only words written on a paper. What counts is the choices you make, the people you decide to meet, live with, love and then even maybe part with. They might be alone for some, but that 'love', the one you can't explain with a 2 page script made to sell your Drama to Japanese housewives, is what counts. For me the sign of a great Drama, like 신돈 (Shin Don) or Goodbye Solo, is when the characters still populate your mind after the show is over. I still remember Princess Noguk and Shin Don, Lee Jae-Ryong and Kim Min-Hee's lovely couple, and a strange thing happened the other day... looking out of the window from a bus I started reminiscing about Eun-Ho, Dong-Jin and all those characters. Turns out I loved all of them like friends I always knew, and this Drama with them. This little Drama is 16 Episodes of pure magic. And oh... I don't think I'll be Alone in Love with it.
Question: Why didn't I review the extras?
1) I'm lazy, didn't you know already?
2) I wouldn't have the time anyway.
3) I don't need to! Why? Because not only do you get (pretty good, but not extraordinary) English Subtitles on the 16 Episodes, but every single extra feature is subtitled, in some ways better than the Drama itself. What do you get? A super-long and hilarious Making of documentary narrated by Lee Ha-Na, over 60 Minutes of great interviews with the cast, plus others with the PD, the writer (explaining the differences between the Drama and the novel) and music director No Young-Shim. It truly is a must buy if you're a fan of the show, and considering how good it is, even if you've never seen a TV Drama.