I spent the better portion of my last Friday night of fall quarter knee-deep in a sea of emotions elicited from currently-airing Korean drama, Valid Love. Having steered away from any spoilers of the show over the past two weeks (thank goodness), I went into the show blind and halfway through the first episode, concluded that the show is offbeat and strange and tonally kind of whack, but it is also surprisingly introspective. The show, I thought, has a quirky sense of humor which is exactly my cuppa and one I don’t mind keeping up with for the next few months…
…until the first episode ended in a totally-didn’t-see-it coming teaser preview.
Uh, what? Uhhh, what? That was my reaction, as I furiously clicked for episode two and down into the rabbit hole I go because two is met with three and then four…
The next thing I know, it’s 330 AM and I’m aching, bleeding love for the characters and surprise, surprise – Valid Love took a different tone as it phased out of Lee Shi Young‘s Kim Il Ri Andromeda-otherworldly teenage years of youthful exuberance and foolishness to the realities of growing up and adulthood or y’know, this thing called life.
I’ll be honest: Valid Love isn’t the most original show, nor does it have the most innovative premise. The study of marital affairs is also as old as it comes and quite honestly Valid Love‘s distant cousin Secret Love Affair, which aired earlier this year to much buzz and analyses in drama land is probably the more superior case study (though I couldn’t palate that show, so there is in fact a lot more that goes on beyond technical craft and quality execution) . What I mean to say is, it’s not like Valid Love is inventing something we haven’t seen before and yet it hits all the right buttons for me and really, sincerely, moved me on a visceral level. I think that says a lot.
If you’re familiar with the writer, Kim Do Woo, then you’re probably familiar with her earlier works namely the hugely popular My Name is Kim Sam-soon, What’s Up Fox and my personal favorite Me Too, Flower, which also means you’ll probably notice similar set-ups and tropes that appear in all her (okay I’m actually not sure if writer-nim is female or male, my apologies, but I’m going under the assumption it’s a she unless someone corrects me otherwise) shows. Don’t believe me? Let’s see… single mum with two daughters and the heroine’s the elder of the two? Check. Spunky, quirky female lead? Check. Inner monologue by way of a character, imaginary or alternate-side character? Check. Of course there’s enough variation in her shows and not that these similar elements are a hindrance to any of these shows, but it’s like they make it easy for me to verify that ah yes, same writer. But enough about that because like all of writer-nim‘s work, Valid Love stands tall on its own merits. What this writer does so effing well is character study and growth, and her latest work is no exception to these aspects.
The show is also beautifully shot that time and again while watching Valid Love, I’ve to remind myself this is a drama and not a movie because the show makes me feel like I’m watching an arthouse film. Maybe it’s because I don’t watch the latter enough, but then again I think my reaction proves how integral and significant this element is to the overall flavor of the show – why it’s the real deal. PD-nim makes good use of the fall landscape and its colors. Scenes are often layered with a soft palette too, resulting in a show that’s so strikingly subdued without being somber, dreamy without coming off unrealistic, and breathtaking without coming off as merely aesthetically appealing.
It is a riveting watch with leading characters who are layered, flawed, strange, and above all, ordinary. Or maybe ordinary isn’t really the right word to use when one thinks of Il Ri and her once alien (literally) thoughts – maybe what it comes down to is just how human they seem. Uhm Tae Woong‘s Jang Hee Tae is a beta-male, in my opinion, and ordinary as he comes but lucky for us, Uhm Tae Woong is also an amazing and talented actor with an efficacious natural charm that grows on his viewers so this trait of his adds a layer of sincerity to his character. Like Il Ri, Hee Tae isn’t without flaws of his own and he’s… one could argue he is weak-minded but I really like how down-to-earth and ordinary he feels, like some dude who just stumbled upon a show and finds himself as their reluctant main character. More about them in a bit cos right now…
The character that definitely needs more peeling and layers is none other than Lee Soo Hyuk‘s Kim Joon or Carpenter Kim (or as DDee puts it and my personal favorite, sexy mofo). I’m not sure if it’s because the actor is the most limited actor of the three, but I’m not yet faulting him for lacking technicalities and gravitas because right now (up to episode four) I do think his character is supposed to be somewhat mysterious, a little devil-may-care, a lot more broody and just so goddamn irresistibly beautiful.
