My Dearest: Episodes 1-2
Get ready for a beautifully directed, achingly romantic historical drama that’ll have you laughing through your tears! My Dearest comes out swinging with the world’s most lovable pairing: two delightful chaos magnets who cannot stop messing with each other. But sunny, springtime antics are due to be cut short by the Qing invasion…
It’s a grim day in 1659. INSPECTOR SHIN YI-RIB (Ha Kyung) is urged to investigate a section of the court record. The facts are sparse. It mentions an officer who lured the crown prince astray. A man struck by madness, whom the king banished from his sight. His name? LEE JANG-HYUN. Inspector Shin is led to an asylum for nobles deemed unfit for society — “asylum,” in this case, being a euphemism for “cold, lightless prison.” Here, he approaches a long-forgotten inmate: a white-haired man who insists that one day someone will come for him. Is that person, asks Inspector Shin, Lee Jang-hyun?
Years roll back. The man in question, Lee Jang-hyun (Namgoong Min), rests bloodied and despairing by the sea. Behind him, an army advances, weapons raised. Do you hear, he murmurs, the sound of a flower? With a look of utter defeat, he lifts his eyes to the setting sun. Then, turning to face his attackers — he advances.
When we move back in time again, it’s to the spring of 1637, in the sleepy village of Neunggun-ri. Here, we meet our heroine: the irrepressible, the charismatic, the bewitchingly vain YOO GIL-CHAE (Ahn Eun-jin)! She’s the Marmite of 17th century Joseon: love her or hate her, you’ll never forget her! If you ask her teachers, she’s a brazen minx. If you ask her schoolmates, she’s a bit much… that is, if they’re being polite. But if you’re a tongue-tied scholar with a yen for romance, she’s a veritable goddess of love! Gil-chae has most men hanging on her every incorrigible word. It’s just so hard to make friends with other girls… but their boyfriends are so easy to steal!
Still, beneath Gil-chae’s flighty exterior beats the heart of a true romantic. Every night, she dreams in technicolor intensity, yearning for true love. In her sleep, she chases a scarlet thread of fate through forest, hills, and snow, emerging onto a beach. Here, a faceless man — who bears more than passing resemblance to our hero — touches her cheek, and tells her he’s been waiting. But before their lips meet, she’s invariably startled awake by her long-suffering maid, JONG JONG (Park Jeong-yeon).
Gil-chae has set her sights on a less-than-impressive dream man: the platonic ideal of a second lead, NAM YEON-JOON (Lee Hak-joo). Pity is, out of all the scholars in Neunggun-ri, he’s frustratingly only half in love with her… and wholly attached to her friend, KYUNG EUN-AE (Lee Da-in). Nonetheless, when Yeon-joon interrupts the flower-picking festival, our girl is alive with matrimonial hope. Alas, his concerns are purely sociopolitical. Across the border, the Ming dynasty are at war with the Jurchen-led Jin — a group dismissed in Joseon as barbarians. The Jin leader, HONG TAIJI (Kim Joon-won) has declared himself head of a newfound Qing dynasty — and the king, to Yeon-joon’s outrage, won’t fight back.
Enter the living personification of chaos: our hero! For here he is, lounging carefree on the edge of the crowd. Jang-hyun pierces Yeon-joon’s puffed-up indignation with a single, well-aimed query: what makes you so certain the Ming will win? Sure, they claim the mandate of heaven. But you know who else had that? The so-called barbarians, generations ago, when the Jin dynasty ruled! With gleeful historical accuracy and zero remorse, he proceeds to demolish Yeon-joon.
Jang-hyun — gentleman, merchant, and scoundrel — has fast become the terror of Neunggun-ri. Swaggering into town, fan held aloft, he asked to enroll at the village school. Undeterred by the news that he’d have to take the entrance exam, he sat deadpan amongst a cohort of toddlers, ink brush in hand. However, the essay topic — chastity and loyalty — so offended his libertine sensibilities that he opted to bribe the elders instead. Now, he’s settled into a pleasant routine of flirting, making witticisms, and shocking all and sundry as he consorts with Jurchen traders.
Jang-hyun is ready to welcome spring with a casual fling or five, when word hits the village: he’s a dyed-in-the-wool anti-marriage activist. Quoth our hero: people are shallow, love is fleeting, and he’ll live a bachelor till the day he dies! This, Gil-chae declares slyly, sounds like a man with performance issues.
