“People say this as a word of comfort. “This too shall pass”. They are right. No matter how crappy the situation is, they do pass. Except, the problem is they always come back.”
(Lee Gang Do – Episode 2)
And they always come back, haunting life after tragedy.
Because nightmares always come back, victims of tragedies often have to create their own coping mechanism to survive the agony. Some choose to escape, some wipe those unwanted memories, and some return to the root of their pain trying to reconcile with the past. Gang Doo and Moon Soo (and Joo Won, too) chose the latter, though they sometimes falter in the process.
In a very rare occurrence in K-drama land, we have lead characters coming from blue-collar working class; Lee Gang Doo (Lee Jun Ho), a manual labourer and Ha Moon Soo (Won Jin Ah), an architectural model maker. From early on, we learned that both were survivors and also family of victims of a mall building collapse (probably based on the Sampoong Department Store collapse). Though the world around them seems to have moved on, their lives, along with the lives of the deceased families, are still somehow trapped in the past. Years later, adult Gang Doo suffers a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and a liver malfunction, while Moon Soo seems to suffer amnesia, where she selectively erased some part of her past memories. Through a series of coincidental encounters, today’s Gang Doo and Moon Soo slowly enter each other’s lives.
Had it provided a profound social background, Just Between Lovers could have been a potent proletariat love story than a mere healing and brokenness drama. I supposed it was never meant to be about that, but it is quite unfortunate because the elements are there, which could add depth and layers to the story. For example, when Granny (the neighbourhood grandmother who is more like a friend to Gang Doo, impeccably played by Na Moon Hee) refuses to be treated for her illness, she says “Do you know what people die the most of? Cancer? Accident? Suicide? None of those things. People die because of poverty. They can’t receive medical treatment when they are sick because they’re poor. They die from accidents doing dangerous work while trying to escape poverty. They kill themselves because they hate being poor. People die from poverty.”
Thankfully, where the drama lacks, it makes it up in other areas. Regardless the small-dose infused K-drama clichés (We’ve Met In The Past-Turned-Today’s Lovers, terminal illnesses, and second leads syndrome) and the lack of more profound social background, Just Between Lovers triumphs in portraying organic human relationships among its characters, with Gang Doo and Moon Soo’s being the centre of the story. They feel sincere and are built gradually upon candor and empathy, except probably for Seo Joo Won (Lee Ki Woo) – Jung Yoo Jin’s (Kang Han Na) and Kim Wan Jin (Park Hee Von) – Jin Youn’s (Kim Min Gyu), whose character development fell a lot short, not just a little.
Moon Soo’s unwavering affection and persistence to stand by Gang Doo’s side eventually softens his rough edges and settles his uncertainties, which in the end gives a reassuring presence to Moon Soo. Both Won Jin Ah and Lee Jun Ho are wonderful in portraying the layered emotions with their subdued acting in both first leading roles, making them enough reason to watch this drama.
It is also noteworthy for the writers to explore unconventional types of relationships, such as Gang Doo’s with Granny, an illegal medicine seller; and Ma Ri’s (Yoon Se Ah), Gang Doo’s older sister-like friend who is a nightclub hostess, with Jung Yoo Taek (Tae In Ho), her regular customer. By using a lot of body gestures to show empathy, encouragement, assurance and affection in these interpersonal relationships, the makers save the drama from falling into the hole of cliché self-motivational narratives.
Not all stories have to have a happy ending, and feelings like pain are just as important because they show that you are still alive, whether one takes it as a good or bad thing (depending on the circumstances). Some things have to end to give new beginnings a chance, and some resume with a lot of struggles and hard work. Nothing is binary in Just Between Lovers, and that’s just how life is.