The following essay contains spoilers for the K-dramas I am Not a Robot, The Good Doctor, Shining Inheritance, My Name is Kim Sam-soon, Five Fingers, Bachelor’s Vegetable Store, Warrior Baek Dong-soo, Tree with Deep Roots, and Chuno. Trigger warning for mentions of suicide, murder, and Michel Foucault.
People go to revival tents to repent of their sins. Some drink too much and slobber all over best buds: “Why won’t she/he take me back? Is it because I do x, y, and z? Must I change? How do I change?” Raise your hand if you watch K-drama because you love the redemption themes. Do you identify, even in the slightest, with the beautiful queen who realizes she is oh so wrong for poisoning family members in her unremitting attempts to bend the world to her will? Or do you want to see the arrogant chaebol break down into pretty tears and realize that the woman beneath his station has out-smarted him, out-classed him, and made him acknowledge failings that can only be assuaged by her true love’s kiss?
K-drama redemptions, like exclamations of “Neo michyeosseo!” (Are you craaaazy?) by mid-series (or eye-gougings in historical dramas) are a dime a dozen. I like my redemptions well-done, crisp around the edges, the way I hear Korean beef is supposed to be cooked (I wouldn’t know beef–I’m vegetarian, but I DO know literary tropes! I’m a writer and English teacher). Fast-food redemptions are fine, fine, if that’s your taste, but a redemption in K-drama, within my main K-drama diet, needs to have been marinated in the narrative for a long time; I need to have smelled the melodrama coming even if I didn’t know I was going to be served up a plot-twist; I need what I need.
I’ve devised a set of literary criteria for a successful redemption within a K-drama (the criteria can be adapted to other narratives that include melodramatic, tragic, and didactic elements).
Yes, I’m a little bit crazy.
A redemption requires 1) someone feeling regretful 2) this someone not only saying “woah, I feel sorry” but doing something to indicate that regret or performing at least one redemptive act and 3) ideally, that redemptive act should be recognized by another person. Even if that act is not accepted by the other person (as in the second person saying “I forgive you”), the redemptive act should be witnessed by another person. Ideally, the person(s) against whom the guilty party has transgressed should be the witness(es), but in cases of murder, there can still be a redemption (e.g, the murderer suffers, does prison time, saves other lives).
I personally demand that the far-reaching consequences of a redemption cover the sum of misdeeds. It helps when I identify with the sinner, not merely sympathize.
A back-story helps but isn’t necessary in a successful redemption tale. Understanding why a person behaves a certain way doesn’t exculpate that person, but lack of a back-story can make a sudden redemption feel forced in a K-drama script. A viewer once told me that sudden changes of heart are indeed possible, and I agree–like love at first sight, surges of anger, or the sudden recovery of memory from trauma-induced amnesia (all famous story tropes), humans feel instantaneous emotions and undergo sudden transformations. To understand a redemption, though, we need to know how the redemption itself, not the evil behavior, came about in a villain. A person may suddenly regret an evil deed, but that in itself is not a redemption. Not unlike a despairing King Lear, the perpetrator may shout into the wind: “Oh no! I was wrong to kill you!” The dead person is still dead.
Never mind the villain’s throes of suffering throughout his or her character arc–what is the redemption itself’s story-line? What birthed it, nurtured it, and how far will it reach in terms of making amends against those sinned against?
Which brings me to the villains we can adore and shed tears over–even if they are not redeemed. Whether or not a villain is well-written and whether or not a villain is appealing are factors in a story that have nothing at all to do with whether or not that villain is, by my own set of criteria or anyone else’s, successfully redeemed.
Why does a villain have to be redeemed at all? Redemptions happen often in K-drama. This piece won’t examine why; it will look at the villains and our reactions to them. In Bachelor’s Vegetable Store, for example, there are three distinct reactions to a villain’s sad, inevitable end with which audiences may relate. The creators of art are all about milking our emotions, but they are also about making us think about our own lives. A “meh” story does only the former; a wonderful story does both.
There are some of us who hate a well-written villain. Sometimes I despise them so much I want to throw wet, slimy kimchi at my monitor. I tend to especially hate those who do bad things to kids; Chun in Warrior Baek Dong-Soo and Choi Kang-sun in Bachelor’s Vegetable Store come to mind; the former recruited a twelve-year-old as an assassin and essentially held him hostage with manipulative lies and threats of death to people he cared about for the next ten years, and the latter took an orphan girl and tried to pass her off as the daughter of an ex-lover who was rich and powerful. Chun was a charmer; the actor Choi Min-soo nailed the part as a swashbuckling baddie who delivered deadpan jokes and stood up to other baddies with his dangerous, sexy self (narcissisistic personality traits that give me the willies), but Choi Kang-sun was glassy-eyed, dully ambitious and kookity-cakes. Unlike Chun, she was unlikable, but she did manage to be scary; many a K-drama fan has told me me they got shivers when she walked onscreen. She was a hated character, and while one would presume villains should all be hated characters, let’s look at Chun. Chun remains a wildly popular, even beloved, villain in the Warrior Baek Dong-Soo fandom. Both characters, as I’ll detail later, had redemptions that only partially met my criteria list. I consider both unredeemed. My favorite redemption in K-drama, oddly enough, is arguably a partial redemption, but I’d can make the case that it isn’t–it’s allusive but the most compelling I’ve witnessed so far. And truth be told, I hated this character through the entire series!
Hwang Shin-hye as the terrifying Choi Kang-sun in Bachelor’s Vegetable Store, an otherwise charming series that needed a villain but maybe not such a murderous one. KOOKITY-CAKES UNLIKABLE. Boring. Joan Crawford, a villain to root for in the American movie Mommie Dearest, made torturing orphans fun!
The inimitable Choi Min-soo as Chun in Warrior Baek Dong-soo. One of those partial redemptions that gets on my nerves. A charming, sexy character, one of those villains fans adore (not me–but I get the appeal).
My son, who reads manga (Japanese coming-of-age comics) and manhwa (Korean coming-of-age comics) says villains are great to adore in fiction, but if they were real life people, even ones who got proper redemption tales, who he came across them in person, he would have to kick them in the balls. Murderers, you see. Liars and thieves. My son has a stellar and idealistic sense of morality.
I’m more world-weary and sympathetic. Well-written characters in K-dramas are like real people to me (poorly written ones–aigoo, I can’t even imagine meeting them in real life). And a well-written character who gets a good redemption scene in this sad world earns my full forgiveness. A well-written character like Chun (more about him later) who gets an echo of a redemption–shit, if I time-traveled back to Imperial Korea, he might just get a whack in the head with my laptop desk. I suspect he would kill me for that… or else smile and make some hilarious comment that would make me hate him even more.
