*This “review” has lots of spoilers; it’s for folks who have already watched the show, and I wouldn’t recommend it if what you’re looking for is an overview of the plot.*
Witch’s Romance is the 10th drama I’ve finished that has a main romantic pairing where the woman is older—that’s not counting dramas that have a noona romance that isn’t central or dramas I’ve started but haven’t finished. I’ve said before that I always love noona romances, but a more accurate statement is that I trust noona romances. I feel that their concerns align with mine: they are stories about women and their lives; they care about the desires and growth of their heroines, tending to see them as people and not just adornments to the stories of the men around them or symbols of larger ideas; and they usually interrogate the power dynamics found in most het romances. They also tend to invest their heroines with a power that extends beyond personal empowerment: their heroines don’t just kick ass—they have valuable knowledge and actively influence their worlds.
It certainly isn’t the best noona romance out there—far from it—but in its brightest moments Witch’s Romance is fun and full of a charm and vibrance that was welcome during this season of thrillers. It has a fabulous lady lead, her sweet romantic interest, and a mother-daughter relationship that lit up the screen even during the show’s weakest moments. And so the good: the chemistry between Uhm Jung Hwa and Park Seo Joon, our heroine’s mother gets to have a life and romance of her own, Dong Ha has an excellent romantic arc, there is a wonderful parallel between Ji Yeon and Dong Ha’s romantic journeys, many of the supporting characters get their own stories, Ji Yeon is recognized for her professional prowess, and there is a lot of cute; the bad: it has the same fake world feeling that I Need Romance 3 had, Ji Yeon’s colleagues are painted with a broad, cartoonish brush (a holdover from the Taiwanese original), and there’s a lot of blatant product placement; and the ugly: the return of Ji Yeon’s ex Shi Hoon saps the narrative of all its best qualities and sends it down the all-too-familiar road of a tired love triangle, which left me constantly trying to rewrite the show so that it focused on its strengths instead of devoting an entire arc to an ex no one cares about, and whose conclusion offers no insights or rewards.
My favorite kdrama of 2011 was Me Too Flower, despite all its glaring flaws. In an effort to understand and justify my love for the show, and to explain how best to enjoy it, I explored its genre and concluded that it is an OTP Drama. A subset of trendy romcoms, an OTP Drama focuses all its attention on the romance between the lead couple, usually at the expense of narrative coherence. This description fits Witch’s Romance to a tee: much of what happens in the show are contrived situations whose only purpose is to brings our leads together and have them interact with one another. When Ji Yeon’s apartment is broken into, she moves in with Dong Ha, who conveniently lives next door; when Dong Ha’s business flounders because Ji Yeon’s colleagues left negative messages on his website, her boss hires him as her assistant; at the height of their separation, when Ji Yeon is about to marry Shi Hoon, her best friend Na Rae falls sick and she has to rush to the hospital where Dong Ha steadies her when she swoons from shock, and where she runs from him to Shi Hoon, in the classic girl-running-wistfully-in-wedding-dress-sequence; when Ji Yeon decides to try dating again Dong Ha offers to coach her, and if that means having to hold her hand as they stroll down a sidewalk then so be it. The best episodes of the show are those that stick to a procedural structure and do away with serial concerns. Actually, I think the show would have been better if it simply fulfilled one romcom trope each episode, which it was kind of doing anyway, before it tried to get serious with the return of Shi Hoon. Wicth’s Romance has the hard-to-love heroine (one of my absolute favorite tropes), older woman/younger man romance, a bromance, bickering your way to love, cohabitation, workplace romance, weird drunk habits, piggy back rides, a love triangle, and a Pygmalian Plot.
