[Revisiting Dramas] The redemption of Autumn Fairy Tale
If you clicked on this post thinking you were going to read a reflective essay on Autumn Fairy Tale and how its melodramatic elements are still relevant in the modern, less trope-driven, storytelling landscape, well, you’ve been fooled because this post is actually an apology letter to Won Bin—this is my redemption!
I am one of those people who rarely rewatches anything, even if I really enjoyed it. Personally, I believe I have a good memory (though Lumosity and a certain memory card game will refute that statement), so usually I can put a drama back together if I see a few minutes of the first episode, including random obscure details.
Moreover, because Autumn Fairy Tale was a hugely successful show, and therefore an influential part of Korean drama canon, many of the plot pieces are generally known. Thus, it doesn’t feel like a show that needs to be revisited often.
Autumn Fairy Tale had a great impact on me as a kid, and I remember feeling so emotionally involved in the lives of the characters, especially since as I got older, I largely lost the ability to watch shows in an immersive way. The experience is very precious to me, and my fondness is entirely nostalgia-based, as opposed to quality-based, as it would be now.
These days, I tend not to gravitate toward melodramas, but since this month’s theme is a challenge, I decided to return to one of the classics.
Watching this drama again was like opening a time capsule, reading a short story you wrote as a kid, then realizing it was much better than you thought it was going to be. This show is remembered for its star-crossed plot elements, but I had forgotten about its warmth and the quiet quality it emanates, which is aided by the lush country settings and atmospheric beaches. I also appreciate that characters of varying economic statuses built their entire lives in areas outside of Seoul, making for a nice change of pace from the Seoul-centric fare we’ve grown accustomed to.
Admittedly, there was an adjustment period in the first couple episodes, and I wondered if I had made a mistake in my selection, but once we proceeded to the adult actors, I became more invested in the story. I always remembered the idyllic child actor stage of the show so dearly, and therefore, was disappointed when I found myself struggling to pay attention. It wasn’t bad, per se—young Moon Geun-young was likable, and the switched-at-birth setup was done efficiently, which meant the pacing wasn’t needlessly meandering.
In fact, the purposeful pacing of the story was one of the things I came to truly appreciate about Autumn Fairy Tale. It made me realize just how many dramas run out of steam after the initial premise, and flail around until it’s allowed to end. Even very popular contemporary dramas like Goblin and Descended From the Sun (though highly entertaining) became overly attached to the cute stage of their story and at times the plot seemed like an afterthought. I love slice-of-life and seeing small moments between characters, and I also love time spent on world-building, but it does make me wonder if the writer has enough story to tell.
As a result, I often wish shows could be shorter or longer, just to escape those trappings. A good example is The Best Hit, which didn’t seem particularly interested in its own time-traveling mysteries, and spent most of its time moseying along without a clear purpose.
In Autumn Fairy Tale, I enjoyed how mercilessly the story moved forward whether the characters were ready or not. The characters resisted certain developments with all their power, but still the story continued and challenged them to be better or lesser people than they had been.
Importantly, these changes were usually driven by the choices the characters made, or refused to make. Like the main male character, Joon-suh, and his withering relationship with his fiancée, Yumi, which led to a disastrous outcome due to Joon-suh’s indecisiveness. Or female lead Eun-suh’s decision to stay with her birth mother even if it meant a poverty-stricken life. At every juncture, the plot of this show was powered by the choices of individuals, and their unforeseen consequences.
In my (clearly lacking) memory of the show, I completely underestimated how character-driven this story truly was. All this time, I pegged Autumn Fairy Tale as a shining example of how terrible things happen to good people, who in turn are rendered helpless against the insurmountable obstacles of their misfortune. In actuality, Fate often manifested itself in this show as a crossroad, instead of a foregone conclusion.
This realization helped me embrace the overly melodramatic aspects of the show, which over the years I grew to believe were merely manipulative ploys meant to engender my sympathies. While I did not experience the same soul-crushing sadness I felt the first time around, I did end up feeling more deeply for the characters than I ever expected to.
Which leads me to the biggest revelation of this rewatch: Won Bin.
In retrospect, Won Bin being the best part of this show feels downright predestined. That’s not to say that the other actors were terrible: Song Hye-gyo and Song Seung-heon as Eun-suh and Joon-suh felt very green, and struggled with their emotional scenes, but were believable as their characters.
Similarly, it’s clear that Won Bin was still rough around the edges, and trying to find his identity as an actor, but he brought so much nuance and depth to his character Tae-suk with just a single, piercing look. All this time, I’ve been an Eun-suh and Joon-suh loyalist, but I’m blown away by how much I missed in Won Bin’s performance the first time around.
To the writer’s credit, Tae-suk was given layers, and is perhaps the only character to experience profound and irreversible character growth. He started off as the typical hot-tempered tortured chaebol and womanizer with an aggressive streak, then slowly (and agonizingly) transformed into a selfless, self-aware, and respectful dream man.
Some of his early behavior toward Eun-suh was completely unacceptable, and though I mentally prepared myself for it beforehand, the intensity of his actions still took me by surprise. Ultimately, what eventually made me warm to Tae-suk after his violent outburst was the show’s treatment of the aftermath: Tae-suk’s actions were not ignored or regarded as acceptable, and Joon-suh made a point to express his disgust with his best friend. Thereafter, Tae-suk became repentant. He continued to pursue Eun-suh, but now his actions were cautious, constantly waiting for her signal to move forward, even as he battled with his own impatience.
This awareness continued into their relationship, and I loved the way he would always check-in with Eun-suh when he worried he was getting ahead of himself, because he didn’t want to make the same mistake again. It was an important touch that went a long way for me. He did suffer a few drunken setbacks as the story progressed, and as the lovelines became more entangled, but eventually he redeemed himself through his unwavering commitment to Eun-suh. If nothing else, Won Bin’s passion made for a captivating viewing experience, and every time he was onscreen, I was drawn deeper into the story.
Rewatching Autumn Fairy Tale reminded me that sometimes a show isn’t brain food, but it has heart and sincerity and a belief that it has a story to tell you. You can argue to the moon and back about how effective a storyteller the show is, but if at the end of the day you feel something in your heart, then that’s all that really matters, right?
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