It’s not a hyberbole to state that every K-drama watcher has probably watched at least one of the famous Seasons dramas. If a veteran K-drama watcher hasn’t, it’s likely they have heard exactly what constitutes a Seasons drama and has elected to pass on the experience. I say to them: bah, humbag!
To be a K-drama lover and not to have watched at least one, if not all, of the Seasons dramas is a hollow crown to wear. One cannot adequate understand why K-dramas have taken over Asia in the last decade until one has stepped a toe into the depths of modern K-drama lore. And the Seasons dramas are the very pinnacle of that lore.
The Genesis of the Seasons:
In a time long long ago, perhaps it was a dark and stormy night, a television producer-director opened a bottle of his finest cognac and sat before the burning fire to contemplate a plan to conquer the world through television. He wanted to give people something they had all seen before, but put together in a way that they wouldn’t be able to stop watching. Good or bad, groundbreaking or cliché, it didn’t matter. What mattered was that he was going to give them what they craved, craved deep inside their gut, craved in ways they didn’t even yet know what they were craving.
On September 18, 2000, producer-director Yoon Seok Ho unleashed his creation upon Korea, and soon it would descend upon the rest of the unsuspecting world. The creation was a drama called Autumn in My Heart, also known as Endless Love (“AiMH”). This drama was popular, with the Korean audience gobbling it up and asking for more. Yoon Seok Ho knew he had hit a diamond mine. Subsequently, he would diligently dig deeper to excavate more gaudy baubles for his insatiable clientele.
Two years later, Yoon Seok Ho unearthed his Hope Diamond. He put forth his greatest triumph, a drama called Winter Sonata (“WS”), though of course he had no idea at the time that THIS drama would be the pinnacle of his Seasons success. WS changed the perception and acceptance of K-dramas in Asia, and created a tidal wave of K-drama love called Hallyu that would flood the landscape of drama-watching outside of Korea.
After WS, Yoon Seok Ho followed up with alliterated Summer Scent (“SS”), and concluded his project with the beautifully named Spring Waltz (“SW”). These four dramas comprise the legacy which is the Seasons dramas. Yes, each drama is distinct and free-standing, requiring zero familiarity with the other three dramas to watch and enjoy. But it’s impossible for me to view them separately, I instinctively compare and contrast.
Everyone is always asked what their favorite Seasons drama is. I don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to deduct that the answer is almost always Winter Sonata. WS is neither my favorite Seasons drama, nor do I consider it the most well-made Seasons drama. The would be AiMH for the former, and SS for the latter (don’t worry, I’ll explain my reasoning behind both selections later). But hot-damn if I don’t acknowledge and agree that WS is easily the most addicting Seasons drama to watch.
Since writing a review of any of the Seasons dramas inevitably leads to referencing the other dramas in the oeuvre, I thought I’d do something different for a change. This is a review of all four Seasons dramas, but it’s not like any review you’ve ever seen from me.
I’m going to commit some reviewer faux-pas (such as doing a list), up-end some review etiquette (like being more subjective than objective), and generally saying it like it is (dialing up the snark, now). If you think any or all of the Seasons dramas are like the Holy Grail of television programs, I suggest you skip what’s coming. Because I don’t want to be accused of K-drama sacrilege, you’ve been forewarned.
The review will begin with an overview of each of the Seasons dramas, including all the now-standard and oft-used plot devices that back then were not so ubiquitous. I will follow up with some free-flowing commentary of these dramas, including how they stack up against each other. Now let’s get this show started!
AUTUMN IN MY HEART (2000)
Number of times watched by me: four.
Plot: Guy and girl grow up as the bestest pair of siblings in the whole wide world. They are raised by loving, not to mention wealthy, parents. Both are of course blessed to be smart, good looking, and kind. They also get along very very very well with each other. And yes, that is exactly what I am implying – get your head in that gutter, folks!
Unbeknownst to them, until a random truck-meets-bicycle accident involving the girl reveals the truth, the girl is not the guy’s real blood sister or the real blood daughter of the parents. She was switched at birth by the then toddler guy who wandered into the nursery and switched the babies name cards. Girl is actually the daughter of a now single mother who is poor beyond belief. As drama would have it, the two girls are in the same class and poor girl has always envied and resented rich girl’s blessed life.
This big discovery and switcheroo happens in junior high. The rich parents and the poor parent decide to switch the girls back. As opposed to not switching them because, you know, you’ve raised them for thirteen years and the girls are for all intents and purposes YOUR DAUGHTER in every way that matters. Anyways, I’m not casting stones, just saying is all.
Because it would be soooooo awkward to complete the princess and the pauper switch and have everyone living a stone’s throw away from each other, rich parents decide to emigrate to America and leave this land of sorrow behind (and leave their daughter in every way but blood behind – again, just pointing out a plot element).
In the meantime, it’s patently clear to every viewer, since we’re subjected to tons of lingering glances between the guy and the now-not-his-real-sister girl, that these two have feelings of the non-brother/sister-variety for each other. Which, if you’ve read my fauxcest post, normally I would have no problems with.
Except, like the giant pink elephant in the room, the writer decided to allude to this romantic development even before the big mix-up reveal, i.e. guy adores girl even believing she is his blood sister. You can argue all you want that this was never explicit, but I am not deaf, dumb, and blind. It was as clear as day guy adored his sister a tad toooo much for comfort, and girl liked guy a lot as well.
But in Seasons drama-land, this is all good. Because they are NOT brother-sister, you see. Their feelings, however theoretically icky, are given the green light to flourish for the ten-odd years the guy and girl are separated across an ocean deep.
