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We’ve met before… once upon a K-drama

Korean dramas love interconnectedness. In fact, it’s hard to find a drama that doesn’t connect even the smallest, faintest of dots between its characters through their shared histories and experiences. Interconnectedness — or the depiction of serendipity, fate, destiny, karma, or however you’d like to look at it — is a powerful component that drives a story together and makes us believe in it. For K-dramas, the dominant way this plays out is through the leads discovering or realizing that they’ve met each other before, once upon a childhood trauma.

If our protagonists have met before as children, it’s either a crucial part of the introduction to the story, or a carefully (or not so carefully) constructed reveal that slowly unfolds over the course of the drama. For the former, we know what we’re getting, and realize this shared past will be an integral part of the story that’s coming. For the latter, we’re often at various stages of anticipating, expecting, dreading, or — more rarely, being surprised by the leads’ childhood connection.

Dramas that lead with their backstory are easy to take at face value. Often, these dramas open with a younger version of the cast, and their childhood experiences are the genesis of the story. Backstory done well builds strong connections between the characters and the audience and sets the tone for the story. These glimpses of times gone by set the stage for the drama that is to follow. This is a common set-up for melodramas, as they rely heavily on “the sins of the past” for their stories.

Two dramas that did this particularly well are 2013’s Shark and 2018’s Come Here and Hug Me. Both introduced their lead couples in their youth, and the purity and innocence of their connection (often represented by an overabundance of cherry blossoms, rain, and other springtime signifiers), is juxtaposed to the cruelty of the world that drives them apart.

But emotive backstories must eventually come to an end, and that means a switch to the drama’s main cast. While the actor swap and time jump can be jarring, it can also work to the drama’s advantage, creating a gap between what we know of the characters’ youth, versus who they have become in the present day. The audience is being reacquainted with them, just as they are being reacquainted with each other.

While the childhood backstory is common for melodramas, it’s also been the set-up for romance-driven dramas as well, as with 2018’s Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food, starring Jung Hae-in and Sohn Ye-jin. The lead couple didn’t share a childhood trauma (thankfully), but their history was what set the foundation for their relationship — and then complicated it.

Similarly, the lead couple in 2017’s 20th Century Boy and Girl (played by Han Ye-seul and Kim Ji-suk) grew up together as children, and that relationship informs their current day friendship as it morphs into romance. These dramas are the more rare take on a pre-established childhood backstory as they rely only on history, not trauma, and they’re often a more realistic and relatable kind of story. However, dramaland usually prefers to increase the drama and add the trauma — the higher the stakes, the more plot potential, right?

One of the dramas that handled shared childhood trauma the best, for me, was 2017’s Just Between Lovers. Poorly titled, underappreciated, and fantastically cast, this drama tells the story of the main characters (played by Jun-ho and Won Jin-ah) coming to terms with the emotional and physical trauma they endured as survivors of a commercial building collapse.

Just Between Lovers was more of a healing drama than a melodrama, and their shared backstory was established for the audience early on, though slowly revealed to the characters themselves. The shared experience brought our leads together as much as it did create a wedge between them, and the drama was a complicated exploration of how differently people process grief and trauma. In the end, the fact that they had survived this horrific event together meant they could understand each other more deeply, and it paved the way for their healing and their romance. (Aside: I love this drama.)

We’ve seen how many dramas lead by establishing the childhood relationship between their main characters, but what about dramas where we aren’t told right off the bat that our leads were previously connected? This take on the childhood backstory is by far the most common use of interconnectedness in K-dramas, almost to the point where we have come to expect this “we’ve met before” trope. It’s no longer serendipitous. If there’s a lead character haunted by his or her past, chances are the other lead is also connected to the event. Even the various ways this plays out has become common: either one of them knows and is holding back the secret, or neither of them know, and they uncover it at varying velocities.

2018’s What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim and 2015’s Kill Me, Heal Me are two dramas that took this tack. Both rely on the use of repressed memories to create dramatic tension as they slowly reveal the trauma endured (and shared!) by our leads. Since the audience has the advantage of seeing all of the characters’ narratives, we often put the backstory together before the characters themselves do. Thus being, our interaction with the drama becomes more about our curiosity, and wondering how it will all play out.