If Me Too Flower’s strength as an OTP Drama (which, remember, is already a drama who’s strength lies in the relationship between the lead couple) comes from its nuanced characterizations (Ocddee has explained this best) and the interplay between the competing desires and power of its characters, then Witch’s Romance‘s strength lies in how likable our heroine is. If we didn’t love Ji Yeon then we wouldn’t care about the story. At one point in the drama Ji Yeon describes Dong Ha as perfect–he’s “He’s tall, handsome, and has a good personality. And he’s good at sports, too. He’s smart. There’s not a thing he lacks in.” The thing is, she’s perfect as well. She’s smart, hilarious, and beautiful; she loves her job and excels at it; and she has a support system around her of people who love her but don’t impose their will on her. She’s a woman who has her life in order—she’s no Go Byung Hee, in the midst of a late quarter life crisis; she’s not Shi Joo Yeon, so emotionally damaged and distrustful that she has to be guided through her own desires by a romantic partner. Basically, there isn’t any major maturation or character growth that Ji Yeon has to go through; she doesn’t change significantly over the course of the show. In fact, I would argue that the one instance of change she does experience is a relapse into self doubt and confusion brought on by the reappearance of her ex that has to be re-balanced in order for her to return to the “sparkling” self whom we meet at the very beginning of the drama. It’s like she sprung fully formed from Athena’s head, and what we see in her story isn’t a character arc so much as a situational exercise: what happens when a woman who has her shit together is confronted with a past she’s already begun to recover from? Ji Yeon’s relative control over her own life does not mean she isn’t vulnerable or that her life is perfect–it just means that her story isn’t about self improvement or coming to terms with who she is. She knows who she is, and she likes it, as do we.
On Ji Yeon
“I’m a witch who has no blood or tears. Would I get weak over stuff like that?”
Witch’s Romance masquerades as a show about a woman who is “hard to love.” To her colleagues she is driven, blunt, highly efficient, demanding, confident, and opinionated. She’s intimidating. She’s got all the qualities of a bitch—or a “witch,” if you’re in polite society. We know that Ji Yeon has vulnerabilities and insecurities, but to her colleagues—and to everyone except for Na Rae and her mother—everything about her is calibrated to drive potential romantic partners (men) away. That’s what is at the crux of the prank her colleagues try to play on her in the first episode: a handsome, younger man approaches her, compliments her, reaffirms all the pride her colleagues believe she is full of, only to laugh in her face and reject her in front of an audience. It’s a public shaming, a punishment for her success, her power, and her self reliance. (There’s a play between the private and public here: publicly Ji Yeon’s a witch and privately she’s a person with the kind of concerns that make her more relatable—it’s a dichotomy we see in an earlier scene where Dong Ha tells Soo Chul how much “bad luck” “that woman” is while at home Ji Yeon is crying about Shi Hoon.) But right after suffering the humiliation of being called too old to kiss, Dong Ha steps in and kisses her, and she is “saved.” It’s a charitable act on his part, a striking contrast to how she’d acted earlier in the episode when she revealed to a group of orphans that Santa Claus isn’t real. Ji Yeon’s being “saved” by Dong Ha is a facet of their relationship that we revisit again and again: when she’s attacked in her home Dong Ha rushes to her rescue; Dong Ha gives her an alarm in the shape of a heart and instructs her to pull it whenever she’s in trouble so that he can come to her aid; in episode 7, when Ji Yeon is again publicly faced with her singledom, Dong Ha comes and declares his love for her; when she refuses to listen to any of Shi Hoon’s excuses Dong Ha clears up the “misunderstanding” between them; and he keeps her from having to attend the surprise party for her by-then-canceled wedding to Shi Hoon.
Seeing all this I can’t help but wonder if the show isn’t playing a rather cruel trick: to make Ji Yeon bitchy, but not really, to make her brilliant and intimidating, but reassuring us that she’s “just like any other woman”—she wants to be loved. Part of the aim of the show is to humanize Ji Yeon—that’s what the entire arc of episode 5 is about: with the help of flashbacks we see how Ji Yeon sabotaged the previous year’s work outing because she couldn’t be bothered with it, in contrast to how she makes an effort to win all the games this year because she wants to give the prize money to Dong Ha for his sick friend. But there’s a difference between humanizing her and totally tearing her down. For example, I was relieved when we find out that Ji Yeon has been hiding certain aspects of herself from Shi Hoon since the very beginning of their relationship, because it makes it so that her bitchiness isn’t a consequence of Shi Hoon’s having left her, but an actual part of who she is and has always been.
