I’m 4 episodes into Marriage Contract, one quarter of the way through the new MBC drama starring Lee Seo Jin and Uee. It was promoted as a melodrama, not my favorite genre, so my hopes weren’t high. I’m happy to report that it is better than I expected.
Uee is new to me, but she has a long history in Kpop, and quite a few dramas under her belt as well. Therefore, I was surprised by her blank, mannikin-like persona during the drama’s press conference. It was hard to picture her as an expressive actress, or even as a real girl.
However, it turns out that there is much more to Kim Yu Jin than meets the eye. She brings a rare dimensionality to the down-on-her-luck-and-desperate spunky heroine. This is even more of an accomplishment when you consider that the upper half of her face is obscured by her hair in many of her most important scenes.
Uee is a devoted mother to Shin Rin Ah, and their scenes together are touching. Although her luck is relentlessly awful, and she has shell-shocked moments when she receives bad news, we never see Uee surrender to the despair that is so often the precursor to a loveless marriage in Kdrama. She puts up with a lot when she must, but she is no martyr. Push her too far, and she pushes back. Whatever others may think about her life, she never doubts her own values or perceptions. In her introverted, understated way, she holds up and keeps moving under unbelievable stresses.
Lee Seo Jin is in his element, in a role that shows off his impressive range. His character is a major jerk from the opening scene,* leaving plenty of room for transformative growth. It’s risky to start off a drama this way. Without depth and complexity, an unpleasant leading man can turn viewers off. Not a problem with LSJ, though. The underlying humanity of his characters always shines through, no matter how badly they behave.
I’m looking forward to learning more of Ji Hoon’s backstory, particularly about his former life as a musician. Music doesn’t seem like a part of his current life at all, or else he’d be playing his drums to release stress, not kicking them. And what made him change his mind and toe the family line? Not that he’s paying much attention to the business, which doesn’t seem to be going so well.
There was much advance speculation as to whether there would be chemistry between LSJ and Uee, who is almost 20 years his junior. So far, they are quite convincing as people who dislike each other very much. In Kdrama, this is as good as a 프라미스 of romance. By episode 4, they are getting to know each other better in spite of themselves, and disliking each other a little less.
Lee Whee Hyang as LSJ’s alcoholic, cast off, dying mother is a stand-out, particularly in the scene in episode 1 where LSJ puts her to bed. She does a great drunk, conveying the woman her character used to be so that she becomes sympathetic, despite her self-destructive tantrums and fixations.
The acting and the script are good enough to make the formulaic plot credible, which is saying a lot, since we have already encountered life-threatening illness, advanced alcoholism, illegitimacy, obsessive refusal to accept rejection, sibling rivalry, relationship secrets, and loan sharks by the end of the second episode!
The reasons for bogus marriages in Kdrama tend to be ridiculously contrived. Scriptwriters don’t try very hard – they throw in loan sharks and call it good. Marriage Contract does a much better job of making the marriage a credible outcome of the initial character development, perhaps due to the sensitivity of the subject. I’m sure MBC wants to make it crystal clear that they are in no way condoning marriage for this purpose in real life!
But what is up with the wife-raising-child-of-mistress plotline, again? It comes up so frequently (Wonderful Days, My Daughter Seo Young, Yeong Gwang’s Jae In) that I am starting to wonder whether Korean women are actually expected to raise the offspring of their husband’s infidelities.
The locations in this drama present a more authentic window into Korean everyday life than some I’ve seen. You get a sense of Seoul (I assume) as a real city, with a full range of urban neighborhoods. Also a lot of very busy streets, which the script uses to terrify us at frequent intervals. However, the verisimilitude only goes so far. When thugs invade a high-end restaurant to bust up its decor and employees, nobody calls the police.
My local broadcast MBC station is not showing Marriage Contract for some reason. Happily, Viki and DramaFever are both carrying it (and both display it on their front page). Each does their own subtitling, so it can be interesting to watch the episode twice. The differences are small, but sometimes meaningful. The Mother’s Love subbing team at Viki is a dynamo, often completing episodes within a day of their release. Team members (who are volunteers) must spend their entire weekend subtitling for eager fans – THANK YOU!
Marriage Contract is doing well in Korea. It’s also doing well on Viki, with a 9.6 star rating, and the number of followers growing by the hour. DramaFever reviewers approve, too. Unless it takes a really wrong turn down the line, I think we are looking at a success. Check it out.
* If you’re new to Korean drama, the 100 day anniversary is often when dating couples become engaged.