[Revisiting Dramas] Dal-ja’s Spring: A second spring, closer to the heart
by Guest Beanie
Although I started watching dramas many moons ago now, my drama viewing has been intermittent. Having said that, even during periods when I stopped watching Korean dramas, I religiously read recaps on Dramabeans. After an extended period of no active viewing, I experimented with reconnecting with Dal-ja’s Spring. This was around 2010, and it was a case of second time’s the charm.
First things first: Dal-ja’s Spring was originally broadcast in early 2007. So by the time I first watched it, the drama was already three years old—and my initial impression was, it really showed. Although I’m a huge All About Eve fan with a soft spot for Chae Rim, I could not get past those cringe-inducing ringlets. She’s adorable; why must they go spoil it by making her look so aged? The noona-dongsaeng premise between her and Tae-bong (the magnetic Lee Min-ki) was harder to buy into since the stylists got away with making her look almost homely. It occurred to me that perhaps it was intentional, to make her look older and to highlight that he’d fallen for her personality.
Yet I found it really hard to stomach the way the character is styled, and I think I figured out why upon the second viewing. It’s a small note, but it practically feels like they made her unattractive unnecessarily. A number of side characters made pointed remarks about that messy mop of curls, too. Her hair drove Tae-bong’s mother crazy and hey, it had the same effect on me.
The first time, I was in my mid-twenties and although I didn’t get bored, I wasn’t particularly taken with the drama. Chances are I was not in the mood for a slice-of-life drama; I longed for an escape, not a reminder of the workplace drudgery, and I couldn’t relate to how Dal-ja poured herself into her career. So when I found the addictive and “current” You’re Beautiful, I moved on fairly swiftly. In realising that Dal-ja’s Spring ran 22 episodes long, I decided I couldn’t commit to a “slow-moving” drama for up to that long. Meanwhile You’re Beautiful was bright and breezy and I quickly got carried away with the heady romance.
When javabeans presented the theme of the month, I considered rewatching All About Eve (still my go-to), but looking at her avatar inspired me to give Dal-ja a second spring. And so it was, turns out all it took to watch 22 episodes is a weekend binge. Interestingly enough, not long into the series, it dawned on me that the themes being covered are still as current as ever. A decade on since Dal-ja’s Spring was released, and still women continue to struggle to find a balance between love and work, as well as navigating social and family expectations. Dal-ja’s Spring narrative and plot very much revolve around the heroine being a 33-year-old bachelorette and the challenges that presented.
It’s interesting how the show tackles the representation of an unmarried woman in her thirties. It demonstrates the demands the traditionally Confucian social system has on her, but I think what the show did particularly well is in depicting and allowing the character Dal-ja to stand on her own to decide her direction. Her primary conflict is about figuring out what and how to love as a woman who has never loved and been loved. Ultimately, she does not bow down to the external pressures, though no doubt it weighs on her.
Yet, to me, it became quickly evident that part of the reason Dal-ja’s relationship with Tae-bong works is because of her maturity in handling the difficult conversations reasonably (for the most part). There’s less of the hiding-your-feelings-and-suffering-in-silence motif and the dynamics are realistically presented. Dal-ja doesn’t hold grudges to herself for weeks and months, as I’ve seen portrayed in some K-dramas. She mulls, vents, and discusses the issues with good friends and then proceeds to have sensible conversations with Tae-bong about her concerns. This was almost refreshing and certainly makes for a functional relationship.
I’m about Dal-ja’s age now—and I share some of her fears, doubts and dreams about life and love. Some bits I feel so closely in my heart I couldn’t help but wince. Yep, the struggle is real, and in living it, I’m all the more appreciative of Dal-ja’s strength of character and conviction to follow the road less traveled. I do not share her optimism that the path will eventually lead you to where you need to be, but I revel in the message that you need to be confident and stand by the decisions you have made for yourself.
This is a drama with a heart that does not make light of the daily struggles each character faces, whether it’s family, work, friendships, or pursuing life goals. It’s about being human and juggling all the things that you hold dear while trying to figure out who you are and what you want. I think it captures these everyday trials oh-so-perfectly without overdramatizing them. In hindsight, the quiet moments were the best.
Some of the lines were exquisite too; there are too many to quote but please allow me this one from Dal-ja: “At one time, I thought that when my twenties ended, my youth [the springtime of my life] would be over. But even at 35, my youth hasn’t ended yet, and spring has come back and found me. And also… He once again drew near to me.” Bawwllllssss.