In the effort to humanize Ji Yeon the show stumbles. The one thing Dong Ha doesn’t save Ji Yeon from is her wedding to Shi Hoon; he respects her personhood enough to allow her to make that decision for herself. But if it were left up to Ji Yeon she would have gone through with the wedding and been in a difficult, even loveless on her part, marriage. And so it’s Shi Hoon who, in a an act of noble sacrifice, breaks up with her. In doing so he frees her of the shadow of their decade long relationship and from the incredible doubt she’s had for the past sixyears. Why does the show do this? Why have a heroine who explicitly, if bewilderingly, works against the stated conclusion of the narrative? It would have been so easy and so rewarding to have Ji Yeon recognize her love for Dong Ha and choose to break up with Shi Hoon herself, instead of having him do it, thereby implicating that he’s allowing her to go to Dong Ha, giving her his permission or blessing to love someone else. I think the show does this in order to keep Ji Yeon from being too much of a bitch—she’s already professionally successful; the larger society see this match between her and Shi Hoon as something that benefits mostly her—and so if she were to break up with him it would be too much. It would be too selfish of her. It’s a cop out, really, because in the end Ji Yeon “has it all”—the job and the guy, the public and private success—but she isn’t allowed to have it through her own actions. She gets it through channels that are not her own. It’s almost as if Shi Hoon gives her up and hands her over to Dong Ha, as if the story is not about her and her desires, but about a match between him and Dong Ha, a match in which he loses and Dong Ha triumphs. By keeping her from being a total bitch, by trying so hard to humanize her, the show dehumanizes her, makes an object of her. Ironic, I know.
There’s another example of a sort of “exchange” occurring between Shi Hoon and Dong Ha over Ji Yeon. In episode 9, Shi Hoon is at Ji Yeon’s apartment, where he spies a pink heart dangling off a pice of furniture. It’s an alarm that Dong Ha had given to Ji Yeon in an earlier episode: if she were in trouble she was to pull it and he’d come rushing to her aid. Shi Hoon sees it, picks it up, and pulls the alarm, which, of course, prompts Dong Ha to run over, only to be met with Ji Yeon and Shi Hoon. It’s very awkward. And it’s emblematic of who Shi Hoon is and how he functions: he imposes himself in places, touches things he shouldn’t. But the important thing in this scene, I think, is to notice how it excludes Ji Yeon, how it makes a sort of competition between Dong Ha and Shi Hoon over her primary.
And so the question we’re left with is, is this show just some tired exercise in a prince in shining armor rescuing a damsel? Being a savior is certainly central to understanding Dong Ha’s character and his journey: in episode 4 he tells Ji Yeon about how he realized doctors can’t really save lives, because he was studying to be a doctor and he couldn’t save his dead girlfriend’s life, and she comforts him by telling him that he saved her. But does Dong Ha “save” Ji Yeon—from loneliness, from middle aged singledom and its accompanying public censure, from Shi Hoon, from her own past? I don’t think he does, even though he does “accept” Shi Hoon’s blessings, and there are a few things I can point at for this. For example, when Dong Ha eventually returns to medical school, he does so not to save anyone, but because he feels he wants to do something Ji Yeon can be proud of, to be someone who “matches well” with her. By the end of the show Dong Ha isn’t so much concerned with saving Ji Yeon as he is with giving her the space to try and fulfill her desires without worry that he’ll leave her for it. Second, in episode 7, right before Dong Ha first confesses to her, Ji Yeon stands up to her friends and tells them that yes, she is a single 39 year old woman. She’s hesitant about it, and she’s saying it not because she really feels confident about her state but because she needs to defend herself, but she says it all the same. Third, even after Shi Hoon leaves, even after Dong Ha has made clear again that he still loves her, even as she works to improve the relationship between him and his father, she hesitates in admitting that she loves him. She doesn’t simply fall into his arms once Shi Hoon is gone; she doesn’t run away from Shi Hoon to Dong Ha. She actually considers being with him, which means she considers being alone again. And finally, when Team Leader Byun taunts her about her aborted wedding Ji Yeon agrees with him that she’s a witch who drives men away. She says: “Yes! My fiancé left me ‘cause I’m a witch!” She fully adopts her “witch” moniker, even as the show works against that presentation of her. After we see her change and restrict herself with Shi Hoon so that she can be loved by him, she returns to being the ambitious, bossy, and critical woman we first met, and now she is so without the pain she carried with her for 6 years—she’s not going home to private tears and loneliness anymore.
On Ji Yeon and Shi Hoon (Ep 7-14)
It’s unsurprising that Shi Hoon is jealous of the time Ji Yeon spends with Dong Ha—if there were a “by numbers” drama writing book, and you were creating an annoying romantic antagonist, you’d get Shi Hoon. Comes back exactly when the heroine is getting over him? Check. Has a convenient excuse for his absence? Check. Demands the heroine’s time, love, and forgiveness as if intervening time has not passed? Check. Asks heroine to rid her life of the things that represent her growth away from him? Check. We can predict his moves, down to the words he’ll say and how he’ll react to any given situation, because he isn’t really a character so much as he is a tool being used to highlight aspects of Ji Yeon and Dong Ha’s relationship—hence “OTP Drama.” Looking back at his actions in the show, I now see that his jealousy is in accordance with his dumping Ji Yeon, even though he fashions that act as a noble sacrifice for her benefit and not his—just as his dumping Ji Yeon so she can be with Dong Ha robs her of an agency he then affords to Dong Ha, his jealousy is more about Dong Ha than it is about Ji Yeon. For example, in episode 11, after Ji Yeon mistakenly falls asleep at Dong Ha’s place and is caught by Shi Hoon, he confronts Dong Ha about it. Why? It’s like he’s singlehandedly creating a love triangle where there isn’t one.
