*Potential spoilers through episode 10*
Huddle Formation by The Go! Team
This is short and sweet, super late, and more an excuse to post pictures of Yoon Shi Swoon than anything, but I’ll try to bolster it with some insights. Flower Boy Next Door is many things–a fluffy romantic comedy, a cheeky look at gender norms and the distance between fantasy and reality, an excuse to stare at Yoon Shi Swoon and Kim Ji Hoon every week, a poignant consideration of loneliness and transience–but more than anything it’s a story about communication: the many different ways individuals learn to communicate, choose to communicate, try to communicate, and the consequences that result when there is miscommunication or an inability to communicate. It’s about two people who are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of how they engage with and understand the world and watching as they stumble towards each other, building something between them, in a world that’s full of best friends who betray and humiliate and ostracize you and strangers who publicly vilify you, something that is more than just survival, more than just making through, but is flourishing.
The show is a sixteen episode romcom, but I feel like if it were on another cable network, like JTCB, and it’s sensibilities were a little less concerned with making sure that it’s recognized as part of the Oh! Boy brand, then the show could have been more wholly itself. It could have been a little longer, allowing the production to give more space to Dok Mi’s past and family and daily life, how everyone in the neighborhood interacts, and how that changes and start to build a real community once the stranger comes along. Like a true slice-of-life story with a definite sense of place and character, with some touches of whimsy and a big dose of heart. But this doesn’t mean I don’t love what we have now; I adore all our characters, even with their frustrating flaws, I love the themes that are considered, which could fly past if you don’t pay attention, and I love the gentle nature of the romance we’re being given. It’s such a small little drama, I feel like I could know all of it and carry it around in my pocket!
Listen. No matter how strong the waves come crashing at you, don’t crumble easily. You have to endure it for as long as you can, okay?
Because it felt lonely, because it wanted to communicate with someone, [the elephant] learned to speak the language of its caretaker. Why don’t you learn too? Learn how to communicate with someone. “When we get back to Seoul, will you stop acknowledging me?” Stop saying things like that. “Are you okay from all the driving? Want to listen to some music?” How nice it would be if you said things like that instead.
Don’t worry. He has a happy ending. I hear the elephant doesn’t speak much Korean now.
Enrique wants Dok Mi to learn to communicate with others. The thing is, she has been communicating. By holing herself up in her apartment she’s been saying she doesn’t want to interact with people, that she wants to be alone. She’s been saying that that’s the place she feels most comfortable and free. Furthermore, in the previous episode she was more verbally explicit with Enrique than we’ve seen her be with anyone, and she told him precisely what she expected from their relationship. But at the very end of that conversation we see that Dok Mi’s desires are changing. Her apartment is no longer enough for her to feel satisfied, and in episode 5 that doubtful look she gave as Enrique walked away blooms into a full questioning of her lifestyle:
“She has never dreamed of the world outside or missed it… at least until now…at least until now…”
She’s starting to want to be in the outside world a little more, to have company, and this is no doubt influenced by Enrique’s barging into her life. In what Enrique tells her above we see him explaining her how she can do this. Dok Mi already knows how to protect and care for herself. She’s developed those tools of survival in the wake of Do Hwi’s breach of friendship, her exposing Dok Mi to the glare of her peers’ public censure. What Enrique does is lay it out for her, giving her specific examples of things she can do to reach the goal: she can learn the ways that others communicate and learn how to speak with them, “learn their language.” One example he gives is the story of the elephant; a second is how he explicitly tells her how she can speak to him, what questions she could ask him, questions he would like her to ask him. This is after he’s added fortification to the sandcastle he built, encouraging it to stay strong. (So far he’s made three stories or analogies for Dok Mi: the goalkeeper, the sandcastle, and the elephant story.) So Enrique is not only giving Dok Mi advice on how she can navigate social interactions, which is something he is very good at (he usually gets what he wants, and every time Jin Rak confronts him he manages to de-escalate the situation), he’s letting her know that he wants to interact with her, that he wants to speak with her and get to know her better, wants to let her into his life, and, most importantly, that he’s willing to be patient with her, willing to bridge the distance between the difference in the ways they communicate, that he’s willing to listen. He’s trying to be her “elephant trainer,” but what really touches me about this is that it’s as much him reaching out to her to alleviate his own loneliness as it is his genuine wanting to comfort her.
