School of Comedy
After the finale of that most enchanting of romantic comedies, 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You), I found myself, like many fellow aficionados who had been absorbed in the story of Lee Geon and Kim Mi Yeong, uninterested in watching any other productions despite KDrama’s abundant offerings, including titles on my “to watch” list. I remember something like this happening once before when, after my initial introduction to, and frenzied consumption of KDrama, my appetite for it just seemed to vanish. At the time I thought that maybe I had just overdone it and that the novelty of it had worn off. But I eventually returned to KDrama, my perspective more finely tuned, my interest newly kindled, turning a mere passtime into a source of inspiration for the reflections collected in this blog.
This time, I know enough not to say I am done with KDrama — I have developed too great a taste for it and learned too much to simply abandon it. More importantly, storytelling in KDrama has an ethically conscientious and predominantly sanguine nature that responds to a visceral need in me for that poetically sincere belief in hope and the possibility of redemption for the penitent soul. In my experience, these qualities are all the more discernible in KDrama for being absent in productions from other parts of the world.
This time, I am aware that my disinterest in other dramas has been specifically catalyzed by 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You), a television production that so brilliantly succeeds in plumbing remarkable depths in both emotionally engaging and intellectually stimulating storytelling that it makes everything else I look at now seem shallow by comparison. Where other shows now seem stiffly formulaic or inexpertly glued onto flat, monochromatic surfaces, 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) is explosively daring and hyperreal, yet also achingly nuanced.
I will admit that initially, it was action-man Jang Hyeok’s unusually fetching floppy do and unexpected dandyfied wardrobe that drew my attention to the show when I first saw promotional stills. Whatever could the wounded Dae-Gil or the feral Ddol-bok be doing in such a get up, and in a Chaebol-Candy confection to boot? Surely a quick peek at just the first episode of 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) to see what this Lee Geon was about would be enough to satisfy my curiosity. But in less than three minutes I was ensnared: Lee Geon had me at his “I’m-on-top-of-the-world” finger-snapping, baritone “잠깐만요” [“Hold it, please!”]. His oddly hilarious, cringe worthy, yet utterly insouciant partial strip tease to the desolate, liquid wail of the wild-west guitar line over the grounding thrum of a supporting bass rhythm had me howling with laughter well before the five-minute mark. A credit to his aristocratic upbringing, Lee Geon, who is meticulous about everything, even puts the vain, self-indulgent, mercenary CF actress in her place in impeccably formal language, adding a little bite to the very ‘polite’ sounding “꺼지세요!” [“I pray you, get lost!”]. I know of no other actor who can pull off such heart-fluttering swagger and still leave you in stitches!
Without even venturing into that dangerously speculative territory of “author intention,” it is safe to postulate that the question of audience engagement and reception featured prominently in the conception and realization of the show’s ambitious enterprise. The narrative resonance of the soundtrack in just the first five minutes of the first episode underscores the show’s irrefutably and consistently high production quality, and immediately alerts the viewer to the importance of music in the development and telling of this story. The show’s culturally rich, yet casually intricate world is wrought of endlessly inventive allusions to popular music, television, cinema and radio; it boldly showcases various contemporary artists – from stylists and masters of maquillage to designers, painters, musicians and thespians; its cast of players is impeccable, and the two principals — Jang Hyeok and Jang Na Ra — are simply sublime as Lee Geon and Kim Mi Yeong. What’s more, thanks to their body of work, these two actors also serve as anchor points for many of the show’s intertextual allusions and wealth of meta-narrative humor calibrated to delight the veteran and pique the curiosity of the initiate.
So for the next ten weeks I relished the torture of live watching 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) as each week after another delivered a pair of perfectly engaging and stimulating chapters without fail. It is impossible to adequately articulate just how sweetly agonizing the six-day wait between weekly installments was with this show. Suffice it to say that I found myself in a perpetual cycle of need and fulfillment that was difficult to comprehend. During Act I, after watching the even-numbered Thursday episode, I would be left basking in the warm glow of joyous satisfaction, perfectly contented by the generous portion of mirth with which 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) filled my gleefully overflowing heart. Depending on factors that are as yet mysterious to me, I would remain in this state anywhere from three minutes to three hours, sometimes even up to three days, before I found myself reaching into time’s unyielding emptiness for the next chapter. Fascinated by the story’s development and the players reliable peculiarities, I inevitably grew wildly impatient for more.
