Every once in a blue moon something comes along that has you so entranced, so engaged, so… moved… that it leaves you at a loss to comprehend just what is happening to you. As you try to make sense of it, it sparkles and shines with every gesture. Words issuing from it are musical pearls of poetic truth that imbue the very air with a richness never before imaginable to your dopamine-saturated mind.
Thus it is with the mysterious 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You), a show that began with (and still features) a high concentration of outlandishly garish elements that should have made it difficult to accept. Among them: Lee Geon’s absurdly big laugh, Mi Yeong’s seemingly mousy meekness, the comic-strip palette of primary and pastel colors in its repertoire of romantic comedy clichés that parade through the series one after another after another… With a profile like that, any viewer would be forgiven for anticipating a stinker in the making and duly dismissing it. Yet 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) has stolen the hearts of droves of viewers precisely because it has succeeded in presenting and articulating all its volatile theatricality with a witty poetic fluency. So it really was not very long before viewer comments on Viki.com that appeared in the first episode like “Ugh! that crazy laugh! Why does he have to do that?” had evolved into “Oh, I LOVE that laugh! Geonnie, I MISSED you!”
Viewers are enraptured. Each new exclamation about Lee Geon’s hotness is punctuated with sighs effervescing about how fanTAStic an actor Jang Hyeok is – everbody seems to agree that nobody else could have created such a convincingly “hilarious, ridiculous and heart-fluttering”1 character. The fun starts the moment CEO Lee Geon snaps his fingers and languidly strolls onto the set of a CF shoot to personally demonstrate how the sensual appeal of his company’s shampoo should be conveyed on film. Things kick into high gear in the now (in)famous dog-ring incident where the futility of Geon’s swinging blazer offensive against Cherry the Rottweiler is ironically underscored by the title theme music from Jang Hyeok’s action blockbuster, Chuno! Comic absurdities notwithstanding, Geon has a heart of gold. Unlike every other chaebol prince on screen who is often bored and blunt, saturated in arrogant privilege and utterly insensible to the needs of others2, Lee Geon is largely attuned and responsive to the feelings of the people around him, although apparently not to his own. And as we have watched Jang Hyeok’s avatar unknowingly fall head-over-heels in love with his wife, Mi Yeong, so have we also fallen head-over-heels in love with her actor Jang Na Ra.
Indeed, both Jang Na Ra and Jang Hyeok are positively radiant with talent and charisma, and the screen shimmers and thrums every time they have a scene together, whether the context is relaxed or tense. Jang Na Ra’s Kim Mi Yeong embodies a still gentleness that imbues her every moment on screen with astonishing depth and feeling; I have never seen an actor who could make such lightening fast micro-shifts in mood expression, inviting us into the inner life of her character, yet is also equally able to paint with loud, bright strokes when the comedy gets broad. Kim Mi Yeong’s guileless smile and soft laugh are the warm light that dispels every shadow and illuminates hope; her tremulous sorrow, whether silent behind her eyes or overflowing in anguished sobs, is simply heart-wrenching. Woe betide whosoever makes her weep!
Jang Hyeok’s Lee Geon, the ninth generation only son of the storied Jeonju Lee clan is a passionately exuberant man with a deeply evocative voice. When he is not puncturing the air with his boundless guffaw or muttering in panic over some overblown nothing, Geon’s voice descends into a deep, resonant rumble that brooks no dissent from his colleagues and subordinates at work. That resonance takes on magical qualities when he gently, quietly addresses his timid wife and seeks to encourage her – surely you remember that almost whispered, “Kim Mi Yeong-ssi… kaja” from her encounters with the shamelessly exploitative Lawyer Min? When Geon is in pain, however, his voice grows tight and forced and flat and breathless — making it difficult for you, the viewer, to bear without feeling plutonic fractures cleave your chest, or at least without shedding a commiserating tear.
More than a romantic comedy that just throws two arbitrary individuals together and then contrives to make them “fall in love,” Fated to Love You is a story about a man taking a bride, and then falling in love with his wife; about a woman discovering her heart, and then evolving to cherish and protect it; about the two souls learning each other. It is the story of Love discovered and cultivated in the spirited bosom of family, in the desolate heartache of loss, in the easy comfort of friendship, in the enigmatic joy of reciprocity.