I have some ideas about how Shi Hoon’s presence in the narrative works as a way for Ji Yeon to work through the unresolved pain he caused when he abandoned her, yet I can’t help but feel that Shi Hoon never feels organic to the story. He always feels like an imposition, and not the intentional kind.
Shi Hoon’s sudden return to Ji Yeon’s life is a huge disruption, a parallel to the other disruption he caused. What happened to her six years ago was a major, even defining, event in her life: she was in love with this person she had planned to spend the rest of her life with, and, for all she knew, he abandoned her. He didn’t speak to her, didn’t reach out to communicate (a cornerstone of her relationship with Dong Ha); he left her with no explanation, humiliated her, made her feel worthless. Each time Ji Yeon is confronted with her singledom—when Soo Chul laughs in her face, when her friends ask her why she’s alone at their meeting, when her mother needles her to get married—it’s a reminder and in some cases a re-enactment of what he did to her. For six years now she’s been living in a post-Shi Hoon world. Her family, her friends—they all knew him. And before their wedding she had been dating him for ten years, which means they had been together since she was twenty-three! Ji Yeon had to re-build herself after Shi Hoon left her, and now with the disturbance of his reappearance she finds herself re-shaping her life so that he can fit into it—with the least disturbance for him. While his having left her doesn’t entirely define her, and her personality isn’t simply a reaction to what happened six years ago, it is something that has helped to shape her life. The thing about truth and revelations is that they don’t change experience: when Ji Yeon learns that Shi Hoon has a legitimate reason for missing their wedding, she realizes that he never thought of her as a burden and that he didn’t choose his career over her–but she still lived with that as a truth for six years. That experience is not something that can be erased with an explanation.
Shi Hoon works as a foil to Dong Ha, as a contrast to what Ji Yeon has built with Dong Ha, but his return also works as a catalyst for Ji Yeon’s confrontation with her past. The love triangle isn’t really about Shi Hoon or Dong Ha, it’s about Ji Yeon’s past and her present. She feared she would never love again because of how she was hurt in her past, and now with Dong Ha she is realizing that she isn’t in a state of arrested development, that her sunbae (names are so important here; she calls Shi Hoon sunbae, but she has nicknames for people she’s really close with who know how prickly she can be) doesn’t define her future. We hear the phrase “six years” over and over again in this show, probably at least once each episode. The story we get with Shi Hoon’s return is coming out of the catastrophe that was her wedding day—and so we realize the show begins in medias res. It’s not a story that begins with her and Dong Ha meeting, although they do have a typical romcom meet cute, it’s a story that begins with the fallout of her expectations for her life, a marriage that never got a chance to be. She and Shi Hoon were engaged. What were those six years during which Shi Hoon never contacted her? Were they years of pain and growth and healing? Or were they years of waiting for Shi Hoon to come back? Basically, were those years about Ji Yeon or were they about Shi Hoon?
Dong Ha comes into Ji Yeon’s life at the tail end of those “six years.” Upon Shi Hoon’s return, Ji Yeon’s relationship with Dong Ha is reviewed for him—he’s been out of her life for so long that he doesn’t know what Dong Ha is to her, doesn’t know how close they actually are. So when Ji Yeon is telling him about their journalistic escapades together, when she tells him why Dong Ha got her that heart alarm, her time with Dong Ha—and by extension the six years she spent apart from Shi Hoon—becomes evidence of how she didn’t stop living when he was not in her life. She didn’t stop loving. At the beginning of the show Ji Yeon wonders, “Can I love again?” She doesn’t know if the damage Shi Hoon has done to her isn’t irrevocable, if she will ever be able to move past the pain she’s experienced, to have the same kind of trust she shared with Shi Hoon with someone else. The hesitation she feels in turning Dong Ha down, the reminisces we get in episode 9 of them having so much fun living together—these are the answers to both her question of whether she can love again and the question of what those six years were about. Shi Hoon thinks those years were about him. But this isn’t a narrative about first love. It’s a narrative about rebirth.
