** Press play for a full immerse experience but don’t watch if you don’t want spoilers **
After you’ve watched Korean dramas for years, you start to become numb to how they explore trauma, grief and financial duress. It’s always the same story with the nightmares, the phobias and the hell-bent mission for revenge.
But in Just Between Lovers, the story is playing out so quietly that it demands me pay attention to how real people could be suffering in the same ways as the protagonists.
The story is about a group of people who are trying to live after a shopping mall collapsed a decade past, killing 45. From survivors to family who have lost loved ones, you can imagine the issues are wide-ranging.
How do you remember the dead? What does trauma look like? How do you seek justice for those who died wrongfully?
In Just Between Lovers, it looks like everyday life.
Unlike some other dramas, where the primary conflict of the entire story is a very specific phobia, it’s harder to tell what the main issue is with these refreshing characters. For once I’m not able to categorize them perfectly because they are so three-dimensional — as real people are.
It’s a bit hard to explain without an example so let’s first look at Lee Gang Doo.
Judging from just eight episodes, he seems to have gotten the worst of it. He was trapped for days under the weight of that building. He wanted to become a soccer player but his leg was injured. His father died in the collapse and he became the sole breadwinner in his family at the age of 15. His sister grew distant from him despite the lengths he has gone to make money to pay off their debt. He can’t survive without painkillers that he gets from an illegal drug operation run out of a dingy grandmother’s apartment.
What a story, right?
But what makes him interesting isn’t all of that. Rather, it’s his relentless optimism for life. He wants to live so badly that he’s willing to tolerate everything life has handed to him. While he consistently hates on the world through his words, every one of his actions betrays him. He is by far the most optimistic character I’ve watched in a Korean drama. And his spirit for life is infectious.
The drama doesn’t ask us to feel sorry for him. It doesn’t portray him as helpless. What I feel after spending 16 hours with him is immense respect, and most importantly, faith that he can pull through and find the light of day. That to me is much more powerful than begging for us to throw a pity party every episode — and believe me — I’ve thrown more than enough pity parties.
On the other side of the coin is Ha Moon Soo, who was also trapped in the collapse and lost her younger sister. It’s very easy to take her character and turn her into a woman out for vengeance. At first that’s what I thought she was going to be when I saw she had gotten into architecture as an adult, but boy was I wrong.
Is she upset at the people who made mistakes? Absolutely. But more than that, what she truly wants is for her and her grieving mother to live a normal life.
She’s not interesting because she became a great architecture model builder after the building collapse, but because she continues to stand by her alcoholic mom despite being treated as second to her dead sister for years.
It’s hard to not pay attention while watching this drama because everything is so nuanced and so low key.
The writers didn’t make it a huge deal that Moon Soo’s best friend has a disability and needs a wheelchair. They didn’t make it a huge deal that Gang Doo has an intimate familial relationship with a host club boss lady. They didn’t make it a huge deal that his best friend is developmentally delayed. And they didn’t make it a huge deal that Moon Soo’s parents live separately without being divorced.
Because you know what? It’s normal. It’s all normal and a part of life.
We’re so used to seeing Korean dramas up-play societal issues and almost sensationalize them. We forget that people who have experienced trauma continue to live with experiences like joy and love and relief and excitement along with their losses.
And sometimes when we characterize trauma, it can be hard for us to understand it it really is like. Gang Doo, Moon Soo and her mom all have survivor’s guilt, but the way they deal with it is incredibly different. Gang Doo wants to forget it, Moon Soo wants to move on and her mom refuses to let herself live because she is so guilty of not having been there to protect her daughter.
By portraying trauma as aspects of characters rather than making them into entire characters, the audience will start to see it as a multi-faceted issue as it is in real life.
Now we can’t talk about the characters without a word for the actors. What a brilliant cast the production team chose. From fresh-faced Won Jin Ah to Lee Jun Ho, who you would’ve never guessed is a K-pop idol, to supporting characters who even show up just for two minutes to act their grief, they really help you immerse yourself in the drama by portraying their roles so well.
And the chemistry, how do I even begin? Not once does the drama betray its title and its purpose. While the 16 episodes continue to explore trauma and loss, it is first and foremost, a love story. And an ordinary one.
Gang Doo loves Moon Soo “just because.” And Moon Soo can’t think of why she loves him “because there are too many reasons.” At its core, and a literal translation of the title, the drama is just about the relationship between two people who love each other.
The pacing, the music, the editing all hit the right spots. It’s not a drama without flaws. But it’s real in how painfully raw it is, and it says so much without having to scream. And for that, Just Between Lovers doesn’t only score high, but it’ll be one of very few to stay in my heart.