As soon as I started writing about this love story, I discovered something that I did not know about myself; I don’t actually know — how to talk about Love… My approach was going to be fairly straight forward: first I was going to define my terms before launching into the heart of the matter. But when I posed the question, “What is Love?” I encountered my first roadblock. So I thought I’d look it up because I hoped that philosophers, maybe even scientists, might help me better formulate the clearest thoughts and find the right words to use. It wasn’t long before I abandoned that avenue of research because reading about what contemporary philosophers have had to say about Love3 feels a bit like wading through treatises on the varieties of flavor and texture in cold lima bean porridge. I had to accept that, like the effects of Fated to Love You on viewers, Love is a mystery.
And yet I think we all know Love when we see it, when we encounter it; in those varieties of states, experiences and feelings that one way or another shape our relationships and bonds with parents and siblings and children, with friends, with soul-mates, with community. I know Love, and yet I don’t know how to talk about it. This shortcoming notwithstanding, a series of memory waves keeps washing over my mind now every time I ask, “What is Love?”, the first of these waves carrying with it the song:
Love is patient, love is kind… It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things… Love never ends. ((I Corinthians 13.1-8))
But that answers a different question: “How is Love?” The second among the memory waves saturating my mind carries with it the song:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. …
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.4
A second answer to “how“! A then another wave with fragments of yet another song:
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved?…
… If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee…
… For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere. ((“The Good-Morrow”, John Donne))
Beautiful strains all, but still, only an answer to the question “how” is Love and “how” does it affect us. The waves and their song fragments keep coming:
… Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove… ((“Sonnet 116”, William Shakespeare))
Ah yes! Unwaveringly constant! Lovely. But… what is it?
Resigned, I turn to these memories — memories seeded in my mind in the amorphous daydreams of adolescence when I spent every hour of solitary liberty reading poetry — eager to hear more clearly what they were whispering to my neglectful spirit. As I follow that path, one after another, poets emerge from the byzantine folds of my mind, each offering up words, phrases, ideas that I had long ago tucked away, words recounting time and again the how of love, never the why, and certainly never the what.
And so it occurred to me that perhaps the answer I seek will not be found among philosophers and scientists, but rather among poets. If anyone could offer some insights about Love, surely it would be the very souls whose life works are dominated by that single topic above all others, even war.
Leave it to scientists to monitor the levels of oxytocin and measure the effects of dopamine on the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. Let philosophers try to quantify the ratio of investment, longing, desire and reciprocity required to distinguish the feelings and experiences of love. The volume and variety of descriptions of what we call Love that poets have bequeathed to humankind over the ages inspires the unexpected idea —which has probably already occurred to many before me— that Love is Poetry.
Love, whether a feeling, an experience, or a state of being, means moving through the world differently… seeing the things in it differently… knowing suddenly that it abounds in more beauty than you knew there could be… Love is the Sun, illuminating and warming the overcast chill of an otherwise indifferent world. In the small galaxy that is Fated to Love You, Kim Mi Yeong is just that sun from whom those in her world draw light and warmth that they feel is theirs by right; light and warmth that she radiates without reservation, without demanding recompense.
Caritas, Agape (ἀγάπη)
The Way of Love
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I do not have love in me, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith so great that I can remove mountains, but do not have love in me, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I give over my body in order to boast, but do not have love in me, I receive no benefit.
Love is patient, love is kind, it is not envious. Love does not brag, it is not arrogant. It is not rude, it is not self-serving, it is not easily angered or resentful. It does not rejoice in injustice, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. ((I Corinthians 13.1-8))
Others may not count this former hunter and persecutor of men a poet, but if ever a person exemplified the transformative power of unconditional Love, it is the Apostle Paul who wrote these lines to his Corinthian brothers in faith. Unconditional Love exists freely and makes no demands of those to whom it is offered; all they need do is accept it. It is not unlikely that even so, those who are so kindly treated may not recognize or acknowledge the gift and so this is Love that must often go unappreciated. Whereas Paul had to undergo a conversion before beginning to move through the world more gently, Fated to Love You offers us a soul whose innate spirit is described in this passage.