It soon became clear that this compulsion was actually not fueled by curiosity about the plot; it did not really matter to me what would happen next since, just by virtue of it being a comedy, the story was assured a happy ending. I was not even curious about the specific events leading through the obstacles they would inevitably face and on to the happy ending. Rather, I wanted to know how each of the characters, especially Lee Geon, felt about what they themselves had done: after making big decisions that affected the lives of the people around them, would they remain true to their choice and firm in their resolve, confident in the ethical integrity of their consequent actions, or would they waver, forced —in the harsh glare of their conscience— to reconsider their choices or maybe even regret their actions?
I did generally find myself indifferent to those unbending characters, like Lawyer Min, and to a lesser degree, Kang Se Ra, who seemed driven only by the desire to satisfy their own appetites and attend to their own wellbeing. I was always most moved by those who demonstrated the ability to revisit their attitudes about what mattered and how their decisions affected the people around them. 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) had so thoroughly ensnared me that I became immersed in the inner lives of its players, empathizing with every joy and pain they experienced. Going by the increasingly febrile adoration viewers expressed on discussion forums, I quickly gathered that I was not alone.
It began to dawn on me that besides being thoroughly entertaining, something else was afoot with 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You): that perhaps the show owed the intensity of its audience’s engagement to the fact that this enchanting comedy about the vicissitudes of fictional Lee Geon and Kim Mi Yeong’s lives succeeded in somehow mirroring the real experiences of real people who tuned in every week. It also occurred to me that perhaps the chords 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) struck in its viewers’ hearts resonated all the more profoundly because the rawest of those real experiences were ordinarily consecrated in silence — each individual’s story unique, yet also familiar and touching when given voice. The story I thought I heard resonating in both the audience’s absorbed glee in the face of our players’ happiness and outraged protest at the prospect and persistence of their suffering, was the story of viewers who knew what it was to endure the strangling pain of heartbreak from loss, and the miraculous joy of discovering communion with another soul.
A Deeply Rooted Tree
Those who have had to experience heartbreak may know how profound, thorough and raw —and how utterly unspeakable— the resulting physical pain can be. An exquisite and unusual romantic comedy, 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) dares to broach the subject with unvarnished candor and from various perspectives when it tells the story of Lee Geon and Kim Mi Yeong. But being a Comedy in the truest sense of the term, Fated to Love You also ministers to those wounds, offering the hope of redemption and inspiring a simple allegory of Love as a Deeply Rooted Tree.
For, if neglect is the drought that leaves the unsuspecting soul parched and forlorn, and if loss and humiliation are the twin harrows that plough it raw, exposing it to the indifferent elements, then convivial Laughter must be Heaven’s healing agent, sent to slake that thirst with a mirthful nectar and to soothe those wounds by gently dressing them with the dew of Amity and Empathy. Where scarring has not yet rendered impenetrable the soul’s heart so cruelly wracked, tiny seeds mingled in this dew might just sprout and find root in the ailing heart’s cracks, ridges and furrows, reaching deeper when irrigated by the spring of Kindness and tended by the steady hand of Goodwill. These are curious seeds: they carry the genes of a belovèd — a child, a parent, a companion, a friend, and yes, sometimes even an object like a book or a story. Constancy strengthens the sapling’s roots as they spread into every vessel of the healing heart and moor themselves deep within while above, the now-robust tree of Amity, warmed by the radiant beams of newly discovered Communion with a belovèd, thrives, slowly, suddenly bursting into blossoms fragrant with Affection…
So robust is the Tree of Amity growing in the newly rejuvenated heart that every ray of light that shines upon it, every drop of dew that kisses it, makes the heart sing; so intermingled is the blood of the belovèd, so deep and complex is the tree’s root system, that its vitality and wellbeing become indistinguishable from the heart’s own and to cherish and celebrate it is to cherish and celebrate the heart in which it anchors its roots. You can just imagine that should anything happen to the tree — should its flowers wilt, its leaves fall, its branches break or its wood be afflicted in any way—the heart will suffer its every agony; any harsh wind or chilly breeze blowing through the tree’s leaves will make the heart shudder. So the heart’s soul will cultivate and protect this tree, drawing freely from the bountiful springs of Kindness that first spurred its roots, learning the nurturing ways of Goodwill and Constancy that tended to it when it was still but a sapling. Any danger to the tree’s vitality must be addressed with paramount urgency; any attempt to remove the belovèd — to uproot this tree that has become one with the soul’s heart — threatens a fate worse than the languishing in parched neglect and harrowing humiliation.
