Thursday, August 29, 2013

Drama Review: Can We Get Married (2012)

Grade: B+

Family drama

What it’s about
Can We Get Married explores the stormy romantic and family relationships of six women of different ages, including a brash middle-class widow and her two daughters. Its story charts their interconnected lives through breakups and reunions, weddings and divorces, late-arriving love and contented parenthood.

First impression
This stylish and cinematic opener suggests a more sophisticated take on life and loves than most rom-coms. (Now if only the characters would speak a little more slowly....) I’m still fairly apprehensive about this show, however. I’ve read wildly varied reviews about it, many of which weren’t positive. Other bloggers have reported hating all the characters and finding the plot draggy. But I’ve also heard that it’s realistic and more nuanced and well made than the typical Kdrama romance. All I know is that I better like it, because I’ve sworn to stop being so wishy-washy and giving up on dramas midway through their runs.

Final verdict
Can We Get Married is a realistic, quietly funny and subtly feminist take on modern love.

Its narrative spine is about as standard-issue Kdrama as you can get—the central plot is a young teacher’s quest to marry her sweetheart in the face of strenuous family objections. But unlike Secret Garden, Boys over Flowers, and the 8 trillion other dramas that use family as a narrative device to keep their lead couples apart, this show adds another dimension to their struggles: personal doubt and uncertainty. The mothers play a role in the couple’s difficulties, but there’s no sense that vanquishing these two dragons will solve all their problems. Instead, what really drives the lovers apart is not yet having figured out how to work as a team in good times and bad.

And about those mothers-in-law. Yes, their never-ending manipulations were frustrating and sometimes made me wonder why I was bothering to watch this show. But I kept coming back, and by the time the final episode rolled around I was actually looking forward to their bickering interactions. Whenever the two of them were together it was like watching an incredibly skilled game of tennis, only instead of balls they were volleying subtly veiled digs in an attempt to maneuver each other into position for the final kill.

Adjacent to the young lovers and their interfering mothers are a number of other characters that have their own narrative trajectories. An older sister suffers through the end of her marriage, a best friend realizes that being in love means sharing even the things you don’t like about yourself, and a maiden aunt finds liberation, freedom, and happiness with the help of a younger man. Wonderfully, the script allows all these characters to be persnickety and volatile, just like real people are. There are no cardboard-cut-out Kdrama saints in this cast.

Can We Get Married is a show with room in its heart for many perspectives and people. In its world, women can be naive and experienced, sweet and sour, traditional and rebelleous, strong and weak—sometimes all at once.

Random thoughts
Episode 2. This show’s structure is a bit like the typical Korean home drama—it tells the interlocking stories of five women related by blood or friendship. But what sets Married apart is that everything is done at warp speed—the narration hops from character to character many times in a single episode. Most home dramas I’ve seen have felt slow and methodical, focusing on a single storyline until it’s resolved and then moving on to another one. This show is totally different, a swirling vortex of people and places. This can be kind of dizzying before you’ve sorted out who’s who, but quickly comes to feel rewarding. Its fast and fragmented nature actually reminds me of the American daytime soaps I watched when I was growing up. (And I mean that as a compliment.)

Episode 2. In the course of this episode, no fewer than four glasses of liquid were thrown in people’s faces. Now that’s what I’m talking about.

Episode 2. The lonelyheart aunt better not end up with Min Ho. His bike, sure. She deserves better than the man. [Finale note: Don’t let his unfortunate headwear turn you off—Min Ho is awesome and ends up just where he belongs.]

Episode 3. I can’t believe it—does this drama actually feature a girl who isn’t obsessed with fashion? I feel like this is so improbable it’s likely to cause a tear in the space time continuum, like if you traveled back in time to kill your grandfather or tried to order a Big Mac at Burger King or something.

Episode 3. Every scene featuring the older couple includes a fabulous soundtrack right out of an 80s teen movie. From Fine Young Cannibals to Abba, they’ve got all the greatest hits of my childhood.

Episode 3. The uber fancy restaurant they went to toward the end of this episode is the same spot that was featured in The Thousandth Man last year. Does that mean it’s actually a real place, not a set created for the dramas, or is it the other way around?

Episode 3. Can We Get Married clearly thinks its signature move involves a glass of liquid being thrown in someone’s face. This episode has two more instances of water rage.

Episode 4. I was just trying to think of examples of Kdrama girls instigating back hugs, and this episode delivers a doozy. As her boyfriend is walking away from a nasty fight, the female lead grabs him before explaining her behavior and apologizing for being bratty. Her motivation is twofold: the hug keeps him from leaving, and it also gives her an opportunity to be truthful when she’s feeling too embarrassed to meet his eyes. She even follows up the move with a forehead kiss, which is pretty revolutionary when it comes to the power dynamics of rom-com relationships.

