Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps, as sung by Mari Wilson (Hi, there, Coupling lovers!) [audio http://nikak.net/music/mary_wilson_perhaps_perhaps_perhaps.mp3]
– Will you marry me?
– Can you promise me you’ll always be honest with me?
Hooray! I’ve finished my first drama of 2013! Watch out, though, spoilers ahead.
Can We Get Married premiered in 2012 and was touted as both a comedy about a meddling mother who interfered in her daughters’ love lives to her own interest’s detriment, a la Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, and a realistic look at couples and the troubles they unexpectedly face on the road to marriage. While airing the response to the show was mixed, with some viewers being put off by the heroine, Hye Yoon, and her bossy ways, and others praising the show for it’s true-to-life depictions of love and marriage. I think the best way to approach this show is as a family drama. Marriage is certainly a main theme, but but at it’s core this show is about the dynamics within a family: the ties one has to one’s family and how in many ways your family defines you; the difficulties that come in trying to unite two families; the effort that goes into creating a family of your own; the effort that goes into simply existing within–or escaping from–the family you were born into. It reflects a societal understanding of what marriage is, because on one hand it’s about two people, a couple, getting together and building a life, but on the other it’s about two families, two worlds, really, coming in contact with one another, to be linked “till death do they part.”
In Can We Get Married? marriage is what changes family dynamics and forces our characters to see themselves and one another differently–for better or worse. It is the catalyst and the goal, but in the long sweep that exists between when Jung Hoon asks Hye Yoon to marry him in the first episode and when they exchange rings in the last episode, what keeps the show going is the many ways in which the definition of what makes a family is challenged and reaffirmed.
Life is hard and so is marriage. I think we just have to love and live happily, but living is hard.
First, an introduction to our many couples and the ways in which their relationships document the trials of marriage and family. Hye Yoon and Jung Hoon are our main couple. Hye Yoon is an early childhood educator, working with young kids and holding down a good, stable job, one that’s prized in South Korea. She’s controlling and at times a little arrogant, but only in that she thinks well of herself, and doesn’t seem to suffer from the self doubt and excessive deference that plague many a drama heroine. Jung Hoon is “an average salary man,” meaning he just works at a toy company; although he comes from a rich family, he isn’t a genius doctor or lawyer raking in the dough. They’ve been dating for three years when Jung Hoon proposes, and their story is about discovering the truth about who they themselves are, who each other are, what they really mean to one another, and what they are willing to go through to be together. It’s lovely to watch them grow into better versions of themselves.
You can always come back to me. Even if you think it’s too late, just come back.
Our secondary couple is Dong Bi, Hye Yoon and Jung Hoon’s best friend, and Ki Joong, Jung Hoon’s first cousin. They’ve been dating for five years, and when Dong Bi tells Ki Joong that she wants more from their relationship, he balks, citing the fact that they both agreed to have a casual relationship. Their story is about the destructive grip abusive families have on their children, and how you can work to create something that falls outside those normative standards that is nevertheless more nurturing and loving. Ki Joong at first comes off as a dismissive asshat, which had me rolling my eyes because I didn’t want to watch 20 episodes of our girl pining after him, but one of the highlights of their relationship is seeing the reversal of their positions. Best is the change that Dong Bi goes through on her own, how she turns from someone who is frightened of how alone she is because of the choices she’s made and is therefore desperate to please all those around her, into someone who respects her choices and revels in the autonomy they’ve allowed her.
I didn’t do it to hear ‘thank you’ from you. I did it for Tae Hyun. I don’t want you to be destroyed. Don’t destroy yourself. I don’t want that to happen to you. You should live well. Because you’re Tae Hyun’s dad. I wish you live well. Even if I hate you, I want you to live well. I don’t want you to be destroyed.