What strikes me about Shi Hoon is how selfish he is. It seems he deliberately stayed away from Ji Yeon for so long because he cared more about his career than being with her, but he didn’t want to face the truth of that. Instead of going to her once he has recovered, he plans out how he will return to her, thereby extending the time they spend apart. He orchestrates his return, makes a public scenario of it, paralleling all the times Ji Yeon’s romance is put on display. He places more importance on the act than he does on her. I don’t doubt that he loves her. I also don’t doubt he’s a raging narcissist. I mean, he makes a collage of Ji Yeon’s face out of images of people living in war torn zones. The reason he doesn’t think twice about coming back into Ji Yeon’s life, the reason he doesn’t have major doubt about her wanting him back, is because he places more importance on the love he and Ji Yeon shared than on the pain he caused her. He doesn’t understand the scope of the pain she experienced, and he doesn’t understand that he’s not just asking her to forgive him, but to resolve that pain. He’s just a mess of misplaced priorities.
But Ji Yeon doesn’t just accept Shi Hoon back into her life: she invites him back. She asks him to stay, and it’s something she’s cornered into doing by Shi Hoon. In episode 9 Shi Hoon’s assistant leaks a story to the press saying he’s leaving the country, then calls Ji Yeon to tell her. Ji Yeon in turn confronts Shi Hoon:
Ji Yeon: I hear you’re going to Africa. I was doubtful, but it must be true. You’re selfish till the very end, Sunbae. You’re going to Africa with your injured leg? What if something really bad happens to you?
Shi Hoon: Ji Yeon it’s not like that.
Ji Yeon: Then what is it like? You’re really exactly the same as six years ago. You pretend to care for me on the surface, but all you care about is yourself. You decide on your own and leave without saying a word.
Shi Hoon: I was going to contact you.
Ji Yeon: When? Three years later? Five years later? [Turns to leave]
Shi Hoon: [Grabbing her] Ji Yeon.
Ji Yeon: Let go!
Shi Hoon: I never said I was leaving! If you tell me not to go, I won’t go anywhere.
Ji Yeon: I don’t believe you. I don’t care if you stay or go.
Shi Hoon: Then why are you acting this way? You scream and get angry, then say you don’t care. Do you think I’m stupid? You’re constantly worried for me.
Ji Yeon: [Crying] Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go.
Shi Hoon doesn’t offer to stay. He doesn’t say he’ll stay because he wants to, because he wants Ji Yeon in his life and hopes she wants him in hers. No; he asks her to ask him to stay.
The exchange between Ji Yeon and Shi Hoon in episode 9 reminds me of In Time With You and how Ding Li Wei gave Chen You Qing his passport, claiming he was returning to her because he realized he couldn’t live with out her, and that she had “won” and could now “have his freedom.” You Qing refuses to ask him to stay; she hands him back his passport and tells him she doesn’t want to be someone who ties him down, who keeps him from doing the other things he wants with his life. Shi Hoon asks that Ji Yeon ask of him to give up his other desires for her. He makes her own that. He makes her responsible for his staying. He makes it clear that he’s not staying because he wants to, but because she asks. Shi Hoon asks an incredible vulnerability of her, which is rather galling, considering the pain he’s already put her through, without offering any vulnerability of his own in return.This is in sharp contrast to Dong Ha,who always emphasizes that everything he does is his own decision, coming from his own true desires, and not just because he loves Ji Yeon and wants her to recognize that. He does love her, but even outside of that helping her makes him happy. That is what the quote from the book in episode 8 is all about:
True love sincerely wishes the other person to be happy. Life is short. So if there are any words you’ve been holding in your heart, consider this your last chance and try saying them today. The moment of magic you’ve been waiting for is, without delay, today.
The quote asks two things: to want happiness for the one you love, and to let the person you love know that you love them—to communicate with them. Both are things Dong Ha does—he tells her he loves her, and he tries so hard to be happy for Ji Yeon when she chooses to try to continue her romance with Shi Hoon. He understands that just because he loves her, doesn’t mean he is entitled to her or her love in return.
