Make a Smile (Boite a musique), sung by Iris Koshlev
Operation Proposal has found a warm place in my heart, despite its many shortcomings. A review for the show wouldn’t do justice to its many charms, as it would inevitably highlights all the ways the show could have been better. You will not enjoy this show by paying attention to the plot. In fact, the show is like a series of alternate universes, in which you have characters and place them in different situations: what if Baek Ho had asked Yi Seul out? What if Baek Ho gave hadn’t given up baseball after being injured? What if Baek Ho found out Yi Seul kept in contact with his mother? The object isn’t really to see how Baek Ho’s actions affect the future. We already know they’re in love with each other, and we know they’ll end up together. The object is to witness all the moments of intimacy between them that allow them to know one another so well, to see how they care for one another.
The other time-slip drama that comes to mind is Nine. Nine succeeded gloriously with its execution of the time travel conceit, but it failed in its romance. It totally divested its heroine of any power or selfhood, leaving the romance rather shallow and for a few episodes a little squicky (read: incest)–but romance wasn’t the aim of the show, it was much more interested in the mechanics of time travel and its repercussions.
Operation Proposal is the inverse–the time travel certainly doesn’t hold up under any measure of scrutiny, but the romance shines: it’s earnest, constant, selfless, bighearted, and reciprocal in so many ways. So I’ve decided instead to make a list of the top ten scenes from the show. This way I’ll be able to focus on the show’s best aspects–Yoo Seung Ho’s performance (all that crying! bless), the loveliness of the “best friends to lovers” trope (which I’ve belatedly come to realize is my absolute favorite), the adorable main pairing, the group of lifelong friends, and the sweetest second lead to ever grace my screen.
10. The first time Baek Ho cries | Ep 1
Good looking people crying. Does this really have to be explained? But Yoo Seung Ho isn’t just any kind of cryer. When he cries, he really cries, with copious tears streaming down his face, sobbing and heaving and blubbering and curling in on himself and all. When he cries you feel the pathos of the act, he makes you believe in the character’s pain. While watching the first episode I was attracted to how relaxed the tone of the show was, but once I got to the scene of Baek Ho crying, I knew I was in for the long haul. (He cries a lot in this show. Another favorite crying scene is in episode 12, after he misses his opportunity to propose to Yi Seul and he flings his ring for her into the stands and sobs is heart out in the dark.)
9. When Baek Ho searches for his glove | Ep 6
This is a very small moment, in an episode with much bigger considerations, but it caught my attention and has stayed with me. Baek Ho and Yi Seul perform their love for one another, make it manifest, in many ways. They’re constantly performing acts of service and care, they spend more time with each other than anyone else and in their group of friends are the closest, and they give each other presents. The presents they give to each other are important,imbued with meaning, as we learn in previous episodes, when Baek Ho goes to the past to give Yi Seul the second button on his jersey, the button closest to his heart.
The glove is Yi Seul’s gift to him, and it is an object that essentially marks his distinction in her life–she never had her father make a glove for Coach. That glove is a promise, one she made to him about his place in her life, and one he made to her about always trying his best to be the person she sees him as. The glove also represents her faith in his ability, which is what this whole episode is about, and that’s why even though he’s given up on baseball and can’t throw, when he walks into his room he immediately notices something is wrong. He’s even physically uncomfortable, and that’s when he realizes his glove is wrong, and he runs out to search for it,only to find that Yi Seul has come for him, and she’s holding it in her hands.
8. The date | Ep 11
This is just super cute. Baek Ho plans an entire day with Yi Seul. They go biking, they go visit the lady divers and eat some seafood, and they go to the beach, where he asks her to sing the song she used to sing when they were kids. He writes “I like Yi Yeul” in the sand, and she writes “Dummy.” I love that there’s no awkwardness between them at all, just running around being playful and in love.
7. When Baek Ho asks Yi Seul why she never asked him about why he failed the tryouts | Ep 9
I love me some angst, especially when it’s understated but laced with a sense of absolute devastation. When Baek Ho asks Yi Seul the question he does it hesitatingly. He keeps his head down, can’t look her in the eye; he stutters. She tells him she never asked because she was afraid of the answer, afraid she wouldn’t be able to understand him, when so much of their relationship is how intrinsically they know each other. Later on Baek Ho will say that no one knows Yi Seul like he does. And when Yi Seul utters those words about not recognizing him, he hangs his head. He apologizes. I love this aspect of their romance, the almost shame Baek Ho feels in having disappointed Yi Seul. There’s an element of Queen and her knight in there. And Yi Seul on her part, angel that she is, only wants to have the best feelings about Baek Ho, so she never asks him. And she can’t look him in the eye as she answers, either. The exchange they have?
Yi Seul: What? Do you have something to say?
Baek Ho: Oh…no…
Yi Seul: Then, I’ll be going
Baek Ho: Yi Seul.
Yi Seul: Mm?
Baek Ho: How come you never asked me?
Yi Seul: What?
Baek Ho: The test three years ago. Aren’t you curious?
Yi Seul: [Shakes her head no.]
Baek Ho: Why not?
Yi Seul: Can I be honest?
