Birthday Letter: Episodes 3-4 (Final)
It took me a while to get back to finish this wonderful drama special, so I’m excited that I was finally able to find the time. Our young lovers have found each other in a foreign land against all odds, but their troubles are only starting, as the war culminates in a horrific event that will alter their lives forever. But the lesson in their story isn’t about separation, but instead the love that holds two hearts together regardless of distance or time.
1945 — Moo-gil wakes after being knocked out by the blast of the atomic bomb to find Hiroshima destroyed. Everything is on fire and there are bodies all around him, but all he thinks about is finding Il-ae.
Thankfully, Il-ae was protected when part of a wall fell on her, though she’s got a terrible burn on the right side of her face. Moo-gil helps her get outside and explains that there was a bomb, and then they go to look for Ham-deok.
Present Day — Jae-yoon’s boyfriend, Ki-woong, follows the story through Moo-gil’s drawings and notes. Jae-yoon says that she knew her grandfather lived through the bombing, and that it’s what caused the illness that makes his muscles stiff. Ki-woong feels bad for what Moo-gil went through at such a young age, and Jae-yoon agrees that his life would have been much different if he hadn’t gone to Japan in his brother’s place.
Moo-gil insists on sending a letter to Il-ae, still believing that the second letter he received was from her when in fact, Jae-yoon wrote it when she couldn’t find Il-ae. When they leave the post office, Moo-gil says he wants to visit the temple.
1945 — Ham-deok is trapped under some rubble when Moo-gil and Il-ae find him, but they eventually manage to get him free. Moo-gil hears someone calling for help, so he goes back into the fire to save him. The man is thankful but quickly hurries away, frantic to find his young son.
Ham-deok’s leg is badly injured so Moo-gil splints it as best he can. Ham-deok gasps that the pain and rage he’s feeling are unbearable, wondering what he did to deserve becoming a cripple in a foreign country. Moo-gil tells him that all of Hiroshima is like this, but that Ham-deok has to hang in there and live.
Eventually the three friends find a semi-sheltered place to spend the night. Ham-deok gives Moo-gil some money that he found in their friend Geung-kae’s pocket when he buried him, then he tells Moo-gil, “You have to make it back home. You need to make it home, get married, and have kids. You need to live a long and happy life with Il-ae.”
Il-ae tells Ham-deok not to talk like he isn’t coming with them, but Ham-deok says with resignation that he’s going somewhere else. In the morning, Moo-gil finds that his friend died during the night. He cremates Ham-deok’s body and cries that this is all his fault.
Il-ae tells Moo-gil that she and another girl tried to escape the Japanese when they came to kidnap them from their village. She says that she watched the other girl get caught and killed, but she kept running and survived, even though her life has been a living hell ever since. She vows to live for her friend if Moo-gil lives for Ham-deok, and she promises him that they’ll make it home.
Present Day — Jae-yoon takes Moo-gil to pray at the shrine as he asked, and after, he seems exhausted and asks to go straight home. He goes to bed early, and Jae-yoon complains that he’s acting like he did when her father died. She gives him another letter that she forged with Il-ae’s name, and Moo-gil admits wearily he wants to apologize to Il-ae in person for not keeping his promise.
1945 — Moo-gil and Il-ae hide from the Japanese soldiers while searching for whatever discarded scraps of food they can find. At one house, they run into a Korean man who is frantically searching for money.
He tells Moo-gil and Il-ae that there’s a ship that will take people home to Korea for a fee, and although he stays wary, Moo-gil admits that he has money. The man offers to take them to the ship if they pay for his passage, so they agree to meet him the following day.
Il-ae is sick and weak from hunger, but she assures Moo-gil that she won’t die on him. He tells her she looks pretty even though she’s a mess, and she asks when he started liking her. Moo-gil says that he doesn’t know – he can’t remember a time he didn’t love her.
Il-ae complains that she never even sees her mother in her dreams, but Moo-gil says that means she’ll see her in real life. Il-ae says that Moo-gil coming to Hiroshima and Ham-deok’s death feel like a dream, and Moo-gil promises that getting on the boat and going home are real. He puts his father’s wooden bead bracelet on Il-ae’s wrist and asks her to marry him when they get home, and Il-ae ties her tattered hair ribbon on his finger as her pledge to be his wife.
They follow the man to the boat, walking for days before finally reaching the dock. The man takes them to another guy who takes their money, then says to follow him to the ship. But on the way, both men give them the slip, and when Moo-gil and Il-ae finally reach the boat, they learn that they’ve been scammed.
Il-ae passes out from hunger and exhaustion, and Moo-gil begs the man letting people onto the boat to take pity on her. He gives in, moved by Moo-gil’s desperation, but he won’t let Moo-gil on the boat with Il-ae without payment. Moo-gil tells himself that he’ll find Il-ae when he gets home.