Another example of this tendency of his to fix a approach a situation so that he is the least likely to get hurt comes in episode 12. When he rushes to the hospital and sees Ji Yeon and Dong Ha together, his subsequent actions are like a repeat of his disappearance six years ago. He isn’t on an assignment for a friend, and he hasn’t been shot in the leg, leaving him in a coma and unable to go to Ji Yeon—but he still doesn’t go to her. (Which renders his coma excuse moot cause here he is presented with the opportunity to go to her and he once again chooses not to.) A scene is laid out before him: Ji Yeon is weary, tired; Dong Ha is there to support her and ask if she’s ok. What’s important to Shi Hoon here is not that Ji Yeon seems upset or weak or sick, but that Dong Ha is there with her, and that she trusts him. What could Shi Hoon do here, how could he respond? He could walk over to them and interrupt whatever moment they are having. He could be worried about Ji Yeon. But instead he chooses to walk away, and makes Ji Yeon come to him—just as he made her ask him to stay. Once again, instead of going to her and exposing himself in that way (placing himself in a situation where his presence would once again throw light onto how close Ji Yeon andDong Ha are), he hides, like a manipulative coward.
There’s a distance Shi Hoon places between him and Ji Yeon, a detachment. I think it comes from a desire he has for her to look up to him. He wants her to admire him as her amazing photojournalist sunbae more than he wants her to love him. He is still in Ji Yeon circa six years ago mode—the memory or image he has of her instead of who she is standing in front of him now—but he also has an image of himself in mind that I think he cultivates through his relationship with her. Just as Ji Yeon hides what she believes are the worst parts of herself from him (“image maintenance”), so Shi Hoon strives to embody whatever romantic idea he has of who he could or should be in her eyes. His clothes are the best immediate manifestation of this (and it’s totally accidental; this show is not like FBND, where the crew created a fully realized world in the set design and details, etc.): his floppy hair, his skinny cargo pants; they match what you would imagine a photojournalist would wear to a tee.
Ji Yeon and Dong Ha love talking to each other; clear communication is central to their relationship—they navigate their age gap by listening to different versions of the same song, use another song as a metaphor for their relationship, apologize when they do something hurtful, not just saying the words “I’m sorry” but actually modifying their actions to reflect that they are sorry. But I want to point to something else that was communication and relationship building, but wasn’t really shown as such by the show. Back in episode 3, when Dong Ha first becomes Ji Yeon’s assistant, Ji Yeon lays out a whole list of things she expects from him and he should expect from her. She does it as his boss, but the whole office romance trope also makes it possible to read it as her specifically laying out their roles, period, not just as her: boss, him: assistant, but as them: couple. And then Dong Ha takes the cue from her and lays out another script. He negotiates something else that could happen between them—he gives her the alarm and if she’s in trouble she will pull it and he will come to her.
Ji yeaon and Shi Hoon don’t do this at all. They don’t lay down ground rules. They don’t negotiate how they will act towards one another, don’t set boundaries (which actually allow intimacy). What if these tactics are tools Ji Yeon has learned in the six years since she hasn’t been with Shi Hoon? She and Shi Hoon start their romance anew without any discussion of what they want it to be, or how they want it to proceed, without any acknowledgment that of course things have changed in the six years that have passed. What if one of the things that has changed is that Ji Yeon has built an entirely new vocabulary for love that involves actually delineating how things are to be done, instead of simply going with the flow?
OTP is Meant to Be: On Ji Yeon and Dong Ha
“Was it because of me,” meaning “Do you love me?”
“It’s not too late for us,” meaning “I still love you.”
And so the Ji Yeon who spent six years waiting becomes the Ji Yeon who had someone wait for her. —Episode 13
In Witch’s Romance Ji Yeon and Dong Ha are friends. They actually get to build a camaraderie, and we get to see them learn more about one another and grow closer and spend time together—real time together, where they choose to spend time with one another just hanging out and bridging gaps, not just time where they have to be together because they work and live together. They’re liking each other isn’t a consequence of the tropes they’re in; they actually choose each other over and over. It was a great move that to have them build their friendship after it was established that they were sexually attracted to each other because it isn’t something that hangs over them. And their relationship isn’t one dimensional: it sin’t always bickering, or always one teasing the other, or always them having misunderstandings, or always them being supportive of one another; it’s all those things!
