A passionate historical romance of the highest degree, with an exceptional cast, stunning cinematography, and beyond beautiful soundtrack, My Dearest (2023) kept me fully engrossed in its intense romantic story for the full duration of the series -- even after the tenth episode when the series took a break of five weeks before it continued with the eleventh episode and on to the extra twenty-first conclusion episode! (Why South Korea always puts their national sports tournaments first, before its brilliant television dramas like this one, I will never understand! I'd much rather watch Korean actors wow me with their brilliance than to fall asleep on five weeks of their athletes' sports games! Sorry!).
Full Vocal OST, Parts 1 & 2
In any case, word of mouth about the exceptionalism of this magnificent historical drama increased the number of viewers watching substantially, and by the end the ratings had topped 12% nationally (that's impressive especially when most K-dramas today average below 5% because there's so much more competition for viewers now than there was in the pre-cable days in South Korea). As I write this review you can currently watch My Dearest on Viki, Kocowa, Hulu, or Amazon Prime.
Hwang Jin Young, Scriptwriter
Much of that high quality stemmed from the pen of its female scriptwriter, named Hwang Jin Young, who stated publicly that she was loosely basing her story on Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind classic novel. I write "loosely" for a reason: while the basic structure of the narrative of the four main characters was similar to Gone With The Wind, most of those plot similarities began to disappear by episode three and four, and the remainder of the story became her own interpretation of what similar characters in the old Joseon days of 17th century Korea would have endured. For instance, instead of a Civil War in the United States of the 19th century, we saw South Korean characters trying to survive the various invasions of Chinese and Japanese barbarians into their land during the reign of King Injo, an insane King who often submitted to the invaders more than he fought against them, with the result that his subjects, including his own family members, were often manipulated and brutalized by the barbarians. As a big Gone With The Wind fan myself, I breathed a little easier when the story went off on tangents that were not in Margaret Mitchell's story (perhaps some of that had to do with legal copyright concerns!). In the beginning I felt compelled to compare the characters too much to the American novel and 1939 film classic, but that lessened as the characters became quite different from Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie, and Ashley in various ways during the telling of the story. (For instance, the "Scarlett" character here matured a lot faster than in the novel and film). Another positive result of this popular Korean drama: I read many fans' comments online who said they had never seen the classic 1939 film Gone With The Wind and would now check it out and watch it because of their enjoyment of My Dearest. I'm all for that! I hope they follow through!
Korean Scarlett and Rhett Counterparts
Played by Ahn Eun Jin and Nam Goong Min
Korean Melanie and Ashley Counterparts
Played by Lee Da In and Lee Hak Joo
All the main cast and supporting players were phenomenal! I had been watching lead actor Nam Goong Min from the time he was twenty-seven years old, in his second drama, the huge hit My Rosy Life (2005), in which he played a truly good man with much distinction. He had also been incredibly stellar and brilliant in Remember (2015-16) playing the main villain. Lead actress Ahn Eun Jin had impressed me with her work in The Good Bad Mother (2023) and Hospital Playlist (2020). She was a delightful "Scarlett" type of character here, flirty and spoiled and carefree in the beginning of the story, and then becoming more serious and mature as the story unfolded, even more so than Scarlett ever did!
Then we had the addition of a brand new character, with no corresponding character in Gone With The Wind, who impressed a lot of K-drama fans, actor-singer Kim Yoon Woo, playing a professional singer. In only his third drama he gave a truly outstanding performance as a popular crooner, and a nephew to lead actor Nam Goong Min's lead character. Yoon Woo's character had a secret man crush on his uncle! Oooh, there were times when I wanted to kick him in the shins because he could be a real jealous troublemaker, trying to come between the lead couple in the story in an attempt to destroy their relationship. And at other times he could be a sympathetic character because the audience just knew nothing would ever come from his one-sided man crush but tragedy.