I may as well go ahead and say this now: I feel bad criticizing ANYTHING. What people like, they like. I had a friend once who fan-girled Barry Manilow like nobody’s business. I loved my friend and the way she loved Barry Manilow. I love how passionately people can love what they love. BUT. Barry Manilow wrote some bad pop songs. I mean, like really bad ones. Other artists didn’t catch as much flak as he did, maybe, but Barry Manilow wrote bland ballads and some cringe-worthy lyrics. I COULD BE WRONG. I’VE BEEN CAUGHT DANCING TO COPACABANA. Ain’t everybody always right about everything–especially we’re talking art, where so much is subjective. In science, there are facts. In arguments, one presents a case for what is more likely to be true versus what is less likely to be true. I’ve always argued against the old saw “all opinions are valid,” because while I do believe all people are valuable and contribute to discourse and further the magnificent cause of peace, love, and mutual understanding, some opinions carry more weight than others. “I guessed this” versus “I researched this and/or built my case on pre-existing arguments.” The former may be right; neither may be; the latter has more weight and carries a greater likelihood of being right.
That said, here’s what sometimes happens when I venture forth my opinion (weighted as it is with my extensive readings of so-called high and mighty literature, my forays into strange, distant art crit lands, and my own personal, emotional narrative) into the intense world of Internet fandoms: I give you Yoo Seung-ho, who plays the very sensitive character Min-kyu in the (my opinion: mostly unremarkable but clever enough and very sweet) romantic comedy I am Not a Robot. One unfortunate encounter on the Internet, and I become like Min-kyu, who suffers from a rare, undocumented allergy to HUMANS:
Bless you, WordPress. Here, I can meta. Here I can vent. I can write more words than some chic entertainment publication would allow.
The old Jewish saying goes “there’s a lid for every pot”–or, rather, if one looks long enough, one can find what fits a need. Lately, I’ve been needing to rant about K-drama. What I love and hate about it. And I happen to be of the mind-set that things that ain’t right can be fixed somehow (redeemed?). I could attribute this to my Jewish belief in tikkun olam (roughly, “repair of the world”–Judaism is very concerned with practical politics and the planet we occupy when compared to other religions which may put more emphasis on the Afterlife or attaining a spiritual ideal beyond the here and now). Or maybe my sense of tikkun olam creeps into fictional worlds; it may trigger another sense of editorial nit-picking at stories I’d like to rewrite. Whatever the case, real life events shock me into thinking about the responsibility of media, that it’s not a bad thing to hold story-writers to higher standards and to remind them of the far-reaching consequences of their words. Fairy-tales, television shows, K-dramas–they are powerful influences.
K-pop star Jonghyun’s suicide not long ago on December 18, 2017 shocked me. South Korea has a scary suicide rate, the highest in the industrialized world. In 2015, suicide was the No. 1 cause of death for people ages 10 to 39, according to the Korean Statistical Information Service. Far be it from me to dictate to creative people what to write or tell anyone what to watch–we’re all free, baby-–but how many times have I been sitting next to my husband with my laptop on my knees, and he’s heard me moan, “oh here we go again, South Korea! Another K-drama suicide! Work it! Make us cry! At least make it a cautionary tale! SERIOUSLY, SOUTH KOREA, YOU HAVE A PROBLEM!”
After Jonghyun’s suicide, I found myself, like so many psychiatrists and K-pop fans, pointing a frantic finger at the commercial industry that overworks artists and a culture that ignores mental illness. A Korean American lawyer friend called artist contracts in South Korea “indentured servitude.” My husband heard my ranting: SOUTH KOREA, YOU NEED TO REDEEEEEEM YOURSELF!
I wish there were fewer suicides in South Korea, not necessarily fewer suicides in K-drama.
I only wish that when suicides are told about in a story, that their truth would ring in a way that isn’t exploitative or sensationalized. A script can be hopeful without sounding like a suicide-prevention public service announcement. Is suicide the only option for a young person who has lost her first love? For a general cornered in battle who believes himself responsible for the deaths of his men? The person killing himself may believe in one inevitable outcome, but sometimes a suicide is pre-ordained and necessary in a storyline; none-the-less, what can other characters say about the act after it happens? What can other characters do to keep suicides from happening? In The Good Doctor, I watched a child talked off a hospital roof-top by an autistic intern; the mother of the would-be suicide then had a redemptive moment about her pushy parenting. It was a small scene, one of many that addressed the intern’s ability to connect to people’s true unspoken emotions, but what impressed me was the cautionary tale—take heed, Korean parents, your children are killing themselves because you push them so much to succeed; you may end up pushing them right off a building. The mother’s redemption was not only believable (what mother would not question her parenting after witnessing her child on the ledge of a roof-top?) but heart-wrenching–because the little boy so lovingly accepted his mother’s transformation.
Bingo. All my criteria of redemption were achieved. One, regretful mom. Two, redemptive act–in this case, the mother allowed her son not to perform at a concert that would have been a serious risk to his physical health. Three, that redemptive act was not only witnessed and accepted by the injured party (ideal) but all the doctors in the hospital knew about it. Awww. And yaaasssss. And daebak!
For the moment to have been perfect, audiences would have needed to have seen themselves in that mother more—there but for the grace of -insert deity– go I. The mother was clearly way too pushy, so her redemption was a relief instead of a moment of “oh, that could’ve been me.” What parent hasn’t wanted the best for his or her child? Maybe South Korean parents did relate (I’m a hippie-granola home-schooler, so I got it, but it didn’t get ME in the solar plexus). The best redemptive moments in K-drama I’ve seen are ones where the audiences root for the redemption, not only sympathizing with the redeemed, but more or less identifying with the character’s redemptive transformation.
I veered off-topic when I brought up South Korea’s suicide problem in order to show you a successful redemption scene in a K-drama. For the country to redeem itself of its suicide problem, at the very least, hot-lines staffed by trained operators like in the West could be quickly instituted on college campuses; you have no idea how many fantasies I’ve had about instituting a Yeo Woon (my favorite character who offed himself in Warrior Baek Dong-soo) Suicide Prevention Program. K-drama? How much can K-drama help talk people off roof-tops? I do wonder to what extent media is supposed to reflect its audiences, distract and entertain its audiences, or change them.
