What are you watching?
I’m watching 남자가 사랑할 때 because I love me some Korean drama, aint no lie. Right now the ex-loan shark, who cleaned up his life for the sake of a woman and is now the exceedingly wealthy CEO of a financial services firm (totally plausible), has hired the girl who inspired him to make those life changes, supposedly because her knowledge of English and French is an asset to the firm, but mostly because he thinks that she redeemed and rescued his life and so of course now he want to marry her even though they haven’t spoken in seven years?
Which would be weird enough, except that concept — that a woman holds the secret to redemption — is everywhere. David Foster Wallace wrote about it in “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” and it’s just rampant in “The Knife of Never Letting Go” by Patrick Ness, plus a billion other examples. Granted, anything can serve as balm when you have that much self-directed misandry swimming around, and maybe it’s all just rooted in our universal need for Mom to love us, but it’s refreshing to see the young lady in question respond to his ardent affections exactly the way I would, which is to say: “Why are you doing this?”
But hey, it’s a job. So he’s just sent her on a vacation to a resort in Guam, supposedly because his firm is considering diversifying into real estate (totally plausible) but really because you can’t have a romance filmed in Asia without the resort segment. It’s simply not done. In fact, the convoluted manipulation of events to ensure that everyone attends is often times more enjoyable to witness than the actual episode(s) themselves.
Sometimes it’s a school trip, or a rich friend of the protagonist inviting the entire cast of characters for a weekend at their family’s resort (totally plausible), or a work event like this one. Another favorite trick is to have an emotionally sensitive character run away from the events to some exotic location to stare at the sea, causing everyone in the cast to go find him or her. The resort scene appears in some form in every romance in Korean drama and in Japanese manga.On those rare occasions where it is excluded, it seems to be excluded intentionally, like they’re making a statement. This is no ordinary romance! It cries. This has no resort scene!
But the thing is, I don’t understand what the resort adds to the equation.
What is the resort?
Right, so if you’re me, you think the resort is sex, obviously. Example: Bunch of high schoolers go to an overnight beach party = sextown, am I right? Right. The problem is when we see the same trick used in adult romances. I mean, I have to tell you, I laughed at the moment in the glorious classic “Secret Garden” when the two characters drink a magic potion on that stormy night which causes them to wake up the next morning having switched bodies… at the resort. Like, whew, really pushing that metaphor there, guys. Also: totally plausible.
But take, like, “King of Dramas” (so, so good, A+++) where the resort scene is fraught with more fear-tension then sex-tension and the protagonist is drooling over the wife of their host for most of it, and when he does stumble upon the love interest inappropriately attired — this is, after all, a resort sequence — their mutual reaction is far more similar to that of sibling horror than suppressed sexual tension.
Of course I could argue (and I will) that it’s all still there, what with the ogling of the wife and the love interest’s surprised response that “you are a man, after all” (seriously, you should watch it). Besides, even sibling horror in the face of accidental décolletage is still a sexual reaction. In that context, the fact that the second resort scene later in the season involves her pushing him off the dock into the dark waters of the ocean followed by a compulsion to jump in herself to save him — though she, herself, can’t swim — is just another metaphor of their growing sexual dynamic turned into adorable comedy.
Fine. Let’s continue to believe, then, that the resort trope exists to place the protagonist and his love interest in a zone permissive enough to allow a sexual desire to form. Then what are we to make of this resort scene, in which our lady redeemer unknowingly (and plausibly) just happens to meets the younger brother of the hero’s best friend, and they happen to hit it off so much that they even touch fingers? The resort is not for interlopers! At least we can take comfort in the fact that our hero CEO gangster is even now arriving on the scene to maximize the awkward moment of revelation, but honestly, who is she sleeping with?
Korean drama is demanding when it comes to belief suspension, which makes it easy to dismiss. The reason it get usually get away with it is because the characters are almost always batshit crazy. The actors go all in; if you’re expected to play a fussy egocentric drama producer who was bullied as a youth because your mother is blind and poor, then god damn if you don’t play that part with anything less than full commitment. Reformed thug turned CEO obsessed with a girl 15 years younger to cope with the unresolved mysterious departure of your mother and brother at the age of 17? No problem. My favorite character, from “Cheongdamdong Alice”, was the heir apparent of a top family whose creative leanings caused endless dischord with his father, resulting in his voluntary disinheritance at 18, several years under a pseudonym in Paris and his eventual triumphant return as the Korean creative director for a competing top brand. This is all backstory, and the actors do with it what they do - the characters are neurotic, confused, and filled with a social anxiety and awkwardness that strains the credibility of their success. They’re also charming and weird, and thus unpredictable, within a genre with very rigid forms and conventions. It’s easy to pass these stories off as romantic wish-fulfillment, but underlying each is an individual’s bizarre moral journey toward social and emotional integration that renders the happily-ever-after with a sort of profound resonance.
Toward the end of the arc, the love interest happens upon our hero swimming in the pool. After spending a few minutes admiring his glistening form and taking note of his scars, she emerges. They have a brief conversation about some bitch who’s been hanging around, and then she departs to pack. She may have met her perfect boy at the resort, and perhaps even touch fingers with him, but in the end she goes home with the hero, both because she embodies a feminine practicality that allows that a young heart has room for more than one love, and also because it’s important for her to have her moment of promiscuity before getting down to the more important business of love.
And so it’s a peculiar resort arc, but it works.