The problem with relying on the audience’s curiosity and interest is that once you grab it (pretty easy), you have to hold it (not as easy). In a drama like What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim, despite ardently loving the leads (played by Park Seo-joon and Park Min-young) and the overall tone of the show, waiting for their traumatic childhood connection to play out gave me a serious case of drama fatigue. It wasn’t necessarily a weakness of the script (I’ve tolerated way worse) — rather, it was plain old-fashioned boredom with the same over-played childhood trauma reveal.

That’s not to say that all “we’ve met before” reveals are dull or unimaginative. The recent Hundred Million Stars From the Sky, I think, played out this trope in a way that built suspense, made you ask questions, and left enough gray space to keep it interesting. The connection between the leads, played by Seo In-gook and Jung So-min, is hinted at early in the drama by their similar burn scars, and the fact that they have the same hometown. Later, we learn they are both orphans. Those three points are enough to set off an alarm for any K-drama watcher: clearly, these two share a history.

What makes the childhood backstory stronger in Hundred Million Stars From the Sky than in some other dramas? It’s not that we didn’t see it coming (I mean, I knew what that tea kettle was responsible for from the first time we saw it). I’d argue it’s in the adept direction, and the richness of the script. While not perfect, it succeeded on the strength of its subtleties and psychological complexity. In a medium that is pretty saturated with tropes and plot contrivances, a fresh take and skillful execution can breathe life back into a familiar story.

We can’t talk about childhood history reveals without mentioning 2015’s Healer. This drama is another example where we slowly learn, along with the leads (played by Ji Chang-wook and Park Min-young), about their strong childhood connection. Healer skillfully wove the story of our present-day leads with the backstory of their parents, and their childhood connection served to tie this multi-generational story together in a meaningful way. Way to make the trope serve you!

There are many more examples of dramas that rely on the “we’ve met before” trope, with varying methods of execution — and no genre seems to be without it. There are so many in fact, that we can address them as an aggregate when we ask why this childhood interconnectedness is so favored. Though it takes many forms, and plays out in different ways, “we’ve met before” always seems to serve the same purpose: to deepen the bond between our lead couple. To underline the fact that these two characters complete each other. To provide closure not only for the protagonists, but for the story as a whole — and for the audience.

A couple of centuries years ago, Aristotle said that plots should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and for the most part, today’s storytelling still adheres to this. In dramaland, it takes the shape of interconnectedness — it’s the glue that binds the three phases of the story together. Whether you rejoice in the trope, or groan over the endless iterations, dramaland does its best to fit life’s puzzle pieces together. It’s something we can’t attain while we’re in the middle of our own lives, and that’s part of why we come alive to storytelling.

If the idea of interconnectedness, and the assembled puzzle, are what make a story feel complete for us, it makes sense why so many dramas rely on this for their resolution, especially when it comes to tying up a romance. The main characters share the beginning of the story, reconnect in the middle, and commit to each other at the story’s end. The questions are answered, the traumas are brought to light, and the emotional baggage is (usually) dispatched. Our couple has gotten through the worst together, whether it was facing their demons, resolving multiple personality disorders, closing the door on the past, or locking up the bad guys. Their stories have come full circle and their past connection assures us that this is a lasting love. After all, they’ve met before.

 
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and they're fated together... :)

And I'm happy that once in a while there's a drama like "My Ahjusshi" where the leads didn't share any childhood past - except for those neighbourhood ahjusshis :)

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In the same time, "childhood" was not really possible. He was 24 years old when she was born. :p

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LoL.. But I want them so badly to be crossing path in the past; a 24 years old Dong-hoon and Baby Ji-an...

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I think Ji An would prefer that he didn't see her in diapers :p

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Isn't it so, Right? I thought the same. Dong hoon and Ji an simply met at work, but oh my... what a deep and wonderful connection. 😍😍😍😍😍

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Lovely exploration of the 'We've met before' trope @missvictrix. I'm so happy to see that you've include Just Between Lovers and Healer (my 2 ultimate favourites!!!) to your list of shows that have made use of it to good effect.

