Transplant tropes: How K-dramas use health crises as storytelling devices
Korean dramas are brimming with tropes and plot devices, and they often revolve around illnesses or injuries sustained by leading characters. From the skinned knee or sprained ankle that necessitates a piggyback scene, to the full-blown illnesses, accidents, and diagnoses that shake up the entire world of our character — you don’t have to look hard for a drama that contains one (or several) of these elements. Love them or hate them, these tropes are frequent enough to investigate as metaphors.
K-dramas have featured everything from amnesia to Alzheimer’s to heroes running around exacting revenge with inoperable bullets in their heads. There’s no health crisis left unutilized in dramaland. While brain tumors and brain-related traumas are frighteningly frequent, another often-used element is that of the organ transplant — particularly a heart transplant.
Jung Kyung-ho had not only one, but two dramas where he had a heart transplanted. So Ji-sub donated his once under dire conditions and the lovely Sohn Ye-jin once went through two heart transplants in a single drama. Though there’s some deviation with these when sometimes a different organ needs to be transplanted (like the liver transplants in Just Between Lovers and Cinderella and the Four Knights), hearts usually win.
Before we look at how K-dramas use the organ transplant trope on both a metaphysical and metaphorical level, I think it’s important to start by recognizing the difference between these things in real life versus the world of dramas. While it’s easy to giggle over the repetitive and overly dramatic nature of illnesses as drama tropes, in reality, they are serious issues not to be taken lightly.
For me personally, organ transplants and how they’re depicted in dramas often hits close to home (perhaps too close to home), since a member of my family recently experienced the real thing. So, as we look at dramaland and its depiction of these health crises, please know we are analyzing stories, and not trivializing the real-life impact of these scenarios.
K-dramas can seem to take organ transplants lightly (meaning, use them as a “plug and play” plot device), but they also use them to make strong social statements. When the medical revenge drama Cross aired early last year, it was noted that the production hoped to shed light on (and possibly demystify) something that wasn’t widely discussed. Director Shin Yong-hui was quoted in The Korea Herald as saying that, “While organ donation is very much needed in society, people do not know of its importance. I hope that the public can become more aware of it through the drama.”
While K-dramas can use vital organ transplants to draw attention to social health and medicine, more frequently, they’re about telling compelling stories. Of all the harrowing experiences to choose from to weave a dramatic tale, why do K-dramas so often choose transplants? I think the reason is two-fold: A transplant not only promises a tale with maximum gravity, but it’s also rich with possibilities for narrative metaphor.
There isn’t an organ in the body that’s referred to more metaphorically than the heart. For centuries, the heart has been used as a way to express love, emotions, and depth of feelings. You can give your heart to someone, lose your heart, pour out your heart, have heart, share what’s on your heart, wear your heart on your sleeve, get your heart broken, do something with all your heart — in other words, there’s no shortage of subtext and metaphors around the human heart.
While there are many tropes around heart transplants, one of the predominant ones is the question of where love truly resides. Is it possible that the physical heart is responsible for the emotional realm of the heart? With a heart transplant as a plot device, and the concept of cellular memory as the hypothesis, K-dramas make their characters endure all sorts of undue suffering while playing out this possibility.
Take the 2003 Hallyu romance Summer Scent, for instance. The drama opened with the lead characters (played by Sohn Ye-jin and Song Seung-heon) meeting by chance, and finding themselves inexplicably drawn to each other. Of the many obstacles keeping this OTP apart, none could hold a candle to the fact that Sohn Ye-jin’s heroine had received a heart from the tragic death of Song Seung-heon’s first love (of course). Was this physical and visceral connection what drew them together from the start? Summer Scent takes the long way around to answer this question.
After being forced apart by guilt, loyalty, noble idiocy, and the like, the heroine’s heart transplant eventually failed, and another surgery became necessary. Our un-lovers parted ways, and Sohn Ye-jin took off to the States, as heartbroken and/or ailing K-drama characters are so wont to do. Some time after, our lovers met again, passing randomly on the street. Low and behold, the hero and heroine were still drawn to each other, able to sense the other’s presence in a crowd.
A more recent drama that looked at the same issues around heart transplants was the 2015 drama Falling for Innocence, which starred Jung Kyung-ho and Kim So-yeon. Much like the scenario in Summer Scent, Falling for Innocence used the transplant trope and the concept of cellular memory to explore the nature of love.
