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Foreign beginnings, familiar faces

Though most Korean dramas are set in Seoul and its environs, there are some dramas that take place in a foreign setting. Often these foreign locations start the drama, sometimes they bookend it, and occasionally, they remain as the main location. But regardless of how long the story’s action takes place outside of South Korea, these foreign settings add an interesting element to the storytelling.

The most common way dramas use a foreign setting is in the beginning of the story. With 95% of dramas set in Seoul, a drama that opens elsewhere is immediately given a sort of breath of fresh air. There’s a sense of a “once upon a time…” storybook opening, of a world outside what we expect, and a story with an important starting point.

A recent drama that handled a foreign beginning adeptly was Memories of the Alhambra. This drama used its beginning to build a sense of mystery and magic. When the hero of the story (played by Hyun Bin) travelled to Spain, he not only discovered a whole new set of circumstances and people, but the AR video game that would alter the course of his life. A good part of the intrigue built by the concept of the show was rooted in the Spanish setting. Imagine the beginning and rising action of this drama set in a Seoul suburb instead, and it’s a very different kind of story.

Dramas like Shopping King Louie and City Hunter have used a foreign setting (France and Thailand, respectively) to give context to the main character as we’re being introduced. It’s always nice when a drama has the intention (and budget) to build a strong foundation for its hero or heroine — after all, seeing Lee Min-ho running around a Thai village or Seo In-gook parading around his chateau with staff to grant his every wish, is completely different from merely being told about it in the script.

That’s not to say the off-screen mention of a foreign beginning can’t be powerful as well, because what about stories that start with the return home? While more classically, the return of the hero symbolizes the completion of the story, there are many that open up with that return as the beginning.

Whether the hero was returning from America to solve some deep-seated mysteries (like Seo In-gook in I Remember You), or returning from Spain to play Puck in random neighbors’ lives (like Yoon Shi-yoon in Flower Boy Next Door), both dramas gained something by having a hero that was returning home at the start of the story.

Though the dramas are different, the way the beginnings work are the same: these heroes are immediately set apart as “other.” Whether it’s the sense of being different, of having a fresh perspective on life from living abroad, or the aloofness of being an outsider, these heroes’ foreign beginnings play an important part in their characterization.

To have a drama’s foreign setting acting as a prologue isn’t a new idea — many classic dramas started off in the same way. One good example of this is the 2004 classic I’m Sorry, I Love You, where the hero (played by So Ji-sub) is introduced in Australia, where he grew up as an adopted child. In this foreign beginning he not only meets the story’s heroine, but a heck of a lot of drama, before he returns to South Korea to seek his birth mother.

But are all these foreign beginnings really just prologue, or are they a deeper part of the story? In I’m Sorry, I Love You, and many other dramas like it, the story relies on its beginning for depth, dimension, and drama. In many cases, it’s as if the story wants us to meet the characters and see them outside their normal circumstances, before we see them inside. Two dramas that exemplify this are Heirs and Boyfriend. Interestingly, both stories featured main characters that had temporarily escaped the suffocation of their lives in Seoul when we first meet them on foreign soil.

Boyfriend’s story opened with the heroine (played by Song Hye-gyo) going on a business trip to Cuba. The drama used every last bit of its foreign setting to set the stage for the drama that was to come. Like the majority of dramas with foreign beginnings, it served as the meeting place for the hero and heroine, who would later reconnect back home.

But Boyfriend also used its foreign beginning to tell us a lot about the heroine — we meet the woman who’s been stifled, controlled, and constrained all her life. In Cuba, she gets a glimpse of life outside of those confines, and it’s the contrast between how she lives, and the freedom she yearns for that gets the plot moving. Seeing our heroine experience this firsthand (via the foreign setting of episode 1) makes the tension all the more compelling.

Heirs took a slightly different approach to its famous (or perhaps infamous?) foreign beginning, which featured a hero (played by Lee Min-ho) exiled in California. Similar to Boyfriend, it’s on foreign soil that he meets the heroine, and just as the trope orders, they meet again later when the action returns to Seoul. But Heirs’ foreign beginning is as important to understanding our hero as Boyfriend’s is to understanding our heroine.

But how foreign is foreign? In so many of the dramas mentioned here, though OTP meets in a foreign place, it’s their sameness that connects them. The foreign setting of their meeting can not only add the sparkle of a storybook beginning — but more importantly, it’s often a neutral territory for them to meet. When the hero and heroine meet as comrades on foreign soil, it not only unites them, but erases the many complications that their relationship would have faced immediately if they had first met at home. Later, when the two characters cross paths, their first meeting on foreign soil provides an important basis and context for their relationship.

