[Dramaland Catnip] The angst and thrills of dramaland’s reunited lovers
Sly and Single Again
What better way to kick off our new Theme of the Month series than to celebrate one of the many reasons we find dramas so addictive (sometimes against our ideas of good taste, or our better judgment)? Hence “dramaland catnip,” which can be any story idea, trope, or element that is so immediately appealing that the attraction overrides other, possibly more objective considerations.
I’m not talking about feeling excitement for a project upon evaluating its potential merits based on the writing, directing, or production value. That’s logical. Dramaland catnip is for me more of an irrational attraction, like your id unleashed and left to run wild (and claim dominion over the remote control). The kind of idea that sparks interest so instantly that the appeal takes hold before our brains have had time to catch up to assess whether the drama sounds any good.
Maybe the drama will be good—or maybe we know in our brains that the acting will be subpar, or that the story will head for the hills… yet there’s just something about that particular trope that tugs at us and begs to be watched. To mix metaphors, perhaps its appeal is near-Pavlovian, uncontrollable, and we should just accept that we’re about to commit sixteen hours without knowing whether we’ll be cheering through it or cringing—and all because this drama happens to be about cohabitating frenemies, amnesiac chaebols, a Candy in debt to her hero, or, better yet, a hero in debt to his Candy.
Or, as in my case, reunited lovers, a trope I find reliably hard to resist (and is thus responsible for many a bad drama watched). There are several tropes that make catnip status for me, and I would probably name contract relationships as my ultimate one; however, I’ve written about those before and figured I’d spare you the repetition.
My Secret Romance
As it happens, reunited lovers is the trope that’s most on my mind these days, having just sat through one of the more underwhelming dramas I’ve completed in a while, My Secret Romance, which dragged me in with its promise of a cheery, shenanigans-laden romantic reunion. I… did not get what I wanted out of the show, but that’s the downside of being catnipped, isn’t it? I saw reunited lovers, a pining hero, and a bumbling courtship and I was suckered in for the long haul, despite having the niggling feeling that the haul would be full of stupid. (That inkling was not wrong.)
What My Secret Romance had that kept me coming back, though, was in giving the hero a major role reversal; these reunion stories necessitate passage of time between the couple’s initial meeting and their eventual love story, making them ripe for character development. In this drama’s case, hero Jin-wook transforms from snotty playboy to uptight workaholic, and the subtext is that he was driven celibate after letting The One get away. He spends three years pining for Yumi, the girl who disappeared after a one-night stand—but when they meet again, she pretends not to remember him, which drives him crazy because he’s so glad to see her but his pride refuses to let him admit it.
What ensues is Jin-wook’s determined pursuit of Yumi, which frequently devolves into childishly petty antics to gain her attention, driven by a burning desire to get her to admit she likes him, too. (She does, by the way—it’s one of the narrative safeguards in this problematic setup, where he persists despite her outward disinterest, because inwardly she is interested. It’s a point that should have been handled more thoughtfully, and is one of the drama’s many flaws.) There’s just something satisfying about a former spoiled jerk being brought to his knees by love of a woman (all the better if she’s a mousy type, as Yumi is), and watching him sweat bullets trying to win her over.
Delightful Girl Chun-hyang
This works for me because I’m a sucker for the scenario when one side is in full pursuit of the relationship and the other is in some sort of deep, plot-induced denial. This kind of relentless chase would be undesirable in real life (please let’s not actually attempt brute-force courtships), where one can never be certain of someone else’s intentions, but in dramaland where intentions are clear and true feelings confirmed, we’re lent a cover of safety.
I do cringe when heroes ignore what heroines say because they just know she means something else—even when she does mean something else—since that’s a troublesome line to cross. It’s what makes Delightful Girl Chun-hyang one of my favorite examples of the wearing-down-denial setup, because of how it effectively neuters that concern. Hero Mong-ryong and heroine Chun-hyang were in the flush of young love when a jealous interloper split them apart, and (long story short) she ran away and lived undercover for years to prevent the villain from attacking the hero. (I swear, in the drama this works. Mostly!)
So when Mong-ryong finally locates Chun-hyang years later, he’s thrilled to see her again and has investigated enough to know that something shady prompted her flight. Thus when she lies that she doesn’t love him anymore, there’s a legitimate reason for him to refuse to take her words at face value—and, well, that paves the way for a funny, determined, and confident courtship, one where we’re rooting for him to overcome her fears while also getting to enjoy how hard he has to work for it.
