Bubblegum: Episode 11
It’s a change of pace today as we leave the problems and pains of the present behind, and step back in time to fill in some holes. We get more insight into the depth of Ri-hwan and Haeng-ah’s connection, and the full story makes you wonder how they can ever be apart, when all they see is each other. But their story is also Mom’s story. Although her memories are unravelling in the present, today, we find all of our answers in memories of the past.
EPISODE 11: “More than the love that is memory”
Autumn, 1989. Little Haeng-ah bursts into the bathroom where Dad bathes Ri-hwan. She goggles and asks Dad if he’s bought her a little brother. She’s surprised that little Ri-hwan has a mom, and offers to swap for her dad, but he refuses. Dad’s put out by their joint rejection of him, but Ri-hwan says it’s because he has to protect his mom.
While Dad puts Haeng-ah to bed, and tells her Ri-hwan will be coming over every day, because his mom is busy training to be a doctor. He tells her how he and her mother met because of Ri-hwan’s mom, in his university days, when she was his club hoobae. Dad gets a faraway look, telling the story of how they fell in love, got married, and had her. But when he turns back to Haeng-ah, she’s fast asleep.
The kids play happily together (i.e. Haeng-ah draws poop) at Secret Garden, and Dad looks dotingly on. He tells Ri-hwan his mom’ll be late, and he’s excited to be staying over again. That night, the parents find the two kids sleeping soundly together. Mom (wearing the bracelet Ri-hwan later gives Haeng-ah) asks if they fight a lot, and Dad indulgently replies that that’s how they grow.
They joke about sending the kids off to college right away — Ri-hwan will be a good student, if he’s like his mom, Dad says. And Haeng-ah will have a good personality, if she’s like her dad, Mom says.
We stitch into the scene of an earlier flashback. Haeng-ah, noting Ri-hwan’s grazed knee and twisted socks, gets mad at him for going trampolining with another girl (Ri-hwan: “It was only once! I was thinking of you the whole time!” HAHA). She ejects him (from his own house), and Dad finds him on the porch outside.
Ri-hwan explains, and Dad says he shouldn’t have told Haeng-ah about the other girl. Ri-hwan looks up at him with those big eyes and says that they promised to tell each other everything. He twists Mom’s bracelet in his hands — he wants to give it to Haeng-ah. Dad laughs a little when Ri-hwan clarifies that he didn’t steal it — he took it. Aw.
We join Mom looking all over for the bracelet. (Future) Aunt Princess comes by with food, and we learn that she used to work at Mom’s family home, and still calls Mom “agasshi.” Mom asks if she can’t just call her “Sun-young” now, since her dad kicked her out. Aunt smiles that those were just words.
Mom gets a sudden call from Ri-hwan’s dad, and ends up making a Yong-pal-like house-call, Aunt in tow, to patch up a gangster…future Uncle Gangster. Dad scolds him, telling him if he’s going to swing a knife, to do it in a kitchen, and he gives him a job on the spot. Aunt volunteers to change his dressings, since Mom is busy. Mom cuts over Aunt, and, smiling, introduces her simply as her friend.
The parents amble away, chuckling about the kids. They were fighting about who would be the younger sibling, and decided to resolve it once and for all with a new baby.
Later, Aunt gets a shock when she turns around to the kids staring up at her. They ask her how babies happen. She stumbles through an explanation of having a sweet time between two people…which Ri-hwan and Haeng-ah interpret very literally. A pile of sweet wrappers lie between them, but no sign of a baby.
Next time, they ask Uncle Gangster. His explanation involves two people having a drink together. With a graveyard of empty yoghurt bottles between them, the kids are disappointed that there’s still no baby.
Mom’s explanation is so scientific, neither kid understands it. Ri-hwan reasons that it must be because it’s all Englishy. He wants to ask her dad, but all they get out of him is marks on the wall — according to him, once they grow up to the highest one, they’ll automatically find out. The kids measure each other, but the line is far out of reach.