My Dearest tells the intense survival story of the lives of several young people who are living in the Joseon Dynasty era circa 1637, covering their turbulent lives into their more mature years, to the year 1659. The first year 1637 covered in the story is when an invasion from the Chinese Qing Dynasty took place, which the Joseon King of the time, King Injo (Kim Jong Tae), an insane monarch, was ill prepared to handle. His subjects suffered accordingly; many were killed, captured and used as slaves or concubines for the Chinese, or they had to carefully hide themselves away from approaching armies, or flee for their lives to other lands. Even the King's own son, Crown Prince Suh Yeon (Kim Mu Jun, fine performance), was used as a bargaining chip and sent away from the Palace to be controlled by the Chinese barbarians from a distance. Lack of communication between parent and child exacerbated the national calamity upon the Joseon Kingdom.
Under this tenuous scenario we meet a mysterious wandering fellow named Lee Jang Hyun (Nam Goong Min) who suddenly appears in the countryside community of Neunggeun Village. Although he looks cheerful on the outside, Lee Jang Hyun has a dark secret past that he has not fully healed from. Even his devoted man-servant Goo Jam (Park Kang Sub) doesn't fully understand him.
Actor Nam Goong Min in My Dearest
Does This Actor Look 45 Years Old To You?
While crossing through Neunggeun Village Jang Hyun meets a charismatic young woman who changes his life forever. He sees her swinging joyfully on a tree swing and falls instantly in love with her, even running to catch her when she accidentally falls from the swing! She is Yoo Gil Chae (Ahn Eun Jin), a woman from a noble family who is charming, amusing, and quite flirty with men. Many men in the village yearn to marry her. Gil Chae always feels able to bruise men's hearts because of her pretty smiling face and coquettish behavior, and she is instantly intrigued by the mysterious Jang Hyun who catches her when she falls. So begins an on-again, off-again, quite dreamlike sensual attraction, and ultimately deeply romantic relationship between the two of them that will last many years into the future.
The Flirty Gil Chae
She Even Flirts With Birds!
However, when Gil Chae first meets Jang Hyun she still has a lingering crush on a local Sungkyunkwan Confucian scholar named Nam Yeon Jun (Lee Hak Joo from Memories Of The Alhambra) whom she has admired for years, this despite knowing that he is really in love with one of her female acquaintances at their polishing school, the sweet and docile Kyung Eun Ae (lovely actress Lee Da In, who is married to actor Lee Seung Gi - from Shining Inheritance and Gu Family Book - in real life). At first Gil Chae is quite jealous of Eun Ae but as time goes on, especially when the rumblings of war begin, the two women become closer and eventually develop into true friends.
Since it is obvious Jang Hyun is mightily attracted to Gil Chae he inevitably becomes very jealous of this scholar, and Jang Hyun even criticizes her behavior in front of him. Nobly, Yeon Jun comes to her defense in front of Jang Hyun, which makes Jang Hyun even more angry and frustrated with the whole situation. He wants all her attention for himself.
However, when Yeon Jun rejects Gil Chae's advances toward him, and smiles lovingly at Eun Ae instead, Gil Chae decides to try and put to rest her crush on the scholar, even tentatively agreeing to become engaged to an affable fellow in town whom she is not in love with (and who ends up dying in the war before any marriage could take place).
Jang Hyun still keeps approaching her, despite her numerous flirtatious experiences with men, and although she hears through the rumor mill that Jang Hyun has determined never to marry anyone, Gil Chae still isn't averse to chatting with him, sometimes about serious matters affecting their lives, and sometimes just about silly matters as well, like their past dating lives.
On the sidelines, watching their developing relationship with obvious jealousy, is Jang Hyun's nephew, a professional singer named Ryang Eum, whose life Jang Hyun had saved when he was young. Grateful to him (but even more than that, attracted to him physically), Ryang Eum bides his time to wait for opportunities to break up their deepening romance.
When the Qing invasion begins, each family in Neunggeun Village has to decide whether they will try to hide or flee the Chinese barbarians. Gil Chae's family are split up: her Dad Yoo Gyo Yeon (Oh Man Seok) and her sister Yoo Yeong Chae (Park Eun Woo), and little brother, elect to stay near the village in a hiding place, whereas Gil Chae, fearing the possibility of being raped by the Chinese invaders, decides to flee with her female servant Jong Jong (Park Jeong Yeon), and friends Eun Ae and newly married, pregnant neighbor Madam Bang Doo (Kwon So Hyun). Most of the young men in the village join the Joseon army to fight the Chinese, including Jang Hyun and Yeon Jun. While on the run Gil Chae and her companions go through some terrible experiences, including being accosted at one point by the barbarians, although these brave women fight back in clever ways to escape their evil clutches. Gil Chae actually kills an attacker who tried to rape Eun Ae. Also while on the run Madam Bang Doo goes into labor and Gil Chae helps her deliver the baby. With these new stressful experiences in her life the previous flirty rich girl Gil Chae becomes a much more mature and sacrificial person, and all the ladies grow to admire her greatly.