A quick time jump later, the aforementioned years have passed and the girl is now working as a maid at a hotel. She has not attended college, instead moving from place-to-place with her family to escape creditors, and now has work to help out her impoverished family. Even more sucky for her, her real brother is a bully and a brute who is thisclose to selling his pretty sister to the highest bidder since the family has nothing of value left.
Adult guy comes back to Korea, now an art professor and an artist extraordinaire. He’s got a loving and solicitous girlfriend, albeit the passion between them is colder than Siberia in the dead of Winter. Guy has also made a new best friend during his stay in America, the playboy-esque and irresponsible heir to the hotel where girl is now working.
Within a few quick episodes, playboy heir has fallen in love with girl, girl has reunited with now-not-her-brother guy, and guy and girl commence with the world’s most awkward use of the “oppa.” Yup, guy and girl still love each other, in a romantical way, and they are going to plow through a million obstacles to be together if it kills them. How does it all end? Watch and find out.
Season – Autumn – The drama is filmed in shades of brown, ochre, yellows and oranges. The actors wear lots of Fall primary colors, including some whites and plaids. Since this is the first of the Seasons dramas, the emphasis on the Season is less in-your-face than its sucessors, but rather its interspersed in the background of many of the outdoor scenes.
VIP (Very Important Places) – Guy and girl have a special love of hanging out at a nearby beach. They go there right before their big separation as young teens. As adults, the beach is where the first reunion takes place. Let’s just say that dang beach is also really important at the end of the drama as well. A second VIP is a resort covered in Fall leaves, said resort being a place where the girl went to live for a few years with her real poor family, and later becomes a refuge and hideaway for the main couple.
First love – Oh heck yes – This is one drama that makes first love feel very icky, even if it later turns out to be okay. Nonetheless, this is a drama all about first love. I hazard a theory that the OTP’s love for each other deepened because of the forced separation, the desire to reunite with each other’s best friend precipitated this intensifying of their existing love into romantic love.
Psycho second leads – Only with respect to the second female lead, guy’s girlfriend/fiancée from America. She threatens to kill herself if guy didn’t stay with her. Way to set feminism back a century, lady!
Also, Han Chae Young makes an appearance as the secondary secondary female lead, the real daughter of the family. She’s pines for the second male lead (What? Like if she also liked guy then all hell would break even more loose, because she’s his real sister, remember), and is generally useless, walks around with a bitch face on, and just reveals pertinent information at crucial junctures.
With respect to the second male lead, guy’s best friend/playboy/hotel heir, the answer is an emphatic NO. If I took a head count, I’d say this is one drama that the majority of (sane) folks shipped the second male lead way more than the actual male lead. Which was not hard to so, since the second male lead was an interesting and ultimately very honorable character, and was played by none other than Mr. Dimples himself, Won Bin.
Obstacles to being together – Fauxcest, clingy second female lead, fauxcest, disease, faxucest, the possibility of girl realizing the second male lead is a hotter option, faxucest, social convention, fauxcest.
Is there Bad Family involved? – Yes, the parents of guy are horrible parents, who give up the daughter they raised for thirteen years because of a hospital mix-up, and don’t even check on her well-being afterwards. Whiny second female lead’s mother is a super-bitch who berates girl and guy when guy dumps her pathetic daughter. Girl’s real brother is a useless good-for-nothing lout who tries to sell girl to a lecherous old man.
Sigh, so what disease is it this time? – The pretty disease, i.e. the one where the diseased person can look wan and pale as a symptom of the disease, and do the spit up blood thing. It’s leukemia, people!
Can you feel the love? - So, guy is played by Song Seung Heon, and girl is played by Song Hye Kyo. I think the thrill of the fauxcest obscured many a viewers perception of this couple, but they have zero sexual romantic chemistry. Since you all know this is my favorite Seasons drama, this is saying something (like I am a glutton for punishment or I have bad taste, both of which are probably true). I did feel the love, all right. The entire time I felt like guy loved girl like she was his sister, yet both kept insisting it was romantic love. But yeah, I felt the strong love.
What does everyone look like? – This drama holds up the worst in terms of looking and feeling dated. Song Seung Heon’s Fall wardrobe is fine, though it makes him look really stuffy with the big jackets and the over-use of plaid. Song Hye Kyo was so young when she filmed this, she still had all her baby fat on her, and her wardrobe was just terrible in reflecting any beauty she had. She looked frumpy most of the time.
Won Bin looked great despite his loosely cut silk shirt and pleated slacks combos, which were probably en vogue a decade ago but now make him look vaguely like a gangster from Busan. Han Chae Young was saddled with the too much makeup, extra-emphasized lipstick, plus power suit combo – no one could pull that off, and neither did she.
Show me the bling! – The OTP doesn’t have any trinkets to mark their love for one another. They use less flashy accoutrements of their love. They have glazed coffee mugs made with each of their faces drawn on the side, and they exchange the mugs when they first separate as kids, so that each drinks out of the other’s face every morning.
Girl mentions that she wishes she could be a tree in the next life, so they she could remain in one place forever and never be uprooted. Guy remembers this, and the only reason he started dating clingy girlfriend in America was because she had the same sentiment (like I said, boy really really likes girl).
Soundtrack thoughts, please? – The title track is Reason. I loved it. It had a very Hayao Miyazaki sountrack vibe. The main instrumental theme is Romance.
WINTER SONATA (2002)
Number of times watched by me: three.
