Winter Sonata (2002) was a blockbuster Korean drama, credited with starting the Hallyu Wave, the ascension of pop Korean culture into other Asian nations and around the world; so popular in Japan, for instance, that they aired it a second time in one year by popular demand, and even made an anime version. The actors are all phenomenal, especially the romantic leads, actor Yong Joon Bae (who essentially had to play two entirely different people, though in one body), and actress Ji Woo Choi, whose natural beauty and elegance provided an incredible sweetness to the production. Both had been acting for a number of years, and had even worked together before, but the exquisite Winter Sonata became their defining moment of fame; their chemistry together in this show, considered the most popular of the "Four Seasons" K-dramas (others with the same director, Seok-ho Yoon, include Spring Waltz, Summer Scent, Autumn In My Heart) is without equal in the annals of K-drama history. The supporting players, chiefly Young Ha Park (who sadly committed suicide in 2010), and Sol Mi Park, playing the love rivals, helped give the story added poignancy. Also significant players were Hye Eun Lee and Seung Soo Ryu who played good friends to the others, and whose characters happily became a couple by the end of the show. The cinematography was so gorgeous that the places where it was filmed saw a tripling of tourist visits after Winter Sonata first aired, places like Namiseom Island, Geojie Island, Chuncheon and Seoul, and statues of the characters were placed in the spot where they shared their first kiss in the drama. The music soundtrack is one of the very best ever produced for any K-drama and stands the test of time for its unforgettable romantic melodies, especially the two most important songs to the production, My Memory and From The Beginning Until Now, both sung by Ryu, and some lovely melodies composed and performed by the beloved composer-pianist Yiruma.
Student Joon-sang Kang (Yong Joon Bae) is the son of a popular classical pianist Mi-hi Kang (Sook Song Ok), who moves him from Seoul to rural Chuncheon City and enrolls him in the local high school. As an extremely talented student in math and science, Joon-sang is welcomed with awe by his fellow students as well as his teachers, but he remains aloof and seemingly cold to his classmates. He secretly intends to find out about his biological father, whom his mother claims is dead, but whom he suspects is a math teacher at the high school named Jin-woo Kim (veteran of many K-dramas actor Dong Hwan Jung), who has a son at the school named Sang-hyuk Kim (Young Ha Park). Sang-hyuk seems to be the exact opposite of Joon-sang: outgoing, friendly, but not too swift a student. Sang-hyuk is very close friends with a fellow female student named Yu-jin Jung (Ji Woo Choi), whom he has been quietly in love with since childhood. Their parents had been close in high school as well, a fact that would later come to haunt all the young people in the story.
Joon-sang is jealous of Sang-hyuk, who has received all the fatherly love that he has lacked growing up, so he deliberately becomes attached to the girl Sang-hyuk likes, Yu-jin, in order to hurt him. Yu-jin, not knowing Joon-sang's real intentions at first, begins to fall in love with him almost immediately, though she doesn't acknowledge it to herself or others for quite some time. Sang-hyuk can't help but notice the growing attraction between Yu-jin and Joon-sang, especially when they play hooky from school one autumn day, and it makes him uneasy; eventually he confronts Joon-sang, who admits that he targeted Yu-jin for ulterior motives. Yu-jin overhears their conversation and is extremely hurt. Joon-sang feels guilt about hurting Yu-jin, and on a camping trip with Yu-jin, Sang-hyuk, and friends Jin-suk Kong (Hye Eun Lee) and Yong Kuk Kwon (Seung Soo Ryu), when Yu-jin gets lost in the woods it's Joon-sang who succeeds in rescuing her, not Sang-hyuk. He apologizes to her and tells her his feelings for her are now real and she forgives him. They return to the camp site together and the others look on with interest, sensing that something major has happened between Joon-sang and Yu-jin.