But she’s got much more important items on her agenda: a) be bold, b) seize the day, and c) don appropriate footwear! All are in relation to a cunning scheme: she’ll snag Yeon-joon’s attention, or quite possibly die trying. So, rolling down her socks, she steps up onto a swing, and urges Jong Jong to hurry and push already! Soon, the clearing is swamped by the deafening silence of numerous scholars trying hard not to think about Gil-jae’s bare legs. This is interrupted by utter panic as Gil-chae rises into the air… and slips.
Woe! Woe and despair! Our poor heroine is hurt — nay, wounded! — and requires the help of a strong, capable man like… wait, where’s Yeon-joon? Cut! Shoving past her crowd of far-too-helpful admirers, Gil-chae declares it’s time for take two. To the horror of all (not the least, her maid, whose loyalty is wearing thin), she steps back onto the swing. Jong Jong’s timing is impeccable. A rope “comes undone” the instant another man steps into sight. Gil-chae goes flying — straight into the newcomer’s open arms. The only hitch? Well, her rescuer is a tad more cool, smirky, and sardonic than Yeon-joon…
But rewind, just a moment. Jang-hyun — for indeed, he’s our mystery rescuer — arrives in time to witness Gil-chae swinging carefree, looking impossibly beautiful amongst the trees. He stares, transfixed. Do you hear? he murmurs. The sound of a flower.
Jang-hyun was expecting a grateful, blushing maiden. Instead, he gets exactly what he deserves: his match. Halfheartedly aiming for a charming smile (she makes it to “patronizing”), Gil-chae notes how lucky he is to talk with her… now, scram! Jang-hyun looks like his world just slid unpleasantly on its axis. But soon, Gil-chae decides our hero has his uses. After all, Yeon-joon spent time in Hanyang. Maybe, if she can strong-arm Jang-hyun into spilling the beans on what’s so special about city life, she’ll understand him! She’ll even throw in a bribe: the topic of the next exam.
Jang-hyun doesn’t explain the thing with the toddlers. Instead, he squashes his laughter, and solemnly agrees. Soon, he’s steering Gil-chae across the river to a totally-practical not-date into town, to talk Hanyang fashions. And what could be more practical than, uh, getting her to dress as a boy? Sneaking into the local gisaeng house is the quintessential city experience! Perhaps they both linger a smidge over Jang-hyun tying back Gil-chae’s hair… though before long, Gil-chae gets distracted. I mean, what do you want her to do — not marvel at her face in the mirror? Please.
And yet, what truly seals the deal on Jang-hyun’s big, embarrassing crush is when Gil-chae reveals hidden depths. He brought her to the gisaeng house to see RYANG-EUM (Kim Yoon-woo), a Hanyang singer of great renown. Several bars in, and Gil-chae is utterly gone. Soon, she’s sobbing outright. Jang-hyun sneaks a glance, face softening.
On the boat back, Gil-chae needles Jang-hyun: why’s he unflustered by her presence? Alone! And so close! As she suspected: he must be impotent. Jang-hyun blinks for a moment — then collapses into laughter. The men you’ve met so far, he says, are blustering schoolboys. To prove his point, he offers to lift her from the boat. Fatally, she hesitates. He takes her by the waist, setting her down — and then, as she looks up, decidedly un-unflustered… turns away. Never kid a kidder. Still, the beauty is that this applies to both our leads. Gil-chae asks when to return the clothes. Tomorrow, says Jang-hyun, with a knowing smile. The next day, our bold, hedonistic ladies’ man… waits for her patiently by the road. She sends Jong Jong. We witness the pleasant, neutral expression of a man crushed.
Heart a little heavier, our hero sets off for Uiju, on Joseon’s border, where all manner of less-than-legal trade flourishes. Here, GOO YANG-CHUN (Choi Moo-sung), the local crime boss, tries to deal with the growing beef between two warring subordinates: NINGGUCHIN (Kim Jun-bae) and KKEUT SOE (Lee Ho-cheol). Here, with the flourish of a familiar fan, our hero emerges. He’s moonlighting as Yang-chun’s right hand man. By his side? The singer, Ryang-eum!