Lee Geon and Kim Mi Yeong have the great good fortune of being thrown together under eminently embarrassing circumstances during one of the bleakest moments of their respective lives. For Lee Geon, it is when he realizes that Kang Se Ra, the woman he wished to marry, has simply abandoned him, knowing his hopes yet nevertheless choosing to be unmindful of them. For Mi Yeong, it is when she sees her dream of finding someone she can love with all her heart dismissed with derision by the very person she hoped to love. Worsening the sting of that abandonment and rejection is the mortifying realization that, while under the influence of psychoactive drugs, they unknowingly and unintentionally coupled with each other the night before discovering that they were both forsaken. But each has the great good fortune of having the other as their partner in shame since, as they soon discover, each is the salve for what ails the other’s heart, each the spring of Kindness and the steady hand of Goodwill that slowly makes the other whole, reciprocally nurturing the saplings that have taken root in the other’s heart — saplings that carry their genes, making each a living part of the other.
Lee Geon and Kim Mi Yeong’s journey from accidental union into mutually respectful friendship, affection and love is halting and hesitant, but its trajectory is clear and 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) allows the young saplings in their respective hearts to grow unassumingly, quietly taking root before either of the two are aware it is happening. As the audience witnesses this growth between chapter 6 and chapter 10, a curious extra-textual development occurs as yet another sapling with the genes of Geon and Mi Yeong’s story takes root in the audience’s heart. When the two circle each other with caution, the viewer, too, becomes wary; the couple’s giddy rapprochement evokes the viewer’s relief and delight; rumblings of imminent conflict provoke distress and the progressive and eventual rupture of the couple’s union in chapter 12 incites outright rebellion!
Triumphant Tale of a Wise Woman
운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) is unusual because of the starkness with which it shows the pain Lee Geon and Kim Mi Yeong experience from just the attempt to uproot their respective trees; the extended span of time that the storytellers choose to dedicate to dramatizing this agonizing experience plumbs depths of feeling that viewers are unaccustomed to approaching in a comedy. In fact, it is not unreasonable to postulate that consumers of popular entertainment —especially on television, and of comedy in particular— are rather conditioned to expect, accept and eventually even demand conventional fare that conforms to only a very narrow set of aesthetic and narrative criteria. So with comedy, for example, passionate discussion forum protests against the apparent alienation of affections wrought by fear and misunderstanding between Lee Geon and Kim Mi Yeong in Act II of 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) suggests an audience that expects and wants its romantic comedies to deliver only a light, merry showcase of affectionate love-play and screwball hijinks in an unbroken string of jovial spectacles and mere jokes. And yet what the storytellers of 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) appear to have understood is that the primary function of Comedy is not merely to entertain, but also to set the stage for posing challenging questions and exploding complacent myths; for touching our rawest nerves with the Hippocratic assurance that doing so will do no harm and instead offer a tonic for the ills that afflict the soul.
For, at its core, Comedy as a theatrical genre entails the dramatic clash between Idealism and Cynicism, all the while using principled humor to candidly challenge conventional complacency. In the successful dramatic Comedy that is more than vaudeville or mere farce, the central conflict will be between those who hold and try to live by some clear ethical Principle and those who accept and maybe even champion conventions that are indifferent to these ideals, or, worse yet, intentionally violate or corrupt them. In the end, no matter the itinerary the players are forced to take by their circumstances over the peaks of joy and through valleys of woe, the ultimate destination of the Comedy can be framed in terms of the triumph of Promise and Hope over Despair and Regret.
