Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Another open letter to Kim Eun Sook, screenwriter of Heirs

Dear Kim Eun Sook,

Now that Heirs has hit the halfway mark, I wanted to follow up about our recent correspondence.

When I last wrote to you, I wasn’t convinced that you and I would make it this far—I dropped A Gentleman’s Dignity by episode seven, after all, and I would have called it quits with Secret Garden even earlier if I had allowed myself to do so back then. (Instead, I watched it until the very end, even though it was like torture. This is probably one of the reasons why my relationship to your work is so hate-based.)

Unlike those earlier shows, there are things I really like about Heirs. Primary among them is Park Shin Hye, who is wonderful in the role of Eun Sang. She imbues her character with a sense of depth and dignity, something I thought was sorely lacking in the female leads of both Secret Garden and A Gentleman’s Dignity. (It’s possible that a speaker of Korean would say that Park Shin Hye overacts, but to someone who gets by on subtitles, her beautiful, expressive face tells me everything I need to know about what her character is feeling.)

Right here, Park Shin Hye’s face is saying “I regret that I have no option but to karate chop you now.”

You deserve some credit for this performance, too: in Eun Sang, you’ve created a female lead who has moments of true strength and self-possession. She’s pragmatic and realistic, refusing to risk her family’s security for a boy she likes. She works hard to make the best of a bad situation, pitching in to help her mom with her duties as a maid. And when random men make unwanted advances, she handles them with a matter-of-fact threat—“I’ll call the cops if you don’t leave me alone.” We’ve seen her go through with it, and we’ve seen the strategy work. (Now if only she didn’t loose every shred of confidence the second anyone from Jeguk High came on screen.)

Just because I like Eun Sang, though, doesn’t mean that I’m all that crazy about the show you’ve built around her.

Heirs encompasses an enormous universe populated by lots of characters with their own ongoing stories. I’m definitely all for this—it reminds me of how Taiwanese dramas handle their characters’ extended social networks. But I suspect you’ve bitten off more than you can chew here, and the result is that everything (and everyone) feels underdeveloped and scattershot. I’d like to see you pick a few characters and spend more time developing them, rather than spinning dizzily through your various plotlines with no obvious goal. And speaking of goals, I hope you have one in mind for the show itself: Heirs is starting to feel like the Cliffs Notes version of a better drama. The only way that will change is if you give flesh to the characters and dilemmas that you’ve spent the past ten episodes glossing over.

The Heirs character chart. (Kidding. [Kind of.] Image actually from here.)

Speaking of overkill, have you even made a count of the number of love triangles in Heirs? Because I have.

1. Kim Tan’s dad and two moms. Neighbors in Korea must be way less nosy than neighbors in America. Otherwise, how is that nobody has ever noticed that the first mom never spends in the night? Or that the second mom exists in the first place? She clearly does a lot of shopping for luxury brands, so it’s not as if she’s a total shut-in. 

2. Young Do’s dad, Rachel’s mom, and Chan Young’s cute dad. Usually Kdrama moms try to force their kids to marry for money. This one takes things a step further by also doing it herself, even though she’s had a longterm flirtation with a man who actually likes her—unlike her fiancĂ©.

3. Kim Won, Rachel, and Kim Tan. There’s not much to support this triangle yet, but sparks have flown the few times we’ve seen Won and Rachel together. They would actually be a great endgame couple. Everybody would be happy: Her family and the Kims would be linked by marriage, and Rachel and Won would get to fawn over each other all they wanted.

I hope there’s a reason for you to be in this show, Kan Ha Neul. You’re too cute to go to waste.

4. Kim Won, tutor girl, and Lee Hyo Shin. You haven’t spent much time with these couples, but I can see where you’re going: She’s a poor girl who’s dating Won in secret, while Hyo Shin is hoping for a noona romance with her.

5. Kim Won, tutor girl, and Chan Young’s cute dad. This may not actually be a love triangle. Unless I missed something key (which is easier than you might think, thanks to the loss of subtlety when Korean is translated into English), the relationship between tutor girl and Chan Young’s cute dad hasn’t been established yet. Kim Won definitely seems jealous, though, so I think they should count to the show’s triangle tally.

