If You Like… Contract Marriages
We’re rolling out a new feature, which we’re calling the “If You Like…” series, intended to help you wade through dramaland waters for your favorite plot devices, character types, or recurring themes.
‘Cause you know you’ve got your favorites—or your Achilles heels, as the case may be—whether it’s a soft spot for heartbroken second leads or a need to watch every separated-at-birth show ever created. And while you may have no trouble sussing out what all the crossdressing dramas are (they’re a bit obvious that way), perhaps you’re in the hunt for a less visible trope, or want more dramas that don’t make it on the usual lists of recommended titles.
I’m taking on contract marriages for this first post because I’ve been watching the drama Sweet 18, which I missed when it aired a decade ago. There’s probably a series review post in the works so I won’t give away too much here, but I’ve found it a surprisingly addictive watch despite the age of the show, and it reminded me just how much I love stories of people being shoved together first and then falling in love.
The forced proximity conceit can work in various forms, whether we’re talking reluctant roommates or housekeepers-employers or dorm buddies. But there’s something special about matrimony that makes it my favorite version, when lead characters think they can escape the trappings of a paper-only marriage with their hearts intact, only to fall hard. Maybe it’s because there’s an added gravity to the proceedings when you say “I do,” even if you don’t really mean it at the moment. Or maybe it’s because this subverts the expectation of marriage as a happily-ever-after “reward”—instead, marriage is the vehicle and the setting. The starting point, not the resolution. Muahaha.
Note: We aren’t necessarily endorsing the dramas mentioned here. Some are valid recommendations, while others are included because they fit the category. We’ll leave it to you to judge whether to watch.
1% of Anything (2003)
The premise: A kind schoolteacher helps out an elderly man who turns out to be a chaebol chairman. To her shock, she’s named the beneficiary of his huge fortune following his death—and the old man cuts out his own grandson from the will. There’s a caveat, however, that he may inherit if he marries the woman Grandpa has picked. The cold businessman grandson thus strikes up a reluctant acquaintance with the heroine, resulting in a contract marriage that is supposed to be temporary but which eventually grows into romance.
Caveat: I haven’t watched 1% of Anything, but as one of the earliest contract-marriage dramas, it seems remiss to leave it off the list. So this isn’t an outright recommendation as much as it’s a heads-up, if you want to see Kang Dong-won back when he was still doing dramas (sigh), playing a bristly chaebol who wants to earn his success on his own terms, falling for Kim Jung-hwa as a sweet heroine. The two apparently butt heads quite a bit at the outset, which gives way to attraction as they grow closer.
The story’s based on a popular novel written by Hyun Go-eun, who was also the drama’s scriptwriter. At 26 episodes, it’s a bit longer than most trendy rom-coms, but considering how much I love stories where the guy is initially a jerk but soon finds himself getting jealous and petty, I may have to put this on my list.
Sweet 18 (2004)
The premise: A marriage between the grandchildren of two lifelong friends is arranged when the leads are mere children. Years later when the heroine graduates from high school, gramps is eager to get the kids hitched, and though the modern leads find the arrangement old-fashioned and unrealistic, they settle for a contract marriage where they both get to keep their own personal lives to themselves… which lasts all of about a minute.
I’m currently loving this show, which shows some signs of aging but does hold up over time with a strong central couple whose relationship development is believable and sweet. The drama is an opposites-attract romance where she’s the bubbly, heart-on-her-sleeve ball of emotion, while he’s the reserved serious workaholic who could use a bit of loosening up. One of my favorite aspects of the show is that they go into the marriage treating it like a roommate scenario, and then have to deal with the pounding hearts when attraction starts growing (especially for him). But since they’ve drawn that platonic line so clearly, it takes extra effort to cross it, and watching them dance around it trying to muster up the nerve to broach their real feelings (and then backing off, then approaching again) is a big part of the fun.
The tone is upbeat and comedic, and Sweet 18 is a classic old-school romantic comedy with simple conflicts and meddling second leads who can be annoying, though they’re fun to hate because they are ultimately ineffectual (Lee Da-hae plays the scheming ex). Plus, this is the show that got leads Han Ji-hye and Lee Dong-gun dating in real life for several years. They’ve since broken up and she’s gotten married, but the chemistry is there, and very cute.
