Dear My Friends: Episode 1
Esteemed screenwriter Noh Hee-kyung is back with a slice-of-life drama which sets out to prove that even though one may be old, one is forever young at heart. Dear My Friends was specifically chosen to celebrate tvN’s 10th anniversary, and while a story predominately about people in their 60’s-80’s may seem like a surprising choice for a channel known for trendy dramas, the combination of an excellent script touching on universal truths (and hilarious moments), plus a veteran cast who seem to have leapt at the opportunity to play more than just the stock roles available to people of their age, gives us a drama that promises to make the mundane magical.
EPISODE 1: “Sorry, but I’m not curious about you all”
At an outdoor cafe, JO HEE-JA (Kim Hye-ja), 72, sips her coffee as she gazes around at the hustle and bustle of the streets of Seoul. The high-rises attract her attention, and she finds her way to the rooftop of one particular building. Carefully she makes her way to the edge and glances down, marveling that this would be the perfect way to die.
The owner of a popular restaurant, JANG NAN-HEE (Go Du-shim), 63, expertly and efficiently prepares orders while arguing with her daughter, PARK WAN (Go Hyun-jung), 37, about the upcoming school alumni reunion. Wan doesn’t want to go to her mother’s reunion, but Mom can’t drive herself and her friends, having had her license revoked due to a DUI. She tells Wan it will be good experience as a writer, who now spends her time translating the works of others, and that she should write short stories about her friends’ colorful lives.
For example, a year ago, Hee-ja’s husband died in his sleep — in his closet. Even though she’s mildly intrigued by the story, Wan refuses to take her mother’s bait, and further refuses to go to Nan-hee’s reunion. Besides, she grumbles, in this day and age when caring for parents is a burden, who buys books about old fogeys, anyway?
Wan’s attitude quickly transforms when Hee-ja arrives. Even if it might be just an act, Wan greets her happily, calling her “auntie” and asking how long it’s been since she’s returned from the Philippines.
In a voice-over, Wan informs us that after her husband’s funeral a year ago, Hee-ja overheard her children arguing with each other who was going to take care of their helpless mother. Most of her children believe that their mother should have been the one to die first since she’s never lived alone and has no idea how to care for herself, but her youngest son, YOO MIN-HO (Lee Kwang-soo) angrily insists he’ll take responsibility for her.
All Hee-ja hears, though, is that her children think that she should have been the one to die first, and she wonders if she’s supposed to live or die. Determined, she packs her bags to live with one of her sons and his family in the Philippines, because at least she can help out with the housework and not be too much of a burden.
Except her son already has two maids in his employ, and with their constant chorus of “sorry, Ma’am” as they rush to intervene the moment she tries to do anything on her own, she realizes that her attempts at help out are seen as a threat to the maids’ jobs. Her son’s fancy house is no better than a prison, and she leaves a note declaring that she’s returning to Seoul as she quietly escapes during the night.
After arriving at the airport, she’s stubbornly determined to do everything on her own, even insisting that she’ll load her own heavy suitcase into the bus. While the bus driver yells at her to sit down, she calmly tells him that her legs are still strong, and she would prefer to stand (instead of being treated in a preferential way due to her age), but the bus driver just barks that standing is illegal when the bus is on the highway, so she better sit down so they can finally get going.
Min-ho calls her, frustrated that he just found out she’s returned to Seoul after sneaking away in the night. He’s headed to the airport to pick her up, but she sweetly informs him she’s on the bus, going home. That’s a ridiculous notion, since he knows that there’s no way she can live by herself in her now-empty house. She should just wait for him and he’ll figure out what to do, but she finally loses her cool and yells at him that she can do it on her own. She can live alone, too!
Back in the present, Hee-ja watches Nan-hee gulp down her lunch. It’s not that she doesn’t have time, since they’re closing the restaurant after they’ve sold out of ingredients for the day — she’s just starving. She points out to Hee-ja one of her favorite regulars (Jang Hyun-sung). He comes for lunch every day, and from the guitar that he carries, she assumes he’s a musician — that, of course, means he’s poor and therefore not marriage material, but at least he’s pretty to look at.
MOON JUNG-AH (Na Mun-hee), 72, bursts into the back room just then. The party has arrived! Or it will arrive soon, when Wan appears with an armful of beer. The woman enjoy their little mid-day beer break as they get caught up on each other’s lives — or marvel that Wan’s breasts are so plump. Ahhh, aunties — there’s no such thing as being too personal.
In a voice-over, Wan points out that the only luxuries she’s ever seen the frugal and cheerful Jung-ah enjoy is her fancy coat (a gift from Hee-ja) and the kind of beer her idol used to drink — which someone else always seems to buy for her.
