Love Letter (2003) is a Korean drama so thick with melancholy you could cut it with a knife! The entire story is told in an old-fashioned Korean drama style with many stereotypes, but it does have its attractions: gorgeous cinematography, intimately haunting music score, and two hunky male leads for eye candy for the ladies! The lead actress Soo Ae took me awhile to get used to, quite frankly, but I have reappraised her as an actress over the years and am now strangely quite fond of her.
The Story: Woo Jin Lee (played as a child by beautiful actor Seung Ho Yoo, who grew up to star in many K-dramas including Remember and Operation Proposal, and played as an adult by lovely Hyun Jae Jo of 49 Days) became an orphan at a young age and ended up living with his abusive maternal aunt. He is beaten and starved by her in favor of her own children, and can only dream of a way out of his nightmare. His favorite fairy tale story is about unhappy children who are lifted up to heaven by ropes from the sky.
Actors Seung Ho Yoo and Hyun Jae Jo as Woo Jin (Andrew)
At ten years of age Woo Jin is visited by an uncle he had never met before, a Roman Catholic priest named Father Peter (Hyun Joo Sun) and after the happy visit, where he feeds him nutritious food and goes sledding with him, he ends up adopting him to get him out of the obviously abusive situation. He takes him to his parish and the adjoining orphanage called Angel's House to live. (One wonders why he waited so long to see the child!). Woo Jin's only sense of security comes from this atmosphere, with all the religious symbols, so it is understandable why he would cling to this place as his first real home. His uncle baptizes him with a new name, Andrew. A wonderful, positive-thinking nun named Sister Gemma (Yoo Sun Yoon from My Girlfriend Is A Nine-Tailed Fox) becomes like an older sister to him and provides him with some much-needed happy feminine influence. (Thanks to this actress for providing such sweet comic relief at times when I felt like throwing pillows at my TV due to this show's almost constant melancholic haze). I loved her character!
Grown up into a gentle, optimistic youth, Andrew meets the reserved but prickly Eun Ha Cho (Soo Ae from Mask and Queen Of Ambition) who had lost her parents too. She comes to live at the orphanage and Andrew and Eun Ha grow close as they attend school together and learn they share some things in common, like being orphans and having sad childhoods. She falls in love with him, and while he likes her as a friend and confidante, his heart is aimed toward the priesthood. When he reveals this truth to Eun Ha it causes a deep and perpetual sadness in her that affects her whole life, much as it did the character of Meggie in The Thorn Birds.
Andrew finds his first male friend in another Woo Jin, Woo Jin Jung (unbelievably gorgeous Jin Hee Ji from Spotlight) when they have to fight a bunch of bullies together. Woo Jin is thunderstruck when he meets Andrew's friend Eun Ha for the first time; it turns out she is the girl he saw when he had contemplated suicide after learning the mother who raised him was not his biological mother. When he had seen her singing on a playground he had become entranced by her and had left all thoughts of suicide behind. He had lost track of her over the years but now here she is in front of him and he starts trying to spend as much time with her as possible, charming her away from Andrew. Andrew sees what is going on and acknowledges to himself that he does have feelings of love for Eun Ha, but there is nothing he can do - his goal of becoming a priest takes precedence. On the surface the three remain friends but they are like a too hot burning kettle about to explode.
Andrew declares himself publicly for the priesthood
Everything comes to a head when Andrew learns that his biological mother didn't die as he'd been told - she is in fact the mother who raised his best friend Woo Jin, Dr. Kyung Eun Yim (Young Ae Kim). She had even given her second son the same name she had given the first son she had relinquished custody of -- Woo Jin! Mother and son take tentative steps to get to know one another, which angers the legal son Woo Jin and his father Dr. Myung Woo Jung (Hyun Joo). Andrew's mother explains that she had to give him up to her sister at the time because of the unstable political situation in the country, which had caused her then husband to be accused of helping protestors and eventually killed.
What only Dr. Myung Woo understands is that he had turned her then husband in to the authorities; the guilt of Dr. Kyung Eun's first husband's and Andrew's father's death rests squarely on his shoulders. This guilt is made all the worse because he had been his friend before he was his betrayer. He ends up confessing this sin to his legal son Woo Jin, who goes off the deep end with this revelation; he now sees Andrew as a threat to everything he has held dear in his life. Andrew's mother begs her husband for some time away from her family so she can get to know Andrew; she wants to help pay back to him all those wasted years, but he says no, that she is needed at home for him, their legal son Woo Jin, and her younger daughter who suffers from a disability. She tells Andrew on the phone that she is sorry, that she loves him, and he responds with his forgiving heart that he loves her too.
Hyun Jae Jo 8 years before 49 Days
No wonder Soo Ae's character
couldn't get over him ;)
Can you see history repeating itself here? All three parents had been friends, and Andrew, Eun Ha and Woo Jin were friends. In each set of friends one of those friends betrays the other two. This is the main theme of Love Letter.
Three friends, Andrew, Eun Ha, and Woo Jin, whose constantly
evolving relationships keep the audience on their toes
All three young people, Woo Jin, Andrew, and Eun Ha are accepted into medical school and work long hours in studying, leaving little time for play. Eventually it comes time for Andrew to leave for a monastery in Rome, where he can also continue his medical training while studying to become a priest. While there he is not going to be allowed to receive any letters or phone calls, so Andrew leaves a love letter on Eun Ha's table, telling her that if, after a year of his living in the monastery, she really wants him to come back and marry her then that is what he will do. Eun Ha stays behind when Andrew leaves for the airport, but Woo Jin meets him to say goodbye and Andrew foolishly tells Woo Jin about the letter, not realizing how untrustworthy his "friend" is at heart. Woo Jin rushes back home and confiscates the all too important love letter before Eun Ha can see it, and crumples it up!