To riff on Ecclesiastes, I would argue that there is a season for every guilty pleasure under heaven. A time to distract oneself from real life, a time to hold up a mirror to one’s own life so that art lets us see ourselves a little better. One of my favorite quotes about art echoes in my head whenever I finish a book, movie, or television series I’ve found especially moving: “Art comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comforted.” K-drama (like any entertainment that isn’t considered highbrow art–like YA novels, anime/manga, your average off-Broadway production or moderately-selling Indie pop album) has a bad rep for being cheesy, formula-bound, art-less. Fine. I’m one of those people who does believe in standards of art (“everyone’s a critic” because there are cultural standards of excellence, long-standing traditional standards of genre, and people like to see EFFORT in art–from writers, painters, set-designers, actors). I never finish a story and go “oh that was time I’ll never get back” because even if I’ve just finished sitting through the K-drama equivalent of a 21 hour Barry Manilow concert, I figure I’ve learned SOMETHING–at the very least a smidgen of Korean language or some arcane detail about Korean culture or television-making I didn’t know before. If I’m lucky–which I sometimes am–I will have experienced something like what I do when I read Shakespeare or Chekov, no fucking lie. I get that weepy feeling in my sinuses, but by the time by eyes start to water, I’m too jazzed with whatever thoughts the K-drama has sent shooting around in my brain like it’s the Chinese New Year–and I can’t properly cry. I whimper instead. If the husband is anywhere near, I may sputter: I JUST SAW THE BEST SHOW. I HAVE TO WATCH THIS ONE AGAIN. In almost all these incidences of K-drama elation and Aristotelian catharsis, I’ve witnessed a character experience a transformative redemption.
The first redemptive transformations I witnessed in K-drama were fairly well-done within the stories they told–but not soul-shattering. They usually involved women I recognized from the soap operas my mother watched hour after hour (and I with her when I played hooky from school). My mother learned English from watching American soap operas; I learned that there were some female characters women adored–even though said characters lied to their boyfriends or husbands, faked pregnancies, threw wine in peoples’ faces, schemed and plotted and maybe kidnapped babies they passed off as their own: these characters were melodramatic goddesses; they had suffered in their lives; they didn’t put up with indignities–they got people BACK; they did what we ourselves (not being crazy enough or perhaps not RICH and crazy enough) could not do, and when they invariably got their comeuppance, they paid with tears, tears, probably less than realistic jail-time (somehow managing to look coiffed and beautiful in jail-cells), and we were … happy for them? Until they got out to wreak havoc again.
After watching a few less-than-stellar K-dramas (but none-the-less picking up Korean phrases almost as fast as my mom had learned English!) that often involved the trope of the wicked-ex-girlfriend who was finally sorry-so-sorry and married the secondary leading man, I complained to Korean-American buds and other longtime K-drama watchers that I didn’t like romances and that I preferred sageuk. (Sageuk are historical K-dramas full of political intrigue, sword-fights, and my weakness–men with long hair on horseback. They are chock-full of historical tidbits, and any one specificity about metal-forging might send me to Google for an hour; I even started The Analects of Confucius because of sageuk–the book was too daunting in college). Modern K-drama romance done right? I was promptly pointed in the right direction. Watch Shining Inheritance. Watch My Name is Kim Sam-soon.
The aforementioned two dramas at first seemed to follow the formula of poor girl snags rich guy (the universal Cinderella trope of romance stories). They didn’t follow that formula. Wait, here was the K-drama standard of a chaebol (rich guy) being redeemed from an arrogant son-of-a-bitch to a friendlier guy who recognizes that working-class people are actual human beings. Not quite. Soon enough, these dramas inverted familiar tropes. Shining Inheritance showed that love and concern for others was more important than money (du’uh), and My Name is Kim Sam-soon showed that a woman’s weight didn’t matter (believe it or not, Asian women have weight struggles too, not to mention obsessive preoccupation with appearances like all women in industrialized countries). There are plenty fairy-waisted, cute-as-dolls heroines in K-drama–it is this type of woman, whose morals are usually impeccable, who is responsible for the redemption of the bratty chaebol in a typical romance. Kim Sam-soon was one of the first heroines (the drama aired in 2005) who broke type with her thick waist and her murderous fantasies about offing her ex. Although Eung Sung in Shining Inheritance was a morally flawless darling, she was self-determining; she turned down wealth three times; she turned down two men and chances for success through them and followed her own path.
Also, significantly, in these two dramas, when the inevitable romantic redemptions happened (in the men who were transformed by love of course), their changes were open-ended; the shows didn’t end with the certainty that the relationships with the heroines would last; there was no scene of a destined fate or a meeting in heaven after the lovers’ death (I’m iffy on those in K-drama–I like ghosts but last minute-epilogue ghosts? No); instead, we got served realistic depictions of couples growing closer and wiser as they spent time together. The women were changed as well, if not necessarily redeemed. There was something so satisfying about that.
I had to turn to my husband and smile after finishing each of these dramas. He didn’t notice, but I smiled anyway.
Romance K-dramas are frequently accused of presenting idealistic female types who rescue men. The main girl in My Name is Kim Sam-soon (also known as My Lovely Sam-soon) is anything but idealistic–she’s overweight, slightly crazy (not in that infantile, overly cutesy way so beloved in Asian romances), aggressive, relationship-wary–and eventually as transformed by love as her chaebol. I love not only how cleverly this drama is filmed; it shows parts of the heroine’s imagination as an alternate reality, her love of making cakes is a running metaphor for living life, and the ending is warm but open–there’s an acceptance that even if the relationship doesn’t work out then, well, it was all worth it anyhow…. and let’s put this drama on the shelf as a most memorable love. There will be other K-loves in the future, but this one had the prettiest cakes.
The girl in Shining Inheritance was sweet as the pastries baked by Sam-soon in the former romance, but in the end, Eun Sung did NOT marry into money; she decided to return to school in the States to finish her education; her chaebol, who indeed was transformed by her love, ended up being cut out of his grandmother’s gobs of inheritance (!); he decided to stay in Seoul to nonetheless spend time with his aging ill grandmother. THE LOVE COUPLE IS LITERALLY NOT TOGETHER IN THE FINAL EPISODE EVEN THOUGH THEY HAVE CONFESSED. THEY ARE STILL GROWING UP AND MOVING ON THEIR OWN PATHS. WOO, FREEDOM, BABY. The villains in the story (ack! They kidnapped an autistic child! Triggered! Triggered!) required the proper transformations/redemptions even more than the bratty chaebol Hwan, and sure enough, after an attempted suicide and a decision to live in poverty, we got THE MESSAGE: Poverty ain’t that bad either when someone loves you. The shining inheritance is a family’s love. A well-done drama, one of the best I’ve seen.
I still prefer sageuk (hey, horses, men with long hair on horses). Then I noticed something similar about the man in power on a high horse to the chaebol in the romance drama.