A short time later, Il-ae wakes alone and figures out that Moo-gil didn’t make it onto the ship with her. She insists on disembarking and searches the dock for Moo-gil, but he’s nowhere to be found.
That’s because Moo-gil ran into the man he saved from the burning building, who offered to pay for Moo-gil’s passage. He and Moo-gil are on the ship, looking for Il-ae, who is still on the dock when the ship sets sail and leaves her behind.
Present Day — Jae-yoon finds Moo-gil’s letter to Il-ae, which was returned unopened, and realizes that he knows she didn’t really find Il-ae. Jae-yoon points out that the first letter that found them is pretty old, meaning that it was written many years ago, but mailed sent recently.
Ki-woong suddenly notices the wooden bracelet that Jae-yoon is wearing, and he asks how Moo-gil got it back if he gave it to Il-ae just before being separated from her. Jae-yoon asks her grandfather, thinking that he saw Il-ae again, but he just shakes his head sadly.
1945 — Moo-gil makes it back to Korea on the ship and walks all the way home to his village. His mother and brother sob with gratitude to see him alive, but the big surprise is Young-geum, who’s living with Moo-gil’s family and claiming to be pregnant with his baby.
That night, Moo-gil and Young-geum go for a walk, where Moo-gil breaks the news that Ham-deok, Young-geum’s brother, died in Hiroshima. He asks if Young-geum is really pregnant, and when she confirms it, they go to her father and Moo-gil apologizes tearfully. Young-geum’s father says he’s just glad that Moo-gil survived, and that Young-geum has him to take care of her.
Some time passes, but Moo-gil is still traumatized and wakes from nightmares calling out Il-ae’s name. Young-geum cries that she deserves to be treated badly and runs out with a rope to hang herself. Moo-gil stops her and asks who the baby’s father really is, and Young-geum admits that it’s some guy who passed through the village then left.
She pleads with Moo-gil to accept her and her baby anyway, and to be just a little affectionate with her. Moo-gil realizes that it’s time to face reality and accept that Il-ae is gone, so he agrees to take responsibility for Young-geum and her baby.
Present Day — Moo-gil tells Jae-yoon that her dad never knew Moo-gil wasn’t his biological father, but he knows she’s worried about inheriting his muscle disease and he wanted her to know it’s not possible. Jae-yoon is upset to know that they’re not related by blood, but Moo-gil says sweetly that love is greater than blood. Jae-yoon visits her father’s grave and asks him to tell Young-geum, his mother, than she’s thankful she made Moo-gil part of her family.
A woman comes by the house looking for Moo-gil, but finds Jae-yoon instead. Jae-yoon goes with her to a nursing home where the woman works, and on the way she explains that Yeo Il-ae lives there. The woman tells Jae-yoon that Il-ae lived in Japan until she was 61 years old and had her radiation exposure treated there, but that she came back to Korea because she wants to die in her home country.
Il-ae has no family, so Jae-yoon asks if she she can come live with her and Moo-gil, but when she finally meets Il-ae she understands why it’s not possible — Il-ae has dementia. She doesn’t even know her own name, but it’s definitely Moo-gil’s Il-ae, as she still has a scar on the right side of her face from the bomb blast.
She doesn’t recognize Moo-gil’s name either, and when Jae-yoon shows her all the letters she’s written to him, Il-ae barely acknowledges them. But the wooden bracelet on Il-ae’s wrist causes Il-ae to experience a moment of clarity, and she asks if Jae-yoon is Young-geum.
1947 — We see that Il-ae did make it back to her village two years after being separated from Moo-gil, but when she went to Moo-gil’s home, she found Young-geum with a baby on her back. Young-geum lies to Il-ae that the baby is Moo-gil’s and asks her to leave, so Il-ae returns Moo-gil’s wooden bracelet and asks Young-geum not to tell Moo-gil she was there.
Present Day — Il-ae refuses to speak to Jae-yoon, believing that she’s Young-geum and yelling that she hates her. Jae-yoon asks her to come visit Moo-gil, but Il-ae just twists a silver ring on her finger and hides under her covers. But later Il-ae agrees to go with her, and when Jae-yoon calls Moo-gil to tell him, the look on his face is nothing short of rapture.
He can’t sleep that night, so he takes out a photo of himself with Young-geum and their son. He tells Young-geum that he’s seeing Il-ae tomorrow, and that he’ll be sure to tell her what Young-geum said. But suddenly his nose begins gushing blood and he passes out.
1950 — During the Korean war, Moo-gil and Young-geum become refugees and are forced to march a long distance along with their young son. At some point as they’re traveling, Young-geum collapses, sick from an illness. She gasps that she thinks she got sick because she never told him that Il-ae came looking for him.
She gives Moo-gil back his wooden bracelet and asks him to find Il-ae and tell her that she’s sorry. Moo-gil frantically calls Young-geum’s name, begging her to get up, but she just asks him to keep saying her name because it makes her feel like she’s flying, then she dies in his arms.