6. Kim Tan, Eun Sang, and Young Do. The only way out of this love triangle for Eun Sang is to to change her name and join the witness protection program, which she should do immediately.

7. Kim Tan, Rachel, and Eun Sang. Arguably the least interesting love triangle of the show. I bet you’re going to make Rachel spend the rest of the series scheming to break up Tan and Eun Sang, and I bet I’ll be tired of it by the end of episode 11.

8. Kim Tan, Rachel, and Young Do. In true Kdrama fashion, of course Young Do’s (almost-)sister is just his type—even though she’s engaged to his former best friend. If I were you, I’d have Rachel and Young Do pretend to get together in hopes of breaking up their parents, only they would actually fall in love in the process. (Not original, I know. But that doesn’t seem to be a requirement for this show.)

9. Kim Tan, Lee Bo Na, and Chan Young. I like that Chang Young and Bo Na have an uncomplicated, high-school-y relationship, even if the ghost of her time with Kim Tan can get in the way.

Yup. That’s nine separate love triangles. If I squint just right, I can also see something brewing between Ye Sol and Young Do, so there’s reason to believe the final total might actually be higher. Even you must agree that this is a touch excessive.

Maybe if you laid off on the garlicky foods beforehand, she wouldn’t be making this face.
The most important overhaul I’d like to see going forward, however, involves your male lead. Kim Tan and Lee Min Ho’s performance of him are both becoming less bland, which is nice. But as I suspected from the beginning, my real problem with this show is its male lead. Why would you write him as such a jerk? Do you really believe that love can coexist with such cruelty? I guess you must, because Kim Tan is getting more and more like your other male leads. In last week’s episodes, practically everything he did made me seethe with rage.

You know how I feel about forced kisses, so obviously the beginning of episode 9 wasn’t my favorite thing ever. Kim Tan literally silenced his protesting female lead with his mouth, which on a scale of hotness is just below “Arctic.” He then followed the world’s longest-ever nonconsensual lip-press by saying, “Try answering [Young Do’s phone call] again. You will see me go crazy. I will kill the person who calls you. I never go halfway.” On what planet is this something other than a vicious threat? I’ve had the good fortune of living a life totally devoid of domestic violence, but I have read some books on the topic. And guess what the perpetrators sound like when quoted by their terrified victims? Kim Tan, that’s what.

Like your other leads, Kim Tan isn’t only physically aggressive to the point of violence. He’s also prone to belittling his love interest, which I would suggest falls in the realm of emotional abuse. I literally couldn’t believe my ears (eyes?) when he attempted to deflect Eun Sang’s attention from his lousy grade by criticizing her class rank—which was, of course, about 50 places higher than his dead last. He wasn’t joking or teasing her, which would have been fine; he was putting her down so he could save his own face. 

I’ve said all along that I like Young Do better than Kim Tan. They’re both incredible jerks, but here’s where the distinction lies for me: The drama knows Young Do is a douchebag. It treats him as someone who’s dangerously unpredictable and capable of awful things. His classmates fear him and the repercussions of his violence are taken seriously. When he tripped Eun Sang, she cried. But you’ve been downplaying the fact that Tan is just as dangerously unpredictable. In contrast to her response to Young Do, Eun Sang just looks resigned and walks away when Tan does something nasty to her.

There’s no better example of Tan’s darker side than the scene that showed him visiting the office of Young Do’s dad, intending to use violent, irrational father against slightly less violent, irrational son. After setting his former friend up for a beating, Tan walked out of the room with a self-satisfied smirk on his face. The best description I’ve seen of this moment came from Dangermousie, who called it chilling. That’s exactly what it was: Kim Tan responded to schoolboy pranks and threats with the nuclear option: he maneuvered Young Do into position to be physically attacked not just by a grown man, but by the grown man whose primary concern should have been to protect him. And Kim Tan did this unforgivable thing with a smirk on his face.

You smug bastard, Kim Tan.