Finally, they get help from an expert. A playground kid gives them the skinny, and they look distinctly queasy about it. I’ll say! They head upstairs together. And it’s time to fast-forward. Now teens, they clatter down the stairs, grabbing packed lunches Dad’s made for each of them.
The mysterious Maeng Woo-bin is finally revealed, and…he’s not all that? How disappointing. He shows off a specially-acquired video, The Secret of the Red Billiard Ball (aka Se-young's embarrassing film debut), when Haeng-ah clomps in to borrow Ri-hwan's gym clothes. Just then, the in-school broadcast relays a love confession from a student, to Ri-hwan.
Haeng-ah denies it was her, although it doesn’t stop Woo-bin mocking her, saying that the two of them are like a married couple anyway. Still vehemently denying it, she marches out of the boys’ classroom, but emblazoned across her back — on Ri-hwan’s jumper — is, “belongs to Park Ri-hwan,” haha.
Mom, finally a fully-fledged doctor, moves into a new office. Doc-friend (who should probably be named by now: DR. GO) comes by to congratulate her, and notes that she must be dating, since she looks so happy.
Haeng-ah creeps up on Ri-hwan reading a love-letter. She snatches it from him, and makes fun of it by reading it aloud — until she gets to the line describing her as “the long-haired ugly girl.” Haeng-ah notes the girl’s name, and stalks off.
Woo-bin delivers what he says is Ri-hwan’s reply to the girl in question. The prank-letter sends her into the boys’ classroom, where she slaps Ri-hwan across the face. Woo-bin sneaks out, and Ri-hwan takes a close look at the note. He heads straight to Haeng-ah. It’s her handwriting, he accuses. She looks caught, but strenuously denies it all the same. She argues back that he ruined her date — what is he, her oppa?
At Secret Garden, Mom and Dad hear the kids bickering from miles off, and now we stitch into an earlier epilogue — Mom’s memory of her good day, when Dad asked her to wait for him. The arguing kids join their parents and Haeng-ah denounces Ri-hwan’s taste in women.
Later, Mom gets a page at the hospital. In her polka-dot dress, she runs out. Dad meets her with a huge smile, and says they’ll do the “full course” in her half-hour lunch break. He borrows a wheelchair from a nearby patient, and literally takes her for a spin right there. They laugh and laugh, and Dad tells her that they’ve had a drive, so now it’s time for a meal. It’s fish on the menu.
At a snack stand, she’s delighted when he presents her with a carp-cake, and asks if she brought her purse. She says no. Serious, he tells her to run for it. Haha. He does the same — but not before leaving money for the vendor, who chuckles at their sense of fun. Drinks next, and Dad accidentally spills Mom’s coffee on her dress, which is the origin of the stain.
She asks what the next course is, and he takes her to a photo studio, which surprises her. They pose stiffly, and Dad talks to her. He was thinking about what she said, about whether he was asking her to wait. He admits that he didn’t take her seriously until now, but adds that although he works hard and has a good personality, he has nothing else to his name, so he’s sorry.
He stops Mom breaking in — and asks her if she can wait a little longer for him to establish himself. Less than a year— She agrees before he even finishes, face suddenly alight. He turns to look at her, and happiness fills both their faces. The photographer tells them to look at the camera, and their perfect moment is caught.
He returns her to the hospital, and presents her with a chrysanthemum pinched from a funeral bouquet. Not sure funerary flowers are what you want to be giving! He asks for a goodbye-handshake, and beaming at each other, they clasp hands.
The next time we catch up to her, emergency personnel rush by her to resuscitate Dad. In voiceover, she tells us that the men she loved both left her, and that’s when everything fell apart for her. She looks on, stunned, while Haeng-ah is crumpled on the floor, crying. Out of sight around the corner, Ri-hwan overhears the doctors talk about the fatal drink that hastened his death.
