Betsy Hp over at Creating Volumes posed a curious question in her recent notes about That Winter, the Wind Blows (그 겨울, 바람이 분다), a drama that follows the vicissitudes of Oh Soo’s oh-so-complicated life. Our hero is a con-man — a playboy, a gambler and a smart ass — and he is posing as the long lost brother of the blind, orphaned heiress to a mega-fortune. If he can pull off the ruse, he can walk off having “legitimately inherited” part of the fortune himself. Even taking into account the frustratingly unjust chain of events and uncanny coincidences that led Oh Soo to this unhappy pass, the subterfuge in which he is now engaged is just so wrong in so many ways. And yet we find ourselves signing on to Team Oh Soo and willing all the players to back him without reservation or condition. Enter Betsy’s query which I read as reality-checking the moral integrity of unconditionally rooting for our morally and ethically questionable protagonist and desiring that his friends(!) do the same: “… have I drunk the Soo-kool-aid and lost my ability to judge?”…
So Betsy, everything you point out about TWtWB, both in this post and elsewhere (I especially enjoyed the first post introducing the drama and then the Wildcards post where you talk about the mirror and gazing motifs in the drama’s visual vocabulary), all sound like the makings of the kind of storytelling that creates spaces within the narrative for the audience to inhabit. I daresay that the richer the story, the more morally ambiguous these spaces tend to be. And if the storyteller is especially skillful, we become invested in the well being of the characters irrespective of how questionable their ethics may be; we want things to turn out well for them. Now I don’t think this means that we necessarily want them to get whatever material object they ostensibly desire (money; a particular marriage match; exacting revenge by causing someone else harm, etc) – rather, I think it means that we want an even greater good for them: freedom, redemption and love.
We wish for them –
– freedom from whatever has them bound/imprisoned in their lives (again: it could be money-or lack thereof, a forced marriage match, fear/phobias, etc);
– redemption from whatever sin led them down the unhappy path on which we now find them (these may be active sins such as indulging appetites or perpetrating some act of violence or malice (including fraud and betrayal); or passive sins born of indolence);
– love: that they may discover or forge a meaningful connection with fellow human beings, with a kindred spirit, and yes, even with themselves.
The main protagonist, the ‘hero’, of TWtWB is a cocky, gambling playboy-con-man presented to us by the storytellers (writer, director and actors) as an ethically (and morally) conflicted soul trapped, by circumstances beyond his control, in a life bereft of love; a soul in need of, and eventually in search of, redemption. I think that this kind of storytelling done well very quickly gets us invested in the poor sunbae’s fate. I also think that our psychological investment makes us champion his search for redemption (thereby putting us in danger of being complicit in his actions) which leads to us being all the more invested in his fate… ’tis a vicious cycle ‘ndeed!
So back to your question about the Oh Soo-Kool-Aid. Full disclosure: I write as someone whose kdrama fever broke a few weeks ago taking with it the previously irresistible impulse to watch kdramas of every ilk. I suspect that I have largely lost my appetite for kdrama, and yet TWtWB won me over easily – I had not imagined I would start following another drama so soon or so readily. Yet there I was marathoning the first three episodes and kinda jonesing for the next one – an experience no other drama has managed to evoke since Cheongdam-dong Alice ended. Anyway, the point is, I think this drama got me so easily because it is really well done – the story is ethically provocative, dramatically well crafted and beautifully executed. Most importantly, all the the players make it engaging in a way that I only know Art to be. (I say Art (be it literary, painting/sculpture or music, or all three together in film) on purpose to distinguish it from just spectacle or entertainment).
I see Art as both a testament to the artist’s craft as well as a powerfully revealing Rorschach test for the reader/listener/viewer. So it says a lot about the storytellers (the writer, the director, the actors) that they have managed to make what should be a morally reprehensible character sympathetic, and even genuinely appealing, as a human being. As you point out, even Moo-Cheol, the prime antagonist, exudes a heartbroken sort of charm, and the irrepressibly cracked So-Ra, the catalyst to Oh Soo’s current woes, comes across like a broken, radioactive flower; delicate and damaged and quietly leaking toxic sap. And Oh Soo’s friends are no less unsettling thanks to the volatility of their own needs and desires… (my goodness, but love is messy…!)
I suspect that the reader/listener/viewer’s attitude toward these sketches of humanity is also revealing about the reader/listener/viewer. Like the mirrors you write about in the Wildcards post, your impulse to champion Oh Soo despite the reality of his situation and the choices he is making may render transparent your native impulse to empathy and reveal it in strong contrast to someone else’s inclination to adhere to an implacably rigid moral code that makes no allowances for human frailty and affords no compassion…
In fact, I’ll add that even questioning the integrity of our championing Oh Soo is itself revealing… Under what circumstances do we usually find ourselves persisting in supporting someone even while we wonder whether we are justified in doing so? Think about those times in your life when you have stood by someone even as you wondered whether you were just turning a blind eye to or — even worse — enabling moral and ethical indolence, or outright dangerous behaviour… Oh, sooo many questions…!