Full House (2004)
The premise: The heroine is conned out of her house and kicked out by the haughty movie star who moves in. She negotiates a deal to stay as his maid, but in the wake of compromising gossip the star decides to quiet the scandal with a quiet contract marriage. Cue hijinks.
Probably one of the most popular contract-marriage dramas around, Full House was a sensation at home and across Asia. But you probably know that, and I bet you’ve probably already seen it. So maybe this entry really only applies for, oh, two of you out there who’ve never heard of the show.
Full House is a light, mindless watch that zips by quickly and, like many rom-coms of its time, relies on rather simplistic conflicts and plot turns that aren’t entirely logically sound. I know, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any rom-com that is completely logically sound, but this one really glosses over its plot holes and hopes you don’t stop to question it too hard.
The chemistry between Rain and Song Hye-gyo was never the sizzling kind, ending up with a cute but kind of sexless relationship where bickering acts as a stand-in for romantic development. So I wouldn’t get your hopes up for pounding hearts or sexual tension, although the characters go through the motions well enough to carry the drama’s thin plotline. I couldn’t imagine getting hooked on the show nowadays, but it could make for a good marathon watch on a rainy weekend.
My Little Bride (2004)
The premise: Similar to Sweet 18, this one marries off two youngsters because of pressure from elders, although the heroine is still in high school—and the hero’s a teacher at her school. They keep their marriage quiet for the sake of her reputation and bicker like dogs at home, but it’s not long before the lines start blurring and hearts skip. (Note: My Little Bride is a movie, not a drama series.)
There are a few aspects about My Little Bride that may trip you up. The teacher-student scenario, perhaps, or the age gap. Stars Kim Rae-won and Moon Geun-young are only six years apart in age and she was 17 when the film came out, so it’s not like we’re dealing with an actual child bride, per se. But the hero and heroine have known each other all their lives and have a very sibling-like relationship full of name-calling and petty squabbling, which makes the process of romantic awakening potentially unsettling. I have to find any story where the hero is waiting for his wife to grow up to be a little bit squicky.
On the other hand, the movie does attempt to smooth out some of those bumpy moments and the plot stays in sweet and innocent territory. Both actors are very appealing, and in the end I found myself rooting for those kids to work it out, even if I didn’t really believe the romantic chemistry between them—it’s definitely a chaste kind of love. As a fluffy comedy, it’s a zippy two hours. If you want a more believable romance, I’d go for Sweet 18 instead.
Delightful Girl Chun-hyang (2005)
The premise: Based on an old folktale in which young lovers secretly marry, Delightful Girl Chun-hyang updates the story with modern-day characters. The marriage between two high school juniors is necessitated as a damage-control measure when they’re caught in a (totally innocent, we swears) compromising situation. They decide to keep the relationship strictly buddy-buddy until they’re older, at which point they’ll re-evaluate whether they want to stay married. (Hint: They do.)
This drama totally won my heart, and remains one of my favorites even when looking back on it years later and seeing its flaws with the benefit of time and distance. The Hong sisters have gotten more high-concept, punny, and complex in their stories since then, but here in their first drama, the relatively simple story has a winning freshness. (Well, it felt pretty fresh in 2005.) It’s consistently funny and leads Jae Hee and Han Chae-young hit on a nice balance between bickering and attraction—the love connection feels credible, and when you’re invested in that, you’re willing to follow the characters through everything.
Because the couple is married while they’re still in high school, they never act genuinely married, nor can they ignore each other, and no they’re not dating either. It’s the in-between-ness that keeps everyone on their toes, and the drama follows them over a span of years so we watch them growing into adults as their romance grows too. There are a couple absurdly persistent second leads, but the strength of the central pairing trumps their meddlesome ways.
The premise: In a fictional Korea where the monarchy still exists, the young crown prince approaches adulthood and is deemed ready for marriage. We can thank more grandfathers for the pairing of the snobby royal heartthrob and a plucky ordinary high school student. She enters the palace and learns how to be a princess (clumsily), but eventually wins over the nation and, more importantly, her husband.
