by mh musings
SPOILER ALERT UP TO EPISODE 12
As a running Korean series which streams on Netflix when it releases in South Korea, Our Beloved Summer is a highly popular romantic dramedy among the social media savvy, young international crowd that follows K-dramas.
A deceptively layered young romance story portrayed artistically, Choi Woong (Choi Woo-shik) and Kook Yeon-Soo (Kim Da-Mi) are ex-lovers who meet five years after a brutal break-up, when both are at unexpected places in their lives.
They had come together in high school when they participated in a documentary as the best and worst performing students at their school, highlighting the clash between a driven, ambitious, matter of fact orphan girl raised by her impoverished grandmother and a laid back, artistic, free spirited but introverted boy raised by doting parents. As they come to know each other, they fall deeply in love and have a rocky dating history for five years, only for the relationship to implode when Yeon-Soo leaves Choi Woong without providing an explanation.
Five years later, the least likely to succeed Choi Woong is now a celebrated, incognito artist who is highly successful, but lives the life of a social recluse. He is irreversibly changed from the painful breakup with Yeon-Soo and his artistry flourishes as he internalizes the pain of being left behind. The over-achiever Yeon-Soo is a competent employee at a small marketing firm, severe and forbidding in her temperament, but has not reached the pinnacles of achievements she had imagined for herself. She goes through the motions of life, takes care of her grandmother but leads a simple life that lacks the feistiness of her earlier years.
Life brings them together again and they are asked to participate in another documentary by the same producers, as their film from high school has gone viral and viewers wonder about the adult lives of the youthful Woong and Yeon-Soo. Their high school classmate, and Choi Woong’s surrogate brother figure, Ji-Ung is heading the new documentary project as producer.
Within what seems could be a formulaic story of sparks flying again in adult versions of Woong and Yeon-Soo, lies a depth of poetic storytelling about robbed childhoods, wounded hearts and second chances. Here are some of my thoughts on why this character driven story essayed by nuanced actors such as Woo-shik (from ‘Parasite’) and Da-Mi (from ‘Itaewon Class’) leaves the viewer with thought-provoking questions about the journey of life.
OPPOSITES ATTRACT: BUT ARE THEY REALLY?
On the surface, Woong and Yeon-Soo couldn’t be further apart. While Yeon-Soo is the over eager school head girl who has all the answers to the teacher’s questions, Woong naps through his classes. While she takes copious study notes, Woong is only meticulous with the sketchbook that is his constant companion. While Yeon-Soo is unhealthily competitive, Woong saunters through life at a leisurely pace. While she hides her poverty and lacking home life behind her hard-working and stern façade, Woong seems to lack nothing with loving parents who run successful restaurants. And yet, under these differences, there lie shared interests and attitudes that others do not see.
Episode 7 is an intersection of their choices and actions that show how much they mirror each other. While Yeon-Soo likes to pretend that she’s the more mature of the two while Woong is the clueless escapee who runs away from his problems, it is Woong who has the emotional intelligence to confront issues. While she has a hard time swallowing her pride and apologize, he coaxes it out of her so that she accepts responsibility for her actions. He does this with his patience, asking piercing questions such as, “How have you been? Have you been well? Can’t we ask each other these things?”. Or when he chooses to turn away from her and say, “… I had to accept things without knowing anything… I’m really sick of this.”
He surprises her with the intensity of his understanding, breaking her presumption that he is a mild personality who will easily move on with life after she leaves him. He also surprises her with what he makes her confront within herself - her belief that she could pretend to live life without him in it.
Similarly, in their youth, Yeon-Soo broke Woong’s prejudices about her as she proved again and again how deeply she felt for him and showed him a side of her that is well-hidden from others. She defends him against bullies twice her size, holds him up when he is falling, fulfills his wishes when she appears to not care, builds memories with him, encourages him to become a better version of himself, and each time she performs these acts of service, she fills an unknown void within Woong. He cannot imagine a life without her. This is why his loneliness engulfs him after she leaves and he immerses himself in his art.
In present day, as she tries hard to validate her past choice to leave him by appearing callous and obtuse about Woong’s current status, Yeon-Soo begins to realize that Woong is a young boy who became an intense man that she underestimated for the depth of his emotions or the despair in which these emotions are rooted.