I know you were saying this in your own words, but the phrase that came to my mind when I was reading this was: "meant to be" ... I'd like to include that this trope makes the resolution of the OTP that bit more satisfying, because they had 'always been meant to be together'. If not for circumstances, families, misunderstandings, etc... they should have been united always from the start, but at least in the end, the OTP's being together feels right, because it was meant to be. :)

Thanks @missvictrix!

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Just Between Lovers and Healer -- me, too!!!!

Other dramas built on variations of this theme: She Was Pretty -- will you still love me if I'm different from how you remember me? Thirty But Seventeen -- I never got over what I thought I did to you.... Hundred Days My Prince -- I promised to marry you and nothing will change that. Shopping King Louis -- I knew I knew you from somewhere. And after a whole drama in which there was no mention of a childhood connection, Oh My Venus had to throw one in at the very end.

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Also I Can Hear Your Voice -- you saved me, so I'll save you. While You Were Sleeping -- another case of shared trauma with a supernatural twist. Pinocchio -- what my mom did to your family brought you into my family. Even W -- you were someone I created as a child.

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@lindag Great examples (there are so many to choose from, right??) and hilarious summaries!

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I would include I Hear Your Voice among the shows with a childhood connection done very well. In fact, it was integral to the plot and served to deepen the bond between the OTP as things only they share and could understand ( like in Just Between Lovers).
Only, IHYV was a lighter exploration of grief and was more of a revenge/justice/setting things aright compared to JBL which focused more on coping with/moving on from grief.

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In fact, there's this whole cousin category of dramas with a Romeo and Juliet angle, where the leads may not have known each other as children, but one's family wronged the other or is believed to have wronged the other. Pinocchio fits here, and it looks like Clean With Passion For Now will too. And One Hundred Days My Prince. Suspicious Partner.

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@missvictrix How is it that every piece of yours on kdrama tropes are so entertaining to read? 💕

The childhood connection more often than not makes me roll my eyes because it's no longer a carefully crafted surprise ( WWWSK ) and more often than not drags the story and then lazily conlcudes: Fate must've bought us together.

I really love though, when it actually uses such moments to flesh the characters and their narratives along. Or when it's an actual surprise or played off as no big deal or used to signify the cuteness of childhood because you make your own choices ( You Who Came From the Stars, WLFKBJ, 100 Days My Prince, Bride of the Century, Fight My Way, Healer ) etc.

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One of the reasons why I think this trope is popular is because these kind of fated relationships rarely happen in real life. I'm not talking about the childhood friends to lovers, but the shared trauma ones. Which I've seen in so many shows like JBL, CAHM, 30 but 17, WWWSK, WYWS etc. Since our real lives are rarely so eventful (though no one would want this kind of events in their lives, naturally), maybe that's why we turn to dramas to give us that excitement.

If done right, it becomes an awesome experience as we take a journey along with the characters. And like you said, it gives us immense satisfaction when they're together at the end, because if they can overcome those obstacles, they're definitely meant to be. Thanks for the interesting read.

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Shout out to all the amazing child actors that really bring this interconnectedness to life! They're always blowing me away with their talent.

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They make me happy for Korea’s film industry’s future. There were times I wished for more childhood related scenes because of these amazing child actors.

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This year teenage actors from 30 but 17 really sold it for me. They were cute beyond words!

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It's especially fitting to have Nam Da Reum in the lead photo for this story. He is like the prince of child actors.

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Yes! I'm so looking forward to his future career.

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The risk is that the child actors are better than the adult ones. I prefered some childhood part in dramas like Will It Snow for Christmas, Angel Eyes, Inspiring Generation or Come and Hug Me.

In Hundred Millions Stars..., I liked how they shared the same feelings caused by the same trauma without knowing it. They fell in love because they shared the same loneliness and the same fear to have been abandonned.

In Healer, the childhood part was interesting thanks to the parents. I loved the parents squad, it was nice to see.

In Pretty Noona, it was interesting because it made their love story pretty real, the fact they fell in love in someone in their cercles of friends/family, not someone completely new with a very different background or world.

I loved the childhood part in Queen For Seven Days. The actors were really cute. Usualy in sageuk, there are great child hood stories.

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I have to say I enjoyed childhood part of 7DQ more than when they switched to the adult actors and story. That was an example of the innocent first love done right.

