The one episode KBS Drama Special from 2012, When I Was The Prettiest, was not a drama I was going to miss, since it starred one of my top favorite Korean actors Lee Jong Suk (Secret Garden, I Hear Your Voice, Doctor Stranger, Pinocchio). Jeon Ik Ryeong, the lead actress, was new to me but, boy oh boy, did she really impress me with her performance! The drama brought up a lot of conflicting feelings in me, since I've battled cancer like her character did, and seen its effects on a family.
The Story: This special tells the story of a woman named Lee Shin Ae (Jeon Ik Ryeong), dying of cancer, who wants to see her life end on her own terms, but her husband Kim Ui Soo (played well by Song Young Kyu), though well meaning, does not listen to her at all: he only wants her to do what he thinks is best. She wants to go on a last family trip, for instance, so both she, her husband, and young son Daewang can be together, but he insists she go back in the hospital for more treatments, even though everyone knows she's terminal. Her deepest feelings don't seem to matter at all. He was obviously frightened, but the antidote to that is facing your fears, staring them down, and doing the most loving, strongest things in response, to build memories that will last forever.
He also strangely creates a separation between his wife and their son, so much so that the child barely has any emotional connection to his mother, preferring to visit the grandmother in the country for weeks on end. The wife desperately wants bonding time with her son but the husband brushes that off too. I wasn't sure what his motivation was there, it was very bizarre; maybe he didn't want his son to see his mother dying, but that wasn't a healthy, realistic response -- the children should know so they can say goodbye and grieve in their own ways.
The writer makes a point of revealing that the husband married her knowing she had cancer so therefore he was an admirable person, and yes, that part is true, but still he only saw her as a sick woman, not as a woman and wife first who needed his physical love all the more, not less, because she was sick and dying. Most ill people do NOT want to be defined by their illness. They are a person first and foremost and should be treated that way. Feelings matter.
When I watched this drama it was not long after country singer Joey Feek had died of cancer; her husband Rory had treated her like a princess, documenting her last months and her time with her family, including him and their daughter. What a contrast that was, to see a husband so devoted to his dying wife, hugging her, kissing her, and then watching this story, where the husband was a mess and didn't know how to deal with the situation effectively and lovingly. No surprise then that another person with more compassion stepped in and filled a void in her life .....
The setting changes quickly from their home to the hospital, where she really does not want to be. She'd prefer to die at home with husband and son. He simply won't listen and insists she remain in the hospital to be poked and prodded. He can't even afford to get her a private room for her end days, since he's been losing so much time at work, so she is forced to share a room with a young girl Kim Yoon Ah (Kim Soo Yun) who has a benign tumor in her uterus, and an attentive (at first) boyfriend Yoon Jung Hyuk (Lee Jong Suk), a college engineering student, who stays by her side while she gets ready to undergo major surgery.
However, the young man Jung Hyuk and the wife / mother Shin Ae, thrown together so much in the shared hospital room, begin to bond and fall in love, against all odds -- now the wife is more confused than ever. Does she love her overly controlling husband or this compassionate young man, who seems to care about her as a person and a woman, not just a sick or dying woman?
The plot is a bit far-fetched on the surface, but I guess stranger things have happened. I just don't see a hospital as a particularly romantic setting, especially between a dying married woman and a young man who hasn't even finished college yet! They are caught up in their feelings for one another, but she begins to wonder if he will still find her attractive the closer she gets to her final curtain. Eventually their significant others figure out what is going on and tempers flare.
The acting in this show is what keeps this story from becoming rather icky -- you can really feel for this woman who knows she is dying but wants one last gasp of happiness before she departs. The actress did an outstanding job communicating that common feeling among cancer patients. She's desperate for some recognition of her complicated feelings, desperate for real love. Her husband failed to understand those feelings, or honor them, and his cold reaction basically sets her up for something like this to happen.
What will this woman do about her rocky marriage, the young man she thinks she loves, and her son? Her final decision is hard for everyone, except perhaps, ultimately, for her son.
Lee Jong Suk did very well in this difficult role, in fact his chemistry with the older actress in this 2012 drama special might have been a factor for the casting department hiring him as male lead in the classic I Hear Your Voice in 2013, a drama where his character also falls in love with an older woman (Lee Bo Young), which will always be in my Top Ten of K-dramas completed. He seems to work well with everyone in the industry but especially the older thespians. He is an outstanding young actor and always interesting to watch.