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August 12, 2012

Can Love Become Money?
Moral Relativism and Paradigm Shifts

Can Love Become Money? is full of things that make you go “hmm,” though most fans may take it at face value, and ignore the implicit philosophizing. I regard philosophy as a misbegotten hybrid of spirituality and practicality that retains the value of neither, and therefore avoid it as much as possible. A philosopher can spend an entire lifetime stuck on the definition of a single word (“value,” for instance), which is a writer’s worst nightmare. But despite my antipathy, Can Love Become Money? got me googling philosophical concepts like “moral relativism.”

Personally, I think we are all part of one big something (you could call it God, but I don’t), perpetually experiencing every conceivable aspect of itself from every conceivable perspective. In the cosmic sense then, there’s no such thing as bad, good, right or wrong experience, since it’s all part of the big whatever-it-is. That perspective can be comforting when the chips are down. Yet it’s not much of an experience unless we give ourselves fully to whatever our particular path offers. So there’s a balance to be found between engaging with life, while taking it all with a grain of salt.

Oh, wait, was I writing a drama review? Right. About that…

ALL of the major characters in Can Love Become Money? deceive and manipulate others for their own ends. In Tak does exactly what he has vilified Da Ran for, and they forgive each other in the end because it was a question of “survival.” But was it? Da Ran tells In Tak she had no choice, but her actions contradicted her own defense, since she returned what she stole instead of pawning it, and drew the line at “becoming a scumbag.” In Tak, on the other hand, doesn’t hesitate to “borrow” what isn’t his to extricate himself from a dicey situation. Is it because he has the well-being of the employees and his obligation to shareholders in mind? Or because he arrogantly sees his needs as paramount to all other considerations? And by the way, a “Caucasian-only” hotel?? What was In Tak thinking!?

I don’t mean to suggest that Da Ran has any claim to moral superiority. After being romantically scammed for money herself, how could she dream of doing that to someone else? And yet, the comparison never seems to occur to her. An attempt is made to distinguish her from her con man ex-boyfriend. For her, it’s a last resort, while he’s a sadistic control freak who gets off on the emotional torture as much as the profits, with no mitigating backstory to explain how he got that way. But he’s irrelevant to the moral question: is financial “survival” a legitimate defense for dishonesty and exploitation?

Deputy Chief Bang (Kim Hyeong Beom) raises the point that to some people, dishonesty is simply not an option, regardless of their circumstances. His credibility as that kind of person is promptly eviscerated by In Tak’s attack on his knock-off wardrobe, and no one else in the drama argues for moral consistency. In fact, I get the distinct impression that the writer(s) regard any such thing as sheer pretension. Moral ambiguity is pretty standard in Korean drama – heroes have flaws, villains have tragic backstories, and it’s often difficult to tell them apart. However, beneath its comedic veneer, Can Love Become Money? is more cynical than most. Transgressors reconsider their behavior in light of emotional fallout, not moral absolutes or ethical standards. We are to believe that people who do bad things under duress don’t really compromise their integrity. Some viewers find this appalling, and I’m inclined to agree. It may be true that no one lives up to their values 100% of the time, but does that mean we shouldn’t bother to have any?

What I love about Korean drama is the way it makes me think. Sure, American TV raises Big Questions from time to time. But in Korean drama, Big Questions are front and center all the time, no matter the genre.

Have the philosophers gotten to me after all? I deny it. I’m interested in practical solutions. Since the first humans sat around fires in caves, entertaining each other with stories during bad weather, we have worked out our collective fears, self-conceptions and goals by imagining scenarios. The quantity of resources and attention we continue to invest in these shared fantasies reveals how important they are to us as a species. We are facing some very big problems in this moment of human history. We have to find solutions, or else. I don’t believe the answers can be handed down to us from hierarchies, since hierarchies themselves are one of the problems. More importantly, that isn’t how cultural paradigm shifts happen. Somehow, the time becomes right, and change occurs spontaneously, organically. People scattered around the globe start to think differently, and you can never really pin down the genesis of change to a single seed.