Plot: Guy arrives in a high school in the boondocks as a transfer student. Guy looks about 32 years old, but we gamely accept guy is a high school student. He is there to find his birth father, who he believes he has tracked down as a professor in the local university.
Guy is cold, rude, and anti-social. He meets girl on the bus and it’s mutual dislike at first glance. But being classmates, naturally many a random plot device will pop up to force girl and guy to spend time together. The dislike gradually transform into mutual like, well on its way to love in about a snowball fight, a few bike rides, and a piggyback later. However, tragedy strikes, and guy is supposedly killed in a freak accident, leaving girl waiting dejectedly in the snow for her guy to (never) show up for their date.
Years pass, the girl is now an architect, soon-to-be engaged to her longtime boyfriend, the second male lead who has loved girl since their high school days. Suddenly, girl sees a guy on the street who looks just like guy (and I mean just like guy, since they didn’t use child actors for the high school portion).
This is a prelude to girl meeting guy again, who now has a new name, new memory, and new hair color (orange, bright bright orange!). Turns out guy’s evil momma hid the fact that guy survived the accident, took advantage of his memory loss, and shipped him off to France. All to prevent guy from tracking down his birth father, and revealing her whorish ways years ago.
Guy is now a real estate developer, and is also the boyfriend of second female lead, another classmate from their high school years. Guy hires girl’s architectural firm to design a new ski resort he is building, thereby creating a million and one reasons for them to spend time together. And a billion and one scenes of girl staring at guy wondering if he’s her first love or just his face-twin.
Guy re-falls in love with girl, who agonizes over whether to dump her wet-noodle boyfriend and re-shack up with guy-who-looks-like-guy-but-doesn’t-know-he’s-guy. Thankfully, for them and for us (I didn’t know how much will-they-or-won’t-they waffling I could put up with much longer), they decide to give it a go. And we’re off to some hanky-panky time!
Oh, opps, wrong drama, this one has no hanky-panky beyond the chaste closed-mouth-cuz-your-breath-smells type of kiss. Guy and girl start dating, the wet-noodle now-ex-boyfriend decides to try to kill himself in his despair over losing girl. Girl decides to go back to the loser, and guy decides to leave this land of sorrow, also known as Korea.
Before he leaves, he conveniently unearths evidence that he is in fact the guy everyone keeps saying he looks like, and regains his memory. He inadvertently divulges the information to girl, who tracks him down at the airport. The lovers reunite (yet again) this time with the realization of each other’s true identity and memory of each other.
However, all is still not well in Winter wonderland. Evil momma of guy descends once more to wreak havoc. She tells guy that he cannot be with girl, because she is his half-sister! She alleges that girl’s daddy knocked her up then dumped her for girl’s mommy. I mean, c’mon, after all that faux-death and memory loss and suicidal ex-boyfriends nonsense, evil momma dares to throw fauxcest at our OTP? Yes, she does dare indeed.
Guy agonizes over continuing this alleged incesty relationship, but it is soon revealed to be a big fat lie concocted by evil momma to prevent her son from marrying the daughter of the man she loved but who did not love him back. Guy is actually indeed the son of the university professor he suspected long ago, and coincidentally the half-brother of girl’s wet-noodle ex-boyfriend.
But wait! Did you think it would be that easy for our OTP? They haven’t suffered enough juuuuust yet. Another plot twist is coming right around the corner – I would tell you what it is if it didn’t *cough* blind me *cough*. Will all be well in the land of perpetual Winter? You’ll have to watch the find out.
Season – Winter – the drama is filmed in shades of white, gray, blues, blacks and dark greens. The cold Winter backdrop is used everywhere (literally half the drama is filmed in the falling snow), sometimes even stealing the scene from the actors.
VIP (Very Important Places) – The two key locations depicting the wintry landscape is the frozen in Winter lake where the couple used to go on chaste dates, and the ski resort where they reignite their passions.
First love – Oh lordy yes – this is also one drama all about first love. Girl loved a guy she only met for a short while in high school. So much so she pined for him for nearly a decade, and then proceeded to stare holes at his orange-haired doppelganger. It was quite alright, since it turned out the orange-haired one was in fact guy himself.
Psycho second leads – Yes, both were pretty psycho, but one kinda lost steam midway and called it quits (that would be the not-quite-as-psycho-as-we-thought second female lead). The second male lead, on the other hand, took psycho and masochism to the extreme. Whining, cajoling, pressuring, and when all else failed, attempted suicide.
Obstacles to being together – Memory loss, clingy second male lead, fauxcest, disease, social convention.
Is there Bad Family involved? – Oh you bet your dollar there is! Guy’s evil momma is a horrible excuse for a human being. She lies, manipulates, and controls guy’s entire life for her own selfish desires. Clingy second male lead’s mom is a hoity-toity future mother-in-law from hell. Girl’s mother is okay, except when she tried to convince girl to marry clingy second male lead for family honor reasons.
Sigh, so what disease is it this time? – The result is blindness. I’m not sure exactly what type of injury caused the blindness, but it was due to the car accident(s).
Can you feel the love? – So, guy is played by Bae Yong Joon, and girl is played by Choi Ji Woo. They had lots of chemistry. Their chemistry during the high school years was of the banter and flirty variety, and in the adult years was the simmering and suffering variety. Everyone felt the love, hence this is rightfully the most popular Seasons drama. You can’t deny the love, regardless of the inanity of the setup.
