Lovers, aka Lover (연인) was a popular 20-episode SBS Korean drama series from 2006. The series is best known for the performances of its stars, Lee Seo Jin and Kim Jung Eun, and rightly so. However, credit is also due to the intelligent direction, which allowed much of the emotional action to take place without unnecessary dialogue.
The love quadrangle at the center of Lovers is plagued with guilt, reversals, and agonizing ambivalence, making it one of the most realistic portrayals of that scenario that I’ve ever seen. Although we root for the hero and heroine, the other man and woman are also real people with real pain. This sympathy for all of the characters involved keeps Lovers moving and engaging even when the characters are stuck, and is one of the things I like best about Korean drama.
That said, we never really warm up to Kim Gyu Ri as Lee Seo Jin’s passive-aggressive longtime GF. In one scene she’s almost catatonically submissive, and in the next a screaming witch. We never get a sense of a personality that ties all that arbitrary behavior together. Nothing Lee Seo Jin does seems to make her happy. Then again, she’s smart enough to know a gangster can’t really offer the home life she wants – what did she expect? His remorse communicates the emotional content of their relationship far more than anything she does.
It finally dawned on me this morning that she was supposed to be afraid of him. Although she said this in the dialogue a couple of times (to other people) to explain her total lack of communication with him, it comes across as manipulation. He is distant, but never violent towards her. That is, until we get a sketchy backstory of their meeting way too late in the drama, which raises the question of why on earth she got involved with him in the first place.
I understand that we can’t like her too much for the ending to work, but we need to understand her more for the lengthy middle section to make sense. There is also a gaping plot hole concerning her near the end of the story. This is one of those times where I wonder whether something important was lost in the subtitling.
Some of the moral dithering may be lost on western viewers, who will wonder why they don’t just get on with it. Bear the following in mind:
- Pre-marital sex happens in Korea but is not necessarily acknowledged (even to one’s best friend)
- For many couples, having sex is equivalent to a commitment to marry
- Having sex and/or living with a man she does NOT marry is disproportionately shameful to women
- Divorce is rising, but still much less common than in the US
- Moving to a new apartment requires a very large deposit (the equivalent of thousands of dollars)
Lovers resonated with echoes of other dramas. Comparison to Freeze, which aired just a week before Lovers, is unavoidable. Once again, we have Lee Seo Jin torn between an old lover and a new one, and fearful that the consequences of his failings will negatively impact his naive new GF. Once again we have a locale at “the end of the world” – lots of that in 2006 [update: I heard a children’s song about going to the end of the world in another drama last night, which may explain why this keeps cropping up]. Once again Lee Seo Jin is tattooed, and his lady love offers to remove the tattoo, but ends up not doing so (an obvious excuse to remove clothing from Lee Seo Jin). Once again, he is confronted with his vulnerability on various levels.
There were also a few lines straight out of Haeshin, and much of the music sounded really familiar. For some reason, American songs were playing in the background during most of the restaurant scenes.
Although Lovers is a film about gangsters, there are no guns. Yes, you read right, not a single gun. Knives are featured here and there, but they are blurred as if they were buttocks in prime time. There is blood aplenty however, and lengthy, brutal beatings, mostly in the last two episodes. I’m still trying to grok the logic that shows people getting pulverized, punctured and lacerated by pipes, sticks, and anything else that comes to hand, while hiding the knife.
Lovers is also downright racy for a Korean drama, with light petting, full body embraces, and sex (off-screen, of course). With one notable exception (you’ll know the scene I mean) Lee Seo Jin and Kim Jung Eun screen kiss as woodenly as other Korean actors – since they were lovers in real life, I thought they might relax a little [note: their relationship didn’t actually start until filming was over]. However, overall, the glances and brushes are far more evocative of the tension of unconsummated passion than more explicit scenes in US films.
While the locations were pretty standard for Korean dramas, the cinematography was creative, without being distracting, especially for some of the inevitable beach scenes. There was also a particularly effective first person camera scene (wisely without music) which removed all romance from violence.
There are central, yet largely unarticulated universal themes in Lovers, which may be another reason for its success. Lovers is about class struggle on every level – the internal struggle with shame and perceived (and real) limitations, the jealousies within and between classes and the damage they cause, and the ultimate irrelevance of class. The reformation of criminality via entrepreneurialism is far too pat, one of the few deficiencies of the script, but perhaps it’s too much to ask a drama for a better solution, when the entire world economy is grappling (unsuccessfully, so far) for one.
Crime, class and religion are often interlinked in the background of Korean drama. Given Korea’s unique history and geopolitics, I look forward to seeing how these elements are synthesized in Korean culture as it integrates international perspectives.
But there’s plenty of familiar Korean drama fun too – the hero in funny clothes, binding of wounds as a mating ritual, birth secrets, sibling rivalry, money troubles, martyrdom, scheming betrayals, symbolic gifts, blood donation, loan sharks, table-clearing temper tantrums, and a statistically impossible frequency of chance meetings.
I must also mention the performance of Lee Ki Young, as Lee Seo Jin’s best hyeong. He is, perhaps, the most credible and likable character in the series, yet his role must be understated for us to tolerate later script developments, and he walks that fine line with superb agility. What a breath of fresh air after watching his performance as the irritatingly ineffectual Kim Im Bae in Man of Honor/Glory Jane! His performance in Lovers makes it clear the more recent role was a scripted limitation, and not a shortage of skill on his part.
The final scene was a little disappointing. It got the story where we wanted it to go, but didn’t quite work (I was reminded of 4 Weddings and a Funeral). Could this be another case of something lost in the subtitling translation? But no, the actors were more than capable of communicating without dialogue in the rest of the drama. It might have been more effective with a lot less said (not to mention that people standing 20 feet apart on a beach with crashing waves couldn’t possibly have made themselves heard in real life). It’s a pity more care wasn’t taken with such an important scene.
I watched Lovers for free on DramaFever. For the most part the video quality was quite good, though the subtitles were sometimes annoyingly out of synch with the dialogue. [UPDATE: the balkiness I experienced turned out to be an equipment issue on my end. Once I corrected it, I had no streaming problems.] Drama Fever does their own subtitles, so watching Lovers in another venue (such as broadcast reruns) gives the drama a slightly different twist.
AFTERTHOUGHT: Lately it occurs to me that the plot of Lovers is totally noir, although the cinematography is not. If you transplanted the gangster/redemption/love story into a shadowy, black and white 1940s American context, it would be a perfect fit.
See reviews for more dramas with Lee Seo Jin