Sometimes dramas depend on their foreign beginnings so much that they circle back to them as they end. Whether this means closure (Boyfriend), disaster (Memories of the Alhambra), or even more disaster (I’m Sorry, I Love You), closing the circuit of the plot by returning to the starting point is always satisfying for the audience. And for dramas that don’t return to their geographical starting point, there’s always the argument that they are still an important part of the conclusion, since the couple first met there. The location might be missing, but it’s a part of their story, and still holds its storytelling power.

It’s interesting to watch K-dramas play with this idea of foreignness versus sameness. After all, opening with a foreign setting is just one shape that this dynamic can take, as there are many more dramas that have used a foreign setting at a different point in the plot. While place and setting have always been an important part of storytelling, they stand out in K-dramas, where Seoul is so often the center of gravity for these stories.

Whether the drama uses its foreign setting as the catalyst for two strangers to meet, or to provide a rich background for our protagonists (or both!), each story’s foreign beginning sparks the plot into existence, and sets a rich and colorful foundation for the story that’s about to unfold.

Aside: I’ve kept this article focused on how these foreign beginningS work within the world of the story, but foreign settings in Korean dramas also open up a lot of interesting cultural discussions, particularly for an entertainment medium that has such a strong international viewership. Cultural perspectives are always at play, and that adds yet another level of complexity to the wonderful world of dramas.

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The California scenes in Heirs were so cringey! I could hardly watch. I've also noticed a lot of racism/ xenophobia in the encounters between "foreigners" and Koreans in Kim Eun-sook's dramas, including Heirs and Descendants of the Sun. The bad guy is invariably either a non-Korean person or a Korean who has lived abroad. By the way, I know Hollywood is also incredibly racist, particularly toward Asians, and I don't like that either. I did enjoy the Cuban scenes in Boyfriend, though. The writer and PD showed respect for the setting and culture.

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I was about to mention Heirs, myself. It was bad enough that they seemed to have deliberately cast white actors for their *utter inability* to act (that was offensive all by itself).

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I agree! The California scenes in Heirs were beyond bad.

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I think they need to keep the cost down since filming abroad and renting a mansion is expensive enough. And for that reason they get crappy actors or no good actor ever went to a casting call. I wonder how they pick them. Is there an agency that does it for them or what?

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Even when there're no foreign settings shown (it's obviously a sound stage so no expensive costs), the Western actors are always cringe-worthy! Surely they didn't just pulled these people off the streets?

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Sometimes I wonder if they do.
David McInnis is the most well known western actor in K-dramas these days. And he as well was not really good at the beginning (but he improved. I really liked him in Mr. Sunshine) but all the others really seem just taken off the streets.
I always find it funny when the western actors have to speak any language that is not English with very bad accents.

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I watched about 3 minutes of the California scene and decided not to watch Heirs at all. I generally like bad dramas so I probably would have enjoyed the rest of it, but I just couldn't watch any more after that.

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The Package was another drama (set in France) that did the foreign location shooting very well. Literally based on a travel tour company, it gave wonderful context to the characters and the storyline.
For once, the one person who had to speak the language did so quite properly. And if I remember correctly, cringey usage of foreign actors was mostly avoided.

It is always a big plus if the actor can speak the language of the foreign location at least somewhat accurately since we can assume that they most likely have language coaches for that purpose.

Nodame Cantabile (and it's Korean counterpart) both had beginnings in Europe which made perfect sense from the classical music aspect. It was actually wonderful to see it there! (and for them to go back to it later in the drama/sequel movies)

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Unfortunately, Tomorrow Cantabile would have been better served if it had deleted the pre-filmed Vienna portion from its final episode. Given how the hero/heroine's personalities and relationship changed over the course of the drama, it was completely jarring to have them revert to their episode 1 personalities in episode 16.

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Yes!!! I talked (*cough ranted* ) about this in my comment on the adaptations Dramabeans article.
The actors and characters had come a long way since the the beginning of the drama and it was just so weird to see them both revert to their previous selves. I was happy the way their relationship was at the end of the second to last episode or even the last 5 mins of the last episode (which was probably filmed later). But all that Last ep Vienna stuff was just out of place.
Of course I understand from a filming/scheduling/obtaining permission etc perspective, but sadly that did not go well.

One place it did go well was in K2. The last episode, last scene was filmed along with the beginning, but they had enough chemistry to make it look seamless.

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Also, Goblin’s final scenes were amazing in those last couple episodes and they were filmed in Quebec the same time as the beginning episodes. In the hands of talented actors, who know their characters, the time jump is not only believable, but exceptional. This may have been the exception and not the rule, though.

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As it relates to Tomorrow Cantabile, I fully blame the writer and director not the actors. It was as if they couldn't even conceive that their main leads would have any character growth or change in relationship over the course of the drama. Despite production costs, they should have just left those scenes on the cutting room floor as they just detracted from the storyline.

