Our Beloved Summer: The Many Seasons Of Love
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.