Present Day — Jae-yoon is preparing to bring Il-ae to see Moo-gil when she gets a call from Ki-woong that Moo-gil is in the hospital. When she gets there, Ki-woong says that the doctors don’t expect Moo-gil to recover, but Jae-yoon sobs that he can’t leave until he sees Il-ae.
Ki-woong leads Il-ae to Moo-gil’s bedside, but Il-ae doesn’t recognize him. Jae-yoon points out the scar on Moo-gil’s jawline and reminds Il-ae that she saved him from being killed, then she slips the wooden bracelet on Il-ae’s wrist.
Il-ae seems immediately more clear-headed, and she takes off her silver ring and slips it onto Moo-gil’s finger. Moo-gil rouses a little, as if he knows she’s there, and Il-ae says to him, “Let’s never be apart again.” She stays by Moo-gil’s side, never letting go of his hand until he finally passes away.
While cleaning out Moo-gil’s house, Jae-yoon finds a sketch he drew of Il-ae as a young girl and decides to give it to Il-ae. There’s another picture, a watercolor of a man and a little girl, and though their faces are indistinct, it’s obviously Moo-gil and Jae-yoon. It reminds Jae-yoon of what a devoted grandpa Moo-gil was to her, and makes her sad to be leaving the house where she grew up.
On Il-ae’s birthday the following year, Jae-yoon and Ki-woong pick her up from the nursing home, and lol, Il-ae still thinks Jae-yoon is Young-geum. They take Il-ae to the zelkova tree where she and Moo-gil used to meet, and Il-ae says that if it’s her birthday, then it’s also Moo-gil’s birthday.
Jae-yoon reads Il-ae the letter that Moo-gil wrote to her, that never made it to her until now:
Il-ae-ah, remember when we used to exchange letters at the zelkova tree on our birthday? That’s where I’m writing this letter. Il-ae-ah, thank you for being born, and thank you for living a long life.
For a moment, Il-ae is a young girl again, exchanging birthday letters under the tree with the boy that she will love for her entire life.
Ten years prior, Jae-yoon had run across an elderly woman standing under the zelkova tree in the pouring rain. She’d shared her umbrella with the woman, and when she got home, she ran off and left the lady her umbrella.
The woman, Il-ae, had watched Jae-yoon run to the porch to greet Moo-gil with a birthday cake. She had watched the two go inside, knowing that she was seeing Moo-gil again.
Ah, such a bittersweet story. Moo-gil and Il-ae were born on the exact same day, but they never got their chance to be together until the final moments of Moo-gil’s life. Still, it felt like Moo-gil was being rewarded for the life he lived, full of love and selflessness, by getting the chance to hold Il-ae’s hand as he left this world. On one level it feels like he and Il-ae were cheated, but for a man like Moo-gil, who was such a gentle, selfless soul, just having that final gift would be enough.
This was always going to be a heartbreaking drama, but Moo-gil and Il-ae’s story was so hard to watch. Even at a young age, they loved each other so much that neither of them ever found anyone else, even throughout their long lives. I’m not surprised that Moo-gil agreed to take care of Young-geum and claim her child as his, because he was just a decent man like that, nor that Il-ae left to spare Moo-gil the pain of having to choose, because she loved him enough to give him up. But it’s so difficult to think that if things had been slightly different — if Young-geum hadn’t been so needy and insistent on marrying Moo-gil even though she knew he didn’t want her, or even if Il-ae had come on a different day and seen Moo-gil instead of Young-geum and her baby — Il-ae wouldn’t have left and she and Moo-gil might have found a way to finally be together.
These kinds of dramas are so hard for me to watch, because I just want everyone to get a happily ever after and live their lives together. But it’s important to tell these difficult stories, because even though Birthday Letter is fiction, hundreds and thousands of stories just like this one play out whenever mankind engages in war. People die needlessly, families are torn apart, and innocent lives are forever changed through no fault of their own. Moo-gil and Il-ae didn’t deserve any of what happened to them, and they were so very young, but the reality is that it happened to so many people so many times throughout history, and is happening even now. Maybe, by reminding ourselves that history isn’t about dates in books but real people who lived real lives, we can someday stop these things from happening again.
But I think that the point of Birthday Letter isn’t to be a depressing story about lovers who never got their chance to be together. It’s about how love can withstand anything, be it war, violence, separation, or even death. Moo-gil and Il-ae never stopped loving each other even during the times when they were separated, and they always had faith that the other felt the same way. Their love went beyond a “normal” life of marriage and children — it survived a nuclear bomb, decades of being apart, and even Moo-gil raising another man’s child and Il-ae’s eventual dementia. They couldn’t be together in this life, but their love never wavered, and if there’s any justice in the universe, they’ll be together someday.