Before I started this show, I had the impression that viewers basically fell into one of two camps with this one: they either really really love it, or really hate it. Well, guess what, you guys.. I fall kinda in-between. What can I say, maybe I’m a little bit special? Or maybe I’m weird; take your pick, heh.
Essentially, watching this one felt to me like I was eating my spinach – at a time when I was learning to like it, but wasn’t quite there yet. Like, I’d have to tell myself to eat it, coz it had good vitamins and minerals.
Kinda the same thing with this show. I often had to decide to start on an episode, because I found that this show often wasn’t easy to watch. But I also knew this one had good things going for it, and that’s why I kept going.
Just Between Lovers OST – Aurora
WHAT MADE THIS HARD TO WATCH
The thing that made me cringe and avert my eyes the most during my watch, was Show’s regular flashbacks to our story’s Big Event, the S Mall building collapse, in all of its excruciating detail. From start to finish, we get shown scenes of the accident on an uncomfortably regular basis.
Different angles; different perspectives; new fragments of information; new memories rising to the surface; there always seemed to be a reason Show wanted or needed to take us to that dark place again. Show doesn’t flinch at all, from showing us all the blood, broken bones, missing limbs, pierced flesh, and contorted faces, but I flinched, and quite often. Eep.
WHY I KEPT WATCHING
Importantly, it didn’t feel like Show was serving up all the pain in a gratuitous manner; it felt like Show had a point. And because I felt that Show had a point, I stuck out all the painful flashbacks, even though I am mostly a wuss, I think.
The context of our story is that our main characters Gang Doo (Lee Joon Ho) and Moon Soo (Won Jin Ah) are both survivors of the building collapse. They – and the people around them – continue to suffer daily, years later, because of the incident. Show effectively makes the point that even though the rest of the world has moved on, for these characters, the accident is not something in their past, but something that is affecting them very much in the present as well.
Watching each flashback to the various scenes surrounding the accident made me feel like I was experiencing the trauma that still resonated with our characters, alongside them. Like I mentioned earlier, I found myself looking away from my screen, and flinching, and I could only imagine how our characters were trying hard to look away from their own lingering nightmares too – but couldn’t ever seem to get away.
There is a lot of pain in our characters, both emotional and physical. Guilt; loneliness; rejection; brokenness; these are things that our characters wrestle with constantly. As Show points out in episode 15 with reference to a broken boiler, you need to rip it all out if you want to fix it. You can’t just put a temporary fix on it, because it’s just going to burst again. It’s the same thing with all of the trauma-related pain that our characters have. They need to dig in and rip it all out, and figure out a way to fix it, because putting on a bandaid isn’t going to fix anything, and they’d just be forever broken.
Yes, our characters go through a lot of pain and suffering, and sometimes it feels like a neverending stream of difficulty and struggle. But, there is a poetry to the choice that they learn to make, to be happy where they can, when they can, while they can, even when an unknown darkness looms ahead.
This central theme, of broken people searching for meaning amid the pain, not sure if they dare to hope for a measure of healing in their future, moved me. And that’s why I kept on watching.
STUFF I LIKED
Generally speaking, Show’s got a quiet, introspective feel to it, which I find appealing. On top of that, the music in this show generally has an ethereal sort of vibe to it, which adds a nice touch to our otherwise very down-to-earth drama world. Yes, I sometimes couldn’t make sense of the English lyrics, but I quickly learned to look beyond the lyrics, to appreciate the lilting, delicate vibe that the music added to my watch experience.
The relationships take centerstage in our narrative, and here’s the quickish spotlight on the ones that I found most engaging and affecting.
1. Gang Doo & Moon Soo
Pretty much straightaway, I found our lead pair of characters interesting.
Right away in episode 1, we learn that both Gang Doo and Moon Soo are in pain, and they’re both trying to deal with it, and live with it, in whichever way they know how. Moon Soo tries her best to forget, and to be the strength that her mother (Yoon Yoo Sun) doesn’t have, while doing what she can, in her line of work, to prevent similar disasters from happening. Kang Doo can’t forget, and looks like he’s ready to destroy himself, while doing what he can to help his sister Jae Young (Kim Hye Joon) live a normal life.
By episode 3, we’ve learned that Moon Soo is independent and smart, and she works hard to be strong, but underneath it all, there is vulnerability and fear, which she keeps bottled away.