What does everyone look like? – This drama holds up the best in terms of wardrobe for the main guy. Bae Yong Joon’s wardrobe of Winter coats, sports casual attire, scarf after scarf, was spot on and emphasized his most attractive qualities as a leading man.
Choi Ji Woo’s myriad jeans, turtleneck, and overcoat ensembles were all dreadfully dull, but matched her character’s equally dull personality.
Park Sol Mi as the second female lead was the epitome of the Korean rich young woman look, with rich red lips ringed by visible lip liner, over-coiffed hair, and perfectly matched ensembles that looked anything but classy (give me a holler for nouveau riche, everyone). Park Yong Ha’s wardrobe wasn’t memorable in the least, either good or bad – which means he looked just fine.
Show me the bling! – Can there be anything else more romantic or shiny than the Polaris Necklace? Guy tells girl about the North Star – Polaris – girl subsequently names her architecture firm Polaris – guy later gives her a necklace symbolizing said star formation. Guy seems to like scarves a lot, and he gives girl his scarf to keep her warm, and also to mark his territory (my words, not his).
Soundtrack thoughts, please? – The title track is My Memory. It was nice, and fit the Wintry mood very well. But it does sound like a lot of the K-drama ballads out there, not particularly unique. The main instrumental theme is Moonlight Sonata.
SUMMER SCENT (2003)
Number of times watched by me: two.
Plot: In the moist heat of Summertime, a guy likes to wear tank tops to show off his newly acquired guns (of the muscular arm variety). Guy is also mourning the passing of his fiancée, who died in a tragic car accident. Classy and gentle girl is grateful for a second chance at life after a heart transplant.
One serendipitous Summer hike strands guy and girl overnight in a cabin. They sense some weird tension, setting the stage for some only-in-a-K-drama events to occur. Turns out girl’s shiny new heart formerly resided in the chest cavity of guy’s dead fiancée.
Girl is a floral designer, and is almost engaged to her longtime boyfriend. Said boyfriend hires guy, who is an architect, to renovate his company’s summer resort. Boyfriend’s younger sister also turns out to have met guy years ago, and has an unrequited love on guy. The resort renovation gives girl and guy mondo opportunities to hang out and keep pushing the boundaries of their growing interest in each other. And everyone around them suspects it, but keeps hoping nothing more will come of it.
Their working relationship yields many cloaked conversations masking hidden attraction. But the beautiful resort allows them to spend an evening dancing barefoot in the grassy field, and one accidental overnight trip to an island. Both are trying very hard to behave appropriately, but their hearts betray them. Before long, both have admitted their feelings for each other.
A self-aborted rape later, girl and her longtime boyfriend end things for good, and girl and guy give their relationship a go. Only to discover that girl has guy’s dead fiancée’s heart, leading guy and girl to doubt their feelings for each other.
Well, first the guy discovers this fact, spends an episode agonizing over it, and tries to break up with girl. But girl convinces him they really love each other. Then girl discovers this fact, spends an episode agonizing over it, tries to break up with guy. But guy tries convinces her they really love each other, but girl doesn’t buy this argument since she just used it herself on guy earlier (way to recycle the plot WITHIN a drama, writer!).
Does guy love girl because she is girl, or because she carries the heart of the woman he loved. Does girl love guy because he is guy, or is her new heart controlling her emotions because it contains residual love for guy. Will guy and girl find out what their hearts truly want? Will guy take off his sleeveless top at least once since its so hot that Summer? (The answer is yes to that last question). You’ll have to watch the find out.
Season – Summer – The drama is filmed in shades of greens, pale yellows, pinks, and light browns. The PD kind of over did it on the lens filter, but the drama is framed in a very evocative mood of humidity and softness.
VIP (Very Important Places) – The two main settings for this drama are the Tea Fields where the dead fiancée’s parents live (and where the OTP visit together and individually time and again to pay respect to the parents), and the Summer resort where the guy is hired to renovate and the girl is hired to design the floral arrangements.
First love – Kinda, sorta, yes – this is the one Seasons drama where the leads DO NOT meet in their youth and re-united later to reignite their love. The first love of this drama centers around guy’s dead fiancée. Also, less symbolically meaningful but a more living breathing construct, around girl’s longtime boyfriend, whom she has dated since high school.
Psycho second leads – I disliked the second leads because they were dull and tepid, but neither stood out much as a true threat. Girl’s boyfriend tries desperately to using logic and reason to convince girl her feelings for guy is a passing fancy (yeah, good luck with that, dude). When it fails, he then tries to guilt trip her. After guy and girl discover the recycled heart issue, boyfriend is conveniently is around to comfort her when she discovers her heart apparently has a mind of its own.
The second female lead is wasted, she just bounces around being annoying like a mosquito in Summer, doing nothing of purpose except to reveal information to advance the plot. However, I do have an Easter Egg with respect to the second female lead – Kang Ji Hwan is in SS for about five seconds in the last episode as the man the second female lead eventually marries (props to him pulling off the orange hair – and oh God what I would have given to have him play either the lead or the second male lead).
Obstacles to being together – Clingy second male lead, uncertain heart syndrome, recurring heart disease, mild social convention.
Is there Bad Family involved? – Not much, just a smidge. Second male lead’s mom is the requisite horror of a woman who wants her son to get everything he wants. Otherwise, this drama is a veritable congregation of good parents, from guy’s thoughtful mother to dead fiancée’s gentle parents.
Sigh, so what disease is it this time? – Heart disease! And if the story is to be believed, there is hoo doo involved as well, what with a heart remembering the person said heart’s former owner loved.