This conflict of Idealism vs. Cynicism is far less dire than the conventional drama’s clash of Good vs. Evil and in its development, the Comedy allows for the parties representing both sides of the struggle to be readily relatable, even likable. The romantic comedy offers a platform for presenting this dichotomy in several clear-cut ways: for example, through class differences among the players that also mirror gender biases (poor girl/rich prince); through disparities in conscientious self-application (cheerful, industrious Candy/disillusioned, indolent Chaebol); through antithetical moral dispositions (pious virgin/profane hedonist). Reductive though it may appear to be, the Comedy will ordinarily attribute the ethical virtues to its materially marginalized player while saddling the materially privileged player with the unflattering attributes. This results in a universe of Comedy where some variant of the destitute yet cheerfully industrious and pious Candy heroine catches the self-indulgent eye of a wealthy yet world-weary Chaebol Prince burdened with a soul in need of redemption. Whatever the context in which clashes occur between the lovers — be it wealth, class, education, and the attendant social prejudices — the driving conflict of a Comedy can be distilled to a struggle between Idealism and Cynicism.
In this way, the ultimate triumph of Ideal Principles over Cynical Convention entails persuading or converting those who would resign to despair and regret to instead embrace promise and hope . In the case of운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You), Kim Mi Yeong champions and embodies Comedy’s indomitable spirit of hopeful idealism while Lee Geon initially presents with a somewhat cynical conventionality that will eventually lead him down the path of despair.
For despite the unrelenting indifference of the world around her, Kim Mi Yeong not only believes in the possibility of loving with her whole heart, she is unwaveringly kind and generous to everyone around her because it is the best way she knows how to help make their lives less burdensome. Lee Geon, on the other hand, sees Mi Yeong’s way as being “too nice” and does not, like the rest of society —her friends and family included— believe that a person should assume that kind of responsibility for the basic wellbeing of others. Although he, himself, is animated by a great sense of social and professional responsibility, the constraints of conventional cynicism to which Lee Geon blithely conforms are clearly outlined in the first chapter of the story. For example, his definition of the Perfect Woman is revealed to be a conventional fantasy that does not correspond to empirical reality; no sooner does he describe Se Ra’s poetic grace and ethereal charm in the jewelry store where he goes to buy her an engagement ring, than the very next scene shows her slouched over a laptop screen in an airplane cabin, stridently and carelessly remarking on the crude television drama she’s absorbed in watching, ostensibly unmindful of the comfort and privacy of the people around her.
The conflict between Mi Yeong’s principled idealism and Lee Geon’s cynical conventionalism is most significantly illustrated in their unspoken yet apparent perspectives on Love. From the Idealist’s perspective, Love is a gift freely offered and need only be accepted and treasured by the receiver; from the Cynic’s perspective, Love is a prize meant for the lucky and the strong, something to which only the deserving are entitled by right. As his story unfolds, we discover that Lee Geon, believing that the wasting and debilitating genetic illness he so dreaded has finally manifested in him, is paralyzed by the fear of cheating his wife of a full and happy life; of crippling any children they might have with what he considers a “disgusting” disease; of succumbing to his own weakness and selfish greed and holding on to Mi Yeong despite all the danger he believes he poses to her wellbeing. In order for the clashing couple’s journey to reach a happy conclusion, Kim Mi Yeong must teach Lee Geon to understand that the gift of Love is not contingent upon rights of entitlement; it needs only to be cultivated and nurtured. The lesson Lee Geon eventually learns is that a soul is not constrained to simply wait for Fate’s hand to determine his path; he has the Free Will to choose for himself and thus define his own fate.
“I used to think that fate was something special, but it doesn’t seem to be now. The person in front of me right now, I’m fine with everything as long as I’m with her. I can’t imagine loving anyone else but her. I think that’s what fate is. I’m fine even if we aren’t fated to love each other because I’d still love you… fatefully.”
A Great Ambition
Curiously, “Fated Love,” the very thing Lee Geon repudiates in this realization, counts among KDrama’s most consistently deployed narrative conventions: that nearly universally accepted maxim that True Love is Fated Love. Examples of this particular KDrama trope abound and appear in different permutations ranging from past life reunions, to lost and recovered childhood soul mates, to serendipitous passing encounters early in life that lay the foundation for eventual “true love” in adulthood. In all these variations of the trope the message is the same: finding Love is the end result of a series of events set in motion long before the lovers have any inkling of what awaits them. By the logic of Fated Love, it is those favored by Fortune and smiled upon by Chance that deserve and find true love. In light of Lee Geon’s concluding revelation, the title 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) reveals itself to be the show’s greatest irony, thus openly declaring its ambitious enterprise to reclaim Comedy as more than a mere spectacle of diversion.
