The Flexner lectures that I gave at Bryn Mawr College in fall 2023 are over, The Tao of K-drama (the book) is drafted, retirement nears, and time opens up before me like the light at the end of a tunnel. I can watch K-drama without Serious Thoughts. In the past few weeks I watched Mr. Queen, See You in My 19th Life, and Welcome to Samdal-ri. They have in common being pretty light and starring the wonderful Shin Hye-sun. I just finished the last of this trio and the wonderful 15th episode -- "It takes a village to raise a dragon" -- lingers.
The story centers around a old tragedy that has shaped village life in Samdal-ri, a village in Jeju, and especially the families of two young people, Cho Sam-dal and Cho Yong-pil, who would like to be together. This is intertwined with the massive setback experienced by Cho Sam-dal. As a young girl, she says that she heard that dragons rise from small streams and she wants to be a dragon. The variety show host who is listening to this wish says, "Oh, you want to go to Seoul?"
She gets to Seoul, works hard to succeed, and then is betrayed by an employee. She returns home to regroup. My dad has a similar experience and he described it as, "Retreat to the ghetto and come back strong." The analogy really worked for me. Her community gathers around her, ready to protect her from further harm and wanting to support her talents. In the Episode 15, they put their intentions into action on several fronts, breaking out of the paralysis of the tragedy and launching Sam-dal back to the sky of her dreams.
There is a brown-skinned man, Kim Man-su (played by Sazal Mahamud), working in the village convenience store. He suddenly leaves, giving the village a billion won gift. We later see him walking with his entourage. "Your Highness," one says, "where have you been?"
"In a place with a warm heart," he replies, "Samdal-ri."
What is so remarkable about the show is the careful manner in which the writers have shown has HOW the villagers worked out the set of problems they faced. It is not a process of grand gestures, but of the daily grind of two-steps forward, one-step back, trying to live in a good way.
Understanding "the good way" of K-drama has been on my mind since I first saw Live Up to Your Name, Dr. Heo in 2020. At first I thought of it as a set of actions that could be defined, with saying "I'm sorry and chopping vegetables high on that list. I couldn't squeeze the process any of these three Shin Hye-sun K-dramas into a list. We might think of it as a tennis match, with our task to follow the bouncing ball as it goes forward and back, forward and back. Any metaphor will do, as long as we watch what I've come to call the "micro-process" of the action. Not the swoops, but the tiny discourse.
An old woman with dementia has a moment of clarity. She puts her hand on that of her son-in-law, wrapped in mourning for his lost wife. She says, "Don't have resentment." He slowly gets what she's saying and is stunned. She is just one of the people pulling him out of his grief by sharing that they too are tormented by the loss. It is the repetition -- I too am suffering -- that gets through to him. He suddenly asks one of them, "When do you miss her most?" The woman he asked promptly says, "When I dive into the sea or see her son." He walks away without a word, but the challenges are accumulating until he see that he is not alone. His prison of grief breaks open.
At the heart of this forward-back is Shin Hye-sun, holding it all together with her intensity and capacity for connection. She really looks at people, leaning into them to understand. She really feels hurts and slights, shriveling up with despair. And she is really liberated, raised to fly again by her village. As that is happening she says in a voiceover how good it was that she had a hometown at her back. My dad thought so, and my own turn came to need a place to regroup, I knew where to go.
The metaphor in the show is that haenyeos are taught not to be greedy and to return to the surface when they can't hold their breath any more. The headline of the trailer is "The big fish returns to catch her breath." How good to know this -- it is the other level of teaching in a K-drama -- the "big picture" message that we can keep close to our hearts.