When I first began to watch K-drama, a Korean-American friend of mine noted that more dangerous than any man in armor with a weapon is a scheming middle-aged woman. Anywhere, anytime in family-oriented Korea, matriarchs are perceived as potent, secret forces of nature. “Beware the ajumma,” she told me. Particuarly in sageuk or fusion-sageuk (where actual history is embellished with made-up facts or when non-existent figures are inserted into a world of historical facts to liven up a narrative), real or not-real queens who murdered or attempted to murder people around them (apparently a popular past-time in Imperial Korea), if they didn’t commit suicide, get beheaded or were forced to drink poison for their crimes, went “oh well, let’s just roll with the tide; I killed who I wanted; now let’s play with the politics of the guys in charge.” In other words, no redemption scenes. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen this. Dang. Bitches who get away with murder. But for some reasons, kings and their assassins (hell, even court ministers and eunuchs) tremble with self-doubt, crumble with regret and undergo transformations–much like the chaebol in romance drama. Maybe it’s a female fantasy to knock the man in power off his high horse so to speak? Do writers play to this audience?
Which brings us to (of course I had to go there because people do) sexism in K-drama land.
At this writing I’m watching a rom-com called I am Not a Robot that I swore I was not going to watch; I decided to go for it because I wanted some light fare and loved the actors. The show has received some flak for a sexist premise, but many have found it witty, alluding to many K-drama tropes, and being one of those romances that not only redeems a chaebol but saves the heroine. As usual, I’ve read “it’s only television; it’s not that deep” in the comments.
Premise: the usual job-less girl (pretending for the too-long-to-describe K-drama reasons to be a robot) literally saving the life of a chaebol (who is given the extra vulnerability of being an orphan who has lived alone in a mansion since he was a child, surrounded by corporate enemies–this terribly socialized, child-like adult chaebol has now developed a deadly allergy to humans). The story would be horrifically sexist (the robot girl in her mini-skirt calls the chaebol “master”) if the two were not having mutual effects on one another; his life-threatening psychosomatic allergy is disappearing because of his contact with a charming girl; her self-esteem (withered away by an ex-professor boyfriend who discounted her inventor talents and once literally called her a maid) is blooming; and most interestingly, the old sci-fi issue of “what is a human” has entered the dynamic. The young master (Yoo Seung-ho–gah, I adore him–when his eyes glisten, so do mine) has already asked if his robot will recognize him as a monster (what he looks like in the throes of a rash) so she can administer an epipen, and the young pretender robot is questioning whether their love (young master has openly declared his love for his sentient Roomba) will survive once he uncovers the betrayal (the Roomba is human). Young master insists to his doctor that his robot appears to have actual feelings, that he’s not imagining things. For all the jokes my husband has made so far about Asia and its rush to develop a fuck-able robot being more intense than the United States’ race to land a man on the moon… I do believe the drama has promise.
I’m a hard-core feminist; I earned my cred marching on the streets before gender studies classes existed. I see sexism everywhere, but I do believe people sometimes get all up in the air over sexism when the sexism in question isn’t something insidious and malevolent–just the standard stuff. The usual landscape of men being in the foreground and in power. Go fight a more meaningful battle–Chae Soo-bin’s mini-skirt in I am Not a Robot isn’t killing or raping anyone.
The only redemption necessary for me in this robot rom com will be that of the guy I call Professor Fuck-Up, the brilliant asshole who had the K-drama dumb nuts to give his creation the looks of his ex-girlfriend and then who put a gravely allergic young man in mortal danger when the real robot malfunctioned. “PROFESSOR FUCK-UP!“ I yell at my monitor. “REDEMPTION STORY! REDEMPTIOOOOON!”
My husband returns to his Hegel or whatever on Kindle.
Michel Foucault might reprimand my criteria for effective redemptions; I sometimes wonder what this or that philosopher (my husband is an ex-philosophy teacher) would make of K-drama narratives–would Foucault find the predictable formulas of any fictional genre to be manifestations of the power structures of the larger world? Sexism is real because there is a power structure in the world where men control most of the power. In literary criticism, men controlled most of the words too. In the time periods most of the K-drama I watch are set in, people believed that constellations of stars determined the power structures of worlds below the sky; divine kings were chosen by destiny. Confucius himself didn’t do much to challenge this idea. See, this is where my brain is floundering when, in Warrior Baek Dong-Soo, the camera zooms in on Ji Chang Wook’s lovely full lips quivering as he delivers that speech that challenges the power construct of Destiny: “Do you want to get rid of this damned fate? It will be very painful. It will be so painful that you want to die. Watch, all of you!”
I love that damn drama for all its contradictions, for how its main character runs around saying there is no destiny but some things were destined to happen, how meek its heteronormative relationships are when compared to its passionate main bromance, how amazingly sexist it can be and yet it gives us a female character without whose well-timed arrows the titular character and most of the male cast would not have survived. In other words, I could critique it into a post-modern nightmare longer than your big sister’s Buffy dissertation.
But honestly, I’d rather ramble on WordPress or write fanfiction.
Even in my academic heydey, before everyone had a WordPress page, the decontructionist dudes suffered as much criticism as what they criticized. (Deconstructionism is a philosophical or critical method which asserts that meanings, metaphysical constructs, and hierarchical oppositions between key terms in a text are always rendered unstable by their dependence on ultimately arbitrary signifiers). Nonetheless there was a lot of indoctrination in the universities back then; criticism of media was being held to more abstract, weirder and weirder standards, so removed from the art being criticized that it was soon plain that privileged society was being criticized (at least with Foucault). My, I would be so guilty for even being alive and indulging my privilege of watching K-drama on an ancient laptop (which is about to die sooner than most of the cast in my current sageuk) if I believed sincerely in any of the post-modernist crap I didn’t even buy when it was all the rage in grad school in the late 80s. What sort of redemption would a post-modernist critic require?
Speaking of power-structures… remember “fear the ajumma?” Who has seen Five Fingers? Wow, did that drama push all my buttons. I don’t like it when mommies are mean to kids. I don’t like it when family members are pitted against one another. I get all kinds of squirmy when geniuses compromise their gifts and do bad stuff because they’ve been programmed to believe that their only value is in success, not in being children who are loved unconditionally. And oh, everybody cries so much. It’s buckets of fun. FUN? I like classical piano, angsty boys, nasty moms who get their comeuppance, and oh, it all turns out ok in the end—with a helluva redemption that borders on cartoonish but is like a plunge into the sea and a swim across another continent (where families live in, ahem, harmony).