What has that got to do with Korean drama? Maybe nothing. But it intrigues me that an entertainment format so persistently concerned with difficult moral questions as they play out in daily lives should suddenly, just now, achieve international popularity across widely divergent cultures. I wonder whether the Korean Wave isn’t a sign of a paradigm shift in the making.

The title of Can Love Become Money? (also translated as Can Love Make Money?), still doesn’t make much sense to me. The answer seems to be, no, but money can become love. I think we are supposed to conclude that everyone learned a Valuable Lesson about the importance of money vs. relationships. That’s all well and good, but it’s not so clear what they learned about integrity.

Can Love Become Money? raises a lot of interesting questions, and doesn’t answer most of them. I guess that’s up to us.


Also with Yeon Jeong Hun:

More Can Love Become Money? reviews
Vampire Prosecutor (Season 1) reviews

Season 2 of Vampire Prosecutor starts on Sept. 9. Hope it doesn’t take too much longer to reach us in the U.S!

15 comments to Can Love Become Money?
Moral Relativism and Paradigm Shifts

  • ACuriousPerson

    @Your qoute: “In Tak does exactly what he has vilified Da Ran for, and they forgive each other in the end because it was a question of “survival.” But was it? ”

    IMO, they forgive each other isn’t the question of “survival” or other moral reasons. It’s they finally understand each others’ shoes, including understand themselves that allow them to forgive each other and themselves. There is a saying goes ” Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner ― Blaise Pascal” (aka “To understand everything is to forgive everything” ). Just my opinion anyways…

  • Mihansa

    Opinions are all we do here, so opine away :)

    Understanding and forgiveness are not so conjoined for me. But then, what exactly IS forgiveness, anyway?

    Omo, the philosophers did get me.

    • ACuriousPerson

      @yourquote: “Understanding and forgiveness are not so conjoined for me.”
      You need to experience it to understand it then… It’s all about empathy and realizes if you’re in that situation, there is high possibility that you have no choice to select the same path with the same knowledge that you have at that time. No philosophy here, since I’m no expect. From my own perspective, “Forgiveness” is to free oneself from holding on something negative and hinder me from moving on. But, to forgive doesn’t always mean to forget. If one forgets, it means one didn’t learn the lesson and continue making the same mistake. And, the person who forgives doesn’t mean the person is weak.
      Just my opinion only.

      • Mihansa

        Hmm, I don’t know about that. Different people perceive and react to the same situation in very different ways, so I don’t think finding yourself in the same situation as someone else necessarily means that you will have the same thoughts or feelings about it (or make the same choices).

        Da Ran and In Tak both had other choices. For example, Da Ran could have let her father experience the consequences of his own behavior, for a change, instead of always taking them on herself. Or she could have told In Tak what was going on – they were close enough at that point that he probably would have offered to help.

        I agree that forgiveness isn’t a weakness, and that forgetting isn’t always a good thing.

        One of the things I love about Korean drama is that it makes us think about and discuss these questions!

  • Anonymous

    @”Hmm, I don’t know about that. Different people perceive and react to the same situation in very different ways, so I don’t think finding yourself in the same situation as someone else necessarily means that you will have the same thoughts or feelings about it (or make the same choices).”

    Yes, you won’t but how many people will be in the same situations ? When I mean same, I mean everything, including growing up with the same experiences, conditions, and same set of knowledge and ignorance. It’s hard for us to know, but the thought of understand that we may choose the same path or another don’t necessary make us as any better than others.

    @Da Ran and In Tak both had other choices. For example, Da Ran could have let her father experience the consequences of his own behavior, for a change, instead of always taking them on herself. Or she could have told In Tak what was going on – they were close enough at that point that he probably would have offered to help.

    One thing we see TV is we know everything since we are like the “angels” watching these “characters’ lives”. In the real world, we don’t know everything(meaning you don’t know how that person think, what happening behind you, every events happen in everyone around you). So, we can’t make correct assessments of how to act right. In addition, when we are in the situation, we are blinded by our own situation.

