[Drama special review] Summer, Love Machine Blues
She’s a depressed gap year student who, despite her best efforts, is still flunking math. He’s a friendless shut-in with a traumatic past who sells sex toys online. Their friendship will change the course of their lives, stir up scandal, and deeply confuse at least several policemen! This slice-of-life comedy from the O’PENing drama showcase series is a thoroughly adorable meditation on adulthood (and algebra).
DRAMA SPECIAL REVIEW
Out of all life’s trials, perhaps the greatest is the tyranny of the math test. Our heroine, YEO DEU-LIM (Arin), has witnessed more algebraic equations than any reasonable person ought to suffer, and yet she’s still no closer to a passing grade. And so, stuck on a gap year, waiting to resit her entrance exam, she sits miserably in the space between high school and the rest of her life. Meanwhile, death looms large in her mind. Her mother died recently — and her father, it seems, shut down completely in response. They’re now bitterly estranged. To compound matters, she’s running completely dry on cash. When her math academy kicks her out, with one last flunked test for her pains, she snaps. Minutes later, she’s on the roof, staring at the street below, weighing up whether she can bring herself to jump.
Enter our unlikely hero! NA YI-SOO (Go Soo) is no one’s knight in shining armor — more, a recluse in faded flip-flops. Still, seeing Deu-lim reminds him of his own tangle with this particular rooftop. The difference is, he’d actually jumped. Turns out, he informs her, it’s not a fatal height. Deu-lim narrows her eyes at him. Did it hurt? Totally painless, he deadpans. It’s through this mixture of casual snark and unabashed frankness that he manages to talk her down. The two crouch together on the rooftop as he grumbles while she calls him ajusshi, and chats about his troubled past. Turns out, he was a student at the prestigious Korea University, but dropped out before he could graduate. Deu-lim goggles at him. Does this mean he can teach her math?
Long story short? Yes. But it’s going to be weird. Their lessons will take place in a tent, on the very rooftop that failed to kill them both. He won’t ask payment. Instead, there’s just one rule. At the end of each lesson, like clockwork, he’ll put on Kim Yeon-ja’s “Amor Fati” — and they’ll dance like the world is ending! Or, alternatively, like they’ve just downed seventeen cans of Red Bull apiece. Deu-lim is hesitant, but Yi-soo is quick to assure her that this is a metaphor for the fleeting nature of youth, and therefore… best hop to it! After that, she cuts loose and headbangs her heart out.
Despite Deu-lim’s lifelong struggle with numbers, and Yi-soo’s tendency to reel off equations without pausing for breath, mathematical progress is made. The two become fast friends — enough that Yi-soo decides to ask Deu-lim for a favor. He runs an online business, going by the rather glorious title of Hot Night Tomb. So far, he’s been running customer service by himself, but his female buyers would rather speak to a woman. So far, so innocuous. The catch becomes clear when Deu-lim reaches his office/apartment. Handcuffs hang by the desk. Lingerie peeks coyly out of boxes. Lube in every color of the rainbow lines the shelves. Yup — it’s an adult store!
There were a dozen ways in which this premise could have veered into mean-spirited, sex-negative territory. I’m pleased to say that it did not! Instead, the story’s attitude is aptly summarized by Yi-soo, when he defends the fact that he sells sex toys: adults should play too. Well, quite! It’s the same basic principle as dancing your heart out after a math lesson. The same philosophy as when he tells Deu-lim not to constantly fixate on the end goal of her studies, but to enjoy the journey. And the story itself is playful, subverting expectations with glee. Yup, the basic summary is, “older man persuades a young, vulnerable woman to work in a sex shop.” However, Yi-soo is well-meaning, straightforward, and nothing but respectful towards Deu-lim.
Overall, this is a story about adulthood, maturity, and challenging definitions of both. Deu-lim starts with a pretty rigid understanding: getting into a good university leads to getting a good job, and if you fall off that particular conveyor belt, you can kiss your future goodbye. But she gains confidence from working the kind of job she’d never have chosen in a million years.
Summer, Love Machine Blues is full of characters taking a sideways approach to growing up. Yi-soo literally runs an adult store, but he struggles to see himself as one: his fear of going out in public has left him trapped at the moment he dropped out of university. Still, as far as Deu-lim’s concerned, a “good adult” is someone who can calm, comfort, and entertain people. In other words, a teacher like Yi-soo. Whilst this is admittedly a story about a sex shop, it isn’t really about sex — and nor, it suggests, is adulthood really about that either.
Neither is anyone afraid to get a little childish — at times, this episode is pure silliness! It culminates in an especially farcical scene where our heroes are arrested: slapstick arguments, off-the-wall humor, and misplaced handcuffs abound. Sometimes, being an adult means remembering how to play; sometimes, it means descending into an all-out, hair-pulling brawl with your math tutor, your ex-friend, your ex-friend’s mother, a creepy customer, and several random police officers. But the ridiculousness is nicely balanced by moments of pathos, especially as we dig into Yi-soo’s past. Slice-of-life isn’t always top on my list of genres, but I love it when it’s fun, offbeat, and casually quirky — which this episode delivers in spades.
My only gripe is that Deu-lim’s best friend, AHN SOO-CHAN (Yoon Jong-bin), fell flat for me with his constant, unrequited declarations of love. The dogged nice guy who won’t take no for an answer is an old, tired trope that should be put out of its misery, stat. However, our two main characters were marvelous fun. I’ll admit, I was in this one for Arin, because she was drop-dead adorable in Alchemy of Souls. Here, she’s on great form: she’s sharp, she’s funny, and whenever she smiles, it’s like a living ray of light on my TV screen. Go Soo matches her energy with flair — here, he’s a brilliant blend of dorky and surprisingly insightful, with just the right dash of brooding. They positively sparkle onscreen together.
All considered, Summer, Love Machine Blues was well worth seeing. Did it light the world on fire? Not exactly. It was subtle, and quiet, and cute. But, much like Deu-lim’s definition of ideal teacherly adulthood, it comforted and it entertained. We’re all muddling through things, this show seems to say, at a different pace. There’s no conventional map of adulthood that applies in practice: we all have our childishness, our hesitancy, our moments where life doesn’t match up to expectations. And sometimes, we need a second — or a year or two — to reflect. Whether it’s by taking a gap year, or by sequestering yourself from human contact for years (and who hasn’t had that urge?), sometimes, what we need is time. Time, and a good math tutor.