Three friends in their mid-thirties, all unmarried. The first can’t fathom life without a man and believes spinsterhood is a kind of dying. The second wants to marry, if possible, but not at the expense of her career. The third is perfectly happy to remain single, forever.
The Woman Who Still Wants To Marry (2010) should not resonate with me. I found the love of my life in my first semester of college, when the ground was thick with snow and my ears were so numb from the cold I thought they would fall off. He kept me warm, he made me laugh, he accepted me with all my emotional baggage and didn’t get cross with me (not anymore, alas, although he is still the most even-tempered person I know). He watches K-dramas and might even have watched more than I have, if you factor in the number of episodes. (He finished epic Jumong and Emperor of the Sea; I sampled them piecemeal, watching just four out of a combined 132 episodes.)
I don’t know what it means to be Da-jung, Shin-young or Bu-ki. I should rightly watch The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry with detached amusement and even derision, because so desperate is Jung Da-jung (Eom Ji-won) to be married, she reduces the sum of a woman to just half, as though life is incomplete and miserable if you do not have a man to share it with.
But you know something? Instead of ridiculing Da-jung for being so needy, I adore her, the same way I adore many things in the drama. The breezy storytelling and the ensemble of new and familiar faces, for starters. The length (a perfectly-paced 16 episodes). The uproarious humor (no drama has made me laugh so hard this year).
In a personal way that I did not expect, The Woman Who Still Wants To Marry resonates with me. It is part magic show and part morality play, offering me hours of escape and a lifetime of lessons, in a tone that’s neither preachy nor patronizing (well, most of the time). No one dies in the drama; no one gets irreparably hurt. Yet out of the blue I would feel a peculiar sadness or nostalgia. Memories I had long tucked away came flooding back.
When I was fifteen, I stopped vacillating and decided I would be a writer and not a doctor (sorry, Mom, for dashing your long-cherished hopes). That was also the year I fell in love, for the first time. If you ask me what I remember of that year, I will tell you: “Everything.”
My first love was magical. Most of our dates began under the huge canopy of a Flame of the Forest that stood in the field between our schools. We walked shyly and silently until we were sure we couldn’t be seen, and then we held hands all the way to the beach. We went to the movies, we talked for hours, we never fought. I know I’m a better person today because I was loved (deeply) in my first relationship. Don’t tell me it was a mere (albeit mutual) crush, I’ll knock your head.
(On a related note, I urge you to read this post by MetroDad and tell me if it does not move you to giggles and even some tears.)
“My love for you is real,” says Min-jae to Shin-young. “Just because I’m young, that does not mean I do not know how to love or I love less.” Later (or perhaps earlier, for I can’t remember details when I’m simultaneously crying and clutching my chest), Shin-young would tell Min-jae, in a voiceover that he can’t hear, these words:
At this point in my life, I love you… more than anything else in the world.
Ironically, my first love and I broke up (months later and without acrimony) because he felt we were too young. To be more exact, lest you blame the innocent, his scoutmaster got wind of the relationship and roared, “What are you thinking, dating at your age?” A fifteen-year-old boy, one representing the school’s swim team, does not argue with his scoutmaster aka Coach.
Then and now, age is a big deal. Just ask the characters in The Woman Who Still Wants To Marry.
Lee Shin-young (Park Jin-hee) is the “Woman” in the drama’s title. Four years ago, when she was 30 and a junior reporter, an opportunity for higher studies presented itself, one that would take her away from Korea for two years. Hurt that she should choose career over him, her fiancé promptly ended their relationship. Even though she still loved him, she returned to find Yoon Sang-woo (Lee Pil-mo) engaged to another woman.
Fast-forward to the present and to the drama’s first episode. On the day of his wedding, Sang-woo gets cold feet and dumps his bride at the altar. He would later tell Shin-young, in a childishly triumphant way, “See? I love you so much I can’t marry anyone else. I know you still have the hots for me, so what say you if we pick up from where we last left off? You’re so old, who else would want you?”
“Go swallow some toads,” she replies, kind of. “You’re history, mister.”
