Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Can You Hear I Miss You?

(Includes light spoilers)



Amnesia, antiheroes, voiceover bargains with god, and romantic leads staring at each other from opposite sides of busy roads.

Why is it that so many Korean dramas include the same elements and themes?

Having just finished watching two series written by Lee Kyung Hee—the wrenching, one-two punch of Nice Guy and I’m Sorry, I Love You—I’ve been thinking a lot about one answer to this question: authorial voice. Like most big, brand-name screenwriters, Lee’s work tends to include a number of  common threads, most notably everything mentioned in the first paragraph of this post.

The points of similarity in a writer’s work can be little, like the Hong sisters’ affinity for love talismans like You’re Beautiful’s Piggy Bunny and Greatest Love’s beleaguered potato seedling. They can also be big, like the two body swap comedies written by Choi Soon Sik: 2006’s Please Come Back, Soon-Ae and this year’s Oohlala Couple.

And then there’s Moon Hee Jung, who in the past two years has written both Can You Hear My Heart? and I Miss You. I disliked the former about as much as any Kdrama I’ve ever seen, largely because the heroine’s cutesy ways made me seethe with hatred every time she appeared on screen. On the other hand, I’m loving I Miss You (as of episode 6, anyway). The weird thing? The shows are chock full of similarities.




Both begin with a pair of children being taken from their homes by an older woman who eventually raises them as something close to siblings. In CYHMY young Ma Ru and Dong Joo are abducted by Dong Joo’s mother and whisked off to spend their growing up years in South America. In I Miss You, the pairing is Soo Yeon and Hyung Joon, who end up living with nurse Jang. We don’t have many details yet about what their life was like away from home, but I’m hopeful that this will be fleshed out as the series moves on. It’s nice that the nurse saved both the kids, but based on what we’ve seen of her she’s not exactly the mothering type.




In both shows, the young captives grow up as inseparable companions who love each other intensely. The bromance in Can You Hear My Heart? is as tender and visceral as any Kdrama romantic relationship, and the show is peppered with intimate scenes of the two boys—often in bed. (Platonically, I’m sorry to report.) I Miss You has switched things up a bit: as boy and girl, its birds-of-a-feather captives have a similarly touching relationship, but their sizzling chemistry might actually get consummated at some point. (Please, please, please.) They, too, hang out in bed together.




Both dramas also showcase a nuanced mother figure who somehow manages to be simultaneously pathetic, tragic, evil, and loving. In CYHMH, it’s the woman who raised Ma Ru and Dong Joo. She carefully manipulates the boys with her maternal charms, and her relationship with them is a key point in the drama. I Miss You may actually prove to have a pair of less-than-perfect but loving mothers—nurse Jang and Soo Yeon’s mom. Once ready to abandon her daughter or die with her, Soo Yeon’s mother has since proven to be an important guardian to both Jung Woo and detective Kim’s daughter.




Other character types are repeated in each of these dramas—the creepy dad, the beside-the-point friend, the joker of a male lead who manages to find a bright smile in the darkest of times. But if Can You Hear My Heart is a reliable predictor of I Miss You’s trajectory, the most interesting of them all will be a conflicted antihero who flirts with the dark side but eventually finds redemption. In CYHMY, this was Bong Ma Ru, who did a litany of selfish, unsavory things to build a better life for himself. As of episode six no character in I Miss You quite matches this description, but I suspect it’s what lies ahead for Hyung Joon, played by the simmering Yoo Seung Ho. Here’s his character introduction, as translated on JYJ3.net.

Expressionless. His gaze is cold, his mind is composed too.
However, only one girl is an exception. Only to that girl is he caring.
He doesn’t express it with words. Whatever the girl wants, he knows and will satisfy her.
Thus, the others regard him as cold, but she merely calls him indifferent.
There is no way for failure, everything is correct.
Therefore, all his big clients have absolute trust in him.
To the extent that all the large players in the stock market want him as a son.
However, he uses his most pained wound as a weapon, and is a man who lives while embracing scary cruelty.

I think it’s safe to say that our Hyung Joon is more than the show has let on at this point. Is this “scary cruelty” from his past? Or is he the one behind the mysterious attack in episode 6? Maybe he did it because he sees violence as the only way to protect Soo Yeon. All I know for sure is that I can barely wait for this week’s episodes to find out more.

While my reaction to I Miss You couldn’t be more different from my reaction to Can You Hear My Heart, the two shows share a common backbone. Even working with so many of the same raw materials, though, they present their stories in different ways: one is kindhearted and sweet (or so it wishes), and the other is gritty and naturalistic. 

It’s possible to look at the common themes, characters, and scenes running through most Korean dramas from a cynical perspective, seeing them as evidence that the writers are content to repeat past triumphs rather than innovating. But there’s another way to understand this repetition, especially when it’s the product of a single screenwriter like Can You Hear My Heart? and I Miss You: A full, faceted exploration of a single concept just takes more more time than one drama allows.

9 comments:

  1. I love this way of looking at dramas from the perspective of who wrote it, as opposed to just looking at the drama as it stands alone. One way to choose what to watch is to just go with the flow of whatever's airing, but I've found that watching all of one writer's work can be really satisfying. But more importantly: Yoo Seung Hoooooo. Why are you so handsome but so young????

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    1. Starting to think about the writers of the dramas I'm watching feels like the next step, now that I'm conversant with the work of most of the actors who pop up all the time. It's like...obsession 2.0, wherein I learn how to pat my head and rub my tummy at once ;)

      I'm trying to pace myself with some of these writers, so I don't burn through them immediately and end up watching a lot of daily dramas =X Lee Kyung Hee, in particular, is so, so good. She has some less-than-amazing dramas to her name, but there's always a real spark of insight and compassion in her work.

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  2. In CYHMY, this was Kang Ma Ru...

    Hi dear, I was reading this peacefully then suddenly got a shock when this name appeared, since I'm still coming off Nice Guy withdrawals. I think you mean Bong Ma Roo?

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    1. Fixed...Thank you! And I was all proud of myself for actually remembering his name.

      On the bright side, at least I didn't try and get my favorite Maru of all time involved. I'd hate to think of him as an antihero of any sort.

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    2. I always think of the cat when I hear "Maru".. Both CYHMH and NG created a huge problem for me at first.. kept trying to picture the characters squeezing into ill-fitting boxes.

      I might just have to ride this wave that is I Miss You. I can't stand being so curious when everybody is talking about it! Also, knowing that this is so far at least a little different from CYHMH is encouraging. I did like its main plot and characterizations.. but overall there was so still so much it lacked.

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    3. If only Song Joon Ki would squeeze into a box and mail himself to me, I'd be a happy girl ;)

      For good or for bad, I'm utterly obsessed with I Miss You. It's like someone chopped all the parts I hated out of Can You Hear My Heart and put it back together as a drama that's actually *good.* (The one thing that I miss is the kid who played young Dong Joo in CYHMH. He's super cute, and, trippily enough, he played young Maru in Nice Guy.)

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  3. I haven't seen Can You Hear My Heart? so I don't have anything to compare it to. But I definitely understand what you are saying about I Miss You. It has many of the same elements of other melodramas, yet somehow feels different because of the way it is presented. You've got me all excited, now I'm about to go watch episode 7!!

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  4. Just finished I Miss You and it was very, very good. Had to keep emptying the buckets of tears they cried though! Really loved the child actors. Will be watching them as they mature. I haven't been able to associate writers so far, except for the Hong sisters that I've heard referenced a lot. Maybe I'm not at 2.0 obsession yet???

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