Valid Love: Episode 1
How strange and interesting. Valid Love, the long awaited comeback project for the writer of the impossible-not-to-love classic My Name Is Kim Sam-soon, premiered on cable network tvN earlier this week, and the result may leave you as cautiously optimistic as you are vividly unsettled. Let’s just hope the show will continue to have more moments like its circumcision meet-cute (admit it, you’re curious) than its storied affair between a teacher and his former student (wait, come back!).
I’ll definitely be in as viewer, but for now there’s no guarantee on future recaps. So many premieres left in 2014, so little time.
EPISODE 1: “Pollack”
Peeking through his binoculars from his rooftop perch, jilted husband JANG HEE-TAE (Uhm Tae-woong) watches his wife walking down a darkened street.
“I’ll be watching you from here,” he thinks to himself. His wife may have called him narrow-minded and overly suspicious, but he’s keen on proving otherwise.
Unfortunately for him, mosquitos force him to jump from his hiding place, alerting a nearby motion-sensing light to his presence. “Why? Why me?!” he growls, swatting at the parasites. Hah.
But when his wife disappears into a nearby building, Hee-tae rushes down to the street. And as the lights go off and the shades are drawn, he takes a two-by-four to the locked glass door while yelling to the man he knows is inside with his wife…
…In his head. “That’s what I should have done,” Hee-tae sighs defeatedly from his rooftop perch. It only makes sense that a husband would break down the door when he knows his wife is cheating on him inside, Hee-tae seems to argue to himself, but he can’t bring himself to do the same.
“It seemed like no matter what I saw, it would be worse than what I imagined. Then nothing could be taken back. Even if I wanted to look the other way, I couldn’t. Who would know how I feel? Only husbands with cheating wives.”
Pause for effect. And because Hee-tae has to swat at more mosquitos.
Hee-tae drinks by himself at a nearby convenience store as the wind begins to pick up. The sudden gust is enough to make him wonder why, on a day like this, his wife is with “that bastard.” (He seems to know the guy, or he doesn’t need to.)
As he looks up to the window that his wife is trying to close against the elements, Hee-tae wonders where it all went wrong. Maybe it stems back to the day they first met—the day he met the wife who would continue to constantly surprise him.
Or maybe, just maybe, he married an axe murderer.
Cue the beginning of what will undoubtedly be a long flashback to the sunny day when they first laid eyes on each other. His future wife, KIM IL-RI (Lee Shi-young) was a student then, though her cool introduction is ruined much the same way as Hee-tae’s was when she falls out of the tree she was daydreaming in.
She takes herself to a clinic, worried that she might’ve broken something, but the unimpressed nurse deadpans that the chances are slim considering the fact that she walked in.
Il-ri asks if it makes sense that she’s fine after falling out of a one-hundred-year-old tree. Unimpressed Nurse: “Does it make sense for an orthopedic patient to make a fuss in a urology clinic?” HAHA.
In the adjacent examination room, Hee-tae is a bundle of nerves because he’s made the big boy decision to get an adult circumcision. The doctor seems to know him and can talk him down off the ledge, even though Hee-tae wonders aloud if he can just leave his weewee alone. He’ll just spend more time washing it, he swears!
The doctor doesn’t give him more room to weasel out of it and just sticks a syringe with anesthetic into Hee-tae’s penis. Hee-tae all but jumps off the table screaming, though the worst of his curses are bleeped out.
Il-ri, along with everyone else in the waiting room, hears him loud and clear. But she’s sent on her way before Hee-tae calms down enough to apologize to the doctor, mostly because he’s worried he’ll get a bad cut otherwise. Ha, is it even possible to get the Mom’s Bowl Cut of circumcisions? (Please don’t answer that.)
Hee-tae leaves the clinic with an awkward walk, and ends up riding in the same elevator as a disinterested Il-ri, fresh from the orthopedic clinic upstairs. She doesn’t pay him any mind, while he can only cringe at the “Circumcisions on sale!” advertisement posted. Well, that explains why he decided to go under the knife.
