When I first started watching cable drama Romance Hunter, it was mainly out of curiosity, since I hadn’t heard anything about it. (I was surfing clubboxes for something else, and the title caught my eye, so I downloaded it. I stumble across lots of things serendipitously like that, and it’s always a nice feeling when one sticks.) The first episode was mildly amusing — as I noted in a previous post, it was a little too similar to Sex and the City for me to find it completely engaging, but shallowly, I was intrigued by the actor who I guessed would become the main love interest. His character is all the stuff young women’s daydreams are made of (handsome, competent, gentle but not unmasculine, sensitive but not overly, with a hint of mystery), so it was enough to keep me going. (Caveat: Romance Hunter is probably a show that appeals directly to women, even more so than the typical romance dramas on broadcast TV. I won’t say men won’t like it, but it seems very heavily female-skewed, and intentionally so.)
But it was in Episode 5 that everything clicked into place, and hooked me. (Unfortunately, as Murphy’s Law dictates, I’d only had the first five episodes downloaded, so I was forced to stop and wait just when I was most interested in continuing.) The reason was, although the first four episodes were entertaining, the fifth was when the show seemed to shake off the SATC mantle and come into its own.
(Random) SONG OF THE DAY
Beautiful Romance – “아직도 난” (I still…) [ zShare download ]
The story thus far:
Episode 1: “Rose-tinted glasses”
Episode 2: “Failures in romance!”
Episode 3: “The saddest and scariest truth”
Episode 4: “Shaking hands with a different me”
Episode 5: “Their first loves”
Heroine YOUNG JU (right; played by actress Choi Jung Yoon, also from Taereung National Village and Bad Couple) is a romance consultant on the radio show “Romance Hunter,” which she co-hosts with HANNA (left; played by Chae Min Seo, who went on to play Choi Jung Yoon’s love rival in Bad Couple as The Other Woman). They work with head writer HYANG JIN, associate writer SU YEON, and PD HO JAE (or simply Jung PD). Young Ju lives with roommate NAM HEE.
In the first four episodes, Young Ju goes through a series of short-lived romances, each with a different reason for failing. The first is a kind-hearted lawyer, and Young Ju finds herself giddy with the thrill of a new relationship, charging headlong into the romance. Things screech to a halt when she sees his phone log, and even more hurtful than the fact that he has someone programmed as “My Love” is the fact that he hadn’t even bothered to assign her a name or store her number in his phone. It merely shows up as a string of digits.
After that experience, she decides to take her time and not rush into the next relationship, which only lasts a couple dates — first he orders the most expensive wine on the menu and forgets his wallet, and then he spends all night ogling her co-worker Hanna. Bye-bye.
The next one lasts longer, a (supposedly) hot younger guy with whom things seem to be going well, except for the fact that she’s always paying. She wants to be open-minded (after all, nobody would say anything if an older man paid for all dates with a younger woman — which is the advice she shares with a co-worker, who’s in a similar situation). Still, he seems to take her generosity for granted. The last straw is when, on Valentine’s day, he calls her excitedly because he’s just gotten his paycheck from a part-time job — and shows her the brand-new digital camera he’s been scrimping to buy. She tells him she didn’t want anything fancy — just a single rose would have done — but clearly, he likes her just a little less than he likes his new camera.
To prove her point, her co-worker thanks Young Ju for her wise advice, because her boyfriend gave her a surprise gift of an expensive purse. He’d felt bad having her pay for their dates, but he was saving away to buy her the present.
Throughout all this, watching Young Ju’s foibles with a mix of amusement and mild interest is my current TV-crush, Jung PD (or Ho Jae). Young Ju has a polite, friendly but professional relationship with him, and the reason I find this setup working is first because they already know each other via a job that specifically centers around frank talk about love and sex. So there’s no cloud of coyness surrounding their acquaintance.
There are hints early on of their attraction, but Ho Jae doesn’t push, and we get the sense that he’s waiting for her to come to the realization herself. As far as she’s concerned, he’s a kindly co-worker with whom she can easily converse, and her quick series of bad dates are enough to keep her distracted.
Let’s move onto the other ladies:
Hanna, dating a new man every other month, finally meets one she likes more than the others. However, she’s vain, bold, honest, and materialistic — and before the relationship has a chance to ripen into something more meaningful, she hears gossip that a social rival has just become engaged to a rich chaebol. Her greed and shallow side get the better of her, and she drops the guy quickly and demands a matchmaker set her up with a chaebol too. Nothing short of a business tycoon will do.
Unfortunately, because irony’s a bitch, she soon learns that the guy she dumped is actually a rising star in the business world. To make matters worse, she finds out belatedly that she’s actually fallen for him — she starts seeing him everywhere, imagining him all the time.
The youngest, Su Yeon, reunites with an old flame and is soon worn out from his excessive libido. He exhausts her, but when she tries to ask for advice, her co-workers have no sympathy for someone whose problems stem from too much sex.
(Note: Before you bemoan the decline of Eastern civilization, these women aren’t promiscuous. For all their free and easy talk about sex — it IS their job, after all — they all engage in physical intimacy within the context of a loving relationship. Or, at the very least, a love-adjacent relationship.)
