What it’s about
Bok Gu is a rough-and-tumble fighter who’s spent his entire life at war with the world. When a failed romance with a celebrity drives his brother to attempt suicide, Bok Gu vows to avenge him. But even as he plots to destroy his brother’s former lover, he can’t fight his own burgeoning attraction to her.
This drama by Lee Kyung Hee, the screenwriter of Nice Guy and I’m Sorry, I Love You, seems to be following in the footsteps her earlier shows. Taking Rain as its grimy anti-hero, it brings together a cast of unlikely characters—some members of Seoul’s criminal underclass, others privileged cogs in the celebrity machine—and explores the unexpected ways their lives intersect. So far it’s bombastic fun, but feels more like a cheesy throwaway than an example of Lee’s best work.
Nowadays Korean dramas tend to feature rich people and who suffer mild trauma before arriving at an ultimately happy ending. But in the mid oughts things were different: most dramas were wrenching tragedies that allowed miserable poor people a glimpse into a world of money before killing them in an achingly tragic way.
Originally airing in 2005, A Love to Kill is very much a product of its time. Whether you’ll enjoy watching it is almost entirely dependent on your tolerance for dirty people hurting themselves and everyone else around them. Mine is remarkably high, so as far as I’m concerned A Love to Kill was a delightfully soapy romance of the highest order.
On the surface this is a flashy, exquisitely tortured star-crossed romance. But like many of screenwriter Lee Kyung Hee’s dramas, A Love to Kill is also a meditation on the inescapable power our bodies have over our minds. In this case, we watch Bok Gu’s broken-hearted brother walk off the edge of a tall building in a haze of misery upon hearing that Cha Eun Seok, his ex-girlfriend, is engaged to another man. In a lesser drama, he would simply die, inspiring a revenge plotline to drive the rest of the narrative. But that wouldn’t be awful enough for this show: instead, he survives the plunge, hopelessly brain-damaged and unable to care for himself or even speak. He hangs on, half-alive, a burden on his brother and the greatest obstacle to whatever happy ending the drama might have had. Some shows spend a lot of time devising silly reasons for their lead couple to stay apart. A Love to Kill has the granddaddy of them all: even as Bok Gu falls in love with Eun Seok, he knows that being with her would mean betraying his brother.
While this is all playing out, the show is breathless and brutal, but it loses its way a bit toward the end. By episode 15, all this willful self-immolation gets tiresome—especially when everyone in the world just wants the leads to be happy. (Well. Everyone but the leads themselves, who prefer martyrdom and lots of snotty tears.)
And speaking of snotty tears: I never suspected that either Rain or Shin Min Ah were capable of performances like this. Without vanity, they both immersed themselves in their often repellant characters: He played noble anti-hero Bok Gu with sharp-jawed control, and she made Eun Seok’s desperate loyalty seem only marginally less painful than a punch to the stomach.
A Love to Kill might just be my favorite of Lee Kyung Hee’s melodramas. It will tear out your heart. But in a good way.
• Episode 1. Rain is super cute, but I can’t believe all these respectable-looking women would be attracted to his character in this show. In the tradition of so many of Lee Kyung Hee’s male leads, he’s dangerous, dirty, and looks like he would smell bad. Ick.
• Episode 4. This may be a lesser drama from Lee Kyung Hee, but it still packs a brutal punch. From this episode’s perfectly executed cliffhanger to the female lead’s breakdown just feet away from discovering the whereabouts of her lost lover, it’s poignant and compelling and laced with real insight into the broken hearts of its characters.
• Episode 5. I know that Rain must work hard for that enviable physique, but is his only form of exercise racing up flight after flight of stairs in full-on melodrama mode? That’s how he spends most of his time in this drama, even when it’s painfully obvious that an elevator is available. Maybe this is to ensure that he’s always (1) fashionably late and (2) slightly out of breath? I approve, in any event.
• Episode 5. You can tell that this is an older show—almost all of its actors actually have natural black hair. I bet that today’s trend for auburn hair is just a passing fad that will eventually make 2013-era dramas look as dated as A Love to Kill looks today.
• Episode 5. When’s the next flight to Busan? I want to be hanging out on that beach with Rain right now.
• Episode 5. This is far and away my favorite Shin Min Ah role—Eun Seok is tough and capable in spite of her many sorrows. It’s also wonderful to see Pillar from FBRS again. I couldn’t quite place him until his character got the nickname “Telephone Pole.” I guess Lee Ki Woo is the only conspicuously tall guy in all of Korea.
• Episode 5. The relationship between Rain’s character and his adoring best friend is killing me. He’s so sweet and accepting of her scars, and you can tell he’s trying to feel romantic love for her. But even knowing that being with her would make them both happy, he just can’t stay away from the girl who caused his brother’s misery. It’s been some time since I’ve been this invested in a couple, especially so early in a drama. (Unfortunately they’re double-doomed: this show is almost certain to end with a round of tragic deaths. And even if it doesn’t, she’s the second lead.)
• Episode 7. So Eun Seok is a rich and famous actress, but she shares a bed (not a bedroom—a bed) with her sister. I guess this is supposed to make her seem down to earth and act as a reminder that she grew up poor, but come on. Beds aren’t that expensive and there’s plenty of space in her room.
• Episode 8. This episode was really Nice-Guy-ish, right down to a character keeping his eyes open during a (hot) kissing scene. Maybe it’s because the female lead had been barfing right before?
• Episode 10. I guess Rain is a better actor than I thought. (You can always tell when someone’s really crying in a Kdrama because dripping snot becomes just as much an issue as dripping tears. And this scene was snotty indeed.)
• Episode 15. Several times during the course of this show, Rain has sung a song about going home to find that there’s rice waiting for him, no matter what he’s done. These lyrics are the key to this drama, I think: it’s all about the safety of unconditional love. Neither of the leads have much of it—she feels as if she needs to earn her family’s love by keeping them out of poverty with her celebrity, and he’s been abandoned by the only surviving member of his family not once but twice. Now Rain’s character is refusing to eat at all, as if he’s lost the only unconditional love he ever really had: his own. There’s no rice waiting for him anywhere, because he’s judged himself beyond forgiveness and redemption. She, on the other hand, eats all the time. But for her food and the prospect of getting fat mean the very same thing as denial does to him. The show is whispering that she can’t be an actress if she’s fat, and that the men she’s come to depend on will leave her for it. Both leads have given up on loving themselves, which I fear is the beginning of the end for them.
• Episode 16. So the obligatory calm-before-the-storm date day is here. And as this is a Korean drama, this includes eating black bean noodles, frolicking in a snowy field, and walking through a village market in a slow-motion montage. What it doesn’t include? Sex. If you read between the lines there might have been some knocking of boots, but come on. For a show that’s so fleshy and slimy to not even to acknowledge the desire to bang as a fundamental part of its leads’ relationship is just laughable.
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• Lee Kyung Hee’s other revenge dramas are worth checking out, although I think A Love to Kill is the best of them. Nice Guy is fun but sanitized; I’m Sorry, I Love You is too gross and self-consciously tragic to be really loved; and Sang Doo, Let’s Go to School is sorely lacking in the brains department.