The dichotomy between these two boys reminds me of an American saying: “The first step is admitting you have a problem.” In Heirs you admit that Young Do is deeply flawed and that his cruelty is unacceptable. There is then hope for his redemption, because you acknowledge that such a thing is necessary. Tan, on the other hand, is positioned as an adorable scamp. The show condones his actions as simply the doings of a romantic lead. He will continue causing violence and being scarily mean and possessive to Eun Sang, because in your script that’s an acceptable way for a man to show he loves someone.

All this is sickeningly familiar. It’s exactly how the male leads in Secret Garden and A Gentleman’s Dignity behaved. The first criticized his female lead’s purse until she cried, and the second reluctantly left his one-sided love interest’s house by saying “If I don’t go, I’ll do something I’ll regret.” Like, presumably, raping her.

I know we’re from different cultures, Kim Eun Sook. But the distinction between Korea’s traditional gender hierarchy and my new-fangled American feminist ideals isn’t solely to blame for how repulsive I find your male leads. I’ve seen hundreds of Kdramas, and the vast majority of them never set off my violence-against-women sensors. But I’m sensing a pattern here—yours always do. You seem to be under the misapprehension that physical aggression and blind dominance constitute romance. 

I’m still watching Heirs and intend to continue doing so. Eun Sang is a character I care about and want to see through to the end. I hope you’ll reward me for my perseverance by restraining yourself when it comes to violence against women, and maybe even finding a way to evolve Tan into a man who could be worthy of his female lead.

Also, would you please tell Kim Woo Bin to stop being so hot, so I can at least cling to my morals?

Here are some other things that I’d love to see, just as food for thought:

—How about Young Do catches Kim Tan kissing Eung Sang against her will and intervenes. He doesn’t do it to be a jerk or to be competitive—he does it because he knows it’s wrong to force girls into skinship. Maybe later he could instruct Eun Sang in the most effective way to knee Kim Tan in the groin to get him to stop.

—Kim Tan should feel remorse for bringing Young Do’s dad into their fight. Lots of remorse. Like, “I’m sorry buddy, I know I was wrong” remorse.

—I’m always pro-noona romance, but you need to give me a little something to hang my hat on with tutor girl and Lee Hyo Shin. Even if you’re going for fragmented storytelling like Love, Actually, you still need to squeeze some story in with all the telling.

—You have two very broken bromances here. By the end of the series, please resolve the issues between Kim Won and Kim Tan, and also the ones between Kim Tan and Young Do. A true bromance developing between Kim Tan and Chan Young would also make me pretty darn happy.

—Please continue to give Eun Sang a backbone. Supposedly she likes Kim Tan, which is an explanation for why she hasn’t struggled when he forces her into skinship. But you’ve given us no reason to believe that she has any feelings but fear and pity for Young Do—and yet at the end of episode 10 she stands almost perfectly still for a full thirty seconds while he hugs her. I know he’s bigger and stronger, but maybe she could try struggling a little in the future?

Yes, it’s trite and goes against all that is good and holy in the world, but I can’t help shipping Young Do and Eun Sang. Kim Woo Bin is too hot for me to resist, and he’s doing great work in this this role. How about Kim Tan returns to America and you send Young Do off on a buddhist retreat to learn some anger management techniques. A healthy time skip later (5 years?), he can return and woo Eun Sang like a real man. I’d watch the heck out of that particular sequel.

I look forward to your response, Kim Eun Sook. I’m available to discuss any of these points at your convenience.



  1. A million times yes on your alt ending.

  2. Waa... I'm really glad I skipped Heirs. I'm grateful for your reviews cause I might have checked it out in future hoping it had some merrit. On to better things, right? Thankfully, our wonderful world of Kdrama has so much more to offer us!

  3. I really do not want Choi Jin Hyuk to get wasted on this show. So far, we haven't seen much of his character and from what we can see- he is just a whiny, immature kid.
    Please show, make something of him.
    And cut back on the Kim Tan. I'll be fine if I live out the rest of the show without seeing his face. I just can't stand him ever since that smug smirk back at Young Do's dad's office. You evil thing. That was unforgivable.

  4. Thanks Amanda I've loved both of your open letters! I have never seen A Gentleman's Dignity or Secret Garden, and watching this show plus reading your comments has convinced me that I never will. I am willing to give a lot of license to a drama because it's "not real life," but this is not romantic. At. All.