Ji Chang Wook as brother pianist bad (no nice!) guy In-ha crying, Chae Shi-ra as the demon mom Yeon-rang crying, Ju Ji-hoon as brother pianist nice (no bad!) guy Ji-ho crying, and Jeon Mi-seon as the demon mom’s mom-figure crying over ALL THERE IS TO CRY ABOUT IN FIVE FINGERS.
If you’re a fan of classical music and house-fires, then Five Fingers is the melodrama for you. Although the actual romance in the story isn’t that compelling, the betrayal/vengeance/redemption themes are as tantalizing as they come. I won’t spoil the whole ending, but the evil mom does more than apologize to the wind as she runs headlong into her fate, and the brothers reunite for a dazzling duet three years later.
The drama itself is hard to find online–maybe for some reasons having to do with real life production dramas I was never that interested in and skimmed over (more here in this final episode recap).
Suffice it to say that the demon mom in Five Fingers fulfilled all my redemption criteria (and, happily, within a series I enjoyed). As promised, I will now discuss two characters who only partially fulfilled my redemption check-off list in very unsatisfying scenes and also reveal my favorite redemption scene in K-drama. I probably will still be railing about Chun and Choi Kang-sun when I’m a grandma and have forgotten more K-drama than I can remember; I may still be pissed off about their final scenes when I no longer can recognize Lee Min-ho from Song Joong-ki.
Partially-fulfilled redemptions of well-written characters in good dramas are WORSE than badly written redemption scenes of poorly-developed characters in sub-par dramas. Why? Because a drop of what-the-fuckery can poison the whole punch, a badly timed little skip in the narrative can nonetheless send ripples across the whole pond; one sour response in to a character can make an audience question that character’s relationship to other characters (and hence, relationship dynamics all around). A bad drama can be forgotten in an instant, but a good one will make one think about it—BUT if there’s more than one gaping plot-hole or more than a few head-scratchers about motive and characterization, there stands the risk the audience will feel played.
Bachelor’s Vegetable Store was one of those addictive dramas that ran the gamut of comedy to tragedy, maintained a plot propelled by a likable hero’s coming-of-age story being foiled at every turn by malevolent forces, but the villain sucked. Choi Kang-sun was a mental-case, no doubt–and a boring one. She could’ve been played with more flamboyance, sweeping across the octaves of K-drama emotions like the mom in Five Fingers. My beef (the undercooked, nasty-tasting Korean beef?) with her character is that her redemption scene splatted the story for me at the end. What may be most interesting about Kang-sun’s sad end is that there are three different responses when her evil deeds are finally exposed–perhaps three responses audiences can choose from which to most relate.
The chaebol for whom Wicked Kookity Cakes Mom has kidnapped an orphan and mind-fucked said child for years calls his wife “a mental case” and doesn’t forgive her. The optimistic hero of our story, Tae-yang, played by my favorite K-actor, the ever-delightful Ji Chang Wook, goes on with his life-plans for doing right and bringing fresh produce to the peoples–all the while never knowing that Choi Kang-sun was responsible for the death of his beloved grandma. Among Choi Kang-sun’s sins was denying Granny her heart meds so the old lady would not reveal the truth about the kidnapping and then leaving the gasping woman to die. Murder most foul.
It is Jin Jin-shim, who has posed as Mental Case Mom’s dead daughter Ga-on since childhood, who has the most infuriating, startling response to Choi Kang-sun’s partial redemption. I will note that Kang-sun has already failed the second criterion in my list of a successful redemption–she has performed no redemptive act. She has merely been committed to an institution, fully aware of her sins, slipping in and out of a reality she has tried for years to sustain. Her scene with her “adopted” daughter’s scene in the final episode struck me as one of those echoes of a redemption that promised a reconciliation, but hell no, who could believe it?
The daughter asked the mom to return home to a proper family, but Kang-sun said no, that she was still “ill.”
Aigoo, who was really the ill one here? Who takes back such a dangerous person? I’m prone to arm-chair diagnosing of fictional characters, but Jin-shim showed all the signs of Stockholm Syndrome in this series, and Kookity Mom’s last scene made me throw up my hands; any attempt to soften a villain or get us to sympathize with a villain at the expense of an abused child is piss-poor writing; it lays bare a false redemption.
The next line from Kang-sun rang so false as to send chills down my spine. I know the modus operandi. I know a narcissist. Kang-sun promises to make seaweed soup next year for her child–not on the dead daughter Ga-on’s birthday, but on Ji-shim’s actual birthday. The line is manipulative; it is meant to elicit sympathy from the one supporter Kookity Cakes has left–and from the audience.
Jin-shim, who all her life had craved a mother, who had known no other mother but this evil one and who in her goodness still wanted the best for this pathetic woman, expresses such relief and happiness at Choi Kang-sun’s promise that I … I am still raging.
Throwing ALL THE VEGETABLES at the monitor should Bachelor’s Vegetable Store across my monitor again would not express my rage–I don’t care how many times Ji Chang Wook takes off his shirt (if I recall it’s often; the man must have it in his contract to remove his shirt at least once in every K-drama).
It is another maligned orphan’s story who makes the partial redemption of Chun in Warrior Baek Dong-soo so horrible for me. Granted, the well-written, never-boring, charming Chun (who flashes all the markers of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, by the way–you don’t have to agree with me, but these types of people rarely are cured) appears to fulfill the first of the redemption criteria; he seems sorry for the path he chose. Second, he performs one redemptive act. Unfortunately it is not to the right person (or persons). Third, his redemptive act is witnessed, with tears, by a young, vulnerable woman (who he has NOT wronged) and by a whole army of bad guys with weapons and cross-bows, but those whom Chun has indeed wronged (murdered, kidnapped, set on an inevitable path towards suicide) are not at all fully touched by a satisfying redemptive act.
Earlier, I mentioned that the history of the redemptive act is more important than the history of the character himself. With Chun, we get a clear reason as to why he feels bad about his whole life. The person he cared about the most is killed. He gets more than a little defeated after that. He cries like crazy in a revealing scene; rivers of snot run out of his nose. He’s heart-breaking to watch in what is one of Choi Min-soo’s most intimate pieces of acting. I get it. He’s a damn fine actor. What I don’t get is that Chun, the character, feels that sorry for anyone else but himself.
Chun feels pain here, no doubt. It is a moment of grief, followed by a few days of sleep-walking purpose-less-ness. He has no-one left to fight. He has lost the love of his life. It is too late for me to feel sorry for him, even as he continues to fascinate me as a character. And it is too late for him to redeem himself–or stop future horrible consequences in the narrative that have been set into motion by his misdeeds. His disciple, Yeo Woon, recruited by him as a child, has been so mind-fucked by Chun, that Woon’s suicide seems pre-determined by this point. More about Chun’s words to Woon below.
