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:

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