THE SHORT VERDICT:
An updated, refreshed, and much more polished take on the classic Retro Hallyu favorite themes of Fate and First Love.
Show is filled to the brim with classic tropes, but manages to be engaging for the most part, thanks largely to solid performances by its cast, as well as careful touches by PD-nim’s clearly loving hand. There are draggy, frustrating stretches, but if you love classic retro dramas, there’s a good chance you’ll like this too.
OST ALBUM: FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE
Here’s the OST album in case you’d like to listen to it while you read the review.
THE LONG VERDICT:
Recently, I was rather intrigued by jTBC’s apparent experimentation with fresh takes on retro Hallyu type premises.
First, there was Falling For Innocence, which had felt like a fresh and rather fun new take on the classic Summer Scent (2003) with its heart-that-remembers set-up. Despite having found Summer Scent rather underwhelming way back when, I really enjoyed Falling For Innocence (review here!). So I couldn’t help but wonder whether My Love Eun Dong would be able to serve up a similar new-and-improved take on the classic Hallyu pillars of Fate and First Loves that it’s built around.
And here’s the thing: My Love Eun Dong really does feel like a polished, shiny mashup of Hallyu classics such as Winter Sonata (2002) and Autumn In My Heart (2000). So is that a good thing? Well, I’m gonna hafta say, it.. depends.
WILL YOU LIKE THIS SHOW?
Just so we’re clear, I’m not saying that My Love Eun Dong outright copies actual plot points from Winter Sonata or Autumn In My Heart. It’s just, flavor-wise, it’s distinctly echoes those classic dramas.
From its high points to its low points, My Love Eun Dong doesn’t venture very far at all, from the tradition of these classics. It literally feels like the producers of this show cherry-picked their favorite tropes and plot points from among the retro Hallyu classics, then delicately and lovingly glued them all together, while upgrading everything to look prettier, glossier and all-around more sophisticated.
Fateful First Love? Check. Separation? Check. Amnesia? Check. Meddling parents, clingy second-leads, brooding, wrist-grabs and tears? Check, check, check, check and check. Honestly, whatever classic kdrama trope that you could name, it’s more than likely – though not a guarantee – that this show’s got it in there, somewhere. To Show’s credit, it’s all presented very prettily, acted by very pretty people, and scored with appropriately pretty music to go with, as well.
So ultimately, whether you’d enjoy this show, boils down to the question of how much you enjoy the classic premise of a Fateful First Love that’s not only Very Intense, but All-Consuming and Life-Defining; the kind of First Love where you’d literally rather die than give it up.
If you find that sort of thing romantic, then you’re very likely to love My Love Eun Dong. If you don’t care for that type of story, though, then you’d probably not care much for this show, either.
For the record, I’m not a huge fan of the retro classic theme of the Fateful First Love. I managed to enjoy Winter Sonata and Autumn In My Heart, but hated Stairway To Heaven, and with a passion too (at the time, I hadn’t yet learned how to drop a show, and I’d endured that show to its painful, tearful finish. Silly me).
I didn’t love this show, but the good news is, My Love Eun Dong is no Stairway To Heaven.
STUFF THAT WORKED FOR ME
This show actually took a while to grow on me. For the first two episodes, it just wasn’t sticking with me.
Ok, I rather liked the childhood portion with our main characters Hyun Soo and Eun Dong (17-year-old Hyun Soo played by Jr., and 13-year-old Eun Dong played by Lee Ja In), and thought their youthful, caring, sibling-esque bond rather sweet.
Overall, though, I found the concept clichéd, and I found Hyun Soo (27-year-old Hyun Soo played by Baek Sung Hyun, 37-year-old Hyun Soo/Eun Ho played by Joo Jin Mo) quite obsessive in his laser focus on Eun Dong (23-year-old Eun Dong played by Yoon So Hee, 33-year-old Eun Dong/Jung Eun played by Kim Sa Rang). I found his intensity and desperation – sustained over two whole decades – quite unrealistic and even a little suffocating.
By the time set-up was complete, though, I was quite happily surprised to find a narrative hook that sucked me into the show quite nicely – at least for a while.
Since the hook itself is present in just about every synopsis there is of this show on the interwebs, I don’t consider this section spoilery.
Basically, I started to enjoy the show once our characters were in place to solve the mysteries before them: where is Eun Dong; how can Hyun Soo find her again; and perhaps most important of all, how can she find herself, too?