The more we observe the tremulously delicate Mi Yeong, it dawns on us, slowly but surely, that her quiet demeanor is not the mark of weakness we might have imagined it to be when we first met her; this little woman who is kind to everyone — in good fortune and in bad —, who puts herself at everyone’s service, is not in fact the people-pleasing push-over that those who take advantage of her generosity believe her to be. Rather, what drives Mi Yeong is the intuition to protect everybody around her in every way she can, sometimes even from themselves, even when she has to bear the burden of public scorn. Curious, isn’t it, how the same behavior that is ridiculed and exploited when she is just “temporary office worker Kim Mi Yeong” is instead praised and admired when she continues it as the “successful artist Ellie Kim”…
Kim Mi Yeong is unconditionally kind and giving because that is the least she can do to make real the kind of world she wants – a world in which kindness and generosity are consistent and unremarkable. That she can remain genuinely gracious and available even to those who have heaped abuse on her reveals a truly formidable strength and constancy. Those who are close to Mi Yeong know this about her, but they also know that the way of the world is not The Way of Love that Paul describes and so they worry about her. Among these is Daniel, another soul who takes it upon himself to become her brother and guardian against the onslaught of a cruel world.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death. ((Sonnets from the Portuguese “43”, Elizabeth Barrett Browning))
This much I did learn from my brush with the philosophers’ ruminations on Love: while Eros (erotic love) is broadly characterized as sexual desire, it is at its root different from Caritas in that it arises as a response to the merits of the object of desire. In other words, an attraction of some kind must exist. These merits can be beauty, youth, health, resourcefulness — whatever is perceived as attractive to the attracted party. The procreative ‘I wanna make babies with you’ aspect of the Eros impulse also signals that it is teleological, or goal oriented, and helps serve an important biological purpose. Whereas in the experience of Caritas one cannot articulate reasons or goals in loving, with Eros, these are much more clear. Now, there are many a poem that are far more libidinous than this ‘Sonnet from the Portuguese.’ So why quote it under Eros?
Well, as it turns out, the most interesting idea my philosopher friends have taught me is that carnal involvement is not indispensable for this kind of love. This means that even without being driven by raw libido, Eros can thrive as long as a purpose, any purpose, is articulated. Eros is an idealistic sort of love which shapes itself in response to the merits of a belovèd whose attributes are set aloft and deemed worthy of adulation. Barrett Browning’s speaker does not enumerate any of her belovèd’s merits, but she does draw attention to the the purity and intensity of the Love she bears, a love that responds to the idealism of Eros, showing itself worthy of the belovèd.
The two best example of this chaste Eros in Fated to Love You are, curiously enough, Geon’s love for Se Ra, a woman he describes as his poetry, his muse; and Daniel’s love for Mi Yeong, a woman for whom he has been a sworn brother, a friend, and a commiserating companion in loss. Both men idealize their respective objects of affection, with Geon being the man who will do whatever Se Ra wants, and Daniel living out his role as brother and protector of his missing sister by shielding and rescuing Mi Yeong from neglect.
In Geon’s mind, Se Ra is the picture of perfection framed in a misty cloud of lace and chiffon. What the viewer sees, however, is a somewhat strident, entitled, careless girl whose principal concern is for her own happiness and wellbeing. It is not until he meets and learns Mi Yeong that Geon discovers what it is like to also be loved by a companion simply and completely without condition.
To Daniel, Mi Yeong is a surrogate for the sister he lost in the innocence of childhood. Besides coincidentally having the same name, Mi Yeong’s petite frame and seemingly fragile demeanor awaken Daniel’s protective instincts and she becomes his cause for justice and absolution. Crude though it may seem to say, Mi Yeong is to Daniel more a child, even a pet, that needs protecting. But he is not altogether blind to her innate virtues and, just as Geon had done with Se Ra, Daniel sublimates his feelings for Mi Yeong into an idealistic dream of prospective matrimonial bliss.
It bears mentioning that 16 episodes (Acts I and II) into its 20-episode run, Fated to Love You has not once shown Geon and Se Ra in an embrace more intimate than that of playful siblings, nor has Daniel ever been sufficiently compelled, or maybe just worked up the courage, to do any more than hold Mi Yeong’s hand and hug her. The story reserves the experience of carnal Eros for Geon and Mi Yeong.
Accidental though their first coupling is, and difficult though the beginning of their married life, the pair’s relationship evolves over time in a wave of easy friendship, joy, nascent and intensified desire, longing, loss and, finally [hopefully], reconciliation.
