Mirah, “La Familia” …it’s not forever we can fool around in the dark…
This isn’t a reflection. It’s an exorcism of my initial horror at Eun Ki’s transformation. I have very complicated feelings about the amnesia plot in Nice Guy, and I’m still wrestling with trying to figure out what they are and how to communicate them. I’ve calmed down considerably from last week, when I was in a state that can only be described as devastation, and now I’m in something closer to acceptance. I have very serious qualms with the amnesia, but I’m also very interested and invested in the effects it has on the story and on our heroine. I want to articulate my grievances with it while still leaving room to explore it’s positive qualities. I don’t just want to rail against it because it’s so hard for me to wrap my head around, I want to document the development of my reactions to it and I want to understand it as an organic part of the story. It seems that there are very few people who are having any trouble with it (actually I haven’t come across any others), so I’m going to proceed cautiously. I think as the show progresses I’ll become more and more persuaded by it, especially since folks have been putting up very good defenses of it. My favorite one so far comes from rearwindow on the Dramabeans Episode 12 Recap comments thread, #59.4.1.
I love romance, but romantic narratives are dangerous. They tend to spew a lot of very harmful stuff about women and the nature of romantic relationships. I don’t know if any other genre is as successful in getting people to accept and even rejoice in ugly ideas; it’s frightening the way romance can condition us to expect and applaud awful things–like when women characters are divested of power explicitly in order to be saved. It’s why I was so wary of the impending amnesia plot. Romance provides it’s primary consumers (women) with these fantasies that are so powerful as to change the realities of the actions that occur and to make them seem desirable when they’re not. I mean it’s better than propaganda. I’ve addressed these issues before, and someday I hope to re-visit them in more depth.
Amnesia and the Narrative
Eun Ki’s amnesia means that she has to go on a journey of re-discovering her past. The audience will have to go on this journey with her, but we already know what she’s forgotten. It’s not like in the Bourne Identity, where the audience is figuring out a mystery of selfhood along with the character. We already know who she was and what she was like, already know the pain she’s been through, already know about Ma Ru’s betrayals. The amnesia basically puts off Eun Ki’s engagement with her reality for another time. It resets the story so that the confrontation she had with Ma Ru at the beginning of episode 9 can happen again later on. I understand that the amnesia was something planned from the very beginning and hasn’t simply been thrown in because of time constraints faced by the writer, but it’s being intentional doesn’t make it any more palatable.
The amnesia does give us fabulous thematic material to address, though, like Eun Ki and transformation, the nature of romance and how and why it progresses or falters, and how the past effects the present. I like the theory rearwindow put forward, that the amnesia allows Eun Ki to take in her past trauma in smaller bits that are easier to handle. What I’m looking forward to is how Eun Ki will navigate her identity once she regains her memories. Because we already know all about “old” Eun Ki, the intrigue doesn’t lie in her finding out what she was like, but rather in how she’ll process her former self, how she’ll react to the revelation of who she once was. When she remembers how she rejected her mother, how Ma Ru betrayed her, how her father berated and belittled her, how Jae Hee threatened and slapped her, how her life was so limited that she ran from it at the first sign of escape, will the person she was as a result of them return? Will the return of the memories bring back the pain she experienced and will she have the same reaction to that pain? The old Eun Ki had a certain way of handling things: she was incredibly reactive and self destructive. Will her experience with amnesia change that aspect of her? Or will she reject that Eun Ki out right and remain as she is now, softer and more trusting?
A moment that struck me in episode 11 was when Ma Ru was telling her about how they first met, how rude and confident and just plain bitchy she was, and Eun Ki couldn’t believe it. It made me so sad to see her disown that old Eun Ki, to see how she reacted in disbelief that she could ever be like that. I love the old Eun Ki; Ma Ru rejected her, and now this new Eun Ki has rejected her, too. The affection and nostalgia in Ma Ru’s voice, coupled with his reaction when he saw her dressed up in her old clothes in episode 12, makes me think that he holds the old Eun Ki in as much regard as this new one. My hope is that she will be able to see the redeeming characteristics in her old self and find a way to transform herself again, to forge yet a new identity, one that is both of these Eun Kis and allows her to live with all of her past, but without the self destruction it brought on. I want the amnesia to be a learning experience for her, something she can use to better cope with challenges she may face.
