I Need Romance: A
One of the hardest things to get used to in watching Korean drama is the way the shows—to the American eye, anyway—almost always shy away from any sort of physical intimacy or sex. After decades of Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, and True Blood, we Americans barely bat an eyelash at sex on screen, however explicit or acrobatic it may be.
Based on the shows I’ve seen so far, this isn’t the case in Korea: I regularly kiss my cat with more passion than is mustered up in the standard Kdrama. But these shows bring something else to the mix: sweet sentimentality and courtly love of a sort that hasn’t been seen in American entertainment in a long, long, time—if it ever was.
I thought these two extremes would never meet … but then I saw I Need Romance, which aired this summer on the cable network tvN. From the very beginning, it’s clear this show is a new breed: after opening with a jaunty, Sex and the City-inspired credit montage, it launches right into a steamy make-out session. Throughout, it takes a candid, no-holds-barred approach to modern urban love, featuring characters that do the unthinkable: they not only have sex with no intention of getting married, they openly discuss said sex.
As if this wasn’t staggering enough, the sex is often on screen. It's amusing how carefully most Korean dramas dance around what little action its characters may get. As far as I’m concerned, the best example is Goong: The will-they-or-won't-they consummation of the lead couple’s marriage is a major plot point in the show's early episodes, but the closest thing to resolution of this storyline is the eventual revelation of the female lead’s pregnancy. The only hint when consummation may have happened? The camera pans away from a kissing scene to focus on two teddy bears covering their eyes with their paws. (This—I guess—must be some strange Korean code for coitus?) On the other hand, I quickly came to realize that watching I Need Romance in my mechanic’s waiting room wasn’t a good idea—the guy sitting next to me couldn’t stop rubbernecking my iPad, presumably because he thought I was watching porn. Who would have thought a Korean drama would get that kind of response?
But whatever continent you’re on, great kissing scenes don’t make a great show. What makes I Need Romance really special is its thoughtful storytelling, which mixes weighty-but-realistic relationship angst, light comedy, and heavy petting, all flavored with a uniquely Korean earnestness. It focuses on a trio of female best friends—one a longterm girlfriend, one a nervous virgin, and one an experienced and adventurous free agent. In spite of a bevy of delicious male characters, when it comes right down to it, their friendship is show’s most important relationship.
As in America, I Need Romance’s home on a cable channel seems to allow it leeway unimagined by the regular networks. Having watched MBC’s similarly themed The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry, it’s easy to see the distinction. Woman skews toward the traditional and the safe—just like the title says, marriage is the plot’s main motivator, not love. The script ambiguously nods to the virginity of all its lead characters, even though one of them dated the same man for ten years and another has a reputation as a man-izer. And as far as Woman concerned, the height of liberated womanhood is going to a man’s hotel room without a chaperone and playing peek-a-boo. (As peek-a-boo goes, it’s pretty kinky, but still.) It’s nice to see a drama that revolves around savvy, urban career girls, but you’ll never actually believe these girls live on planet earth.
Although its characters are also in their early thirties, the younger, edgier I Need Romance presents a totally different vision of their lives: they can be happy on their own, and they can be happy with a boyfriend when the right man comes along. They even sleep with these boyfriends—just as any sensible earthling would. Marriage comes up, but it’s never a dangling carrot motivating the show’s entire plot. Instead, I Need Romance revolves around the decisions people make while trying to find happiness—some unaccountably wonderful, others some unspeakably stupid.
One of these unspeakably stupid decisions is at the heart of the main couple’s love story, one of my favorites in all of Kdrama. Kim Sung Soo’s bad behavior seems unforgivable at first, but as the show journeys through his ten-year relationship with Sun Woo In Young, he becomes a layered, nuanced character that you can’t help rooting for.
Of course it doesn’t hurt that Sung Soo is played by Goong sexbomb Kim Jung Hoon, clearly an expert at making the dastardly seem perfectly reasonable. Complete with a secret chaebol, a toothsome hotel resident, and a dreamy ping-pong player, it doesn’t get much better than I Need Romance’s male cast.
The drama itself, however, might have been slightly better. What starts off as a reasoned, realistic plot heads toward the inexplicable in the last few episodes, dashing through the resolution of the lead couple’s storyline and leaving a number of plot threads hanging.
I Need Romance isn’t perfect, but it is a breath of fresh air. With any luck, it's also where Korean drama is headed.