    • Mihansa

      I don’t think I entirely understand forgiveness as it is practiced in Korea. There seems to be an assumption that people can change, and a trust that they will learn and grow from their experiences – in drama, anyway.

      I like the principal of this, but I’m not sure it works out so well in practice. It seems too easy for people who are perfectly happy with their own bad behavior to make an insincere apology, and go right back to the same bad behavior. I’m not suggesting the US system is better – I don’t really know what the answer is to get people to WANT to take responsibility, and behave in an honorable way, with others in mind, not just themselves.

      Transformation seems to be at the center of a lot of dramas, and it’s something I’m really interested in. I was watching a talk show with several actors a few weeks back, and they spoke about transformations in various roles as if it was an expected part of every drama. Is that true?

      • ACuriousPerson

        This isn’t a Korean thing… It’s encouraged to practice in Asia (as in Far-East, S.E. Asia). And yes, in general, there is an understanding that people change and grow with experiences because our minds or thoughts aren’t permenant.
        Now, the question about Change, it depends on which areas that they will change in their own perspectives of experiencing Life ? In our own expectations, probably that person we want him/her to change isn’t changing as what we want. But again, it’s just in out view and what we want, but not what that person’s views. You may think forgiving those people who “insincerely or not” appologize for their bad behavior isn’t the logical thing to do, it seems there is an incomplete understanding of what forgiveness really is. There are different kind of forgiveness, mostly is for one own’s good because holding a grudge or negative feeling of a person, don’t do one good (for mental sake) in the long run. E.g.: A abused victim can forgive his/her abuser for his/her own peace of mind, but the victim won’t go back to the abuser unless there is a “possibility of friendship” with the abuser IFF the abuser has completely feel remorse and changed. At this point, the victim’s state of mind (after forgiveness), the victim will still want the abuser to get help (may be punished for the crime) because the intention is less of revenge justice, but for hoping the abuser will realized his/her own destructive action kind of justice. There is a difference, the revenge kind of justice won’t bring peace to the victim even if the abuser is being punished because he/she doesn’t fully recover from this dark past as it will still remain lingering in his/her mind. In this case, the forgiveness is for the victim sake to make on with his/her life, not to be haunted by this dark past but to take this dark past as a educated experienced to live a better and productive life. It’s a freedom in the victim’s mind. So, forgiveness, it isn’t about letting the wrong-doer gaining the upper-hand, it’s for one own’s freedom in the mind. Most far East-Asia, S.E Asia, India tend to want free from suffering -> mental suffering. That may be why most Korean/Japanese/Asian dramas often emphasize transformation as in learning to be a better person who will benefit the society as a whole because Asians are less individualistic (i.e. US) than the west. Asians tend to consider how their behaviors will effect the people around them, negatively or positively.

        Just my opinion anyways…

  • ACuriousPerson

    @Mihansa,
    Sorry, I posted the above message and forgotten to place my “Name”.

  • Mihansa

    Hmm, that is interesting. I appreciate you having this conversation with me, because I have sensed a difference of attitudes in many dramas, and wondered about it.

    I understand about forgiving someone who has harmed you in order to free yourself from the burden of bad feelings – that’s a concept in western psychology, that also crops up in many religions. In Can Love Become Money, Seon Wu is a good example of someone who hasn’t forgiven, and is completely possessed by his anger, which makes him behave very badly towards the people around him.

    The Asian system seems to place more importance on the feelings of the victim. There are certain things victims need to heal their feelings. They need the perpetrator to acknowledge that he has harmed them, or if he won’t, for the community to acknowledge they have been wronged. Without this, it can seem like nobody cares if they are harmed, so they can never feel safe.

    They also need to feel that there has been fairness. If their life has been severely disrupted by someone’s bad behavior, it doesn’t feel fair if that person is able to continue with his or her life without similar consequences.

    I think a lot of people can forgive more easily if someone who harmed them has learned from the experience – if it did some good, then it wasn’t just wasted pain. Maybe this is true everywhere?