In terms of romance I’m looking forward to the confrontation with Ma Ru. He’s accepted this Eun Ki, he’s voiced his love for her (to his dead father and to himself, not to her). But he needs to reckon with the Eun Ki he betrayed, the Eun Ki he rejected, the Eun Ki he humiliated, whose love he mocked and debased. He needs to face that Eun Ki, and ask for forgiveness from her. Like Mirah sings, it’s not forever these two can fool around in the dark, and soon Ma Ru’s going to have to face the Eun Ki who remembers. I know that right now he’s atoning for what he’s done to her, that he’s responding to his guilt by helping her achieve her goals, but I want Ma Ru to be verbal. Kdramas are full of slow romantic heros, but what makes Ma Ru so frustrating for me is that he’s so quiet, with himself and with others. Before the last few minutes of episode 12 it’s actually mostly through Jae Gil that we get any concrete expression of his feelings. I’ve written before about how quiet he is, and I think he’s used silence as a coping mechanism and a protective shield so much that he’s kind of lost communication with himself, especially after the misery of breaking up with Jae Hee and betraying Eun Ki. It’s in that monologue to his father at the end of episode 12 that he finally starts to speak to himself again. I mean, it’s the first voiceover of his we get since episode 6, right? From episode 7 on he remains silent until now.
Amnesia and Eun Ki
Last week I realized my real OTP is Eun Ki and her bitchiness. The second I saw her in her white, oversized, droopy, soft clothing, (like the padding in an insane asylum; like she needs it to buffer her from the world because she’s so fragile) with her slightly curling hair loose about her shoulders, her eyes wide and trusting, and her voice an octave higher than it had been, I was upset. One of my favorite things about Eun Ki was how she would say one thing and communicate something entirely different with a sly look in her eyes. There’s no chance of that happening with this Eun Ki. The old Eun Ki had a rage she had to repress and it would come out in glares and eye rolls and scoffs, but the amnesia has taken that away from her. With the amnesia Eun Ki is not allowed to live with her anger, to have it be a part of who she is, a part of what makes her her; it’s simply taken away from her. When she meets with Jae Hee again, it’s Ma Ru who gets to exchange smart aleck barbs with her, who gets to nail her to the wall.
I can’t accept a romanticization of Eun Ki’s amnesia. Amnesia means she looses all of her memories, including the ones she had of her mother, including the good times she had with Ma Ru, including any other private ideas and emotions we were not privy to, like moments she might have had with Secretary Hyun that lead her to trust her and maybe see her as a mother figure, or why she loves a particular type of food. She looses determining blocks of herself. I mean, she has to be told her name. This is a person to whom names mean something: she used to call Ma Ru “ajusshi” and “good looking face,” and she had a whole slew of snide nicknames for Jae Hee. She now has to look at her face in a mirror and repeat it to herself in order for her to associate “Seo Eun Ki” with “I,” with herself, with her face. That’s a profound interruption of identity, of selfhood, and the fact that she isn’t allowed to have that but she is allowed to keep her romance is disturbing. It’s like a trade off, her self for Ma Ru’s love. She looses so much, and I don’t completely understand why that had to be done. It could be that she needs a respite from all the pain she’s had to suffer, and that seems to be the direction the drama is headed in, what with her doctor saying she’s psychologically protecting herself from past trauma. The thing is, even amnesia can’t relieve us of the scars our experiences leave on us. If you have a scar but don’t remember how you got it, you still have the scar. This also works on a metaphysical, spiritual level. Amnesia can’t wipe away the residue of our lives because our bodies and our psyches are the sites of contestation on which our histories are written. They are witness to our selves. I mean, if she remembers the love she has for Ma Ru (which I actually have a problem with) why doesn’t she remember the hate she has for Jae Hee?