Then we have Hye Jin, Hye Yoon’s older sister, and Do Hyun, Ki Joong and Jung Hoon’s older friend. They met when Do Hyun was still married to his first wife, and after an affair, a divorce, and a pregnancy, got married. They’ve been married for seven years now, and Do Hyun has been cheating on her for all of them. The problem Hye Jin has is that he’s had the same girlfriend for the past three years. Her story is about escaping the clutches of this man who isn’t particularly evil, but is cruel and selfish and wholly destructive to her person. Do Hyun’s story is this fascinating portrait of ambivalence, of a man who has no complaints about is “perfect wife,”except that her mother is overbearing, yet insists on cheating on her and treating her badly. He doesn’t even treat his mistress well! Their story is about the painful dissolution of a marriage, and how that affects the family they’ve already made.
Finally we have Deul Rae and Min Ho, and their’s is this adorable romcom about a 50-year-old spinster living with her sister who discovers her love of motorcycles, which also coincides with her love for a silly, twice-divorced man 7 years her junior.
Hye Yoon’s mother, Deul Ja, isn’t in one of the romantic relationships on the show, but I think her relationship with her husband casts a long shadow over how she’s raised her daughters and what she expects for their futures. Her husband died when both girls were young, leaving her to raise them on her own, which has hardened her to the realities of eking out an existence. She wants a better life for her daughters, which is why she encouraged Hye Jin to marry Do Hyun, and why she’s initially against Hye Yoon’s choice to marry Jung Hoon.
I’m happy when I’m with Hye Yoon, but when we decide to do something together, it’s hard to negotiate.
I don’t really think the show is as realistic as it’s been said to be, considering that everyone just happens to know one another and almost everyone gets a happy ending, but it’s a lot more grounded than most dramas are, with multifaceted characters who have relatable goals. Do Hyun is the most disgusting character I’ve met in a long time—so duplicitous, so dismissive, so manipulative and petty and callous and whiny and selfish. He manages to make my skin crawl without being dramatically evil. I understand that he’s just a normal person, and that makes him all the more difficult to digest. And Jung Hoon’s mom, Dong Gun—it takes a lot for me to dislike a lady character, and I could not stand her towards the end. She was uncompromising, petty, screechy, childish, and a bully. She always has to be the victim, and she can never face her own hypocrisy. She’ll never admit she’s anything but justified in all her actions and she must always, always be loved and accepted without criticism. She’s exhausting. You start the show thinking it’s Deul Ja who will be the biggest obstacle to marital bliss for our main couple, but it turns out she’s the real matchmaker, the one who invites loyalty, even if she doesn’t always command respect. She’s a fierce protector who’ll do anything for her daughters, and when her situation and actions and motivations are compared to Dong Gun’s…well, let’s just say Dong Gun comes off as more than a little ridiculous.
The way the chaebol families are shown is fascinating: they’re these toxic, misogynistic, abusive families that are fueled by money and materialism and they just destroy everyone in them. These families are miserable and their members want to take everyone down with them. While Hye Yoon and Jung Hoon are the main couple, I was more interested in watching the development of Dong Bi and Ki Joon as a couple, and more satisfied with the resolution of their issues. I did feel for each person in the couples as individuals, (especially Hye Yoon and Dong Bi), as people wrestling with themselves, with the changes they had to make and vulnerabilities they had to accept in order to be with a person they loved. I was drawn into the problems Hye Yoon and Jung Hoon faced, but found that they were resolved too easily. The best conversations they had were their arguments, and the resolutions were so quick and pat, devoid of the fervor and intensity that marked their fights. When they fought they would actually say things with substance, say things that resonated with me, like when Hye Yoon tells Jung Hoon that he should be asking her if she had been in love with her ex, not if she’d slept with him.
There’s something so achingly truthful and universal in that one statement; it’s about how deceptively easy it is to ask the questions that hurt the most while avoiding real questions. The quote highlights one of the issues the couple faces, which is that Jung Hoon keeps on trying to fit into these very rigid gender categorizations because everyone around him keeps telling him to “be a man.” When he asks her if she’s slept with her ex he’s asking because it’s a slight to his manhood, and if she has slept with him it would be another affront to add to his list of insecurities about his possible inability to compliment Hye Yoon the way a man is expected to. In his case “being a man” means being able to provide for Hye Yoon (financially) while protecting her from possible abuses from his mother. Every time he tries to rise up to assert himself as this supposed ideal man he bungles it, either alienating his mother, Hye Yoon, or Deul Ja. It’s when he stops trying to “be a man” and starts being a better Jung Hoon that their relationship starts to get better, and being a better Jung Hoon means welcoming all those attributes that seem to feminize him: patience, communication, cooperation, and even deference.