The factional war boils over as a cry pierces the market: Ningguchin’s informant, Seida, has been stabbed. Both sides deny responsibility. But all’s fair in love, war, and sneak-thievery: Ningguchin and Kkeut Soe find themselves hosted — bound and gagged — by Jang-hyun. Turns out, they were conspiring to murder Yang-chun, with Seida as their go-between. However, their subordinates each think the one is to blame for the other’s kidnap. All Jang-hyun has to do is lift the latch, let them in, and enjoy the chaos.
Later, Yang-chun and Jang-hyun share drinks. Stay here, urges Yang-chun, and be like my son. Jang-hyun responds with flat disdain: are you senile? Vindictively, Yang-chun sends YOUNG-RANG (Kim Seo-ahn), a fifteen-year-old gisaeng, to Jang-hyun’s room — a move that fills Jang-hyun with such rage that he threatens to leave on the spot. At this, Yang-chun sinks to the floor. I’m old, he says. You said you would return. And I will, says Jang-hyun, relenting. But for now, he leaves — on the way back, revealing one last piece of intrigue. He was the one who ordered Seida killed.
Soon, Jang-hyun is back in Neunggun-ri, where he exchanges skullduggery and murder for the next best thing: party planning! The elderly couple he stays with are as loving as the day they met — and though he claims to find this revolting, he also masterminded their 60-year anniversary. As the lovebirds exchange devoted glances, Gil-chae looks at Yeon-joon with undisguised longing. Jang-hyun follows her gaze, and makes an unpleasant discovery.
Kicking dignity to the curb, our hero retreats to bravely mope in a barn. Unfortunately, this is the place that Gil-chae has chosen to stage her last-ditch stand for Yeon-joon’s heart! The rarely-attempted Barn Kiss Gambit goes like this: she’s going to kiss Yeon-joon. That’s… pretty much the plan. She sends out Jong Jong with word that she’s indisposed! Unwell! Collapsed, in fact! (Jang-hyun snickers.) Sure enough, Yeon-joon rushes to her side, comforting her as she whimpers. Their faces draw close. But before their lips can touch, Yeon-joon reels back, alarmed. He’s promised to Eun-ae — this is wrong!
Worse still, Eun-ae bursts in, calling for her. Before Gil-chae is busted, Jang-hyun pulls her into hiding. Gil-chae is so overwhelmed that it takes a full ten seconds before she remembers to be outraged — which is good, because our hero isn’t finished being outrageous. You don’t have a chance with Yeon-joon, he insists. Don’t long for someone hopeless. Then, nonchalantly, he adds: come to me instead. Gil-chae gapes, utterly floored. Is this, she asks, a marriage proposal? No. No, it is not. Her smile grows lethal as she realizes what he’s actually offering. Leaning close, she utters the sweet words she’s always longed to say to him… I hate you. And your face is ugly.
Back at the celebration, Gil-chae watches everyone whisper about her, desolate. I wish I could love many men, she says to Jang-hyun — who, with admirable devotion, is still by her side, despite the slander against his face. But all I want is to give my unchanging heart to someone equally constant. Jang-hyun looks at her, suddenly vulnerable. As her eyes well with tears, he reaches out to brush them away — then stops. A scholar bursts through the crowd, distraught. The Qing have invaded — and the king is surrounded.
Folks, I’m in love already. It’s the sweet, comforting feeling of sinking into a drama and knowing you’re in safe hands: the characters will sparkle, the historical resonance will be profound, and your heart will be hurt so badly by the end that you’re already pre-grieving. I’ll say this for Namgoong Min’s face: every subtle flicker of expression is perfect. He’s working miracles with Jang-hyun, who is somehow both mysterious and readable — I’m with him every time he’s moved, or anguished, or secretly smiling whenever Gil-chae does something lovable. As for Ahn Eun-jin, I’m so happy she’s finally landing lead roles! Gil-chae is sparkling, mercurial, and thoroughly adorable. Those smug, manipulative little smiles! What truly sells the pairing for me is how shamelessly chaotic they both are — it’s the perfect fit.
Another gorgeous thing about this drama is how deftly it blends past and present — and in doing so, political and personal. That interweaving of the wedding dance and soldiers riding to battle was such an iconic moment. It was a great statement on what this drama aims to do: that tiny instance of our hero reaching out towards our heroine is cut against the gravity of invasion, and both are equally momentous. Meanwhile, against this is a celebration of enduring, ordinary, sixty-year-long love: a reminder both of the happiness our heroes have to gain, but also of what war might destroy. It’s beautifully done, and I’m itching for more!