    The unanswered question is, what do you do when someone has harmed others and refuses to see that they are wrong?

    Did you see season 1 of Vampire Prosecutor? There was a conspiracy of people who had been victimized in their childhood by someone who was never caught, taking revenge into their own hands. Prosecutor Min (Yeon Jun Hoon again) was more sympathetic to the murderers than to the victim in this case. I was also surprised when he allowed a junior prosecutor to decide whether or not her father should be prosecuted for a murder.

    Both of these situations would be considered extremely unethical in the U.S. People involved in law enforcement are expected to put abstract principles ahead of their personal feelings in order to make a system that treats everyone the same way, which is our definition of fairness (I’m not saying I agree, but that’s how we think about it). In reality, of course, our system does not treat everyone the same way.

    In the U.S., I think there is more focus on ideas (or laws) of right and wrong, than on the feelings of the victim. The prison system is a pretty hostile environment which does not promote introspection, serenity, or empathy in most prisoners. This is not working out very well for us – most people who go to prison once end up there again.

    One thing I saw in Vampire Prosecutor, and other dramas was having a murderer re-enact the crime once he or she was caught. Do they really do that in Korea? That isn’t something we do in the U.S., and I thought it was a very interesting idea.

    I know the U.S. and other western countries have urged Korea to adopt a more western-like criminal justice system, though I’m not sure ours works well enough that we should be pushing it onto anyone else. But Korea does have a big corruption problem. I wonder what Korean people think about that, and what kind of solutions they would like to see?

    • ACuriousPerson

      Regarding the specific case: “There was a conspiracy of people who had been victimized in their childhood by someone who was never caught, taking revenge into their own hands. Prosecutor Min (Yeon Jun Hoon again) was more sympathetic to the murderers than to the victim in this case. I was also surprised when he allowed a junior prosecutor to decide whether or not her father should be prosecuted for a murder. Both of these situations would be considered extremely unethical in the U.S. People involved in law enforcement are expected to put abstract principles ahead of their personal feelings in order to make a system that treats everyone the same way, which is our definition of fairness ”

      I don’t remember the story since it was quite a while since I watched VP. First of all, this is a drama, which means the story is a hypothetical story by a group of writers who aim is to get the viewers’ mind work-up so the viewers will become more engage with it emotionally. Do this happen is real life ? Very very small percentage. In real life, prosecutors and lawyers do act according to laws. So, don’t take that case as the facevalue (i.e., as if this is how it is in Korea) and believe it’s true. For example: Go watch Japanese movie “Confessions (film)”. Do really you believe this is how the majority of Japaneses will act when they are in the same situation as the main female protagonist in the movie ? Of course not. We can’t take a movie and make assumption of the real world.

      I think we can’t make any assumption about Korean’s justice system or their laws, such as focus more on victims’ feeling, etc… without studying them and just based on Dramas. In addition, the justice system is created by humans and it’s blind (only consider black and white). Hence, there isn’t the best justice system in the whole world as there are often conflicting laws and unable to judge “gray” cases with fairness.

      @I think a lot of people can forgive more easily if someone who harmed them has learned from the experience – if it did some good, then it wasn’t just wasted pain. Maybe this is true everywhere?

      I think this lady has better explaination than I do: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PczDC7GjKBg

      • Mihansa

        I don’t take the dramas literally (after all, he was a vampire prosecutor!), but since they are created by Koreans for a Korean audience, they must resonate with the Korean psyche on some level. When I finished watching season 1 of Vampire Prosecutor, I was very curious what kinds of conversations people were having about it in Korea – and I still am. It’s not that I think dramas are a great source of factual information on Korean life. I just don’t have a lot of other sources to go on. I’m working on the language, but that’s going to take awhile.

        The Vampire Prosecutor writers set up situations where prosecutors would work outside the law, but in a way that viewers would be sympathetic to. This struck me as a really interesting thing to do in the middle of a lengthy scandal about corrupt prosecutors in the real world. I’m not sure what to make of it.

