The Strange Case of Valid Love: Deliciously Sinful & Stirringly Evocative.

Valid Love (2014)
Valid Love (2014)

 

Happy Holidays!

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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Disclaimer: All screen caps are properly credited in the photo descriptions.
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7 thoughts on “The Strange Case of Valid Love: Deliciously Sinful & Stirringly Evocative.

  1. How lovely! I really like your take on the show so far. And I totally enjoy “Valid Love”. My main complaint is the narration. I’m not a fan of going back and forth between post-affair Hee Tae’s POV and how the affair takes place based on the explanations Il Ri gave him and Joon’s POV right in the middle of telling the story and stuff happen that other characters can’t possibly know about (like when Joon smells her scarf)… I feel like the writer is purposely going back and forth to give us many perspectives and other POVs can pass off as what Hee Tae imagines them to be… but it’s not working for me at all. I can overlook this, though. I’m about to watch episode 4 (i mean, the full episode, not just lee soo hyuk’s cuts), so maybe everything I mention gets an answer xD

    As for Joon…Side note: I really wish Lee Soo Hyuk would get characters that have a nice and gentle first kiss for a change. But yeah, I think he’s a regular guy, not in the Hee-Tae regular way, but I like how he can have the guy-next-door vibe and the mysterious vibe.

    Since you mentioned “Secret Love Affair”, I think “Secret Love Affair” had a more subtle approach about Hye Won’s past to let the viewer know that her marriage was nothing more than a contract to climb the social ladder. I’m still not too sure about Hee Tae-Il Ri’s relationship here. In-laws’ craziness and unnie’s sickness aside, I find nothing compelling about their love story. For Hee Tae, there can be, maybe, a sense of duty because she saved his life… Considering how much of a wreck Hee Tae’s family turned out and yet Il Ri still puts up with everything, it was enough for me to show that she loves Hee Tae. The high school flashback really weakened their relationship in my eyes because they explained she had a sense of duty toward him out of…”first love/puppy love/fascination”. I don’t know. I guess I would have liked it better if we spent a bit more time on how they reunite when she’s an adult (something more than getting drunk to prove that they’re adult) and the beginning of their married life. I mean, where did they meet the first time, uh? Aren’t we allowed to know how things are going in the bedroom except for the fact they’ve been trying to have kids for 7 years? Have they been trying, though? I’m not too sure…

    I’m one of those who don’t place love (feelings) and interest (marriage as a contract) on the same level. If you can have them both at the same time, it’s great, but marriage doesn’t equal love to me and I feel like that’s why so many people are so quick to be judgemental when it comes to cheating. I find it even more interesting because the “love contract” trope is actually one of the biggest trends in K-Drama/fanfictions. Two people who don’t love each other get married and fall in love after hating each other… Many people are okay with that and don’t see the other perspective which is “two people who don’t love each other get married and still don’t fall in love with each other afterward” which is actually the most realistic outcome for me. That’s my biggest problem with Hee Tae-Il Ri’s relationship. I just don’t know how much validity I want to give to their love because I don’t understand what it’s based on. (Okay enough wih the long comment xD)

    1. Hey 1sunnylady, thanks for reading and commenting!! Don’t worry about the length, love that you pointed out some things I thought of too but didn’t touch upon (took me forever to write this haha) and others I didn’t even think of or didn’t bother me in the same way.

      I’m glad you pointed out the narration style!! Totally forgot to address that and aw, I’m sorry you don’t like it – I actually find that such a clever approach and like you said the writer’s definitely doing it on purpose. The thought I had was it’s like the PD/writer is again trying to knock it into us that nothing is as it seems and there’s always more beneath the surface. You’re probably watching ep4 right now, but I’ll just say it anyway that unfortunately ep4 doesn’t really clear the air about this haha. I think it’s the approach the show intends to stick to so I’m relieved you can overlook this and enjoy the show!

      The last time I saw him, I think it was… White Christmas. Don’t think I watched the shows in-between that and this (usually just watch him on his fashion show and whatnot but as himself) – has he always played characters who goes in for the kill from the first kiss? I like how this kiss played out, but I see what you mean about wishing he does gentler or just more ‘normal’ characters cos I do feel like he’s getting typecast to this rebellion-without-a-cause kind of characters.

      OH you don’t find anything compelling about Il Ri and Hee Tae’s relationship? Ah I’m… surprised but hmm very interesting to look at it from a different POV. “For Hee Tae, there can be, maybe, a sense of duty because she saved his life… Considering how much of a wreck Hee Tae’s family turned out and yet Il Ri still puts up with everything, it was enough for me to show that she loves Hee Tae. The high school flashback really weakened their relationship in my eyes because they explained she had a sense of duty toward him out of…”first love/puppy love/fascination”. I actually don’t think it’s a sense of duty for Hee Tae cos even before the accident honestly they’re crushing and flirting with each other- rather subtly because of their societal roles but definitely interest and something genuine brewing there. So to me while he carried the shame with him for 7 years while abroad, I never doubted he genuinely loves her. BUT I’m with you about the sense of duty sentiments override into long-lasting love for Il Ri towards him. I don’t exactly doubt her love towards him and I think because their end was abrupt and not properly ‘closed’, those puppy love sentiments easily lingered and morphed back to life when he reentered her life. Okay not sure if I’m making sense here aha but hm, thinking of Il Ri a lil differently now. I also agree with you though – wish there was more details sketched out about their early marriage years and how their marriage life’s like – or rather, the intimacy. I do like how easygoing and loving they are towards each there – seems very normal and married-like if that makes sense? – but I wonder if I would feel more opposed to the affair and her attraction to Joon had we been given a deeper insight into their marriage apart from what’s mostly hinted in sub-context.

