Bo Ra! Deborah / True to Love (2023) An essay
There’s a side of me that wishes that I had come to this one sooner but having been so badly burnt by K drama rom coms for the last two years now I thought it best to err on the side of caution. Having Yoo In-na and Yoon Hyun-min spearheading this was a major incentive. Especially Yoo In-na. Who is fantastic in rom coms. So after skipping ahead for a sneak peek, I decided that this might be fluff worth wasting time over. I was sold after watching Episode 3 and my heart went out to a very humiliated (and devastated) Bo-ra who was being mercilessly gaslighted by her ex and social media.
This show covers plenty of subjects close to my heart — the complexities of courtship, marriage as well as differences between the sexes. Not everything works for me but there are nuggets of gold everywhere and flashes of gems. Even when episodes don’t light up. What’s become evident is that Kdrama rom coms are gradually turning into parodies of the genre which would account for the histrionics, hijinx and odd foray into toilet humour. This accounts for why the genre that catapulted SK dramas to international glory have become very hit and miss. Here there’s a dual purpose in that because the show needs Yoon Hyun-min’s character Lee Su-hyeok to see the very worst of Bo-ra and still somehow manage to fall in love with her. Why? Because everyone defaults to hiding behind masks and facades in public. In a society where status and respectability holds incalculable currency, one’s public face may bear little or no resemblance to one’s private realities. This fact has ramifications for how dating and marriage is viewed in the wider population.
The leads find common ground in that they are both survivors of failed relationships. Bo-ra catches boyfriend Ju-hwan making out with a younger woman in his vehicle while Su-hyeok gets dumped by girlfriend, Yuri on the day he decides (with a ring in tow) to propose to her. Despite the leads’ best efforts to avoid each other they are thrown together by force of circumstances. As they compare battle scars and swap stories, they commiserate over unhealthy amounts of alcohol. (At least there are consequences here for overindulging) And while it might not seem likely to them at first, it lays the foundation for an allies-becoming-lovers romance.
Supporting them are Bo-ra’s sister, Bo-mi and best friend, Yu-jeong, who are in featured relationships of their own positioned as contrasts to the leads’ dynamic. Bo-mi is wooed by the garrulous Jin-ho fresh out of the army who works part-time at Jin-woo’s bar and cafe. Jin-woo also happens to be Yu-jeong’s husband who is keeping a secret or two from his wife. While the leads navigate their early tumultuous relationship, these other pairings have problems of their own to overcome. It’s not entirely clear why Bo-mi thinks she needs to keep her relationship with Jin-ho a big secret. Jin-woo, on the other hand, is hiding Jin-ho in his secret man cave where he can be Peter Pan in his Neverland. Moreover, his wife complains that they’re not getting enough sex not for lack of her trying.
The first 7 episodes are a mixed bag. Some segments contain sparkles of brilliance and insight into the fallen state of humanity while others leave behind the sour aftertaste of second-hand embarrassment. The lifeline during those moments are the leads’ banter which is always a delight to behold. Whatever the show’s flaws there’s no doubting the quality of the dialogue. But from Episode 8 onwards when Bo-ra finally bids the duplicitous ex-boyfriend farewell and the leads share an intimate moment in a karaoke booth, a switch in the show’s engine is turned on.
By about the third or fourth episode it becomes clear that this show is about endings. The end of a relationship doesn’t have to be the death knell to one’s existence. It can be the beginning of something else. Perhaps something better than what came before. Out with the old, in with the new. Hence the jalopy vs Mercedes analogy that is referenced in Episode 11.
The very best part of this show is reserved for the leads and rightly so. From the first they are set up with parallel journeys and in walking together, groping around for answers, their eyes are opened to what’s been there all this time. The ending of a relationship doesn’t have to be a tragedy regardless of how it ended. Here is where I delve into spoiler territory.
It occurs to me that this story really begins with the exes — Ju-hwan and Yu-ri. The leads are going on their merry way more or less maintaining the status quo. Bo-ra who is the talk show queen of dating and author of three books on the subject gets mugged by a rude shock when she finds out that not only was Ju-hwan messing around with a close family friend on his busy days, he had long since given up on their relationship. In his words, he felt smothered by Bo-ra but I’m inclined to think that in his case there’s a lot more than that. Yu-ri on the other hand was fed up with Su-hyeok’s reticence and was already looking elsewhere for security and solace.
Infidelity, an immoral act, is usually an expression of a much deeper problem that hasn’t yet been laid bare. It’s also a case of wanting your cake and eating it. A lack of communication is often blamed for break-ups and no doubt that plays a integral part. However, it goes much deeper than that. The death knell of a relationship is the consequence of unspoken, unmet expectations much of which are unrealistic. Yu-ri wants Su-hyeok to change for her. She is drawn to his strengths but frets internally about his weaknesses to the point where they become fatal flaws. But Bo-ra is not wrong in her initial diagnosis — there is something wrong when a man isn’t willing to say out loud that he loves you. A man who is unwilling to accommodate you on such crucial matters or dances around crucial matters such as a long-term commitment like marriage is often not as keen on you as you are on him. In fact, it is a big red flag. This is why Yu-ri suffers a bad case of cold feet on the eve of marriage to the other guy. She may have dumped Su-hyeok but she hasn’t let go of the possibility they could have been the ones walking down the aisle together if only X Y Z hadn’t happened. In an act of kindness, to give them both much needed closure, he gives her the cold hard facts. He didn’t love her enough to whip out that ring despite all her charges against him. He just didn’t love her enough to be the man she desperately wanted him to be.