The alternate reality Goong builds, not to mention the gorgeous costuming and sets, are enough to make this drama a recommended watch; there’s still nothing quite like it. Based on a manhwa, the show retains that fantasy feel and builds up the lead couple’s romance in a gradual but compelling escalation. I’ll admit to finding Joo Ji-hoon’s cold prince to be a prime jerkwad of a hero and was rooting for them mostly for Yoon Eun-hye’s sake, but they did have pretty fantastic chemistry (and pretty hot make-out sessions, a rarity amidst all the closed-mouth kisses we normally see).
There are some issues of pacing (slowish, thanks to a late-game four-episode extension) and palace politics I could have done without (none of which I remember, because that was never the point). It’s not a seamless affair and Goong wasn’t a crack drama for me. But for a romance that starts out as a forced arrangement, we get a pretty engaging transformation between the two, and in particular on the hero’s side. Because the whole purpose to having assy cold-hearted heroes is to see them tumbling off their high horse when they fall in love, isn’t it?
I Love You (2008)
The premise: Here’s a backward romance in action: A mismatched couple hurries into marriage when a one-night stand leads to pregnancy. They can fall in love—or, you know, get acquainted—later.
The cast comprises three couples, each depicting a different type of modern marriage as they encounter conflicts and figure out how to navigate their relationships. I Love You is based on a popular manhwa but never made a big splash as a drama, which isn’t too surprising given its low-key vibe. That’s not a criticism—the relaxed air is part of its charm—but it doesn’t have the big dramatic set-pieces or sweeping arcs that tend to hook viewers.
Though not strictly a contract marriage premise, I Love You sort of qualifies in that it features a couple who gets married before they’re in love, letting the marriage set the stage for relationship to bloom rather than acting as the endpoint. It’s also an opposites-attract romance and a bit of a May-December setup (perhaps May-September is a better descriptor?) with Seo Ji-hye playing a 21-year-old and Ahn Jae-wook playing a 35-year-old, even if he’s a very immature one. So while I Love You lacks a punchiness that drives a lot of my favorite rom-coms, it might fit the bill if you’re in the mood for something a bit more laid-back.
Accidental Couple (Just Looking) (2009)
The premise: An ordinary citizen helps out a movie star, protecting her image from potential scandal, which turns a bit sideways and gets him involved instead. The couple decides on a contract marriage for six months, intending to divorce quietly after the frenzy subsides.
This drama is all about Hwang Jung-min, who is wonderful (no surprise, as he is wonderful in everything) playing the humble everyman who gets caught up in the press whirlwind and whose only desire is to be of assistance. Kim Ah-joong is fine as the star, though I think both casting and writing make for a heroine who could be interchangeable with any number of other actresses. The drama runs the couple through many of the expected tribulations, with divorce being both a goal and a threat at various points.
I wouldn’t look to Accidental Couple as much of a romance story, but it does have some worthwhile elements. Namely, the bromance that develops between Hwang Jung-min and his young brother-in-law (Baek Sung-hyun) all but takes over the show, which is not a bad thing. Joo Sang-wook plays a forgettable second lead, while Lee Chung-ah has a cute but fairly minor supporting role.
I’m pretty sure you’d be able to predict exactly how Accidental Couple unfolds, but sometimes you just want something comfortable and familiar. We can’t live solely on crack (dramas), right?
It’s Okay, Daddy’s Girl (2010)
The premise: This example is different in that the contract marriage belongs to a secondary couple, so the premise listed here is about their relationship rather than the show as a whole. The bride chooses to marry in a sacrificing gesture to help her bankrupt family, while the groom is a prodigal son whose parents strong-arm him into marrying a respectable girl hoping she’ll be a good influence and curb his wild ways.
I have to start off with the warning that It’s Okay, Daddy’s Girl is not a drama I’d freely recommend to anyone—it is incredibly flawed and strangely paced and just kind of weird all around. Even so, I think of it fondly for all the heart-warming character bonds that developed (in between the crazy other stuff), and this marriage is one of the show’s highlights.