Il-ri has to divert to a pay phone to answer an urgent page—whoever’s calling needs her help, but in her effort to rush off to the rescue, Il-ri bumps into Hee-tae. On a normal day he’d be unharmed, but that sudden jostling goes straight to his wounded pogo stick and sends him crumbling in pain.
Il-ri is mostly just confused by the whimpering ajusshi, and obviously doesn’t know the source of his agony when she attempts to help him to his feet by pulling him up by his belt, which gives him the most painful wedgie imaginable.
They’re soon ushered into a nearby restaurant by uniformed men for a civil defense drill (thanks, North Korea!), giving Il-ri all the time she needs to lay into Hee-tae.
After all, if he hadn’t gotten such a bizarrely late circumcision, he wouldn’t have fallen, and Il-ri would have been able to get home to her needy sister before the drill. Hee-tae can only meekly apologize for getting the surgery at his age in the face of her temper tantrum.
He tries to make amends by getting some food to go so that Il-ri can take it to her sister, especially since he’s been watching her scarf down her meal. But he’s taken completely by surprise when Il-ri turns into another person after eating—suddenly she’s agreeable and understanding, and less of the fire breathing dragon she was only moments ago.
They’ve exchanged some information in the down time, since Hee-tae knows she was trying to get home to her sister, who got bit by a dog. I think he attempts to make a long-winded joke about how strange it is for her sister (named Il-ri, or wolf) to be bitten by a lowly dog, especially when wolves are so endangered they wouldn’t be in Seoul anyway… you get how this isn’t funny, right?
So he switches topics to her mother, who Il-ri says is “at the hospital.” He assumes it to mean she’s sick, but in reality her mom just works in the hospital cafeteria—it makes no difference to him, because he HATES hospitals.
Il-ri guesses that’s why he waited so long to be circumcised, even though he claims he’s justified in his hospital hatred because he was traumatized as a child by rough nurses giving shots at his school.
Once, he describes, he’d ran away from school to avoid getting pricked, and had believed his mother when she said she’d take him out for tonkatsu. But she took him back to school for his shot first. “It was my first betrayal,” he sighs in remembrance. “And the tonkatsu was covered in my tears. So now I don’t eat tonkatsu.” Haha.
Il-ri shows the generational age gap by giving Hee-tae a cheer-up fist bump, like her dad gave her after pulling her tooth—though he lied to her about it in much the same way Hee-tae’s mother did to him. She’s found a commonality between their childhoods, because at least they can agree that you can’t trust anyone.
But that’s where the similarities end, because Il-ri’s father passed away the day after she’d retaliated for her tooth by hitting him. Though she knows now it was stomach cancer, she admits—in a light, conversational tone—that she was convinced for a while that he died because she hit him.
Their deep conversation ends the second the sirens blare that the drill has ended, because Il-ri disappears out of the restaurant and down the street with inhuman speed.
Because Il-ri accidentally took Hee-tae’s phone during the drill, Hee-tae has to only call his number to get ahold of her. While he tries to get a cooling draft to his privates at home, he directs Il-ri to the location where she can drop off his phone while on the line.
He makes it about more than his phone when he asks her about her sister and her name, but his chuckle at her and her sister’s similar-sounding names is cut short when Il-ri tells him her late father is the one who named them, and the similarities had meaning.
She’s the one to hang up first, since she’s already facing the woman she’s supposed to return the phone to outside his house. He can only hobble to the window to watch her go, but he misses her getting hit (more like bumped) by a car.
Il-ri seems dazed but unharmed as she runs away from the couple trying to help her, instead choosing to take the money given to her by Hee-tae’s sister to buy lotto tickets.
She doesn’t win, and Hee-tae narrates from the present that his wife had the luckiest day she’d ever had in all her eighteen years when she didn’t get hurt from that fall. But while Il-ri would count meeting Hee-tae’s sister (aka “that cool unni”) as her luckiest moment, she had no idea what a burden that unni would become.
