The cast: Park Jin Hee, Wang Bit Na, Uhm Ji Won, Kim Bum, Choi Chul Ho, Lee Pil Mo and a bunch of other people
In the grand scheme of Korean (well, actually most Asian) dramas, few things are worse than being a single woman in her thirties. Married to a cheating husband? Saddled with the Mother-in-Law from Hell™? Well, look on the bright side—at least you’re not an unmarried career woman.
Such is Lee Shin Young’s (Park Jin Hee) lot in life in The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry, except that spinsterhood isn’t the only thing headlining her FML list. For the 34-year old news reporter, there’s also the issue of her career, which seems to be going nowhere thanks to one treacherous sunbae and patriarchal forces at work. It doesn’t seem to matter to anyone that Shin Young has drive and a brain — when she tells her boyfriend she wants to go abroad to study so she can get ahead in her career, instead of encouraging her, he dumps her because he doesn’t want to wait two years to get married. Say it with me now: What. A. Loser.
Bringing up the rear in this drama are Jung Da Jung (Eom Ji Won) and Kim Bu Ki (Wang Bit Na). A translator by profession, the former is a woman on a do-or-die mission to find a husband — and not just any kind. Topping her checklist of requirements: He has to 1) be successful, 2) have a full head of hair, 3) be taller than her and 4) not be the eldest son. She’s basically SATC‘s Charlotte on steroids but played with grace and good humour by Eom. Da-jung can be silly and self-absorbed but she is not without charm or self-awareness.
Standing in as the show’s voice of reason is Bu Ki, a glamorous restaurant consultant who knows better than to view marriage as a prerequisite for happiness. There was a time when she spent 10 years playing a doormat to her ex-fiancé and his family. Not anymore. She’ll live her life the way she wants, thank you very much, and if people talk so be it.
I’ll say this now: I. Friggin’. Love. This. Show. I wasn’t expecting much when I first read the synopsis, which reminded me immediately of Anego, a drama that I found underwhelming to say the least (here’s why). And making me even more wary were the Sex and the City references. Look, I loved the TV series as much as the next person when it was airing, but can we please move on? Do we really need another series about a group of women bemoaning their lack of a love life? Suffice it to say that I didn’t think I’d stay on for the entire 16-episode ride.
I love it when I’m wrong about things like this.
I don’t know why this drama didn’t do better in Korea because it’s certainly one of the more refreshing shows out there. No one gets amnesia (or cancer), and while Shin Young, Da Jung and Bu Ki may goof around from time to time, at no point do they behave like they’re too dumb to breathe.
What carries this story is the fact that Lee Shin-young is one of the most realistic female characters that I’ve seen in an Asian drama. She isn’t one of those standard Candy types brimming with optimism and good cheer. She’s an everywoman with struggles and insecurities that many single city girls can relate to, whether they’re living in Hong Kong or Hongdae. (Okay, maybe except for the romance with the hot younger man.) There’s one scene where, after being screwed over by her supervisor, she tells Min-jae that even though she feels like resigning in protest of what he’s done, she has to be realistic as well. She’s in her thirties, jobs in her field of work aren’t in great supply and she has bills to pay. If I had watched this drama ten years ago, I would have been filled with righteous indignation just like Min-jae. But now that I’m older, I can empathise with her completely.
Given that this drama is of the rom-com persuasion, it’s great having a character like Bu Ki who is adamant about not letting any man run her life. The best thing is that she isn’t a bitter or cynical person—her experience hasn’t turned her into a man-hater nor does she belittle Shin Young or Da Jung’s attempts at finding love. When they need encouragement, she’s there to support them and when they need a reality check, she’s there to dish it out as well. God knows this woman dispenses some of the best advice to come out of a Korean drama. And while I may not be able to identify with Da Jung, I know at least one person who has made it their life’s mission to get married.
While I started watching this drama for Kim Bum, I wasn’t really expecting much from the older woman-younger man romance. Most of the times, these tend to be quite predictable; they fall in lust, fall into bed, realise that hot sex can’t make up for the age difference and then break up. But this is different – and I’m not just referring to the fact that his biceps are the only part of his body you get to see. The issues arising from their age difference are handled very sensitively and it also helps that you can make s’mores with the heat emanating from Shin Young and Min Jae’s chemistry.
Oh, the eye smexing and cheeky banter! And the smirks! Akanishi Jin, watch and learn: This is what I’m talking about when I said there wasn’t enough frission in Anego. I really like the slow build to their relationship and how Park Jin Hee captures Shin Young’s inner conflict: What do you do when a HOT piece of man-boy candy dangles himself in front of you? Do you throw all notions of propriety to the wind, get hot and sweaty first and talk later? Or do you reign in your inner hussy and lock her under a ton of concrete in the interest of self-preservation? (I think we can all guess where I stand on this score.)
Having said that, their relationship isn’t just made up of cute fluff; the spectre of reality is one that is constantly shadowing them—there’s the issue of parental, and to a certain extent, societal disapproval as well as the fact that they’re both at very different stages of their lives.
On this note, credit should be given to Kim for his handling of the age gap between his and Park’s characters. While he looked like he was playing grownup in Boys Before Flowers (not his fault though, the entire show was so over the top it was hard to take any of the characters seriously), there’s no need for any make believe here. There’s an edge to Min Jae that you don’t see in So Yi Jung; this character could so easily have just been another posturing pretty face but thankfully, there’s more to him than this. Sure, he’s a smartass who’s a bit too cocky for his own good but peel back the layers of this smooth operator and you’ll find a young man struggling with the desire to be a good son to his mother (who’s not had the happiest of marriages) and walk his own path. Plus, I love the fact that he’s a problem solver and that he comes up with ways to help Shin Young at work. I don’t know about you but pretty faces tend to get old really quickly if that’s all there is to them.
That he considers himself a dating expert has, I feel, less to do with his popularity with women, and more to do with the fact that he knows how to draw them in, having seen it all first-hand courtesy of his philandering father (btw, just what is it with Kim Bum and cheating dads?) Family circumstances and a troubled adolescence have caused Min Jae to grow up faster than his peers and he certainly holds his own with the other two male characters in the show. For starters, he’s a lot sharper than his former tutor, Ban Seok (Choi Chul Ho), and more with-the-times than Sang Woo, Shin Young’s ex. He may play games with her at first but he also knows when to man up and tell her in plain simple Korean that he likes her.
The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry is buoyed, for the most part, by a likeable supporting cast and a nice mix of comedy and drama. However, I do wish Sang Woo’s character had been developed more evenly. It isn’t until the latter half of the show that he acquires a patina of personality. Prior to this, he’s just there as a plot point and another obstacle to be thrown in his ex-girlfriend’s way. He breaks up with her when she tells him that she wants to go abroad to study and then taunts her about her singlehood status when she returns. If that’s not enough, he suddenly realizes that he’s still in love with her and breaks off his own wedding, expecting her to run back into his arms. Like, hello? When did being single make you God’s gift to women?
What sets The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry apart from other romantic comedies is that it doesn’t tie everything up in a neat happy ending. Yes, people do end up together but whether marriage is on the cards or not is anyone’s guess, and the endless possibilities this presents are infinitely more satisfying than a contrived trip down the aisle for everyone.