Birthday Letter: Episodes 1-2
This little gem of a drama special aired several months ago, but I’ve been trying ever since then to make some time to recap it. I’m glad I did, because while it’s a work of fiction, it’s an important story that played out in real life many times during World War II. Birthday Letter is a beautiful tale about soulmates, and how true love never ends.
Present Day — A young woman named KIM JAE-YOON (Jeon So-min) wishes her grandfather, KIM MOO-GIL (Jeon Moo-song) a good morning. They live together, and they’re getting their photos taken today. Moo-gil is self-conscious about an old scar along his jawline, but Jae-yoon assures him that it can be photoshopped out.
While they’re at the photographer’s, Jae-yoon’s boyfriend KI-WOONG (Kim Kyung-nam) brings Jae-yoon her wallet which she forgot at home, and a letter he found in the yard. Moo-gil grows nervous when he hears that it’s from someone named Yeo Il-ae, and he insists that Jae-yoon read the letter to him immediately.
Moo-gil, it’s my birthday today, and it’s also yours. I couldn’t bring myself to face you, so I’m writing you a birthday letter instead. Everything has changed, but the zelkova tree where we promised to meet is still the same. And you too… I’m so happy that you stayed in our hometown.
1945 — It’s the time of the Japanese occupation of Korea during World War II, and teenage MOO-GIL (Song Geon-hee) rides his bike past the zelkova tree in his village with a package tied to the back. He sees a young girl peeking from behind the tree, and he jumps off his bike and races over to her. His disappointment is palpable when it turns out to be JO YOUNG-GEUM (Kim Yi-kyung), and not the girl he was hoping to see.
Young-geum’s crush on Moo-gil is no secret, even to her father. He buys the fabric that Moo-gil’s mother dyes, and he gives Moo-gil a set of art supplies in exchange for teaching Young-geum to draw. He means well, but it’s an obvious ploy to push the two youngsters together. Young-geum’s brother JO HAM-DEOK (Go Geon-han) snaps at Moo-gil not to talk to him — he obviously has a big chip on his shoulder when it comes to Moo-gil.
Present Day — Moo-gil, who’s developed a fever (his health seems tenuous… he uses a wheelchair and a hospital bed) asks Jae-yoon to help him write back to Il-ae and deliver his letter in person, since he’s too sick. The letter came from Namhae, four hours away, but Jae-yoon reluctantly agrees to do as he asks.
When she arrives at the address where the letter originated, she learns that, not only is there nobody named Yeo Il-ae there, but there hasn’t been for at least the last ten years. Jae-yoon travels all the way back home and enlists Ki-woong, whose cousin is a cop, in helping her track down Yeo Il-ae. In the meantime, they tell Moo-gil that Il-ae was out of town, so Jae-yoon left his letter in her mailbox.
1945 — Moo-gil amiably walks Young-geum to school, and she says that she wants to get married so that she can’t be made a comfort woman (for those who don’t know, “comfort women” were Korean women forced into prostitution by the Japanese during the occupation) and her husband can’t be drafted.
She grabs Moo-gil’s sketchbook, and pouts when she sees his drawing of Yeo Il-ae, a pretty girl with delicate features. Moo-gil tells her kindly to stop pinning her hopes on him because he’s waiting for Il-ae to return, and she snaps that Il-ae is never coming back because she’s been made a comfort woman.
Moo-gil lashes out, yelling that that’s an untrue rumor and making Young-geum cry. Her brother shows up and punches Moo-gil, snarling to Young-geum that she’s a fool because Moo-gil has no feelings for her. Luckily, the fight ends when Moo-gil’s mother comes by.
Back home, Moo-gil’s mother tells him to apologize to Young-geum and Ham-deok, since Moo-gil’s father left to be a freedom fighter and his older brother Moo-jin is quite ill, so they rely on Ham-deok’s father to buy Mom’s dyed fabric. Even though he knows he did nothing wrong, Moo-gil apologizes to Ham-deok’s father.
He accepts Moo-gil’s apology and tells him that his eldest son, Ham-seok, sent a letter home mentioning that he saw Il-ae in Hiroshima, doing odd jobs at a bar. Moo-gil trots home happy to have news of Il-ae, but he finds the authorities there, issuing a draft for Moo-jin to be sent to Hiroshima to work in a labor camp.
The messenger tells Moo-gil’s mother that it’s better than being drafted to fight, and that the men in the camps are fed and paid well. Moo-gil makes a snap decision and volunteers to go himself, knowing that Moo-jin is too sick and seeing it as an opportunity to find Il-ae and bring her home.
Their mother cooks the last of their rice and feeds the majority of it to Moo-gil. She gives Moo-gil a bracelet of wooden beads, telling him that it’s a good luck charm that belonged to his father. She begs him, no matter what, to come back alive, and soon Moo-gil is taken away from the village by the Japanese, along with Ham-deok.