Can you feel the love? – So, guy is played by Song Seung Heon (in his second Seasons drama), and girl is played by Son Ye Jin. They had negative chemistry, much to my everlasting disappointment (but as a couple they are visually perfectly matched – from their height, gorgeous cheekbones, and kissable pouts).
But Son Ye Jin had chemistry with everything around her, from the moist summer air, to the damp summer dew, to the grass beneath her feet, to the flowers she arranges. She had enough chemistry for the both of them. She was the best lead actor in any of the Seasons dramas, bar none.
What does everyone look like? – Heh heh heh, this is going to be fun. Let’s start with the good, not surprising its Son Ye Jin again. Her character was dressed perfectly – mostly airy tops, flowy mid-length skirts, and short heels. Her hair was loosely tied back, but there was always a few strands that framed her face in that sticky Summer heat way. I think Son Ye Jin looks absolutely drop-dead beautiful in this drama, and if you add to it her exquisitely nuanced acting, together it just made me develop the most inappropriate woman-crush on her after watching SS.
Song Seung Heon has singlehandedly THE WORST wardrobe and hairstyle of any lead in a Seasons drama (and of any production I have ever watched of his). It was grotesque and not fair – he had permed orange hair and wardrobes consisting of mostly sleeveless shirts in a random range of patterns (including a sleeveless black & white polka dots shirt that made him look like a dalmation, and a multi-color striped one that even my drapery wouldn’t be caught dead using as curtains).
I think the lack of chemistry between them was exacerbated by Son Ye Jin being unable to emote to the tableau before her that was such a poorly style Song Seung Heon. Or maybe not. The second male lead, played by Ryu Jin, had a great wardrobe, considering he pretty much only wore suits for the entire twenty episodes (I think that’s a record or something).
Han Ji Hye as the second female lead fared worse, she constantly wore shorter than short tight skirts and tank tops, in mismatched colors. She looked like she was auditioning for a role as a hooker, but all in all it was passable considering it did not make me want to poke my eyes out with a hot poker the way Song Seung Heon was made to look in this drama.
Show me the bling! – Guy and his dead fiancée each owns half of a Soul Fragrance Necklace, which can be combined to form one necklace (it’s like an inter-locking couple ring for the neck). Guy and girl don’t have any mementos of each other, other than their mysterious heart beats which quicken when they are around one another. Hey, their bling is inside their heart! Take that, Polaris Necklace and coffee mug!
Soundtrack thoughts, please? – The title track is Secret. I absolutely loved it. It’s my favorite title track from all the Seasons dramas. It’s got a light effervescence to it, with a lilting chorus that is delightful and sweetly haunting. It also has a faint beat that floats through the background that is akin to a heartbeat, which is very apt and unique. The main instrumental theme is Serenade.
SPRING WALTZ (2006)
Number of times watched by me: one and a half (and the half is just to refresh my memory to write this review, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered).
Plot: Guy is the son of a ne’er-do-well swindler in Seoul, who moves them to a small island to escape his enemies. On the island, young guy meets young girl, and it’s first love blossoming along with the lush verdant green fields. Tragedy strikes when guy’s father steals the money girl’s mother was saving for a surgery needed to save girl’s life. When searching for guy’s father, girl’s mother is killed in a car accident.
Guy and girl go to Seoul to find guy’s father and girl’s mother. Guy is mistaken by a rich grief-stricken mother for her deceased son. To comfort his wife, the rich father agrees to pay for girl’s surgery if guy agrees to come live with them as their son. Guy decides to accept the offer, and leaves with the rich couple to go live in Austria, assuming a new identity. Girl is saved by the surgery, and adopted by her aunt and changes her last name.
Years pass, and the now adult girl travels to Austria for a trip. During the trip, she meets guy, who is now a world-renowned pianist and a grade-A surly ass (what with feelings of self-loathing, and loss of identity percolating within his psyche). There is mutual attraction and mutual dislike. Once guy hears her name, he thinks she could be his first love. But her new last name disabuses him of that notion, along with being told falsely that girl died in the surgery.
Guy’s manager and best friend is also in love with girl, and there is the requisite second female lead who is in love with guy (or more accurately, she was in love with the dead son, and now thinks guy is said boy she fell in love with as a kid). The group travels back to Korea. Guy is back to record a piano album for his motherland, and girl is hired to be his tour guide. All sorts of non-happenings occur to bring them together enough times for guy and girl to develop and admit their feelings for each other.
They try to give this relationship a go, pissing the second leads off, as well as the rich parental units who do not want the real identity of guy revealed. Guy and girl later discover each other’s real identities. Can their love triumph over….nothing much in the way of any meaningful obstacles? You’ll just have to watch and find out.
Season – Spring (with a smattering of Winter during the scenes filmed in Austria) – the drama is filmed in shades of whites, yellows, pinks, and greens. The scenes in Austria are lyrical but harsh, evoking the coldness of the characters inner mood. It sets the tone for the transition to the Spring scenes in Korea to create the mood of thawing and rebirth of love and connection.
VIP (Very Important Places) – The major locales used in this drama are the piano room since guy is a concert pianist, and the island with the lovely yellow flowers where guy first met girl.
First love – A very big yes – guy and girl have a sweet first-blush-of-youth relationship as kids, which lays the foundation for their loving each other based on taking care of each other and being there for each other. They re-fall in love as adults without being certain of each other’s identity, leading credence that their love is genuine. When they later realize each other’s identity, it further solidifies their love for each other.
