March 12, 2012

Lovers - Korean Drama review

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

13 comments to Lovers – Korean Drama review

  • BW - S'pore

    Enjoyed reading your analysis of “Lovers”. It has given me a better understanding of the drama. I just watched “Lovers” on DVD in the dubbed Chinese version with English subtitles. I think the Chinese translation does a good job as it is close to the korean dialogue. Thanks for sharing!

  • Mihansa

    Thanks for your comments on Chinese DVDs of Korean dramas. I’ve seen similar DVDs in a nearby Chinatown here in the US, and was curious about the subtitling and quality.

    I first came across Lovers in reruns on a local Arirang broadcast station. The subtitles seemed to have been done by someone who was not very fluent in English, and I think Korean idioms were being translated literally, as often they did not make sense at all. That would probably be interesting to me now that I’m more familiar with the Korean language, but it was mystifying at the time, and I missed several important plot points because of it.

    Eventually I became impatient with only two episodes a week, and jumped over to DramaFever, where the subtitles were much more illuminating, if less Korean in flavor.

    If you ever have the opportunity to watch it without the dubbing, you should. Since Chinese is a tonal language, you lose emphasis and expression with Chinese dubbing. And of course, voice is a key part of the actors’ performance, so you don’t get the full effect without it. Lee Seo Jin has a particularly distinctive voice.

  • Emily

    Thanks for this article, it was very interesting to read, but I recently watched this and I’m slightly confused about the intensity of this drama. I understand it was made in 2006, but in many dramas like ‘Coffee Prince’, ‘I need Romance’ etc. Sex doesn’t seem to be considered that much of a big deal and they seem like pretty mainstream dramas. In both of those dramas it seems pretty explicit in comparison to ‘Lovers’. In your analysis, you said even extramarital sex off screen it is pretty racy, but in these it is pretty blatant. Can you explain this, are these dramas pretty shocking (unconventional), or is Korea becoming more accepting of modern ways?

    • Mihansa

      This is a great example of a topic where the language barrier makes it really hard to find information. If you are lucky enough to have English-speaking Korean friends, it’s not something you can just ask them about unless you are close. I wrote that review awhile ago, when I was newer to Kdrama and Korean culture. After a lot of mostly-fruitless research, I put together the best synopsis I could come up with from the (mostly undated and western) sources that were available at the time. So your comment intrigued me. I haven’t seen either of the dramas you mentioned, but note that Coffee Prince is from 2007, and I Need Romance is from 2011.

      It does seem to me that attitudes evolve quickly in Korea, although it’s hard to know from the outside how deep those changes go. When this happens, major generational differences in attitudes can develop. The reality gap between what people actually do, and what is portrayed in dramas is often acknowledged on drama fan sites. Different dramas bridge this gap to differing degrees, although it appears to be generally narrowing over time.

      I picture Korea in 2006 as being somewhat akin to the U.S. (and U.K.) in the 50s and 60s. In theory, “nice” girls didn’t have sex outside of marriage, but in reality, plenty of nice girls did, they just didn’t talk about it. You could see a full range of treatments of this, ranging from total denial to X-rated, in the films from that era. TV was much more repressed however, at least in the U.S. – this is the era when married couples always slept in twin beds.

      Amusingly, sexually active characters in Kdramas (e.g., Jang Geun Suk’s character in Love Rain) are frequently referred to in summaries translated from Korean as “liberal.” But note, although his character in this 2012 drama was an unapologetic player, his love interest (Kpop star Im Yoo Na) had never even kissed anyone. They spent a couple of nights together, but there was no definite implication that they had sex.

      To look at Kpop videos, Koreans are anything but sexually repressed. And yet, the most oblique and flowery language is used to describe music videos with highly explicit dance moves, such as breast rubbing and crotch grabbing. Korea has a long way to go yet to reach economic equality for women, and that has a profound impact on sexual power dynamics, the polarization and intensity of gender roles, portrayal of women in the media, and honesty about sexual behavior. Music videos coming out of other parts of Asia (like India, which has obviously been a major influence on Kpop videos) have also become much more sexually explicit over the past few years, probably for many of the same reasons.

