THE SHORT VERDICT:
A fairly typical contract-marriage-meets-terminal-illness sort of melodrama that doesn’t pack many narrative surprises. The surprises mostly come in the form of the fantastic deliveries by the main cast. Namely, UEE is flat-out fantastic in this. So is Lee Seo Jin, and so is little munchkin Shin Rin Ah. The chemistry between these three, any which way you slice it, is golden, and alone is worth the watch.
Heartfelt, heartwarming, and solidly engaging.
THE LONG VERDICT:
Despite my affection for Lee Seo Jin (Oppaaa~!), I was actually going to give this show a pass.
Coz, first of all, I don’t typically reach for melodramas. Second of all, Lee Seo Jin and UEE – at first glance, anyway – seemed like such an odd pairing; I found it hard to imagine them as a couple. Third of all, UEE’s character is written to be terminally ill, which means that this couldn’t end well. Eep.
Yet, I dipped my toes in anyway, on the recommendation of blog regular Shountz, and was very happily surprised indeed. Somehow, this show manages to feel warm, engaging and heartfelt, in spite of its tropey, sobfesty premise. And, as it turns out, Lee Seo Jin and UEE work way better as a couple in practice than in theory. Honestly, who woulda thunk it?
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.
STUFF I LIKED
Just from this show’s title and synopsis, it’s relatively easy to predict the trajectory of this story: A financially-challenged terminally-ill single mom enters a contract marriage with a rich guy who’s willing to pay big money for a contract wife who will donate her liver to save his dying mother. Complications ensue, and they fall in love.
Pretty predictable, right?
And yet, this show is so heartfelt in its delivery and execution, that these people, their relationships, and their world, all feel very organic and very real. Watching this, I felt easily drawn into their emotions, and genuinely invested in their stories.
It also helps that at 16 episodes, Marriage Contract is a lot more compact – and therefore more efficient – than a typical weekend drama. Plus, this show’s got a moody sort of ambience that I’d say puts it a notch above most weekend shows, in terms of look and feel. Add on several very winning performances by our main cast, and you’ve got a very solid show indeed.
Here’s a quick spotlight on some of my favorite things in the show.
1. UEE as Hye Soo
Before this drama, UEE had been somewhat hit or miss for me. I’d liked her very well in Ojakgyo Brothers, but had found her pretty meh in High Society and Ho Goo’s Love. So in my head, she was an ok sort of actress who could do ok given the right material, but could also underwhelm otherwise.
Imagine my stunned surprise, to find that she is nothing short of outstanding, in this. This performance, in my head, is the equivalent of a car going from regularly doing 40-50 miles per hour, to suddenly doing 100 miles per hour, and doing it with finesse to boot.
UEE breathes life into Hye Soo’s character, from the small everyday moments, to the bigger, more dramatic moments, and every moment in-between. From Hye Soo’s bouts of pain, to her teary efforts to smile and be strong, to her private tears, UEE consistently kills it, and I felt completely and utterly sucked into her performance, from the beginning of the show through to its end.
UEE is really good in this role, and I believed her, every second of the way. And sometimes, she simply gutted me, with her leap-off-the-screen portrayal of Hye Soo struggling to be brave in the midst of physical &/or emotional pain.
Like in episode 2, and in episode 7, where Hye Soo breaks down and sobs in despair at her circumstances. Hye Soo’s entire body is wracked with emotional pain, and you can literally feel how overwhelmed and hopeless she feels, in the moment.
On a more subtle note, there’s a scene in episode 10 where Hye Soo removes her makeup, and the process symbolizes how she’s cutting herself off from the ‘luxury’ of having Ji Hoon (Lee Seo Jin) in her life. It’s a quiet moment, but the way she swipes at her face with the makeup remover wipe, in harder and harder motions, says so much. There’s a distinct steeliness and sadness in her eyes, and the harsh manner in which she rubs her face, show so clearly, how she’s bracing herself for the step she’s about to take.
Just, very impressive, overall.
2. Lee Seo Jin as Ji Hoon
Before this show, the last show that I’d seen Lee Seo Jin in, was 2014’s Wonderful Days, where I’d felt somewhat disappointed coz I’d found his performance rather underwhelming.
So imagine my happy surprise, that even though the show pretty much belonged to UEE and her fantastic performance, Lee Seo Jin’s pretty excellent in this drama too. I don’t know if it’s because PD-nim was extra good with the directing, or if UEE and Lee Seo Jin brought it out in each other, or if the script resonated with them in a particularly profound way, or if there was just something in the water on set, but there it is. Lee Seo Jin and UEE were both awesome in this, and that made me a very happy viewer indeed.
Ji Hoon charts a journey of growth over the course of the drama, which Lee Seo Jin brings to capable life from start to finish. From being a repressed, all-business sort of guy who habitually wears a deadpan gruff ‘n grumpy sort of face, Ji Hoon eventually becomes a person who is more liberated, more in touch with himself, and much more able to demonstrate care to the ones that he loves.