Present Day — Moo-gil asks Jae-yoon if she’s spoken to her mother lately, but she just says curtly that she never calls first. Moo-gil tells her to sell the house once he’s gone and move closer to her mother with Ki-woong. He mutters that her mother was unlucky to have had her husband die, and he doesn’t blame her for not wanting to take care of an aging father-in-law (himself).
Ki-woong arrives, and Moo-gil asks eagerly if anything came in the mail. He’s worried that Il-ae hasn’t written him back and he decides to go to her home himself, but Jae-yoon argues that he’s just barely recovered. She storms out and Ki-woong follows her, and he tells her that his cousin didn’t find anything about Il-ae in a background check, nor are there any death records for anyone with her name and birthdate.
When they returns home, they find Moo-gil in the bathroom, blood gushing from his nose. They get him cleaned up and in bed, and he apologizes for being a burden. He tells Jae-yoon that he dreamed he got a letter from Il-ae, and when she sees how sure he is that he’ll hear from Il-ae soon, she feels guilty.
Jae-yoon and Ki-woong go through some of Moo-gil’s old things, hoping for a clue. While they search, Jae-yoon tells Ki-woong that in his early 60s, Moo-gil was diagnosed with a disease that causes the muscles to stiffen, and she says she may get the same thing someday. Finally, Jae-yoon finds a note in a sketchbook that Moo-gil eventually found Il-ae in Hiroshima.
She nervously asks Moo-gil what happens if he never hears from Il-ae, and he says he’ll just go find her. She gives him a letter that she wrote, claiming to be Il-ae, using what few details she knows of their relationship like their meeting in Hiroshima and saying she can’t meet him in person.
1945 — Moo-gil and Ham-deok are sent to the same labor camp, where conditions are terrible — nothing like they were promised. They meet a kid named GEUNG-KAE (Ham Sung-min) who says it’s still better than working in the mines, and he shows them how to make some extra money by leaving camp at night and scrounging for metal scraps to sell.
Instead, Moo-gil goes off on his own to look for Il-ae. All he knows is that she works in a bar, so he methodically searches the bars in the bad parts of town, but he doesn’t find her.
The young men in the work camp are forced to pledge loyalty to the Japanese emperor and learn basic fighting skills. Geung-kae isn’t feeling so well, and he gets caught talking to Moo-gil and is viciously kicked by their Japanese guard.
Suddenly, Moo-gil sees something and goes running out of the camp area without permission. He frantically searches the streets, and eventually catches up with his quarry — he’s finally found Il-ae. He can’t hide his happiness to see her again, but she looks wary and backs away from him.
Ham-deok catches up to them and tells Il-ae that they’ve been at the labor camp for about a month, but she just turns and leaves. Oof, Moo-gil is trying so hard to hide his disappointment. The boys return to the camp, and are told to slap other as punishment for leaving without permission.
Ham-deok lightly taps Moo-gil, and Moo-gil’s slap is equally weak, so the guard hits Ham-deok hard as an example. Ham-deok nods at Moo-gil to hit him, but instead, Moo-gil says that it’s his fault so he hits himself. Infuriated, the guard punches Moo-gil so hard he hits the ground.
That evening, Geung-kae brings Ham-deok and Moo-gil (probably quite expensive) blocks of ice for their bruised faces. Moo-gil tells Ham-deok that he understands why he hates him but he still wants to be friends. Ham-deok admits that he doesn’t dislike Moo-gil because of Young-geum — it’s because his father is always telling him that he’s not as good as Moo-gil.
He jokes that he’ll always be better at making people angry, and he reassures Moo-gil that Young-geum will get over him once she sees him come home with Il-ae. He muses that he should probably avenge his sister anyway, then shoves his ice down Moo-gil’s shirt, hee.
Moo-gil says sadly that Il-ae didn’t seem happy to see him, but he still goes to the bar where she works the next day, trying to get a glimpse of her. When she emerges with a bucket of laundry, he follows her to the river. Il-ae stops to put a rock on a huge pile and pray, and Moo-gil adds a rock and gives her a shy smile.
She’s not any more pleased to see him today, and he tells her that Ham-seok wrote home that he saw her, Il-ae freezes up. She asks if that’s all he said, only relaxing when Moo-gil expresses confusion. Growing upset, he says he came to Hiroshima to find her, but Il-ae snaps that he shouldn’t have because she’s forgotten all about him.
Moo-gil follows Il-ae back to the bar, where she tells him not to return. He replies that people can forget, but that he hasn’t forgotten her, and that he’ll visit her every day.
Present Day — Moo-gil goes through his old things and finds the beaded bracelet his mother gave him when he went to Japan. He puts it on Jae-yoon’s wrist, and as she takes a call, she doesn’t see him take out a ring and put it on his left ring finger.
They meet with someone interested in the house, though she’s planning to tear it down and build a commercial building. Moo-gil doesn’t seem too upset since he’ll be gone — he’s thinking of Il-ae, and he tells Jae-yoon that he wants to write back to her.
1945 — Geung-kae succumbs to overwork and malnutrition, and he falls dead while working. The Japanese guard gets angry when Moo-gil insists on burying his friend, and he draws his sword and slashes at Moo-gil’s face, slicing open his jawline. Ah, so that’s where his scar comes from.
