Can we love? (2014) Korean Drama Review

Hello. This is AKIA Talking now from Korea. Today, I’ll be covering a Korean drama that started up this passing year of 2014. It is a … adultery genre show called Can we love?” (2014).. Well… not really… I don’t know. It is a mess.
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Can we love? (2014) #Kdrama Review:Goodbye to Sisterhood around a coffee table

I just recently finished this Korean drama although I had tried it out when it first started to air way back this year. I am not particularly fond of the “Adultery” Korean drama subgenre. Examples of this type of shows include Secret Love Affair (2014) and My Husband's Lover (2007). However, the recent Showtime’s American series “The Affair” (2014), which is a very interesting Adultery themed show, got me interested in what the recent Korean drama catalog could offer in this genre. So, I chose “Can we love?” (2014).

While it had been some time since I tried out the show, I had only vague memories about my impressions of the show. While watching the first few episodes, I thought that it was pretty interesting. So, why did I stop watching the show? Around episode 6 or 7, I got my answer which is where I stopped watching before.

The Plot
While I referenced “Adultery” Korean drama subgenre, “Can we love?” (2014) doesn’t exactly fit into this genre. It has some of the elements of it but is not about adultery story exactly. A show like “One warm word” (2014) which I am going to cover sometime later will fit more exactly. “Can we love?” (2014) seems like a hybrid between “Adultery” genre and the “Family drama” genre. There are a lot of elements of resentment, taboo, emotional suppression, pushing social boundaries, and etc. but none of the main leads technically have an affair. Well at least one comes close. Thus, a similar show to this show would be “Hundred Year Inheritance” (2013) which shares the same actress, Eugene, with “Can we love?” (2014).

The show is centered on 3 long time female friends as they walk the paths set upon them by being on this earth for almost 40 years. And things do not seem rosy for them. They should have gotten a better writer to play God in their stories.

“Yoon Jung-Wan”(Divorcee) , former screenplay writer, is divorced with a kid and an ex-husband who seems to not be able to cut his ties with her and is still lingering. She is trying to start her career back up and handle her past baggage but she meets a man like people always do.

They are just trouble!

“Kim Sun-Mi”(old single) is a single and successful interior designer who basically goes off the deep end as she starts to acknowledge that she is getting old and cannot just keep dating younger guys casually any more.  Yes, she is one of those character archetypes.  

“Kwon Ji-Hyun”(Wife) had married into a rich family and went through the typical “rich family’s mothers are bitches” ordeal you expect from a Korean drama. At the same time, she has secrets she is keeping regarding her past love.

Can we love?” (2014) starts with these three friends and seemed to signal that it may end with these three initially. Thus, the show instantly reminded me of the character dynamic of “Sex and the City” (1998-2004). This fact and the first few episodes raised my expectations initially where there had been none before.

I kept saying that “this was pretty decent!”

From prior experience, the “Sex and the City” (1998-2004) dynamic had worked well with a few female centric Korean dramas before. Examples would be “I need romance 1” (2011), “I need romance 2” (2012), “The Woman Who Still Wants To Marry” (2010).

However, I also had some reservations. There had not been any good shows that properly executed this dynamic recently. The recent “I need romance 3” (2014) deviated drastically from the formula and suffered significantly. At this point, we have to discuss “Sex and the City” (1998-2004) and its influence on Korean drama.

The Sisterhood around a coffee table
For many reasons, the U.S. show “Sex and the City” was a very influential show for TV in general. In regards to Korean dramas, its popularity led to the creations of a different kind of Korean drama. Female centric/led Korean dramas were nothing new. However, having more than 2 female lead characters be friends who support each other and were not rivals was not something Korean dramas had done a lot prior to  “Sex and the City”. Either the two female leads were “rivals for love or fame “or the “Friend” was just a supporting character.

What “Sex and the City” created was a new paradigm for telling stories about females that I like to call the “The Sisterhood around a coffee table”.  Prior to this, using the conflicting dynamics between the female leads, there were some story telling limitations put on the writer. One is that, in the context of Korean dramas, the writer has limited options in regards to directly commenting about the characters. An easy way is to do that is to make the surrounding characters actually say what the writer wants to say. In other words, the writer is creating a mouthpiece within the show. However, in Korean dramas, the opportunities for this is limited since most Korean drama female characters tend to be stuck in their own head spaces without anyone to share their stories with since Korean culture tends to be very against to sharing person weaknesses.

Where is a good bartender when you need one?
If you think about it, the whole bartender archetype is not a thing in Korean drams.

One way of getting around this is to make the show more of a family drama. However, this does have its own issues. For one, having a family member comment about a character has very different effects than hearing the same line of dialogue spoken by a non-family member. This is especially true in Korea. In addition, in many Korean family dramas, other than having the various plots habituating the same world created by the show and sharing some characters between them, the inter-connectiveness between the plots are nebulous at best. It is not necessarily easy to grab a character from one plot just to use as the writers mouse piece in another plot.  