Episode 5. I can already see why so many people had bad reactions to this show. It’s incredibly frustrating to watch the characters being manipulated by the mom who seems to have stolen Dolly’s Parton’s eyeshadow kit, circa 1981. Instead of just saying what they want and why, everyone’s being passive aggressive and making the people around them miserable. This, I think, is a case of a drama being culturally accurate in a way that’s hard for Americans to swallow. It’s based in a complicated web of interpersonal relationships that are very different from what we’re used to.

Episode 5. A character just said “A wedding is the first step to independence from parents.” That was once true in America, but nowadays most people would probably say independence starts a lot earlier than marriage. Leaving home for college was my first big step as a grownup, and I think that’s true for many. (I still remember how weird it was going to the grocery store for the first time and knowing I could get anything I wanted. I bought a lifetime supply of Froot Loops that day, just for the thrill of it.) But based on dramaland, the standard approach to emerging adulthood in Korea is what we’d probably call “helicopter parenting” here. For good or for bad, once you’re in your early twenties, Americans assume you’ll make your decisions for yourself.

Episode 5. Funny that things happen in twos in this show—two glasses of water in somebody’s face, two weddings, two girls giving back hugs, and two other women riding motorcycles.

Episode 7. Here’s a quotable moment from the male lead: “This is why I hate women in dramas. It’s all their fault. They make women think that all men should save women. Doesn’t a woman have hands or a brain?” While I kind of agree with this in the abstract, I’m not so crazy about it in these circumstances—he’s talking about a guy not intervening when a drunk girl is about to be taken advantage of (maybe even raped?). Still, this probably the most candid discussion of gender representation in entertainment that I’ve seen in any Kdrama.

Episode 7. Although some of the girls on this show seem to have a lot more equality in their relationships than many Kdrama characters, the married woman is still being treated like a maid. Is a woman buying herself expensive things and not taking care of the house really grounds for divorce?

Episode 8. I came into this series expecting to hate Blue Eye Shadow more than the other mother in law, but things have gone all topsy-turvy on me. Blue Eye Shadow works hard for her family and lives and dies for their happiness. She’s loud and brash and pushy, but that’s because she wants her girls to find men who will live up to the responsibility of caring for them. She just happens to be so wrapped up seeing that her daughters’ physical needs are cared for that she’s forgetting that emotional needs are important too—which is exactly what she’s done in her own hardscrabble life. The other mother in law seems nice on the surface, but she’s primarily concerned with status and her own wants, not what her son needs to begin his life as an adult. She’s too divorced from reality to understand that not everyone can afford fancy purses meant as trophies.

Episode 8. When I think about “traditional” gender roles in marriage, the thing that usually makes me bristle is the wife’s expected subservience to her husband and the loss of power that comes along with it. But this episode is showing the flip side of that particular coin: as the husband, you have total responsibility for another person, and it’s your job to provide them with everything they need. That’s a heavy burden, as this male lead is learning. He’s young and inexperienced but on some level he still expects himself to be the leader and provider in his relationship. (People always say that Korea is like America in the 1950s on this front, and in this episode I really see it. This series is appearance from John Hamm away from being Mad Men.)

Episode 8. It’s nice to see the young leads doing so well in this drama. Both actors have been in other high-profile shows, but nothing as sophisticated and mature as these roles.

Episode 8. The mistress in this show is so skinny that her kneecap is the widest part of her leg. She has pretty much the same body as Ramses the Great—and he’s been mummified for three thousand years.

Episode 9. Two things Kdrama people do while fully clothed that gross me out: (1) sit on toilets in public restrooms, and (2) crawl into bed. Ick.

Episode 9. I’ve read a lot of reviews saying that this show is good, but not groundbreaking. I’m here to tell you that they’re wrong—on the groundbreaking part, anyway. Its subject matter really is the same old stuff—romantic and family relationships are tested in a domestic setting. But thanks to its candid and nuanced execution, Can We Get Married is something special and utterly unique. Its characters do things that real people do, but most drama bots would never imagine. Plotlines include promiscuity and divorce, kids who yell at their parents, and old maids who put aggressive men in their place with forced kisses. And all these things are intended not for melodrama but to evoke genuine emotions as they might truly be experienced.

Episode 9. It took me a while to be captured by this show, but now that I am I just wish I could keep watching forever. It’s a soapy, slice-of-lifey delight in which every interaction is a battlefield. The combatants aren’t only the people who are present—their entire families are clashing, too, pushing and pulling any one individual’s will until they join the rest. Everybody has a dog in every fight, no matter what that fight might be.

Episode 10. And the award for the most prepared second male lead goes to...the guy in this show who keeps a barf bag in his car’s glove compartment, just in case. Do they have Boy Scouts in Korea? If so, he’s definitely one of them.

Episode 10. The montage of drama-inspired kisses in this episode was hysterical—they even used the background music from the original shows. I could only identify two, though: the stair kiss from the end of My Lovely Sam Soon and the foam kiss from Secret Garden.