In the epilogue for episode 7, we see the time they meet in the library in high school and she vies for his copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra by the great German philosopher Nietzsche. Yeon-Soo assumes that the contents of the book are above Woong’s level of understanding and says that it would be better if he just gives it to her. In return he says, “Eternal return. It’s the concept that the universe is recurring infinitely. And in its eternal recurrence, our existence also recurs infinitely and continues to do so. I got curious about the eternity of time. So, I’m reading it again.”
Woong doesn’t say this in a boastful or condescending manner but in this one scene lies the depth of their connection. For all the apparent ways they are dissimilar, their souls are similar in how they try to make sense of the world, crave love and how they feel internally aligned from knowing that the other remains a part of their immediate universe. When Yeon-Soo feels forced to make the decision to leave him, they both enter an imbalanced phase in their lives, which only begins to heal once both lower their defenses enough to be honest about their new rules of engagement. And as they come back together, repeating many of their prior prejudices against each other, they surely test the eternity of time.
WOUNDED HEARTS COMPLETE EACH OTHER
Throughout the story, neither Yeon-Soo nor Woong appear to be well-adjusted, emotionally fulfilled people. And through a glacial unveiling of past memories, we come to understand that both of them carry deep wounds in their hearts that drive their decisions.
Yeon-Soo grew up with her impoverished grandmother, who taught Yeon-Soo to look out for herself. She is a meritorious student and focuses on doing her best so that she can secure a better future for herself. She hides her insecurities around poverty and lack of social standing from her peers by always appearing to be infallible. Her self-righteous attitude is part and parcel of her coping mechanisms in life. So much so that during their five year relationship, she is unable to expose this side of her to Woong as well.
Woong is a quiet child who has internalized terrible loss. He knows he has been abandoned by his biological father and the trauma of that experience haunts him to this day. The feeling of loneliness surrounded by concrete, tall buildings overwhelms his sense of self. It is perhaps a need to conquer this fear that drives him to draw buildings with the minutest details captured meticulously. Buildings and its surroundings, not cluttered by people or their human emotions, captures a timeless structure that does not easily abandon nor crumble. He also keeps his most inner wounds from Yeon-Soo, only showing the nonchalant side of him that he has curated over time.
With neither of them fully honest with each other, their relationship was doomed for failure in its prior form. Nevertheless, it is also because of these wounds that they found refuge in the other for the time they were together until reality caught up with them.
Yeon-Soo only has her elderly and cantankerous grandmother as her family. When her health fails coupled with a crippling family debt, Yeon-Soo feels she no longer has the luxury of indulging in romancing a man-child who she loves but who appears incapable of being a functioning adult without his parents or Yeon-Soo clucking over him. She needed to grow up overnight and take the helm of her tiny household, and she breaks up with Woong so that she can focus all her energies on survival while continuing to keep her poverty-stricken life a secret.
She feels that her troubled life will be a burden on the freedom Woong requires to pursue his career in art and she didn’t want to be the cause of darkening his child-like enthusiasm about life. She made herself believe that he would be better off without her and breaks up callously so that he never tries to find his way back to her.
What she had underestimated is how much of Woong’s silence about his feelings towards her was rooted in his need to just be loved by her fully. As a child with deep abandonment issues that Yeon-Soo was unaware of, she could not comprehend how broken Woong would be from her leaving him. After denying herself for so long, his obvious pain and changed disposition in present day makes her realize that she had never gotten over Woong, nor over her guilt of leaving him.
Woong is rightfully resentful at the superficial communication between them where he remains unsure of Yeon-Soo’s feelings. He felt a similar sense of insecurity and mistrust during their relationship but would be overjoyed with Yeon-Soo’s grudging and infrequent confessions of love such as “I think I love you”. In present day, he still wants to be her only object of affection but lacks the confidence in her love for him. It takes him a long time to understand that Yeon-Soo had never really stopped loving him. As in the past, she conveyed through her actions how much she cared for him, buying a sack full of jujubes so she can make him tea for his chronic insomnia.
A room with a view - then & now
And this brings us to the latest episode where they have expressed their desire to be back together, and where she accepts his request to never stop loving him. Through the winding journey they have been on together, what emerges are two people who love each other fully with all their flaws, even if they may not fully understand each other’s deepest wounds. They see the goodness in each other and the aura of that goodness fulfills their individual needs. They complete each other in unconventional, and yet soul defining, ways. In episode 12, with a contented joy in her eyes, Yeon-Soo says to herself, “It doesn’t matter whether he has changed or not…I just loved him for who he was.”