We also learn that while Gang Doo appears reckless and suspicious of just about anyone, underneath all the ruff ‘n scruff, he cares deeply for people. [SPOILER] Like the way he bashes into Gran’s (Na Moon Hee) house to make sure she’s ok, and then promptly lies down to sleep beside her. And the way he steps in to help Moon Soo and Wan Jin (Park Hee Bon) with the taxi. And most of all, the way he extends himself, to help Moon Soo when she falls into the water. Not only does he help her to get out, he loans her a hoodie to wear, and even berates her colleague So Mi (Park Gyu Young) for leaving her alone despite knowing the area is a restricted one. And then there’s how he buys those donut twists for Sang Man (Kim Kang Hyun) and is good to him. [END SPOILER]
On the surface, Moon Soo and Gang Doo are so different, and they both deal with their pain in completely opposite ways. But beneath the surface, they are more alike that one might initially think. I enjoyed getting to know this pair of characters better and better, over the course of our story, and I liked that Show takes its time to unveil those various layers to them.
I liked Won Jin Ah, right away, as Moon Soo. I found her delivery natural, and I thought her screen presence was solid. I enjoyed her restrained delivery of Moon Soo’s pain and vulnerability, which felt faceted and believable, in her hands.
For the record, this was my introduction to Lee Joon Ho, and I thought he did well in the role; he doesn’t strike me as an idol actor at all. I think it probably helps that I had no prior idol image to overcome in my head, about him.
Although I came across some comments that said Joon Ho’s performance was too green, I personally found him very solid in the role. I asked myself if Gang Doo would have been a more nuanced and layered character in a more experienced and skilled actor’s hands, and the answer is yes. However, I can also believe that this is Gang Doo; a guy who’s kinda dead on the inside, and that’s why his gaze is lifeless and barren. Whatever touches of stiffness there were to Gang Doo, I felt that they could be attributed to the character’s tendency to clam up and bottle things up, rather than to an actor limitation.
The bottom line is, Gang Doo didn’t feel flat to me. I could believe he was a real person, and that was the most important thing.
What binds Gang Doo & Moon Soo together
This OTP loveline felt different to most other OTP lovelines in dramaland, to me. Rather than heart-fluttery cuteness, this OTP loveline was built with a very different foundation.
It’s poignant yet heartwarming – comforting, even – to see Moon Soo and Gang Doo being drawn to each other’s pain. They each see the pain in the other, and they recognize it, because they are in the same pain. She sees his pain, and he sees hers, and they start to watch over each other, in their own little ways. [SPOILER] Like the way she runs out into the rain in episode 4, because she remembered that he’d be alone at the construction site that night. She instinctively knows that this is a dangerous zone for him because of the trauma of the accident, and wants to make sure he’s ok. [END SPOILER]
I found it quite lovely to watch Moon Soo and Gang Doo becoming friends, and bringing comfort to each other. The way Gang Doo and Moon Soo acknowledge the scariness and difficulties of the other struggling alone, is, I think, the key to what draws them together.
In episode 6, Moon Soo goes out of her way to apologize to Gang Doo, that she let him see the grandma’s dead body alone, and she acknowledges how scary that must’ve been. Gang Doo, moved by her gesture, grabs her hand and makes sure she gets on the bus. And then, he texts her to acknowledge that she worked hard too, by herself, that day. When Moon Soo texts to say that in the future, they should do everything together because they are on the same team, it feels like such a significant moment for both of them; not in a romantic way, but in a more fundamental humanistic demonstration of solidarity. I am here with you; you are not alone. It feels like this sentiment means the world to both of them.
In terms of significant couple moments, one that stands out to me is the moment they share on the bus, in episode 7. It feels like this moment is the closest one they’ve shared, even though just the night before, Moon Soo had drunk-kissed him. This morning, though, she tells him about losing her sister in the collapse, and he tells her about losing his dad. It’s matter-of-fact and nothing dramatic, but these are things that they’ve never talked about with other people, and they are volunteering that information to each other, simply and plainly, and that feels truly momentous.
2. Gang Doo & Gran
I loved Gang Doo’s deep bond with Gran. On the surface, they are all gruff and tough with each other, often grumping at each other with raised voices, but it’s crystal clear that they mean the world to each other.
I love what an unlikely odd couple they are. The fact that they met as debtor and debtee, and then formed such a familial sort of connection, is endearingly bizarre. The way they look after each other is also endearingly bizarre. A great example is how Gran gives Gang Doo scary strong drugs to help with the pain that he suffers, but only gives him what she thinks his body can handle, and continually nags him not to rely on the pills.