Episode 14. The mom’s over-the-top makeup is a rarity for Korean dramas. Most drama actresses always have the very same make up on, no matter what they’re doing—taking a bath at home or going out for a night on the town. I’m sure it’s easier that way, given the hectic filming schedules and the amount of time it would take to change looks for every scene. But with her stark, dark-red blush and aquamarine eyeshadow, this mom is something different. We see her at home looking bare-faced and pretty, but before leaving the house she always trowels on the same outlandish make up my 1980s-era country and western Barbie used to wear. For her, cosmetics are like war paint. They set her apart from the rest of the world as a physical being, and build a barrier to keep away the uninvited. They’re also how she’s kept her family afloat all those years, and one of the things that distinguish her from most of the other mothers in this show: She works for a living, selling cosmetics at her own store.

Episode 16. Here’s a sure sign of being unhealthily obsessed with Korean drama: You not only recognize a random street corner where something was filmed, but can also name multiple times you’ve used screen caps from that location on your blog. I might genuinely need psychiatric attention.

Episode 16. Finally, a sensible Kdrama couple! They like each other and want to live together, so they plan a casual wedding and don’t get all worked up about the traditions and rituals that the Wedding Industrial Complex tries to make us believe we need. I will be incredibly disappointed if the show makes her go back on her offhanded shrug about a big wedding—“I don’t have a fantasy like that.”

Episode 17. Dramafever’s subs for this show aren’t the best. They’re not terrible, but they could have used a final edit by someone who’s good with English verb tenses and rules of pluralization. In some ways I like rough sounds—it lets the Korean peek through. I’ve probably seen a hundred Kdrama characters tell someone to get on or off a car. We native speakers of English would never say that—people get in or out of cars—but it’s such a common translation quirk that it must arise from the original Korean word use.

Episode 19. The issue of won amounts in subtitles is kind of weird. Many subbers convert the figures into US dollars—or at least some currency that deals with numbers that are less astronomically enormous. In these subs, they seem to have used the figures for Korean won, which—according to the conversion app I just downloaded for my trusty new phone—means the 5 billion won they’re talking about in this episode is around 4.5 million dollars.

Episode 19. On the one hand, it’s kind of cute that the mom always retreats to her son’s (empty) bed after she fights with the dad. On the other hand, Eww.

You might also like
The realistic (and sometimes steamy) relationships of I Need Romance

The in-law battles of Family’s Honor


  1. In my mind, this drama gets even better with time - the longer I reflect on it (and the more dramas I've seen, of which CWGM still stands unique)

  2. I was really surprised by how much I was won over by "Blue Eye Shadow" -- by drama's end I loved her fiercely. This was such an excellent and ground breaking drama. :)

  3. Thanks Amanda! Very nicely written, I enjoyed the read! :) I've heard mostly good things about this one, and just haven't gotten around to it. With your stamp of approval, as well as that of Rosie & Betsy before me, I think this has just inched up the watch list! ^^

  4. I adored this drama. It singlehandedly ended a 4 month long drama slump.

    Favorite thing was how realistic the characters felt. The bickering moms annoyed me at first, but I grew to love Deul Ja and couldn't stand Jung Hoon's mom Dong Gun by the end. She was so selfish and pampered and it was worse because I know there are people like that.

    What did you think of the secondary couple Dong Bi and Ki Joong? Apparently alot of online viewers liked them more than the main couple. I wonder if it's because it's an interesting twist on the classic rich-cold-guy/poor-girl setup.

  5. I struggled to get into this drama, and after 8 episodes I took a hiatus from it for over 4 months. However, being in that most unwelcome of situations of being between dramas, I returned to it, and watched the following 12 episodes fairly rapidly. I too have seen the polar opposite reviews online, and think that both sides have a point. It was painfully slow at times, especially at the beginning, but the eventual character development was interesting and realistic. Overall, I would say it's worth watching, different than the usual fare in rom coms, but in my opinion, that is not necessarily a good thing. I happen to like rom coms despite all the predictability of them. But anyway, this is a drama that I doubt I will re-watch.

  6. Oh and your subtitle query in episode 17 is correct. The verb to 'get on' or 'board' is the same as 'get in'. 타다

    So 기차를 타요 is get on the train
    and 자동차를 타요 is get in the car.

    I'm sure it's the same for getting off the train, but for the life of me, I can't remember the verb at the moment. :(

  7. Ha ha, so you finally watched this one!! I have been gone on a really long hiatus from kdrama blogging because life just got really busy and I haven't had much time for kdrama in the preceding months, but I've really missed reading your blog!! I did manage to finish Flower Boy Next Door over the summer and was about to hunt down your review about it. Also, I watched the movie Heaven's Postman (which I LOVED) and I have been watching M Countdown and familiarizing myself with all the current kpop bands, but other than that I haven't had much time for kdrama stuff, but am hoping to get back into it.

    1. You're alive! Welcome back to the wonderful world of Kdrama...I don't think there's any true escape once you've arrived ;) Jaejong is exactly my kind of cute, so I've had my eye on Heaven's Postman for a while. (It doesn't hurt that Dramafever carries it, either.) I'll bump up my list of shows to watch :)

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