During one attack a mysterious male rescuer shows up to save Gil Chae; she cannot see his face clearly but the audience suspects it has to be Jang Hyun.
Afterward, during a brief lapse in hostilities between Joseon and the Qing invaders, caused by King Injo agreeing to allow his son the Crown Prince to be controlled by the Chinese away from the royal palace, Gil Chae and her lady friends are able to return home to Neunggeun Village. Gil Chae's family survived the ordeal (although her Dad is obviously beginning to suffer from dementia), but others they had cared about in the village, like an elderly couple who had loved them all like their grandchildren, did not survive.
How to rebuild lives decimated by foreign invaders? Gil Chae, knowing that she is now the head of her family, and thinking that Jang Hyun is dead because singer Ryang Eum lied to her about his fate, decides to marry a merchant-soldier named Goo Won Moo (actor Ji Seung Hyun, who had been so excellent playing the North Korean soldier in Descendants Of The Sun). If she marries him she can achieve financial success to take care of her family while running his business (sort of like Scarlett did in GWTW with her second husband).
As she plans for her wedding, Gil Chae has to encourage Eun Ae to take a similar step and marry the returning love of her life, scholar Yeon Jun. Eun Ae had remembered the words of their teacher at the finishing school they had both attended: if you are ever touched by a barbarian your life is basically over and you should never fall in love or marry. Gil Chae tells Eun Ae that that is complete and utter poppycock! (Good for Gil Chae!). Finally Eun Ae and Yeon Jun can unite in matrimony and be happy. (For me one of the highlights of this drama was the deep friendship that developed between Gil Chae and Eun Ae during the story, even deeper than the friendship that developed between Scarlett and Melanie in GWTW).
However, right before the wedding ceremony of Gil Chae and Goo Won Moo, who should arrive in the village but Jang Hyun, who had definitely survived the war and has been commissioned to help the Crown Prince deal with the Qing dynasty invaders as a translator, since Jang Hyun knows both the Chinese language and Korean. However, he has never forgotten Gil Chae and wants to see her before he leaves on his commission from the King.
Gil Chae is shocked to learn Jang Hyun is not dead, that the singer had lied to her, and all her former feelings of love flood back into her heart for him. When he professes in flowery words that he's never forgotten her (though still not asking her point blank "Will you marry me?") Gil Chae has to make a choice: run off with Jang Hyun and live in sin, or commit to her promised marriage to another man, as well as taking care of her dependent family members, including a Dad with dementia. Ultimately, Gil Chae makes the only choice she can make so that she can be at peace with her important life decisions. She marries the merchant-soldier and takes care of her family, and Jang Hyun goes off to help the Crown Prince deal with the Chinese. Will they ever meet again?
A quiet family life is not experienced by Gil Chae for very long, for suddenly she and her servant Jong Jong are kidnapped by the Qing invaders, and eventually she becomes the target of a bounty-hunter, Chinese princess named Gak Hwa (Lee Chung Ah, Flower Boy Ramen Shop, Because This Is My First Life). This woman desires Jang Hyun sexually and becomes determined to destroy Jang Hyun's secret love for Gil Chae so that they can never be together (sounds familiar to the singer's jealousy, doesn't it?). However, when Jang Hyun discovers that Gil Chae is in Chinese occupied lands as a hostage he aims to rescue her, as well as the servant girl Jong Jong. It's not easy to fool this princess, or get the best of her, but Jang Hyun is ultimately too clever for her, and is able to rescue Gil Chae and her servant.