As sacred a cow as “fated love” may be in KDrama narrative, 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) bluntly acknowledges it for the cliché that it is, and even more explicitly so by just as candidly and cleverly overturning a veritable Who’s Who of KDrama clichés throughout the story’s development. Establishing its figurative idiom early on, the show trots out scores of formulaic genre tropes, often with ostensibly dismaying predictability, all in the service of the greater enterprise of reclaiming Comedy by clearing the cobwebs from some of its most exploited narrative devices. Clichés of romantic comedy undergo unexpectedly refreshing makeovers in quick succession as they are seamlessly woven into the natural fabric of the story, sometimes with great fanfare but often with little more than a nod to the attentive, seasoned viewer.
So, for instance, the irony of the show’s title is not lost on the viewer who makes a note of just how well Lee Geon has learned to embrace the simple fact that he has the Free Will to love and to live as he wishes and that he need not be a slave to Fate, or circumstance, as it were. With its agonizing middle act, 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) lays the foundation for openly repudiating the notion that Love, and indeed the nature of the world we create around us, is out of our hands and determined by a Fate over which we have no control. Once his companion shows him that she chooses, of her Free Will, to remain constant in nurturing the Tree of Lee Geon rooted in her heart, he too —who at one time tried, with devastating results, to uproot the Tree of Kim Mi Yeong that had taken root in his heart, believing that he had no right to it — learns to remain constant in nurturing and protecting his love for Mi Yeong of his own Free Will.
Among the first rom-com genre conventions in 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) to get quickly conscripted to the service of the story’s ambitious enterprise only to be overturned is the supposed iconicity and sentimental currency of the paired couple’s first sexual encounter. In this story, the encounter takes place unintentionally in chapter 2 before the partners even know each other’s names, and they both agree to dismiss it for the merely physiologically induced occurrence that it is. Whether it be the unfortunate series of accidents that lead Mi Yeong to Lee Geon’s bed, the comical depiction of their cosmic bliss and vigor in coitus, or the stomach churning horror with which they realize how they spent the night, 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) bluntly repudiates the TV and movie cliché that equates carnal union with Love.
Rather, through Grandma Chairman Wang’s prayers to the ancestors, coupled with the intervention of third parties, the storytellers here ascribe to carnal knowledge the distinctly Thomistic function of procreation which, though instinctive, need not be intentional. In contrast, 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) dedicates nine patiently layered and meticulously structured chapters to tracing the birth and growth of Love between Lee Geon and Mi Yeong: it sets about seeding amity and cultivating mutual respect in Lee Geon and Mi Yeong’s hearts as they begin to slowly develop the gradual, tremulous tension that will eventually imbue the couple’s first intentional kiss with the momentous intensity, tenderness and yes, heady charge to the pleasure centers of the brain that such kisses should —and do— have. By the time they are forced apart by fear and misunderstanding, it is the wellbeing of their hearts, rather than the impulses of their bodies, that matter most to us.
The romantic comedy’s generic default pairing “Chaebol Prince”/”Candy” also gets a good-natured sendup as soon as the two meet when the candy that our sweet-natured Mi Yeong has just bought on an errand for her office supervisor is all sent flying into the air just as she and Lee Geon accidentally crash into each other. The joke continues into the conclusion of chapter 2 when Mi Yeong offers Lee Geon one of those sweets, declaring her principled ideal by explaining to him that the candy symbolizes her sincere desire to believe in complete Love. For his part, Lee Geon —an atypically warm-hearted and good-natured Chaebol Prince (and quite literally so!)— happily accepts the candy. In turn, he offers Mi Yeong a casino chip, an iconic token of Chance, the vehicle of Fate, and symbol of his unknowing concession to self-defeating cynical conventionalism.
