Thousand Day Promise premiered today, and has all the makings of a taut, angsty melodrama. To be perfectly honest, by the halfway point I wasn’t sure I was enjoying the episode, but I was captivated by the conflict, the emotion, and the acting.
One of the things that make the writing great about this episode is that what you see at first glance is not always what you get. A scene starts out a certain way, then develops and twists and ends up in a surprising place. I love that. There’s conflict all over the place, and tons of flawed characters.
This is the closest drama I’ve seen in recent memory that evokes a Que Sera Sera feeling of mood and development. In my book that’s a good thing — Que Sera Sera was likewise not always FUN, but it was always compelling, sometimes downright riveting, and intense.
SONG OF THE DAY
Ibadi – “Eve” [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
A couple drives to an out-of-the way lake and sits in a car. PARK JI-HYUNG (Kim Rae-won) and LEE SEO-YEON (Su Ae) speak banmal like old acquaintances, and he confesses a truth he seems shamed by: That he’s a bad person for wanting her, to hold her. That his desire is all-consuming, and makes him want to find a way to hold her without being such a bastard.
Tears fill her eyes and she confesses that she’s been wondering if she should hold back, wanting to make the first move herself. “I’m just pretending not to, because I’m afraid of embarrassment.”
That sparks the passion, and they make their way to a bedroom, pulling clothes off impatiently, until they end up in bed.
Some time later, Seo-yeon drives along, alone this time. She’s dressed nicely despite having curlers in her hair, and deals with a headache. Pulling over to pop some pills, she flashes back to an earlier conversation: Her younger brother MOON-KWON (Park Yoo-hwan) had noted her frequent painkiller habit and cautioned her to get herself checked out.
Waiting for her is Ji-hyung, who grows increasingly upset and worried the longer he waits. He tries calling, but Seo-yeon has left her cell phone at home, and he can barely contain his fidgeting.
Meanwhile, at home her aunt chatters with her uncle about feeling sad because Seo-yeon has just paid off her loan for her home in full. The aunt practically raised Seo-yeon and looks upon her with affection (and some pity over Seo-yeon’s poor background), so it’s a bit of empty nest syndrome that the little girl no longer needs her help.
(Small note: Everyone in this drama is using outdated phones thus far, which suggests to me that there’ll be a time jump at some point.)
Seo-yeon doesn’t notice right away that she missed her stop and has to turn back, making her even later. By the time she arrives at the upscale remote hotel with apologetic smiles, Ji-hyung is just about to charge out of the room to find her.
His worry has him lashing out at Seo-yeon, telling her he was imagining an accident, or worse. Plus, they’ve only got an hour and half left of their planned date before he has to go in to work, now that her detour ate half the time.
Seo-yeon apologizes in good humor, although she notes that his reaction is overblown. She lets his hurtful comments slide until he calls her dumb for not calling, and then she fires back that they’re always living on his clock; he doesn’t consider other people’s timetables.
Then as quickly as she lost her temper, she cheers right back up and pours the wine, figuring to make the most of their date. He calms down a bit, distracted by the tie-up blouse she wore just for him, and they start making out.
Before things get too steamy, though, they’re interrupted by a phone call, and that kills Seo-yeon’s mood. She tells him to take it — he wants to ignore it — and steps aside while he answers the call from NOH HYANG-GI (Jung Yumi).
Ji-hyung isn’t excited to talk to her, but Hyang-gi calls him “oppa” and happily chirps on about getting vaccinated, and then whispers that the doctor told her to use contraception. Ohhh, wait. Is she the legit girlfriend? Is Seo-yeon the Other Woman?
Seo-yeon tries not to let this phone call bother her, and now a few things fall into place — like why they’re meeting at a hotel, why Ji-hyung was so agitated to waste half of their tryst, why she insisted he take the call right in the middle of foreplay. While she waits in the bathroom, she recalls a flashback of a past rendezvous with Ji-hyung, with them holding hands in bed, just lying there in quiet.
As this date comes closer to its end, they sit down to coffee and Ji-hyung suggests that Seo-yeon stop working herself so hard editing and ghostwriting for other people. Spoken like a rich boy, and she’d chides that she’s gotta make a living, which keeps her too busy to write her own novel.
