Kdrama Women’s Week | Day Eight: Age of Youth Love-fest!
Least Typecast Fav
Han Ye Ri — She played Jin Myung to perfection in Age of Youth, but do you know she’s also played a cat? She was the voice of Bok Gil in Imaginary Cat! She’s only been in four dramas, but each has been in a different genre—Six Flying Dragons is a sageuk, Imaginary Cat is a mini drama modern day romance, Road No. 1 is a romance set during the Korean War, and Age of Youth is something all its own. She also has an extensive list of films she’s been in, and I’m glad Age of Youth introduced me to someone who takes such care in choosing diverse and interesting projects.
Yoo Eun Jae — I wrote about her for this category before, but I’ll say something more: if we look at the structure of Age of Youth, we can see it as Eun Jae’s journey from isolation and almost debilitating self doubt borne from her childhood experiences, to a burgeoning adulthood where she confronts her guilt and finds community. I think nothing illustrates this better than the contrast in the relationships she has with her mother and Ji Won. Eun Jae protects her mother. She also keeps her greatest fears and concerns from her, and nurses feelings of anger and frustration towards her. But with Ji Won, Eun Jae finds someone who protects her, someone she shares her secrets and self loathing with, and in Ji Won (and the rest of the girls) she finds someone who doesn’t turn away from her when she shows what she thinks are the ugly sides of herself.
Belle Epoque Landlady — The drama is called Age of Youth, and yet one of the characters who leaves an indelible impression despite only appearing for a few minutes is a woman well past middle age. She is not characterized by any of the traits you would associate with an older woman in a kdrama: she’s not anyone’s mother, she’s not anyone’s grandmother—she isn’t defined by any kind of family relationship; she isn’t looking for a man to live with, nor is she trying to escape the violence of a man she’s lived with her entire life; she doesn’t have a son or any antagonistic relationship with the women in that son’s life; people don’t go around calling her “ajumma” or “halmoni.”
She’s a landowner. She’s a woman who looks over and protects the young women living in her house. She’s financially independent and leads a full life. And so when Age of Youth ends, the last image shown is of this grey-haired old woman, slipping on her disposable underwear, and smiling and dancing away while La Vie en Rose plays. It’s wonderful, because the Belle Epoque girls have their entire lives ahead of them, and what they have to look forward to, if the landlady is anyone to judge by, is a life unlimited by age, a life of freedom and joy.
Kang Yi Na — Yi Na goes from a woman who doesn’t do traditional work to support herself (she has 2 or 3 boyfriends who pay things for her and give her money), to one who has a part time job in her field of interest. She goes from strutting down the sidewalk donning sunglasses while wondering why other people try so hard, to having sweat patches under her arms from working (for minimum wage, I believe) in a shop. What I’m interested in, though, isn’t a progression in her relationship to work, but rather in how I found myself wholeheartedly agreeing with her in both her reactions, despite the fact that they are polar opposites. Because why should she work hard, if she doesn’t have to? (And anyway, isn’t it hard work pleasing men?) What, in truth, is the value of hard work, when so often you’re told the value of it is the resulting success? What substantial difference is there between her using her looks and body to get men to pay for things for her and, say, using her looks and body to be a model? Afterall, doesn’t she go from having to keep her boyfriends happy (and dumping them when they start annoying her) to having to keep her boss happy?
What I liked about seeing Yi Na start working traditionally wasn’t that she was doing something “better,” but that the work she was doing afforded her a sense of self she wasn’t able to have when she depended on her boyfriends. She started thinking about what she wanted for herself and for her future, instead of thinking about the stasis of her life and how other women don’t like her because of her relationship with men. I don’t know if she gained a measure of freedom; but I do know her curiosity about what she could do and who she could be opened wide, and there was a desire expressed in her to shape her life that she hadn’t had before.
Femininity + Her
Song Ji Won — While watching Age of Youth one of the questions I and many others had was: what is Ji Won’s story? She didn’t have to move on from a place of stasis caused by trauma, like Yi Na; she wasn’t in an abusive relationship, like Ye Eun; she didn’t have a debilitating family situation like Jin Myung; and she wasn’t dealing with depression and possibly being a murderer, like Eun Jae. In the show Ji Won is the glue that holds the girls together, and with her lie she becomes the catalyst for all the changes we see in each of the other girls at Belle Epoque. She’s the storyteller. She’s the one who holds judgement and accepts people as they are. And she’s clairvoyant.
Ji Won is the one who is the least trapped by simply being a woman. In fact, she’s many of the things a woman shouldn’t be, and she knows it. She’s loud and needy and has a personal style that doesn’t immediately fall into the categories of popular culture (cute girl, sexy girl, shy girl—also categories of pornography, which I’m sure is not a coincidence). She’s openly intelligent and doesn’t have to pretend she’s stupid when she’s around a boy she likes (remember how Ye Eun’s ex was jealous and angry that she was at a more prestigious college than he was?); she expresses a frank sexuality; she farts in front of the boy she wants to date. And while she desperately wants a boyfriend and wants to get laid, she isn’t ensnared in the false hopes of a romantic narrative. The remarkable thing about Ji Won is that she is closer to freedom than any of the other girls. And that’s why she really is Wonder Woman.
Jung Ye Eun — Ye Eun isn’t likable. She’s a liar, she’s judgemental, she’s mean, and she tears other women down. But there isn’t one moment in Age of Youth when she’s completely alone, when she doesn’t have the support of one or more of the other girls. When she breaks up with her abuser and they all run to hug her and assure her that she’s done well; in the aftermath when she is deleting all her photos of him and they gather around her to cheer her on; when she is absent and they miss her and know exactly how she texts and so can tell that it isn’t her; and, of course, when they all save her.
Ji Won tells Eun Jae about how Ye Eun has a twin sister living overseas who is more successful than she is, and this is supposed to explain why Ye Eun is the person she is. But it’s a lie. Ji Won only tells Eun Jae this story as a way to show her that she can’t really judge other people, because she doesn’t know them, doesn’t know their stories. In the end it doesn’t really matter that Ye Eun is unlikable; we know her story, we know her, and like the other girls around her, we feel for her.
Kang Yi Na — Of all the goodbyes in this show—Jin Myung leaving to go travel, Ye Eun leaving her boyfriend, Eun Jae no longer fearing she killed her father—the one that hit me most viscerally is when Yi Na lets go of her own hand in the deep of the river where she could have died, but instead struggled to live. That moment in the water when she chooses to live is the last active choice she will make for years, until she chooses to change her life and start working the way she saw Jin Myung working. It’s hard to say goodbye to the way you’ve lived your life for a while, especially when that way is something you’ve established in response to trauma. But Yi Na said goodbye, and swam her way up for a gasp of air.
Isn’t Age of Youth a gem? For the last day of #kdramawomensweek I thought it’d be cool to see how rich a show can be when it commits itself to telling the stories of women—not one exceptional women, not one woman in relation to a man, but the stories of women who have complex inner lives, who have triumphs and struggles, who yearn for love in a variety of ways; young women who get to exist in a story where their gender and its implications are truthfully recognized, but don’t determine who they are or what the story will be.
Thank you @undergroundkdrama for organizing another great week dedicated to all the women we love!