Yu-jin (Ji-Woo Choi) cherished by two men, Sang-hyuk (Young Ha Park, left), and Joon-sang (Yong Joon Bae, right)
Joon-sang and Yu-jin grow even closer, especially during the Christmas holiday break, and they are supposed to meet on New Year's Eve, in the picturesque Old Town section of Chuncheon, but Joon-sang's mother suddenly tells him they are leaving for America so he can study there (her real reason is to keep Joon-sang from finding the truth about his biological father). Joon-sang, extremely upset, goes with his mother in a taxi but suddenly jumps out of the vehicle and runs back to where Yu-jin is waiting for him, feeling he should at least say goodbye to the girl he has fallen in love with, but he becomes the victim of a car accident and is rushed to the hospital. Meanwhile Yu-jin waits for him, as the snow gently falls from the sky, not knowing what happened to him until the next day, when she walks into their classroom and sees all the students crying. Classmate Chearin Oh (Sol Mi Park), who had fancied herself in love with Joon-sang (though he never gave her the time of day), tells Yu-jin that his mother called the school and informed them that he died in a car accident the previous night. Filled with grief, Yu-jin and her fellow classmates meet near the lake in Chuncheon at night and say their tearful goodbyes to Joon-sang.
Meanwhile, Joon-sang's lying mother has her slowly recovering son brainwashed by a psychologist, so that he will not remember his past identity or the fact he was an illegitimate child, which Joon-sang had held against his mother for years. By brainwashing him and changing his name to Min-hyung Lee she hopes to develop a more loving relationship with him, starting afresh when she takes him from Korea to America and then France to live. As Min-hyung Lee he completely forgets his past life and becomes another personality entirely, one who is not depressed, angry and introverted, but happy and successful, the pampered son of a loving, professional mother whose "husband" had died.
Ten years pass and Min-hyung has become a successful architect. He returns to Korea to establish his own firm, with a good friend and colleague Seonbae Kim (Hae Hyo Kwon), and Yu-jin, now a professional interior designer about to marry her childhood friend Sang-hyuk, notices him approaching her on the street and is amazed to see Joon-sung's double! Although he now sports red hair and glasses she is convinced it is Joon-sang and she tries following him in the crowds of people that snowy evening, but loses him; it makes her late to her own engagement party, which angers Sang-hyuk's parents, her mother (played by Hae Sook Kim), and upsets Sang-hyuk greatly, but he forgives her after she faints from the stress and emotional turmoil.
The next day, at a meeting between Yu-jin, Sang-hyuk, and their friends Jin-suk and and Yong-kuk, their old friend Chaerin Oh walks in and introduces them to her new boyfriend Min-hyung Lee! She had gone to France to study fashion design, where she had met Min-hyung, and then she had come back to establish her own clothing business. As Min-hyung, Joon-sang has no memories of all the people he is meeting. Chaerin introduces Yu-jin and Sang-hyuk as engaged friends of hers and Min-hyung cheerfully congratulates them, but Ye-jin and the others stand in shock looking at this man who is the spitting image of the supposedly dead Joon-sang. No one says anything and Chaerin quickly hastens Min-hyung away from her friends; she had enjoyed the shocked looks on all their faces. She had always wanted Joon-sang as a boyfriend when they were all in high school; this is the closest she has ever gotten to achieving that goal and she is pleased as punch with herself. When she had met him in France and started up a relationship with him she never informed him that he was the spitting image of her own first love, so "Min-hyung" has no idea he was a pawn in Chaerin's revenge game against Yu-jin.