Psycho second leads – The second male lead was played by Daniel Henney, and probably to treat the paragon of facial perfection with respect, his character was perfectly normal. He was sweet, attentive, considerate, but jealous and angry when the situation aptly called for it. He’s the only second male lead to seem like a real human being (even Won Bin’s character in AiMH was rather dramatically constructed). Too bad girl didn’t like him instead of guy. I liked him a whole lot more than guy.
Second female lead was played by Lee So Yeon, who was not just bitchy, she was totally pathetic, with her fixation on memories of a first love when the guy didn’t show any real emotion towards her as an adult. I felt sorry for her, because being her sucked big time. But she was not psycho enough to do anything threatening to the OTP.
Obstacles to being together – Mistaken identity, disease, class barriers, social convention.
Is there Bad Family involved? – Somewhat, but not enough to be truly scary. Guy’s swindler father is a real bastard, but he has his reasons, and ultimately he pays his dues. Guy’s adopted parents are a sad and sorry pair, with the father bargaining with a young child over saving the life of a young girl in order to buy his agreement to act as his son, and the mother unable to let go of her real son’s death.
Sigh, so what disease is it this time? – Er, sorry, but I really don’t know. All I know is that it’s a bad disease that can only be cured through special surgery. Luckily it’s dealt with early on.
Can you feel the love? – So, guy is played by Seo Do Young and girl is played by Han Hyo Joo. They had good chemistry, but it’s not anything to write home about. Both were newbie actors, and they really weren’t able to elevate their characters into anything more meaningful than the script provided.
It really hurt them that their characters were very hastily sketched out. I never got a good grip on their personalities or defining traits. It was all a big blank, and they merely reacted and posed convincingly in scene after scene. Granted, they tried hard, and looked good. But there was a superficiality to their characters that prevented any real chemistry to form and for the audience to connect with them as a couple.
What does everyone look like? – Everyone looked fine (really, they looked great so I won’t discuss since this drama is recent enough the looks haven’t even gone out of fashion as I am typing), except for poor Han Hyo Joo. Her wardrobe was probably meant to make her look artsy and eclectic. Instead she looked like a cross between the pigeon lady of Central Park and the hobo of the Lower East Side.
She wore a lot of green and yellows, and was constantly mismatched. But since everyone else was dressed normally and professionally, you could say that she singlehandedly used her wardrobe to convey the meaning of Spring – if Spring was a mélange of different outfits eaten by the Cookie Monster and then spat out onto Han Hyo Joo’s person.
Show me the bling! – Girl is a jewelry and trinket designer. As a child she glued gee gaws on seashells, and that is how guy initially suspects her identity when he meets her in Austria and he sees her gift of a bling-encrusted seashell to the second male lead.
Soundtrack thoughts, please? – The title track is One Love. It’s a tinkling, mellow track, with a piano overture and a simple spirit that captures a Spring day in a field of blooming flowers. It’s lovely and beautiful in its message and its melody. The main instrumental theme is Clementine.
Let’s Look At The Big Picture:
The Seasons Dramas can be viewed individually. Once you’ve watched all four, I think it can be insightful to view them on a macro-level as one entity. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a K-drama, or any drama, pick a theme first and structure a story around said theme. I have seen dramas attempt to write in a portion of the story around an overseas locale to squeeze that bit of eye-candy into the finished product.
Story or Mood – Is it the Chicken or the Egg:
In AiMH, I came away feeling like the Autumn season was merely used as a convenient backdrop, to help coordinate colors for the wardrobe, and to select a location to use as a special place for the OTP to find refuge. The season of Autumn itself was not integral to the drama, nothing about the plot suggests the characters are in the waning days of their lives, heading towards the moment when their youth ends and their Winter days begin.
All four Seasons dramas are exceedingly melancholy, so this mood isn’t unique to AiMH. I felt like Yoon Seok Ho got a proto-typical Korean melodrama script, and when planning out his scene and shot selections, elected to set it squarely in the season of Autumn. And voila, AiMH was born! Whether my assumption is correct or not, AIHM as a story and character development has the least to do with its namesake Season than all of its successors.
In WS, the entire drama is set in the Winter landscape, and it was thisclose to becoming free advertising for a certain ski resort. Again, the story doesn’t have anything to do with Winter, per se, but the cold and icy mood is emphasized to show Bae Yong Joon in a succession of scarves and speaking with sexy ice blowing from his breath. I kid, of course, I thought the consistent use of the Winter backdrop was exceptionally well done, and beautiful to look at.
It’s hard to make Winter seem sexy, since the characters are dressed in more layers than a mummy and constantly look like their noses are about to fall off due to frost bite when filming outdoors. I don’t know how Yoon Seok Ho did it, but he managed to film his OTP in a way as to preserve their chemistry and heat with each other even in the blistering cold. Their layers of covering only emphasized the illicit nature of their attraction to each other.
For SS, Summer is where the air literally gets suffused with the scent of the Season. The name for this drama is very well selected. The execution was also exceptionally well done. All the action takes place squarely within the confines of the hot, muggy, and romance-laden mood of Summer – people didn’t just coin the phrase Summer Fling for no reason.
Son Ye Jin looked about ready to experience a mind-blowing love affair with her entire persona and demeanor suffused with the headiness of a woman encountering an undeniable attraction to a man. Too bad my Song Seung Heon was styled like a cross between Pepe Le Pew stained with the left-over hair dye from Bae Yong Joon’s can of orange hair coloring from WS. Nonetheless, the scenes of the two of them damp and longing for each other was very well-framed and filmed.