I mentioned earlier that a good back-story helps a good redemption, even if it is not necessary for a complete one. In Chun’s particular case, knowing that he had ever been anything but someone who had once loved manipulating those around him (all we saw within the series proper) would’ve helped his redemption to be complete. Because if Chun was not a simple narcissist, then he was a character with fascinating potential; nonetheless, the first time I watched this series, I wanted to know more about him; the tiny bit back-story he got only told us that he loved this one woman to the point of obsession; his other obsession seemed to be proving himself to be the best fighter (he traveled the world to prove that). There was one hint that once upon a time, he may have not have been such a bad guy? Or was that the misguided delusion of his best friend/also rival he wanted to kill, a man known as Sword Saint? This larger backstory hinted at in a series I adored for its very allusive (and very hinty-hint) poetic, haunting script never gave audiences a single reason to forgive Chun, although it may have allowed some people (not meeee) to cry for him.
Chun does tell Yeo Woon late in the story that Chun himself lied to Woon. He doesn’t list other myriad trespasses to the twelve-year-old child he essentially seduced from an abusive home, trained to become an assassin, ordered to kill his own father, then ordered to kill the friends Woon had grown up with as a teenager (the list goes on). Chun mind-fucked Woon for ten years, all during which Woon lost much of his memory from Chun-induced trauma. “I suppose you blame me,” our clearly unrepentant villain says to his victim. See? He doesn’t apologize. Like a narcissist, he is concerned with how he is perceived.
Oh, while Chun is in the throes of grieving the woman of his life and feeling down in the dumps about his second love (the fighting–there’s no one to fight anymore after his rival dies), he does tell Woon “don’t follow my path” on two occasions. But it’s too late. The words, coming from a man who threatened Woon’s own life, don’t come with any significant instructions on how to escape a bloody past or how to atone for years of murdering people; the words seem, as always, to be Chun talking to himself. Woon was Chun’s designated heir of the assassin guild. As such, in the case with narcissists, Woon was a projection of Chun himself. In any event, Chun, like a true narcissist, is incapable of apologizing to anyone for anything and can’t see the young man before him for the wounded person he is.
I more thoroughly (and controversially) discuss Chun’s effects on Yeo Woon in the essay that precedes this one on WordPress (“Whose Fault was it Yeo Woon Killed Himself?”); Yeo Woon is a character in K-drama who has had a profound and long-lasting impact on me. This blog is named after him. I fully own that my own issues with abuse by a narcissist resonate with Chun’s abuse of Woon. The series Warrior Baek Dong-soo itself, while one of my favorite action fusion-sageuk, doesn’t make my top five drama list, although it still feels like a shadow I saw in a mirror once, and Yeo Woon has become, in many ways, a psychological avatar and a cautionary tale for my personal life.
Chun had a sad end. It appeared, on the surface, to be redemptive. It wasn’t.
In Chun’s final scene, he saves a life. He has already been mortally wounded in a battle with Woon and is being pummeled by the slings and arrows of what usually happens to really really bad guys in K-dramas. Yet the daughter of the woman he loved so much has sparked some tenderness in him. Interestingly, he knows this girl is the biological daughter of his rival. The girl has experienced only kindness from Chun in person over the course of a few days (compare that to what Woon has experienced over ten years from Chun). Even while knowing him to be the leader of a murderous assassin guild, before the onslaught of arrows would begin, this lovely girl begged him to run away. In his arms, she’s in the way of the arrows, and Chun swings around, shielding her body with his. Jin-joo (oh I love her in this series–she’s so brave and self-determining) cries for Chun. Chun is gentle with her in his last moments. Audiences weep for Chun.
What about those who Chun killed? Still dead. The gisaeng he manipulated and trained to be a spy? The boy he mind-fucked who would grow into a suicidal young man? Yeo Woon who would take the blame (literal credit–as in saying “I killed the Crown Prince” when it was Chun himself who had done so), the way the victims of narcissistic programming do? Criteron two again? Redemptive act? How did Chun ever fix what he had done to Woon?
Again, no matter how touching partial redemptive scenes may be and how they may affect some characters in a drama and some members of drama audiences, any attempt to soften a villain or get us to sympathize with a villain at the expense of an abused child is piss-poor writing; it lays bare a false redemption.
I don’t want to throw vegetables at my monitor when I play snippets of Warrior Baek Dong-soo as I did to catch screencaps for this piece. I like the scene when Chun is gutted like a pumpkin by Woon in an beautifully choreographed, eerily lit moonlight sword-fight. I enjoy Chun’s scene with his beloved, Ga-ok, in a forest of bamboo, where she lies his head on his lap, and it is understood that their relationship is broken, that she loves another man, that she loves Chun as well, that she is a prisoner as much as he is to a life of being an assassin. I also enjoy the true redemption of Yeo Woon, as he forsakes the life of an assassin, saves the lives of those he was ordered to kill, is more instrumental than the titular character in stopping the historical coup against the Prince Heir’s life and yet…this young man would kill himself anyway. I can’t watch the final episode. Chun is long dead by the time it plays, but the consequences of his failed redemption are there–bleeding all over a wheat field.
*comes up for air*
Time for the BIG ONE. It is 17th century Joseon-era Korea. The word chuno is a portmanteau of “chase” and “slave.” Chuno, the sageuk also known as Slave-hunter, can be seen to as a literal chase towards various desired goals, not only runaway slaves, but as a chase after lost loves, vengeance, and proof of one’s own self-worth. And of course, who is a true slave? Those who live by principles decided for them by others or those who are literally owned by other people?
Clashing swords in the sageuk Chuno are two men who once fought as brothers-in-arms: on the left, the faultless idealist Tae-ha (played by Oh Ji-ho), and on the right, the man I hated so much I hissed when he came on-screen.
The redemption that knocked my socks off and set my brain on fire happened in Chuno, a sageuk that required me to play scenes over and over, and then watch the series again and again and again. The story was re-watchable largely in part to the lead actor, Jang Hyuk, one of my favorites, but he was not the redemption character in this story. In Tree with Deep Roots (maybe my favorite K-drama), Jang Hyuk did play a character who had a pure redemption arc, a character whose story we see from childhood to death, someone who evolves from wanting to murder the king to fighting for the king’s cause, but like the reluctant assassin Yeo Woon in Warrior Baek Dong-soo, the avenging, would-be assassin Ddol-bok in Tree with Deep Roots is never truly heinous. Now, the character Jang Hyuk plays in the stunning sageuk Chuno, like all the characters in this bawdy story is a flawed character who does very bad things for reasons audiences understand fully; his redemption, if one can even call it that, is so organic that it does not require one specific melodramatic scene. Like Yeo Woon’s coming-of-age story within an assassin guild, Lee Dae-gil’s character is a guy who chases down runaway slaves for money and also a guy who saves people; his redemption is ongoing within the series and consists of acts performed throughout the narrative.
