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.
- Hundred Million Stars From the Sky: Episode 1
- What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim: Episode 1
- Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food: Episodes 1-6
- 20th Century Boy and Girl: Episodes 1-2
- Premiere Watch: Just Between Lovers, Bad Guys: City of Evil
- Come Here and Hug Me: Episodes 1-16
- Kill Me, Heal Me: Episode 1
- Healer: Episode 1
- Shark: Episode 1
Tags: 20th Century Boy and Girl, Come Here and Hug Me, editorial, Healer, Hundred Million Stars From the Sky, Just Between Lovers, Kill Me Heal Me, Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food, Shark, What's Wrong With Secretary Kim