I had a strong sense that I would love this Korean drama, Dear My Friends (2016) before I ever watched the first episode, but I had no idea how utterly exquisite it would turn out to be as the unique story progressed and we followed a splendid group of friends and relatives who have cared about one another for decades. What was that old Girl Scout song we used to sing when we were young? "Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver but the other's gold." The friends and relatives in this Korean drama were committed to each other in many ways, for many years, and yet at the end of the day they still were able to uncover new depths to their personalities that hadn't been explored or revealed earlier in their lives, and finally share them with the others in healing ways.
Populations around the world are rapidly aging, yet the Korean entertainment industry often focuses on making fantasy romance shows for teens and twenty-somethings, ignoring the many real life issues that middle aged and senior folks face as they age. I'm so happy station tvN in Korea saw that this was a drama worth creating and promoting, hiring one of the greatest K-drama writers today to do the script, petite No Hee Kyung (It's Okay, That's Love, That Winter The Wind Blows, Padam Padam, World's Within, Beautiful Days), who knows precisely how to make characters come alive vividly on screen with her wise insights into human beings' deep emotions and mental states. I consider her a whippersnapper of a human being, and a genius writer whose shows I will always watch because they are always so brilliant and evocative. They knock your socks off, and are unforgettable.
In Dear My Friends the issues addressed were many that the aging populations around the world privately face every day, with seldom any attention or fanfare brought to their concerns and conditions: worries about retirement finances, concerns with adult children who are experiencing various stresses, health concerns and worries, but perhaps most of all the fears aging people feel about possibly losing loved ones, losing a child or a spouse, or even their self-respect and dignity as their bodies start to break down and they need more assistance with every day needs. Thankfully, in this drama, the middle aged children and acquaintances of these seniors, were mostly understanding and sacrificial. Some had had complicated relationships with their parents in their youth but sought to rectify old bitter feelings. All this made for very poignant scenes.
Jo In Sung and Kwang Soo at the first script reading
As much as I cried, however, I laughed even more. The script was a perfect combination of funny and bittersweet, a totally heartwarming journey. I loved every minute of this drama and I think you would too. It's a Must See K-drama for K-drama fans everywhere. Plus, it was also a delight to enjoy this fantastic ensemble of older Korean actors and actresses, most of whom I had seen in other dramas and films over the past few years. It was hard to pick a top favorite character out of this superb team of thespians, but I think, if I really had to pick one it would be actress Kim Hye Ja (far right, above, in the green and white blouse), who wowed me with her unforgettable performance in the 2009 hit film Mother. She delivers perfect kookiness combined with pathos in all her characterizations. She was the one character who was starting to suffer from early dementia, and so her story interested me most of all since my Dad died from Alzheimer's disease.
The groups of friends and relatives having their professional portrait
taken by cameo guest star American-Korean actor Daniel Henney
The Story: We are introduced to a group of feisty but aging relatives and friends who are meeting for an outdoor birthday dinner at a country restaurant: Jo Hee Ja (Kim Hye Ja, Mother) who had lost her first son due to illness and who therefore relies heavily on her second son who survived, Yoo Min Ho (Lee Kwang Soo, It's Okay, That's Love) who is a car mechanic with a new wife and baby on the way; her sister Moon Jung Ah (Na Moon Hee, from Miss Granny) who is in an abusive, neglectful marital relationship with Kim Suk Kyun (Goo Shin, Grandpa in Thank You) who has treated her more like his maid than his wife; Jang Na Hee (Ko Du Shim from Twinkle Twinkle, Swallow The Sun, The Snow Queen) who owns a restaurant and has a contentious relationship with her 39 year old unmarried daughter Park Wan (Go Hyun Jung from The Queen's Classroom) who is a writer working on a book about the elderly folks she knows, including everyone in this story; Lee Young Wan (Park Won Suk) who is a character actress by trade and is keeping the fact she has cancer a secret; the unmarried spinster Oh Choong Nam (Youn Yuh Jung from King 2 Hearts) who owns her own business and who is questioning leaving it to her two lazy nephews who only come to her when they need money.
Finally, we have firecracker farmer, motor scooter driving 90 year old Oh Sang Boon (Kim Young Ok) their community grandmother figure, whose irrepressible tongue imparts wisdom to her friends and relatives as if she's planting seeds in the barren ground to harvest later. Whenever she would come on I would start smiling ahead of time, knowing that she would soon say something that would make me laugh.