My favorite episode is 14. Not only does it give us a whole lot of cute, but it is structurally and narratively satisfying, and has some lovely relationship building. Toward the beginning of the episode Ji Yeon asks Dong Ha a question: “Why are you fighting with your father?” Here Ji Yeon is offering a delicate intimacy they haven’t shared since episode six, before Shi Hoon’s reappearance when she had touched his hyacinth without his permission. He tells her he doesn’t want to talk about it, and when she presses on, he passive aggressively asks her if she thinks he’s a loser without a dream or a future. He knows he’s being unfair, that he’s in no mood to have this conversation, and so he tells Ji Yeon he’s tired and leaves.
Later, when they have finished taking pictures wearing the couple shirts Na Rae made for them, Dong Ha suddenly turn serious, and they have the following exchange:
Dong Ha: Team-jang nim.
Ji Yeon: Mm.
Dong Ha: Do I lack a lot to be your man?
Ji Yeon: What are you saying?
Dong Ha: It’s just that you asked me why I left home.
Ji Yeon: That’s not what I meant—
Dong Ha: I know. It’s my inferiority complex. But when I think about it, I’m not sure myself what my dream is. Other people are moving forward, but I feel as though I can’t escape my past.
It’s an extension of the accusation he made before, only now it’s a sincere question, an admission that he sometimes feels that he doesn’t measure up to Ji Yeon, that the decisions he’s made in his life before meeting her (leaving medical school, working part-time jobs) have made him somehow unworthy of “being [her] man.” It’s perhaps even a suggestion that that may be why Ji Yeon hesitates in accepting his confession—he thinks Ji Yeon might feel the same disappointment his father feels toward him. It’s also a perceptive description of what both his and Ji Yeon’s narratives are. At the beginning of the show they both find themselves stuck in the past: he is still working through his girlfriend’s sudden death and she is still working through the pain of having been seemingly abandoned by her first love. The hyacinth that Dong Ha’s girlfriend gave him—the one that blooms again when it’s replanted (and is therefore a symbol for new love and moving on)—represents the growth both Dong Ha and Ji Yeon need to experience. The difference between the two is that while Ji Yeon’s past romantic trauma only affects her love life, Dong Ha’s affects every sphere of his life. So while Shi Hoon’s departure means that Ji Yeon becomes “unstuck,” the loss of a romantic rival doesn’t have the same resolution for Dong Ha. This is both a good and bad thing: good because it means that the “damsel in distress” tendencies of the show were limited to Ji Yeon’s romance, and bad because it means that Dong Ha is the one who gets a character arc outside of his romance, not her.
Later still, Dong Ha returns to Ji Yeon’s question once again. He finally tells her why he’s fighting with his father: he tells her about his ex-girlfriend, about how she died and how that event created a rift between him and his father and sent him down the path he’s currently traveling, and about the guilt he feels for her death. (Guilt is actually an interesting emotion in their romance. Episode 11 was all about it: Dong Ha insisting he shouldn’t feel any because he hasn’t done anything wrong, he’s only been 100% honest, and Ji Yeon feeling guilty for something she can’t quite put her finger on, can’t quite name—more immediately she’s feeling guilty cause she’s spending time with this guy who’s told everyone he’s in love with her while she’s got a fiancé waiting for her, but in the larger picture she’s feeling guilty because she’s moved on from Shi Hoon while he wants to continue from where they were six years ago). When Ji Yeon tells him not to blame himself he responds, “But Youn Chae died. Her mother will live in pain for the rest of her life. I can’t live my life as if nothing has happened.” He’s tied to his past not just through his personal experience of the pain of Young Chae’s death, but the sense of obligation and debt he ha toward her mother. but when he reiterates how disappointed his father is in him, she reassures him that if his father knew what he was really like he would be proud of him, just like she is. When he finds out that she’s already said the very same words to his father, he thanks her. His words are, “His misunderstanding was cleared up because of you.” It recalls when he’d done the same for her, when he’d “cleared up the misunderstanding” between her and Shi Hoon. Theirs, then, is a reciprocal relationship of characterized by selfless acts. With him Ji Yeon can be tender in a way she isn’t with anyone else, and with her Dong Ha can be generous and kind—his best qualities—without being indebted.
At the end of the episode, when Dong Ha confesses again and asks Ji Yeon if she’ll accept him, it’s another answer to the question she asked him. Right before this last confession we see him looking pensively at his old school textbooks. He’s contemplating returning to school, and we can infer from the scene that he does decide to do so. This is the conclusion of all the exchanges he’s had with Ji Yeon throughout the episode about his feeling lost and uncertain about his goals and current place in life. He wants to return to school now not to make his father proud (he knows his father is already proud of him, thanks to Ji Yeon), but so he can date Ji Yeon without feeling like he’s lacking. He feels a measure of security now, and with his last confession he is able to put his “inferiority complex” aside and seal the intimacy Ji Yeon had approached with her initial question, the intimacy that was interrupted by Shi Hoon.