As clichéd as it sounds, I actually liked the plot device of Jung Eun writing as Eun Dong, and feeling the story and the characters resonate within her in an inexplicably deep and profound manner. I found it all quite thrilling, to see what these clues were, and how Jung Eun and Eun Ho would find their way to each other, via these clues that kept surfacing, despite everyone else’s efforts to keep them apart.
It was all Fated with a capital F. Essentially, it didn’t matter what anyone else tried to do, Absolutely Nothing was going to keep these two from eventually finding each other. As retro Hallyu as it sounds, there really was something rather romantic about that idea.
I also felt drawn to Eun Dong’s journey, of finding out her own truth through her fragmented memories, in spite of the made-up life that everyone around her had created for her. I felt for her, not so much in terms of her conflicted feelings over Eun Ho, but for the life and the memories she had lost, and I rooted for her to find her memories, and herself.
Of course, it helped a lot that both of our leads put in very good, solid performances to make it all come alive.
Even though the actors playing the flashback versions of our leads did decently solid jobs, I hafta admit that I liked the present-day versions of our characters best.
Together, Joo Jin Mo and Kim Sa Rang breathed life into the characters of Eun Ho and Eun Dong, which definitely helped me to feel much more engaged with the show.
Joo Jin Mo‘s got a very strong masculine aura about him that makes Eun Ho’s intensity quite arresting. His deep voice made Eun Ho’s emotional, soul-baring voiceovers sexy and almost hypnotic; his unwavering gaze, piercing. Because of Joo Jin Mo’s masculine aura channeling Eun Ho’s love, longing and desire, Show often felt sensual, as a result.
[SPOILER] There’s a moment in episode 5, when Eun Ho sees Jung Eun, and recognizes her as Eun Dong. Joo Jin Mo kills it. Eun Ho looks like he’s about to implode; his tears well up and overflow of their own volition; he’s paralyzed in the moment. It’s not only convincing, but quite mesmerizing as well. [END SPOILER]
Kim Sa Rang does a great job of embodying Eun Dong’s lovely, sweet, gentle vibe, while also effectively giving Eun Dong touches of steel when the occasion arose.
In terms of OTP chemistry, Joo Min Mo and Kim Sa Rang were strongest in the intent, loving gazes, and the tension-filled almost-touches. When it came to the actual kisses, though, I felt a distinct lack of chemistry.
Yes, Joo Jin Mo brought it, complete with heavy breathing and lip-locking moves. But, Kim Sa Rang basically looked like she really didn’t want to kiss him.
I don’t know if it had to do with preserving her sweet image, or if Joo Min Mo had serious cigarette breath, but she definitely kept her lips smilingly and determinedly locked through all of their kisses, which had the unfortunate effect of negating all the chemistry that they did manage to share.
The Whole Mess-With-Your-Mind Confusion
This wasn’t a very major thing, but another thing that worked for me, in this show, was how it messed with my mind.
On the one hand, I very much disliked second lead Jae Ho (Kim Tae Hoon) for being deceitful and clingy; I hated how he’d basically stolen Eun Dong’s life from her. But on the other hand, I did sort of feel sorry for him, coz he was so miserable, so physically helpless, and so lonely.
At the same time, while I rooted for Eun Ho to find his Eun Dong, and for them to regain the memories and time that they’d lost, it did somewhat niggle at me, that Eun Dong was technically married to Jae Ho (towards whom I had those mixed feelings). As the interactions between Eun Ho and Eun Dong became increasingly intimate, that intimacy between them started to feel rather forbidden, because Eun Dong was technically married.
YET, with Eun Ho gazing at Eun Dong so intensely and breathing so heavily, I couldn’t help but want him to kiss her anyway. Which felt pretty messed up to me.
In a drama world that’s built on classic Hallyu foundations, it’s not at all surprising that there are a number of things in there, that are designed to basically make your blood boil.
Given the Retro Hallyu lens that I was using while watching this drama, it didn’t feel right to label these things as stuff that didn’t work for me, since they pretty much were required to be there.
Clingy Second Leads
Kim Yoo Ri reprises her now-typical role as our illogically clingy second female lead, and is serviceable – though unmemorable – as Seo Ryeong.
Seo Ryeong doesn’t stray far from the tradition of classic Hallyu clingy female leads, and her behaviors include:
- fixating on Eun Ho and doing everything she can, to be in his orbit, even though he has expressly declared that he has no romantic interest in her;
- choosing to be manipulative when she realizes that her feminine wiles are getting her nowhere;
- deciding that she needs to kill Eun Ho’s love, by making up stories about Eun Dong having been pregnant with someone else’s baby when she’d had the accident; and
- deciding that the only way for Eun Ho to ever give her the time of day, was to ruin him conclusively.