BROTHERHOOD: A HOME AND A SHACKLE
Choi Woong and Ji-Ung became fast friends in elementary school, and Woong’s parents took in Ji-Ung whenever he was left alone by his mother, which was often. A painful introvert, Woong embraces Ji-Ung as his only real friend outside of Yeon-Soo, and their brotherhood is a comfort for him. What Woong doesn’t acknowledge is what Ji-Ung feels for Yeon-Soo, a deep love that he has hidden since their high school days. Indebted to Woong for selflessly sharing his life and his parents, Ji-Ung never made a move towards Yeon-Soo, burning in his own infernal hell as he watches Woong and Yeon-Soo get back together again.
This brotherhood with Woong has been as much a sense of home as it has been a prison for Ji-Ung. He cannot reach for Yeon-Soo, cannot seem to find comfort in the love of others, cannot shove Woong out of the way, cannot stop the inevitable gravitation Woong and Yeon-Su have towards each other.
When Ji-Ung’s assistant Chae Ran understands Ji-Ung’s feelings for Yeon-Soo, Ji-Ung verbalizes his guilt and says, “It’s pretty low, right? I’m deceiving my friend and liking her in secret.” And Chae Ran says “You can’t control how you feel”. Ji-Ung doesn’t explain his sense of shame towards Woong because Chae Ran doesn’t understand the depth of the relationship, but that is what has held Ji-Ung back until now. Not the fact that Yeon-Soo loves someone else or that she is unaware of his feelings, but that making a move towards her would be a betrayal towards Woong. Arguably Ji-Ung fell for Yeon-Soo first, but does that really matter? Kim Sung-Cheol as Ji-Ung provides an eloquent interpretation of an unrequited love and his struggles to overcome it.
LIVING A SOULFUL LIFE
An important life lesson gets illustrated through the choices of Woong and Yeon-Soo. In an achievement oriented culture, most young people feel pressured to follow traditional career paths and become the best at it. Book smart Yeon-Soo was the same and worked hard to build a career based on her acquired skills. She could not fully appreciate Woong’s methods and his artistry. She looks at a painting she had mistakenly destroyed in high school and still cannot fathom why Woong would get so upset about it.
An artist’s vision, the hours of practice to hone their skills, their ultimate expression, become an extension of who they are. It is because of this soul-burning passion that Woong can work for hours at a time, translating the perfection of his vision onto paper. A single wrong pen stroke will make him want to start over again whereas Yeon-Soo will find it perfectly reasonable to use a white-out and carry on with the work. It is only in their adult life, under the bright light of Woong’s success, that Yeon-Soo finally understands what art means to Woong. She appreciates how soulful he looks in doing what he loves. And she realizes that the path to success she followed, the one that society decorated with numerous awards and scholarships, did not get her that kind of a soulful existence.
Woong had the luxury of supportive parents caring for his needs until he found his success. Even though he is not their biological son, they never let him feel deficient in love nor pressured him to follow in their footsteps. This combination of parenting style and financial flexibility is a rarity in Asian cultures, but subtly illustrates that even unconventional paths can lead to financial success, and sometimes more so than prescribed paths. Living a soulful, authentic life is a life worth living.
We are shown some contrasts in NJ (Roh Jeong-Eui), who is a celebrated pop star and represents another desired career path for the recognition and wealth it brings. But she showcases the loneliness of her journey and all the negativity that surrounds her celebrity life, making her gravitate towards the simplicity of Woong’s life.
Ji-Ung is also in a career he loves and which is why he is told that his captures on camera also capture the emotions of the moments. He is able to tell a story through his craft, just as Woong does with his. Both the boys had the love and support of Woong’s parents, which seems to convey an inner message that parental love can make all the difference in the children’s lives and their future success. If adoptive parents can do this with such an open heart, biological parents perhaps have a bigger responsibility in shaping the lives of their children with love.
MANY SEASONS OF LOVE
One of the high points of Our Beloved Summer is its cinematography by Director Kim Yoon-Jin, that unfolds like a classically painted storybook reminiscent of the Renaissance period, with a misty filter, muted colors, aesthetically pleasing homes and buildings, and a thoughtful blending of skits from the past and the present. As we begin to appreciate the decade long love story of Woong and Yeon-Soo, we see the different seasons in their relationship.
The start of their love is the summer, full of youthfulness and sunny colors. As the season turn towards fall, their layers begin to shed exposing the darkness of the long winter of their separation. We are now coming to the spring as they find their way back towards each other, reborn and renewed.