The next day, all the girls in Il-ri’s class ooh and aah over their hot substitute teacher, who Il-ri belatedly recognizes as Hee-tae. I’d find it adorable that he’s so dependent on his sister’s advice when it comes to managing a class full of young girls (especially when he’s such a fumbling klutz on top of it all), except that his future wife is in his class. And that’s unusual.
At least Hee-soo’s advice comes in handy when dealing with specific problems his sister knew he’d face, but he doesn’t get to establish his authority for long when Il-ri draws his attention by raising her hand. “Teacher, are you all better there?” she asks.
It’s in that moment that Hee-tae recognizes her and realizes how awkward the situation is. While she waves to him excitedly, Hee-tae curses his sister for preparing him for every eventuality as a substitute teacher but this one.
After admitting to one of his fellow teachers that “the scariest people in the world are high school girls,” Hee-tae tracks Il-ri down outside. He acknowledges that it must be weird for them to meet as teacher and student, but Il-ri doesn’t seem to think so—that’s just life, isn’t it? (Is it?)
They make a bit of small talk before falling into a noticeably weird silence, which Hee-tae breaks when he asks her to keep the circumcision business she now knows to herself. She promises to keep her mouth shut before slowly backing away.
The Cool Girls happen to find (or are given) Il-ri’s sketchpad containing a detailed—but in all fairness, very cute—drawing of Hee-tae wobbling around in pain. The sketchpad makes it back to him, and he confronts Il-ri about her broken promise with it.
He tears away the sheet in anger, though he’s momentarily distracted by how good her other drawings are. His attempt at a lecture falls short of the mark, and he can only bluster “You’re bad! You’re a bad student!” before storming out.
Which, consequently, Il-ri finds very cute of him. But when he pops back in to ask her why the other girls call her “Andro,” she answers simply that it’s short for “Andromeda.”
Now that the drawing has been circulated amongst the girls, Hee-tae confirms their leading suspicion—that it’s a drawing of him suffering from hemorrhoids. (Only slightly less embarrassing than the truth, I suppose.)
At least he wins over their respect when he dissects a dried pollack to prove that all fish with a vertebrae have a calcium growth that acts like a record of their lives.
He tasks all the girls with breaking open their pollacks to read their fortunes, and bumps Il-ri on the head with her fish before opening it for her. She retaliates by stabbing at his butt with her pollack, turning it into a spectacle when all the girls see a dried fish sticking out suggestively from between his legs.
Cut to: Il-ri kneeling in the hallway as punishment, with her pollack between her teeth. After thinking to herself that he’s not such a loser after all, Il-ri is reminded of something dire and runs out the door. Hee-tae, thinking she’s trying to escape punishment, goes after her.
He follows her to a tiny tent in the nearby woods, where she’s got a secret stash of art supplies. But she’s actually out on the cliff performing a complicated, nonsensical ritual to welcome a UFO—prompting the two of them to have a conversation about the existence of aliens.
Il-ri believes in them very much, and literally spouts crazy talk about what she’d do if she were abducted (she’d plant an apple tree on the planet Andromeda to mimic the Genesis story because words). Hee-tae totally buys it, which puts the joke on him when Il-ri reveals that she really left because she wanted to escape punishment. She just used the alien talk to fool him.
But she’s fallen for him, as evidenced by her beating away the other girls who try to steal Hee-tae’s attention. He’s still the same dork as before, but now she has hearts in her eyes while watching him embarrass himself now—so that song he sings for the class that sounds flat and unintentionally silly is now a serenade she carries with her back to the cliff.
…Which is where a gigantic pollack appears to her out of the sky. She stretches her hand out to it with a smile as she says that she’ll stop waiting to be abducted by a UFO. ‘Cause she’s gonna marry Hee-tae.
Even though, as she admits to herself, he’s clumsy and confused. And also an idiot. But, she makes up her mind that she’ll protect her pollack/Hee-tae and does so by literally pulling him out of harm’s way on multiple occasions.
Hee-tae narrates in the present that his wife became his guardian angel without him knowing, because she’d somehow appear to save him from danger no matter the time or place. If he so much as stepped on a small animal trap in the woods, she’d appear with her superhuman speed to save him. (Which does actually happen.)