Baek Ho: Yes. Be honest.
Yi Seul: I was afraid of knowing the truth.
Baek Ho: [Speechless]
Yi Seul: For the first time that day, you weren’t the Kang Baek Ho that I knew. Whatever the reason, I was afraid I wouldn’t understand and I’d be disappointed. I didn’t know how to ask you.
Baek Ho: I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Yi Seul: [Rallying, smiling] It’s all in the past, so let’s forget it.
6. The kiss | Ep 11
What a kiss. The typical kdrama kiss has two people standing, a woman totally passive and frozen, and a man pressing his lips up against hers. If we’re lucky we get the woman tentatively bringing her hands up to hold the man’s coat, a visual cue that she welcomes the kiss at all. Does she enjoy it? We’ll never know.
But this kiss. First of all, it’s Yi Seul who initiates it. Baek Ho tells her he loves her, and she asks him to repeat it. When he does, she reaches for him, she cups his face, and she kisses him. There’s…movement. And then they go vertical. 👀 👀 👀👀👍👏👏
5. Baek Ho’s final confession| Ep 16
This is it, The Confession. This confession is eight minutes long. Baek Ho’s confessed to Yi Seul before (it seems they both confess to each other in every episode, because they’re losers), but this confession is different from the others. First because he doesn’t give it to her by going to the past to change their future; he gives it to her via video, from the past. And when he recorded it, it was a last confession, a goodbye, because he believed he was going to die (in her place, because he would rather have a world with her in it and him out of it than the other way around 😩😭😭), and when he finishes, he tells her and Coach to go ahead and live happily without remembering him. Secondly, it’s a public confession, the kind he’s never been able to do, unlike Coach, even though he may not have meant it to be. It’s a confession that parallels the toast he gave at her wedding in the first episode, where he lists all the wonderful things about her, like how kind and generous she is. But he goes even further: explains how important she is to him, basically telling their love story. He lists all the things he’s done wrong. He says, “I, Kang Baek Ho, loved Ham Yi Seul. I love you. And I will love you forever.”
4. When he organizes the game and gives her the button | Ep 5
I love that when Yi Seul expresses her sadness at never having been able to stand on the field when so much of her high school life revolved around baseball, Baek Ho gets all of their friends together so that Yi Seul can play a game. He creates a little puzzle to get her and Chae Ri to the field, where he and the rest of the team honor her and Chae Ri and thank them for all they’ve done. Yi Seul and Chae Ri’s work is recognized and appreciated. He walks out and hands Yi Seul a bat. Then she and all her friends play one last game of baseball. It’s so precious. Such a wonderful display of friendship. I love the things they do for each other.
I confess I don’t really understand when characters in kdramas say “You were really cool today.” I understand it intellectually–the person in question did something that made them seem like a great person, sometimes it involves doing something selfless–but it’s never truly moved me. Until I saw Baek Ho give the second button on his baseball jersey to Yi Seul. That moment, the culmination of his present to her for their graduation, is so good. No fanfare, no declaration, just simply handing her what she longs for, while understanding the significance of the object and the act. So cool.
3. Coach’s last words to Yi Seul | Ep 16
While I’m away, think about your answer one last time. No matter what your conclusion is, I will believe that you have chosen for the best. And I will go with it. …I will be back.
One of my favorite things about this show is that there is no villain. And Baek Ho and Coach are never truly pit against each other. We see the love Baek Ho has for Yi Seul, and we also see the love Coach has for her. Neither love is developed “in secret,” and Coach gets to declare his love without any censure, without that sense that he’s encroaching on Baek Ho’s territory, or some other sort of Neanderthal understanding of how love works. The best thing about Coach, other than his kindness and his general brilliance, is how his love for Yi Seul isn’t selfish. He wants her happiness. He wants her to have what she wants. And if what he wants isn’t him, then he isn’t angry about it. And that doesn’t diminish what he feels for her–he simply respects both her and himself enough to accept the truth of how she feels. He’s honest, he’s giving, and he realizes he’s older than the others, that he has a position of influence over them, which I think contributes to how he sees Yi Seul and Baek Ho. He loves Yi Seul, but he likes Beak Ho,too. They were like students once for him.
One of the things I like most about Baek Ho is his resignation, how he (mostly) bears disappointments by himself, quietly, without bringing other people into it (like when he stands and accepts eggs being thrown at him). It’s what I like best about Coach, as well, though his isn’t so much resignation as it is a kind of grace. He gives Yi Seul a second chance to choose him, even though he knows she won’t, and he gives her the space to feel what she feels. He doesn’t punish her. Coach never has one moment of ugliness in this entire drama; he’s always beautiful.