In SW, I really walked away feeling like Yoon Seok Ho finally abandoned any well-crafted story for the sake of satisfying the presentation of the Season. This drama had the weakest script and the least compelling story. But Spring was used in the most integral manner to the story. As a viewer, I can safely say that I prefer the other approach vastly more. At the end of the day, the story is vastly more important to the drama than the beautiful framing shots and the perfect backdrops.
Spring Waltz is akin to a moving Gainsborough painting. Which defeats the purpose of a K-drama, but nonetheless is gorgeous to view. As I mentioned earlier, SW is also the one Seasons drama to go beyond its titular season and contains many scenes shot in Winter. Yes, most of those are the overseas scenes filmed in Austria, but this extends beyond Winter quick-cutting into Spring once the group returns to Korea.
Yoon Seok Ho elected to have the early portions of the Korea scenes shot as to emphasize that Winter is slowing melting into Spring, with the characters slowly shedding their cold weather garb and donning the colors and fabrics of the burgeoning season of growth and rejuvenation. He aligns the Seasonal progression with his story. Especially about how Seo Do Young’s character is as closed and cold as Winter, only to gradually melt away his icy exterior when he reunites with his first love Han Hyo Joo.
What Do You Recommend?:
I’ve said it and I’ll say it again: the undisputed most popular Seasons drama is Winter Sonata. If you’ve never watched any of the Seasons dramas, I would suggest starting with that one. Why? Because it’s the most addicting to watch, with the plot moving steadily forward in some semblance of momentum. It’s also the only one of the Seasons dramas where the OTP actually have chemistry with each other.
Much as I love to mock Bae Yong Joon, there is a reason his performance in WS incited housewives all over Japan into fits of hysteria. It probably also resulted in many Japanese husbands dying their hair orange and donning a pair of rectangle glasses in order to get some action from their wives. I personally liked Bae Yong joon’s performance in Hotelier more, but in WS he was definitely still at the height of his game as a leading man.
He also got lucky with scoring Choi Ji Woo as a co-star. She has the ability to stare deeply at her leading man for hours, not unlike a tiger staring at its antelope prey in the safari. The Seasons dramas need a leading lady who has no self-awareness of the camera and only a heightened awareness of her co-star. Choi Ji Woo has that ability (though Son Ye Jin has it even more – hence I crown her the best actress amongst the four leading ladies – and Han Hyo Joo has the least comfort level with the camera, which I don’t fault her with since she was such a newbie at that time).
Whereas the other three Seasons dramas more or less has only one or maybe two reasons for the OTP not to be together, WS is chock-a-block with reasons both big and small for keeping our poor lovelorn lovers apart. As a drama-watcher, one of the things I despise are repetition and draggy storylines, and WS has the least in that aspect (but conversely, WS has the most WTF plot developments – eh, we must take the good with the bad, chingus).
However, if you don’t mind bad acting, lack of chemistry between the OTP, or a wafer thin plot, the other Seasons dramas are also worth checking out. With AiMH, you get to make the acquaintance of a very young Moon Geun Young in her drama debut. I don’t think I’m being snide when I say that without Moon Geun Young’s marvelous performance as the younger version of Song Hye Kyo’s character, some people would likely have dropped AiMH. Her performance was raw and natural, captivating the audience into a storyline that was patently ridiculous from the get-go.
By the time she completed her scenes in AiMH, most viewers were hooked and was going to finish this puppy no matter what. It was a vast disappointment when Song Hye Kyo took over. Her performance was stiff, stilted, and morose, though she did continue to improve as the drama progressed, providing her best portrayal at the end.
Another reason to watch AiMH is that it is one of the few dramas Won Bin has ever starred in (and probably the only one that can be easily tracked down these days). You all know I’m an avowed Song Seung Heon lover, but I have to admit that Won Bin looked hotter and had the better character in AiMH. He was the reformed bad boy who loved Song Hye Kyo with his entire heart, and proved to be selfless and strong when things went to hell in a hand basket. In comparison, Song Seung Heon’s character was kind of a weeny (but I still love him!).
The only enjoyment to be derived from SS boils down to one thing and one thing only: Son Ye Jin. Yes, I know I sound like I’m her publicist or something (I’m not). But she truly was the only exceptional piece of this entire drama – which has a pretty preposterous storyline with the heart-that-subliminally-recognizes-its-beloved mysticism and the lack of any interesting, exciting, or meaningful plot to move the drama forward.
Except for the initial meet-cute of our OTP (which I loved – he rescues her when she’s lost in the woods during a Summer hike), SS devolved into a prolonged stare-fest between Song Seung Heon and Son Ye Jin, with the plot being so tedious and plodding I was snoozing between scenes. But if you are in the mood for a drama that will make you think of Summer, like you want to sit outside on the porch with a giant glass of iced sweet tea, SS is the perfect drama.
I really have a hard time recommending SW. If someone did a screen cap montage of the drama, I would be the first to recommend it. It’s beautiful to look at. But the acting was across the board dreadful (Daniel Henney being not even the worse actor in the bunch, which is saying something – though he still couldn’t give a convincing line reading if his life depended on it, and really took giant steps back from his charming if rough performance in My Name is Kim Sam Soon).
With bad acting, you need the story to step up and make up for the deficiency, and in SW the story was as terrible as the acting. It was nearly as boring as SS, but without a Son Ye Jin to bring the plodding material to life. I’ve heard that SW was the least well-received of the Seasons dramas, and I can believe that. It’s my personal least favorite, but of course I have made the determination based on my own idiosyncrasies. You definitely need to take my recommendations with a grain of salt, and make your own preferences after you watch one or all of the Seasons dramas.