Ji-hyung replies that he’d take care of her, like that’s the easy solution. Which it is, only she’s not that kind of girl, and she needs to make her own way in the world. She announces that she finally repaid her aunt’s loan, and starts naming all the things they can eat and do on dates now that she’s debt-free.
He cuts her short and tells her grimly that they’ve “set a date.” Apparently his mother and his fiancée’s mother went out and decided that next month should do it.
Suddenly her smile freezes, and she can’t bring herself to congratulate him. She lets this sink in with some difficulty, and realizes that today is their send-off date, and understands why Ji-hyung was so angry when she came late — how unfortunate that she wasted their precious time getting lost.
Forcing a brave face, she talks over his tense silence, telling him that she’s fine, that she practiced for this moment, and it’s not so bad after all. He’s hurt at her breezy tone, and says, “Must be nice that you’re so fine with this.”
She plasters on a smile that’s obviously forced and says, “I told you, I had practice.” Maybe the thing she practiced was acting okay, not actually being okay, but Ji-hyung says, “Don’t smile, I don’t want to see that.”
Seo-yeon asks if he’d prefer her to faint, or maybe die. He bursts out, “Just for this day, this moment, don’t act so damned cool and just let go. You’ve never broken down in front of me before.” He tells her that even when they were together she was always removed, asking if being with someone you can’t have is love. Interesting that he’s the one asking if she’s been toying with him — a twist on the usual case of the two-timing man — as though he’s the only one with his emotions engaged while she has been along for the ride.
She tells him this is her pride, and he says bitterly, “That damned pride.” She starts telling him that she came from nothing, and pride is all she has, which must be a familiar argument between them — implication being that he’s from money and therefore has the luxury of not standing on his pride.
But he cuts her off, reminding her that he wanted to marry her, and she refused. Oh, interesting. So he’s not just a cheating bastard.
She points out all the excuses he’d thrown at her for why their relationship would be a mistake — his disappointed parents, the arranged marriage. He fires back, “And still I wanted to marry you!” She reminds him, “But you didn’t. You couldn’t.” He argues that she refused, and around and around they go.
She asks, “If you make it my fault, do you think it’ll be easier for you? Fine, then make it my fault.” Declaring that she refuses to make herself miserable — even for him — she collects her things to go.
But Ji-hyung is already on the phone, pushing back his meetings and deflecting a call from his mother. Mom (Kim Hae-sook) is with Hyang-gi’s mother (Lee Mi-sook), who’s just had a plastic surgery touch-up. The moms are after him to take more time off from his job for his honeymoon, but he’s been fending them off, insisting he can’t stay away from the job for that long. Though it’s probably more like he’d actually prefer to work than take an extra-long honeymoon with a woman he doesn’t love.
In the hotel room, Seo-yeon and Ji-hyang sit in silence, stalling their departure, not quite ready to separate for good. He tells her he doesn’t know if he can stick to this breakup, that he might call her right away, but she says firmly that she can, and that she won’t take his calls anymore.
It makes sense that he’s weaker, because that’s how they ended up here, with him heading toward a loveless marriage and unable to take that final step toward his own happiness. But I actually admire him for being frank about it, as they hug one last time and shut the door on their affair:
Ji-hyung: “I’m sorry for being a coward.”
Seo-yeon: “No. I’m sorry for being too poor.”
Ji-hyung: “I’m worried for you.”
Seo-yeon: “I’ll be fine.”
Already his resolve to cut ties is weak, because on their way out Ji-hyung fusses over Seo-yeon and urges her to text him the minute she gets home, to hire a driver, to ride with him instead. She’s the stronger one and refuses a ride with him, speeding along their departure while clearly he wants to drag it out.
As she heads to her car, Seo-yeon flashes back to a different memory, after another one of their previous trysts:
Ji-hyung: “How long do you think it would it take for memories of these times to become comfortable? Three years? Five?”
Seo-yeon: “I don’t know. I’ve never been in this position.”
Ji-hyung: “Is there such a thing as a memory without yearning?”
Seo-yeon: “Without yearning, it’s just a recollection, not a memory.”
Ji-hyung: “Will we marry in the future?”
Seo-yeon: “Me? Of course. Would you want me not to marry anyone else?”
Ji-hyung: “I guess I shouldn’t want that.”