That journey was very satisfying to watch, and as a bonus, as Ji Hoon became a happier person, my satisfaction got amped up too, by the regular display of The Dimples, heh.
There are a good number of times that Lee Seo Jin impressed me with his delivery, but here are just 2 instances.
In episode 11, Lee Seo Jin kills it in the ending scene, where Ji Hoon apologizes to Hye Soo, and tells her that he’ll do whatever she wants, if she’d just be by his side. Ji Hoon’s pain and desperation is so clear, and even though the lines are uber cheesy, Lee Seo Jin sells it convincingly and totally made me tear up. I found Ji Hoon opening up his heart in all its raw emotion arresting to watch, and I felt like Lee Seo Jin broke through to a new level of acting there.
In episode 15, I was very moved by what Ji Hoon said during his conversation with his mom (Lee Hwi Yang). When she says she can’t encourage him in his choice to marry Hye Soo for real, knowing what kind of sacrifice he’s making, he answers that it isn’t a sacrifice; that he’s doing it because he wants to. That is such a beautiful thing to say. I love that for Ji Hoon, loving Hye Soo isn’t a sacrifice, but a want and a joy. And the way Lee Seo Jin delivers those lines, with a quiet, matter-of-fact sort of contentment, is just perfect. <3
A slight subs-related tangent
On a sort-of tangent, there’s something that I’d like to clarify in defense of Ji Hoon.
In episode 15, when Hye Soo has the talk with Ji Hoon about wanting him to return to his original position after she’s gone, she goes on to ask him to be Eun Sung’s “dad,” to which Ji Hoon reacts in an angry manner.
The subs that I was using translated Hye Soo’s request as: “And with my Eun Sung.. Can you be her dad after I’m gone? Actually, this is the hardest favour I have to ask you. It would be very nice if you can be her dad.”
I think this may have led some viewers to think poorly of Ji Hoon for being angry at Hye Soo’s request, instead of accepting it as an honor.
For the record, what Ji Hoon said was closer to this: “About my Eun Sung.. After I leave, can you be a Daddy Long Legs who meets her once in a while? Actually this is the thing I feel most sorry about. It would be very nice if you could be her Daddy Long Legs.”
This means that Hye Soo’s request to Ji Hoon, is not to be Eun Sung’s dad after her passing, but to be a Daddy Long Legs who would look in on Eun Sung from time to time. Given this context, Ji Hoon’s angry reaction is much more understandable. Hye Soo asking Ji Hoon to be a part-time father figure negates – or rather, dilutes – the relationship that Ji Hoon has with Eun Sung, and Ji Hoon doesn’t want to be Eun Sung’s part-time Daddy Long Legs, he wants to be Eun Sung’s full-time, all-in father.
Which, since we’re on the subject, is something that I really appreciated about Ji Hoon’s love for Eun Sung. All-in. Love.
3. Shin Rin Ah as Eun Sung
I think I might have a new favorite child actress, and her name is Shin Rin Ah. <3
Coz Shin Rin Ah is not only a tiny, adorable little munchkin, she is completely natural onscreen. Whether Eun Sung is having a happy, carefree moment, or is angry and upset, or is scared, or sad, Shin Rin Ah delivers completely believably, with an unaffected, unselfconscious sort of ease. [SPOILER] In episode 4, Eun Sung blurts out her fears that Mom will leave her for the Ahjusshi, and Shin Rin Ah delivers the raw, heartwrenching moment with a startling depth of emotion. [END SPOILER] Right there, Shin Rin Ah basically blew my mind. It’s such a difficult scene, and her delivery is so full and mature, and yet, she’s such a tiny munchkin. How is that even possible?
This little cutie consistently stole my heart every episode. Even in the scenes where Eun Sung isn’t required to say very much, the depth of emotion and thought is apparent on her little face. Shin Rin Ah manages to convey so much, without needing to say much at all. From start to finish, I completely believed her character, and felt like Eun Sung was completely real.
Serious respect, yo.
4. Development of the OTP
In both the writing and delivery, I found the development of the OTP believable.
In terms of writing and execution, from Ji Hoon and Hye Soo regarding each other as (literally) partners-in-crime, to how each comes to care for the other, first as a person, and eventually as a love interest, it’s all very solid and well-played. I also liked how Show took care to give Ji Hoon and Hye Soo – as well as their heads and their hearts – very different and individual timelines, in terms of how they each come to love the other person, coz this felt more organic and natural to me.
At the same time, I must say that the chemistry between Lee Seo Jin and UEE is very good. From the earlier stretch in the show where Ji Hoon and Hye Soo are uncomfortable with each other, to later episodes where they are much more at ease together, I always believed these two, in the moment. Kudos to Lee Seo Jin and UEE, for committing to the roles so thoroughly.