Infantilization and Disability
Post-crash Eun Ki is mild mannered, considerate, and optimistic. I don’t think it’s the amnesia that’s done this. (And anyway I’m not so convinced that if Eun Ki hadn’t gone through all the pain of her childhood that she would be as she is now with her amnesia.) I actually think that it’s her cognitive disabilities that are being used as a big source of her newfound mildness, and that’s an incredibly problematic construction of her new identity because it relies on ideas about people with disabilities being somehow less complex than “normal” people. I want to be clear: my issue is not with the fact that Eun Ki has a disability, but that her having a disability (in addition to her amnesia) is being fetishized. (In fact, I’d be happy if she had her cognitive issues but still had her memory.) Post-crash Eun Ki could be as badass as pre-crash Eun Ki; with her issues with spelling and counting and everything else she could still be mistrustful, sly, sarcastic, and mocking. But her disability is being used to turn her into a symbol of innocence and purity. It undercuts the humanity of her character and makes her more a tool of the narrative than a full character in her own right. It also hampers her autonomy. These issues are manifested in two ways, first with how Eun Ki is likened to a child, and second with how Eun Ki’s newfound goal is to reclaim her position at Taesan.
One way to respond to Eun Ki’s transformation is to reason that she’s always been rather childlike, and now her mental ability matches her emotional tendencies. But children’s emotions aren’t any less complex than adult’s emotions. They just do not yet have the life experiences to handle them properly; they’ve yet to acquire the knowledge and tools to navigate their inner worlds. Also, children aren’t innocent. They can lie, they can manipulate, and they can be cruel. Just look at the two kids who mock Eun Ki and call her an “idiot” for not being able to spell. So her being mild mannered isn’t a function of her being childlike so much as it is that her disability is being romanticized. What is a function of her being childlike is the drastic reduction of her autonomy. What actually makes Eun Ki childlike isn’t her inability to spell or her trusting ways, but the fact that she has to be supervised and taken care of. She cannot care for herself. She cannot be left alone. In episode 12 Ma Ru literally puts words in her mouth, writes a speech for her to give to the public as a presentation of her individual self. (Which makes me wonder if this Eun Ki will have the same relationship to Taesan’s workers that the old Eun Ki had. They were the ones who were handing out flyers to look for her, and I want Eun Ki to remain as resilient as she had been so that she can give them all the benefits of working at Taesan that she’d agreed to in that deal for them.) She cannot live on her own. It recalls how her father locked her up in her room in episode 7. That was an instance of infantilization, of abuse of parental control, of the chairman violating her autonomy. What makes Eun Ki a child is that she’s totally dependent on the benevolence of Secretary Hyun, Lawyer Park, and now Ma Ru, and if they decided to screw her over, she’d be lost. It’s a problem, but in a way it’s also a testament to the power old Eun Ki had in making alliances: it’s the people she trusted before who are now helping her in good faith.
Autonomy and Choice
Which brings me to the question of her new goal: getting Taesan back from Jae Hee. I was under the impression that before the car crash Eun Ki had renounced that part of her life. She’d chosen to leave her father and Taesan behind in favor of a life with Ma Ru. She was going down the path her mother had hoped she’d take. So where is this need for corporate ascendency coming from? I’m guessing it can only be coming from Lawyer Park and Secretary Hyun. They are the ones taking care of her, and I feel like it’s what they want for her, not necessarily what Eun Ki wants for herself. Whereas before her opposition to Jae Hee included issues she had with her about her parents, now it’s just to keep her from having something that isn’t rightfully hers. It’s a reiteration of the punishment Ma Ru wanted to give Jae Hee for being in a place he thought she had no right to be in. It’s not a fight about how Jae Hee ousted her mother and bamboozled her father anymore, it’s not Eun Ki’s fight anymore, it’s someone else’s. This is made explicit in episode 12. Eun Ki questions why she has to fight Jae Hee, and when she doubts that she can win, Ma Ru tells her that she should just stand behind him and let him do the fighting. And so it becomes a fight between Ma Ru and Jae Hee, and like before, Eun Ki is stuck in the middle, some one to be destroyed by Jae Hee or saved by Ma Ru.
