Man. Another drama I like = another drama with low ratings. Should I even be surprised anymore?
Watching Episode 1 of Kim Hyun Joo’s new drama Insoon Is Pretty, I wasn’t sure if it was the kind I’d want to keep watching through the end. Quality’s not the issue; the acting is good, the dialogue is meaningful, the characters hint at hidden complexity. The lead female is beautiful and sympathetic, while the lead male is all warmth and quiet strength.
And yet it’s just so sad! Not weepy-melodramatic-tragic sad. It’s an understated sad. Quiet, long-suffering. Kim Hyun Joo’s character Insoon is in rather depressing straits right from the get-go, facing one kick to the curb after another, and you just feel so bad for her. But just as there are dramas that start off light and funny, then suddenly veer into overwrought tragedy (I hate these dramas, by the way — it feels like I got the bait and switch. I signed up for mindless fluff! What are all these emotions you are forcing upon me??), I am hoping that Insoon proves to be the opposite.
Because, when you start off with your heroine so thoroughly defeated and beaten down, a razor’s edge away from Anna Karenina-ing herself off the nearest subway platform, you can’t go anywhere but up, right? I hope so.
SONG OF THE DAY
Kio – “You Are So Beautiful.” I could listen to this song on a continuous loop (and I have). Gently pretty and soothing, like a rainy day.
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EPISODE 1 SUMMARY
Episode 1 starts off with PARK INSOON being fired from her job at a bakery. The owner makes apologetic excuses, but it’s clear that she’s no longer comfortable with Insoon and must let her go; as she’s also her landlord, that means Insoon is without a home too.
Insoon is soft-spoken, outwardly cheerful, inwardly lonely, beautiful despite believing otherwise, and a terribly sad person. The drama’s title refers to the fact that Insoon, constantly feeling worthless and unloved, recites to herself a sort of mantra, in hopes that she one day will believe the words: “It’s okay, Insoon. I’m kind, I’m pretty, I’m lovable, I’m a good person, I’m special.”
She’s also alone with nowhere to go. She attempts to find another job, but the moment anyone sees the addendum to her resume, their helpful attitudes change — because Insoon is also an ex-con. She’s been to prison and back, which explains her current situation as well as her woeful lack of any sense of self-worth. She’s long ago bought into the idea that as a convicted criminal, she is worthy of the world’s disdain (thus the need for the internal pep talks).
Sitting at the subway station, she retreats into this kind of self-hating shame spiral, thinking:
“Fine then. I’ll get lost. That should do it. I’ll leave and I won’t be born into this kind of world again, all right?”
Insoon edges closer and closer to the tracks, ready to jump — when suddenly, she hears someone call out her name.
She snaps back to the present, turning to see a friendly but unfamiliar man, looking quizzically at her. “Park Insoon?” he asks. “It’s me, Sang Woo. Don’t you remember me?”
Appearing on a television program, we meet the famous (and reluctantly aging) actress, LEE SUN YOUNG, who’s with her daughter, JUNG AH. Sun Young is an elegant diva in public, and a domineering stage mom in private when she’s alone with her daughter. Jung Ah just wants to recede from the spotlight her mother has shoved her into; she doesn’t think she’s cut out for this life. Her mother, on the other hand, is dragging her daughter along in her own footsteps.
Insoon has coffee with YOO SANG WOO, who turns out to be an old schoolmate who’d moved to Canada and lost contact with her. He’s thrilled to see her again; he was disappointed when she stopped writing him. (She can’t explain why she stopped sending letters, so she tries to play it off.) Insoon has too much pride to let Sang Woo see how much she’s fallen, and tries to answer his questions noncommittally, resorting to lying when his questions get specific.
He asks if she became a teacher like she’d always said she would (she uneasily says yes), and grills her about what subject she teaches, what year, what school. He doesn’t mean to be invasive; he’s just glad to see her, and doesn’t have any inkling of why she wouldn’t be glad to share info about her life. He looked for her over the years, but was unsuccessful.
When getting up to leave, Sang Woo asks for her phone number. Insoon is uncomfortable giving him a false number, but it’s all she can think of to get out of the situation.
Sang Woo, a reporter, returns to work in bright spirits, and although I don’t believe he’s spent the past however many years pining for Insoon, I think it’s safe to say he’s never found a woman who measured up to her. (It’s also likely that Sang Woo has put Insoon on a pedestal, believing her to be nearly perfect.) In a flashback to their youth, Insoon’s reaction to his news that he’s moving to Canada shows that she considered him a good friend, and was pained at his departure as well.
Needing a place to stay, Insoon visits Mr. Seo, her teacher from her high school days who’s part stern father figure and part kindly benefactor. Mr. Seo can’t have her living with him, but helps get her a job at his school, working in the cafeteria.
The school teacher (director?) accepts Insoon based on Mr. Seo’s recommendation, although she’s uneasy hearing that Insoon spent some time in prison. Insoon describes Mr. Seo as someone who helped her when she got into trouble in high school and she had nobody else — her parents both passed away when she was young and she was raised by her grandmother, who has also since passed. “Thanks to him, I became a real person.”