Put together, this OTP was easy to engage with and root for, all the way to the end.
Although Show serves up a good helping of swoony between our OTP (that kiss in episode 9 totally brought on the swoony tummy-tingling feelz <3 ), it is their moments of shared pain, that moved me the most.
Like in episode 13, when Hye Soo finally reaches out to Ji Hoon, and he comes running to her side. Hye Soo’s lonely pain is palpable in the moment, as she describes her probable future to Ji Hoon, and Ji Hoon’s pain is clear, from the tears leaking out of his eyes as he listens. I love the way they finally embrace; that it’s Hye Soo who reaches out to him first, to hug him. Even more than that, I love Ji Hoon’s words, that it’s all ok with him, that it doesn’t matter what state she’s in, she’s his Hye Soo.
There’s a lot of heartbreak and desperation in the room, in that moment, but a lot of love as well. The desperation is two-fold; desperation in the face of despairing circumstances, and desperation in how much they need each other. That juxtaposition, of love even amid the heartbreak, moved me deeply.
In defense of Ji Hoon, again
I saw a fair amount of discontent around Ji Hoon continuing to assert himself in Hye Soo’s orbit, post-kiss, even after she tells him that it was a mistake and that she doesn’t want to be around him. While I can see where upset viewers are coming from, I thought I’d offer another perspective, that might help.
I saw this as Ji Hoon’s struggle to figure out what was real and what was pretend, with Hye Soo. I actually liked that he was responding to what he saw and sensed, rather than what Hye Soo said, coz her gaze had told him so much more than her words had. And isn’t that what communication is about, to pay attention not only to the words themselves, but also to the tone and body language of the speaker?
So yes, maybe Ji Hoon’s execution was on the clumsy side, but I felt that his struggle within himself, in terms of what to believe when it came to Hye Soo and what she really wanted, was very clear and believable. I liked that he didn’t just take her at her word, and I liked that he tried to figure out the truth.
In defense of our OTP’s lying habit
In the later episodes, after our OTP had started officially dating, I actually found it rather frustrating that they basically kept lying to each other. Mostly, she, about her condition, and he, about what he knew about her condition. I was perturbed by how much these two were lying to each other while pretending that everything was ok, on a regular basis, and that just didn’t feel like a healthy relationship, to me.
I rationalize, though, that it was probably very terrifying for them, to articulate how sick Hye Soo is. Although it’s illogical, I get that feeling; like the moment you actually say it out loud, it becomes true. And I understand how badly they didn’t want Hye Soo’s impending death to be true. The lying was coming from a place where both of them were trying to preserve the little happiness that they had, so I managed to give this a pass, even though I didn’t exactly like it.
5. Eun Sung with Hye Soo &/or Ji Hoon
Omigosh, but Eun Sung is adorable with Hye Soo, with Ji Hoon, and with both Hye Soo and Ji Hoon together. Of course, it can be argued that Eun Sung is adorable with anybody, but I’m going to talk about just these few permutations in this section.
Eun Sung & Hye Soo
UEE and Shin Rin Ah really do feel like a real mother-daughter pair onscreen. Their chemistry is excellent, and from the shared smiles to the shared tears, to the hugs and the spats in between, their interactions feel completely real, and I am so impressed.
I love that this mother-daughter pair really care about each other. [SPOILERS] I love the scene in episode 1, where Hye Soo hugs Eun Sung and cries, after Eun Sung offers her 10,000 won to make the bad ahjusshis go away. It’s just so poignant and so sweet. I love how Eun Sung does her best to help and care for Mom, even though she’s just a kid.
On Hye Soo’s side, I love that her huge love for Eun Sung shows through, all the time. Not only in how she literally is willing to give up her life to secure Eun Sung’s future, but in the smaller moments too. Like how she explains to Eun Sung in episode 13, why her paternal grandmother (Jung Kyung Soon) had not been in their lives prior: that Gran had been too hurt before by her son’s death, and that’s why she’d never wanted to meet anyone, but that now, because of Eun Sung, her anger has melted away. I love how Hye Soo frames it as Eun Sung being the reason for Gran’s happiness. It’s no wonder Eun Sung is a child who’s secure in the love that people have for her. [END SPOILER]
Eun Sung & Ji Hoon
The evolution of Eun Sung’s relationship with Ji Hoon, is one of my favorite things in this show. From them both bristling at each other with mutual dislike, to them letting their guards down with each other, to them growing to seriously like – and then love – each other, it’s all super adorable and completely charming.
Eun Sung and Ji Hoon lighting up to see other, and regularly greeting each other with hugs, is one of the most heartwarming things, ever. I love that they make each other so happy.