    I wonder if the actors ever complain or want to complain about these characterizations. If I were LMH, I would want to play a guy with issues but not a stalker/romantic lead. Kim Woo Bin playing a crazy person doesn't really bother me because they don't pretend he is anything other than crazy so it doesn't leave me completely disturbed. I really have no idea how much of the story they know before accepting the part so maybe LMH knew how this would turn out.

  5. sorry didn't type in my user name thingy oops

    1. **sorry didn't type in my user name thingy oops** ignore this comment...ahem anyways...

      Argh sorry first time poster I thought my comment posted but it didn't. I just wanted to say I love your blog Amanda and I figured since I've been lurking here for a while it was high time to say something :-) I 100% agree with you. I think the problem lies in the fact that Kim Tan is presented as the "good guy". Also the fact that her female characters are feisty and capable one moment and spineless/unable to speak A WORD/devoid of personality the next.

      Also you're smarter than I am - I sat through 12 episodes of Gentleman's Dignity and read recaps to see where the train wreck ended up.

  6. "The drama knows Young Do is a douchebag" Bingo!
    Oh how I wish Eun Sang would just treat Kim Tan with the same scathing calculation which she treats Young Do.

    Also, I would second asking for a bromance between Kim Tan and Chan Young (if only because I adore when unexpected relationships bloom) but first I'm going to have to learn to like Kim Tan again, and right now my description of him tends to swing between plain out bland to despicable.

  7. but now, we will get birth secrets. if the spoilers are true. that will, of course, change everything!!!!

  8. Once again, you speak the words of wisdom, Amanda.

    I liked Heirs at first, but now I feel I'm losing my interest because I honestly think Eun Sang would be better off being single. She's been put through so much crap thanks to Tan that I think she should just stay away from him. He's not worth it.

    I feel the same way about Young Do, though I do like how Kim Woo Bin plays him. He's so into the role that I actually like Young Do as a character, even though he is an ass.

    The only love triangle that I care about at this point is between Hyo Shin, Hyun Joo (tutor) and Won. Though it's mainly because I love Choi Jin Hyuk and Im Joo Eun and I want them to be a couple. And well, I also want to see more of Kang Ha Neul - he's hot.

    And bromances between Tan and Won, and Tan and Young Do are long over due. This needs to be fixed.

  9. "Kim Tan, Eun Sang, and Young Do. The only way out of this love triangle for Eun Sang is to to change her name and join the witness protection program, which she should do immediately" I teared up a little.
    +1000000 to absolutely everything, I have left better dramas halfway for reasons less problematic but I keep hoping that Kim Eun Sook and co. stop wasting the shows potentials (and aesthetically pleasing casts time) and give me something really juicy (and make tan/young less douchey).

  10. I love your blog and I agree with most of what you said.
    I think though, that there is a big difference in Tan and Youngdo's motives. Youngdo genuinely enjoys watching people suffer and enjoys making them suffer. He is sadistic and abusive.
    Tan on the other hand, for all his personality problems isn't really sadistic in motive. He does what he does because he wants to protect Eunsang, his mother, etc. So I think it 's a little unfair to say they are the same in douchebaggery. (in the present anyway)
    The reason Tan brought Youngdo's dad into this was because YD came to his house and purposely humiliated Tan's mother. I'm not sure about the US but I'm pretty sure that in Korean culture having your mother purposely humiliated is a thousand times worse than being beaten by your dad. Tan had to show YD that he would do whatever it takes to protect his mother. and getting into another fistfight wasn't going to accomplish anything so he used the only person that YD fears. I guess you could still say that it was a low thing to do but what YD did was a LOT worse IMO.

  11. YES YES YES to everything. I was just telling Coco the other day that I thought Heirs might be a better show if Young Do were the first male lead. Tan's level of douchebaggery is unacceptable. It's not endearing--it's horrifying. HOW many times do we need to see a conversation where she says he's ruining her life and he says, "But I like you"?