After the funeral, Ri-hwan discovers Haeng-ah packing to go live with a faraway aunt. Ri-hwan urges Mom to take Haeng-Ah in, but Mom says that she has her own relatives who will. So did he, Ri-hwan argues, but that never stopped Mom leaving him at Haeng-ah’s place. He blames himself for Dad’s death, and recounts his promise to protect Haeng-ah. Mom remains pitiless — Haeng-ah will survive.
Aunt Princess tells him that they wanted to take her in, but her aunt already said she would take her. Ri-hwan doesn’t understand why they can’t gainsay her, when they’ve lived together and are practically family themselves. Aunt promises to try again.
To no avail, it seems, since Haeng-ah boards a bus to Namhae. Aunt and Ri-hwan see her off, although Ri-hwan can barely look at her. “Thank you. Goodbye,” she mouths. The bus pulls away, and Ri-hwan finally shakes off his inertia and sprints after the bus, to see Haeng-ah one last time. But he can’t catch up, and she doesn’t see him. Tears gather in his eyes.
Mom tells Dr. Go how despite getting rid of everything, the empty spaces are taunting her. Dr. Go asks if that’s why she got rid of Haeng-ah, but no, that’s not it. Mom says she throws away and retrieves the photo over and over again — she’d do the same to Haeng-ah, and hate her and feel sorry for her.
Dr. Go prescribes just two days’ worth of sleeping pills, and reminds her that brains can be irrational, and might want to end the suffering more than it wants to live. He tells her to take a few days off, and she explodes in a fit of whining — he wants her to stay home and go mad with all the things talking to her?
Time passes. Haeng-ah looks out to sea, remote in her new surroundings. Mom stays late at the hospital, just staring into the distance, while Ri-hwan drives his remote-control car in listless circles. He thinks of Dad asking him to take care of Haeng-ah. He cradles the car, Dad’s last gift, and his request echoes in his head.
Ri-hwan makes his way down an empty road leading to Haeng-ah’s new home. He bangs on the gate, calling her name. She opens the door in surprise, and he gives her a Walkman. She asks if he came all that way just to give her this, and he says it’s because she can’t sleep without the radio. There’s also a mixtape inside. She tentatively asks how everyone is, and is disappointed that he can’t stay, but he has to catch the bus.
He realizes part-way down that he forgot to give her the earphones, and runs back. The gate is open, so he goes in, and finds Haeng-ah washing her face, racked with silent sobs. He’s shocked that she’s been like this all this time.
He calls Uncle Gangster from the bus station — Haeng-ah is with him, and they’re coming back to Seoul together. That night, Uncle brings Haeng-ah to Mom’s house. She’s to take her in, and he’ll provide maintenance. Both of them owe her father so much – Dad was the one who raised her son while she was busy becoming a doctor, he reproaches. Mom stares at Haeng-ah, resentfully, fearfully, while Ri-hwan, overjoyed, brings her inside.
Haeng-ah’s in bed when he knocks at her door. He’s brought along a radio, to help her sleep. She shows him the Walkman he already gave her. He hovers anxiously, until she tells him to come in if he has something to say. They huddle down, a little nervous distance between them, and he tells her tidbits of news, like Woo-bin now dating crush-girl.
Now lying next to each other, sharing a pillow, she tells him how Uncle plans to keep Secret Garden unchanged. His mom doesn’t know he came to Namhae, though, right? He says he’ll take care of it.
Mom can’t sleep, and restlessly looks in on Haeng-ah. To her utter shock, she finds the two kids asleep together. Her shrill screech wakes them up — why isn’t he in his own room?
We catch up to another previously visited memory. A smiling Haeng-ah brings Mom her carnation for Parents’ Day, and Ri-hwan secretly follows. So they both overhear Mom say on the phone that she’d throw Haeng-ah out at the first sign of any funny business between them. Haeng-ah retreats, and Ri-hwan quickly ducks out of sight while she runs away.
He finds her alone at a bench and asks what she’s doing there. She says she has nowhere to go. He tells her to come home — but if she doesn’t want to, they can stay here together, he says, settling in beside her.