These two together on my screen = So Much Win. <3
Even though there are many Ji Hoon-Eun Sung moments that I love – like the happy way Eun Sung prattles to Ji Hoon about the kittens in episode 7 (So! Cute!), my favorite thing with these two, has to be how easily Eun Sung takes to calling Ji Hoon “Dad” in later episodes.
In episode 15, when Eun Sung’s all worried about Hye Soo, I love the way she simply sobs, “Daaadd..” when Ji Hoon shows up. That just says so much; that she really does regard him as her dad; that she knows something’s not right, and she’s looking to him to fix it. That’s such a Dad thing, and I love that Eun Sung is looking to Ji Hoon for that.
Augh. So wonderfully, heartwarmingly poignant.
All together as a family
Every time these three got to do family-type things together, my heart couldn’t help but swell up with warm fuzzy happiness. It really feels like these three complete one another, and bring new levels of happiness to one another.
When they’re finally allowed to function properly as a family in Show’s later episodes, I just loved how easily and naturally they fall into place, with one another. I mean, just look at that happy group hug shot up top. <3
Special Shout-outs to:
Kim So Jin as Joo Yeon
I really liked Kim So Jin as Joo Yeon. She’s got a very warm, hard-to-get-down sort of energy which lights up the screen, which I really enjoyed. As Hye Soo’s bestie, Joo Yeon brought just the right amount of brightness and cheer to perk up Hye Soo’s many somber moods.
Jung Kyung Soon as Hye Soo’s Mom-in-law [SPOILERS]
I really liked how Show evolves Hye Soo’s mother-in-law and her relationship with Hye Soo over the course of the show. From refusing to see her, Mom-in-law eventually becomes one of Hye Soo’s biggest supporters, a trajectory that I found very heartwarming indeed. My favorite moment, of course, is at the end of the show, when Mom-in-law tells Hye Soo that she’d like to be her Mom. Aww. How sweet is that? Not gonna lie; I teared up at that scene. <3
STUFF I DIDN’T LIKE SO MUCH
Kim Yong Gun as Chairman Dad
Almost every melo needs a character that we love to hate, and Chairman Dad fills that niche well. Sometimes a little too well.
I mean, he’s all-around self-centered and cruel, but sometimes, I found his behavior so appalling that he didn’t even seem human. [SPOILER] Like the time in episode 10 when Chairman Dad offers Ji Hoon’s mother and her brother money to move away, so that Ji Hoon won’t be able to see her. That is just so unspeakably awful. Why wouldn’t he allow his son to see his mother before she dies? And how cruel, to expect her to die alone, away from the only child she has. [END SPOILER]
Just, UGH. Disliked his character, So Much.
Kim Yoo Ri as Na Yoon
It’s unfortunate, but in every drama that I’ve seen Kim Yoo Ri in, before this – namely Master’s Sun, Kill Me, Heal Me, and My Love Eun Dong – she’s always playing pretty much the same character; that of the clingy second female lead.
Essentially, Na Yoon is not much different than the other clingy female leads that I’ve seen Kim Yoo Ri play. Na Yoon is a serviceable clingy second female lead, and she creates the narrative trouble that she was created for, so there’s that.
[SPOILER] The only upside is that by series’ end, Na Yoon chooses to stop waiting around for Ji Hoon, which is the wisest thing she does, all series long. And for that, I find myself liking her a little, even if it’s at the last minute. I like that she sees the truth for what it is, and I like that she doesn’t feel entitled to be with Ji Hoon, and I like that she’s choosing to love herself, in this situation. [END SPOILER]
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
It’s a quiet, bittersweet, poignant yet hopeful sort of ending for Hye Soo and Ji Hoon, which is the best ending Show could’ve given us, I think.
Hye Soo is still alive, and she and Ji Hoon are looking towards the future with tender, hopeful, grateful hearts, savoring every moment they get, and loving each other to the maximum, every moment that they get. It’s warmth tinged with sadness, because we know the likelihood of Hye Soo living a shorter life than most is so high. And yet, through it all, there’s a distinct touch of hope, because Show reminds us that there are people who outlive their prognoses.
And so we leave Hye Soo and Ji Hoon, looking ahead with hope, and with love covering all of their fears.
As we always say about dramas, it’s often not about reinventing the wheel and coming up with entirely new stories; it’s about taking a story and executing it well. And that’s exactly what Marriage Contract has done.
This story never did have unpredictable twists and turns; in fact, our narrative and character arcs unfolded in a fairly foreseeable fashion. Show’s message is also not a new one: it’s not how long you live, but how you live, that makes the difference.
Through it all, though, Show delivers its story and that message with so much genuine heart and care, that it feels sincere instead of treacly; profound instead of preachy. So much so that I feel wistful to say goodbye to these characters, in the best way possible.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A warm and hopeful journey, in spite of the heavy premise.
FINAL GRADE: B+