I am tempted to describe the couple’s mutual exchange and acceptance of each other as “subtext” but the symbolism of the scene and their respective gifts is too obvious to justify such coyness. Where Lee Geon’s gift is a coldly practical metaphor for the conventional cynic’s concession to Chance, that mechanism of Fate that reminds mortals that they have no control over their lives, Mi Yeong’s gift is almost laughably idealistic in symbolizing her guileless hope for Love. These tokens prove significant later in the story’s development when Mi Yeong is reminded of the debilitating consequences of conferring so much authority to Fate as she contemplates the casino chip in the wake of her crisis-born separation from Lee Geon. Later on, even when the lovers are reunited, Mi Yeong is reminded of the helplessness we must face before Fate. Her ingenuous gift, in turn, catalyzes Geon’s recovery from his traumatic memory loss, signaling the moment of his conscious awakening to the fact that Mi Yeong has indeed taken root in his unknowing heart. However, when he subsequently surrenders the token back to her, declining to accept her invitation to willfully hope for and cultivate happiness together, it is clear that the same man who once bouyed Mi Yeong’s spirits by declaring that “nothing in this world is impossible” still has a great burden to shed and much to learn.
Yet another standard cliché of the romantic comedy that gets briskly exploded and neutralized is the inevitable fashion makeover montage that usually occurs at some significant turning point in the couple’s relationship. 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) reveals this particular trope for what it is; rather than a means of empowering the female subject —who here protests her belief that she already looks perfectly fine— the “Bond-Girl” makeover’s primary purpose is to display her as an object of the covetous male gaze. From inception, to execution, to exhibition, the makeover is all about the male subject’s wish fulfillment: Lee Geon, whose heart at that point in the story still belongs to another, strips Mi Yeong of her glasses and cardigan when dolling her up to reflect apparently male-fantasy standards of beauty (i.e. the Bond Girl) in order to show the execrable Lawyer Min what a gem he threw away; the fah-bulous stylist and make up artist duo Kim Sung Il and Park Tae Yoon wash, rinse, buff, polish and package Mi Yeong with the precision and focus of antique car restoration experts; finally, it is only after she has been subsequently displayed as an object of desire beyond his reach, and as the only means by which he can ensure his material security, that Lawyer Min concedes to acknowledge Mi Yeong’s value. It is noteworthy that the writers of 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) make a point of invoking the iconically misogynistic James Bond to describe the cosmetic transformation Mi Yeong is subjected to during the makeover montage. It is therefore even more significant that by the story’s happy ending, Mi Yeong has reclaimed her glasses and cardigan and, as her natural self, enjoys Lee Geon’s complete devotion and adoration.
Please Teach Me…
Thusly dealing out genre clichés copiously and cleverly flipping them with a deft sleight of hand to reveal some unexpected depth in the story and its characters, 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) creates a context in which all its players —principal and ancillary alike— readily make use of the conventions of the genre in service to its greater poetic enterprise.
Viewers who notice these well-worn tropes do so with some satisfaction, pleasantly gratified that the storytellers are not squandering the attention the viewer pays them on tired formulaic slop, but rather seem to respect their audience enough to use these set pieces intelligently. Nevertheless, while some of the clichés are accepted with little resistance, others are regarded with the kind of suspicion that mostly interrogates the writers’ sincerity and industry; the wary viewer’s inner Kim Joo Won sits before the screen in calculating judgment: “이게 최선입니까? 확실해요?” [“Is this the best you can do? Are you sure?”]
A good example of the audience’s even-handed reserve may be found in the discussion forum reactions to the cliffhanger following Lee Geon’s loss and subsequent recovery of consciousness at the end of chapter 10. During the week before chapter 11, there was much hand wringing from viewers who variously worried that waking Lee Geon up with Amnesia —the mother of all drama clichés the world over — would ruin the show’s run of perfect storytelling halfway through. Once episode 11 aired, however, the unanimous verdict was that the storytellers had rather wisely used the thankfully short-lived bout of amnesia to make it clear to both Lee Geon and Mi Yeong that the roots of the love they share were much more deeply anchored in them than either one of them realized.
The crisis also serves to reveal the breath and depth of the chasm between Mi Yeong’s ingenuous, ethical Idealism and Lee Geon’s resignation to self-defeating, complacent Cynicism. For while Mi Yeong, despite her small, broken body and grieving heart in the wake of her crisis, struggles to hold together the world of complete Love that she believes in by asking Geon to stay by her side, Lee Geon, accepting the convention that love is only for the lucky and the strong and believing himself neither of these two because of his genetic illness, resigns himself to an unhappy fate, indifferent to Mi Yeong’s earnest ideals.
