Alone in Love is a gem of a show. It is thoughtful, gentle, and entertaining. The more I think about it, the more I’m struck by just how quietly and unpretentiously awesome this show is. I’m so grateful that there are treasures like this show in our archives. Just as I find myself getting harder to please and grumpier as a k-drama viewer, I watch a show like this and I fall in love with k-drama all over again.
(This review is non-spoilery. As usual, I’m more interested in the show than in its plot.)
It used to be that Korean television was associated with weepy melodramas. Now it seems that the auntie/fangirl-conquering power of the trendy drama has shifted the popular perception of Korean television to romance. And the industry is been more than happy to oblige, by stuffing its fanbase with wish fulfilment and lazy stereotypes, so much so that most of us can probably write our own trendy romcom by making random selections off a pre-set menu of romcom tropes.
Personally, if I wanted to make a quality Korean tv show, I’d steer well clear of romance. I’d choose instead a story about investigating paranormal activities in Joseon, say, or a political thriller, or whatever. Anything but falling in love and falling out of love, which is just too riddled with cliches. So it is all the more remarkable that Alone in Love swims in the murky (and crowded) pond of lurve and still manages to elevate itself into art. And it does so without appearing to try too hard to do so.
Take the soundtrack, for instance. It’s so unobstrusive I hardly notice its presence, until I realize that I’m playing it in my head whenever I think about the characters’ journeys of the heart. Here, have a listen to my favourite track, which is just a piano solo, simple but evocative:
Alone in Love is romantic without being silly or gratuitous. It has a plot that doesn’t indulge in gimmicks or stretch credulity, and at the same has enough legs to propel us forward. It tells its story from the heart, taking its time to unfold in an organic fashion. It is funny without being slapstick. It is moving without being manipulative. It is insightful without being precious. The result is an intelligent k-romcom. Who would have thought such a thing could exist!
The more I notice about the effortlessness of Alone in Love’s grace, the more I realize how much care and effort went into making it so. In a complex artistic enterprise such as television-making, so much could have gone wrong. Plot, dialogue, music, directing, acting, editing, etc. all need to come together in a harmonious vision.
The bedrock is usually a thoughtful script. For without plot, dialogue and characters that make sense, every other aspect (directing, acting, music, etc.) is horribly hamstrung and the overall product doomed to lack substance.
Even with a good script in hand, so much can still go wrong. This year’s Wild Romance is the case in point. It was also scripted by the divine screenwriter Park Yeon Seon. Both Alone in Love and Wild Romance are populated by believable and interesting people rather than cardboard stock characters or objects of wish fulfillment. Both have plots which are generally sensible (though Wild Romance has an indulgently high-pitched moment or two) and are quite interesting in the way they flesh out the human condition. Both benefit from decent acting, though in the case of Wild Romance that was rather patchy whereas the luckier Alone in Love had fine acting across the board.
But there the paths of the dramas diverge. For Wild Romance was severely hobbled by manic and ham-fisted directing, including some of the most egregious music direction that has ever assaulted my ears. Alone in Love, on the other hand, was blessed by a PD who understood and trusted the writer, and who had the confidence to let the plot and people live and breath naturally.
And what restraint and courage on the part of PD Han Ji Seung. For on the surface there is very little about Alone in Love to find attractive. Its plot is not particularly interesting, and even sounds tedious (a recently-divorced couple negotiates the intricacies of dating new people and / or getting together again). There is little suspense, no time-slip, no gut-wrenching revenge conflict, no deathless love, and no inexorable fate. Its plot is firmly grounded in real life, and yes I do realize that that does not sound very interesting, but you’ll have to trust me on this; it really is quite riveting. When people and circumstances feel so real, everyday issues leap to life and become matters of real interest. Will the dishy man chasing the ex-wife turn out to be a crazed stalker, or a decent fellow? Will the attractive but needy divorcee be able to snare the ex-husband’s interest, and how will both of them, and her longing-for-a-daddy daughter, deal with the resultant awkwardness if not? (Also, at the meta level: How will the story be able to satisfy both its narrative arc and audience expectations?)
Can the estranged couple get over their pain and emotional baggage, and embrace the fraught but real attachment they feel for each other? How do two people deal with knowing each other so well that their flaws and foibles grate and courtesy gives way to presumption? What is it like to leave the comfortable security of a relationship and start dating again, with all its attendant risks and uncertainties? How do we deal with the pain of separation and loss? How can we navigate the complexity of human interaction so that we don’t hurt each other? Can infatuation survive head-on collision with grinding daily life? How can we ever fulfill the expectations of others? What do we make of rivals in love, when they are all equally normal decent human beings? What does it cost us in terms of vulnerability when we are truly honest with those close to us? In short, all the important questions of life and love that a typical k-drama would eschew. And understandably so, for they are not crack. Rather, they are thoughtfulness. And life.
This is not, however, an attempt to depict Real Life in shocking grittiness, or Real Life in all pretentious ennui. This show is not out to get you to slit your wrists in despair over the Tragedy of Life. Nor is it out to dazzle you with its cleverness. It’s just a thoughtful companion, one with wit and insight.