Ju-hwan is a different kettle of fish. He’s an egotistical man who is accustomed to things going his way. The clue to understanding him is the fact that he is a wealthy successful businessman. He represents the elite in the narrative. When he becomes disenchanted with Bo-ra, he turns to a young, shiny new thing without first making a decisive break with Bo-ra. Why? Because it’s ultimately about conquest and possession. Like women have different handbags for different occasions, he has a woman to satisfy his many needs. Bo-ra presumably is the trophy celebrity girlfriend he trots out on special occasions. The other woman is for when he feels like he still has it in him. It’s all about his ego. That’s why he has the hubris to think somehow that he can somehow reconcile with Bo-ra despite all the emotional upheavals that he was in part responsible for putting her through. He can’t move on because he hasn’t acknowledge his failings in the relationship. To him his affair with the young female family friend was just an aberration when really it is a link in the chain — a part of his acquisitive modus operandi. Only high status guys can afford to operate on this level. His interest is piqued in the “new shiny” Bo-ra because of Su-hyeok’s interventions. Ju-hwan is not entirely wrong. She’s glowing and attractive again. Not because of him of course because he didn’t bother cleaning up the mess he made. Indeed another man has taken centre stage in her life and this poses a new challenge. It’s competition he relishes. Consequently what has Ju-hwan’s blood stirring is the challenge to win a desirable woman, not the woman he left to fend for herself in the rubbish heap of his creation after his abrupt departure.
I’ve thought a lot about why is it that Bo-ra fell apart the way she did when she first broke up with Ju-hwan. Aside from being terribly embarrassed because she, a dating coach, couldn’t see it coming, I think she too saw him as part of her wardrobe / CV — an acquisition that’s led to buyer’s remorse. It’s not to say that they didn’t have some genuine feelings at the start but being high profile social figures they also used their relationship status to prop up that facade of respectability that comes with the territory. In these cases marriage becomes a marker of social marketability in that sort of context.
I’ve also given the kiss at the end of Episode 8 some consideration. I don’t think it’s as random as it appears. It’s an acknowledgement that Su-hyeok has fallen hard for Bo-ra’s charms when she renacted her seduction shtick on him. Plus there was the magic black dress that makes everything go slo-mo for him. Of course Bo-ra doesn’t know what just hit her and trots out the o’l “it’s a mistake and let’s pretend it never happened” line. For Su-hyeok it’s not a mistake and it’s especially suggestive that it happened at the heat of the moment which says a lot about a man who is usually reticent and never acts on impulse. Ironically Su-hyeok is becoming the man Yu-ri wanted him to be. He’s far more cheerful, more talkative than he used to be and much more open about his feelings. Is it because he’s met “the right woman”? His confession in front of her friends isn’t a work of fiction as she thinks. Everything he utters is true although she might not think so. Their first encounter was at a wedding hall. He likes her a lot. He’s changed a lot because of her. He finds her genuinely adorable. He definitely wants to lock lips with her again.
So why the backhanded confession? I imagine that Su-hyeok is taking it slowly even though it’s plain to see that he’s already wooing her. He’s treading carefully. Dropping hints here and there to test the waters, to gauge what kind of responses he’s getting. She’s not averse so he pushes his luck just that little more. In the guise of method acting, giving each other a hand, and doing stuff for work, they date. Bo-ra picks up the signals but she’s cautious because he seems non-committal. But it’s clear that Su-hyeok is keen to hand over the expensive sparkly object to her at some point There can be little argument that their banter is the best thing about this show.
What are we to make of Sang-jin’s (Joo Sang-wook) dynamic with office newbie U-ri? I’m not as vehemently against this development as most seem to be. It amuses me far more than it probably should. From my perspective, it feels like Sang-jin is attracted to her despite all attempts to hold himself back. He’s been surrounded by cynical world-weary slackers for the longest time so this fresh-faced wide-eyed newbie with her enthusiasm for everything is a breath of fresh air. She gets him in the way no else does. She goes along with all his cringey antics with equal fervour as if it’s what self-respecting adults do all the time. That has to be very attractive to a man who feels disrespected by everyone including his mother and until more recently his ex-wife. Sang-jin has been brow-beaten to the point where a simple naive young employee is an oasis to a man dying of thirst in the desert. And to be frank, although I don’t entirely agree with her methods, U-ri has the courage of her convictions.
Even using the show’s logic, I find it difficult to believe that Bo-ra will reconcile with Ju-hwan after everything we’ve been privy to. He’s now a “loser” in her eyes. The possibilities are all in his overinflated head. Let’s call a spade a spade: The guy is a loser because he has no shame. He hasn’t felt shame and remorse for what he did to Bo-ra. He is deluding himself that he has a chance to get back together with her because he hasn’t experienced guilt for his infidelity and apologized with sincerity. He serves as a contrast to Su-hyeok who is the better man not because Su-hyeok does everything right. Ju-hwan is the loser because he hasn’t learnt the right lessons from the break-up.
It is the catfish in reverse. This ridiculous move by Ju-hwan is most likely meant to light a fire under Su-hyeok’s rear end. It’s time for our male lead to make the big moves. Or at least the implication is that fate is prodding the guy who didn’t used to believe in fate to strike while the iron is hot.