I found Seo Ryeong’s behavior largely predictable, and found her characterization – as well as Kim Yoo Ri’s delivery – uninteresting and decidedly flat.
On the other hand, I felt that Kim Tae Hoon got – and delivered – a much more faceted character in Jae Ho.
Over the course of the show, Jae Ho’s character undergoes a trajectory that can be summed up as a path of destruction, followed by one of redemption. Through it all, his characterization is multi-layered and complex. While I might not have found him to be a very likable character, I did find him interesting and thought-provoking.
Jae Ho’s growing suspicion and discomfort around his wife’s interactions with Eun Ho; his increasing sense of helplessness; his growing desperation at wanting to protect his family; his guilt at having lied to Eun Dong all this time; these facets all came together to make him a somewhat sympathetic character.
As we get deeper into the show, Jae Ho’s actions take on shades of manipulation, such as when he repeatedly pushes himself over the limit, both physically and emotionally, and lands himself in the hospital. Eventually, when he feels pushed into a corner, Jae Ho even uses threats and emotional blackmail on Eun Dong.
Jae Ho’s turning point comes in episode 14, when he truly feels that all is lost, and attempts suicide. In that moment, I did feel sorry for him. All alone, devastated, and still crippled, having suffered a huge emotional blow and with no hope in sight, and no emotional support, it’s not surprising that he decided to take his life. For the first time, I didn’t feel like his self-hurt was done in an effort to manipulate Eun Dong. I think he simply couldn’t see himself going on without Ra Il (Park Min Soo) and Eun Dong, who together had been his life up till that point. This didn’t make all his wrongs right, but just from a humane standpoint, I felt sorry for him, to be in that situation, so lonely and without hope.
I also appreciated that in the moments leading up to his suicide attempt, Jae Ho doesn’t try to poison Ra Il’s mind against his mother or against Eun Ho, but tells him to be good to both of them. To the best that he is able, barring actually telling Ra Il that Eun Ho is his bio dad, Jae Ho does the right thing by Ra Il.
While some viewers may have felt that Jae Ho “got off easy,” I appreciated his arc for its emphasis on finding peace and personal freedom. Because, when you break it all down, nothing in Jae Ho’s life actually brought him peace, until he found the strength to do the right thing for himself, and for his family.
Channeling the Hate
This is a pretty general thing, but one of the hallmarks of the Classic Retro Hallyu type of drama, is having somewhere to channel the hate. That’s how the shows took over our emotions, and it’s also what made the shows feel larger than life.
Writer-nim knows it, too, and we get plenty of people to hate, in this show.
In this show, the large-scale conspiracy in Eun Dong’s family and Jae Ho’s family, to keep Eun Dong in the dark about the truth, is all kinds of crazy. Because, how can you do that to someone? Plus, they don’t hesitate to lay on the blame either, to keep Eun Dong right where they want her.
Lots of room to spew angry words and throw stuff at our screens, right there.
STUFF I DIDN’T CARE FOR, TOO MUCH
Despite managing my expectations, and despite adopting a strongly Retro Hallyu lens while watching this show, my interest in the show dropped sharply at around the episode 9 to 12 mark.
I felt distinctly disengaged from the show, and found it all just overly emotional and melodramatic, with characters behaving unreasonably because of those emotions.
[SPOILERS THROUGH THE END OF THE REVIEW]
Obsessive Male Leads
While Jae Ho is obsessive pretty much all series long, Eun Ho’s obsession with Eun Dong is presented as something positive and desirable, for the most part. In episode 9 and 10, however, I actually found Eun Ho’s intensity borderline off-putting, and his behavior, delusional, reckless and extremely unreasonable.
His jealousy at seeing Eun Dong with her family in episode 9, followed by his insistence that he must see her, and then the recklessness that he shows when he drags her away from her family; it’s all borderline scary, and not far from actual stalker behavior. In episode 10, he continues with his obsessive behavior, and imposes on Eun Dong’s personal boundaries while disregarding her wishes for them to keep a distance from each other.
In these episodes, Eun Ho’s behavior is selfish, far from appealing and exhausting to watch. Worse, I felt like he was being rewarded for his bad behavior, since Eun Dong continued to waver because of him. I found all of this rather hard to swallow, and even though I did want Eun Ho and Eun Dong to have their happy ending, it made me uncomfortable that Eun Ho’s bad behavior was basically rewarded.