We jump to several years into the future. Woo Jin and Eun Ha have both become doctors and at one time were engaged, but Eun Ha had abruptly left and backed out of the engagement, for a reason she never explained to Woo Jin (it's because she discovered she has a fatal heart condition). She comes back into town and Woo Jin asks her bitterly why she left him, assuming it has to do with Andrew somehow, but she does not tell him the real reason. Out of sheer loneliness and frustration with life Woo Jin and Eun Ha start dating again. He is still obsessed with her, and Eun Ha thinks that Andrew will never return, so she takes off the cross necklace she had in common with Andrew and accepts a new non-religious necklace from Woo Jin.
Woo Jin always has great timing to interrupt Andrew and Eun Ha
during important moments in their lives - can you spell interloper?
My gosh, the music in this scene is exquisite! What would these
K-dramas be like without their incredible soundtracks???
Since Eun Ha had never seen the love letter that Andrew had left behind, he had not heard from her after his year passed in the monastery, and so he had stayed on in Rome, finishing up his medical degree and working toward his ordination. He finishes the medical degree but his ordination is postponed when a woman patient, who had fancied herself in love with him, had committed suicide. The scandal puts his ordination on hold. He is told to go back to Korea for a time and re-focus on what he plans to do with the rest of his life.
Andrew and Eun Ha meet again at the church where they had spent so much time together in their youth. He tells her he has been diagnosed with a mental-heart condition and for some reason that condition has made him unable to feel emotions, unable to cry (I was incredulous at this scene, embedded above, since the actor had tears brimming in his eyes as he spoke!). Eun Ha does not tell him about her own heart condition, which will give her only three more years to live. (At this point I was crying out loud, "Calgon! Take me away! Everyone here has heart conditions!). As they finish their conversation, suddenly Andrew cries out to Eun Ha, asking her why she didn't answer his love letter. Eun Ha looks shocked. "What letter?" At that moment Woo Jin drives up and sees them together, and Andrew looks at Woo Jin with suspicion. What are the odds, do you think, that the obsessed and insecure Woo Jin will ever admit to confiscating that letter? If you think the odds are good then I have some nice oceanfront property in Colorado to sell you really cheap!
Now all three doctors are working at the local hospital as heart surgeons. Eun Ha shows Andrew her medical records, without informing him that they are hers. He tells her from looking at them that he doesn't think the patient has long to live. Meanwhile, Woo Jin remains threatened by Andrew's presence back in their lives. He tries to forcibly kiss Eun Ha in front of Andrew and asks Eun Ha to marry him again. Woo Jin has her try on wedding dresses, trying to lift her spirits, but no matter what he does he just can't seem to win Eun Ha's heart away from Andrew.
Some rare, happy, escapist moments together
for Andrew and Eun Ha later in the story
With his life looking darker than ever, with rumors about him and Eun Ha unsettling the congregation, which delays his ordination yet again, Andrew finally tells Eun Ha that he definitely plans to finish his ordination process to become a priest and that they can no longer spend time together. However, Eun Ha knows that if he goes back to Rome then she will not have him with her when she dies. She sinks deeper and deeper into depression. Then Woo Jin discovers Eun Ha's medical records and finally realizes how dire the situation looks for her life, and any possible marriage between them. Will he share his knowledge with Andrew? If Andrew finds out about Eun Ha's prognosis then he will stay in Korea -- if he knows nothing then he will return to Rome, and leave Eun Ha to Woo Jin's care. There are many surprises awaiting the audience in the last few episodes, including Eun Ha finally finding the old love letter in Woo Jin's belongings, but you will have to watch the show yourself to see the rest!
All along I kept hoping that Woo Jin would confess his sins and try to improve himself as a human being, instead of just obsessing about Eun Ha. He has so much potential in the story that he is not living up to. Deep down I sensed he had some basic decency, but the moments when he displays this are few and far between. Andrew is just Andrew, an open book, a good person torn between serving the church and the woman he loves, and as usual actor Hyun-Jae Jo delivers an unforgettable performance in a sensitive role. It's Soo Ae's character of Eun Ha that gives this drama its deep melancholy feeling. I also was struck by a few scenes between Andrew and Woo Jin that had a certain aura of homo-eroticism to them - for instance in one scene they sleep together in a bed at a vacation home and touch each other fondly, and in another shower scene the two men are seen practically naked, rubbing each others' backs for WAY longer than required! These scenes gave me a creepy feeling and I was glad when they were over! You also might enjoy it more if you watch it with another person so you can discuss it after each episode is over; I remember watching it with my adult son, who had watched The Thorn Birds with me a number of years ago. It had a similar theme that attracted him for some reason. Strange -- we're not even Catholics.
I do recommend this Korean drama to those who love sprawling melodramas with lots of twists and turns, and to those who like dramas with religious overtones -- then this show is right up your alley! I have the excellent quality OOP Love Letter YA Entertainment DVD boxset for this show, which is the one to get on Amazon. It's not available streaming on either of the two main K-drama sites, which is ridiculous with such big name stars in it. You can also download lesser quality video files for the drama at Dramaload.
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