Even better, Enrique doesn’t ignore the way Dok Mi’s chosen to operate within the world. He understands that her receding into her apartment wasn’t an act of weakness, but one of defense and survival, one that required strength. He doesn’t yet know what happened to make her do that, but he does know that her life is difficult, and that it takes resilience to maintain it, hence the sandcastle. And so he doesn’t totally present one way, his way, as better as the other, her way. Notice that the happy ending doesn’t involve the elephant speaking the language of his caretakers forever, it involves the elephant finding another elephant who speaks his original language. So “learning the language of her caretakers,” (learning how to speak with people, developing some kind of ability for social interaction) for Dok Mi isn’t really about a smooth integration into society, isn’t just about being accepted as a functional and contributing member of society, not about not being seen as anti-social or dysfunctional or weird (which can be important, because standing out in those ways can make you a target, as we’ll learn from Seo Young in episode 9); it’s not about assimilation. It’s about strategic use of communication so that she can get the kind of emotional care (i.e. not Do Hwi) she needs. She only needs that communication inasmuch as it can benefit and help her.
And finally, while Enrique is giving all this (unsolicited) advice to Dok Mi, he is setting the terms for what he’d like for their relationship. Her demarcations have forced him to verbalize what he wants for a relationship. I’ve come to understand him as someone who doesn’t really know how to set limits to relationships, that he doesn’t know that he can and should have boundaries. He’s someone who wants to be needed, almost as if he feels that if he isn’t needed then no one will want to be around him, which is something we see manifested in his relationship with Seo Young and how she feels free to talk to him about her love life, despite the fact that she knows he’s working on getting over her, his first love. But with this conversation we get the first instance of Enrique saying, “this is what I’d like from you,” in regards to a relationship. It’s so weird: we have one character who talks all the time but actually isn’t very good with words and language (even though I love all his little anecdotes) and another character who is great with language but doesn’t speak very much, and they’re thrown together to try to carve out some sort of understanding of each other.
Enrique: The sand castle that I made, it’s going to get crushed by the waves without leaving any traces of it behind. By then, both your unrequited love and my first love will be gone and we’ll be refreshed. I’ve cast a very strong spell on it.
Enrique: But to you my existence is nothing. It’s like the person you sit behind on the subway: just an existence that you pass on by.
Dok Mi: Whenever she steps out into the world, that woman becomes an invisible being. She gets shoved around and stepped on, and when she gets mixed amongst the crowd, I don’t think she’s visible to other people.
Dok Mi: I’m… sorry and thank you for everything.
It strikes me again and again how much this drama is about time and impermanence, about leaving a trace of your existence, about letting it be known that “you were there.” Enrique doesn’t live in Korea; he’s only there for a short time, and he didn’t come to visit family or friends, but to go on a speech tour. He just decided to take care of his unrequited love while there. As someone who spends so much time alone in her apartment, someone who is in a kind of hibernation almost, Dok Mi is also constrained by time: what time her shows are on, when the best times are to go out, when her things she orders online will be delivered, Tae Joon’s schedule, etc. So Enrique’s disruptions aren’t just of her space but of her time. They go on this trip to the beach; when was the last time she ventured out so far? the last time she spent so much time away from her home? Time is double sided: the sandcastle can’t last forever, but maybe that means the pain they have can heal with time, too (which highlights a theory I have about Dok Mi’s seclusion being more than an act of self defense, but also a form of self-care). And, of course, what Enrique hates about the word “sorry” is that it signifies the end of something, and here Dok Mi is making him realize that there are other words that can mean the end too, words like “thank you.” It signifies a central aspect to their relationship, I think, because if he insists on being her “elephant trainer,” than what else is there to say but “thank you?”