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Firstly, I need to thank @missvictrix for all these lovely write ups! I really enjoyed reading them. 🙇💕

I wanted to say I’m sick & tired of all the childhood-connection tropes, but I couldn’t. Coz kdramas are all about it. It’s SO overused, there’s no surprise anymore. Which is why I will always prefer the ones that start off with the backstory straightaway, than those only revealing it at the latter part of the drama, if they really had to use this particular trope.

Fate/destiny is cliché, but I love it (only when it’s done well). On the Way to the Airport is one good example. The OTP were strangers, only to have met through a phone call, with the connection of their respective daughters. After the too many coincidences, we called them destiny, & even soulmates, when they understood each other effortlessly. Even the best friend of the male lead said, “With that kind of fate, wouldn’t I meet someone like that again, no matter who it was? … The universe is giving its all to bring you two together, who could stop it?

Here I hope to see more kdramas with the better usage of interconnectedness, & not just the almost-formulaic childhood connection. 🙏

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@llljr Thank you! I'm glad you have been enjoying them. Oh boy, I loved On the Way to the Airport.

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Yays! OTWTTA is my favorite kdrama of all time! What's yours? I really love your writing, & I could tell that we have similar taste for melodramas, heh.

P.S. I even replicated the knot bracelet & has been wearing it since then! 😏

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Thank you for mentioning On The Way To The Airport, man did I follow that drama( even though it was purely through recap lol)!! The discussions were amazing.

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Aww, do watch the drama when you have the chance! It's beautifully filmed~

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I used to love this cliche. That was before so many kdramas turned this into a corny, useless, artificial way to promote this idea the OTP is destined to be together. Almost every drama would have been better without that, from that list above only HMSFS and Come Hug really needed that to be there.

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Wow, i always hated what i called "coincidence" but what you call "interconnectedness." You've made me see this i a new and valuable light. Thanks.

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I personally consider this trope to be one of the weaknesses of Kdramas and its rare for it to be used well. But if they didn't meet as children randomly in an ice cream shop on Jeju Island during a hurricane how else would we know they were meant to be together *rolls eyes*

But on a serious note shows like Kill Me, Heal Me and secretary Kim used the childhood back story in a good way. Because it actually showed why the main characters act the way they do.

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I loved how Misaeng did it tastefully. It was so darn good. In the last scene of the last episode (spoiler), geurae is seen leaving his dad's funeral. And Mr.Oh, running franctically, bumps into him as he heads into his old contract worker's funeral. As such, they unknowingly have gained a new father figure/worker/friend just as they lost their old one. It's so poetic. I usually hate these connections, but when done beautifullly it makes me think, cry, and just love the drama all together even more.

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Oh I need to see Misaeng again. It's my favorite drama but I don't remember this scene and many other important lessons from that drama.

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Healer was definitely one of my fav 'we've met before' troupes used correctly! Their childhood connection totally made sense! And for once, that is literally what drove their first meet cute as adults so it wasn't 'oh we met again by conincidence and you were my childhood sweetheart'
Healer is one of my top 10 dramas of all times! Such a good story! And Ji Chang Wook is like a hot knife through butter in those action sequences!

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Yes i usually miss out Healer because it had many other things too but it was done so right. They progressed naturally as well as with their past connection but it didn't necessarily change things for them.
Plus in JBL i like how they kind of dealt positively with their trauma together since the beginning rather than making a fuss out of it.

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Dramas where I appreciate that the main leads have NEVER met before (as children and/or share childhood trauma)
- Love in the Moonlight
- Scarlet Heart Ryeo (cuz duh, they were from diff timelines)
- Arang and the Magistrate
- I'm Not a Robot
- Are You Human Too
- Cheese in the Trap
- Boyfriend

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Of course, I'm not saying that the usual trope is bad. Sometimes they make the drama 10x more interesting (like Kill Me Heal Me) and sometimes I just wish that Fate didn't interfere so often.

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Oh don't get your hopes high now. We could have a scene (in Boyfriend) where PBG and SHK visit the same store that one time, waaay before her father got bullied into the man he became, grabbed the same item, smiled at each other and never forgot the meet *nods*

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Don't RUIN this for me, buddy! *cries in denial in a corner*

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Thank you for the post Missvictrix! I really enjoyed reading on the way to work this morning.
I accidentally deleted my comment whilst getting off the bus - so annoying.