But the two ladies with by far the most frustrating (and realistic) relationship problems are Nam Hee and Hyang Jin.
Hyang Jin’s problem is pretty perfectly captured in that screencap; she works her ass off supporting her family, while her husband barely does any housework or parenting. She’s equally tired of being the nagging wife and patiently enduring the unbalanced marriage. She’s considered divorce numerous times, but hasn’t actually gone through with it.
At one point, Hyang Jin tries to take a step in rekindling the romance in their marriage, but her husband would rather play computer games than have sex with her, and she comes to the sad realization that she’s no longer a woman in his eyes. Salt is rubbed into the wound when she checks on him to find him gratifying himself to online porn — he’d rather go at it alone than with her. But it’s a double-edged sword, because he later tells her that he’s tired of her not seeing him as a man, either (because she’s the breadwinner), which makes him resentful even though he knows it’s unfair.
Young Ju asks Hyang Jin one day if her espresso is too bitter, and Hyang Jin sums up her predicament: “This espresso is sweeter than my life.”
Nam Hee is the one previously mentioned as having the asshole boyfriend, Dong Min, and she’s the one I have the most difficulty understanding. Her boyfriend of seven years constantly responds to her prodding about marriage with an annoyed, “Let’s talk about it later.” He’s pushed “later” aside for five years now, and she tells Young Ju that the reason she sticks with him — aside from being scared to leave and still loving him — is that the past years will feel so unfairly wasted. Young Ju bites back the thought that Nam Hee has many more years to live ahead of her than the past seven she’s lost, knowing Nam Hee won’t hear it.
Even after finding out Dong Min is cheating on her, Nam Hee can’t cut him loose, and instead pushes harder for marriage. Meh.
And now, Episode 5: “Their First Loves.”
The reason I particularly like this episode is because it’s the first to give us a few character surprises. It also does a great thematic job of tying in all of the women’s issues and using their different stories to illustrate the point (about “first loves”).
Young Ju and Ho Jae have been spending more time together, particularly when she learns he’s looking for a new apartment — his parents are leaving Seoul to retire to their hometown, and Ho Jae will be on his own for the first time at 32. He’s not very picky or demanding, and Young Ju worries he’ll make a bad decision, and goes along to help select the perfect place.
I like the small point made that the first physical contact between them that causes a romantic spark is an innocuous touching of the hands — Young Ju starts seeing him in a different light, and the touch causes both to startle. Even with adults well-versed in sex and romance, there’s an innocence at the beginning of their relationship that I found cute. But just as they start to become more comfortable with each other, Young Ju gets a surprise phone call — from her first love, last seen seven years ago. That calls a halt to Young Ju and Ho Jae’s progress, and the next day, he watches as she primps to meet her ex after work (she’s later stood up).
The radio show topic of the day centers around a woman whose boyfriend is impatient for sex — but she feels like she’s the last modern woman who wants to remain a virgin till marriage. Meanwhile, another PD at work obsesses over his first love — a woman who never reciprocated his affection who he’s recently learned has divorced her husband.
The issue sparks conversation between the ladies — about first times, first loves, first experiences. What is it about a “first” that makes it so special? Do people give TOO much meaning to a “first” anything?
Young Ju and Ho Jae finally make some progress in their relationship when she stays behind after his housewarming party, and they talk about the differences between the opinions of men and women (i.e., the way men and women regard first loves).
Young Ju thinks: “I wasn’t that drunk, and if I wanted to avoid him, I could have. It wasn’t something that arose suddenly, something I couldn’t have guessed would happen. It was just that the inevitable had occurred.”
But as Ho Jae leaves on a week-long trip the next day, Young Ju has to wait to see what happens with their relationship.
Later, when her first love calls back to apologize for canceling their meeting, she cuts things short. She’d been briefly swayed because he was her first love, but deep down she knew he was calling for a selfish reason — because he’s feeling lonely, with his wife abroad with their son for his education’s sake.
Young Ju comes to this conclusion on her radio show:
“First love, first kiss, first intimacy, first job, first meeting. There are so many firsts in this world. These designations of ‘firsts’ can change in meaning afterward as well. But are there these phrases as well? First mother, first father, first family? For things like mothers, fathers, and families that exist forever, we don’t assign the ‘first’ label. A first is not the last. A first isn’t forever. It’s merely the start of a process. What we should take from that is the courage to stand after we’ve failed the first time, and to carefully guard the precious people we have by our sides now.”
Another girls’ night out reveals a few startling truths — first off, that Su Yeon, the youngest who’d originally seemed the most naïve and Charlotte-like (of SATC) of the group, is the one who sees sex most freely. And dating pro Hanna, always with a new man, shocks them all by revealing she’s a virgin at 29. She’s always had men all over her, but had never found one worth falling in love with. Until now — because she realizes that at the age of 29, she’s finally met her first love: the man she’d rejected foolishly. (He makes a reappearance to try things over again, having fallen for her as well, and this time, she’s happy to accept him.)
Finally, Ho Jae comes back to work, and Young Ju eagerly anticipates his return, concluding:
“Men may place a lot of significance on the woman they first kissed, but a woman places significance on the first kissed shared with the man she’s with now.”