Well-Made vs. Well-Loved:
I mentioned earlier that I think Summer Scent is the most well-made of all the Seasons dramas, though I also think it ranks in the bottom two in terms of providing enjoyment and angst. What I mean by well-made refers to the drama being as close to the avowed ideal as Yoon Seok Ho was aiming for when he created these works.
Yoon Seok Ho started off integrating the season sporadically in AiMH, and then went a dash overboard in using it too much in WS. I felt like SS was the perfect culmination of structuring a story around the mood and evocative feel of a certain season. When I watch SS, I feel like I can almost smell the dense moist air of the Tea Fields, I can feel my nape getting damp, I can hear the crickets chirping in the distance.
Summer is also the season most people associate with the emotion of love. Summer is when love blooms, lovers flourish. What seems okay under the cold Winter glare now seems magical under the soft Summer breeze. I wished the story behind SS was a lot more interesting and compelling, because directorial-wise Yoon Seok Ho was really on top of his game here. There are many scenes in SS that are visually stunning, and the camera is both quiet and unobtrusive when necessary, and active and participating when the scene requires it.
In terms of well-made, WS is a close second for me, but SS’s visual symmetry and full immersion into the Season in a delicate and never overwrought manner tips the scales in its favor. If you can overlook a boring storyline, SS is worth checking out for its wonderful cinematography.
My personal favorite of all the Seasons dramas is Autumn in My Heart. It’s the one I’ve re-watched the most times. I think I love it because the story is interesting (unlike SS and SW) without being overly ridiculous (which WS starts to skirt in that direction by the end). I also like both male leads, a lot. And I like the sadness and melancholy of the story.
Yes, all that fauxcest is squicky if I think about it, but I just block it from my brain and choose to focus on their sad love story. Though Song Seung Heon and Song Hye Kyo didn’t have sensual romantic chemistry, I did believe that they genuinely loved one another, very much so. And at the end of the day, it’s just my opinion. I like it because I like it.
As a whole, the Seasons dramas are well-made and nowhere as terrible as some detractors are wont to say. WS became so popular it was inevitable that there would be a backlash. I think WS is neither as good as its popularity would indicate, not as terrible as its haters allege. It’s still an entertaining drama to watch, nothing more, nothing less.
Compared to most K-dramas in the romance and/or melodrama genre, the Seasons dramas are probably less compelling story-wise. Conversely, the presentation is given much more thought and effort. You make your own determination as to whether that sounds interesting to you.
Don’t Wait, the Sell-By Dates Are A-Coming:
It’s now been a full decade since the first Seasons drama aired. Since then, the K-drama scene has exploded onto the world’s consciousness, and easily conquered all of Asia. Though the height of its popularity may be behind it, K-dramas are here for good, and will likely continue to evolve and entertain the legions of drama lovers worldwide.
The Seasons dramas, however, have been carved in stone. The passing of time changes them not a whit. Only we, the viewer, continue to grow and evolve. The expiration dates of these dramas are quickly coming to pass. Visually, viewers have a harder time watching something dated and feeling the same rush of emotions. We’re constantly thinking instead: my god, what a fugly outfit, dear lord what is that monstrosity on his head, or please for the love of the almighty you can kiss better than THAT!, etc.
I believe the sell-by-dates of each of the Seasons dramas mirror their release dates, and AiMH’s expiration date is looming on the horizon. We expect full blown make out scenes in our dramas, we expect our lead characters to feel more flesh and blood rather than perfect caricatures, we long for the emotional release that comes from a natural pairing rather than an agony-filled torturous process. In short, we now prefer genuine and complicated characters and plausible situations, and the Seasons dramas do not have that.
The Seasons dramas typically eschew deep character development and humanism for the melo and the angst. As a member of the viewing audience, I can sense a slow and steady shift away from the rabid consumption of highly theatrical melodramas and more towards dramas that evoke a connection with our real lives and more mellow feelings. Fewer genuine melodramas are being made these days because the audience taste has evolved (the last big melos were Bad Love and Will It Snow For Christmas, and both got a somewhat lukewarm reception).
I think it’s now or never, guys. In five years, the Seasons dramas will feel as quaint as grandma’s old quilt. It’s not a very hefty watch commitment to check one out. I watched bits of SS and parts of SW on fast forward when I couldn’t take the mental torture anymore. Pick a Season, and fast forward when you get bored. After you’re done with one of these babies, you can certifiably feel like you’ve really gotten a taste of Hallyu.
I’m sure most of you have watched all, some, or at least one of the Seasons dramas, so my entreaties are probably moot. But I’m a creature of sentimentality. As maudlin as these dramas were wont to be, with clichés and Korean cultural tropes galore, it truly did bring K-dramas to the non-Korean drama viewers. I accord the Seasons dramas the respect it deserves, because drama watching is intended for mass-market entertainment. Just because a drama is not seminal or exquisitely well-crafted doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed.
I hope you got some chuckles out of my meandering review of the Seasons dramas. Let me know which one is your favorite of the bunch. Even if you’ve never did watch all four, feel free to leave an opinion. Don’t worry if it appears that I hated the one you loved, because I’m pretty sure I’m the only person in the known universe who loves AiMH the most. But do let me know why you liked it. Who knows, I may get an itch to re-watch any one of the Seasons dramas, and I’d love to look at it from a different perspective.