Beauty and the Beholder
풀 꽃 – 나태주
자세히 보아야 예쁘다
오래 보아야 사랑스럽다
너도 그렇다 5
Grass Flower by Na TaeJu
We have to look closely to see its loveliness
We have to gaze for a long time to discover that it is lovable
You are just like that.
When Mi Yeong enters Lee Manor as the young master’s new bride, Geon’s first, thoughtless act, born of an overblown misunderstanding, is to demand a divorce while informing her that they will go their separate ways once the baby is born. So when, a little bit later, Mi Yeong hears an apparently much-evolved Geon defend her in public against calumny, her own mother’s words issuing from his lips to show the disapproving crowd how well he has come to cherish his wife, she is by turn moved and confused because their plan to separate after the baby’s birth has not yet changed. In one of the drama’s more exquisite instances of intertextual allusion, Geon’s salve for Mi Yeong’s bruised heart echoes the words of Na TaeJu’s poem prominently featured in Jang Na Ra’s celebrated previous drama School 2013, while on stage the haegeum player intones a melody whimsically described as “the sound of a young man’s heart thumping over a crush” in Jang Hyeok’s ratings megahit Chuno. Slowly and deliberately, so that the callous mob might understand, Geon elaborates that while it may be true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it behooves the beholder to pay attention lest he fail to recognize it. What Geon sees before him is a girl in whose heart the brightest star hangs over the widest sea; a girl more beautiful than any Bond girl makeover can manufacture. Whether it is recognizing her Beauty what first kindles his love, or whether is it his Love that first opens his eyes to her beauty, not even Socrates could say.
Can Geon know that the tears Mi Yeong sheds — as he strides across the room to whisk her away from the crude mob and then holds her close in a waltz by the river Han under a night sky adorned with fireworks — that those are not just tears of relief and gratitude, but also tears of fear that she might let herself fall into him even with the knowledge that they are destined to part and that his heart already belongs to somebody else?
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul. ((“A Noiseless Patient Spider”, Walt Whitman))
Can Geon know that even against her will, these gentle gestures he sees as mere kindness are like the gossamer threads of Whitman’s spider, cast from Geon’s unknowing core and finding anchor in Mi Yeong’s unwillingly hopeful heart? Binding them ever closer is the unseen but growing fruit of their first amorous encounter. Gaettong-ie, thus outlandishly nicknamed to ward off malevolent predator spirits and ensure good health and strength, begins to live in his mother’s and father’s entwined hearts long before he is due to be born.
Animated by a reciprocal discovery of spiritual kinship, both Geon and Mi Yeong blindly, giddily find themselves walking the tightrope spanning the chasm between one heart and another, their souls gingerly treading its taut expanse, their spirits buoyed by the rarified air they take in and exhale as they teeter between the desire to stay aloft on that thin, firm line, and the temptation to let themselves fall.
Indeed, it is not long before the other sense of Eros awakens in each of our lovers, each in their own way, as they begin to dream about the possibility of a future together:
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die. ((“The Good-Morrow”, John Donne))
Like a sunflower drawn to the Sun’s journey across the sky, folding in on itself at the onset of dusk and night’s dewey chill, and then openly rejoicing at the return of dawn, eager to gaze upon heaven’s eye again, thus Geon is enthralled by Mi Yeong, instinctively compelled to draw closer, yet rationally completely at sea. Everything about Mi Yeong resounds in his heart and time and again he has to ask her whether she is aware of what is happening to him. But she, too, is only just awakening to their new way of going through the world and neither of them has the eloquence or transparency of poets to help them bridge the chasm they are both so eager to cross.
“A son-in-law is also a son”6
When we hear these words in Chuno, they bear the chilling undercurrent of a threat implied by a man who wants to exploit his son-in-law’s sense of duty and filial obligation. But as it has done with its myriad allusions and clichés, Fated to Love You takes the same saying and turns it into a frame for easily the most wistfully moving relationship in the story: that between Mi Yeong’s mother and Lee Geon. Fiercely protective of her daughters, especially the gentle youngest one, Omma does not tolerate anyone who subjects her children to injury or insult, however unintentional or well meant the circumstances. So, naturally, her affection and esteem for Geon is kindled when he marries Mi Yeong immediately in order to take responsibility for the child he inadvertently conceived with her. Geon’s wholehearted involvement with Mi Yeong’s family once he decides to be a good husband to her —whether it is by exuberantly entertaining Omma and her friends, delivering Mi Ja’s baby safely, or helping open and run the family restaurant— shows filial devotion well worthy of the privilege Mi Yeong’s mother accords him to call her “Omma.”