I'm a sucker for the childhood reunion mainly because I think it's so interesting to see how they have developed from the beginning. I've never really seen it explored in Western drama apart from period pieces.

I liked how it was used 30 vs 17, when we finally realised that both of them were aware of each other early on.
But that was just a bonus point to an already great drama.

My issue is when it's suddenly revealed in episode 14 of 16, after a huge angst ridden fight,stretching out the sorry until the finale. It just feels like a cop out from the writers. The issues are supposed to be ignored by the viewer because the protagonists had a 5 second romance in high school.

Ok I'm exaggerating,but I almost wish this wasn't used as a plot device to tie the story in a neat bow.

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It's one of those tropes am not a fan of. Childhood connection, add some trauma to it etc.. That's why I like it when strangers meet as adults and form a connection like real life people do ; )
In some of the dramas like 'Just between lovers' this didn't feel like a trope because that was the crux of the story. It was not a convenient ploy to bring the leads together.

anyway, nice read!

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what a wonderful write up! and thank you for mentioning Just Between Lovers and Healer cause i love them both.

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I remember a recent drama that threw in the childhood connection trope in the last 10 minutes, totally unnecessarily. I was ROFL. Was it Cinderella and the 4 Knights? If done well and I like it though, especially in sageuks.

And then there are the childhood-friends-with-a-secret-crush who often endure the fate of second leads because they didn't speak up. *sob*

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So my husband has a cousin who lived next door to his wife since they were in elementary school. They got married after he broke up with his fiancée in medical school. His parents still live next door to her parents. She had a crush on him for like 20 years before they started dating. Then they got married within a year. She was 20 years a second lead. They are the cutest! She’s a nurse and he’s an ER doc. And the most adorable couple.

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Aw, that's so romantic!

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Playful Kiss Incarnate

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@wishfultoki Yep, still feel like crying uncontrollably when I think of Answer Me 1988.

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I'm trying to think of a drama that ended with the OTP as children basically passing each other on the street, that's when I started yelling OH COME ON. I love the shows that build it into the story and make the viewer feel the inevitability of the connection. But just because their strollers touched 20 years ago while their moms picked out bok choy at the market, I'm not really buying that as the hand of FATE! 👈🏽 🤣

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LOL!

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I remember that scene....don't remember what drama. But I do remember snorting in disgust.

Oh My Venus had a childhood meeting too that was just kind of stretching the whole trope to it's limit.

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I liked the title though... But it had somehow more depth in Korean.

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The fated together trope can get tiring for most parts because often dramas use this thin-connection to connect two leads and they tend to over drag this plotline sometimes. Or when our leads do finally find out that they knew each other, by this point I just want to throw popcorn at the screen.

Also, when they begin a series with the child actors, I am so fully engrossed into the plotline and the children's acting that I end up being a little disappointed when they jump a few years later and I have to wait for the adults to catch-up with the revelation that they once met before.

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Also very disconcerting when the adults do not look anything like the child actors or the adults are way shorter than the teenager actors. I am who are they now?

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maybe we are just being bitter, but I totally agree

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The funniest 'they met before' moment came at the end of 'Arang and the Magistrate' where the couple (spoiler alert ) reincarnated a children but only one of them remembered.

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Awww this is so beautiful! Thank you

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On thing about this trope that annoys me is that too often I like the child versions/actors better than the adults. (This usually happens in historical dramas. Sorry, if you disagree but I'm thinking of Moon Embracing the Sun, Dong Yi, and I'm sure there are others I'll think of as soon as I hit "send.")

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"2017’s Just Between Lovers. Poorly titled, underappreciated, and fantastically cast" This is the best description of JBL that I have ever read. I think it's the best drama ever.

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i'm such a sucker for childhood tropes lol

i think 30 but 17 was one of the recent ones that did it REALLY well! like i t was so cliche of course, but i really felt like it added a lot to the whole story and made their 2nd encounter so much more meaningful. and that their two lives were affected by this 1 event that they shared, and she ended up having a crush on him too and he didnt know and omg i'm literally just awwing just thinking about that one scene where she flashback all those times she was busy googly eyeing him and he had on idea and wow ok end rant

BUT YES 30 BUT 17 <3

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