Jung-ah’s thriftiness is shown as she tirelessly walks up and down the street market, filling up her cart with items from the various stalls. One of her daughter calls her, and she insists she’s at the grocery store, since it takes too much effort to buy everything at the street market. But as soon as she hangs up, she grumbles that grocery stores are too expensive.
She has three daughters who hire her during the week to help out with household chores. She happily sings as she vacuums and does the laundry at one of her daughter’s homes, only to have her daughter yell at her from the bedroom, where she’s trying to sleep. Cheerful Jung-ah is mildly put out by the fact her grumpy daughter refuses to roll over and look at her, but she doesn’t want to reveal the nasty bruise on her face — the kind that would suggest domestic abuse.
As she’s making kimchi for daughter #3 (and proving how contrary she is, right after she tells her daughter that of course she won’t give him any kimchi, she immediately lets him have a taste), her phone rings. It’s Hee-ja, who’s visiting Jung-ah’s mother in the nursing home. They do a video chat since Jung-ah can’t be there, since she’s too busy working to make the money to pay for the nursing home. It’s sweet how Hee-ja calls Jung-ah her own mother, and Jung-ah doesn’t need any encouragement to perk up her aged mother’s spirits with a song.
Jung-ah has patiently lived her life as a housewife for her husband and daughters in anticipation of one day traveling the world once her husband retires. But when her penny-pinching husband KIM SUK-GYUN (Shin Gu), 75, arrives home for dinner, she wonders when he’ll finally quit his job so they can travel. Considering he’s still been working small jobs even after his official retirement, she assumes that he must have saved up quite a bit — a million dollars, perhaps?
He yells at her to stop nagging him, and she unflappably switches the subject to the upcoming reunion and her final driving test this week. Perhaps their world tour could be one long road trip. In her voice-over, Wan says that her mother and Hee-ja believe that Suk-gyun keeps his promises — just like Jung-ah, they believe that she’ll travel the world. However, Wan doubts that it will happen.
As Hee-ja cleans her house (with tape and Kleenex) and watches one of her favorite movies, Thelma & Louise, she reassures her son Min-ho that she’s fine by herself and that she has a whole evening planned. She’s totally fine by herself — no need to worry. Her dinner is an ice cream bar, though, and when the clock strikes eight, she hurries over to the window and cautiously opens the curtains.
Across the street is her handsome neighbor (Daniel Henney), who smiles and winks at her as he works out (while shirtless, of course). Scandalized, she closes the curtains, amazed that this crazy man keeps smiling at her every time he exercises. She assumes he’s just looking down on her because she’s an old woman living alone.
Wan receives Jung-ah’s and Hee-ja’s texts (which were sent at the suggestion of Wan’s mother, Nan-hee), preemptively thanking her for driving them to the reunion. Except she still hasn’t agreed to do it, and she calls Mom up, reminding her of that very fact. She’s got a magazine deadline to meet! Except Mom is too busy enjoying her favorite “colatec” (a disco specifically geared to the older crowd) to pay attention to Wan’s whining.
Even though she ignores Wan’s phone calls, she picks up for OH CHOONG-NAM (Yoon Yeo-jung), 65, who tells her she better come to the reunion or else, since it’s being held at her cafe and all those old fogeys who have nothing better to do will arrive early. Nan-hee better not abandon her! Choong-nam carries in a couple of fancy bottles of wine to a table of intelligentsia arty types. One of the men (Sung Dong-il) points out that they didn’t order it, but Choong-nam believes good wine belongs with good conversation, so it’s on the house (much to her staff’s disapproval).
Annoyed at her mother, Wan complains to the person at the other end of the video call (who’s face can’t be seen due to misaligned camera) that she doesn’t understand why her mother thinks she could learn from these old women. All they do is fight when they meet each other, gossip behind each other’s backs, and generally just make a big fuss. Just because someone is old, doesn’t mean they are also mature.
Her mysterious person chides her for her rude manners to the elderly, but she just orders him to fix his camera so she can see his face properly. He teasingly and slowly nudges the camera to fix it as his face gradually appears on the screen. Surprise, surprise, it’s Jo In-sung, in his cameo as Wan’s lover, SEO YUN-HA.
Just then, Wan’s phone rings — it’s her publisher, HAN DONG-JIN (Shin Sung-woo), inviting her out to celebrate the completion of a book. She’d go if it were just the two of them, but not as a big party. When he hears her distracted conversation with Yun-ha before she shuts down the video chat, Dong-jin tells her not to bother coming.
Wan settles in to work on magazine article when her phone rings. It’s yet another auntie, informing her that she’s going to be moving back to Korea. That’s apparently the motivation Wan needs to give her mother and her friends a ride, because the next morning, she waits in the car while Nan-hee hurries into the church to fetch the pious Hee-ja.
