Winter Sonata

Reviewed by: hamcycle

July 01, 2004

Rating: four-point-five

AKA Winter Love Song

This review comes late with respect to its first broadcast in Korea, but it coincides with its broadcast in Japan, where it is being received quite well. The continuing and widespread popularity of "Winter Love Song" reaffirms my initial impression that this drama, while consisting of the usual cliches, is a particularly good one.

Joongsang is a bitter young man who has a single mother with a clouded past. His mother refuses to tell him anything about his father, so Joongsang sets off to find the truth for himself. His search leads him to a certain math professor who he believes to be his father. He yearns to know more about his presumed birth father, so he spends time with him during his office hours under the guise of a student. The professor has a son named Sanghyuk, whom Joongsang feels bitterness and jealousy towards for his happiness in having a complete family. As Joongsang eases his way into his half-brother's life, he becomes befriended by Sanghyuk's childhood friend, Yoojin. Whatever Joongsang's initial intentions were with her, they both fall in love, each being their respective first love. As their relationship progresses, Joongsang happens across a photograph that makes him wonder whether his father is actually Yoojin's father, making them half-siblings. Before making certain of this, Joongsang is hit by a car and declared dead. Yoojin, heartbroken, moves on with her life, and becomes engaged to Sanghyuk, when all of a sudden a man who who has an uncanny resemblance to Joongsang appears.

While the story consists of bizarre, and at times ridiculous, circumstances, they are necessary so that the central themes of the story can be explored. Fortunately, this drama isn't merely a series of annoyingly agonizing obstacles and injustices that the protagonists have to go through. Rather, it's a character study of lovers, rivals, friends, and parents.

[THEME ANALYSIS - SPOILER] Memory is a main theme in the series, on the roles it plays in relationships. It is demonstrated as the foundation and roots of a relationship, as well as being the source of life's major pains and burdens. One of the best lines were made by Yoojin: "As you lived and breathed, you had forgotten all about me, even as I continued to live, still remembering everything..." Another important speech was made by Yongook, showing that "moving on" is almost always a practice of self-delusion: "Your coming back to us is all well and good...but do you realize how much we grieved because of you? For the past ten years, the pain of your memory lay deep, not only in Yoojin, but in all of us."

[THEME ANALYSIS - SPOILER] "True" love and fidelity are other themes explored. Is infidelity acceptable in cases of "destined" love, and does "destined" love even exist? The latter is left as an open ended question, because it is difficult to say whether infidelity even occurs in "Winter Love Song." The reason why Yoojin maintains her integrity from switching from her fiance to Minhyung because in her heart she had always been faithful to one person, her first love. Had Minhyung and Joonsang not been the same person, Yoojin would have yielded to social obligations, and rightfully so. The former question as to whether there is "destined" love is answered (in part) by supersititous means, via a street psychic and taro fortune telling. Although these superstitions are accepted tongue in cheek, East Asians look to superstitions as affirmations to wishful thinking. Also, "Winter Love Song" does a good job revealing the emotional pain felt by the rejected lovers, namely Sanhyuk and Chaelin, who are treated not as mere obstacles to the central love affair, but the tragic victims of unrequited love.

For older viewers in Japan, with whom the series is most popular, "Winter Love Song" beckons to more conservative times and standards (perhaps it is aimed for this particular audience, as the drama is peppered with songs from the 70's). In my opinion, a good romance is an exclusively emotional journey, and "Winter Love Song" is decidedly that because there are only two kissing scenes in the entire series. This is in contrast to many Japanese dramas where the main protagonists have already slept together halfway through the series.

The story does has its weaknesses. Like many Korean dramas, which often begin well, "Winter Love Song" didn't conclude satisfactorily. Part of the problem lies with the fact that once a drama gains in popularity, a wave of popular pressure can influence the outcome of the story, which often produces drawn out and ridiculous results. However as it is, commercial value almost always outweighs artistic integrity in South Korea, so the producers often aim to please their fans.

[FEMALE CAST] Chaelin (Park Sol Mi) is a superb actress and gave very convincing performances in her moments of grieving. Her two crying scenes were the best performed in the series. Unfortunately she is too hot to be cast in other than supporting roles. As for Yoojin (Choi Ji Yoon), although less technically gifted than Park Sol Mi, her versatility and homely cuteness are just a pleasure to watch. Her short hair and "short tongue" (in reference to her slight speech impediment) are adorable features. Yoojin has several crying scenes, but the one that really got to me was when she chastises Sanhyuk for attempting suicide. She loses her composure in an authentic way (that is, she cries without trying to look pretty), and does such a convincing job that it provided for me the only teary moment in the series. Jinsook (Lee Hae Eun) is an often overlooked character, but she offered one of my favorite scenes when she, in a drunken stupor, chastises Yoojin for ignoring the dangers of working close with Minhyung in a joint project. Her role as the close friend of Yoojin is important, as she offers the voice of reason against which Yoojin fights because of her unwaning emotions.

[MALE CAST] Joonsang (Bae Yong Joon), frankly, is prettier than any of the female actors. He is a bit wooden and reserved for my taste, but that is merely a personality preference rather than an assessment of his acting ability. In Japan, he is the most popular actor in the series, probably because stoic, competent males are a popular personality type. Sanghyuk (Park Yong Ha) did an excellent job as well. He portrays a tragic character who has no choice but to pursue a single woman, in spite of signs indicating that his pursuit is a futile one. He knows his love for Yoojin is also of the "pure" variety, one that won't come by for him again during his lifetime. Yohngook (Ryu Seung Soo) was the perfect supportive buddy, providing the comic balance to offset the brooding seriousness of the other male leads.

[SUPPORTING CAST] Yoojin, Minhyung, and Sanhyuk's respective mentors (sum-baes) should also be recognized, although they play no critical role to the story. The parents have a larger role, whose earlier liaisons set the stage for confusion and misunderstanding that arise in the drama. Yoojin's mother is portrayed with convincing humility of a widow trying to raise her two children, a great contrast to the bitchy smugness of Sanghyuk's mother (done extremely well). Minhyung's mother is an interesting character, who is an independent woman first before being a mother to her child. Their presence as stock performers show that they have already proved themselves as popular actors (the turnover rate in Korean actors is high, so repeat appearances are indicators of popular demand).

As a Korean American, "Winter Love Song" created in me a longing for a culture that could have been my own. Regardless of that fact that native Koreans would deny that this drama resembles reality, this longing is the surest sign that this drama is a success.

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