Beneath the odd, somewhat dysfunctional surface, though, runs a deep care and affection. When Gran closes shop and stays in bed, Gang Doo practically bangs the door down, out of worry. And when Gran knows that she has limited time to live, she nags at Gang Doo about his health, and does everything she can, to make sure he will be ok. From leaving him land, to giving him instructions to sell the land and clear his debt, to reminding him to clean the shop every few days because it will clear his mind, she does everything in her power, to ensure his physical and mental well-being.
I loved these two together, and it broke my heart that their time together had to come to an end.
A Joon Ho sidenote
There’s a scene in episode 10 which struck me as difficult, and where I thought Joon Ho did very well. Gran’s in hospital, sitting up and smiling, surrounded by warmth and care; Gang Doo looks on, smiling, but has to surreptitiously wipe tears away as they leak from his eyes; first the right, then the left. That’s hard to do, and he did it well. That scene convinced me that Joon Ho’s not unskilled at the acting.
3. Gang Doo & Sang Man
Guh. I adored Gang Doo and Sang Man together. Gang Doo is unfailingly kind to Sang Man, who has some degree of intellectual disability. And Sang Man unwaveringly lavishes devotion, admiration, and loyalty on Gang Doo, all the time. Whatever state Gang Doo is in, whatever mood Gang Doo is in, Sang Man trails after him, and takes care of him, and looks up to him, and I love it.
[SPOILER] It was very cute to see them trying on suits together in episode 12. The loan sharks completely change the way they treat Gang Doo when they realize he has money, but Sang Man doesn’t care a whit. Wearing the same innocently angelic expression as ever, he merely chirps at Gang Doo, “Hyung. I’m hungry. What are we going to eat?” Cuteness! Also, the fact that this indifference is because Sang Man already thinks the world of Gang Doo, just makes it even better. <3 [END SPOILER]
Special shout-out: Gang Doo & Yoo Jin
I really enjoyed the muted connection that grows between Gang Doo and Yoo Jin (Kang Han Na).
[SPOILER] They don’t necessarily like each other, but they understand each other because they find themselves in similar situations. I was amused that Gang Doo would dispense love advice to a very princessy Yoo Jin as early as episode 4, and I was even more amused that she listened, in spite of herself.
Over the course of our show, these two seek each other out when they need to, and I liked watching their relationship evolve. From being rather wary of each other, these two come to trust each other, and I liked that a lot. I loved that they can say things to each other in such a matter-of-fact manner, and advise each other in sensitive matters of the heart, without actually being close. [END SPOILER]
STUFF I LIKED LESS
The pining second leads
Because Gang Doo and Moon Soo are the main focus of our story, the love triangle between Joo Won (Lee Ki Woo), Yoo Jin and Moon Soo often felt redundant, to me. And, I also found this love triangle rather unconvincing, to be honest.
For one thing, it seemed a little odd to me, that Joo Won would be paying so much attention to Moon Soo, since he’s a CEO and she’s his part-time employee, and they’d just met. For another thing, I found it hard to believe that Joo Won and Yoo Jin had ever been in love. Not only is there no chemistry between Lee Ki Woo and Kang Han Na, the two characters are so different in worldview and sensibility, that I found it hard to imagine them being drawn to each other.
Because of these things, I found that I felt distinctly less interested, whenever the focus shifted to the love triangle.
However, what I did find quite interesting, is the way my perception of these two characters evolved over the course of the show. I started out liking Joo Won and disliking Yoo Jin, but by the time I reached Show’s later episodes, that had flipped around quite thoroughly, and I found myself liking Yoo Jin a lot more, while not liking Joo Won very much. Interesting move, Show.
In the beginning fo the show, I found the sadness in Joo Won’s eyes appealing, and he seemed like a good guy just trying to do things right. I also liked that he was so appreciative of Moon Soo’s work and her observations. He struck me as someone who was down-to-earth and who didn’t care about rank and titles; he just cared about the work being done responsibly and well, and I thought that was cool.
On the other hand, Yoo Jin came across as manipulative and sly. A great example is the way she made sure that Moon Soo saw Joo Won get in her car in episode 3, and the way she artfully positioned herself as thoroughly superior thereafter, after she realized that Joo Won was nice to Moon Soo.
My first impressions shifted a whole lot over the course of my watch, and that began in episode 6, when Joo Won started displaying pretty possessive behavior with regard to Moon Soo. There’s nothing official between them; he simply likes her, and yet, he’d call Gang Doo to check if Gang Doo is with Moon Soo. That certainly didn’t bode well.
By Show’s later episodes, Joo Won looked a lot less honorable to me, as a character. In episode 14, he gets all shifty-eyed and avoids the issue when Gang Doo tells him about the on-site discovery of remains. Plus, he decides to sleep with Yoo Jin, even though he has no more feelings for her, and he knows that she’s just clinging to him in a moment of desperate loneliness. He lost pretty much all of his brownie points with me, with those 2 things alone.