I love Shin-young. I love how naturally and convincingly Park Jin-hee plays her, this woman who is smarts and spunk and sensitivity in a delightful package. She is confident and also insecure, all collected professionalism when she’s on the air and yet a total klutz at home. In my favorite laugh-out-loud scene, Shin-young is parked in front of the TV in her living room. She’s blissfully spaced-out on a commode of sorts (a portable butt-warmer that’s supposed to unknot her wound-up muscles) when the front door opens and in troop Da-jung and beau.
Aghast that the man with Da-jung is someone who was once mildly interested in her, a bare-bottomed Shin-young pulls her pink cape over her head in a frantic dash for her bedroom. But because she can’t see a thing, she runs smack into a column and knocks herself backwards, falling into the butt-warmer box. Dazed, she gets up with said box still wrapping her behind and promptly trips again, even as the audience of two look on in stunned disbelief. Professional comedians aren’t even this hysterical.
Do you see now why Ha Min-jae (Kim Bum) finds Shin-young utterly adorable? Not only is she pretty, she is full of endearing quirks that make him smile. The ten-year age difference between them is completely inconsequential.
But try telling her colleagues at the TV station and his legion of fans (the guy’s a noted indie musician) that a 24-year-old man dating a 34-year-old woman is just a trifling affair.
Shin-young knows it’s a big deal (one fraught with uncertainty and inviting all sorts of negative gossip), which is why she keeps rejecting him at first. To a lesser extent Min-jae knows it, too, which explains why he takes pains to behave as an equal with her and refuses to call her “Noona.” Sure enough, their relationship becomes fodder for more ridicule from Choi Myung-suk (Kim Yong-hee) aka Most Odious Colleague. The relentless way he mocks her (and this is aside from how blatantly he steals her newsworthy ideas) it’s a wonder she hasn’t poisoned him.
But Shin-young’s most humiliating moment doesn’t come courtesy of Myung-suk. In a scene that I dislike intensely, Min-jae’s mom gathers a group of girls, all of them Min-jae’s friends and his age or younger, and uses them to publicly taunt the unsuspecting Shin-young. They cackle and shriek at the notion that she and Min-jae can be a couple. How ludicrous and inconceivable!
This is not going to be smooth-sailing but we’ll ride it out, together.
Let me tell you about two May-December couples. In the first pairing, the man is 12 years older; in the second it’s the woman, also 12 years.
I raised my eyebrows when I learned of the first coupling, my concern mainly over whether they could communicate (the guy’s a melancholic old soul not given to much frivolity; the girl is always giggling like some pubescent teen). “Oh well, good for him, he needs to lighten up,” I reasoned. They seemed very much in love and I didn’t give their age difference a second thought; a man marrying a much younger woman is so commonplace, after all. Not so the second couple. Many people whispered behind their backs, commenting on how boyish he looked next to her (the guy easily passed for someone ten years younger). I saw how she tried to dress his age, in thinly-veiled attempts to not be mistaken for his mom or aunt.
The courage it takes to buck the norm. The commotion that erupts and the price that one must pay, in a society that is more close-minded than we care to admit. But try using these reasons to dissuade Min-jae.
Is it the recklessness of youth that explains why he is more concerned about winning Shin-young’s heart than he is about winning public approval for his wooing of her? After all, people automatically assume that in a May-December coupling such as theirs, she must be the one who seduced him. The woman is judged more (derisively) than the man.
But Min-jae isn’t a youth, he’s an adult. Baby-faced, vice-free, practically spotless in character and charm, but definitely an adult. Not your normal adult male, though; the guy’s the stuff of dreams. Watch the drama from beginning to end and tell me if you can name five Min-jae shortcomings. I can’t. The only time he comes close to being a less-than-perfect specimen is when he changed his hair color back to black without warning. How could you, Ha Min-jae? I love the gray!
Your girlfriend bemoans the two gray strands that she finds in her hair because it’s another tangible marker drawing attention to your (wide) age difference. How do you assure her that these physical markers (graying hair, sagging skin, wrinkles) don’t matter? Why, color your hair completely gray, of course.