As she convinces Hee-ja to skip out on church, watching them closely is LEE SUNG-JAE (Joo Hyun), 72.
The last auntie to be picked up is Jung-ah, who is triumphant at having just completed her final driving test. Wan drives down the twisty country roads, all the while somehow managing to keep her composure as Hee-ja sings along to her collection of trot songs, Jung-ah shoves clementine pieces into everyone’s mouth, and Nan-hee yells into her phone as she talks to her mother. Not helping the cause is an impatient driver, endlessly honking his horn as he tries to find a free stretch to pass them.
Nan-hee’s mother (and Wan’s grandmother) OH SSANG-BON (Kim Young-ok), 86, is stubbornly independent, insisting she can get to the reunion location on her own. Her ATV might be safer, considering that the jerk in the honking car behind Wan finally manages to drive them off the road as he passes them.
Just as Wan’s about to get back on the road, Hee-ja apologetically says that she has to use the restroom, and at her age, she can’t really hold it in. Annoyed, Wan waits in the car as her mother and Jung-ah help Hee-ja find the perfect tree to squat behind. The women enjoy their little nature break, laughing as they pick flowers and tease each other.
They’re ready to get back on the road… but the battery is dead. At her mother’s encouragement, Wan grudgingly flags down a passing car to help them, and when Nan-hee expresses surprise that the driver actually agreed to help, Wan flips her hair and reveals a little cleavage — the reason she got him to stop, much to the women’s amusement.
It’s smooth sailing to the reunion, and all the old alumni are happy to reconnect. Wan watches from the safety of the car until Suk-gyun raps on the window, and manages to immediately point out that Wan is unmarried, with an unsuccessful career, and shamefully doesn’t respect her mother.
Mom comes to her rescue, though, telling Suk-gyun that Wan wanted to come along so she could interview the old people for her book. In a voice-over, Wan informs us that she generally dislikes most old people, but she especially detests Suk-gyun.
The reunion is in full swing, and Wan, along with Choong-nam’s waitstaff, scurry to keep the tables filled with food and bottles of beer, soju, and makgeolli. It’s exhausting, thankless work, and despite her best efforts, she gets dragged into a few drunken elderly conversations (where Suk-gyu insists to his buddies that there’s no way he’s wasting his money on trip around the world), all eager to share their stories with the “writer.”
Jung-ah and Hee-ja muse over Suk-gyu’s inferiority complex — he only graduated from middle school, while most of the other alumni at least went to high school, if not college, yet he still stubbornly insists on holding court in his corner of the patio. They also wonder who’s died since the last reunion, and if they’ll make to the next reunion. Interestingly enough, Hee-ja doesn’t directly answer.
Granny Ssang-boon keeps a watchful eye on the men, wondering what they’re talking about. But it’s all nonsense that she believes deserves to punished — insulting their mothers and treating their wives poorly.
Wan serves the table of artsy intelligentsia (reunion or no, they will have their daily meal), who are surprised to hear that Wan’s Choong-nam’s niece. She lets them think she’s blood-related, but as she walks away, her pleasant server demeanor drops as she says that if she really were Choong-nam’s niece, there’s no way she’d let those so-called artists continue to live, the way they clearly take advantage of her auntie.
She finally slips out for a break, sneaking a greatly needed cigarette. Choong-nam spies her through the window, watching as Wan carefully disguises any trace of her smoking so her mother doesn’t find out. When Wan returns to the kitchen, Choong-nam points out some of the artwork she’s acquired. Wan still thinks the men are abusing Choong-nam’s generosity, but Choong-nam likes hanging out with them. Besides, she’s not an old fogey — she’s still a virgin!
A ruckus outside catches their attention — it’s LEE YOUNG-WON (Park Won-sook), 63, a successful actress who’s just arrived, accompanied by her (much younger) boyfriend. Everyone is delighted to see her, except Nan-hee, who apparently is still holding a thirty-year-old grudge. Young-won’s been living in America until now, and embraces Granny like a long-lost child.
The party is over, and all that’s left are a few hold-outs as Wan helps the aunties clean up. Now that the liquor is gone, Wan sees no reason they should linger, but Nan-hee agrees to go on a soju run — besides, she’s too proud to leave the reunion before Young-won does.
As Wan drives the aunties to get more soju, she asks her mother why she hates Young-won so much. Hee-ja and Jung-ah try to plead with her to just drop it, but Wan is just as stubborn as her mother. She points out that once upon a time, her mother and Young-won were like two peas in a pod — so what happened thirty years ago that caused Nan-hee to hate her so much?
Nan-hee refuses to answer, and Wan says that she’ll buy the soju if she promises to leave as soon as they get back. As the aunties wait for Wan to return, they spot Young-won’s boyfriend getting out the car and heading to a motel room, where, through the open window, they spy him embrace a younger woman who is definitely not Young-won.