Given that we still have a quarter of the series to go, it is likely that their relationship will be tested further but as Nietzsche questions the eternity of time, perhaps it is our reality that life will be a cyclical pattern of ups and downs, and repetitions of old patterns. Within that, could the meaning lie in finding an anchor that we do not let go of? Could the seasons come and go but we learn to find strength in our love so that it never feels like an option to let go of each other’s hands? I wonder.
TV TO STREAMING TO WEBTOON: A NEW PARADIGM IN K-DRAMAS
A new entrant to watching Korean dramas, I wanted to experience the weekly release of a drama as it releases in Korea. Having done this for Turkish drama, I know that the journey can be a rich tapestry of commiseration and joint celebration as the fandom collectively undergoes the ups and downs of the story and the production. Interactive cast and crew members, timely release of behind-the-scenes footage, fan edits, nuggets of insights, all add layers to the interpretation of the show.
The local ratings numbers for Our Beloved Summer have been lukewarm but the social media engagement and the Netflix metrics among international fans have been impressive. Perhaps this indicates a shift in consumer trends but there are examples of shows where both local ratings and streaming viewership shattered records, such as Crash Landing On You, Itaewon Class, Vincenzo and more. Certain dramatic stories perform better with a broader audience.
Part of the lackluster ratings may lie in the unmet expectation that this will be a romantic comedy. It is much more of a layered drama than a comedy. The pace of storytelling focuses greatly on the actors’ subtle but incredibly nuanced interpretation of their emotion laden scenes, often lengthening the time spent on a given idea. The slow but meaningful progress underscored with rich dialogue works well for people looking for a quiet experience, but when one chooses to spend upwards of an hour on a weekday evening to watch a show, a faster pace with multiple interesting threads makes it a more compelling watch. Otherwise, it is a cast full of soft, everyday characters who lack the spark of dramatic entertainment value one seeks in fictional characters.
The popularity of Woo-shik and Da-Mi certainly contributes to the fan mania on social media. They are reprising their acting partnership after appearing in 2018’s fantastical action thriller The Witch: Subversion Part 1, where they played enemies. Behind the scenes footage lends credibility to their claims of meaningful collaborations on set and one sees how they think through the simplest of gestures in key scenes. They seem to share a comfortable camaraderie and have already earned the Director’s Award at the recent SBS Drama Awards.
Woo-shik also happens to be best friends with Park Seo-Jun (Kim Da-Mi’s previous co-star in the highly successful Itaewon Class), and Taehyung V of popular boy band BTS. As in Itaewon Class, V also contributes an OST 'Christmas Tree' for Our Beloved Summer, which already has more than 22 million downloads on Spotify. Itaewon Class’s ‘Sweet Night’ has crossed more than 190 million downloads, setting a record as the first OST by a Korean act to do so.
A very recent account holder on Instagram and already with more than 31M followers, V’s story shares about Our Beloved Summer do not go unnoticed. Several other celebrities have also posted about watching the show. Even though these elements do not impact the strength of the story itself, all these do facilitate the fan engagement on the various online platforms and forums.
The trailer for episode 13 looks promising with playful romance between Woong and Yeon-Su, but it also foretells upcoming issues and heartbreak. Unlike other series that have been adaptations of popular webtoons, Our Beloved Summer launched as a webtoon in November 2021, which shows a prequel to the series and focuses more on Woong and Yeon-Su’s time in high school. All these creative integrated marketing strategies make for new ways to experience a running show, which is clearly targeting a younger demographic.
Our Beloved Summer is a sweet story that explores life’s journey in how we reshape ourselves with time and wisdom. It is about youthful encounters that need to age and mature graciously while, as an ode to Nietzsche’s thoughts around the eternity of time, the story is told through many metaphors that repeat themselves as Woong and Yeon-Su come close together again.
They were torn apart before by not being open with each other and allowing the other to share in with their insecurities and pain. They run the danger of doing the same again if they do not acknowledge Ji-Ung’s role in their collective lives, Woong’s potential to retreat into his own headspace now that he has Yeon-Su back in his life, and Yeon-Su losing sight of herself and her ambitions while she basks in her happiness of being back with Woong again. True growth requires dynamic work but it remains to be seen if the talented writer Lee Na-Eun will take the story in that direction or end on a tragic note that underscores how missed chances often remain just that – a collection of incomplete thoughts and desires.
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