Korean Drama Review: Just Between Lovers (2017-2018)

Tuesday, February 20, 2018


I'm not one to often watch and enjoy melodramas, though over the years I've sampled a fair amount of shows in this genre whenever I've been in the mood for something heavier. Much in the same way, I was motivated to watch JTBC's winter drama Just Between Lovers to satisfy my appetite for a bit of misery. 

As is appropriate for a melodrama, the story in Just Between Lovers begins with a tragedy, though the unusual part is the fact that a very real disaster serves as inspiration—the collapse of Sampoong Department Store in 1995. This interesting connection actually sets a fairly mournful yet realistic the tone for the entire drama, allowing the story to also explore themes like grief and trauma through the loss that the characters have experienced. 

This sort of melancholy realism is not a common angle in dramaland, but it makes a strong case for itself here. Not only does this approach catch the ordinary drama viewer off-guard, but it also lays a strong foundation for the rest of the story. Additionally, it helps to avoid the unintentional silliness of conventional melodrama plot devices, which often range from far-fetched to plain absurd, instead giving us a convincing reason for characters' pain early on. Although it would be much to call the drama realistic per se, the writing does maintain a certain degree of truthfulness in later plot developments.

The same goes for the characters, who are vulnerable and flawed people with their own personal insecurities. The prime examples being the main leads Ha Moon Soo (Won Jin Ah) and Lee Kang Doo (Lee Jun Ho/ Junho of 2PM) who initially come from very normal backgrounds until they each lose a loved one in the deadly building collapse. The trauma following the incident has made them disconnected from life and caused deep scars which are yet to heal. While Moon Soo quietly suffers from survivor's guilt and nightmares as she tries her best to take care of her grieving parents, Kang Doo's physical injuries and post-traumatic stress have made him a self-destructive outcast of society. We can clearly see how their individual circumstances have shaped them, damaged them in some ways but also made them stronger in others.

One could see how these two scarred people could potentially end up in a very unhealthy relationship, where they'd cause even more pain to one another in their shared misery, but that is not the case here. In fact, the slow, unspoken connection that develops between Moon Soo and Kang Doo ends up paving the way to their recovery. In contrast to the many toxic relationships in dramaland, the positive effect that these two have on one another feels quite extraordinary. 

Not only do they share a deep understanding of each other's loss, but the pair also proves time and time again how to be there for one another, even in the smallest of ways. Moon Soo reassures Kang Doo, repeatedly tells him what a great guy he is and comforts him through times of grief. Meanwhile, Kang Doo encourages Moon Soo to express her true feelings, eases her guilt and never hesitates to compliment her. It's a bond that goes beyond just physical attraction, which makes it more believable and meaningful. 

In terms of acting, Won Jin Ah and Lee Jun Ho also turn in rather moving performances, making it easy to become invested in their characters. Despite neither having a lot of acting experience—with Won being a rookie and Lee an idol-actor—their individual charms and combined chemistry successfully brings this romance to life.

When it comes to secondary characters, it's important to note that the drama doesn't really have any villains or strictly "bad" people. Even Jung Yoo Taek (Tae In Ho), who acts like an ass most of the time, shows unexpected depth when we see him interacting with bar madam Ma Ri (Yoon Se Ah). Although he hardly deserves Ma Ri's attention, their affair is quite fascinating as it shows Yoo Taek in a more sympathetic light. 

Thus, it's quite surprising that the most unlikable character is actually the "nice" second male lead Seo Joo Won (Lee Ki Woo), who manages to go from mildly boring to profoundly annoying with his unwanted affections towards Moon Soo. Not only is his interest in her inappropriate (since she works for him), but it's clearly one-sided and makes Moon Soo uncomfortable. Unfortunately, it takes Joo Won too long to take a hint and by then we've lost all patience with him.

On the other hand, the drama has a variety of strong, intriguing female side-characters that funnily all seem to congregate around Kang Doo, though not in a romantic sense. While awesome Halmoni (Na Moon Hee) and Ma Ri already belong in his makeshift family along with his sister Jae Young (Kim Hye Joon) and buddy Sang Man (Kim Kang Hyun), Yoo Taek's sister Jung Yoo Jin (Kang Han Na) also forms a surprising bond with him. In fact, the latter interestingly reverts the bitchy second female lead trope and proves herself to be much more likable and capable than her assy brother or brooding ex-boyfriend.

As primarily a character-driven drama, Just Between Lovers therefore adopts a rather relaxed pace in terms of plot progression. There's a strong emphasis on subtle human emotion and quiet sadness, which makes for a poignant viewing. In many ways it feels exactly right for this type of storytelling, but it's up to personal taste whether this can become a deal-breaker for some viewers.

That being said, the drama is not dull by any means. In fact, it can be quite hard-hitting and devastating once you've gotten invested. Admittedly, one should probably expect that going into a melodrama, though personally I was not prepared to grieve Halmoni or be in constant worry over Kang Doo's health. Though in retrospect, this can be considered a telling trait of a well-written story with the power to engage viewers and evoke strong emotions. So while at one point, I was close to giving up on Kang Doo's chances of survival, even feeling betrayed by the writer, it was all due to my own trust issues with dramas. Doubt had overshadowed what I had so far believed to be a central theme and counterpart to every tragedy—hope. 

And indeed, even through all the hardships, there was always hope for the characters to recover and heal, to find new meaning for their lives. It was after all what they'd all been doing—working together at the construction site, building a memorial, ensuring that no more lives would be lost. In fact, the construction of a new building in place of the collapsed mall was quite symbolic of the hope that things can be rebuilt and made stronger. Likewise, there was hope for Moon Soo and Kang Doo who had healed and become more resilient. 

And so, the drama ends in the most satisfying way, granting the much suffered lovers Moon Soo and Kang Doo their well-deserved happiness. It's not an entirely blissful ending for everyone, however, as Moon Soo's parents finally divorce, knowing that grief had ultimately destroyed their marriage beyond repair. Yoo Jin and Joo Won also agree to go their separate ways, while Yoo Taek and Ma Ri's relationship remains open-ended. The conclusion is grounded in reality much like the rest of the show, but it still provides viewers the needed closure without tying every loose end into a neat bow.

Overall, Just Between Lovers proves itself to be a one-of-a-kind in its genre, gracefully taking the time to tell a story. With a realistic approach and strong sense of identity, the drama maintains a tight grip over its preferred form of expression. It has purposeful directorial vision, great musical choices and beautiful cinematography, which all add to the subtle slice-of-life style storytelling and ultimately help to craft a memorable and emotionally engaging series. 

Rating: A

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