  • ACuriosPerson

    @”The Vampire Prosecutor writers set up situations where prosecutors would work outside the law, but in a way that viewers would be sympathetic to. This struck me as a really interesting thing to do in the middle of a lengthy scandal about corrupt prosecutors in the real world. I’m not sure what to make of it.”

    I don’t know how the viewers think of that VP’s case… But, since many Asians in Asia believe in Karma, that may serve a purpose of “working outside the law”. There is time when law fails, and what can one do ? Some will take action by their own hands (as if they are judge) as long as they don’t abuse the “power” but act with the intention for the well-beings of others, some will let “TIME” ne the judge, as time goes by the consequences of those destructive actions will catch up with them anyways…. So, it depends on how people look at things, etc… Is is wrong for not following the law ? In the society’s perspective, Yes but what is the purpose of “Law” ? IMO, the purpose is for the intention of protecting the society from those who will harm them, and by having those who must follow the law, so those who will obey within their means and not obey their power of “being the ultimate judge”. So, what is the difference if a person who doesn’t follow the “convention” law but have the same intention And not abusing the power to handle certain criminals who the law itself fails ? Of course, there is always consequences even if the person who acted as a “personal” judge. So, there isn’t laws that can deal with all the cases in the world. Anyways, just my opinion. Let me know what is your thoughts after you watched K-drama “Phantom”. Just my opinion.

    BTW, corruptions (as in all kinds, e.g. money, power. fame) happens everywhere because humans.

    • Mihansa

      >So, what is the difference if a person who doesn’t follow the “convention” law but have the same intention

      Maybe the difference is objectivity. People who are convicted of a crime can be punished severely. A justice system that creates new victims by punishing the wrong person can’t make anyone feel safe, and neither can a society with frequent vigilantism. I don’t believe humans are capable of complete objectivity. However, jurors who don’t know the victim or the suspect, and won’t be affected personally by the outcome of the trial are probably more objective than crime victims who act on their own. Also, there are several people on a jury, so there is never just one person deciding the fate of the suspect.

      That’s the argument against taking personal vengeance, but it doesn’t offer any solution for what to do when the justice system doesn’t work. You can add appeal processes and other checks and balances, but making a system more and more complicated all the time tends to create more problems than it solves.

      As for karma, I’m a believer. Yet, it can be difficult to trust in a future outcome that you may never see. I think many people in Asian cultures must feel the same way. Would revenge stories be so common – or so popular – if most people were confident that those who harm others would eventually find themselves in the same position?

      Corruption seems to be worse in some places, and some historical periods. It’s difficult to know for sure, since it is often secret. Some personality types are more concerned with ethics than others, regardless of culture. But I also think cultural pressures and values are an important influence.

  • Ophie

    Found your blog as I was looking for a review of this drama. I really find your review and discussion interesting. I am a new KD convert and have been asked by my family and friends why I watch KDs. I think your review kind of covers it for me. Even though I am not Korean and I really don’t know the Korean culture I find these dramas so enjoyable. The dramas are sometimes a fantasy escape and at other times an interesting journey of deep hidden meanings.

    I have just finished episode 5 and was not sure if I was going to finish this drama. Well after reading your review I am definitely going back to finish. I have added your blog to one of my must follow lists. Please keep sharing your thoughts.

    • Mihansa

      Hi Ophie,

      Many Kdrama fans face puzzlement from friends and family (and maybe even ourselves). I suspect this is the genesis of many Korean drama blogs, so perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing!

      CLBM will introduce you to many Kdrama staple characters and plot elements, if you haven’t encountered them already. Although the cinematography is a bit above average, I doubt I’d have watched it if Yung Jung Hoon hadn’t been in it.

      But even if it isn’t a great drama, it raises many interesting questions about personal (and professional) ethics. It also examines the different ways victims of gross injustice and mistreatment come to terms with their anger, although it isn’t very consistent in its conclusions.

      These themes come up a lot in Korean drama, at least in the dramas I end up watching, and I really appreciate being able to discuss my reactions with other drama fans. I look forward to hearing your comments as you watch it.

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