Do you only think about if I slept with him or not? Isn’t it more important if I loved him or not?
I think what happened is that their story forgot that it wasn’t just about getting Hye Yoon and Jung Hoon married, and in the rush to have them reconcile we don’t actually get to see them reconcile. We see them break up (twice), we see them apart, we see how spending time apart makes them realize the truth and the strength of what they feel for one another, and then after episodes and episodes of bickering and separation, they are reunited in one moment! They have one conversation while they are separated in which they talk about their problems, but once they get back together they are functioning at optimum efficiency. There is no awkwardness or adjusting to the differences in the new phase of their relationship, no lengthy discussions about what went wrong and why and any fears about it going wrong again in the future. There isn’t even as much kissing to distract us from the vacuum of their reunion. We see them afterwards functioning together, working together, but we don’t see the road to that recovery, just the damage and not the reconstruction. All the problems they had and all the pain they experienced are undercut. I think what the show tries to convince us is that the fighting itself is what makes them realize how much they care for one another, as if they just have to purge themselves of whatever demons are haunting their relationship, but I still feel as though seeing their process of learning a new and better way to be together would have been more satisfying. I also would have been happier if they’d decided to get back together of their own accord, without any interference from Deul Ja, even if her matchmaking does lend a certain equilibrium to the story.
Speaking to your mother reminded me what it is to have a family. I escaped my father, my sisters, and my grandma. I can’t go back to hell because of you… No man is worth having if it hurst me.
These qualms aside, I did really enjoy watching the show. I loved the scenes showing Deul Ja and her daughters sleeping in the same bed; I loved the relationship between the sisters, so caring and willing to understand, even when they fought; I loved watching the initial power dynamics between Dong Gun and Hye Yoon and how Hye Yoon would be so deferential towards her–totally changing herself in front of her fiancee’s mother so as to make sure she’d be liked; I loved watching Dong Bi’s evolution–and she did that all on her own, damn, girl! I loved Jung Hoon waiting patiently for Hye Yoon and giving her space, loved seeing him grow into himself, grow from just bending over to every demand she made (which came from her own insecurities about her family situation and the defenses she’d decided to adopt after having been cheated on), to someone he had always been, which is steadfast and reliable and quietly wise (he is such a good friend to Dong Bi!). And I loved seeing the journey Hye Yoon goes on. She goes from being betrayed by her ex and framing her entire romance on that betrayal, thinking that after loving so deeply and being hurt so badly she’s learned everything there is to know about love, only to find out that she doesn’t, that what she’d had with her ex can’t even compare to what she feels for Jung Hoon, and that the hurt she felt from her ex’s betrayal doesn’t come close to the pain she’s feeling from being separated from Jung Hoon, something she’d chosen to do. But this new revelation doesn’t crush her. She evolves and adapts and learns another way to love again. She goes back to Jung Hoon, still a little arrogant, still a little bossy, but much more sure of herself, of love, and of their relationship.
Come to think of it, Hye Yoon basically changes and adapts for love twice. That’s another thing I appreciate about the show, how generous it is with it’s women characters. I love my flower boys, but it’s wonderful to have a show that isn’t a total sausage fest. The women have desires, depth, and agency, and are never made to be one dimensional, never “tamed” in order to get the things they want. Even in Hye’s Yoon’s transformation, she doesn’t simply become more accommodating and gentle, she actively changes her approach to interacting with Jung Hoon because she wants to be with him. She alone makes the decision to change, even though Jung Hoon doesn’t ask her to. What’s more, she is able to keep a light, bantering relationship with her ex, Sang Jin. I love that so much. Ultimately, Hye Yoon isn’t devastated by his past infidelity, and it doesn’t leave a scar on her. When he returns he becomes the comic relief in her life, and is never once a real threat to her relationship with Jung Hoon. It’s so refreshing to see a heroine get over a cheating bastard of an ex without too much angst.