But three years after the rupture of his marriage, Mi Yeong’s family still remembers the pain she suffered during her brief union with Lee Geon, and that memory makes him decidedly unwelcome among them. Nevertheless, Geon continues to visit Omma regularly, albeit under the guise of being just another customer hankering for her unique Yeoul Island anchovy lettuce wraps. And Omma fascilitates the ruse, making sure to send her customers and the rest of her family away early on the nights that she knows Geonnie is coming for dinner; preparing enough of his favorite dishes from scratch; fretting over where he might be if he is late in appearing at the anticipated hour…
Omma plays along with the Geon’s ruse, noisily chiding him for showing up long after dinner time and keeping her working late; for his puerile demands for food; for his slovenly eating; all the while personally seasoning each spoonful of plain rice with the choicest bites of side dishes to ensure that he eats well and enjoys himself…
At first glance, it may seem as if Geon just goes to see Omma during the three years of Mi Yeong’s absence because of his unabated love and contrition for the wife he so coldly and wrongly sent away. But the longer we gaze upon this affectionately quarrelsome pair, the more clearly we see an example of familial love (Storge) that is truly beautiful to behold. Because even without the biological or formal ties that define family, Mi Yeong’s mother continues to be Lee Geon’s “Omma” and Lee Geon continues to be Omma’s “Adeul.” They may not be able to call each other as much — the divorce ensured that — but the ties that bind them as mother and son are as robust as they ever were (if not even more so) when these two first accepted each other as family.
It is quite amusing to witness Geon and Omma’s reaction when Mi Yeong arrives to find them together like this; ever the protector of hearts, she reproachfully watches them as they dart about sheepishly — like children caught trying to sneak candy. Mi Yeong can be forgiven for, at first, seeing only the potential danger Geon’s continued visits pose to her mother. She believes, as both Geon and Se Ra’s fictions led her to, that he simply threw her away and abandoned Gaettong-ie in order to return to his ‘true love’, and no one has yet to correct this misunderstanding. Because she knows how much the bonds of family mean to her mother, and because she knows Omma once embraced Geon as “Adeul”, Mi Yeong fears that he could, without reason or compunction, cause Omma the kind of heartache he caused her.
Mi Yeong and Geon are both tormented by the pain and guilt of losing their child and are haunted by the memory of a dream of the life that might have been, of the family they might have been. Perhaps it is because the wound is still too raw that they both remain defensive against each other, feinting and parrying whenever they meet, careful not to touch the pain directly, their barricades fortified and seemingly insurmountable.
But as it so happens, Act II of Fated to Love You closes with Mi Yeong catching Geon in the act of breaching the walls of her inner sanctum to see that bright painting encoding a mystery that only Geon knows how to decipher of her dream of love —of him— openly displayed in her private studio; catching him in the act of surreptitiously restoring the visual poetry of all her longing for a bygone happiness by returning the painting of their Gaettong-ie that might have been to the mother who lost him; discovering that he is the friend behind the veil of text messages who, though disguised, wished her well and offered love without condition, a friend who must now step into the light and be seen. When the final Act of Fated to Love You begins in Episode 17, will this mystery revealed, this poetry restored, and this light shined be able to lead Kim Mi Yeong and Lee Geon back to each other?
For before they were torn asunder by fear and misunderstanding, Lee Geon and Kim Mi Yeong had begun to discover in each other that which we so ardently wish for [them]: a true communion of souls through the mystery and poetry and light that, for lack of a better understanding, we like to call…
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved. ((“Sonnet 116”, William Shakespeare))
NB: This is part 2 of a three-part series on the Korean romantic comedy drama 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You). It was written and published immediately after the live broadcast of Episode 16 of the show and draws on its developments only up to episode 16.
The first installment in the series, Pragmatic Altruism vs. Noble Idiocy in 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You), draws upon the story’s development only up to Episode 12.
The third and final installment in the Fated to Love You series, The Perfection of 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) draws upon the drama in its entirety, from Episode 1-20.
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Sonnets from the Portuguese “43”, Elizabeth Barrett Browning ↩
“Grass Flower”, Na TaeJu ↩
Chuno, Episode 6; Fated to Love You (MBC), Episode 6 ↩