Thinking objectively, I’m a little irked that he’s characterized this way because of course the show also believes that for marital affairs to happen, the third-leg of the triangle has to be irresistibly attractive with this mysterious aura. Pffft. I mean, not that this doesn’t happen but let’s be realistic for a second here that marital affairs happen for many reasons and between people who look as ordinary as (maybe) you and me with jobs as normal as you and (not yet) me have and personalities so varied from bumbling to cool-as-cucumber. What I’m trying to say is that the generalized view about why affairs happen tends to be skewed to that of the third-person being so attractive that one can’t resist him or her, but honestly that’s a possibility and not a condition.
This quibble aside though, I agree and understand that for entertainment purposes, of course this kind of character makes for a more interesting watch. Also, I do like his characterization – mostly how much of a solitary being he is, seemingly by choice. He’s got himself a man-cave and working studio and you can tell the devil, literally, is in the details with how meticulous he is with his tools and even coffee. Okay I’m not sure if I’m explaining this well, but to me it’s the subtleties in the details; it’s his belongings and actions that actually paint his characteristics, in contrast to Il Ri’s show-and-tell ways or Hee Tae’s internalize-and-tell approach. I actually like how different the writer’s approaches are in fleshing out each main character, because from a distance, this also reflects their personalities.
To me, the subtleties also explain why Il Ri’s so drawn to him. He’s that potent mix of danger and desire, and subconsciously she knows she’s playing with fire but can’t seem to pull away. Or maybe it comes down to choices and decisions, and without realizing it, she’s actually already decided to have her taste of the burning ember. I’m not about to extend my moral conscience here because this show’s messed up my moral compass somewhat, but I will say that from my observation, affairs-centered stories are often met with extremely strong opinions and judgments; sometimes merited but mostly debatable.
I’m not saying that I condone affairs especially given my limited scope of experience in the love and relationship department (read: nonexistent) and like with everything in life, theoretical knowledge is mostly useless against experience so it doesn’t really matter how much I claim to know and have heard about affairs, real or fictional. Still, what I’m certain is I’m not about to go up to suspected perpetrators with a pitchfork on one hand and claws on the other …which is something I usually find in the comments section of this show and shows like it.
I’ve found that for many people, there are no gray areas when it comes to affairs – it is a no, period – and as usual, gender inequality takes context in a lot of these common perceptions – for some reason, women always bear the more sinister and heavier brunt and name-calling regardless whether they’re the victims or perpetrators – and I mean, on a larger picture viewpoint that’s great because it means that morality is not lost in governing conscience, but it also tends to make me feel like I shouldn’t have any opinions about this regardless if I know anything about it or nothing at all.
(Okay maybe I just don’t want those pitchfork and claws directed my way)
To be honest I don’t really have a solid and firm judgment right now and I dare not (yet) answer the overarching question this show asks, which is, “Is an affair validated by love an acceptable (forgivable?) relationship?” because I think we’re still only barely scratching the surface of the affair – what happened, why it happened, who’s really at fault et cetera. The first two episodes painted the backstory for us and it is as melancholic as it is lovely because it reminds us, as memories of the past tends to do, that once upon a time, everyone has history and innocence and naïvety; there was a you who didn’t know what you know now. The what if this didn’t happen context is of course intended to mess up our psyche, possibly even meant to have us empathize and sympathize with the active parties in the affair that’ll take place and I mean, I don’t know how much they’re succeeding but it definitely colored my viewpoints, especially because we fast-forward to 14 years later and well, funny how life turns out isn’t it? It’s not rosy-tinted and I like how realistic the disintegration of Hee Jae’s family is and how Il Ri takes on the task head-on as opposed to woe-is-me sentimentalism, but I think my favorite aspect about this is how it’s like the writer’s trying to remind us that not all that is broken is lost. Not all hardships break characters, and not all hearts are made from glass. None of these excuse the decisions made to go ahead with an affair, but if anything I take it as a premonition-of-sorts that there’s always two sides to a story, and yes, people make irredeemable mistakes and stupid decisions but those actions don’t automatically mean they’re bad, cruel people.
My approach with this show is that I will take and judge as it comes, rather than screaming from the first scene of the first episode, “This bitch! I hate her for cheating on him later!” because uh, that’s pitchfork behavior right there isn’t it? Like I said earlier, I think Il Ri’s playing with fire here and knows it, and is trying to justify it as this curiosity that will otherwise kill her. To me proximity is also an issue i.e. it doesn’t help that they’re practically neighbors so when the temptation inside her expands, it’s so easy to feed it. I also believe that all affairs are rooted in basic, instinctive human desires – that wanting, aching, pulsating core inside each of us. They come in different shapes and forms, but our reactions are fundamentally human, in my opinion – the longing, curiosity, overthinking, denial and self-justifications. Where it gets tricky and messy and up for debate is when they’re acted upon – when choices are made and decisions lead to points of no return where people are fully accountable for good and bad outcomes.