Redemptions seem somewhat unnecessary in a narrative in which most characters are so fully aware of their actions and those actions’ consequences; the world in Chuno is harsh and believable (but at least no children are kidnapped and mind-fucked in this drama, so I’m not triggered). Chuno is a straightforward tale, full of farts, toe-nail clippings, folks taking dumps and having actual off-screen sex–gasp! It’s so different from the allusive Warrior Baek Dong-Soo, and I love that instead of a haunting, symphonic OST like the aforementioned drama, Chuno’s soundtrack gives us some hip hop moments!
Again, as relatable as the main character played by Jang Hyuk in Chuno is, it’s not his story that set off the Chinese New Year in my brain or shot me through the heart (I was shot through the heart by the muskets used in this drama–oh the fighting scenes! Muskets! Scimitars! Daggers! Hand-to-hand!). The redemption tale of all time in K-drama, for me so far, belongs to a character named Commander Hwang Chul-woong, played with icy brilliance by Lee Jong-hyuk.
I fully expected Chul-woong to die for his sins. He killed so many people for selfish reasons. He even ended up killing our main, beloved character, Dae-gil! He marched through the series swathed in darkness. He was like Chuno’s Darth Vader–I shuddered every time he appeared on screen. I knew there would be a bloodbath. His surviving the series was a surprise. Why was his such an effective and well-written redemption?
We learn that Chul-woong is a nobleman who fought bravely during the Manchurian Invasion (2nd one, I believe–sageuk sweep me to Google too much). Rescued by one of the principal characters, the faultless idealist Tae-ha, Chul-woong swore that he would repay his comrade with his own life one day. Yet, one of the first times we see Chul-woong post-war, he is ordering escaped slaves to be blinded with red hot pokers. As we witness the gaping disparity between the brave soldier with a singular purpose and the commander over slaves, we wonder if this man knows who he is or who he serves. Why has he become so brutal?
One evening Chul-woong comes home to his wife, a woman with cerebral palsy who adores him. He ignores her. He has always ignored her. He was tricked into marrying her by her scheming father. Her father is Lee Gyeon-sik, a high-ranking court politician, the mastermind of most evils in the narrative, the true villain whose only motive appears to be self-gain, a man who never has a second of self-doubt and is never redeemed (in the end, he goes out with a literal bang, bang, goodbye baddie). We watch Chul-woong be kind to his mother; he promises her that he’ll buy her a house one day and that they’ll all live together (in the Joseon era, a son-in-law living at the father-in-law’s home is unheard of–there’s some power trippin afoot, but Chul-woong seems to be either too spineless to stand up to his Evil Father-in-Law, or the Evil Father-in-Law is that powerful and Chul-woong wants part of that power–the audience isn’t sure). We discover that Chul-woong, at Evil Father-in-Law’s behest, betrayed his friend (faultless idealist Tae-ha) in exchange for a high rank while Tae-ha was framed into slavery. Evil Father-in-law then has Chul-woong imprisoned for this or that, puts a price on the head of the man (faultless idealist Tae-ha) who saved Chul-woong in the war, and convinces his son-in-law to assassinate the royal successor, a three-year-old child currently in hiding.
Chul-woong’s disabled wife spends hours writing a letter telling her husband that her father is a dangerous man, but when Chul-woong sees her writing, he complains he can’t read her scribbles nor understand her words. He’s blind to her. He leaves the house in disgust, blinded to any sense of compassion or family life, obsessed with following an evil man’s commands to the hilt.
It’s noteworthy that before Chul-woong leaves to go a-killin and a-sinnin, he stops by his mother’s house and cannot enter to say goodbye. He bows at the threshold.
I see a man who made a choice, perhaps a man who believed he had no other choice. Some of the world’s worst men were kind to their mothers, after all. But the bits of backstory are telling; they show a man who clearly was a good man once (we never had enough evidence in court to make that case for Chun, and forget Bachelor Store’s Kookity Mom). If I had been paying attention the first time I watched this drama, I might have noticed the foreshadowing; I might have remembered that good people are more easily driven to bad deeds and then redeemed than bad people are moved to change bad behaviors.
Nice to Mom? But he treated his disabled wife so miserably. How could I feel sympathy for him? There was that promise to buy her a house, though. Did he fall to his father-in-law’s will in order to gain money and power for the sake of his mother? Did he eventually realize that his actions would bring her shame? Naueri, you were complicated from the beginning of the story, like everyone else in Chuno, and I didn’t want to see the other layer because the killing machine you became was so monstrous and hateful.
As the story progressed, I was far too in love with so many of the other characters, and Captain Hwang Chul-woong simply fell into my “Oh how I hate you” column.
The plots and subplots, the romances (I’m not a big fan of romance stories, but the ones in Chuno gutted me), the uproarious comedy scenes, and the intrigues involving both the high court and the lowest slave classes make Chuno one of my all-time fave anythings, up there with cats, Emily Dickinson, and pad Thai. The whole time Chuno is progressing, one marvelous episode after another, Chul-woong is killing. He kills so much he hires folks to dispose of the bodies. He spears the love interest of a really cool dude just before she’s about to tell Cool Dude her name. Shit, Chul-woong, she was a nice lady. That murder on his long list, Chul-woong then encounters Tae-ha, gets his ass kicked, and staggers home in despair, past his mother’s house (he can’t face her) and falls in the street. He’s carried by a policeman to his home where his wife is worried, but Evil Father-in-Law tells him that if he fails again, even his corpse will not have a resting place in the family home.
Sympathy from me? No.
Had I been paying attention the first time I watched this drama, though, I would’ve noted a tectonic shift in the family dynamic before Chul-woong leaves to go a-killin again. He actually speaks to his wife. He’s cruel as ever, but he tells her: “The biggest mistake in my life was marrying you. Listen well to my words. I will reveal this for all to see, when I stomp on your father and stand over and on top of him.” And the poor wife rejoices—because for the first time, her husband has talked to her as if she could understand and has told her something of importance. And it appears that Chul-woong has realized how much Evil Father-in-Law has played him. Is it at this moment that Chul-woong, in his own demented way, decides not to be a slave?