Here, have a bit more thoughtful and companionable soundtrack:
And just in case you think the show is all pensive moodiness, here’s a bit of soundtrack that accompanies some fun. There are very few k-dramas nowadays that have the power to make me laugh out loud because they are genuinely funny. Mostly, being a mean person, I laugh out loud at shows, but Alone in Love made me spontaneously lol in almost every episode, it is that witty in its quiet unassuming way:
A lesser PD might have been tempted to jazz it all up with louder laughs, snazzier camera angles and faster pace. But Han Ji Seung applies sensitive and disciplined execution to a ferociously thoughtful script, and the result is beautiful. People don’t shout at each other or carry on; they talk to each other. Emotional display are of a pitch commensurate with the occasion. There are times when nothing much seems to be happening, for instance when we’re just watching someone idle alone in his apartment (sans soundtrack), but because we understand the moment in the story and because we know the person, the moment is resplendent with poignancy and meaning.
Take one of my drama pet peeves — hospital emergencies. (And I’m not even a doctor.) Typically, whenever someone has a medical emergency and lands in A&E, in a lazy drama there would be howling relatives clutching at excitable doctors, panicking nurses, incorrect use of CPR and defibrillation, pounding soundtrack and ECG monitors beeping manically (or falling ominously silent: “Doctor! We’ve lost the pulse!” … cue pandemonium). In Alone in Love, nurses bustle about competently, the doctor gives bored instructions, all the sad indignity of being forcibly incubated is shown, and relatives sit tensely in the corridor and do what most relatives in hospitals really do — wait quietly and grimly.
But what anchors this show and makes it strong enough to buck stereotypical expectations and still work as accessible entertainment, is its lovely people.
Instead of an improbably handsome and haughty (but vulnerable) supercar-driving chaebol heir, we have an ordinary-looking ordinary guy who works in an ordinary bookstore. He is hardly the stuff of girlish dreams. But as the show progresses, we see that beneath his ordinary and unsophisticated exterior beats an extremely kind heart. And then somehow it does not seem so unlikely that many women in his life are secretly a bit in love with him. As his ex-wife herself says to his prospective new girlfriend, “As he’s only a child, he’s stubborn and he doesn’t like to lose. He has no sense of responsibility, he’s selfish, and he can’t stand anything complicated. But he’s a good man.” (And by the way, it is hard for her to be having this conversation with her ex-husband’s new squeeze and the show doesn’t skirt round this, but she’s stressed in a quiet and polite way and there is no hair-pulling or histrionics.)
Begone, MarySue-ish paragon of womanly virtue and beauty. Our heroine is a real woman. With a real job, real life concerns, real doubts and fears, real hopes, and real sensibilities. When she voices over her musings on life, she doesn’t sound pretentious; she sounds real.
This is the perfect vehicle for Kam Woo Seong and Son Ye Jin to show off their mature acting skills. And what a joy it is to see them naturally inhabit their characters. Tuned just right, they don’t overact or underact. They can bring on the drama or deliver the comedy, and they can also carry a meaningful silence.
Kong Hyeong Jin is in yet another Loyal Friend role. In most dramas such a role exists merely to support the main storyline, but here he has been invested with enough personality to stand in his own right.
Park Yeon Seon seems to specialize in eccentric girl BFFs, and Lee Ha Na plays what appears to be the forerunner of the whacky landlady / best friend in Wild Romance. Lee is hilarious here as the younger sister of our heroine. She delivers spades of comic relief with her endearing eccentricity, without being improbable or affected.
As is the Park specialty, the show is sprinkled liberally with interesting and exquisitely-drawn side characters. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear an actor say that their little role in this show was one of the most rewarding of their career.
To the inspired dance between script and direction, the actors are joined and in turn inspired to elegant heights. Where a lesser show would explain to viewers what is going on by using expositional dialogue, flashbacks, obvious mood-making soundtrack (this is SAD; now it is FUNNY!) or over-dramatic scenes as heavy-handed cues, all Alone in Love might do is close in on an actor’s face, and it is up to the actor to communicate a story of regret, joy, longing, or whatever. And thank goodness most of its actors are up to this most exacting challenge.
Here’s a nice compilation of scenes from the drama put together with a track from the OST. It’s a little spoilery, especially in the second half, so if you’re spoiler-phobic you may want to just watch a minute or so to get a flavour of the mood of the show.
By now, I shouldn’t need to tell you that there are no evil second-leads, barely-able-to-act idols, or improbable birth secrets. Nor is there cute-overload, gratuitous displaying of abs, or head-desking logic fail. This show does not need to resort to tricks. It just does its thing competently and thoughtfully. A great script, a nice soundtrack, skilled directing, assured acting…, that’s all it takes. You don’t need A-list stars, mega-budgets, sensational plots, or gimmicky film-craft. It really shouldn’t be so desperately hard to cook up a decent k-drama which is pleasing and nutritious. It just needs a bit more effort, a bit more thought, a bit more respect for the viewer, and a bit more confidence in the magical art of theatre.