Autumn In My Heart
(Viewed One Time)
Two mothers sit huddled together in a hospital corridor, their "daughter" lies gravely ill in the room behind them. Their faces are masks of grief over what now seems inevitable. The husband (and "father") has been told by his wife to stay home, he doesn’t deserve to see his "daughter". Even after his shortsightedness has irreparably destroyed two families, this man can only sit at home and assure himself that everything he did was for the good of his family. To the contrary, what he did was for his own benefit, even after obvious signs from his wife that she did not want to go along with him.
Autumn in my Heart is a South Korean drama that first aired on Korean television in 2000. It was the first in a tetralogy of romantic dramas directed by Yoon Seok-ho, each dedicated to a season of the year. After Autumn in my Heart came Winter Sonata (2002), Summer Scent (2003) and Spring Waltz (2006). Autumn’s 16 episode run was hugely successful in Korea, averaging an audience share of 38.6% with a peak of 46.1%. However, it would be Winter Sonata, the next drama in the series, that became probably the most universally watched and beloved of all K-dramas. It was this set of four dramas, with Winter Sonata at the forefront, that gave a huge push forward in what has since been dubbed the hallyu, or Korean Wave, of pop culture, including TV dramas, pop music and pop style in general, over most of Asia and parts of Southeast Asia. The wave has even found a niche in the American entertainment business as both Netflix and Hulu Plus offer a steady diet of Asian dramas (primarily Korean) to a hard core of American fans.
Autumn in my Heart (alternately referred to as Autumn Fairy Tale or Autumn Tale) is alas not a good starting point for a novice K-drama watcher to begin. It is the most unrelentingly bleak of the four dramas, and it becomes apparent about three-quarters of the way through that the ending will be inevitable and tragic. Tears have been wrung from the viewers’ eyes so many times, even in the first few episodes, that by the time we reach the anticipated end, there is an almost palpable sense of relief.
Like most dramas, Autumn in my Heart is a story about choices and the consequences of those choices. In the first minutes we see a toddler who manages to get into the nursery at a hospital, while his father runs off to get a camera from his wife to memorialize the birth of their new daughter. As the little boy walks between the basinets he idly runs his hands along their outside, knocking off a couple of name tags. When the nurse returns and removes the boy from the nursery back to his father, she also replaces the name tags where they belong. Or does she? And we are thus presented with the core of the drama in the first couple of minutes.
Jump forward about 14 years. Older brother, Yoon Joon-suh, is a very talented artist, and on the verge of becoming a young man. His younger sister, Yoon Eun-suh, is just beginning the awkward stage of becoming a young woman. She is quite popular at school, but only an average student. The family is obviously very close knit and the siblings in particular are very fond of each other. There is the expected teasing between them, but there is also a clear love expressed by all of the family members for each other. Father is a university professor, mom is a stay-at-home mom, and while not lavish, their lifestyle is quite comfortable. The only seeming fly in the ointment is the dislike of Eun-suh by Choi Shin-ae, a classmate. She envies Eun-suh’s popularity, her sweetness and her comparatively wealthy status. Shin-ae is actually the smartest student in the class with the best grades, but this is not enough in her eyes to make up for the fact that she is also the poorest, living in almost abject poverty. Her mother runs what can only be very charitably described as an eating establishment in the poorest section of town. Her mother is also loud and crude, and routinely berates and beats on her daughter. There is also a lazy, drunken sluggard of a leech as a brother, who routinely steals money from his mother. Shin-ae’s envy of Eun-suh’s status is understandable.