While working, Insoon sees a girl being bullied by two other girls, and flashes back to her high school days, when she was the victim in a similar situation. Despite wanting to intervene, she tells herself:
“After leaving prison, I decided to never, ever interfere with someone else’s business. Whatever the case, I must never step in. I have to live quietly.”
Her consience won’t let her rest, though, and she feebly tries to break up the situation. The bullies aren’t scared of her, though, and Insoon finally tells the girl to run away while she holds the bullies off.
When the school hears the crime she was imprisoned for was murder, she’s told to leave. Teacher Seo says he’ll speak up on her behalf, but she tells him not to. She says, brokenly though not whiningly (more sadly matter-of-fact):
Insoon: “I don’t know why I was born. If there is a god, I’d ask him why he made me. I’m cursed. Everyone around me gets hurt. My grandmother, my friend… they died because of me. I really don’t know why someone like me has to keep living. If I killed someone, I should’ve died then too. … I’m a fool, and a criminal, and society’s garbage. No, not even garbage.”
Teacher Seo: “Insoon. If you don’t love yourself, who will?”
Teacher Seo insists that it wasn’t Insoon’s fault, but she’s long since accepted that she’s a killer. (I’m guessing that there must be some ambiguity about who’s really responsible for the death.) She tells him she won’t burden him anymore, and leaves.
Meanwhile, Sang Woo, who’s found to his dismay that Insoon’s phone number isn’t going through, arrives at the school to find her in person. He asks Teacher Seo if there’s a teacher named Park Insoon, and is told there’s no teacher by that name.
Insoon then goes to see her aunt and uncle, who are living a rather hard life themselves. Her drunk and wife-beating uncle rages at her, and her aunt tells her she can’t stay. Again, her pride asserts itself and she downplays her situation, telling her aunt not to worry. She makes it seem like she has friends and a place to stay, when in truth she has neither. Insoon’s pride may be her greatest stumbling block to receiving the assistance she could desperately use. But on the flipside, it’s probably also the only thing holding her together.
Her aunt does, however, take pity on her, and tells her one thing: “It’s time you found your mother.”
They’d told Insoon both parents died in a car accident; in reality, only her father did. Her grandmother took Insoon to raise and sent her mother away to live her own life, never telling Insoon because her mother had married and lived a well-off life. There was no point in disrupting everything at that point. But now that her mother’s recently divorced and Insoon has nowhere else to turn, it’s time she met her.
And so, Insoon goes to see the play starring her mother — Lee Sun Young, whom we met earlier.
After the performance, she approaches the actress in her dressing room, spilling out her apologies in a teary burst… until she learns that the woman she’s talking to isn’t Lee Sun Young. She’s the matinee actress; Lee Sun Young performs the evening show.
As luck would have it (good luck for him, bad for her), she runs into Sang Woo again outside the dressing room — he’s come to cover the play as a reporter. He marvels at his luck at running into her after being unable to call her or find her at school. It doesn’t even occur to Sang Woo that Insoon lied; he automatically assumes he’d made a mistake in copying the wrong number and hearing the wrong school name.
(You know, ordinarily I’d be annoyed with a character who was as persistent and nosey as Sang Woo, but strangely I find his character warm and comforting. Part of that must be Kim Min Joon in the role, although it’s also the character — I see his persistence as indication of how happy he is to see her after so long. After trying and failing to reconnect with her all these years, he’s definitely not letting go of this fateful opportunity. You also get the sense he might have just accepted her if she’d swallowed her pride and been honest — but then again, he holds her in such impossibly high esteem that it’s inevitable he’s going to be disappointed. I like this conflict inherent in Sang Woo’s position.)
Unnerved, Insoon lies that she’s there because she’s a fan of Lee Sun Young. As he’s there to interview the actress, Sang Woo takes it as a good sign. He inadvertently says exactly the wrong thing, that teaching is a wonderful profession — he’s met some real low-lifes in his job. Criminals, bums, killers.
Sang Woo greets Lee Sun Young, intending to introduce Insoon, but turns and finds Insoon has run off. She can’t face her mother like this, and escapes outside, where she loses herself in her memories, as she thinks:
“If somebody were to ask me what the saddest thing in my life has been, it would be that at the time I most needed to be strong, I gave up on myself.”
In a flashback, teenage Insoon faces a furious grieving mother, who tries to attack Insoon for killing her precious child. The mother accuses Insoon of being a murderer; Insoon insists to the mother that she didn’t kill anyone. It’s true that they fought, but she’s not a killer.
But whatever the details (we aren’t given the full background yet), she was sent away to prison.
Insoon waits outside until she works up the nerve to go back in. She watches her mother receive fan adoration from a distance, thinking:
“Back then, if I knew this day would come, I might have been more courageous. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so wronged. And so, I’d think: All this happened because of you, Mother, who’d appeared in front of me only just now. If I’d had a mother by my side back then, I might not have been such a coward, trying to decide whether or not to meet you now. And so I’ve come to resent you, Mother.”
She follows Lee Sun Young as she walks to her dressing room, willing her mother to turn around, to see her. “Turn around… please turn first.”
Finally, Insoon calls out, “Excuse me” and gains the older woman’s attention. Lee Sun Young turns to face her and Insoon thinks pleadingly, “Please remember me. Recognize me. I’m Insoon… Mother.”
She freezes, unable to speak, as her mother looks at her questioningly.