Another day. Haeng-ah studies late at Secret Garden, and Ri-hwan bugs her to come home — it’s the day before the school trip. He snatches away her dictionary and turns out the light, until she gives up and comes out. But he runs off with her dictionary, grinning, and she gives chase.
The next day, a teacher pelts down to retrieve Ri-hwan just as the buses are leaving — something’s happened at home. From another bus, Haeng-ah catches sight of him being led away, the teacher’s arm around him.
At the hospital, Aunt Princess tries to comfort him, playing Mom’s overdose off as a mistake. Tears run down Ri-hwan’s face. Why would she do that, when she has him? Aunt hugs him. Mom was having such a hard time — she must have wanted to just sleep. She asks if he can understand her.
Around the corner and just out of sight, like Ri-hwan last time, Haeng-ah listens, also crying. A bloody patient is wheeled by her, and the sight makes her faint. The commotion brings Ri-hwan and Aunt running to her side, frantic with worry.
Later that year, the school nurse notes to Haeng-ah that her fear of hospitals seems to stem from what happened to Mom. She advises treatment before it gets worse, but Haeng-ah won’t allow her to speak to Mom about it.
At the same time, a teacher argues with Ri-hwan about not going on their graduation trip. But Ri-hwan, too, is adamant his mother not be contacted. The teacher wants to help, but Ri-hwan can’t confide his fear of returning to find his mother dead.
Haeng-ah listens to the radio while doing her homework, and sits up when the host reads a message from “pebble girl”, who writes that she’s been feeling like a pebble in someone’s shoe. The host tells her not to think that way, since she’d have been shaken out long ago, if that were true.
Ri-hwan, listening in his own room, looks in on his sleeping mom. The DJ says that while children fear big, strong things, adults fear small, weak things. He sits by Mom, and tenderly covers her hand with his. He meets Haeng-ah on his way out. She’s lighter, and smiling, gestures at him to sleep well.
Haeng-ah waves at Mom from across the road, and Mom waves back. The lights change and Haeng-ah starts to cross when a car heads right for her, because he apparently doesn’t know the highway code. He screeches to a halt, and Mom runs to Haeng-ah in shock and worry.
She gives the speeder (who mistakes Haeng-ah for her daughter) an earful, and then turns on Haeng-ah: Who is Mom for her to just jump out like that? And just why is she so pleased to see her? They walk off, and Haeng-ah takes Mom’s arm, beaming at her.
It’s the first anniversary of Dad’s death, and they convene at Secret Garden. Aunt says they’ve made all of Dad’s favorite foods, and Haeng-ah brings Ri-hwan down from upstairs to join them. The atmosphere is peaceful, almost festive.
Mom looks out the window at the kids, talking and laughing, and in voiceover, she says that she couldn’t throw it away after all. She asks herself why she wanted to so much — because it was something she lost, something she didn’t have. She’s surrounded by her memories of her happy day, of Haeng-ah’s joy at seeing her earlier and her fear for her safety: the one time her real feelings were exposed. The touch of Ri-hwan’s hand — reasons to want to live.
We fade into the present — the real present — and Mom sits in her customary spot at Secret Garden, which is empty around her. As her memories dim, she says, things are crystallizing for her now, about what makes life full.
Dong-hwa brings her a drink she blended herself. Mom says she’s pretty, and asks her name. Controlling her frustration, she takes a seat and tells Mom that her name is the same today as it was yesterday: “Dong-hwa” as in “fairytale book” (her name means “fairytale”). Mom beams that even her name is pretty, and Dong-hwa smiles back. She tells Mom that she used to think she was like Cinderella’s stepmother. “Now…you’re pretty,” she says.
“Really?” Mom asks. “Thank you,” she says, smile stretching wide.