Even though her war with Jae Hee seems a bit empty now, Secretary Hyun sort of defended it by saying that it must be done, otherwise Jae Hee would leave absolutely nothing for Eun Ki, and she’d be left with nothing to live on. But I get the same disconnect when it comes to her love for Ma Ru. Where is her “my heart remembers you” coming from? She doesn’t feel the love for him until she sees his face. She doesn’t remember his getting her doll for her, or the tenderness he displayed for his sister when he went to pick her up, or any of their hugs or kisses. So what is the basis for her remembering this feeling when she sees his face in person as opposed to in the photograph? Is this part of the metaphysical residue I mention above? If it is, why is her love for Ma Ru the only manifestation of it? Pre-crash she’d chosen to love Ma Ru, even with full knowledge of his treachery. When she meets him in episode 9 she loves him unquestioningly, uncritically.
I think the show tries to remedy this in episode 11, when Eun Ki gets mad at Ma Ru for yelling at Jae Shik. It doesn’t really work for me, though, firstly because she misreads the situation: he isn’t angry that his “hyung” was bringing her to see him when he didn’t ask him to, he’s angry because Jae Shik (Jae Sickening more like) was going to sell her into sexual slavery. She doesn’t understand that she’s actually just been kidnapped. Secondly, her pushing him away and refusing to open her bedroom door for him comes off more petulant than her exercising her agency, especially with thugs outside her gate about to kidnap her. Again. And finally, it reifies her pitifulness, how pathetic she is. (In episode 12 Choco even says, “You are pitiful, unni. They say a person lives with the strength from their memories and love.”) Eun Ki is distraught when Ma Ru isn’t delighted to see her. She tells him, “I know how embarrassing I am.” This is a self pitying remark pre-crash Eun Ki would never make. She accepts her (seeming) humiliation, that what she feels for him is embarrassing and grotesque. Pre-crash Eun Ki was never embarrassed by what she felt for Ma Ru. She shared it openly with him. She loved that she was in love with him, and she was fierce about it, even in the face of his humiliating remarks. She didn’t make herself an object of pity, and even after Ma Ru told her he’d rather sleep with Jae Hee she wasn’t ashamed of what she felt. Here she faults herself for loving Ma Ru though he (seemingly) despises her, and it’s all wrapped up in feelings of inadequacy she has about her intelligence and her fall from “genius.”
I do appreciate, though, that she refuses to open the door until he offers her something other than a wrist grab and a yell for her to come with him. Despite the petulance, this Eun Ki isn’t as quick to forgive Ma Ru as the old Eun Ki. The old Eun Ki didn’t care about his past and was running away from it, but this one–who’s trying to find her own past–does. The old Eun Ki felt that her love was enough for both of them to move forward, but this one needs more explicit reciprocation from Ma Ru. This Eun Ki requires a patience and a generosity of understanding that the old one didn’t. It means that Ma Ru has to apologize to her (before he ruins it by grabbing her wrist even as he’s asking her to come with him). It’s the beginning of a new page in their romance, where Ma Ru is sincerely kind and gentle with her, and this absolves some of the fears I have about her uncritical love. I can understand it better after the events of episode 12 because the relationship Ma Ru has established with her so far has been one of care and trust, and it’s so much better that he love comes from that than from “My heart remembers you.” The problem I have is that Ma Ru responds with honesty to her misunderstanding petulance, to her lack of information, but couldn’t so the same when she was knowledgeable and totally open with him. I’ll write more about that below.