He couldn’t even shake her from walking him home at night, even though he tells her he’s not in any danger as a grown man. She doesn’t hear him from her alternate reality, and doesn’t make a case for her sanity when she uses a dried pollock as a shaman’s wand before pretending it’s a microphone she sings into.
If the point was to make things so awkward for him outside his house that he had no choice but to take her somewhere else, she succeeds. She can’t help but smile with glee as they take the bus together, and her habit of speaking her mind—even if it doesn’t make much sense—has Hee-tae clucking his tongue as he asks her what she wants to grow up to be.
“What do you mean? I’m going to become your guardian angel!” she pipes back. He mentions how she could go to art school with her talent, but she’s of the mind that she has none.
She really has set herself to the task of guardianship, since her backpack is filled with the most random assortment of things she’s decided she needs to protect him from any of the thirty-three thousand dangers lurking about. (Including but not limited to: a hammer, twine, a cup, and pliers. She’ll craft him away from harm!)
But what she really wants to be is a painter, and has already bought khaki pants she plans to use when painting. She knows she’ll look good in them, and that he’ll know she looks good in them, and makes it a point to say so at length.
Then she offers him one of her earbuds, claiming that the Edith Piaf song “La Vie en rose” was a favorite of her father’s—he even listened to it on the day he pulled her tooth. Since she’d been falling asleep in class earlier that day, she nods off on the bus, her head lolling onto Hee-tae’s shoulder.
Instead of peeling her off, Hee-tae thinks back to some of their shared moments at school with a mindset he knows isn’t right. But that doesn’t stop him from laughing at her antics during the walk to her house. Aw, he’s making sure she gets home safe.
No sooner does he drop her off that she comes running from her home screaming that the vicious dog who attacked her sister is back. Hee-tae believes her and starts running, at least until she drops the act to bat her eyes at him: “If it did, I’d protect you.”
She kisses him on the cheek, prompting a long, tense gaze to pass between them. Il-ri gets so swept up in the moment that she leans in and kisses him on the lips, only to come to her own senses when Hee-tae doesn’t know how to react. She runs off without another word.
“Before I knew it, I was counting down the months until she graduated high school,” Hee-tae narrates. “Since it was more than what ten fingers could count, I felt nervous for some reason, and even found it unfair. Even as a substitute, I was still a teacher, and she was a student and minor. I knew that I had to stop before things started flowing in a strange direction. But, as always, she was unpredictable.”
While he’d felt very awkward about what happened the next day, Il-ri felt just the opposite, and even shook her head that he’d be so shy about the kiss when he’s the man.
She asks him to bring his old high school uniform when they meet next at a book store, and when he does, he’s treated to an embarrassing public display as she all but tears his trench coat off in her effort to get him to put on his old uniform. He can study fish all he wants, she says, but she wants to study men.
“That’s my boyfriend,” she says with pride to another student (cameo by Lee Shi-un), nodding toward the shamefully huddled mass of man that is Hee-tae in a high school uniform. HAHA. She got him to put it on?!
Now we get an answer as to who’s been incessantly leaving her voicemails of love, since it seems like she’s put on this whole show to convince potential stalker Lee Shi-un to leave her alone. She’s going to marry her man, after all.
But Shi-un instantly calls her out on having such an ancient boyfriend in an old high school uniform, and she can’t muster up much of a defense even though she tries.
Shi-un just sighs exasperatingly—what makes her think that old man can handle someone like her? “The one to plant an apple tree on Andromeda with you is me!” he says. “He said he’d plant it for me too!” she tries fighting back. Well, Shi-un clearly knows her brand of crazy better than Hee-tae, I’ll give him that.
He confronts Hee-tae to figure out who’s boss, resulting in a nail-bitingly awkward confrontation over who’ll best plant her crazy tree up on Planet Crazy. It ends with her looping her arm through his and calling him in familiar banmal, “Hee-tae-ya.”
At least he finally stands up for himself later by yelling at her for being so disrespectful and cruel. She all but begs him to at least stay her friend, but when she adds that it’s so he can be her lover later, he storms off.