In Falling for Innocence, this took the shape of a sudden lollipop obsession for our hero, a complete personality transformation, and the possibility that someone’s love for another exists in a vital organ, rather than on a metaphysical plane. Because yes, in this drama, Jung Kyung-ho received a heart transplant from none other than the fiancé of Kim So-yeon’s character, who died under mysterious circumstances. And yes, when they fall in love and the past is revealed, complications abound.
Both Summer Scent and Falling for Innocence are great examples of how the transplant trope examines the physical heart as representing the emotional realm of the heart, and how that is intrinsically tied to the guilt (or more broadly, dharma) because of the organ’s history.
While this is not only medically unrealistic (organ donor identities are carefully protected in the real world), it’s also statistically improbable — the chances of this kind of overlap between donor and recipient are miniscule. But dramaland doesn’t care much about unlikeliness or statistical probability. They have a ready-made plot device that can be used to explore the power of love and how it transcends the physical realm, and by gosh they’re going to use it.
Beyond the realm of the metaphysical, there’s the metaphorical aspect of the heart transplant trope, where it’s used to symbolize or elaborate on a theme. An organ transplant, and especially a heart transplant, is one of the strongest signifiers out there to represent a new beginning, new hope, or even a new life.
Dramas can use this metaphor for characters that have earned a second chance (like Junho’s character in Just Between Lovers), or for characters that get a chance for redemption (like Jung Kyung-ho in Falling for Innocence). Recently announced tvN drama Confession seems poised to use a heart transplant metaphorically as well. It tells the story of a hero (played again by Junho — not complaining, but sheesh!) who receives a much-needed transplant, and then uses his second chance at life to clear the name of his father, who was wrongly convicted of murder.
A successful transplant means a new hope and even a metaphorical rebirth for the character, but dramas often look at the opposite side of this dynamic as well. Another reason the transplant as a plot device is so loaded with narrative possibilities is that these stories can often simultaneously explore themes around loss, tragedy, and sacrifice.
As Won Jin-ah’s heroine in Just Between Lovers comes to realize, “Just as misfortune can come unexpectedly, miracles also come out of the blue when you’re about to give up… But that miracle could come from someone else’s misfortune.”
As if this fact didn’t bring enough drama and heaviness to the table, K-dramas often take this idea a step further. Far be it from dramaland to miss this golden opportunity to tell a story about love in relation to sacrifice — it’s one of the most seminal, important, and beautiful tales out there to tell.
Sacrificial love is often explored in K-dramas through diverse means and devices, and the organ transplant is just one of them. Classic drama I’m Sorry, I Love You used a heart transplant and heart donation in this way. The hero, played by So Ji-sub, rather than wreaking revenge on the birth mother who abandoned him, and the adopted son she treasured in his place, wound up donating his heart so that the son (played by Jung Kyung-ho) could live. It became the final act in a story about revenge and hate dissolving into love and forgiveness, which happens to be one of my all-time favorite themes.
Another revenge melodrama that pulled out this theme was 2013’s Shark, which starred Kim Nam-gil and Sohn Ye-jin. While the setup for this organ transplant scenario was a little deus ex machina, in a story that had been a web of love and revenge and sadness, it still functioned as an exploration of love. The hero, though bloodied and beaten, held on long enough to donate his liver to save the life of his innocent younger sister.
In addition to exploring sacrifice, both of these dramas also point to another way the organ transplant is used, and that’s as a plot vehicle. How many times has an organ transplant plot line been boiled down to paternity or familial reveals? Sometimes (and this is even more true for makjang dramas), the transplant exists for the sole purpose of that genetic reveal. Both I’m Sorry, I Love You and Shark feature sibling organ donations. Whether biological siblings, or siblings of the heart, the relationship between the two individuals is crucial to the story, and to the theme.
As we’ve seen, the idea of a heart or vital organ transplant is full of storytelling potential. From explorations of love that transcends the physical, to stories that play with the relationship between coincidence and fate, the organ transplant has been used to tell them all.
Like many other tropes and plot devices, the strength of the execution determines whether the transplant element will come off as an overplayed trope, or as a deep and compelling thematic exploration.
While I think that dramas have been more successful telling original and moving stories through other health crisis elements, the organ transplant concept has long been an essential part of K-dramas. And perhaps having a ready storytelling element that centers on the power of love, and ends with hope and rebirth, isn’t such a bad thing after all.