All the time that Gil Chae is gone from her husband and family has caused them to move on with their lives, including her husband, who has apparently fallen in love with another woman and doesn't want a wife he considers "defiled" by the Chinese. (Egad!). Ultimately Gil Chae and her husband get a divorce and she and Jang Hyun are finally free to commit to one another. However, will the ire of this jealous Chinese princess, still obsessed with Jang Hyun, come between them again? She wants Jang Hyun for herself, no matter what she has to do.
There is more violence and upheaval ahead for our two lovebirds, who now desire nothing more out of life than to be together, and experience a happy, blissful married life. Even their servants Jong Jong and Gong Jam are in love and want to marry too. But Jang Hyun and Gil Chae are still beset by multiple problems that pull them apart, both personal and national. Jang Hyun is caught up in deciphering what is going on with King Injo's desire to get rid of his son the Crown Prince So Hyun and his wife and their children. He wants to protect the Crown Prince but how to do that and take care of the emotionally wounded Gil Chae as well? It seems that the Crown Prince desires to allow Christian missionaries into Joseon and Confucian King Injo wants no part of that! The Crown Prince is murdered by his own father and his death quickly covered up and called a suicide. His body is buried immediately with no autopsy allowed. His wife is executed too, and their children exiled to Jeju Island (part of this story showed up in my top favorite historical drama Chuno as well).
At the very beginning of our story we had jumped ahead many years into the future and seen a man committed to a mental asylum, a man with long white hair, who is said to "chant" the same words over and over again. A royal secretary is sent to check on this man but his back is to him and he, at first, does not want to turn around, so we can't see his face. The secretary asks if he knows Jang Hyun and where he might be, and the man's back stiffens. It's pretty easy to identify that this is the singer who was in love with Jang Hyun himself. He is waiting for Jang Hyun to return and release him from his "prison". Will he ever do so? Did Jang Hyun and Gil Chae escape to a hiding place so that they would never be found? If the singer was ever released, and underfoot all the time, would a marriage between our two lovebirds survive? You can't have a jealous man hanging obsessively around a married couple, or marital bliss will go right out the window!
Gil Chae Feeds Jang Hyun
Oooh, if looks could kill!
In many ways the singer Ryang Eum reminded me of a tragic character in a Shakespeare play, or the rejected character of Gi Tae in the classic Korean drama Stained Glass (2004) played by Kim Sung Soo. In that drama Gi Tae had been in love with his best friend's girl, who only saw him as a friend. In My Dearest the singer's obsessive love for Jang Hyun could never be reciprocated so he was doomed to remain in that mental asylum so that our married couple could have peace away from him and his obsession. Perhaps the writer saw leaving him in that asylum as a just comeuppance for lying to Gil Chae in the past, claiming that Jang Hyun had died when he was still alive. In Stained Glass, at one point in the story, after his Dad had beat him with a golf club, Gi Tae turned to his shocked sister and said, "It doesn't matter. I was born to be a tragic figure." He ended up killing himself. He even knew it about himself, that he was a tragic figure, and I think Ryang Eum the singer in My Dearest knew it about himself as well.
Gi Tae and Ryang Eum
Born To Be Tragic Figures!
In one scene added a week later to the last episode, Gil Chae has what seems like a dream of Ryang Eum with white hair appearing before her, when she believes Jang Hyun has died, and asks the singer to stay with her, since they had both loved Jang Hyun. Then her head nods, her eyes close, and moments later she wakes up from a deep slumber, and the singer is gone. Her strange interaction with him could have come out of her deep loneliness. We never see a scene where Ryang Eum was released from the asylum. It was even possible the Ryang Eum she saw was his ghost, that he had died in the asylum, and that was how he was ultimately freed, through death, even taking a cherished fan with him that Jang Hyun had left behind. In countless classic ghost movies over the years we have seen ghosts touching people and moving objects around, so why not have it occur in a Korean drama too? His death would free our couple to live the rest of their lives in peace.
To sum up, do not miss this gorgeous, mystical, passionate historical romance Korean drama, My Dearest, for anything! It's truly one of the best, most addictive Korean dramas I have ever watched, and from countless fan opinions I have read online, on multiple web sites, I am not alone in my deep devotion to its story. It may remind you of Gone With The Wind at first, but slowly and surely it becomes its own independent tale and will win your heart, guaranteed! Best Korean Drama of 2023 by far!
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