For someone so tortured by her memories, there’s something strangely elliptical in suffering the very illness that chips them away. But it’s a double-edged sword for Mom, who finally relieves one pain only to descend into another, losing memories just as she gains a new sense of clarity. But I wonder whether her illness becomes a sidenote to the profound regret she has now to bear for never making amends with her father. Her whole story seems like a terrible cautionary tale: She thought she had time. It’s tragic for that realization of what’s important to come so, so late, when there’s so little left that she can do, and when she can’t undo what she’s already done.
But with all that backstory, it now makes even less sense to me, on multiple levels, why she hates Haeng-ah so much, and why she wanted to throw her away. For a start, a person isn’t things, so even if she got rid of everything related to Dad…well, is that in itself telling? She resents and hates Dad for leaving her, for dying on her, and since he’s not here, she gets to take it out on Haeng-ah…is that it? It definitely isn’t concern over some fauxcest — this is very personal; her feelings about Haeng-ah aren’t to do with Ri-hwan.
It’s evident that Mom has been heartsick for a long, long time, but in a sense, that makes me even less forgiving. Because I understand depression, and grief, and resentment and anger, but that she thought her pain was bigger than Haeng-ah’s — a child, who lost both her parents, who was losing the only home she ever knew to live with a relative she’d never met, when it’s so easy for Mom to take her in — I struggle to forgive that. Not because I don’t understand depression, but because she lets her pettier self be her master, and doesn’t even try otherwise. It’s worse because she’s a doctor — she has the knowledge and resources to get help. She obviously loved her son at that time, so killing herself seems increasingly selfish. Especially when the daughter of the man whose loss she grieves is right before her eyes. I suppose it’s a relief in our present that she chose to live after all, but I wonder if Ri-hwan ever got over his fear of leaving her alone. That’s powerful priming there.
That brings me to my main point: It’s a terrible burden to place on a child. On both children. The way Mom coldly tells Ri-hwan that Haeng-ah must fend for herself (because Mom refuses to), the way Aunt tells Ri-hwan to understand his mother’s pain. They’re children. Don’t put the burden of understanding on them! They shouldn’t be made to carry her pain, no matter how willing they are, and she’s made them carry her burdens their whole lives. I just don’t jive with that. I have sympathy for suffering, but she should get help. If it were ordinary, everyday sadnesses, it would be different. But her pain is too big even for herself, and she feeds and grows it bigger. It’s a further testament to the strength of Ri-hwan’s and Haeng-ah’s characters that they don’t resent her. Of the three, Haeng-ah has lost the most and been affected the most, buffeted around as she was by choices others made for her because they were adults and she was a kid. She was self-aware enough to know exactly how Mom felt about her, but as she brokenly put it, she didn’t have anywhere to go.
The sweet, sensitive adult Haeng-ah becomes is harder to find in her teenage counterpart. Teenage Haeng-ah burns hotter, speaks spicier, and generally seems stronger — although we also saw her break and retreat into herself. Those periods of lostness and withdrawal seem to form the bridge between her teenage and adult selves, but I’m curious to know whether the character was intentionally played this way, or if this is just elaborate rationale on my part to connect them. This episode did, at times, feel like an extended flashback, but I find the interlude surprisingly well-placed and well done. After the intensity of the previous episode, it was the right moment to defuse that high emotion, and the trip itself was important. As ever with Bubblegum, with the greatest credit to our leads and their younger counterparts, the emotions of the characters land — and boy, do they — even if the logic behind them doesn’t necessarily add up.
Although I intellectually “get” the couple’s lifelong relationship, seeing it happen adds much more richness to their narrative — the sense of intertwinedness, the impossibility of separation. But that, too, is why the separation makes even less sense. When you’ve come this far together, when you’ve experienced this much hardship and happiness together, can you really call it quits? I thought last week that there was a tiny bit of merit in what Suk-joon said — that she can love Ri-hwan and get over him, miss him and move on. That it hurts for a time and then it gets better. After this, I no longer believe that. They’re like those twining trees, grown so far and much around each other, that to separate them means to rip apart them both. So now, all we can do is wait out the angst and enjoy the good music, at least.