Again and again we witness both Dok Mi and Enrique remark on how they are overlooked, either by each other or specific people they wish would notice them, or by people in general. They are both plagued by a sense of invisibility, of inconsequentiality, and both are hyper aware of time. Each have had their own harrowing experiences with being overly exposed: Dok Mis is bullied and ostracized by her entire school, and it was especially pernicious because she was very young and it was an attack by her best friend involving her sexuality and her artistry; Enrique is harassed by anonymous netizens who defame his character, creating a gross, public persona of him that he doesn’t recognize. But when we scale things down to the intimacy of the interpersonal, both of them stand alone. Dok Mi has pulled away from the world, and Enrique is in a foreign country where he knows very few people. They’re both full of longing and are trying, in their own ways, to overcome their anonymity and loneliness.
In order to communicate with his friends, he created a game.
Even eating and sleeping weren’t as fun as my work was.Even though I was happy, I lost my adolescence because of my obsession with work.
Enrique initially used his games to communicate, but he became so involved with them that he lost part of the reason he created them in the first place. This is reflected later on in episodes 9-10 in his relationship with Dok Mi with how initially tries to get to know her better by coming up with a way to help her, (which is how he approaches most everyone in this drama–Jin Rak, Tae Joon , Seo Young, even Watanabe–always coming up with something he can do for them, which makes me wonder if this need to be useful to others reflects a childhood in which the things he made were being sold for money?); he gets so caught up with helping her , which, as I’ve noted above, is also about his simply wanting to be around, that he is able to ignore (willfully or subconsciously, I’m not yet sure) ignores the fact that he likes her and wants to spend time with her for her, for the pleasure of her company, and not because he wants to “help her.” Enrique has patterns, then, of creating excuses (or games) for having relationships with people (like he has to give people a reason to hang out with him), and he gets lost in the “games” he creates.
But most interesting about the above is that it’s a strange exchange between Dok Mi and Enrique. Enrique isn’t the one who says that he created the games for communication, Dok Mi is. And they aren’t speaking to each other: Enrique is giving a speech and Dok Mi is editing his book. The quote is something she adds to his autobiography, using her interactions with him and her reading of what he’s written of himself to make this realization about him. In fact, it’s something Enrique contests when he says, “Do you think having played my games and reading a few articles mean you know me?” It sounds a lot like what Dok Mi will say to him when they have their fight later on in episodes 7-8. It points to another central aspect to their relationship, in that they are always pushing and pulling at one another, tip toeing around what the feel they and the other will be comfortable with, from how Enrique will uncertainly add a “yo” to the end of a sentence or switch between calling her Ajumma and Dok Mi-sshi and Miss Editor, to how in episode 4 Dok Mi told him she felt uncomfortable with how much he knew about her when really, they were strangers. Dok Mi’s writing that about Enrique shows that she understands the way he communicates, that she recognizes what he has been doing with her, with how he literally tells her what she should ask him. when reading his autobiography she recognized that he develops ways to communicate with people. This is a little post I really like that highlights how Dok Mi learns more about Enrique as a text, and how that’s a familiar territory for her because she’s a writer and editor, and how this is probably when she really starts falling for him.
I love how Dok Mi rushes around her apartment when Enrique shows up, ripping down all the pictures she has up of him. I’m sure that it’s something she regularly does to research the books she works on, but I can’t help but think how her researching him and reading his autobiography is similar to the way she peeped in on Tae Joon, creating a relationship from afar, in the safe space of her room. It also makes me think of the pictures she has up next to her bed of all the places she would love to go. Could there be a connection between her desire to go to those places and Enrique?