The other problem is that, since the lead female characters are such insulated as characters, it is very difficult for the writer to provide organic opportunities for self-reflection on the side of the lead female character. This does not include outright being told to change their ways by the writer’s mouthpiece. This can be solved if the lead female characters actually had real relationships that they could react to and learn things from them.

I mean get some friends!

All of these issues are solved by the “The Sisterhood around a coffee table”. You have lead characters who have real but non-demanding relationships between them. These characters interact with each other and share their joys and sorrows. These characters have opportunities to grow within the “Sisterhood”. In addition, this provides the writer with opportunities to use the plots of the other members as juxtaposition to a member’s own plot.

Another more story structural benefit of the “Sex and the City” format is that “The Sisterhood around a coffee table” imposes structure on to the storytelling. Korean dramas tend to be rather weak in terms of structure. The shows tend to just flow from one scene to another. As a result, they emanate a sense of meandering and indecisiveness on the part of both the characters and the writer. Thus, it is very difficult to shepherd the characters, as a writer, from one emotional condition to another without seeming as if it was arbitrary.  You cannot always use “Voice over” to explain the character’s emotional struggles and inner discussion going on within her head.

When you center the show around the “The Sisterhood around a coffee table”, there is a constant need for the sisterhood to meet up as a group since that relationship dynamic is the key to the show. This is imposes structure that helps frame the narrative and individual episodes.  By moving away from the “Sex and the City” format, this is what Korean drama is losing.

What is this show really?
So, why do I say that “Can we love?” (2014) is not a “Sex and the City” format?

In my introduction, I could not really put a finger on what this show wants to be. This is because each main character plot line is a slightly different Korean drama subgenre. The “Yoon Jung-Wan”(Divorcee) plot is the one of those mushy and irritating Korean romances in which the only reason that the relationship does not work is because the main character’s ability to do anything favorable to herself is pathetically low to the level of a wet abused dog that you take to the back yard and shoot. This type of story used to be pretty common in Korean culture since it could not accept any kind of female agency in a relationship. And the funny thing about this plot line is that the writer seems to be very easy on this character comparted to the others.

Why you ask?

This is where Korean dramas view on the female gender comes into play. Who is “Yoon Jung-Wan”(Divorcee)  as a character? She is a mother. She was relatively poor while she was married and is still poor now. From what we have seen in the show, she seems to have been a faithful wife while she was married. Those three are a plus in the eyes of the Korean drama audience. What is more of a plus is that there is no evidence that she had “SEX” before she got married the first time. This is the reason for the writer going easy on her. However, she still has to suffer for no good reason because she got divorced and the show has to be at least not boring.

“Kim Sun-Mi”(old single) and her story  is about the reconfirming the superiority of marriage and having kids over being single and successful in regards to the female gender. If you have seen a number of Korean dramas, you know the tale. Since “Kim Sun-Mi”(old single) is an old gal dating young guys without getting hitched, she needs to be  punished in the minds of the Korean drama audience. In addition, she needs to learn that the life most of the Korean drama’s audience has chosen is the one to take.

“Kwon Ji-Hyun”(Wife) and her story is a makjang show at heart. Her story has so many mines laid out initially, most viewers should expect losing a leg or two. While a character getting abused is basically the default mode of a  makjang show, “Kwon Ji-Hyun”(Wife) is not without sin. She had “SEX” before she got married!!! Also, she is a poor girl who married into a rich family. Thus, she is a gold digger. This is a double whammy. Well, at least in the eyes of the Korean drama audience.

These 3 separate stories have different tones to them that make it not easy combine. In case of the writer of “Can we love?” (2014), she did not even bother to try. It feels like these three different shows were awkwardly combined together. This is why this show is not fall into the “Sex and the City” format. Among this 20 episode show, there are less than 10 scenes with all three of the female leads in it. Even when you are just talking about two characters interacting, “Kwon Ji-Hyun”(Wife) plot feels totally separate. Separate from the “3 character in the same place” scenes, she only has about 10 scenes with both the other two characters combined. With “Yoon Jung-Wan”(Divorcee) and “Kim Sun-Mi”(old single), the only things that increased the number of scenes they have together are the awkward working together plot device and the whole forced “Because I am getting old and panicking” love triangle between  “Kim Sun-Mi”(old single), “Yoon Jung-Wan”(Divorcee), and the Divorcee’s admirer.

This lack of scenes together means that the 3 plots are only tied together with a little chewing gum and not the brand name ones. Thus,  “Can we love?” (2014) receives none of the benefits of “Sex and the City” format and gets all of the utter disappointments of leading the audience along with the possibility of being a “Sex and the City” format show.

The 7 episode hump
As a said previously, I was pleasantly surprised by “Can we love?” (2014) initially. More precisely, I was pleasantly surprised up to about episode 7. Afterwards, it was a rapid decline into the vapid mush for the show. This “episode 7 hump” is not something unique to “Can we love?” though.  Many Korean dramas have it and never recover.

Why is this so?