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@tazmania I agree. The scenes in Vienna that were filmed outside were choppy but the scenes in the actual concert hall etc were a bit better. They were perhaps filmed later.
The write/director could have made them so much better. ah well, hopefully in their next production they make better decisions!

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Oh, The Package was so well done! The setting and the plot were nicely tied in together. Mont St Michelle was so captivating, only to find out it was 2 hours away from Paris.

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YES The Package was very well-done! Integrated the location with the plot properly, AND also meant a lot to the heroine and the hero and their sense of lossness, so thematically it worked with the plot as well. Good model to follow!

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I haven't watched it but know I've seen mention of the beginning of Heirs on here before.
What made it so bad?

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The combination of crude stereotypes, bad acting, and cringey English dialogues.

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If I remember correctly, we are also introduced to Cha Do Hyeon the hero of Kill Me, Heal Me in America but it's Oh Ri On (the second male lead) that meets Shin Se Gi (one of hero's alter personalities) on the return flight to Korea ultimately leading to Cha Do Hyeon meeting Oh Ri Jin (the heroine).

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If plane flights count then there's the flight from the US to S. Korea in 'Oh My Venus' too.

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Same with Coffee Prince....

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Let me think. K-drama I've seen with foreign locations. That would include Macao, the Maldives, Thailand, Okinawa, Jordan famously in Misaeng, and a couple snippets in London I think. Las Vegas, LA, Chicago I think (in Chicago Typewriter), and New York City (unless I'm thinking of a C-drama). Maybe Vietnam but I'm not certain.

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the 'Chicago' scene in CT was actually filmed at https://koreandramaland.com/listings/cafe-valor-%EB%B0%9C%EB%A1%9C/ !

and we can help you out in recalling overseas locations ;) https://koreandramaland.com/search-by-overseas-locations/ - we don't have an extensive list at the moment but we look forward to expanding it further!

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Wow thanks for all the location info!

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Ooooo another one I just thought of was Twelve Nights!
NYC and Japan formed the beginning of the drama ! That was an interesting introduction to the characters' past!

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I watch Nine just to see Kathmandu because I miss it a lot.😂

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Really? Are you from Nepal too?

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Oh no. I just traveled Nepal a long time ago.

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Oh I see.. Glad to hear you missed Kathmandu though!

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thanks for sharing this insight into 'foreign beginnings' :) The Third Charm (everyone's favourite drama of 2018 - /sarcasm) moved part of their story to Portugal in the middle of the drama, as a way for Joon-young (Seo Kang-joon) to find himself. Interesting too that Young-jae (E-som) also ended up in the same place, though they don't cross paths (but us viewers see them being fleetingly in the same area).

we wrote a little more about last year's overseas locations in dramas on KDL! https://koreandramaland.com/kdl-2018-roundup-1-beyond-korea-and-over-the-seas/

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I so love The Heirs and City Hunter❤ The Legend of the Blue Sea & Boys over Flowers also have foreign settings❤
And yes, I love LEE MIN HO❤

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Same with you. I live any drama with Lee Min Ho in it. His charm and acting make everthing worth watching.

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Brilliant article. Thank you.

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I like the foreign settings but they lack in having good foreign actors...you see some gorgeous places but the western actors they use are very often crap. I guess they have to keep the cost down but it is still a pity.

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I agree.

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Any writer out there wanting overseas inspiration? I had 3 unforgettable interactions with Koreans in Sydney:

(1) A very, very, very beautiful Korean girl used to visit my son (they were in high school). It was 15 years ago when mobile phone charges were still expensive. One day my mobile phone disappeared, and then my phone company sent me a bill over $1000 for the calls that SHE made.

(2) I worked for Sydney Transport. One late night a Korean guy phoned to say that his friend was about to commit suicide at a Sydney Town Hall's railway track. Not sure which one. So I stopped ALL trains. Thousands of commuters screamed in the ensuing chaos, but we managed to save the poor young man.

(3) One night there was a thud behind me as I sat on the top floor of my office building. I couldn't see anything and continued to work all night. The next morning a Korean girl lay dead on the street (murdered by her Korean lover) ... right behind me.

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wow... 😱 certainly the stuff of k-dramas (and then some...)

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Oh and I know Sydney's best places for kimchi, ramen and Kbbq too :)

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yum! 😋

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I laughed. Then I gasped. Then... IDK

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Woahhhh...it got darker and darker as I continue reading 😱😱😱

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I usually fast-forward through the foreign setting episodes. They are nearly always only used to show the leads as super rich. The only time I didn't find it jarring and off-putting was in Memories of the Alhambra.

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Thank you, missvictrix, for another informative article. Misaeng and Encounter were my favorite use of foreign locals, they were meaningful, integral to the plot, and beautiful!

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Sigh......locales, not locals, though kudos for their use of locals as well!

