A rant… read at your own risk
Sitting in the dentist chair this afternoon to get a crown replaced and a tooth extracted somehow reminded me of this drama. The fact that the female lead is a dentist has absolutely nothing to do with it. Well, maybe a little. :P To be frank it’s not a show that excites me although I’m keen to see how the so-called main love triangle plays out. Oddly enough it’s the only thing I’m curious about despite my general aversion to unnecessarily complex geometric relationship dynamics. While I was completely at the mercy of my dentist, I had sufficient time to think about what it is that makes me grumpy about the show. I eventually concluded with the drill whizzing in my mouth, that aside from the odd exception, I don’t find most of the characters relatable or likeable. Even when we find out their backstories, I have this feeling that I’m being manipulated into thinking better of them while the show conveniently glosses over some extremely bad manners with feel-good resolutions. We are routinely asked to tolerate bad behaviour because everyone has a story or because Hye-jin needs to learn the lesson of the day. That’s how it looks like to me anyway.
In the most recent episode, Hye-jin our resident dentist, gets wind of the fact that town’s chief gossip monger, Nam-suk, had been spreading misinformation about her and dentistry in general. As it is a matter concerning professional ethics and a complex medical procedure, Nam-suk could have been up for criminal charges and a voice phishing scammer would be the least of her worries. It’s true that people do all kinds of silly things in life — some serious, some not so serious and there has to be a place for forgiveness. But there’s something about how the show deals with these issues that makes me feel uneasy. Whatever we think of tribalism, there should be the sense that tribalism has the potential of preventing individuals from assessing moral issues with purposeful objectivity that’s needed.
One of the reasons why I am completely behind this (not sure what the best name for it is) de facto love triangle is because the show confirms what many of us had already suspected and that is Hye-jin is a much better human being than what we’ve been led to believe from the seemingly harsh words that have fallen off her lips or from the very biased (prejudiced) perspective of the townsfolk which includes Du-sik. The presence of Seong-hyeong, tv producer of some note, signals a paradigm shift. This is someone who knew Hye-jin as a financially strapped student who had her fair share of struggles trying to survive life. No one’s trying to make the case here that she’s without flaws and that there isn’t some kind of half-hearted snobbery at play here. However, it’s increasingly clear that her snobbery is a result of widespread systematic indoctrination that has led to a belief that everyone in that society has to play the game. In this game there is a caste system of sort and members of each caste need to stay in their lane. It is only right that they do so for society to function optimally. It’s a form of social engineering that seems outdated now but there are certainly those who hold to it because it perpetuates an elite class. For instance when Hye-jin goes to an old classmate’s wedding in Seoul we see this kind of materialistic snobbery given an airing around the table conversations. For those who have imbibed that way of seeing the world, it is the air that they breathe. Good, bad or indifferent, Hye-jin is a product of that system — one that Du-sik actively eschews with his Waldenesque perspective. All of this also assumes some sympathy for an anti-materialistic, anti-consumerist impulse.
What I like about Seong-hyeong (and please don’t turn him into some bad guy in the second half) in relation to all of this is that he is almost the opposite of Du-sik (or the townsfolk) especially in terms of how he relates to Hye-jin. Seong-hyeong who is portrayed as the ultimate consumer, is someone who knows Hye-jin and brings out the best in her. (As he does with everyone it seems) He is kind and generous to a fault but because he doesn’t assume the worst about her or play mind or semantic games with her, she responds positively to his approach. When he’s around, she appears to be a happier (certainly less cantankerous), more generous person. It’s not only that her backstory comes to light garnering sympathy but that she isn’t the villain that the townsfolk are quick to paint her as. She can compromise, she can be friendly if the other party doesn’t approach her with all guns ablazing, assuming the worst about her. This is someone like everyone else who has had her share of hard knocks and isn’t devoid of compassion. However she is a simple soul with strong boundaries and has had to fight hard to get to where she is. The problem with Du-sik (I speculate) is that he is enormously attracted to her to the point where he is afraid. Apparently that needs to be a mystery — a prolonged one at that. There’s little doubt that playing the push-pull is his way of fighting his feelings except the heart wants what the heart wants so it steers him on course to true love. The confusion that he feels is self-inflicted while the confusion she feels about the mix messages is about the messenger who is at odds with himself. He wants his cake and eat it too. He friendzones her but doesn’t want the other guy to have his chance.
This isn’t to say that I’m succumbing to SLS because it’s obvious where things are headed. Du-sik will get the girl because the girl likes him but at this point, he doesn’t really appreciate her. In a way I feel rather sorry for Seong-hyeong because he seems to be largely a conduit and comfort food (as it were). The timing has never been right for him. It wasn’t right when they were students together at university and it isn’t right now ten years later when he’s shooting a variety show and she’s set up shop as a dentist in a regional town where they happen to meet again. Their relationship is riddled with irony. He eagerly wants to be in a dating relationship with her while the other guy whom she likes, is doing his darndest to pretend he doesn’t like her but his actions say the opposite. I don’t know what Du-sik’s excuse is but he’s hurting Hye-jin (even if the show makes light of it) and will in probability end up hurting Seong-hyeong too. He’s flawed creature so his perspective especially on Hye-jin is flawed and should be acknowledged as such. This is what Hye-jin’s complaint that he was crossing all kinds of lines was about. If a charismatic actor like Kim Seon-ho wasn’t playing the role, I wonder if the viewer perception of Du-sik would be quite different. The reason why I bring all of this up is because I struggle to like Du-sik. I am largely indifferent to him as a future life partner to Hye-jin and it’s disappointing to me because I genuinely enjoy the chemistry between the leads. I really want to root for them all the way and not at the 11th hour. Even if he’s a good-hearted person underneath the prickles, the push and pull makes seems inexplicable. Particularly for a character that purports to reject convention.
A while back someone on another platform said in response to comments about Du-sik that I was being overly (unnecessarily) critical about a fictional character — that we should stay away from making moral judgements about them. I personally don’t see how that’s ever possible when every story is situated in the context of a moral universe that hearers/readers understand or subscribe to on some level. Asian dramas it seems to me are overtly moralistic to the point where the lessons are often sledgehammered home as if the viewers are under the age of 12. HomeCha makes all kinds of judgements of characters and it seems to me to be an invitation that I engage with them as best as I can.
I don’t have any issues with the depiction of villains, antiheroes or character flaws done well in storytelling but it seems to me that an objective analysis of characters does require someone to say it like it is and point out all the inconsistencies in the writing or the characterization. I’m happy to hear counterarguments to the points I make but saying that we shouldn’t question the moral compass of characters, makes little sense to me.