At first, the bride seems to have essentially thrown herself onto a sacrificial altar to save her family (and we may have to overlook how the whole setup of her needing to marry for money is rather gothic to begin with). Look at that picture—she’s crying her way down the aisle, fer Pete’s sake. Her husband is a big baby without any desire to do anything worthwhile with himself—his family is rich, he gets an allowance from mommy, and he spends his days (and nights) partying with his bro-dudes. But then when the wife actually needs emotional support, the playboy rises to the challenge and to everyone’s surprise (including his own), he kinda likes being the decent man. His marriage rewrites his life’s script, and he finds that when he’s given an option other than nightclubs and womanizing, he enjoys the alternative. The marriage goes from sham to earnest, and offers a rewarding resolution.
(Even if the drama is a mess.)
Ojakkyo Brothers (2011)
The premise: Another secondary pairing. Two co-workers have a one-night stand that leads to pregnancy, and are pushed into marriage by their families. The couple hits upon a contract marriage as a compromise, intending to keep up appearances to the outside world for the sake of their child while keeping their distance at home.
There seem to be two main types of contract marriages: the kind where both sides enter it with equal indifference, and the kind where one side is well on their way to falling in love while the other side takes his sweet old time, hmph. This drama falls into the latter category, which is not inherently better or worse than the other kind but which does make for a potentially more frustrating scenario because we have to watch one side suffering in silence while the other side stays oblivious. (It’s for this reason that I tend to appreciate the mutual discovery when both sides start from zero and end up in the same place.)
As a weekend family drama with a longer episode count, Ojakkyo Brothers is paced accordingly, which means that things take a little while to really kick into gear for this couple, especially since this is not the only loveline cooking. The groom’s reluctance to marry the woman he knocked up can be teeth-grindingly frustrating, but to even the score, the bride’s jealousy and hurt feelings can feel excessive in the wake of their contract arrangement. However, one upside to these longer dramas is that the character development feels more realistic, the trajectory more complete. This is a couple who started things by running out on their own wedding ceremony (work crisis!), who end up at mutual understanding and working toward a genuine marriage.
Moreover, the rest of the drama is so winning that even if you find yourself throwing up your hands in the air regarding Ryu Soo-young and Choi Jung-yoon’s marital courtship, you’ll have plenty of time to squeal in glee over the uber-cute romance unfolding concurrently between Joo-won and UEE. (That one has nothing to do with contracts, but I’m sure we don’t care.)
And in the Not Quite Married category (not to mention not quite recommended)…
Mary Stayed Out All Night (2010)
The premise: The heroine wants to avoid getting pushed into an arranged marriage with a chaebol’s son, so she pretends to be married to a rocker boy, but the ruse eventually gets discovered, then at some point she agrees to play the part of prospective fiancée to the chaebol guy anyway and moves in with him, and then is maybe dating the musician too, or breaking up with him repeatedly, and there’s a lot of fake marrying and cohabitating but not a lot of logic.
Here, the contract scenario (albeit a faked marriage) is used to deflect the threat of a real marriage, which is a premise that sounds wacky and hilarious. Plus, the heroine spends time living with both male leads. How great is that, right? (Not actually that great, unfortunately.) You would expect that over the course of playing house with her not-really-husband, the couple would get caught up in loads of uproarious (and romance-building) incidents. To be fair, there are several cute moments between them in the early parts of their fake relationship. But there’s a lot of nonsense cluttering up the works with needless angst (and gangsters and loan sharks and kidnapping), not to mention some really insane parenting.
Ultimately Mary is a show that had room for solid contract-marriage shenanigans but let go of a lot of opportunities with sloppy writing. For a show about two fake marriages, it doesn’t really have much to do with marriage… although it doesn’t really have much to do with reality either so maybe it’s all a wash.
Lie To Me (2011)
The premise: The heroine tells a white lie about being married to save face in front of a smug frenemy, but her story soon spins out of control and entangles the chaebol hero as her surprised “husband.” Conveniently, the hero later requires a fake wife for a business dealing, extending their ruse. They don’t end up married, but after two charades acting the part, at least they find love.
The premise of Lie To Me is classic rom-com stuff. It’s got the requisite comic misunderstandings as the heroine runs her mouth off with wishful thinking, only to find that she has to put her money where her mouth is. Plus the budding chemistry really works, replete with those confusing line-crossing moments when the facade cracks and we’re wondering whether the couple is still acting or really feeling something. The couple is wondering the same thing, caught up in the confusion of blurring boundaries and growing attraction. Those are definitely the show’s highlights.