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So I decided to rewatch Dal-ja’s Spring. Maybe it’s because it’s always on the background of Dramabeans, being javabeans’ avatar. It is also a drama from exactly 10 years ago, which is a good time period to see how things have changed, even if I first watched it in 2011. It was still a “new” drama for me then, because I had only been watching dramas for a year or so, so it also doesn’t seem as old as it actually is.
The first problem was finding it. Ten years doesn’t seem like a lot for a drama to disappear from the face of the earth, but at first all I could find were reviews. Most guided me right back to Dramabeans. “I am in a bewitched circle!” I thought. Eventually I found some sites that were still showing it, although some episodes were missing and some didn’t have subtitles. But I wasn’t going to give up, so I have been watching an episode here, another there.
The first thing I noticed was I laughed a lot harder at things that didn’t seem that funny before. I laughed HARD at the heroine this time around, because she is one mess of a woman in the beginning. Was that how I appeared to other people in my twenties? Why is it so funny now, why? Maybe the humor in this show is something only people who have already lived through their twenties can understand.
When I first watched the drama, I was younger than Dal-ja, now I am slightly older. Is it because of that I am finding myself trying to understand each character a bit more? Is this growth? Does it mean I am safe now? But no, I am bound to make a silly slip somewhere and my immaturity will show just like Dal-ja’s. It is still as hard to read other people, especially career-people, who are relative strangers. Maybe “our twenties” have no blame in our initial stumbles, maybe it is not age that gives an advantage but the formed connections and the facts we learn about others. Dal-ja was inexperienced and immature, but her co-workers’ attitudes were still even more immature in the beginning. It was only when they had seen different sides of each other did they learn to respect and be grateful.
It is a drama with all of the classic setups: naive girl lead, contract boyfriend, noona romance, demon boss. But none of them were determined by their clichéd first appearance. The first time, yes, I mostly watched it for the romance. Now I found myself rewatching for the people. I used to hate the second lead guy, but hey, wait. How many guys will step up immediately when they see a woman weird situation needing help? How many would just walk away? I get it now, why she was instantly taken with him. And then we got the bizarre twist of a gentleman turning out to be just another relatively raw and confused guy pretending to be a real grown-up, reading manhwas while eating chocolate and whining to his secretary.
These aspects of the characters seem to reveal something fundamental about human nature, and when you become that exposed, there is nothing you can do except laugh it out. Is that it, a protective mechanism? If you think about it, Dal-ja going from a naive girl with rose-tinted glasses to instant sugar mama and buying clothes for a fake boyfriend is super funny and ironic.
It is not so much that Dal-ja was inexperienced with guys. She hadn’t learned how to form the right kind of connection with any other person. She only opened up to one friend, who in return was honest with her — but she didn’t always listen to that firend or take her advice seriously. She based her actions on imagination and her own picture of the world rather than the reality about people around her. Truthfully, she, too, hurt other people’s feelings with rash assumptions. There are always things we don’t know about others. Yet we are not solely to blame. People have things they would rather hide, even when coming clean would build better relationships. Lots of young folks think people will judge and bully them if they reveal who they truly are, but it pays off to put a little trust in others. People have turned out a lot nicer and more understanding than I thought in my twenties. Maybe it was just me who saw them in a bad light.
The drama, as I understand now, was not just about her first romance, but her learning to connect with people in general. It is like a textbook for “How to rise to a new level in human relationships 101.” There are a lot of side stories and secondary characters and can seem scattered at times, but it is really about the eternal immaturity of human nature. Becoming friends and confidantes with a guy you dated before, learning to see the worth of your co-workers, finding that everyone is just human. Learning to let another person not just into your house, but into your mindset — that is often what keeps people apart even when they are physically close. Learning to not just fear but respect authority and be thankful for your lessons, not just complain how unfair life is.
For example, Dal-ja’s rival/frenemy Sun-joo: I understand her position better, facing all kinds of shit but having to stay collected and professional. She is one of the original cool heroines, not badass, but the ultimate Dame. She appeared too self-centered and even uncaring on first watch. She, too, was avoiding strong commitment to both her work and people It was like she was hovering above the surface of everything in her life without actually touching, because she was afraid of downing. Then, splash, she got thrown right into deep water. She is actually not that tough and cool on the inside, but needs a person to be her lifejacket and glue to hold the shards of a broken soul together.
If you are just in for the romance and the Spare Tire, though? That’s okay, to each their own.
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