Now we come to another thorny issue. At the beginning of episode 9 Eun Ki asks Ma Ru why he never tried to sleep with her. At the beginning of episode 10 Jae Shik thinks that they’re about to do it in the middle of the yard, in broad daylight, in front of Secretary Hyun. Which to me means that there’s a distinct possibility that these two are going to sleep with each other. If that’s the case, then how can she consent to it if she has the understanding of a child? If they do sleep together (and I want them to because I’d love if they went after that dream of raising a loving family together) then it’ll have to be after Eun Ki gets her memories and abilities back, right?
Amnesia and Ma Ru
I’m gonna be completely honest: I’m afraid the reason Eun Ki was given amnesia and disabilities is deeply intertwined with her romance. Like, I’m scared that the point of her amnesia is to make her pitiful, to make her vulnerable, to make her wholly susceptible so that Ma Ru has no choice but to requite her love. That the story is telling us that she has to be weak in order to be openly loved. And that’s just…unnaceptable.
I can’t help but ask why Ma Ru would be more comfortable sharing his romantic feelings with Eun Ki now instead of before, why he would be willing to admit them to himself and to her now instead of before. What is it about Eun Ki or their situation now that makes those feelings he has more acceptable? Maybe in the immediate aftermath of the disintegration of his relationship with Jae Hee he’d developed an existential distrust of his own ability to love; maybe discovering Jae Hee’s incredible hypocrisy fundamentally changed his relationship with love and on that beach with Eun Ki he was doubting its existence or validity in the same way he now doubts the existence of god. Or maybe it was more of a “I don’t want to be a part of a club that would accept me as a member” type of thing: he felt (and continues to feel) that he was unworthy of love, that he’d done so much wrong by Eun Ki that allowing her to love him would just be wrong. I think what I’m looking for can be found in the closing scenes of episode 10, when Ma Ru has to go and save Eun Ki from Jae Sickening.
Anatomy of a Scene
In episode 10 Ma Ru rejects Eun Ki over and over again. He solidifies his original rejection of her in episode 9. He tells her that just because they took some pictures together, doesn’t mean they were in love; he refuses to help her regain her memories or Taesan; when he finds her note, which tells him to call her when he remembers her, he doesn’t. It’s clear that although he does remember her and care for her, he has no intention of contacting her or interacting with her anymore in any way. He chose to leave her and his decision is final. When faced with Eun Ki and isolation, he chooses the latter. He punches his best friend, drinks some beer, and falls asleep. He’s completely alone.
He wakes up the next morning from a nightmare, and he’s crying. This is the second nightmare we’ve seen him have, the first being in episode 8, and a third later in his car. He’s still dressed in the same clothes from the previous day, just as he was in episode 5 and 6 in Japan. He’s still sticking with his decision to stay away from Eun Ki for good. But then as he’s leaving Secretary Hyun comes to him in a panic: Eun Ki left a note for her saying that someone had come to take her to see Ma Ru. She’s been kidnapped. She hasn’t been kidnapped because of him, but he’s the means by which she’s taken. He takes Secretary Hyun’s phone to track her–like a child, or cargo, the way the Chairman had tracked Jae Hee when he’d stopped trusting her–and he’s off to save her. It’s a damsel in distress situation, replete with Eun Ki drinking some concoction to make her sleepy and the connotations of the possibility of her “ruined virginity” (she’s going to be sold into sexual slavery; it works with her new angelic image of unsullied purity, especially in contrast to Jae Hee).
So the reason Ma Ru decides to interact with Eun Ki again, the impetus behind their reunion, isn’t that she went to find him. It’s that she needed to be saved. It’s that she’s so vulnerable that she can’t judge when a situation is off, and now that Jae Hee knows of her whereabouts, she needs a stronger protector than Secretary Hyun–she needs Ma Ru. The continuation of their romance is predicated on her being so stripped of power that she can’t tell when a guy is being a Grade A Skeeve. It’s her being in such extreme danger that illicits enough of a response from Ma Ru for him to go to her. I actually still can’t believe that the possibility of rape was used as a way to endanger Eun Ki. It plays into patriarchal ideas about how women’s chastity is their most valuable asset, which in turn feeds into rape culture and how women are shunned and abandoned after they’ve been raped, as if they have to be punished for what was done to them.