If that’s enough to sustain your interest, there’s a fluffy fast-forwardable story in there. Where the show falters is in taking its paper-thin conflict and trying to fill sixteen hours with it, when really it should have been a cute two-hour movie. This results in too much screen time with annoying meddlers and needless hand- and heart-wringing angst. Let the fast-forward button be your guide.
The premise: The drama’s ostensibly about a high schooler who swaps souls with a comatose grown-up, but the marriage comes into play when he falls for his shell body’s ex-fiancée, who then offers to marry our hero (wrong body and all) to “protect” him. Yeah, it doesn’t really make sense.
To be fair, I think there exists a way to take the components of Big and arrange them in a way that works out, more or less. The problem is that the show didn’t quite manage to accomplish that, mucking up the works with confusing execution. The heroine’s decision to marry the hero to offer him some sort of legal and emotional protection could (should) have utilized the contract scenario in a more effective way, prodding the two souls to find love in spite of their unromantic arrangement. That’s the whole point of shoving them together, right? But they were already living together since the shell body was already her fiancé, so we didn’t need the marriage to further the existing premise. Thus when “real” marriage is introduced as an option, it rather feels like a woman sacrificing herself as a martyr for a cause, which is about as unromantic as you can make a marriage.
Haeundae Lovers (2012)
The premise: While investigating a crime, the hero is injured and stricken with amnesia, whereupon he is taken in by the heroine’s surrogate family of reformed ex-gangsters. To bail her out of a tough fix, he’s persuaded to step in as her groom, and both find themselves acting the part of the loving newlywed couple to deflect suspicion.
Haeundae Lovers may be a case more of flawed execution than conception, because the broad strokes of the courtship totally hit the right narrative buttons for me. Amnesia, fish out of water, surrogate family, fake courtship? Yes, yes, yes, yes. Plus Jo Yeo-jung and Kim Kang-woo have strong chemistry, mixed in amongst the comic relief moments. There are plenty of those, although my main complaint is that the tone often skews excessively broad, which keeps the show’s emotional beats from landing with sincerity. Though there are some likable characters, this is mostly a silly drama with silly characters.
Empire of Gold (2013)
The premise: This is not a romantic drama, and in fact very little of the show involves a romantic arc. Still, there’s a contract marriage in it, with a chaebol daughter agreeing to marry the ambitious self-made businessman in a purely professional arrangement. It qualifies. Just barely.
This is a drama I’m not up to date on, so I’ll let you figure out whether it’s one you’re up for watching. By all accounts Empire of Gold is a solid show, but it’s definitely a harder-edged drama with a serious tone, and more about power and money than love stories. Furthermore, I don’t know that the marriage above is one to root for. But hey, it was worth a parody in Master’s Sun—which flirted with a contract marriage for half an episode, by the way. That wasn’t quite enough to merit its own entry—nor did Master use the plot point for romantic effect—but I always appreciate a cheeky nod to one of my favorite common drama tropes.
And we’re done!
I did briefly debate whether to expand this post to include contract dating relationships, but decided against it because fake-dating, while sharing similar aspects, doesn’t have quite the same dramatic effect as a marriage does. Still, if you’re interested, you could give the following a try (if you haven’t already seen them, which you probably have): My Name Is Kim Sam-soon, Dal Ja’s Spring, Coffee Prince, and Personal Taste.
A key difference with these dramas is that the romance doesn’t necessarily hinge upon the contract in the same way that the marriage stories do. In fact, many of them just set us up with the contract as a catalyst for the acquaintance, opening the show up to other storylines for the rest of its run. Which makes it a different kettle of fish.
Let me know if I’ve missed any key dramas—gotta add ’em to my watch list.
Tags: 1 show to rule them all, 1% of Anything, Accidental Couple, Big, Delightful Girl Chun-hyang, Empire of Gold, featured, Full House, Goong, Haeundae Lovers, I Love You, If You Like, It's Okay Daddy's Girl, Lie To Me, Mary Stayed Out All Night, Ojakkyo Brothers, Sweet 18