That night, Ham-deok visits Il-ae and tells her that Moo-gil has been locked up, so Il-ae bravely goes to the labor camp to plead for mercy for Moo-gil. She brings food for the guard on duty and begs him on her knees not to kill Moo-gil. She even gets a bowl of water and washes his feet, but he remains silent and doesn’t give her an answer.
Il-ae tells him that she’ll do anything, making her meaning as clear as she can — she’s offering him her body in exchange for Moo-gil’s life. The guard stares at her for a long moment, then tells her that Moo-gil will be spared and to leave before the other guard arrives. Whew.
Moo-gil is released, and when Il-ae sees him again, she fusses at him for almost getting himself killed. But he’s angry, too, that she went to the office and begged for his life, and he tells her that she’s lucky she got the one decent guard or something terrible could have happened to her.
Il-ae shoots him a defiant, “So what?” and stomps down to the river with her laundry. Moo-gil asks why she’s so different from the Yeo Il-ae he knows from home, and she asks if he’s going to make her say it out loud. She says that she knows what people are saying about her at home (that she’s been made a comfort woman), and she sobs that the rumors are true.
She tries to show Moo-gil her tattoo to prove it, but he stops her, hanging onto his denial. Il-ae says that she prayed that Moo-gil and her mother wouldn’t find out, but then he showed up and she can’t hide it.
She says coldly that she can’t be Moo-gil’s wife anymore, and she continues to the river. Moo-gil lashes out, tearing down her prayer rocks and sobbing in anguish.
When Il-ae finishes her laundry, she finds Moo-gil repairing the mess he made of her prayer rocks. He’s calmer now, and he says that he would have done anything to save her (if she’d been locked up). He thanks Il-ae for telling him the truth, and he says that she’s still his soulmate, no matter what.
He asks her not to avoid him anymore and promises to treat her better. Il-ae reaches up to touch the wound on his jaw and pouts, “Idiot, how can you treat me better than this?” Moo-gil folds Il-ae into his arms, both of them crying.
The following morning, Il-ae finds Moo-gil outside the bar, where he slept all night leaning on the wall. She tells him that she has the night off and gives him some money to buy scissors so she can give him and Ham-deok haircuts. She pinches him and pops a piece of candy into his mouth when he yelps, then skips back inside. So cute.
Moo-gil goes to a shop to buy the scissors, and while he waits, a little boy comes out and runs smack into him. The boy drops a watch, and Moo-gil notes that it’s 8:14 am before handing the watch back to the boy. Oh no, didn’t the atomic bomb drop on Hiroshima at 8:15 am…?
Moo-gil watches as the boy points to the sky and asks his mother about something he sees. Moo-gil looks in that direction, and suddenly there’s a flash, then the world explodes.
Oh, how terrifying! I knew that Birthday Letter was about people who experienced the bombing of Hiroshima, but the show was so focused on Moo-gil and Il-ae’s reunion that I honestly forgot all about that aspect of the story. Then I saw the time on the watch and remembered, and I barely had time to process that it was about to happen when… it happened. I can’t imagine going through what Moo-gil and Il-ae have already gone through, and they only just found each other, and now it’s about to get so much worse.
For a drama special, Birthday Letter is surprisingly slow-paced, which I mean as a compliment. It’s telling two stories simultaneously — one of Moo-gil’s past, and one where he’s trying to reconnect his past and his present — so it could easily have felt rushed. But the story is simple enough that it doesn’t need a lot of dialogue to be told, so each scene is allowed to breath, which gives it an interesting tone. The actors are portraying as much with their expressions and body language as they are with their words, which gave this episode a lovely, almost languid feeling, though with a sense of growing dread for what’s to come.
It was heartbreaking, though I can’t say I’m surprised, to learn that Il-ae was forced into being a comfort woman. I wasn’t surprised that Moo-gil came around and accepted her anyway so quickly, either — he’s shown himself to be someone who cares more about others than himself, which was illustrated perfectly in the way he destroyed the prayer rocks, then immediately put them back. Of course he would focus on consoling Il-ae rather than his own feelings of devastation at what was done to her. It’s that whole-hearted acceptance that broke through Il-ae’s defenses, because we knew that she didn’t forget Moo-gil like she claimed and was only trying to spare him hurt.
As emotional and wrenching as the first half was, I have a feeling we haven’t seen anything yet. The nuclear bomb changed lives in ways that were horrific and irreparable, and the fact that Moo-gil and Il-ae didn’t end up together in the longterm suggests that they are going to experience a permanent separation. It’s not going to be any easier to watch, knowing that they will lose each other again. I’m very anxious to learn where Il-ae has been all these years, why she chose to write Moo-gil after so long, and whether they’ll ever get to see each other again. It’s pretty clear that Moo-gil is old and sick and doesn’t have long to live, but I hope that he gets a chance to tell Il-ae that he never stopped loving her before he goes.