What I see is a romance arc in which our heroine originally chose to give and receive love, to give and receive trust, and was rejected, only to turn around, be robbed of that choice, and have her love be reciprocated. I have issues with a narrative (and a hero) that rejects her volition but accepts her with something much less…freeing. I think the best way I can explain it is how May Jane tells Peter Parker at the end of Spider-Man 2, “I know you think we can’t be together, but can’t you respect me enough to let me make my own decision? I know there’ll be risks but I want to face them with you.” That movie came out during a critical point of my development and interaction with fiction, and that line just resonated so much with me and everything I was thinking of in regards to romance. I’m stuck on that beach at the beginning of episode 9. I love watching the blossoming romance between these two, but every now and then I wonder, if Eun Ki never got amnesia and she and Ma Ru met again, would they end up together? Would he love her? I remember that old Eun Ki and how much she wanted to be loved, and it’s crushing to think that she never was, that she had to wholly change in order for her feelings to be openly requited.
On Amnesia, Love, and the Past
When Ma Ru was breaking up with Jae Hee he said that he was so far gone over her that it was like he had amnesia. In episode 12 we discover that he can’t remember any of the romantic things he did with Jae Hee while they were dating. In episode 6 he tells Jae Hee that she didn’t leave any good memories for him to forgive her with. Eun Ki has lost all her memories and so she doesn’t have anything to forgive Ma Ru for (or rather, she doesn’t know she has anything to forgive him for). She doesn’t remember anything on her own except for her love for Ma Ru. She has to be reminded of and re-taught everything–her family, her profession, her acquaintances, even her own name. (I just cannot get over that.) But Ma Ru and her love for him is something she recalls of her own accord, no one has to tell her she loved him. In episode 6 she told him that if you wait long enough for someone they’re bound to come, and in episode 9 she asks him to wait for her to regain her memory, and in 10 she leaves him a note saying that she’ll wait for him to remember her.
In episode 12 Choco tells Eun Ki that she can “remake memories.” Ma Ru overhears this and it’s something that sticks with him. He wants to try this, wants to attempt to “remake memories.” I’ve written about the past and how Eun Ki has worked to negotiate with it while Ma Ru has tried to bludgeon it. What I see him doing at the end of episode 12 is what I saw Eun Ki doing with her mom. Eun Ki was navigating her past by returning to that awful moment when she rejected her mother: she negated that and instead took her mother’s advice by trying to run away with Ma Ru. Here Ma Ru is navigating his past with Eun Ki by returning to the moment when he rejected her. Instead of not taking her hand and turning her away, he opens up to her. (Notice he didn’t shake the hand Jae Hee held out to him but he did take Eun Ki’s hand.) The problem I have with this is that Eun Ki’s re-negotiation with her mother is built on the wreckage of their relationship, and similarly Ma Ru’s re-negotiation with Eun Ki is built on the wreckage of the old, pre-crash Eun Ki.
There’s something going on in this story about love and lack of information. There’s a close interaction between love and not remembering your past. Both Ma Ru and Eun Ki have constructed loves predicated on selective (maybe even fabricated in Ma Ru’s case) relationships with people. He made up a vision of Jae Hee in his head that he seems to have forgotten now, and Eun Ki loves him first without knowing anything about him, and now with crucial information about him being kept from her.
Ironically, I think my main problem may be that I am like Ma Ru originally was with Jae Hee: I am deceived in who Eun Ki actually is. I think I may be in love with a character who left a long time ago. And that makes me so sad.
*[Part II will be back to my usual approach and no more of my fangirl meltdown.]