She cries to the heavens about it later, declaring that she’ll still marry and protect him.
But Hee-tae narrates in the present that she showed she meant every word of that promise through her actions. Cut to a scene of her bloody and bruised on the street, having just been run over by a car. A tear falls from her open but unblinking eyes.
“For us to meet again,” he says, “we needed to wait seven years.”
How do I always get the weird ones? Don’t get me wrong, Valid Love has a lot going on—I’m just not really sure how much of it works. There are some interesting elements at play here, with the shining beacon being the sparkling moments of comedy gold interspersed throughout the episode. It’s in those moments that the writer’s talent for heartfelt and timely humor shines through.
It’s in the others where I’m a bit unsure on how to proceed, because while I’d be willing to grant that I’m not the ideal audience for deliberately quirky shows like this, I’m also of the mind that you can sell anything if you try hard enough. And this show certainly is trying, and even succeeds some of the time. It’s just that when it comes to imaginary fish and faster-than-lightning heroines, you’ve got a lot more work to do than the average romantic comedy.
Tonally, it’s a mixed bag. It’d be easy to write it off if it jumped from being silly to melodramatic, but instead it settles somewhere in the middle—when it’s silly, it’s insanely silly, and when it’s serious it actually hits bizarrely close to home. I can’t get a read on what we’re supposed to be feeling at any given moment other than nervous, and in that regard, Hee-tae’s willing humiliation is wonderfully played out. Uhm Tae-woong could not be more physically suited to the role, and brings an emotional depth to his character that seems lacking when it comes to our mad-as-a-hatter heroine.
The vulnerability he brings to such a complicated man is worthy of applause, because his character is doing something he knows he shouldn’t, and that societal norms tell him NOT to do. It’d be easy to hate him for all the unsettling things he represents, and he’s saved by virtue of being Uhmforce. Still, it’s off-putting that he only half-listens to his moral center, mostly because he lets himself be drug around and manipulated by such a clever and determined girl. Because while he knows how to stand up for himself, he’ll usually choose not to.
I think the interesting part comes with his inaction when it came to Il-ri, which is like accusing someone of lying by omission rather than the darker alternative. Though I’d guess by his narration that he finally put some sort of stop to things, he knew what was happening when he was allowing Il-ri to carry on the way she was. I left the hour feeling just as unsettled as I did when the high school romance started, which I can only guess is the point of this whole flashback interlude. If it stayed in this time period and explored their torrid love affair through her remaining years in high school, I’d wish everyone well and respectfully bow out. But I know the story is bound to take us to some interesting places that go beyond this moment, so I’m willing to wait it out a bit.
As it stands, I have a respectful admiration for the show’s willingness to go there when it comes to the exploration of the taboo nature surrounding the romantic angle, which is a theme likely to continue when the the illicit part of their relationship becomes less about the teacher-student divide and more about the extra-marital affair. But at this point, the affair would be a relief—I’ll take anything to get us out of this very uncomfortable stretch of the story. Which again, if that was the intention (and I’m sure that was part of it), then bravo.
Though it would take more episodes to find out, there’s a noticeable flaw when it comes to the directing, which seemed to make some sense when I looked up the PD halfway in only to find that this is his first time directing a drama—all his past credits include films you’ve likely never heard of. That would shed some light on the disharmonious tone going on so far, because though the subject matter is dark, a director more in tune with the story rather than seeming intent on branding the screen with his mark would perhaps be able to lighten the presentation. Unless the darkness is as intentional as the sporadically gut-busting humor, that is. Or maybe it’s simple. Maybe everything we need to know about this show’s tone can be said by the Giant Sky Pollack. Does anyone speak fish that can translate for their god?
- Lee Shi-young’s budding romances in Valid Love
- Valid Love’s cozy threesome posters
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- Lee Shi-young and Uhm Tae-woong get hitched for Valid Love
- Lee Soo-hyuk up to play the other man in Valid Love
- Han Ji-min up for potential drama reunion with Uhm Tae-woong
- Uhm Tae-woong courted for new tvN romance