There’s another appeal of the reunited lovers trope, in unpeeling the layers of the mystery to answer the question that maybe the characters themselves don’t even know, of why things didn’t work out the first time. I love setups like Sly and Single Again, where you join the characters post-split and are told they were previously married. The drama provides us with multiple mysteries to invest in: how they were ever in love enough to get married when they hate each other so much now, what went wrong with the marriage, and then when the backstory unravels, how they could possibly overcome the hurdle that split them apart the first time.
A similar dynamic is in play in Emergency Couple, which I’d argue was a much less successful version but did keep my curiosity piqued by tossing us hint-crumbs about what the past marriage was like through the interactions of the divorced couple in the present. If they’re so antagonistic now, how on earth did they ever marry in the first place? And in Uncontrollably Fond, it takes us a while to unravel the story of why the hero who seems so in love with his ex-girlfriend once pushed her away, and why his messages now are so mixed. Maybe this is why I don’t hate time skips as much as I otherwise might; fast-forwarding the story contributes a layer of mystery, because skipping time inevitably creates questions as to what happened in that time.
Then there are the scenarios where the past relationship isn’t a mystery, but our thrill comes in watching sparks fly at the reunion. Maybe one side is faking indifference in the interest of self-preservation, like the heroine in Fantastic who pushes away the man who’s still in love with her. Or maybe one person is hiding that their one-night stand years ago resulted in a baby, like the heroine of Only You, which was another terrible drama that I got suckered into watching because I was dying to know how the hero would find out the child was his, and thrilled at all the close calls, however badly written. (*shakes fist at Only You*) Maybe she’s pretending like she’s forgotten him—or maybe he’s actually forgotten her, like in Winter Sonata, and the question of how love will overcome amnesia is the hook keeping you on the line.
But by far one of my favorite reasons for a reunited couple resisting a renewed romance is because one of them is working a secret identity and can’t let on that he’s actually that same guy from before. Secret identities have enough crack factor to merit its own entry (stay tuned!), but they also have a special place in the reunited-lovers trope, because they lend the conflict such delicious angst. I mean: The couple just spent ages apart, fiiiiinally manages to be back in the same place and time together, and one of them is pretending not to be himself? How great is that?
Green Rose remains one of the most addicting cases of this for me, because it did such a fabulous job teasing us with the precariousness of the hero’s new identity: You desperately wanted him to reveal himself to the heroine he’d been so in love with, but also desperately wanted him to get his revenge, which necessitated a solid cover. She, meanwhile, became increasingly convinced that New Guy was actually Old Guy, struggling with confusion because he wouldn’t deviate from his cover. Urg! Angst! Good times.
Moreover, the dramatic irony of knowing more than one of the characters (or both of them) can be hugely satisfying, especially when dramas purposely play with our expectations in fan-servicey ways. The heroine of She Was Pretty realizes that her first love and old best friend doesn’t recognize her as an adult because she’s no longer the beautiful It girl she was in adolescence, and decides to leave him in the dark rather than disappoint him with her unattractiveness. (I’m still mad at this premise, by the way.) But the hero is hit with vague feelings of familiarity, and the drama revels in teasing us with just how long it will take him to realize that his first love is standing right next to him.
Hong Gil Dong
Hong Gil Dong takes a more comedic approach in its reunion scene, where the hero, who has been presumed dead, is finally spotted by the heroine and unable to get away in time. Wearing a flimsy disguise and shrouded in shadow, he convinces a friend to speak for him (lest his voice be recognized) and does his best with the resulting hammy speech while fighting his own emotions at seeing his love again. Hong Gil-dong, world’s most hilarious and heartbreaking ventriloquist’s dummy.
And in Joseon Gunman, after our hero is shot in front of his sweetheart and proclaimed dead, he reinvents himself and comes back with a new identity in order to take revenge (this is a popular concept, okay?)… and of course the heroine recognizes him. As in Green Rose, she’s convinced he’s the same person and tests him regularly, and it’s satisfying in a perhaps sadistic way to enjoy how much the conflict wears on him; at every turn, we see his turmoil written all over his face. (Also: Lee Jun-ki wears turmoil so well.)
I could go on and on about all the shows that employ the reunited lovers trope to dramatic effect, or why each instance is compelling, but ultimately for me this trope works because it adds layers to a romance that you don’t necessarily have in a straightforward first meeting. History, in and of itself, adds context and dimension to a scene; when used well, it serves to heighten emotion and tension in a drama. Heck, they often do that even when not used well.
I suspect this is because when dealing with catnip tropes, us addicts tend to love the trope so much that we’re always thinking of what it could be, rather than merely accepting what it currently is. Maybe we’d be better off without these irrational biases—or at least have a lot more time, freed from the clutches of bad dramas we can’t abandon—but as for me, I like to think of it as an asset to never give up on that potential even when the reality is much worse. Hope springs eternal!