I love Min-jae (and Kim Bum’s assured portrayal of him, even if the role’s not going to garner him any acting award). In a drama where the women characters reign, I was transfixed by a seemingly two-dimensional character with a chin so pointed it’s a perfect V. Here, take this basket of sour adjectives and see if you can find one to stick on Min-jae. Lazy? Not at all, the guy’s committed to his work and always delivers. Capricious? Nah, he’s as steadfast as a rock where his feelings for Shin-young are concerned. Unfilial? Never, because he tells his mom that he loves her, and he comes back to see her even though she has declared in no uncertain terms that she will never accept Shin-young.
Let’s switch baskets. Funny, sunny, gallant, romantic, dependable. Cute as a button, to boot. Even cooks! Has a smile that unlocks bank vaults, and self-control so steely you wish Tiger Woods had 1/14th Min-jae’s restraint.
See what I mean now when I say “two-dimensional”? Min-jae’s characterization isn’t flat or boring, as most 2-D characters are prone to be; he’s the sum of many parts. However, he really is too good to be true. From Episode 1 to Episode 16 he remains the same winsome character and the perfect boyfriend material. But who’s complaining? I love our Shin-young and Min-jae couple and their crackling chemistry, even if I can’t kill the niggling thought that “it’s all good now, but people change.” I love them so much I choose to believe in their happy-ever-after. Give me this magical fairy tale on tap, thank you.
In a month where I watched soldiers freeze to death on the battlefield (Comrades) and men go berserk over things that money can and cannot buy (Giant), The Woman Who Still Wants To Marry is pure escapism, of the laugh-till-you-howl kind. Just watch zany Da-jung become zanier when paired with Na Ban-suk (Choi Chul-ho), the two of them a shoo-in for funniest couple of the year.
I love Da-jung. At 34, she has her life all mapped out. She will marry on December 22 (and please make it this year, dear gods!) and her groom will be at least 1.8m tall, good-looking, financially stable, and the second son of his family (because first-born sons must care for their parents but second sons can get away scot-free). Such a man should find her a very good catch, for she’s the best and prettiest Korean-English interpreter in town. Why is it so hard, then, to find the right man, WHY?
I’m a failure if I can’t get married.
At work or play, in Korea or abroad, every handsome, ring-less and age-appropriate man gets her once-over. In mid-conversation and without skipping a beat, she asks married or off-the-market friends and acquaintances, “Do you have a brother?” When a fortune-teller says an exorcism is necessary to draw a stream of prized marriage prospects to Da-jung’s door, our girl whoops “At last!” and hoodwinks Shin-young and Bu-ki into coming along, all three of them decked out in lucky red. See how her face falls when an American good-looker at a conference ends his speech with the wettest wet-blanket statement of the week: “My wife and children accompanied me on this trip.”
Da-jung’s desperation is exaggerated for comic effect, of course (and Eom Ji-won is a gem, here and in Magic, playing two vastly different roles). But watching her riotous schemes to find a mate, I can’t help remembering an incident last year.
A woman that I know in a very vague sort of way (I see her at her desk when I go to her office occasionally to collect stuff from other folks) had just gotten married and wanted me to look at her wedding photos. Now, it was odd that she should ask me. We don’t know each other personally and I hadn’t the faintest idea that she was getting hitched. As I flipped through the pages of her album, I was struck suddenly by an overwhelming urge to laugh. The woman and her husband looked miserable and glum; there wasn’t a single photo where one or both smiled. In this day and age, what kind of photographer gets away with photos like that, of a bride and groom no less!
“I’ve always wanted to wear a wedding gown,” the woman told me, unsmiling. “You look stunning,” I replied. Inside my head, Geppetto stirred and said, “I’m surprised your nose didn’t hit the door on your way out.”
People get married just so they can wear wedding finery? Wow, you’re telling me. So I should slog through graduate school because I want badly to wear a graduation gown? (Never mind that they are usually ill-fitting and make your skin itch.)