Like with all of their encounters, he’s miserable and she’s cheery. She spins a story about how they’ll meet a year from now and she’ll already be pregnant, and they’ll pretend not to know each other. He’s half-amused and half-offended at her quick rebound time.
Back to the present: Ji-hyung stretches out this goodbye as long as he can, double-checking and hovering like a clucking mama hen, while Seo-yeon rejects his concern. When she stumbles, he overreacts and rushes to her side, and without a more reasonable outlet for his frustration/sadness/grief, he blames her for wearing high heels.
This leads to an argument over the shoes, which is a stand-in for their frustration at their breakup, as he tells her not to drive in such heels, and she retorts that she wouldn’t have worn them to her last rendezvous if somebody had told her it would be their last.
Finally, she calms down and tells him quietly that she’ll do as he advises. But when he steps in for a hug, like he thinks he’s still got that connection to her and that right to comfort her, she pushes him away.
She storms into the restroom, so intent on getting into a stall before she breaks down that she doesn’t register that she’s in the men’s room. She kicks off the damned heels and chokes on her tears.
Outside, Ji-hyung waits as long as he can, and finally leaves a note on her car asking her to make sure to text him when she’s home.
On his drive to work, he flashes back into an old memory, dating back to when he was a student. Ji-hyung had come to a house looking for her cousin JAE-MIN, and found a young Seo-yeon screaming at her troublemaking brother.
Moon-kwon had done something else wrong in a long string of things, and she’d been fed up with constantly disappointing her, declaring that she was giving up on him.
Moon-kwon had begged for forgiveness, but also tossed out, “You’re not Mom!” as he ran away.
Seo-yeon fights another headache and stops at a rest stop to pop a few more pills. She makes it back to the city and drops in on her cousin, MYUNG-HEE (Moon Jung-hee), who runs a bakery.
Ji-hyung heads in to work but constantly checks his phone for that expected “I’m home” message. He can’t tamp down his worry and calls Seo-yeon, but of course she doesn’t answer.
Another memory comes to Ji-hyung’s mind, which dates back to his college days when he’d been talking to Jae-min about Seo-yeon. Jae-min had explained Seo-yeon’s sad story, of how she was abandoned by her mother as a child, and how his mother (Seo-yeon’s father’s sister) had found the two children starving, ages 6 and 4. Aunt had taken the children in, thanking God for coming upon them when she did.
Jae-min had warned Ji-hyung not to tell a soul that he knows this, and ended the conversation worrying, “She needs to meet a good man.” Clearly Adult Ji-hyung doesn’t quite measure to that standard.
When Seo-yeon checks her phone, it’s full of calls from “Park Ji-sook,” her code for Ji-hyung. This spins her off into another flashback, to the day Ji-hyung had laughed to see him coded as a girl’s name in her cell phone. For secrecy’s sake, of course.
He, on the other hand, hadn’t programmed her in his phone at all, because his fiancee Hyang-gi has a tendency to poke around. Instead, he’d memorized her number. “What about the call log?” Sae-yeon had asked. “I erase them right away.”
He apologizes for that, but she’s hurt nonetheless: “So right after you end your call with me, I’m erased. Not just the call record, but me — it feels like I’m being erased. After being erased over and over, one of these days I’ll disappear into smoke.”
In the present, Seo-yeon sends off the perfunctory “I arrived” message, then ignores the immediate return call.
She prepares dinner, not realizing that tonight is dinner night with her aunt’s family until her brother reminds her. She hurries over right away, but it’s clear from her startled reaction that it bothers her that she forgot this detail. Worried, even.
Ji-hyung calls out his old friend Jae-min (Lee Sang-woo), although it’s been a long time since they’ve talked. Jae-min even wonders if he’d done something to offend Ji-hyung, from the latter’s avoidance of his phone calls. Ji-hyung tells him no, but he does have something to tell him that he needs some liquid courage to help say. Hence the wine.
Ji-hyung is so grim that Jae-min worries he’s in big trouble. Ji-hyung finally tells him that he’s been dating Seo-yeon, and with confusion, Jae-min asks if he called off his engagement at some point. The look in Jae-min’s eyes gradually changes as he registers that no, Ji-hyung is still engaged, and that he broke up with Seo-yeon today.
Ji-hyung doesn’t try to make lame excuses, but he says that he and Seo-yeon went into it with their eyes open. To Jae-min it’s simpler: “You’re saying you played with our Seo-yeon and dumped her.”