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@beantown,
MISAENG is next up on my catchup list of well regarded (but missed by me) dramas. One of my viewing goals this year is to take in some of the great dramas that I have missed. GO BACK SPOUSES was my first. A+.
However, suddenly I went from live watching one drama (HAECHI) to four (DOCTOR PRISONER, KILL IT, CONFESSION) so MISAENG maybe on the back burner for awhile but I will get to it. Iirc I think you have already dropped KI but I want to stick with my guy JKY lol.

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I'm glad you talked about Boyfriend. Oh, how I loved the episodes set in Cuba. It's such a contrast to SK; a carefree summer environment vs a tense winter environment. But of course, although the settings are polar opposite, they portrayed the beauty of the two seasons in two countries very nicely.

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If any Kdramas plan on going to (or had gone to) Malaysia or New Zealand, give me a call.

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On The Way to the Airport had some parts in Malaysia. I recall seeing KLIA and Putrajaya in the drama.

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As always thanks @michh for your great site. I have a link below on my comment.

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aww thank you @marcusnyc20! always appreciate your kind words :)

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The Snow Queen spent time in New Zealand, in the mountains and in Christchurch.

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I like drama that have different location than Korea.

For Spring Waltz, Austria was very romantic for the beginning of the story.

I liked the Canada part in Goblin. There were 3 different moments in the story, but the actors had to film in one time and they did great.

I loved The Package. As a person who passed almost all her holidays in France, it was very well presented.

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Thanks for the reminder, I LOVED the Goblins interlude in Quebec, and I felt it was seamlessly integrated into the storyline.

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The reason I watched TWELVE NIGHTS at the end of last year was its opening in NYC. It was also a bit freaky because my one of my local subway stops made an appearance. I never thought a kdrama would be this close to home.
https://koreandramaland.com/listings/40th-street-lowery-street-station/

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Very cool!

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it's such a trip!! hehe. especially when it's so close to home. i wish i got to visit it on my NYC trip last year, but couldn't make it out that way >.< we'd love to have a photo of the station for KDL if we could! @marcusnyc20

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Best use of an oversees location: Goblin. They incorporated scenes shot there from beginning to the end and the actors sold each scene, changing their maturity and love story throughout. And Quebec a quaint and beautiful place with lots of easily accessible photo ops from the film if you ever go!

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You know what's REALLY foreign? Setting the drama somewhere rural!

*remembers Thank You fondly*

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The islands are good too like in Top Star Yoo-Baek or Hospital Ship. The sceneries were really beautiful.

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I just finished Top star recently and watched Hospital ship as it aired. It was such a refreshing change from the generic city setting!

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In the few dramas and movies I’ve watched that take place in rural areas, the country is the abode of cults and serial killers. LOL.

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Then you need to watch Little Forest for some comparison! 😂

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Watch Top Star for wholesome country hijinks.

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There's an oldie named Prince's First Love starring Cha Tae Hyun that took us to Tahiti, Bali and Sapporo, Japan in addition to Seoul. That was fun, and I think the resort locations were all Club Meds.

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The first drama I ever watched! Thanks for the reminder.

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I recently finished hate-watching "My Secret Hotel" (because Yoo In-na is always fun to watch, regardless). I got the biggest kick out of the scenes supposedly shot in the 'desert around Las Vegas'. They tried really hard but couldn't quite manage to make it convincing.

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Yes foreign can also mean out comfort zones
Such as kim samsoon climbing the moutain in snow storm. I watched travelogue variety
last month with korean celebrities living in foreign places for a week, (guide to my room) it did capture the korean vs rest of the world, showed good cultural hijinks

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I actually find it it 99% cringeworthy seeing korean dramas set in foreign locations. Somehow it seems way too awkward and unreal.

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Ah, it's sad to only find I'm Sorry I Love You to represent the classic kdrama. I'm surprise that HJW'Something Happened in Bali was not mentioned. I find that compare to the newer kdrama, in the earlier hallyu wave kdrama in early 2000's the foreign setting was incorporated better to the story. Say, other than ISILY and SHiB, there's KTH's Love Story in Harvard or Eugene's Wonderful Life. In those dramas, not only the foreign part was used as background or some sort of prologue, but it was a whole full chapter (or even chapters) of the drama itself where the OTP later relationship was based on. At least in those four, I can see that the money used to shoot overseas was not wasted.

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What about the amusing use of Thailand in Time between Dog and Wolf. They never seemed to be able to decide whether it was a great holiday place or a seething bed of drug gang violence.

Also the early European action of Doctor Stranger must of used up the budget because we get a sad echo of the bridge scene set, this time in the park at the back of the hospital. 😬🙄

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Macau seems to be popular. I remember seeing it in Fated to Love You and Boys Over Flowers. In fact, I am going there next October out of curiosity.

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