This entire world is turned upside down when Eun-suh is hit by a truck while riding her bicycle home from school. Her injuries are not particularly serious, but it is discovered in the hospital that while Eun-suh’s parents are one blood type, their daughter’s blood type is completely different, making it impossible for her to be their biological child. While both mom and dad are devastated by this, it is dad who is unable too see past the end of his nose, and opens a Pandora’s box by investigating and discovering exactly who is their biologic child. This is melodrama, so of course the biologic child is Eun-suh’s nemesis, Shin-ae. Dad’s ill thought out investigation results in irreparable destruction to two families, and a downward spiral is begun. Shin-ae is delighted with her elevated status and is more than willing to leave her abusive and crude first mother, but Eun-suh goes from a well to do, loving, caring and compassionate home into what must seem to be a living hell. The family, with their new daughter and minus their other "daughter" packs up and moves away from this very painful place to the United States, with dad serving as a visiting professor at a university. While both parents are crushed by the events, we later learn that mom has been frequently ill over the next six years, and her illness is probably more psychological than physical.
Fast forward six years. Older brother has preceded his family’s return from the U.S. and is about to be engaged to a fellow-Korean artist he met while in the U.S. He has also quietly begun the search for his long lost "sister". Unbeknownst to him, she is working as a maid/telephone operator at a large local hotel, and is being romantically pursued by the manager, who is also Joon-suh’s childhood friend, Han Tae-seok, who has a well-deserved reputation as a player. When they do finally make contact, both "siblings" are amazed at the depth of feelings for each other that they have held onto for the last six years, and almost reluctantly come to the same conclusion. Their love is really something greater than just mere "siblings". Of course, everyone else is horrified by their "incestuous" relationship. As stated earlier, by the time of the actual "reveal" to the remainder of the cast, buckets of tears have already been shed over their separation, and we’ve got another ten or so episodes to go. Throw in a potentially terminal illness and . . . well you get the gist.
Mention must be made of the dreadful ending. The female half of our lovers is deceased. And then, in one of the most stupid endings to any Asian drama I have seen, the male half is struck by a vehicle at the same intersection where his "sister" was hit by a truck. We assume that he is killed, as we see his body catapulting through the air. Why? We’re already emotionally devastated at this point with the death of one of the lovers. What’s the purpose? Just to slap us around a little bit more. Totally senseless. Completely unnecessary. Completely pointless and just plain dumb.
Casting for Autumn is spot on. Facial resemblance between the older and younger actors in the roles shared by children and adults is very well cast, something we are usually forced to turn a blind eye to as it almost never works. In fact, for the two actors in the role of Joon-suh, the resemblance and manerisms are uncanny. Special kudos must go to Kim Hae-sook in the ungrateful role of the impoverished mother, Kim Soon-im. This is the fourth K-drama in which I have seen her play the role of a mother. Each performance has been a finely crafted, unique performance that has brought great humanity and love to a frequently unsympathetic character. She is an outstanding artist. The other actors cast as the young adults are attractive, but not so "pretty" (especially the young men) so as to look like little kids trying to play the roles of adults (a common flaw in K-dramas).
Dialogue is sometimes painfully predictable, and every scene is written to wring out the maximum amount of pathos (thus the emotional exhaustion well before the painful end). Camera work lovingly dwells on the brilliant colors of the foliage of autumn, in tune with the show’s title.
As is the case in most Asian dramas, the volume of the soundtrack is oppressively high. All of the songs of course are sung in Korean and there was no translation provided on the screen in my copy of the show. However, the sound is uniformly sweet and appropriate. One particularly mournful clarinet solo appears a number of times. But the most impressive individual melody is a particularly melancholy, minor key solo guitar performed in a Spanish style which reappears frequently when the lovers are on screen.
In summary, Autumn in my Heart is lovingly filmed, with uniformly excellent performances by the actors. Unfortunately, it is a heavy-handed, relentless, and ultimately exhausting and bleak romance whose obvious conclusion is forecast much too early to have the intended impact. It would be the next installment in this tetralogy that would vault Korea to the head of the class and make all of Asia and even much of the rest of the world pay attention. Director Yoon Seok-ho would lighten the emotional heaviness in 2002 and create the Mother Of The Modern K-Drama, Winter Sonata. Recommended with reservations.