2. When Yi Seul secretly watches Baek Ho doing his physical therapy | Ep 3
What I like best about this is how it highlights the reciprocal nature of their relationship. It’s not just Baek Ho endlessly returning to the past to redress his mistakes. It’s Yi Seul, always there in his life just as he’s in her’s, a constant loving, giving presence. So the situation is that Baek Ho believes the reason he and Yi Seul don’t get married in his present is because he got injured and gave up on playing baseball. So he goes bak tot he past, is injured anyway because of Fate (grrrr), but refuses to give up. He instead goes to physical therapy–but in secret, so no one else knows just how injured he is or how hard he’s working to heal. But Yi Seul follows him and witnesses him in pain, working to get better. And it hurts her to see him in pain! Not only is he n pain, but he’s in it alone, he hasn’t shared it with her, hasn’t given her a chance to make it somehow easier for him. She’s heartbroken, and it’s not because he can’t play anymore but because he’s hurting. So while Baek Ho is only so devoted to baseball because he’s so devoted to her, she cares about his playing baseball cause he loves it so much! Oh, the glorious angst!
1. “I’ll call you Mrs. Coach” | Ep 16
Oh god, this scene. This scene! Yi Seul is speaking formally to Baek Ho, her best friend, who she’s been in love with since they were eight. she has to, he’s asked that of her. He has no memory of her. All the love she’s given him, all the care, everything she’s done for him and he’s done for her, he remembers none of it. She’s toally alone, cause she’s the only one all that means anything to. They can’t be what they’ve always been to each other, because for him they’ve never been anything. And to make matters worse, his doctor tells her it’s “selective amnesia,” usually brought on because what the person forgets caused them pain. that’s what she is for him, now–pain.
Baek Ho asks her what they are to each other, and he lists the simple things friends do with each other–eat lunch together, laugh together. And yes, they did that together, but those simple words and acts don’t signify what they were to each other, what he is to her. And that’s a problem they’ve always had, isn’t it? Yi Seul keeps saying that their problem is timing, but it’s also that they can’t articulate what they are to each other, because so much of what they do lies in acts of service and not in, simple verbal affirmations of love.
“I’ll call you Mrs. Coach,” he says, as if now when she shows him the kind of care she’s always shown him it’s inappropriate, some kind of breach. He won’t call her by her name, Yi Seul, that’s too familiar for them now. He’s closer to coach than he is to her, he knows her through coach, they don’t have the kind of relationship where he can say her name. And that’s the thing, when he had his memory, when he knew her, even after she married coach he would still be able to say her name, they would still be…whatever they were. And Coach would respect that, and Baek Ho would respect that she was married to Coach. But now! Now she doesn’t have her best friend. Now the person she cares most about in the world won’t let her care about him.
What this finale, this moment, does is it highlights the central problem, the problem that been there since the first episode; not that they don’t love each other, not that they don’t act like they love each other, not even that they can’t tell each other they love each other, but that Baek Ho doesn’t explicitly acknowledge all the ways she loves him. In the first episode he reads a love letter she wrote to him, and when he goes back in time he never asks her, “Do you love me?” Yi Seul is always telling Baek Ho, “You don’t know anything,” and so often when he goes back in time he discovers some wonderful thing she did for him while he was totally oblivious. Now he really doesn’t know anything, now he really has no knowledge of any of the things she’s done, and in fact now her caring for him is strange and suspect to him.
And then, at the end of the scene, he walks away from her.
Bonus: Ham Yi Seul
This isn’t a scene so much as it is the entirety of Eun Bin’s character, but I had to place it on this list because in the very last episode what was almost taken for granted in the preceding 15 was brought to the forefront–Yi Seul’s desire and her acting upon her desire. The first problem with Operation Proposal is that the very premise of the show constrains the actions of one of the people in the couple. Of course it’s the woman: Baek Ho can go back in time and fix all the moments he’s disappointed Yi Seul and try to make it so they end up married, while Yi Seul (and everyone else) simply reacts to his actions. She’s acted upon, the premise frames her as a prize to be won in a competition between Beak Ho and Coach. And so Baek Ho is constantly making overtures to her, declaring his love in a myriad of ways. It makes it so it seems as though Yi Seul is the passive receiver of love who remains oblivious that her best friend is in love with her. But this isn’t the case at all. Even from the very first episode Yi Seul manages to transcend the constraints placed on her by her position within the narrative–she had written a love letter to Baek Ho, and it’s his finding it and reading her words that prompts the deep regret he feels at having never told her he loves her, at having disappointed her so often. In the first episode, Baek Ho is reacting to her. Baek Ho may be the one endowed with an enormous amount of power, but Yi Seul declares her love to him too, she cares for him and makes overtures to him too.
In the last episode, the person who gave Baek Ho all that power comes to Yi Seul. He doesn’t allow her to go back to the past, but he does tell her about Baek Ho:
He realized that rather than changing the past, his will to change the present was more important.
And so Yi Seul does what Beak Ho never could–she makes a decision and she changes the present. For the first time, she narrates the action of the episode. And for the entire rest of the episode we see her wooing Baek Ho–she’s actually treating him the same she’s treated him their entire lives, only now her love for him is made explicit: because Baek Ho loses some of his power, his loss of memory makes him somewhat vulnerable, and now he understands Yi Seul’s actions as those of someone who is in love with him, not only as those of his closest friend. We get to see Baek Ho coming to the realization of all the ways Yi Seul loves him!
And with an ending to fit into this, Baek Ho recites the love letter Yi Seul wrote to him back in the 9th grade–from memory. and finally she’s able to say to him, “I, Ham Yi Seul, love Kang Baek Ho.”