Clunky Noble Idiocy
In episode 15, we get the whole “let Ra Il go if you’re a true father” arc, which I found quite illogical.
I believe writer-nim was gunning for some kind of “poetry in the pain” effect, but I found it hard to buy what Show was selling. This all-or-nothing notion seemed extreme and uncalled for, to me, and it felt artificially shoved in there just to give Eun Ho a reason to leave.
THE FINAL STRETCH
The final stretch of the show was a mixed bag, for me. There were a couple of threads that I felt I could get behind, but overall, it felt like a whole lot of unnecessary pain.
The Better Stuff
On the upside, I appreciated the arcs in episode 13 and 14, where the writers take us through Eun Dong’s and Eun Ho’s individual journeys to disentangle all the threads in their lives, in order to put things in their proper places. The threads are presented as complex and intermingling, and I appreciated the idea that the process isn’t easy, nor is it simple.
There are real feelings involved, and real relationships involved, and Eun Dong struggles to handle everything with sensitivity and strength, in the face of multiple conflicting forces. When I look at it as her story, of getting her rightful life back; the life that she really wants, rather than the fake life that her adoptive parents created for her together with Jae Ho, I found the show much more meaningful and engaging.
The Not-Great Stuff
On the not-so-upside, the final stretch felt extremely angsty and overwrought. In particular, the scene in episode 15, of Eun Ho driving Eun Dong to the hospital to see Jae Ho, had strong echoes of Winter Sonata about it.
In general, there was lots of crying and angst, all very much drawn out to maximize the pain. We even get extreme and random-feeling scenes, of Eun Dong &/or Eun Ho being treated poorly by members of the public, who disapproved of their scandalous relationship.
Let’s just say that it was bad enough that I seriously contemplated dropping this show. The only reason I didn’t, was because I was so near the end, and I was morbidly curious about how the writers intended to end it all.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING
Honestly, how much you like the ending really depends on how much you were bracing yourself for a classic melo ending. I thought the show was going to go Winter Sonata on me, and so I found the eventual happy – though muted – ending, a mildly pleasant surprise. On the other hand, if you were hoping for fireworks, sunshine and roses, then you’d probably be sorely disappointed.
I think the finale seeks to expand the story’s lens to become more inclusive; we’re less intensely focused on Eun Ho and Eun Dong as our main characters, and what they’ve been through to be together. Rather, it feels like the story lens seeks to heal the people in Eun Ho’s and Eun Dong’s orbits, so that everyone gets to move forward and grow, at their own pace.
I get that the writers were gunning for several things to come full circle, story-wise.
- The story begins with Eun Dong leaving Eun Ho, twice, and the finale gives Eun Ho the chance to leave, so that Eun Dong can be the one to find him this time;
- Eun Dong gets to receive a second “To my beloved Eun Dong” letter;
- The story begins with Eun Ho’s story, told in book form, of how he loves Eun Dong, and ends with a promise of Eun Dong’s story of how she loves Eun Ho, to be told in drama form;
- The story begins with them making a pinky promise, and ends with a brand new pinky promise, for a new and better future.
Narratively, it’s neat, and I get why the writers would want the story to come full circle. At the same time, this circular pattern necessitated an arc of noble idiocy, of Eun Ho taking the blame for everything and leaving the country for Eun Dong’s good, and without telling her beforehand. It’s the kind of stuff that’s classic Hallyu, and frustrating to watch.
To Show’s credit, the finale doesn’t dwell too long on Eun Ho’s absence. Instead, it fixes the mass misunderstanding of Eun Ho by giving Jae Ho a chance to redeem himself with the truth, and then hums along quite quickly to after our time skip, so that we can spend more time catching up with how everyone’s learning to live well, after all the upheaval.
When you break it all down, there’s quite a bit of happy ending to go around too. Jae Ho continues to redeem himself by helping to warm Ra Il to the idea of embracing Eun Ho as his dad; Ra Il’s come around to being cool about having 2 dads; Eun Ho returns to Korea, embraced by old friends, and ready to embark on a new path with the new agency they’ve started; Eun Dong’s pursuing her lifelong dream of becoming a writer; and Eun Ho and Eun Dong reunite and are finally able to look forward to a happy future together.
For a show conceived and executed so much in the vein of Hallyu classics like Winter Sonata and Autumn In My Heart, which tended to have mostly sad endings, that’s actually not bad at all.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A classic Hallyu melodrama at its heart, except with more polish and (slightly) fewer tears.
FINAL GRADE: B-