Eun Jae, Age of Youth (2016)
It’s hard for me to put into words how it is I find Eun Jae to be a character whose journey through adulthood touches me because I think I may still be going through what we saw her go through, and it may be a lifelong journey for me.
What struck me when I first met Eun Jae is how starkly her anxiety was drawn. When she first moved to into Belle Epoque she was intensely aware of herself and how she appeared, and she was just as conscious of each of the other roommates and how they behaved towards her—or at least how she thought they were behaving towards her. (…It’s funny how when you know the reason behind someone’s actions your understanding of how they treat you can change…) When she first moved in Eun Jae felt she had an opportunity to become someone new, to change and be a person away and different from who she was in her hometown, where she was a loner and felt inextricably bound to her mother and her family history. Away at college Eun Jae had an ideal of who she could be, who she wanted to be, and she even wrote down specific steps she could take to become that person. But so much of being who you think you want is really just adopting behaviors that have others see you the way you want them to, so they treat you the way you want them to—so they don’t ignore you, so they don’t hurt you, so they don’t make you think all the faults you see in yourself are true and unforgivable and justify your isolation and the feeling you have that you don’t deserve to be loved. Watching Eun Jae in that first episode, how she agonized over how meek she was and how people walked all over her, ignoring what she thought were basic tenets of propriety and respect, was so painful, because it was so true. It was almost embarrassing to have it depicted so well. When she was angry, but she couldn’t even articulate her anger, and she just dissolved in frustrated tears, and that just made her feel worse because it was just another example of her powerlessness and how trapped she was in being herself? It hit so close to home.
Another moment that struck me while watching Eun Jae is when during the last episode we see her anxiety about the possibility of being held accountable for her father’s death, a burden she’s been carrying since she was a child (and she’s only just an adult), build and build while she stews in it by herself. In the penultimate episode we see her dissociate. She doesn’t remember Ye Eun’s ex and abuser attacking her. In the last episode she goes to the Belle Epoque rooftop and spends the night there crying, while all the girls worry about her, unable to get in contact with her. When she comes back down the next morning all the girls rush to her and she realizes she isn’t alone. They sit down around their kitchen table and Jin Myung asks her, “Did you think about killing yourself?” And Eun Jae says yes. The entire time we were watching Eun Jae, from her blooming friendship with Ji Won, to her romance with Hyun Soo, to her loving and supporting the girls around her, to her growing into herself and allowing herself to be loved, she was depressed.
What felt the most real about Eun Jae to me is something that was in the subtext of the show and wasn’t explicitly articulated, namely how your trauma (in Eun Jae’s case very specifically trauma that occurs in the family sphere, which is a different intimacy than others, I think) in many ways shapes how it is you interact with people, how you expect them to treat you, how you shape yourself so that they won’t hurt you, or won’t be disgusted by you. And how even though in your own mind and in your day to day existence your trauma is something that occupies you constantly, it’s never really something you speak about out loud, because you don’t want to burden other people with it. Each of the Belle Epoque girls had their own traumas to deal with, and even as Eun Jae’s story was perhaps the most sensational, I felt (like with all the girls) it was rendered very graciously.
Go Byung Hee, What’s Up Fox (2005)
I could never talk about kdrama heroines and life without giving a shout out to Byung Hee, who I feel is still, 12 years after What’s Up Fox aired, one of the most honest heroines I’ve ever come across. I think it’s in equal parts because of Go Hyun Jung, who commits herself wholeheartedly to each of her characters and never distracts you with mannerisms particular to her that she carries from one character to another, and because of Kim Do Woo, who writes heroines who wrestle with the most fundamental aspect of life—living.
Byung Hee isn’t likable (at best she’s inoffensive, and in today’s fandom landscape I can see lots of viewers branding her as “annoying”), and there’s nothing about her that’s aspirational. She isn’t a beauty, isn’t particularly smart or skilled; she’s a coward and a hypocrite, and she isn’t virtuous, either, despite being a 30 year old virgin. She just wants to marry and live comfortably. But when she goes to her doctor and discovers she might have cancer, a crisis ensues. She looks at herself and at her life, and she realizes that she’s done nothing and she’s going nowhere. But Byung Hee isn’t a heroine who reinvents herself or fulfills some kind of wasted potential. She’s a heroine who confronts herself for who she is, and when she strips everything away she sees…maybe she’s not as embarrassing and failed a person as she’s always feared. Maybe she, with her less than stellar job and her deferred dreams, is actually ok. Above I mentioned how Eun Jae made a list of things she could do so she could become the Eun Jae she wants to be. Byung Hee is a heroine who does away with that—she does away with her fear of failure, her fear that who she is, as she is, is insufficient.
My relationship with Byung Hee evolves as I grow older and as I return to her. When I first watched her what resonated most with me is how honest her struggle with just living a life that she could present in front of others was. Now what I find myself thinking about is her relationship with dreams and fantasy. In the first episode she finds out her lifelong love is based on something totally fabricated by her. She wonders, “Does all love spring from fantasy?” Fantasies you have about a person, fantasies you have about what your life would be if you were with a person, fantasies about who you would be if you were with a person. What happens in What’s Up Fox isn’t so much that Byung Hee stops dreaming. It’s that she starts living. And so she fulfills something someone I really admire and respect recently said, “To hell with dreams.”