      Getting back to Lovers, let’s not forget that Mi Joo is a minister’s daughter, which presumably places her on the sexually conservative end of the spectrum. Korea has a range of subcultures with their own values, just like anywhere else. The subtext of the wild kissing scene right before the implied sex scene is that Mi Joo is a virgin, don’t you think? Certainly the earlier night they spent together (at the seaside hotel) was right out of middle school, by U.S. standards. Which was a memorable and breathtaking phase of sexual life for many of us, but seemed to stretch credibility for characters in their 30s. Although Lovers was set more or less in the present (since they had cell phones), it had a sort of retro aura. Also, with a few more dramas under my belt, I now understand Lovers to be relatively melodramatic.

      Truth, I’m still guessing about all of this, albeit with a little more to go on. I’d love to hear from Koreans living in Korea on this subject.

      Korea has the opportunity to define its own modernization, and I hope it will not lose track of its cultural identity in its eagerness to be acknowledged in the international community. The practice of getting to know partners over time before having sex has much to recommend it, as many survivors of the American “sexual revolution” can attest. Let’s hope they learn from our mistakes without having to repeat them.

      You might be interested in The Grand Narrative blog. It’s written by an American man who is married to a Korean woman, and has lived in Korea for many years. His cultural commentary includes a lot of links to Korea news stories that provide a decidedly different perspective on Korean culture than one would form from watching dramas.

      Thanks for your post, and if you come up with any better answers than I’ve got, by all means share :)

  • cate

    great analysis of this series, THANKS!

  • Kim in Gran Couva

    I still haven’t watched Lovers but the difference between how sex is protrayed in kpop, mainly by young female performers, and how it is not much shown in contemporary dramas also puzzles me. Recently i saw a headline about a Korean actor and a ballet dancer who are “in a scandal”. Is it only a scandal if the evidence of physical intimacy is irrefutable? Do they have to get married now that everyone knows? In Shoot for the Star, the lead couple-in-love spend a night at a faraway guest house but no signs of intimacy (and she’s 30/ he’s 24). While a drunk LSJ is shown with a scantily clad scheming actress (but for the scorn he shows her in the rest of the movie, i can’t tell if they did it or not!). In Phoenix a night of unwedded bliss and a resultant pregnancy led to marriage. I’m not saying that viewers want to see all the ins and outs of a relationship but the not-showing any intimacy is unrealistic for Korea in the 21st ecntury.

    • Mihansa

      If you find that article again, feel free to post a link. I’d be interested in reading it.

      My understanding is that it’s tacitly understood that couples dating long-term are sleeping together. The use of noraebangs (karaoke rooms) for these liaisons (and also for prostitution, which is huge in Korea and barely mentioned in dramas) has become such a problem that they had to crack down recently.

      Films are more frank about this than TV dramas. I recently watched My Girlfriend is an Agent, and a couple is clearly about to have sex (with 30 seconds of foreplay, just like American movies), and not for the first time. There is an interruption before anything more explicit than passionate kissing and hugging, but we did have an unzipping of pants, which I have never seen in a drama. I was quite shocked :)

      In another film from 2009, The Relation of Face, Mind and Love, first date/pickup sex was happening all over the place, though the heroine was understood to have participated in it because of love at first sight, whereas other women were just doing it because they hoped to snag the rich (and obnoxious) hero. These women were treated very unsympathetically in the film. Although, come to think of, everyone was treated unsympathetically in that film. Maybe that’s why I disliked it too much to review it.

      Pickup sex is also referenced in dramas (Love Rain, for example), usually as a behavior of rich party boys with an attitude problem. Then they meet the virginal and unsophisticated heroine, and are shamed and reformed. This strikes me as decidedly unlikely.