If you have a 16 to 20 episode miniseries on your hand, episode 7 is where the first act of a 3 act story ends and the second act starts going. This means that, before episode 7, the show was covering mostly setup. For a Korean drama, the setup portion is the easiest to get it well compared to the other acts. It is the portion with the least risk and the most preparation done by the writer. It is the portion where there is the least degree of courage on the part of the writer required. In contrast, after around episode 7 or so, you need to actually make serious decision regarding the characters and plots as a writer.

It is also where you actually need something to say about your characters.  Why are you writing about these characters? You need an answer for this question after around episode 7 or so. If not, it will show which is the case of “Can we love?” (2014).

While it is difficult to assign a specific designation of the genre to “Can we love?” (2014), it is at least a “Drama”. More accurately, it is a character drama. This means that there is no large scale plot to the show. It is just watching the characters do what they do and see where they are going. In this vein, “Can we love?” (2014) does not have much plot to it. The character story with the most plot is the “Kwon Ji-Hyun”(Wife) story but that is a makjang show at heart. In a way, makjang shows are like action shows as they are designed to have non-random story events going off. Comparatively, the other two plots are tranquil.

In dramas, since plot is not driving the narrative, the writer actually has to explore and say about the characters and the human condition they suffer from. This exploration is what drives the narrative. With “Can we love?” (2014), it is evident that the writer had nothing to say. And the writer cannot blame the premise of the show for this since it is not that there was nothing there to weave a narrative with. There were plenty.

Let’s talk about “Yoon Jung-Wan”(Divorcee). What can you say about dating and romance after once being married and failing at it? There is a lot to say about that human condition. Let’s talk about “Kim Sun-Mi”(old single). What can you say about dating, romance, and working as a single and never married 40 year old? Once again these are interesting and relevant to the present subjects. There is a lot to mine from the show’s premise.

However, you still have to have something to say about these subjects. With “Kwon Ji-Hyun”(Wife), it is a makjang plot line so you can get away with not actually having something to say. Thus, “Kwon Ji-Hyun”(Wife) story ends up being the least boring plot line of the “Can we love?” (2014). It is not good enough to carry the two other dead weight plot lines though.

The devolving of characters
If the show was just boring, “Can we love?” (2014) would not have pissed me off to the degree it actually did. The biggest middle finger to everyone the show gives is that it devolves of characters in front of our eyes over 13 episodes or so. “Yoon Jung-Wan”(Divorcee) was setup as an interesting character trying to regain her life and career after a fail marriage. You could see the determination and energy emanate on screen from the character.  She was played well by Eugene who does not have great range but does what she does nicely.

However, since the show had nothing for the character to do, “Yoon Jung-Wan”(Divorcee) is reduced to a wet rag. All of that determination and energy is gone from the character. It is really torture for the audience at that point to watch her. In the case of “Kim Sun-Mi”(old single), her character suffered less in this area since there were ironically more problems with her character from the start. Unlike “Yoon Jung-Wan”(Divorcee), her character starts devolving from episode 1. She is set up as this successful interior designer with a free love attitude. However, we never really get a chance to see this. There is a little free love stuff but no successful interior designer stuff.  Starting around episode 2 or so, she seems just desperately chasing any eligible guy she can find like a typical second lead in a Korea drama.  However, she is not a second lead. She is an equal lead in the show.

An interesting aspect of the “Kim Sun-Mi”(old single) story is that, at the tail end of the show, some of the successful interior designer stuff is introduced. This is in contrast with the “Yoon Jung-Wan”(Divorcee) story where the career aspect of her story disappears once the setup period is finished. While there are too few and is too late to save the “Kim Sun-Mi”(old single) story, it is the most interesting thing that story had to offer. It should have been the main focus of her plot line.

The endings
I have been discussing the “Yoon Jung-Wan”(Divorcee) and “Kim Sun-Mi”(old single) stories primarily since the “Kwon Ji-Hyun”(Wife) story works as a makjang show in comparison to the two other stories. The two other stories fail the launch and just pitters off. Thus, there is nothing interesting to say about them in regards to their endings.  “Kwon Ji-Hyun”(Wife) story is rather different since the ending is a letdown compared to what the previous parts were.

“Kwon Ji-Hyun”(Wife) story suffers from an issue makjang shows tend to have. They tend to alter the characters in accordance to the whims of the writer’s convenience.  “Kwon Ji-Hyun”(Wife) story has some late in the game character flip flop that do not make much sense.

I am trying to reduce spoilers in this discussion.

What made less sense was “Kwon Ji-Hyun’s ”(Wife) show ending response to this flip flop. Once you make a character cross a certain narrative bridge, that cannot be crossed back again, you should keep the character on that side and not magically return them to default mode just to make a happy ending.

Just saying.

Can we love?” (2014) is a mess of a show that really disappointed me. It could have been far better than it became. This show simply did not know what is was going to do and what it wanted to say from the start. If it wanted to do a makjang show, it should have just done a makjang show rather than having plot lines from slightly different Korean drama subgenres cobbled together. It is a shame since I liked the cast and the setup of the show.

I give “Can we love?” (2014) a score of a D+

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