      Very interesting points about marriage/interest and how typical Kdrama marriage contract fits into that. For me personally, I know a few people or have heard of people in my RL who started off in marriage contracts and are still happily married (or like they do grow to care for each other etc) so in a sense I think this or married but still not in love etc are both possible realistic outcomes… but I do find that Kdramaland has a fixation or a double standard on which is ‘preferred’. As for Hee Tae-Il Ri’s marriage though, I really think it is based on love? I mean, a convoluted past is a major factor (maybe more major than sentiments) but I actually really do think they genuinely care and are in love with each other… it’s just that her scope and experience are limited to only what she feels for him and has experienced with him, and maybe that was enough when she was growing up in the first half of their marriage but isn’t anymore, now that she’s realized there’s a lot of different kind of loves (because this is definitely true) and starts wondering what they’re like. Okay I’m rambling too haha so I’m gonna stop here but aw, thanks really! Got me thinking from a somewhat different perspective :)

      1. I think the writer did a good job at creating this whole universe in which each viewer can find something they like and it makes it okay not to like every character… although I actually like each character on their own. Il Ri is my least favorite, though (and it’s not me being Uhm/LSH biased * cough *), it’s just personal taste here. She’s tough, she’s brave, she can be cute, she’s straightforward… Except for the fact she talks all the time, which can become handy when she tells off her mother-in-law in a cool and calm way, she actually stands for everything I like in female characters. I might need two or three more episode to warm up to her because, obviously, she’s much more than this forever bright and talkative “ajumma” she’s trying to portray. I agree, her love for Hee Tae looks like more she loves him because she doesn’t know anything else… Uhm Tae Woong is so good at playing Jang Hee Tae that it hurts. I just want to hug him every time he’s on the screen. I don’t think I’ll be able to handle watching him with his daugther on Superman Returns.

        Anyway, I think we’ll get a bigger picture of the first four episodes when we reach the end. I must say it’s the first time that a drama gets me wondering so many times “is the way I’m feeling right now is what the writer wanted me to feel? or am I missing the point?”. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not… XD Like I don’t know how people can already know which team they’re on so early into the story. I already know my alternative ending with Hee Tae and Joon running off into the sunset together will never happen, so my heart is ready to go either way. Il Ri can even decide to leave them both and move on with her life. I really think I’ll be satisfied with any outcome because the characters have, like you said, so many layers that their actions make us know more about them and care for them.

        About LSH. I think his acting really improved since his White Christmas days, but I feel that his looks are what keep him from getting challenging roles that go beyond being the sexy broody guy. I mean, in “Shark”, you can actually see him smile and being flirty and being… a regular regular guy, like the type of guy you could meet in the street, like Kim Woo Bin in “To The Beautiful You”. Judging from his itws, I don’t think he’d turn down a nice guy role, but it doesn’t seem they’re being offered to him because writers/directors just see him as the chic/cold borderline psycho guy. * sigh * I’m still waiting for that writer/director that will create a true rom-com bringing together Kim Woobin, Lee Soo Hyuk, Hong Jong Hyun and Lee Jong Suk as a bunch of college students or young adults stepping into the working world… And if that could happen before they go to the army, it’d be even better. But that’s another topic. :D

  2. “…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.” This resounds in my soul and upon further thinking, I think that’s /exactly/ what the writer wants us to do. To spiral into the confusing whirlwind of feelings and pain for this mysterious carpenter. The emotional connections to all three characters make us want for them to all have happy endings but it simply isn’t possible.
    I think another thing to note is how Hee Tae and Joon are foils to each other. One is a respective, puppy-like character who must be cared for and protected from the cruel world while the other has been calloused by it and exhibits characteristics a typical bad boy would, which makes for the spiciest affair. Hee Tae represents a rather boring stability and Joon has spontaneity and passion, which is new since Il Ri has literally done all of the chasing.

  3. I wasn’t sure if I was going to watch this or not but then people on Twitter kept talking about how good it was, and I saw that you were enjoying it, so I started it this weekend. What’s Up Fox is one of my fave old dramas so I figured there was a good chance I’d like this one as well. What i find interesting (which was touched on in the comments above as well) is that it’s not like Il Ri doesn’t love Hee Tae. She does, and he loves her wholeheartedly. I do agree that she doesn’t know anything else, and that actually really annoys me because he was gone for 7 YEARS and never told her he’d come back, but she waited for him instead of experiencing life. And see, now look what’s happened! So she annoys me in that regard. But anyway, back to their marriage; she has to deal with his family, but he tries to help her with that, and stop her from getting too busy or stressed with it all. He’s a nice guy and they’re happy together. But, he’s boring when you compare him to the sexy mofo, lol. I was pretty drawn to the Carpenter from the moment we met him, which is exactly what the show wanted. Except, he’s currently actively chasing after a married woman. She’s at least sort of fighting it, but he’s totally going for it even though he knows that she’s married and he knows that she’s having problems with her feelings towards him. I’m waiting for them to actually start the affair though, because I want to see what Hee Tae does about it. It’s basically 3 decent people in an awkward unexpected situation, so I’m curious to see how they go forward with it.

    1. To everything you said here- yup yup yup I echo everything haha. Though I’ll say that to the carpenter’s credit he did try to keep away from her except she keeps appearing at his doorstep. I haven’t watched eps 5 and 6 though so I’m just basing this on the first four. If he actively pursues her in this week’s episodes I’ll prolly have to rethink how much and who are to “blame” for the affair. But I’m with you on wanting the affair to start cos that is likely more interesting in terms of character study and emotional complexity!

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