The plot intensifies when Yu-jin is contracted out to work as a designer for Min-hyung's architectural firm. He is in charge of renovating a ski resort and on a business trip together Yu-jin often becomes flustered and emotional working with him, which makes Min-hyung very curious about this beautiful professional lady who seems so uncomfortable around him. "Usually the ladies like me," he jokingly tells her, but she is silent. At one point she gets up the courage to ask him what high school he went to, did he always wear glasses, how long did he live in France, etc. but he is simply astonished by these probing questions and doesn't respond in the way Yu-jin longs for him to do. Then Chaerin shows up at the resort by surprise and distracts Min-hyung away from Yu-jin. On the defensive, Chaerin lies to Min-hyung and tells him she is concerned that Yu-jin always desires anything that she possesses, so she is terrified that Yu-jin will steal him away from her. This behavior makes Min-hyung even more incredulous about the whole situation, and he begins to wrongly suspect Yu-jin of duplicity, when it is in fact Chaerin who is the liar. Her lies come back to haunt her, however, when Min-hyung discovers that Yu-jin is entirely innocent of any wrong-doing, and that the person she loved in high school, who looks amazingly like himself, died. Min-hyung ends the relationship with Chaerin, apologizes to Yu-jin, shakes her hand and asks her to start over with him as a friend and colleague; Yu-jin forgives him and agrees.
Sang-hyuk, on the sidelines now, becomes jealous of Yu-jin and Min-hyung's developing relationship, and in a heated moment in a hotel room he tries to force Yu-jin to love him, but she runs out of the building and into the now all too willing Min-hyung's waiting arms. The wedding between Sang-hyuk and Yu-jin is called off. However, as their relationship deepens even more, Min-hyung himself challenges Yu-jin to forget about his predecessor Joon-sang and move on with her life, which is something Yu-jin still has trouble doing. Min-hyung begins to look for clues to his past, since he really does not have any childhood memories, and his search takes him back to the high school he used to attend as Joon-sang, where he discovers the address where he used to live with his mother. He walks into this abandoned apartment and sees evidence of his mother and his past life in all the rooms. Then his mother walks in! She finally admits that he is indeed Joon-sang, and why she did what she did, so that they could have a more wholesome, happy relationship as mother and son.
Although Min-hyung forgives his mother he still is reeling from shock and goes on an emotional inner journey to discover his former self as Joon-sang. He still has no memories of his former life. Meanwhile, Sang-hyuk had been starving himself to death after losing Yu-jin, and his mother had begged her to go back to him and save his life; always a person obedient to her elders, and not wanting to be responsible for Sang-hyuk's death, Yu-jin had agreed, grieving Min-hyung desperately. So when he finally tells her that he really is Joon-sang she thinks he is lying just to get her back.
Min-hyung, becoming more like the depressed Joon-sang all the time, decides to leave Korea and fly back to the United States to live and work. Before he does, however, he drops off a music CD to Yu-jin's workplace, of a song they had both loved as young people, called First Love, including a note which said goodbye but let slip an important detail about the music that confirmed to Yu-jin that Min-hyung is truly Joon-sang after all. She races to the airport to find him before he leaves, and they are re-united in this incredibly beautiful scene, below. (I think the music in this scene is so haunting).
If you have never seen the ending of Winter Sonata you have missed out on the MOST exquisite ending ever filmed in Korean drama history. The scenes filmed at Geojie Island off South Korea's mainland are breathtakingly beautiful, at an historical house and gardens where a man had built a paradise on earth for his loving wife. Even today there remains a sign on the property telling visitors how the place became popular as a tourist destination after Winter Sonata aired. The grounds and house are now a museum.
This is not the end of Yu-jin and Joon-sang's long love journey, however; many more surprises are in store for both of them, including more physical challenges for Joon-sang after an accident, the restoration of all of Joon-sung's memories, amazing revelations about the parents of Yu-jin, Joon-sang, and Sang-hyuk, a failed marriage attempt, and personal sacrifices by both Joon Sang and Yu-jin, as well as Sang-hyuk, who ultimately comes to terms with the love between Yu-jin and Joon-sang.
The "Four Seasons" K-dramas, including the historical twenty-episode Winter Sonata, are all essential viewing for fans of Korean drama. You can't really have a full appreciation for the genre and history of K-drama as a whole unless you watch them. They were foundational in building up the popularity of this type of memorable television show.