The result of this devastating choice is the trope most stridently decried by multitudes of viewers as “noble idiocy of the worst kind” when Lee Geon decides to end his marriage to Mi Yeong and sever any lingering romantic ties with Se Ra after he becomes convinced that his amnesia signals the onset of his fatal illness. (Curiously, nobody seemed to mind as much when Omma opposed the couple’s eventual reunion on the very same grounds that Geon based his agonizing choice.) I remember worrying about risking the wrath of fellow ardent netizens by arguing in defense of Lee Geon’s “pragmatic altruism.” I fully expected an eviction notice from the interwebs for daring to disagree with the general outcry and braced myself for ostracism.
But my fellow viewers were far more compassionate and thoughtful in their responses, whether in solidarity or in disagreement [making me entertain daydreams of KDrama perhaps being the elusive key to Peace in the Middle East, naturally!]. As I argue in the piece dedicated to the discussion, the trope of sacrificing one’s own desire for the sake of ensuring another’s wellbeing serves the story well for a very simple reason: the makers of 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) are mindful of the time and attention viewers accord their story and so they painstakingly develop a narratively sustainable context for the protagonist’s pragmatic altruism that challenges the viewer to empathy despite the gravity of Lee Geon’s mistake.
The scariest and most perplexing experience Lee Geon has in 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You) is falling in love with Kim Mi Yeong. The grandest and most meaningful experience Lee Geon has is falling in love with Kim Mi Yeong. As I watched his agonizing intransigence in Act II where he remains convinced that he does not deserve Kim Mi Yeong, my heart wept for him. The storytellers slowly reveal that his maladroit attempts to uproot the Tree of Kim Mi Yeong from his despairing heart are not just driven by pragmatic altruism as I had initially believed, but rather by a profoundly self deprecating surrender to conventional myths of entitlement that tacitly dictate who has the right to love and to be loved. Resigned to the cards that Fate dealt him genetically and overwhelmed by their ominous portent, Lee Geon remains blind, throughout Act II, to the simple truth of the words he had spoken to Mi Yeong when their hearts first began to intertwine that if they wish it to be so, then “nothing in this world is impossible.”
It takes the principled Idealism of the owner of his heart’s Tree to shake Lee Geon out of his debilitating fear — of death, of life, of love. Equally intransigent in her principled ideal of complete Love, Mi Yeong has the fortitude to turn the tables on Lee Geon: whereas he had forced her hand and labored to sever their bond in concession to the indifferent dictates of Fate, she forces him to engage his Free Will and choose whether to mend and nurture their union or not. And with the success of Mi Yeong’s Ideal of Love over Lee Geon’s Cynicism of Fate, Fated to Love You celebrates Comedy’s triumph of Promise and Hope over Despair and Regret.
Thus Fated to Love You also reclaims Comedy in all its subtly, complexity and daring from the reductive tyranny of mass entertainment — even while operating within its modern flagship medium, television. More importantly, it reclaims the poet’s responsibility and the storyteller’s privilege to raise difficult questions about the assumptions we make about our own limitations and the conventions we accept and propagate without interrogation. I remember initially wondering whether perhaps the viewers who decried the difficult stage of Fated to Love You did so believing that Hope should never be subjected to any real challenge if it is to triumph. But then it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, the genes of the Tree of Amity growing in the viewer’s hearts seeded by Fated to Love You were those of Kim Mi Yeong and Lee Geon’s happiness; any narrative delay or frustration of the pair’s burgeoning love would therefore feel like the chilly breeze and the harsh wind that made the viewer’s heart shudder, spelling a danger that had to be addressed with utmost urgency.
Conversely, the happily settled union of Lee Geon and Kim Mi Yeong would resonate with the native joy of the viewer’s heart as this thoroughly compelling and unexpectedly beautiful romantic comedy patiently, deliberately gazed upon an imperfect and ofttimes daunting world, but reassured us that we could choose, of our own Free Will, to cultivate hope through amity.
NB: This is part 3 of a three-part series on the Korean romantic comedy drama 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You). It was written and published after the live broadcast of the show’s finale and draws from the drama in its entirety.
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 second installment in the series, Love in 운명처럼 널 사랑해 (Fated to Love You), draws upon the story’s development up to Episode 16.
I welcome your comments in the section below. You can also follow me on Twitter @CurioSerandC !