    I'm having a hard time understanding why this couple is interested in the first place. Why is Eun Sang interested in Tan? Why is he interested in her? I know you have a soft spot for Park Shin Hye, but I don't get Tan's obsession considering that she has just blinked at him in shock for 90% of their interactions.

    1. Maybe Tan can be seen as a douchebag as you said but if that is true then Young Do is a sociopath. He knows the results of his bullying and abuse since he gets it himself from his father but he delights in doing it to other people. I think he is less so now in these last few episodes but I don't think that absolves him of his prior psycho behavior.

  12. We should find a way to make the writer read this!!

  13. I am about ready to drop this drama. I don't like any of the characters. Since I dropped BOF maybe I just don't like teen dramas? But I did like Monstar. I am watching this week's episodes and if they don't get better then I am outta here.....

  14. So not agree with you.....Tan did that to YD as a reaction for what the latter did to his mom. (the are teenagers!!)...and most of Tan's 'bad' actions are the reactions and not out of his own will....and in your stream of things against Tan, you are even including scenes which are ,meant for comedy (like the one where he hid his marks)...LOL...looks like you are very much biased against LMH....
    I do agree that Tan gets dominating in some of the situations but he never means harm, unlike YD....but who is prefect....they are all growing...

    The problem with Heirs is that it's taking a melo route when it should be more funny and light....

  15. I so agree with the review. I watch heirs to catch glimpses of Bo-na and Chan Young. Although they are not a perfect couple, they balance each other out. Its light and fun and you can tell they totally love each other. I really wish that there was an episode focuses on them or at least someone cut scenes which focused on them, that would save me from suffering from watching the other stuff.

  16. Okay, eps 11 and 12 were a lot better. I'll stick with it till next week.

  17. He scares the daylights out of me, but I love Young Do. He's hot. He's terrifying (less so now) and he's doing unsure yet adorable things.

    Eun Sang's mom and Bo-na are hilarious.

  18. I did not blame KT for the YD and his father scene. YD embarrassed and humiliated his mother in her own home, you have to fight fire with fire. No one should mess with your mom. Plus, I know KT knows that his father is crazy but does he really know that he was going to whip him with a belt?

  19. As i thought, you and i are on the same wavelength.
    coffee prince, answer me 1997, and even in time with you which is not that popular.

    and now shipping Young Do and Eun Sang and told lee min ho off?
    none of my friends understand why am i shipping them, but now i found someone who knows :)

    Now, i am so gonna check your blog daily and download all drama that has your A- and up..
    keep writing and share awesome stuff..

  20. "Also, would you please tell Kim Woo Bin to stop being so hot, so I can at least cling to my morals?"
    Hahaha! Nailed it! I've never felt so guilty loving a second lead.
    However, we have different views on Tan. Tan doesn't make me angry, Tan doesn't make me feel...anything. That's the problem. There has been nothing between Tan and Eun Sang that suggests a strong connection, yet I'm supposed to buy them as the OTP? Why? What evidence has the drama given me to support that? They can't just say it, they have to show it!
    That's really why I'm digging Young Do. At least there is something there you know? From the very beginning you could clearly see his initial interest and growing attraction. Sure, his expression of the interest is way creepy, but at least while watching I genuinely believe he has it! That's what makes Kim Woo Bin a much better actor than Lee Min Ho*. He becomes Young Do and I believe him.
    I'm sorry to say, we flat out disagree on Park Shin Hye. Every time I see her on screen I'm like, oh look, Eun Sang is sad again. Oh look, Eun Sang is surprised again. Sad girl is sad. Sad girl is surprised. Repeat.

    *I'll admit, I've never been a Lee Min Ho fan and never understood all of the fangirling that happens around him, so jumping on the Young Do bandwagon was not hard.

  21. All her dramas are vanilla versions of "50 shades of gray". Some people fine that sort of thing hot.Whatever, to each his/her own.

  22. I usually don't understand how a person can watch Heirs and like YoungDo because he seems like a one-dimensional villain for me. I want to scream in rage whenever I see him. But you make me understand. Though I still think he's beyond redeeming, I will no longer raise my eyebrows when someone says she likes YoungDo. Or maybe your the first person who actually has a good reason to like him. Thank you.

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