I recently finished A Thousand Days Promise, the latest melodrama from writer Kim Soo Hyun. It is about a young writer, Lee Seo Yeon, who finds that she has early onset alzheimers and how she struggles to live her life with that reality. I think of A Thousand Day’s Promise as a lifetime’s promise for our characters given the enormous trials they must face and the choices they make. TDP is a serious and interestingly self-aware drama. It’s an unrelentingly sad drama and difficult to watch towards the end, but also completely realistic. While watching it, I felt like a spectator watching these people’s lives, often times privy to more information than I should have been, given that I’m an outsider. What I found most interesting was the tone of the writing and directing along with the characterizations.
On Tone and direction…
There’s something uncanny about TDP, but it’s not necessarily problematic. I usually find that I either care a great deal about the characters and their lives in a drama, or I don’t care at all. With TDP I feel somewhat in this strange, but enchanting middle ground and I think it’s a result of the writing and directing, and to a certain extent the acting. What’s interesting about this though is that it all seems very controlled, intentional, and as I mentioned self-aware. This drama doesn’t tell you the story of these characters in the form of a grand narrative, but instead lets you witness their lives, in the wake of this devastating illness, as a spectator.
While watching the drama I felt that I was a part of the scenes unfolding in front of me like an unsuspecting neighbor who happens to catch glimpses of and overhears the tragedy taking place next door, and eventually becomes engrossed in it.
You are yourself in the scene as opposed to seeing yourself through the eyes of one of the characters, but it’s not a less empathetic position. These are people you know, even if you’re not necessarily close. You know you shouldn’t be listening or watching, but you can’t help it. The tragicness of the situation, and in the beginning of the drama, the sordidness of it, betray your good manners…
A number of times, I felt that Seo Yeon may inadvertently look towards me (the camera) while in one of her illness induced mental hazes, breaking the 4th wall. I imagine she would get mad at me and yell at me not to stop pitying her. She never did, but the expectation lingered. Instead, it was Ji Hyun who broke the 4th wall, looking into the camera once in episode 20, after the first time Seo Yeon doesn’t recognize him. It was awkward and pitiable, like being caught staring at someone in their moment helplessness and grief.
The writing in TDP is heavy. The dialogue weaves between conversations and the internal thoughts of the characters. Unlike the practice in many kdramas the internal monologues are not said out-loud. Instead we hear what the characters are thinking, especially Seo Yeon, as they are going through mundane daily task. As Seo Yeon’s alzheimer’s progresses we hear less and less of her thoughts and more and more of Ji Hyun’s, till in the end we only hear him. It adds to the sense of distance, like a visual drama in this constantly alternating first-person point-of-view. And interestingly, it brings the audience’s attention to the reactions of others in the room who can see what’s happening, but obviously cannot hear the other person’s internal thoughts. This particular observation helps to explain why it is so unnerving when Ji Hyun looks towards the camera in the finale– not only has he caught you in the act of staring at him, but you know his internal thoughts, and there’s the possibility that he knows that you know them.
Layered on top of this is a ‘removed’ directorial style with beautiful cinematography. At times, it feels like watching a live play. Often, the camera takes the place of the audience, discreetly or not so discreetly, looking into the lives of Seo Yeon and Ji Hyun, though always without bias or judgement. (There aren’t really any heros or villains in the traditional sense, just people.) We have multiple shots behind lamps, under tables, through windows and doorways, and even from up high in the ceiling, adding to the sense that we are just looking at finely drawn motion-portraits of the lives of these people.
With this portrait of their lives, the writer and director ask that the audience put some effort in on their part as to what the focus of the overall narrative is. Is it the tragic and slow deterioration of a young woman due to an unforgiving illness; the loyalty and steadfast love of a man who could have made vastly different choices; three families tested by tragedy–how utterly unfair it is and how they each cope with this reality? Just as in life, it all depends on perspective.
On Characterization and Acting…
TDP is a “writer’s drama” and an “actor’s drama” too. Actors often express excitement for the challenge of a project, but I feel as though with TDP, it really was a challenge requiring the actors to think about and consider the material, their performance and delivery. I love words, what they sound like, how they are put together to make sentences and ultimately dialogue creating a flow. I don’t speak Korean, but I loved listening to Writer Kim’s words as performed by the cast and I could appreciate the meaning of the dialogue via the subtitles.
“When the lonely flower blooms upon my grave. You won’t see me again. When my ripped heart is buried in deep cold earth. Don’t forget to think my sad love. Think about my sad love.” Seo Yeon Ep. 19
And heartbreakingly, this is exactly what Ji Hyun does in the final scene of the drama.
We only have a part of the story for many of the characters in TDP being that the narrative is grounded in Seo Yeon’s illness. Nevertheless, the ending doesn’t feel full of loose ends. The biggest question left is how did the families react to Seo Yeon’s death? But there are other questions. Who does Hyang Gi want to date and has she really gotten over Ji Hyung? Does Jae Min get married? Does Young Soo, Hyang Gi’s brother, ever get his act together and gain his father’s respect? What happens to Seo Yeon’s Mother? Does she ever learn of her daughter’s illness and her death? Can Moon Kwon come to forgive her? Once the drama has ended, the characters in TDP seem like people we use to know, but no longer do and so we wonder what’s happening in their lives. Because they are such realistic characters, it’s impossible to stamp on them an imaginary happily-ever-after future. Now that the drama is over, I kind of miss them and want to know what’s going on in their lives.
What I know for sure is that TDP is a very good drama technique-wise. It’s very apparent that there’s a confident and experienced hand behind the writing and the directing. I really enjoyed watching a drama that was so confident throughout, where I could let my guard down and didn’t have to worry things were going to fall off the deep end at some unsuspecting moment. Somehow, despite being conscience of itself as a dramatization and the deliberate distance it creates with the audience, TDP made me care for what I didn’t expect to care for. Overall I think TDP is a very good drama with excellent characterizations, nuanced performances, and intriguing writing and directing. But it’s a sad drama with very heavy dialogue which could have sunk it, but didn’t, largely due to the performances and directing. While watching this drama, I was in a bit of a trance, fascinated by the events unfolding in these people’s lives. And now that the trance is over, I have with me a handful of wonderful and relatable characters to take with me.