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My Dearest (2023) First Impressions
The word “masterpiece” has been used to the point of banality mostly by people who have probably never seen one. So it’s a word I avoid like the plague these days and I am instantly suspicious of anyone who uses it especially on a hackneyed romance. However, once in a blue moon something comes along and everything seems to fall into place and the “m” word is on the tip of my tongue.
Perhaps it’s premature to make definitive pronouncements at this point but suffice to say, this show checks every box. The misleading English title notwithstanding. While romance is a crucial thread of the story superbly executed in its geopolitical context, the title is likely to give the impression that it’s some kind of fluffy romance or overlong weekender soap opera. Thankfully it’s neither. Instead it’s the best kind of sageuk or historical drama. It’s tragic, brutal, melancholic and quite bloody. War comes to Joseon in all its savagery and no rock is left unturned.
The set-up is everything. So’s the painstaking world building. Our attention is first drawn to Neungeun-rri, a village some distance away from the country’s capital. The inhabitants are ordinary folk going about their business. Peasants, scholars, nobleman. Their thoughts are preoccupied with the same things that the rest of us lie awake at night pondering: Family, work, survival and of course love. Indeed love is foremost on Gil-chae’s (Ahn Eun-jin) mind as she tries desperately to gain the affection of the village’s most eligible scholar, Nam Yeon-jun (Lee Hak-joo) who has sets his sights on her childhood best friend Kyung Eun-ae (Lee Da-in) as his future bride. Along comes a mysterious travelling merchant Lee Jeong-hyun (Namgoong Min) who for some reason has chosen to camp in Neungeun-rri and take up residence with one of the village’s most elderly couples. Gil-chae thinks she’s in love with Yeon-jun and turns on all her feminine wiles to get him to change his mind. But even though he is amused by her, he’s a conservative fellow through and through. Gil-chae is not his idea of an ideal wife. The well-liked Eun-ae is. She serves as a stark contrast in the narrative and is more in keeping with Yeon-jun’s strongly held Confucian ideals. Besides Gil-chae has the unholy reputation of being an incurable flirt
Sounds familiar? Those of us who care enough to remember a time when Hollywood did produce masterpieces might recall their much vaunted “greatest year for film”. 1939. The biggest Oscar winner of them all that year was Gone with The Wind. It has become a perennial classic and serves as an inspiration for this lavish K production. And why not? If you have to copy ideas from somewhere, copy from the best.
In this epic story Gone with the Wind meets Joseon in the 1600s. The constant threat of war looms large on the horizon because the country is faced with hostile neighbours from the north. The Manchurians and the Ming dynasty are at war. This inevitably spills over to Joseon, a vassal of Ming. Along for the ride are the Mongolians whose interests in the entire affair are simple: pillaging and rape in the aftermath of the Manchurian army’s destructive force. In his palace, the king of Joseon quakes in his boots. Apart from making speeches and asking his advisors for counsel, he’s
useless nothing more than a figure-head accompanied by an emaciated crown prince helplessly looking on. He takes off to a fortress purpose built for such occasions and waits for reinforcements to arrive. The idealistic Yeon-jun full of patriotic fervour and slighted by this insult to their king rallies his fellow scholars to form a militia in the cause of expunging the barbarians from their shores.
Jeong-hyun looks upon all of this with an upturned nose and eye-rolling. As with all other Namgoong Min characters, he is very much an unconventional male lead. He has a dim view of the monarchy (probably for good reasons) and claims disinterest in traditional pair bonding. He can’t be bothered with the patriotic huffing and puffing but he does care about the folk in the village and a certain young lady. One fine day he takes a look at Gil-chae and he’s besotted. Soon he finds out about her infatuation with Yeon-jun and of course, they lock horns over that as well as his frightfully radical views on cohabitation.
This is the sort of romance I like. Two intelligent strong-minded people who clash over important and occasionally petty things. Yes, there’s plenty of misunderstanding to fill air time but it’s all consistent with the sort of unrelenting people that they are. What is rarer is to have a male lead and female that are very similar in the way they perceive the world. Both are shrewd and conniving. The chemistry between Namgoong Min and Ahn Eun-jin is even better than I could hope for. They are both excellent in their roles. I see that Namgoong Min is 45 and he looks no older than Lee Hak-joo who is about 10 years his junior.
For a country that’s been repeatedly invaded by other countries over the centuries, the people seem oddly ill-prepared against external aggression. It should be a requirement, one would have thought, that aside from all the book learning, the country’s young men should also learn how to use a sword. And the art of war. It’s a sad indictment of those in high places that the only civilians who know anything about self-defence or basic war tactics are an old man and a gangster.
Wars are never desirable but it can often bring out the best in people even while it brings out the worst. The lads going off to war reminds me of accounts of WW1 when everyone with patriotic fervour went off to war thinking they were embarking on some great adventure and that they would be back home by Christmas. There’s nothing inherently wrong about patriotism but the idealism about war always feels misplaced and is palpable with dramatic irony given what we know. They mean well and loyalty to king brings about its own kind of currency. It begs the question though, who’s left to protect the elderly, the women and the children back home. The young women in particular because even the older ladies don’t shy away what happens to young virgins who fall into the clutches of the enemy. Such misplaced priorities beggars belief. Still it’s an opportunity for some to shine. While on the run from malevolent enemy forces four of the village women rely on Gil-chae’s quick wits and innate resourcefulness to escape by the skin of their teeth. Despite being sheltered and somewhat overindulged, when push comes to shove, Gil-chae comes through with flying colours. It is as Jeong-hyun predicts. She’s worth more than all the fragile scholars put together.
Still Gil-chae has many flaws. The show is happy to enumerate them. Her most crippling one however is her fixation with Yeon-jun. She knows he’s a good catch but even though she senses that he likes her, he is adamant about marrying Eun-ae. It makes sense for a straight-laced guy. Nevertheless it wounds her pride. For a woman who can get any man in the village but is only keen on the one who isn’t keen on her speaks to her ambition and pride. Despite being so obviously attracted to Jeong-hyun, she just can’t let go of the notion that she would “lose” to anyone including Eun-ae. In their village he is something of a trophy husband so it would be something to crow about to those who despise her. Clearly she’s living off the smoke of childhood memories and the limitations of her circle.
Jeong-hyun is much more of a mystery. Who is he really? What terrible thing happened to him that’s caused him to adopt such as cynical posture? On the surface he seems like nothing more than a profiteer but there’s more to him than that. What’s his relationship to the royal family? His resentment goes quite deep it seems and his interest in the crown prince in particular is curious.
The first five episodes are jam-packed with happenings. It’s a testament to the quality of the script that one moment it’s hilarious then it’s deeply moving and then comes devastating heartbreak. All within the space of an episode. I could tell from the first episode that this drama has all the indications of being something special. Whether it ends up being a masterpiece of course depends… as always… on how that final act is executed.
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