Da-jung wants to get married, not because she’s in love, but because she believes she’s a lesser person if she becomes an old spinster. How sad that someone as bright and educated as her should harbor such a stinker of a belief. I didn’t grow up with my mom telling me, “Marry well.” No, she drummed into me one word, “STUDY!”
My mom and grandma married men who were artistic and scholarly (respectively) but lousy breadwinners. Through separation (for mom) and death (in grandma’s case), they had to raise their children alone, on very little means. I grew up being told every day that hard work was a virtue and I must excel in school (the pressure eventually got oppressive and I rebelled, but that’s a story for another day). Through their own lives, my mom and grandma and aunts showed me that a woman was a man’s equal and that marriage was simply one facet of life, it wasn’t everything.
That’s why I watch Da-jung with a mixture of love (she’s just so funny) and horror. When Ban-suk falls for her and together they create the most hilarious couple I’ve ever seen in a kdrama, I wonder and worry. Is she truly in love with him (Ban-suk and no one else), or is she simply so relieved to find life’s most ideal state within reach… at last? To be a wife, oh yes!
But soon she realizes that snaring a man isn’t the end of the story. Marriage is not an unending honeymoon, the two of you whispering endearments into each other’s ears all day. If Da-jung thinks marriage is all about her husband meeting her needs and making her happy, she’s in for a rude awakening. Ban-suk isn’t an orphaned only child; his parents and siblings are alive and kicking. You have dues to pay, dearest Da-jung, and obligations to meet. Don’t expect it to be easy, and definitely don’t expect Ban-suk to always understand.
I love Ban-suk. He cracks me up the most, his nervous tics and unbridled exuberance such a treat to watch. In a drama about women who want to become brides, Ban-suk is a production line of blushes and quivering lips. But he also surprises me the most, because he turns out to be more complex and contradictory than I imagined. (And we thought he was unlike his dad, played with devilish aplomb by Baek Il-sub.)
But I love Ban-suk’s layers. I love that my favorite Ban-suk scene (and the highlight of Choi Chul-ho’s entire performance in the drama) isn’t comical, as I would have expected, but something else altogether. The quiet and restrained scene passes quickly, and he’s back to his effervescent self. But that fleeting moment, when his eyes filled with tears and he realized what a selfish prick he had been, affirmed what was becoming clearer with each episode: This seemingly lightweight drama has plenty of depth.
And so, among the three friends in The Woman Who Still Wants To Marry, only one is still unattached. Coming off a ten-year relationship that ended without a trip to the altar, Kim Bu-ki (Wang Bit-na) knows better than to jump recklessly into a new one.
I love Bu-ki. I love her even though her character is the least developed among the key female roles in the drama, with the least screen time. She reminds me of all the elegant and level-headed women I know (the ones I try to emulate… in vain), because they are always accessorized, they are calm and wise, they listen without interrupting, they don’t recycle the same five (drab) pieces in their wardrobe, and they never, ever trip over air and fall flat on their face while crossing a busy intersection, four lanes of cars witnessing it all (oh, what I would give to banish this wretched memory forever!).
Bu-ki’s so perfect she makes me jealous. If I had her same hairdo, I would likely stand and walk with my head tilted sideways; I would never look like a million dollars.
Still, I yearn to see what lies beneath her immaculate and unruffled exterior. At night, when all is still in her apartment and the phone does not ring with an anguished Shin-young or Da-jung on the line, what thoughts fill Bu-ki’s mind? Does she think of her ex-boyfriend and miss him, or is she smiling in bemusement at the men who daily stop dead in their tracks at the sight of her, their drool pooling at their collective feet? Does she ever grow tired of being so poised (like how a bride might feel, smiling for the 829th time on her wedding day)?
To be fair, Bu-ki does let her hair down, a lot. Not literally (she’s the sort who looks smashing even in a sack, how unfair), but she plays along with her pals’ harebrained schemes and sometimes even contributes a few of her own.
But my favorite scenes of Bu-ki aren’t the ones with her crazy friends but the scenes where she meets Min-jae’s mom. Here’s a woman who should rightly sink her nails into Bu-ki’s perfectly made-up face. Instead she seeks her rival out, not as someone to confide in, but simply as a comforting presence. When she needs a quiet place to sort her thoughts, it is not to other cafes and restaurants that she goes, but to Bu-ki’s stylish (and decidedly pricey) joint.