Interestingly, Yoo Jin evolves into one of the most reasonable and neutral parties in the corporate tussle, and I found myself growing to respect her work ethic and her ability to look at things in an objective manner. Also a big plus, is the way she stops clinging onto the hope of rekindling her romantic relationship with Joo Won. That definitely made her appear as more of a dignified, strong character, and I liked that.
I guess one should never judge a character too soon, eh?
All the architecture/corporate politics stuff
I know that this is part of the premise of the show, and therefore counts as valid context, but I was truly bored every time Show shifted its focus to all the architecture / corporate politics stuff. I mentally filed this as a necessary evil, and soldiered on through it all, but I do wonder if there was a better, more engaging way to go about this.
Wan Jin’s loveline
The loveline between Wan Jin (Park Hee Bon) and Jin Young (Kim Min Kyu) is something that I felt ambivalent towards, from beginning to end.
[SPOILER] In the first place, the set-up of this arc is pretty strange, with Jin Young being an online hater who then shoves himself into Wan Jin’s living space to help her. Who does that? [END SPOILER] This arc and its set-up just didn’t feel real or organic to me; it felt like it shouldn’t belong in Moon Soo and Gang Doo’s world, which felt so much more raw and broken, in comparison.
I mean, I liked the idea of Wan Jin finding love, but the execution just didn’t ring true, for me. Not only did the introduction of the assistant feel random and odd, the growing affection between them didn’t get enough screen time to feel real to me either. So I didn’t hate this loveline, but I didn’t really buy it either.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
We ultimately get a happy, hopeful ending (yay, and, phew), but this last hour is, for the most part, still not an easy watch.
We spend a big chunk of the episode with Gang Doo perilously ill, where he wasn’t far from collapsing on his feet, and going into a coma, right then and there. As I progressed through the episode, and as the minutes ticked by with no viable solution for Gang Doo in sight, I honestly wondered how Show was going to resolve this.
Even in the thick of that uncertainty, though, I appreciated the large amounts of love poured out on my screen. Jae Young’s disappointment at not being a suitable donor for Gang Doo, and her subsequent desperation to find him one; Moon Soo wanting to marry Gang Doo immediately, so that she might be considered a potential donor; Ma Ri Noona (Yoon Se Ah) going to the hospital to demand that she be tested as a potential donor for Gang Doo; and the one that tugged at my heartstrings most of all, Sang Man insisting that he be allowed to be Gang Doo’s donor, because he literally can’t live without his Hyung – and Mom (Park Myung Shin) throwing a fit because she couldn’t bear the thought of her son being cut open.. and then giving in anyway. I just love that moment when Mom tells Gang Doo that he better live a long time and fulfill his filial duties, since he’s now her new son.
On top of all this, I also could help but be moved by how intensely Moon Soo and Gang Doo work, to savor their every moment, even while Gang Doo’s future was completely murky. That idea – of living each moment to the fullest, of relishing forever, even if forever only lasts for a day – is a haunting, soul-stirring one. Even when they didn’t know if they would have a tomorrow together, they loved each other to the maximum, today. What an overwhelming, compelling, moving notion. Watching them together, my heart felt full and broken, all at the same time.
Even though it can be argued that the way Show saved Gang Doo’s life was more an example of deux ex machina than clever writing, I appreciated the idea that writer-nim presented; that we should dare to hope, even in the darkest and bleakest of times.
In the end, we leave our characters in various stages of closure and happiness, which makes me happy, because much of this show was hard on the nerves. Moon Soo’s parents finally divorce and begin new lives; Dad (Ahn Nae Sang) becomes a bus driver, while Mom gets help for her alcoholism. Moon Soo rebuilds the bathhouse as she had always envisioned, and Gang Doo returns to work and begins to study Architecture. Ma Ri Noona gets hints of a happy ending, when a divorced Yoo Taek (Tae In Ho) looks her up. Without the burden of his position, he even looks like he might be an alright kinda guy. Gang Doo and Sang Man still live together, except now Gang Doo cedes everything to Sang Man, ha. Gang Doo and Jae Young keep Gran’s clinic running with the money she left behind, which is possibly the most meaningful thing, ever. And Gang Doo and Moon Soo finally get to live happily ever after, with a fresh beginning and a new future, theirs for the taking.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A story of pain, hope, and healing. Not an easy watch, but a worthwhile one.
FINAL GRADE: B+