Chul-woong promptly wins all the villain awards by killing off our beloved main character Dae-gil’s two best bros and only family. NOOOooooo. He kills Tae-ha’s men, all of whom are defending the toddler prince. Powerful soldiers and scholars are cut down, one by one, by Chul-woong’s blade.
Tae-ha asks our wonderful Dae-gil late in the story: “Back in the day, did you not wish to change the world yourself? To make a world without yangban [nobles] or commoners? Did you not dream of making a world where… you could spend your entire life in peace with the woman you love?” Dae-gil responds that yes he did, but this was before he encountered reality. Yet, in the very end, this jaded man entrusts that dream to change the world to Tae-ha and to the woman he (Dae-gil) has loved all his life and who is now married to Tae-ha. “Go,” Dae-gil tells the married couple, as all are fighting off Chul-woong’s men. “Go,” says Dae-gil to the man and wife entrusted with the innocent toddler prince. “You must survive and make a better world.”
It is in those words themselves that I hear the cues for Chul-woong’s redemption.
Chul-woong’s final battle is with Dae-gil. They seem to kill one another over and over they fight so hard. Dae-gil, who has seen so much in his life from nobleman to slave-hunter, from idealist to realist, doesn’t care why Chul-woong is fighting; Dae-gil only wants to protect those people who are trying to escape Chul-woong. When Chul-woong, who knows Dae-gil only as a slave-hunter, asks why he is trying to protect Tae-ha of all people, Dae-gil answers that the fool saved him once.
Ouch. Maybe those words cut deeper than a blade.
Dae-gil goes on about how Tae-ha said that he would change the world. Chul-woong, looking for all the world like he is dying, is paying attention. Blood is running from his mouth. Something in him is dying. The first time I saw Chuno I was rooting–“Ding dong, Naeuri’s dead!” But the second and third times?
Dae-gil spoke to the Killing Machine that Chul-woong had become and assessed him accurately: “You may resent this world, but you shouldn’t resent people. Nice, isn’t it? Even if we only rid this world of people like you and me, I’m sure… it will be a better place.”
Dying himself, quite literally from wounds inflicted by Chul-woong, Dae-gil rushes forward towards more armed men. At this point, Chul-woong calls back some of his men who are going to pursue Tae-ha. Redemptive act one. He allows Tae-ha to escape and opens a door so his old comrade can begin to change the world. Chul-woong, bleeding from what looks like almost everywhere a man can be cut, stands up like a man who has been changed.
Dae-gil dies. Beautifully. In the lap of a teenage street performer who loves him and who sings him a song as she covers his grave with stones. His comrades who we thought were killed by Chul-woong actually survived–it turns out Dae-gil saved enough money from slave-hunting to buy them houses and property. The little prince escapes, no worse for the wear–ah, whew, at least no child was tortured and traumatized in this K-drama, merely chased.
Literally, Chul-woong performs no redemptive act that brings back any person he has killed; he does no jail time; he does let the object of his long, bloody chase escape. But does he acknowledge the mess he’s made of his life? Yes. That much is clear from what he does in his final scene. Does he take Dae-gil’s words to heart? Is he going to perform redemptive acts in the future? You tell me. The answer to this question is what is crucial to making Captain Hwang Chul-woong’s redemption thorough and complete; as it stands, it is ambiguous. He may have given up the chase, but as we saw with Chun in Warrior Baek Dong-soo, a man who merely stops doing bad stuff is not a thoroughly redeemed man. Apologies need to be made to the right people; if there has been someone grievously wounded, then that someone needs to be healed.
Did you not dream of making a world where… you could spend your entire life in peace with the woman you love?
Chul-woong, bleeding, returns home. Evil Father-in-Law is dead. Didn’t Chul-woong swear that he would pronounce to the world that his greatest mistake was marrying a disabled woman? Did Chul-woong resent his father-in-law so much for manipulating him into marriage that he swore to stand on his body after defeating him?
It wasn’t Chul-woong who killed the series’ main villain; that honor belongs to Eopbok the sniper, a lowly slave who managed to enter the palace, shoot a few yangban, and kerplow Evil Father-in-Law right between the eyes. Of course, the assassination was a sacrifice; the slave was captured; the palace doors closed on him, but Eopbok completed his mission and would die free, his principles intact.
Chul-woong had failed in his mission. At the door of his wife’s home, he stands with grieving eyes. He reaches for her hands with his own trembling ones. He weeps. He falls onto her lap, sobbing.
He has never touched her before.
The scene rang as a true redemption to me; it was startling–I never expected to see the stone-faced Chul-woong crack in the slightest (a fond look towards his mother, maybe) but here he was, a wreck of remorse, stricken with the inability to speak like his wife, and yet we know she understands him.
She may be a too-saintly figure in a series full of fleshed-out characters, but Chul-woong’s wife, in her beautiful state of perfect mercy may be the only person before whom he can beg forgiveness. She represents divine, unconditional love and a reminder of his unworthiness and sin. Has she ever not loved him even while he spurned her? For her, the cruel perpetrator was her father. Is there the possibility now of a real marriage and children? I think so. In that lonely house, the outcast and pitiful person is not the woman with cerebral palsy but the man who made so many wrong choices. The redemption lies like his head in her lap–it is only a promise, not a fulfilled redemption. But of all the redemptive scenes I’ve witnessed in K-drama land, it is unmatched.
Like Dae-gil’s dream of a better world in the midst of a cruel reality, it is only a hope of a full and complete redemption. But sometimes that hope is everything.
Chul-woong isn’t dead. Unlike Kookity Mom who abused her orphan daughter for years and ended up in a mental home or Chun who died, Chul-woong is very much alive and with his wife, fully capable of a lifetime of making it all up to her.
I’ll leave you with one of my most beloved characters, Seol-hwa, the teenage street performer/prostitute who Dae-gil saves time and time again and who provides a sweet lyric to the blood and sadness in the script when the occasion calls.
Having wandered away from Dae-gil and his boys, lost among strangers, drinking, giving them the money she got from selling Dae-gil’s horses, Seol-hwa dances and sings in the folk jap-ga style about the promise of love and redemption.
As with Seol-hwa’s song, Chuno ends with a question. As with the question of Chul-woong’s future, all of our futures are unknowable. Is there forgiveness for sin? Will utmost sincerity give you abundance? Will there be a better world to come?
Let me give you my answer to those questions. As with Tae-ha and Dae-gil and others in the story–as with eventually Chul-woong–we must first come to believe that a better world will come… and then work to make it so. That process of bringing about a better world is itself an act of redemption. Whether we are murderers or whether we are sinners of the most ordinary garden variety, none of us is beyond a little redeeming. And the message of Chuno is that redemption lies within the reach of us all.