(Aside: I was frankly rather disappointed that Min-jae’s mom found love so quickly, and with Sang-woo, Shin-young’s ex- fiancé, of all people. I wanted to see her and Bu-ki becoming fast friends, and Bu-ki helping her to rebuild her life as a strong and fulfilled single woman. I saw so much potential in their unusual friendship!)
Choi Sang-mi is Min-jae’s mom. And here I must digress and tell you how thrilled I was to see Park Ji-young. Who Are You? was a 2008 drama that I loved, and one of the main reasons was Park Ji-young’s role there, as the girlfriend of the dead-but-not-quite-dead dad. Some actors wail their lungs out to portray grief. Some, like Park Ji-young, wring your hearts out with nary a sound. And dang, I’m in tears now just remembering her scenes.
Unfortunately, I don’t love Park Ji-young as much here, and the reason is not because of her acting (she’s superb, as expected) but because I don’t feel as invested in her relationship with Sang-woo. The lightning-fast way he falls for her is laughable, reminding us what a shallow cad he was (dumping two fiancées in a row). Not that I don’t believe in love at first strike (I do!), but one gaze at her (drawn) face and he’s levitating? C’mon.
Granted Sang-mi is take-your-breath-away beautiful, even when her mood is anything but chirpy. Still, to write her into Shin-young’s exact situation (falling for a man ten years younger, with the man’s mom going ballistic at the coupling) just feels so… forced.
I wrote earlier that I love the drama for not employing a preachy or patronizing tone. However, Sang-woo and Sang-mi’s relationship feels a lot like comeuppance. Sang-woo has to suffer (falling in love with a married woman is the ultimate suffering to him, I guess) because he was a jerk previously. Sang-mi has to learn what it’s like to be Shin-young so that she can stop being an obstinate ajumma standing in the way of her son’s happiness. To top it off, Sang-woo and Shin-young once loved each other, Min-jae dislikes Sang-woo (for obvious reasons), and Sang-woo used to dislike Min-jae.
Really, is there a need to hit us over the head with the “what a small world!” trope?
Angst-filled entanglements notwithstanding, The Woman Who Still Wants To Marry is heaps of fun. It also confirms what I have long suspected: I’m a bundle of contradictions.
First, the drama was a blast to watch but so hard to review. I couldn’t wait to write about it (because I need a public spot to park my Kim Bum screen-caps, if you must really know), but then I got hit with a block (of the writing kind). The words trickled out as speedily as a snail’s crawl and I wondered, over chewed nails, whether I was doing it all wrong, watching without taking notes and depending on my memory to deliver, as it had in posts past.
Second, I expected this review to drip with wit (of the by-golly-I-don’t-get-Thundie’s-warped-sense-of-humor kind) because didn’t I laugh my way through the drama? So how did it get all serious and (horrors!) personal?
Third (and last), I claim to be open-minded, but my scattered reminiscences (of kin and friend and foe) while watching proved I subscribe to beliefs more discrepant than I realize. I laughed, but I also judged. I chided Da-jung for being so fixated on marriage even as I exulted in not having to be in her shoes. I grew up with women role models who charted their paths independently, yet I’ve become dependent on one man for my happiness. But never mind, it’s all good because I’m still a work in progress, like all the relationships in the drama.
“ When the wind blows, it’s okay to be shaken.
Just believe that, eventually, it will stop.
When the rain falls, look for your friends.
Because you’re never alone.
When love comes, take it. When love leaves, let it go.
When something happens that can’t be avoided,
another opportunity presents itself.”
A few months ago, the ground beneath me shook violently and I thought I would fall through the cracks. My most-dreaded kdrama plot device entered the house without so much as a “May I?” and threatened to evict everything that I held dear. The fear was so crippling I couldn’t breathe.
This evening, he-who-watches-kdramas said teasingly: “Shall we go to Korea next month?”
Oh, no kidding? Yes, yes, YES!