So throughout the entire episode Dong Ha returns to the question Ji Yeon first asked him, answering it bit by bit, each time opening up more and more to her, letting her know his fears and sharing with her a side to him she hasn’t seen before, the side that doesn’t fall into the “perfect” vision of him she references right before she catches him with his father. This dynamic they have, where one is able to give the other space when they need it, where they can resolve misunderstandings through communication, where they never reach an impasse because they can always talk to each other, is why I love them. And again we see that a defining characteristic in Ji Yeon’s journey is time: this whole “conversation” takes place after Shi Hoon has left, after he’s “freed” Ji Yeon from whatever obligations she felt she had to him or to promises she had made to herself, and so Dong Ha’s initial rebuff isn’t something that distances or alienates Ji Yeon—they have time to work through this, time for Dong Ha to open up to her about it. We get to see them living in their relationship, as opposed to working towards a romance. It reminds me again of ITWY, when Da Ren comes to You Qing when she feels terrible and they spend the entire night drinking and talking. There is that same sense of trust in the interactions between Ji Yeon and Dong Ha here, trust that they don’t need to rush anything because neither of them are going anywhere.
All Hail the Noona Romance
I’ve praised noona romances countless times already, and I’m not done. One thing Witch’s Romance does well is show us how much in love with Ji Yeon Dong Ha is. Noona romances have a way of allowing their male leads to be totally in love with the heroine without any reservations, and their love for the heroine is multifaceted: they don’t love her just because she’s beautiful or kind or because she represents some abstract idea that they have been alienated from their entire lives; they get to admire them and know their weakest points without making them feel lesser for having them. In the showDong Ha stands across from Ji Yeon’s apartment, gazing at her front door and smiling; he thinks about her throughout his day, even hugging a pillow to his chest and beaming while being completely oblivious of Soo Chul; he tells her no matter what she’s wearing she looks beautiful; he worries he isn’t good enough for her, not because he is lacking in some personal, moral way, but because he is in a different place in his life from her (as is natural, considering their age difference; I love how understatedly this is addressed: their age difference is present and manifests itself in various way but it isn’t An Obstacle); he is excited to wear pink “couples shirts” and take pictures with her. Dong Ha gets to be in love with Ji Yeon the way we usually see teenage girls in love with their crushes. It’s a freedom many romantic heroes aren’t allowed until well after they’ve let the heroine know all the reasons they could never love her.
There’s a moment in episode 12 that’s a great example of this. They’re in the hospital together and Ji Yeon’s in the wedding dress she’s going to wear to marry someone else, and she’s just about to run back to that person. Dong Ha is seeing her in the dress for the first time, and in a moment of privacy he looks at her in such amazement and with such longing—it’s definitely a depiction of male gaze (romanticized, as it usually is), but then she glances back at him and he realizes what he’s doing, as does she, and his privacy is broken. It becomes a moment that pregnant with the knowledge that they share something outside her relationship with Shi Hoon that implicates something disquieting about that relationship.
My second favorite part of the finale (after the heartwaring exchange Ji Yeo has with her mother) is the montage we get of Ji Yeon and Dong Ha spending the day together shopping. It isn’t a dramatic declaration of love and it isn’t a reunion—it’s just them being together, living and feeding one another’s happiness. In this little sequence I see more of their future and what it could hold than the dialogue that comes at the end of the episode. They like each other, they have fun with one another, and they want to build their lives together (which doesn’t have to include marriage; one thing I do adore about Ji Yeon’s final speech is how she said that she doesn’t know or care if they will get married—I never really saw her as someone very invested in marriage).
The best thing about Witch’s Romance, the thing that recommends it most, other than the great chemistry between Uhm Jung Hwa and Park Seo Joon, is that it is a drama about a woman who is surrounded by people who love her. Ji Yeon’s mom, Na Rae, her colleagues, Dong Ha, even Sul Chu—they all recognize that she’s wonderful. They don’t ever diminish her; they celebrate her.
It’s always difficult, at the end of live watching a drama, to tell if I’m going to miss it because I genuinely care for it or because its end means a disruption to the schedule I’ve had for two or more months. I don’t know if I’ll miss Witch’s Romance much, but I do know I’ll miss Ji Yeon and Dong Ha.