A picture of Enrique in front of a Van Gogh in episode 6. Dok Mi receives it along with his manuscript. This will become important in episode 10.
The reciprocity! She covers him and then he covers her! I love these two. A more mundane example of mutual exchanges between them, continuing from how he “heard” what she was saying without her having to say a word and how she could see truths about him from his autobiography.
On Falling In Love
I was trying to get this off of you! Because you’ve been up these few nights, I thought I’d wake you if I touched you! So with my lips–no, not lips. What am I talking about? Well–you keep misunderstanding me to be a pervert ever since the ocean. Ajumma, I mean Miss Editor! I’m saying this to make certain. Don’t think of me as a man.
Something strange starts to develop in these two episodes: we start seeing Enrique insisting that there is nothing romantic between him and Dok Mi. Like in the above, she catches him blowing her hair and freaks out, and he responds by first calling her ajumma, then he correcting himself and calling her Miss Editor, the term he had just earlier that night asked her to do away with. My knee jerk reaction would be to wail at my screen that he’s in denial, but I think there may be more to his hesitance. The most simple explanation is that a romance with Dok Mi would prove to be an obstacle to his friendship with Jin Rak. He’s already promised Jin Rak that he’ll help him confess to Dok Mi, but more importantly, Enrique is someone who doesn’t want to inhibit the development of others’ relationships. We see this (in episode 8) in how he worries that he may be geting in the way of Tae Joon and Seo Young, which is the real reason why he leaves. Enrique is a helper; he fosters connection and community–falling for Dok Mi would mean that he’d be keeping Jin Rak from having a chance with her. At the very end of the episode he says, in response to Do Hwi saying they look good together, “We can’t look good together.” “Can’t,” meaning that if they did it would be a breach of something. Either that or he’d be in the same situation he was in with Seo Young, where he was in love with someone who didn’t return his affections and he had to honor that.
Which brings me to the second probability for his reluctance. Enrique has this tendency to believe the worst of what people have to say about him, this weird duality of being simultaneously confident and insecure, the latter of which just feeds into his natural disposition towards being affable and wanting people to like him. Enrique doesn’t think Dok Mi could like him in that way. It’s already happened with Seo Young, and Dok Mi is much more reserved than her. I’ve written about how I think he takes cues about the direction of their relationship from her, and I think from all the ways she’s tried to distance herself from him he’s come to believe that she may not like him very much. When he walks into her apartment he says, “But you’re on Tae Joon’s side, aren’t you?” When she’s sleeping and he covers her with the same blanket she’d used to cover him, he muses that he feels he knows her so well, and then spots the binoculars she used to peep on Tae Joon. While he is in her apartment giving Tae Joon and Seo Young apace to be together, he is thinking of how Dok Mi, someone he’s had an immediate connection with, is in love with Tae Joon. Enrique thinks he’s the second lead of this drama! But there’s no doubt in my mind or in the show that he is falling in love with Dok Mi. After all, the lyrics to the song that plays over his thoughts about Dok Mi are “love love love it think i’m in love.”
But what of Dok Mi? Is she in love with Enrique? Kdrama romcom tropes demand that she be, but has the show actually demonstrated that she is has been falling for him? I think it has. This post discusses film and the male gaze and how there is a reversal of the norm in FBND because Dok Mi is the one who is doing all the gazing, (which reflects how her bullying was explicitly tied to her sexuality and how with her apartment she’s made aplace where she can express her romantic interests and her sexuality without judgement.) In episode 6 Dok Mi stares at Enrique all the time: when he’s sleeping, in the pictures she puts up of him, as he frolics about her apartment. It’s a development of her peeping on Tae Joon, which was definitely a romantic act on her part. Only this time its with someone she actually knows. Not only that, but she lets him into her apartment. She hasn’t done that with anyone else in the three years she’s lived there, and I think it’s significant that instead of choosing to go edit his book at a quiet cafe she allows him into her personal space. It’s a sign of trust, but also of how much she likes him.