This argument heads outside, and Jae-min is now convinced Ji-hyung seduced his little cousin like a cold-hearted cheater. This is doubly hard for him to accept because Jae-min had even warned Ji-hyung a long time ago about not treating her poorly, and had gotten back the assurance that Ji-hyung thought of her as a sister.
Ji-hyung adds that he wanted to marry Seo-yeon and she refused him, but Jae-min can’t believe that. Ji-hyung bites out, “I know that I’m a coward!” However, it’s not that easy — the two families are connected tightly and it all rests on his shoulders. The mothers are friends, the fathers are friends. His father is the director of his fiancée’s hospital. Marriage has been on the table for the past decade.
Ji-hyung argues that even now, he’s so conflicted he’s about to go crazy. The reason he’s telling Jae-min all this is because he needs him to look after Seo-yeon, because he won’t be able to. The irony of that is not lost on Jae-min — the bastard ex-lover, asking her own oppa to take care of her after he casts her aside? Yeah, real honorable.
Jae-min tells him he’s a waste of a punch, and leaves him with the parting words, “Don’t just say you’re going crazy — go crazy. Then I’ll believe you.” With that, he walks away and closes the door on that friendship.
After dinner with their aunt and uncle, Seo-yeon and Moon-kwon return home, where they realize that she left the gas stove on when she left for dinner. He hurries to air out the place and scolds his noona, thinking that her absent-mindedness could have killed them.
But Seo-yeon’s reaction is telling — she’s downright spooked at her memory lapse and even lies to her brother about not forgetting. She’s so upset with herself that she snaps at Moon-kwon, who tries to lighten her mood, to no avail.
When Ji-hyung comes home that night, Mom brings up the whole honeymoon issue again, telling him that she’s leaving it to him to figure out. (She says, “You take care of it” but she really means, “You’re going to do as I say, right?”) She warns him that Hyang-gi’s mother is a little miffed at his taking Hyang-gi for granted; clearly he needs to be a more attentive fiancé.
But Ji-hyung is bone-weary and just about at the end of his rope, and he asks his mother quietly, “What would you do if I said I wanted to call off the wedding?”
His mother senses he’s serious and grabs his arm, pulling him into another room. What does he mean?
In a despairing voice, Ji-hyung pleads, “I don’t want to do it. Please let me out.” He tells her he doesn’t love Hyang-gi — he loves someone else.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of this drama going in, and even as I was watching, I wasn’t sure what the story was, because characters and impressions change even within one exchange. I love that feeling of discovery, as you put together the pieces and figure out what’s what. Because we dive into this drama right in the thick of the action — the characters are already in relationships — there’s a sense that we’re peering into their lives and trying to understand them, even as they’re trying to understand each other.
The dialogue is sharp, which isn’t surprising coming from a writer known as a dialogue master. It’s not necessarily witty or banter-y, but it is keen and insightful and sometimes cutting. It’s the antithesis of on-the-nose dialogue, which is the mark of clumsy writing — you know, when characters yell at each other, “I’m mad at you!” or cry, “I’m so sad!” Here, the characters talk about things that aren’t the things they’re talking about. Like Ji-hyung clinging to his anger and taking it out on her damned high heels, rather than admitting that this breakup is tearing him up. This deflection is real, and it’s interesting. The dialogue feels to me like a tool, not merely revealing character but also shaping it.
The show almost feels like a stage play — which is something I also thought of Que Sera Sera — in that there’s not a lot of actual movement in the present-day plot, yet so much is revealed in these intelligently mapped conversations.
Normally, I think an overuse of flashbacks can become a lazy crutch, but I think they’re a great tool here, given the drama’s whole memory motif. I can’t wait to see what else comes out in memory, as we get the sense of watching multiple narratives play out simultaneously, but non-linearly. It’s sort of like life in that way too — things may have happened to us far in the past, but perhaps they lay dormant and don’t ping with us until something happens today to bring them back to the surface. We’re as much shaped by our pasts as we are by our presents, after all.
Last but not least, Kim Rae-won and Su Ae are perfectly cast in this — emotive, strong, vulnerable, realistic, and compelling. I’m not sure I’m going to love everything that happens in Thousand Day Promise, but I do think it’s going to keep me wound up in knots. In a good way.