I want to devote some more space to Hye Yoon, who I feel doesn’t get enough love, especially in comparison to Jung Hoon. Hye Yoon is hard to warm up to, especially in the first few episodes where Jung Hoon is like a little puppy who is willing to do anything for her, even when she’s being entirely unreasonable. She manipulates him into asking her for marriage as a way of confirming that he really loves her, which is a tactic of control that she uses over and over. She tests him, making him prove what he feels for her. And from this sprung comments that Hye Yoon didn’t “deserve” a guy like Jung Hoon. But it’s like Jung Hoon says: he decided to ask her hand in marriage of his own accord, regardless of her pressure, and he loves her. Love isn’t a question of deserving or not deserving, it’s a question of what two (or three or four, etc.) people feel for each other and whether they can work together to create something between them that’s nurturing and supportive.
I think Hye Yoon is a lot more like her mother than either of them realize. They’re both determined, both believe they know what’s best, and they both believe they are awesome. But Hye Yoon also has a fear of abandonment, no doubt stemming from her father’s death and the fact the her first serious romance ended with her boyfriend cheating on her. It’s so interesting to see how her previous relationship with Sang Jin determined her following romance with Jung Hoon. While watching the disintegration of her and Jung Hoon’s relationship I found myself wondering what it would have been like if she had treated Jung Hoon the way she’d treated Sang Jin. If she’d met Jung Hoon first, would they have had the same problems? Would Jung hoon have treated her the same? Would he even have fallen for her? I feel like Hye Yoon asked herself some of these questions during their time apart. She probably resents Sang Jin for basically causing her to change the way she loves, the way she approaches love, and it comes out sometimes in the mordant way she dismisses all his romantic advances. Sang Jin broke her heart and she picked herself up and remade herself romantically, decided to love differently, to love someone different, so that she could protect herself. And this is basically what her mother did. After her husband died Deul Ja picked herself up and decided to fight, decided to become shameless because that’s what her situation demanded of her. And just as Hye Yoon is adaptive and willing to change in her romance with Jung Hoon, Deul Ja changes in her relationship with him, too, realizing just how good of a son-in-law he’ll make. And I love that Hye Yoon chooses her mother. She misses Jung Hoon and regrets leaving him, but she chooses her family. That’s not something heroines always get to do. I’m so happy that she gets her to have her mother, her supportive, puppy-dog husband, and a loving father-in-law.
Overall the show takes some getting into—it’s not immediately addictive like a lot of other dramas—but it has it’s charms. Actually, one of the more interesting aspects of it is how it figures into the careers of it’s actors. For me it was an introduction to Lee Mi Sook, who’s been acting since 1979, and has been in over thirty films and countless dramas. (No, really. She’s been in so many I didn’t even want to count them.) It’s also great seeing Sung Joon continue to pursue diverse projects. He’s been in the psychological short series about a serial killer White Christmas, the tvN flower boy drama Shut Up Flower Boy Band (many say it’s the best of the series), and the drama special Swamp Ecology Report, which was reviewed by The Vault. He’s a limited actor, but he has this way of always looking different for the roles he plays. His characters always look like individuals, even if he does cry the same in all the roles. Kim Young Kwan, another White Christmas alum, is remarkable here when compared to his sniveling White Christmas character. He’s got a lot of range, and he’s only 26. And as for Han Groo, I’ve got to applaud her ability to be cute without being grating, and to manage her character’s evolution without making her seem like two different people. And Jung So Min! She’s she’s more of a trained, fine-tuned actor than Sung Joon, and it’s so much fun seeing her in this role after Playful Kiss. Her best scenes are with the older actors, I feel, and I’m looking forward to what else she’ll do in her career. I know she was in some other shows, but there’s is no way I’m watching Bad Guy or Stand By Me. I really want to see her in a workplace drama. Something like Working Girl…