Suffering and sacrifice with So Ji-sub in I’m Sorry, I Love You
I don’t think I realized what I signed up for when I decided to watch KBS’s 2004 melodrama I’m Sorry, I Love You. I like to watch my dramas with minimal outside knowledge and judge them as I go, so I started this one with the mild expectation of a crazy-haired So Ji-sub and a whole lot of old school makjang. Well, I’m Sorry, I Love You delivered that and a whole lot more by way of heartache, pain, audible gasping, and yes, tissues. They don’t make them quite like this anymore!
I’m Sorry, I Love You opens with a documentary-style intro. We see various Korean-born young adults who have been adopted by Australian families and met with nothing but abuse and homelessness. Our hero Cha Moo-hyuk (played by So Ji-sub) is one of the interviewees. He tells the audience that he was thrown away by his mother in Korea, but unlike the others, he’s sure that she gave him up for his own good, and he promises her that he’ll return to Korea and provide for her.
The show is trying to pack some punch with this opening, but the Australian scenes in Episode 1 are the usual mire of terrible English-speaking actors, painful accents of all kinds, and a general Grade B feel. However, setting the scene in Australia is central to the plot, and in fact, Episode 1 has it all: a runaway bride, a lost heroine in a foreign country, the threat of sexual assault, unrequited love times two, gangsters of uncertain ethnicity, a shootout, and a hero with a chip on his shoulder and a bullet in his head.
Yes, you read that right. Through a crazy turn of events, Moo-hyuk saves the life of the ex-girlfriend who betrayed him and winds up with two bullets in his head — one removed, the other too dangerous to touch. His survival is touted as a miracle, but he’s left with just three months to live, and packed off to Korea by his ex-girlfriend to save him from her mobster husband. Talk about setting the scene for the rest of the drama.
Interestingly, the show is not at all concerned with how difficult it would actually be to go to a foreign country and find both the twin sister you didn’t know existed, and your birth mother, all with an engraved ring as your only clue. Some dramas would spend all their time unraveling this mystery, but I’m Sorry, I Love You is much more interested in how the truth will affect our hero than his process of uncovering it.
So, by the end of Episode 2 everything is lined up for the rollercoaster that is about to follow: Moo-hyuk has not only found his sister, but learned that his mother is a famous actress (played by Lee Hye-young). She’s wealthy, spoiled, and overly attached to her son Choi Yoon (played by a super young and fresh-faced Jung Kyung-ho), a famous pop singer. This is where everything starts to unravel for our hero. His feelings of hurt and abandonment grow tenfold, and with three months to live, and his beliefs about his mother and birth story crushed, what’s a K-drama hero to do but start a revenge scheme?
The drama sets itself up to be about retribution and karmic punishment, but I would argue that it’s more of a love story — two love stories to be exact. The first is the love story between Moo-hyuk and Yoon’s childhood friend and stylist, the sweet and loving Song Eun-chae (played by Im Soo-jung).
Eun-chae and Moo-hyuk met in Australia when he came to her rescue, but when they meet again in Korea when Moo-hyuk is masquerading as Yoon’s manager, their relationship grows complex. Eun-chae believes he came back to Korea because he fell in love with her; meanwhile, she is secretly in love with Yoon — who never once thought of her in that way — until she starts to fall for Moo-hyuk, of course.
Our twisted love triangle of jealousy, guilt, and sacrifice is about as archetypal as you can expect. The most interesting part of this (outside of enjoying the trope at work) is how it affects Moo-hyuk. He’s fallen hard for Eun-chae, and wants nothing more than to be comforted by her in his last days. But, rather than see her suffer alongside him, they dance around each other for most of the drama. Sometimes together, mostly forced apart, sometimes comforting one another but mostly in agonizing solitude — there’s nothing keeping them apart but themselves.
The second love story in this drama, and the one that I found affected me more, was the love of Moo-hyuk for his mother. The romance between Moo-hyuk and Eun-chae was of epic Romeo and Juliet proportions, but the exploration of the inherent affection Moo-hyuk has for his mother was it for me.
So Ji-sub does a fantastic job of expressing the conflicted emotions Moo-hyuk has towards this woman. His revenge scheme is driven by anger and hurt, but at every turn he finds himself reacting out of love. When she steps on broken glass and is shrieking in pain, he swoops in and bandages her. When she’s accosted by a restaurant owner, he trashes the entire place to vent his anger.
Despite himself, his anger and hurt can’t seem to compete with the love he has for her. We don’t find out till halfway through the drama that his mother has no idea her baby even survived. She doesn’t even know she had twins (drama explanation: she was in a fever and later told the baby died)! In the end, Moo-hyuk’s greatest act of love is to never tell her who he is, and to prevent the truth from coming out. He saves her from unbearable heartache, and bears it alone. “Mother, even in the next life I want to be your son,” he narrates, bowing to her from outside the house. “I love you, Mother. I never stopped loving you.” *Sob*
Moo-hyuk’s mother was positioned as the villainess of the show, so I liked the twist when she became another sympathetic character instead. As it turns out, I’m Sorry, I Love You doesn’t have a single villain. Each character has enough good intentions and redeeming qualities to render them useless a villain. So, what do we do with all the angst and suffering in this drama when there is no way to explain it?
I’m Sorry, I Love You works best for me when I think of it as a character study of Moo-hyuk — otherwise it’s just a good old-fashioned classical tragedy where true love is thwarted, fate is inexplicably cruel, and the innocent suffer injustice and are never vindicated. I need some kind of a message in my stories, so I looked to Moo-hyuk to find it.
Eun-chae once marveled how full of love Moo-hyuk was, even though he’d known only pain and loneliness. If we look at Moo-hyuk’s sacrifices and noble idiocy as motivated by love, it becomes easier to digest. In the end, rather than claim the comfort and love he was seeking throughout the drama, he chose to renounce it, hoping to protect those he loved from the pain he knew too well. Oh, the drama!
So Ji-sub, to his credit, does an amazing job of expressing the complex and layered character of Moo-hyuk — the boy aching for the love of his mother; the hot-headed ruffian that is actually the tenderest of caregivers; and the swoony leading man that can deliver lines like, “Make me kimchi before you leave,” and have it come out as the most romantic and desperate confession of love you’ve ever heard.
Traditionally, tragedies are about catharsis, but it’s hard to pull off this much suffering and angst and have it be watchable for 16 hours. How does I’m Sorry, I Love You do it? Mostly, by refusing to land the plane. Reveals are carefully placed and slow to come by, and the audience always knows more than the characters do, so the anticipation of the reveals is heightened. While it’s definitely a tragic sob-fest, it’s also got some fun, especially early on. There’s poorly-timed love realizations, fevers of exhaustion, double identities by way of fake moustaches, returning ex-girlfriends, organ failures, swoony crosswalk back hugs, car flips, soju blackouts, and piggybacks galore.
I’m Sorry, I Love You, I’m not sorry I watched you. Despite being one of the most tragic dramas I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching, I’m Sorry, I Love You had a good mixture of depth, humor, and enjoyable moments to balance out the tsunami of sadness. I love current dramas as much as the next person, but sometimes you have to crack open the archives and enjoy the richness of Hallyu history.
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