The aunties are horrified by the kissing, but Nan-hee takes a picture with her phone, determined to show Young-won. She hails a taxi before Wan can snatch the phone from her, and while the old fogeys are still drunkenly discussing their younger days, Young-won charmingly cleans up after them.
Cranky Suk-gyun gets called out by Choong-nam, who tells him he should be nicer to Jung-ah. When he grumps that a spinster doesn’t know anything about marriage, she tells him the only reason she’s stayed single is because she didn’t want to marry a bully like him.
In the midst of this, Nan-hee returns, telling Young-won that she still has a sense of decency. When Young-won knew that Nan-hee’s husband was cheating on her, Young-won kept it a secret. But she won’t be like that, and she hands over the phone with the picture of Young-won’s boyfriend embracing another woman.
But instead of reacting to Nan-hee, Young-won simply calls up her boyfriend, congratulating him on getting back together with his wife. After she hangs up, Young-won calmly tells Nan-hee that she must have misunderstood. He wasn’t her lover, he was just her boyfriend, emphasis on friend.
Nan-hee’s fury erupts as the wounds of thirty years are rubbed raw. Yelling at Young-won, she accuses her of lying to her face when she’d asked long ago if her husband was cheating. How could she treat a friend like that?
At that precise moment, the very woman Nan-hee’s husband cheated on her with calls Young-won’s phone. Any hope at friendly reconciliation is smashed as Nan-hee accuses Young-won of further lying about breaking things off with that other friend. Angry, she jumps forward. Let the hair-pulling commence! Even Granny gets into it, and soon all the friends are struggling to hold each other off. What a great way to end a party.
For anyone looking for an exciting plot, the recommendation would be to look elsewhere. This is clearly a character-driven drama, but what characters! We’ve only just finished the first episode, and yet everyone feels so incredibly real to me. I believe that these women have been friends for 30+ years, no question.
It’s hard to accurately express how important all the small moments are in this drama. Everything is about character building, all the background action has relevance, even if it’s just one character looking at a phone (or discretely swiping someone else’s phone — I see you there, Choong-nam). The way language is used and how people react to certain situations reveal so much. Does it say something that I feel as though I can already analyze each character, just having known them for one hour? Even minor characters, the ones we only briefly meet for right now, are so interesting that I not only want to know their story, but somehow I also feel like I already do.
Although it may seem irrelevant on paper (where plot is king), the scene where Wan shakes up the beer and sprays it over the aunties reveals so much: frugal Jung-ah protests that Wan is wasting money by spraying the beer; the resident “4D” and clean-freak Hee-ja enjoys the hilarity of the moment, but worries about getting mussed; stubbornly independent Wan, who doesn’t care to really listen to her aunties, insists that it’s her money, she can do what she likes, and then pops that bottle open with a spoon, revealing the tough side handed down by the generations of women in her family. And then there’s Mom, Nan-hee, who pretends to let Wan think she’s “let” Mom win their wrestling matches, but she’s still the tough-cookie who wins in the end.
There are definitely some gaps in the story, but I feel those are purposeful gaps. In a sense, we, the viewer, are Wan. Presumably, most drama viewers would not necessarily be inclined to watch a show about the old fogeys when there isn’t the promise of a whodunnit crime-thriller or a happily-ever-after rom-com. It’s easy to dismiss their stories as makjang when we only have a surface view. But when the stories begin to unfold, as we realize that these women have led amazing lives — or about to live the life they’ve always wanted — suddenly those gaps begin to make sense.
While I was a little thrown by the way the show plays with time jumps, I’ve realized that’s what happens when someone talks about their life. Stories passed down in casual conversation are so very rarely expressed in a strict linear fashion. There are dances down bunny trails as one memory sparks another. Details are momentarily forgotten, and then added in back later. In this sense, I can believe that these are glimpses of the stories Wan eventually writes, once she realizes that her aunties have a unique voice, worthy to be shared. Presumably she will go through an awakening as she realizes that the elderly aren’t merely annoying creatures that force her to do things she doesn’t want to, but people in their own right who have experienced — and will continue to experience — the same emotional roller-coaster she goes through as well. The same hopes and fears and dreams and love and loss.
I am super excited for the rest of the drama, since I am not bothered about the lack of plot and know that this cast can uphold anything that is thrown to these characters. While I was vaguely concerned about the directing (having experienced — and recapped! — this director’s previous work, My Secret Hotel, which left something to be desired), I’m pleased with the warmth that is pouring from the screen. From the choice of music that evokes a sense of nostalgia for a past I’ve never had, to the lovely use of color, lighting, and composition, the drama feels both somehow fresh and yet as comfortable as my favorite old T-shirt.
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