Na Hee and Wan, mother daughter pair with a tempestuous relationship
At the party is another familiar face, character actor Sung Dong Il (It's Okay, That's Love) who plays Professor Park, a friend of Park Wan. Sometimes it really felt like Old Home Week because several of the actors from that prior show popped up here, including handsome Jo In Sung (It's Okay, That's Love, That Winter The Wind Blows) who plays Park Wan's boyfriend So Yeon Ha, an artist living in Croatia, who keeps in touch with her via Skype on his laptop.
American Actor Daniel Henney in Dear My Friends
Although he and Wan are deeply in love she moved back to Korea after being with him in Croatia when he had been the victim of a hit and run that left him paralyzed from the waist down, condemned to living in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. She did this to honor her mother's demands that 1) she never marry a divorced man, and 2) that she never marry a disabled man.
This kind of situation is hard for Americans to understand, but in Korea the parents' words are law and are to be respected even above that of their own wishes as their child. You see this over and over again in the K-dramas. I always want to shake them: "Live your own life!" It's even harder to understand this particular situation of Wan and Yeon Ha living apart even though they love each other because Wan's mother Na Hee actually tried to poison Wan when she was a child! In a chilling flashback we see the young Na Hee trying to poison her daughter because her husband was divorcing her and she wanted to wound him -- thankfully the husband arrives and saves little Wan. Wan, for the rest of her life, suppresses this memory and tries to win her mother's love and attention, and then suddenly blurts the painful memory out one day, shocking her mother. As time goes by the mother - daughter relationship does seem to mellow, and that is rewarding to see. Will the new peace pipe allow Wan to reunite with the love of her life eventually, Yeon Ha, who is missing her terribly in Croatia? Wan had also already had a prior lovers' relationship with a married man Han Gong Jin (Shin Sung Woo, who was "Mama Shin" in Roommate) against her mother's wishes, and says a final goodbye to him, too. Always Wan puts her mother first, not herself.
The absolutely gorgeous love song by LyN
Meanwhile mentally frail but sweet Hee Ja tries to commit suicide by jumping off a Seoul bridge at night but she is saved by her friends. When she is told by them that she shouldn't give up on life she placidly agrees and doesn't try it again. Her biggest consolation is her son Min Ho who looks after her, and spends time with her above and beyond the call of duty. Hee Ja also has a well to do businessman named Lee Sung Jae (Joo Hyun) who is keen to pursue a romantic relationship with her but she keeps denying him for her own complex reasons. Despite this he still worries over her. He is a very admirable and compassionate character; if only more men were like him in the world!
Then we have Jung Ah who is unhappily married to a security guard named Suk Kyun; their marital troubles have been brewing for decades, ever since Jung Ah lost her first baby to miscarriage due to Suk Kyun's neglect. He knows she blames him and never accepts responsibility or asks forgiveness. Jung Ah had asked for years if they could take a trip around the world and Suk Kyun always belittled the idea. Jung Ah does everything for him like a maid would until she finally has had enough and decides to file for divorce and rent a place for herself somewhere else. Adding to their misery is their discovery of their adopted grown daughter Soon Young (Yum Hee Ran) having been severely beaten for years by her husband. In the first display of unselfishness we see from her father Suk Kyun he gives her money to start a new life in Miguk (America) and get a divorce from the creep, and then he goes to his office and beats his son-in-law up and smashes his car as well. What will happen with any divorce between Jung Ah and Suk Kyun? Will it ever go through?
Then we have Young Won, the actress, who hides the fact she is on chemo so she can keep working as a character actress in dramas. She is perhaps one of the strongest ones, but she hides yet another secret from people, she is still in love with a married man named Dae Chul (Ha Jae Young) whom she had had an affair with many years ago and when he comes to see her after many years she can't handle it and leaves their lunch date early. She has no idea that he is now divorced and is also physically suffering from a disease as well. All he wanted to do was to say goodbye but she couldn't handle it.
Wan's mother Na Hee also seems to attract an older musician's attention, Il Woo (Jang Hyun Sung from Three Days), and gets teased mercilessly about it by Wan and her friends. Then Na Hee learns she might have liver cancer and has to undergo some scary tests and eventually an operation. Will this strange turn of events prevent Wan from ever getting to Croatia again to visit her beloved Yeon Ha?
Thankfully this drama ends in a very uplifting way. You will cry, but you will laugh as well. I won't give any real spoilers but just know that you will never forget this exceptional drama if you watch it. The cinematography (especially of the location shots in Croatia!), the gorgeous music soundtrack, the beyond brilliant performances of everyone in the cast, whether they are a major player, character actor, cameo, etc., and the authenticity of the whole production, makes it one of the top K-dramas of 2016. Don't miss it!
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Where are my Choco-pies, Grandpa???