So in my opinion, in that sense, no question Il Ri is wrong for feeding the flame by coming back, again and again, to Carpenter Kim’s man-cave. For intruding into his personal space repeatedly without seemingly getting a clue how much that’s irksome to him, but also how affecting because desires grow within him too. Frankly loneliness is such an easy and overused excuse when it comes to reasoning affairs and so I’m not about to go down to this route (yet?), but I kind of think that partly why Il Ri and Joon are kindred souls drawn to each other is not only because both of them do hard labor and thus share similar appreciation and passion for building and putting things together by hand, but also that they’re both lonely souls. I think all solitary beings, which Joon is, is to a degree inherently lonely and my take is she kind of is too – she’s such a chatterbox because she does a lot more actual doing than having her loved ones listen to her. I don’t think these are the be-all reasons for their affair nor do they justify anything, but I’m seeing the threads of their commonality. I honestly don’t know where my understanding, if any, about their characters and situations will take me and how much that’ll affect my answer to the show’s thematic question because understanding doesn’t mean accepting, but I’m intrigued and perplexed over their motivations and brimming desires. It is… for lack of a better term – deliciously sinful to contemplate.
Valid Love is in a way like Nodame Cantabile in the sense that we’re looking at the show primarily from the lenses of our male protagonist, which in this case is Uhm Tae Woong‘s Hee Tae, yet the female protagonist is so larger-than-life that she fills our senses and screens anyway with her presence and spirit. I’m saying this because as much as I feel for Hee Tae and love his quiet monologues and afterthoughts, strangely I’m not certain of my opinions about him. I feel for him and I think he is a good person – a good character and a good husband – and although I do have some quibbles about his rapport with Il Ri when she was a student and him her substitute teacher (though to be fair, he did try to define the boundaries but she persistently bulldozed her way through and therefore foiled each of his attempt), I appreciate how he reacted when she got into the accident for him. I think that scene really speaks of his character and I also find it only natural that he purposely lost contact with her over the seven years that he was abroad. I don’t believe that all my heroes and heroines have to be strong, vocal characters either, but funnily I’m still uncertain where I’d place him. I find him ordinary and down-to-earth, but not weak-minded. I think Il Ri wears the pants in their relationship right from their very first encounter, but I don’t think he’s a pushover. Maybe in the end, I just find him a sweet, nice boy who turned into an equally sweet, nice man who is content of his lot in life, however small that seems like to others. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t think it’s because he’s a douche husband or a weak person or basically, it’s his characteristic traits that cause the affair to happen – it’s simply that such is life where unpleasant things happen to good people.
I don’t know if I’m offering anything meaty or in-depth to the show – I’m really sorry if I’m not because I don’t sound very coherent even to myself to be honest, but I am strangely deeply and disturbingly affected by this show. I respond really strongly, emotionally, to Il Ri and Hee Tae as individuals and as a couple that they are, and find that I’m playing with fire myself with how intrigued I am by that sexy mofo disguised as a carpenter who is himself, not a bad person.
Unlike some people, I’m not turned off by Lee Shi Young and don’t find her over-the-top – people who’ve seen (and loved) her in Wild Romance would know that her comedic chops and quirks are au naturale – and I really empathize with her character. I don’t agree with everything Il Ri does and I don’t love everything about her, but she is undoubtedly the heart of this show. Of course I’m curious how the affair will play out and I’m bracing myself for the hurt and complexity in emotions and outcomes, but I want to hold steadfast in believing that the affair is not the only definition of who she is because thinking so is an insult to her character.
In only four episodes, Il Ri has taught me about the resilience of the human spirit in the face of multiple daily adversities, but mostly reminds me that ‘real women’ aren’t limited to those with class, sophistication, and outspokenness because bravery and strength carry multiple meanings. For facing every hardship head-on with full heart, infinite optimism, and active showmanship – she doesn’t get it right nor does she engage in acceptable societal behaviors all the time, and you can even call me crazy for saying and believing this but for me that’s exactly her charm: Il Ri is the epitome of all-woman with her unapologetic humor and honesty, and to that I say, soldier on.