      The apparently chaste night spent together fully clothed is so common in kdrama, that I’m inclined to take it as a metaphor for sex. Illegitimate children are also quite common in Kdrama, typically as the result of a married man having an affair, but sometimes as the result of unmarried sex, with the man then marrying someone else. There is usually love on at least one side of these liaisons. The illegitimate child later being adopted into the man’s marital family also comes up fairly often in Kdrama, though I wonder how common that is in life. References to sex between married couples are more open, especially by family members after a wedding night.

      As far a man treating a woman he apparently had sex with contemptuously, that, alas, is also common. That’s definitely related to a sexual double standard where men can have casual sex without diminishing their status, but the women they have it with are then unworthy of respect, much less relationships and marriage.

      As Emily commented, sex is not a big deal in some dramas. I suspect it depends what age group the drama is targeted towards. It may also be network-related. My viewing, especially of new dramas, is probably skewed towards KBS, which is government owned, and actively performing outreach with international sub-networks (i.e., KBS World and KBS America). I think all of the broadcast networks are at least partially government owned. There is a tendency to avoid anything that might be controversial in international cultural products.

      Kpop, on the other hand, is produced by private entertainment companies, who are not at all shy about exploiting the marketability of sex. As far as I know, the Kpop/entertainment conglomerates are 100% male-owned. I think the degree to which the intense sexual objectification of young entertainers is embraced in Korean culture, and described in very flowery terms of denial (“fetching glances,” “mature”) is probably related to how widespread sexual services are there. Apparently sharing prostitutes can be as much a part of the mandatory co-worker bonding process as getting drunk together.

      Forgive me if I’m repeating myself, but the Grand Narrative blog addresses these issues in great detail, usually linking to Korean news articles that western drama fans would never see otherwise.

      My work life just became very busy, so I haven’t been able to start Shoot the Star. SO annoying, when real life interrupts my drama viewing! ~:(

      • Kim in Gran Couva

        here is the link:–55587.html

        I’ve watched all of Shoot the Star and loved it even though the ending could have been more dramatic or more emotive. I was dry-eyed throughout the show when in Phoenix i teared up on several occasions from the pull and tug. The love story in Shoot the Star is very touching and the sibling relationships very moving also. Not my favorite LSJ role though (he’s a jerk, he gets a beating, he’s diminished when filmed against a taller actor- twice, and some very unflattering shots of him). I received Terror Taxi so i’ll see that next (with Great King and Jang Ok Jung). Plow through some of that life stuff so that you can return to Korea drama without guilt.

        • Mihansa

          I’ll do my best to get my priorities straight ASAP :)

          Thanks for the link. As far as I can tell, hancinema just used the word “scandal” when they meant “sensation.” I can’t see any reason they shouldn’t be dating – neither is married, or dating someone else. Nor can I see any reason why they shouldn’t be dating each other. She’s a little older, and much more famous, but not enough to be a big deal. It’s just a juicy piece of gossip since she has been so prominent as a Korean ballet star, and has branched out from that conservative and patriotic role in some unconventional ways.

          Korean celebrities do often keep their relationships (and in extreme cases, their marriages, and even their kids) secret, partly to avoid undue attention to their families and/or the kind of fallout LSJ experienced if the relationship ends badly, and partly because it makes them more marketable to fans. There is nothing new (or specifically Korean) about that. It was common in the Hollywood studio system in the 1930s-40s, and John Lennon kept his 1st marriage and son a secret for years while the Beatles were touring in the ’60s.

          I don’t think I’ve yet seen LSJ in a completely unsympathetic role, so Shoot for the Star will be interesting. Did you watch Terror Taxi yet?

          • Kim in Gran Couva

            olenmanieyo. jal jinesseoyo?

          • Mihansa

            Kwenchanayo. Chigum nanun chongmal buhppuhyo (I’m very busy right now). I took a class. Naturally, work suddenly also got very busy right then. I’ve hardly had any time for drama (at least of the fictional kind!). BTW, you can drop the honorifics :)

          • Kim in Gran Couva


  • Kim in Gran Couva

    i did, twice, and added a comment on your Terror Taxi blog.

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