There’s a line in Dear My Friends where they say that no one is interested in the stories of the old people. And that’s probably true. But this drama is highlighting it and telling you – old people have many stories to tell. Old people have just as much drama as young people do in K-dramas. And thanks to No Hee Kyung for really highlighting that and giving these veteran actors and actresses their time to shine.
Dear My Friends is a show about Park Wan (Go Hyun Jung), her mother Nan Hee (Go Doo Shim), and Nan Hee’s circle of friends. Park Wan is the beleaguered 40-year-old daughter who must do her mother’s every bidding because her mother has no one else; her father has long passed away and her grandmother (Kim Young Ok) is deaf and lives in the countryside with the disabled grandfather and a disabled uncle. But she’s not just her mother’s daughter; Park Wan is a pseudo-daughter to all her friends: the elegant but paranoid Jo Hee Ja (Kim Hye Ja), the brash and funny Moon Jung Ah (Na Moon Hee), the sophisticated actress and frenemy Lee Young Won (Park Won Sook), and the intellectual and hip Oh Choong Nam (Yoon Yeo Jung). And so it’s really about Park Wan, who is also an aspiring writer, trying to navigate between all her aunties. And possibly actually listen to her mother’s advice and write a story about them.
The aunties are all such interesting characters. Hilarious and immediately identifiable. I see myself in Park Wan’s shoes all the time as I look at my mom and her generation of friends, and also my grandmother and her generation of friends and siblings. Even the way that Park Wan reacts to all of them (with exasperation and fake kindness to save her mother some face) is how I would react on a daily basis to my mom and grandmother. Because, let’s admit it – they can be more meddlesome than you’d like sometimes. But though the show really highlights flaws in my behavior through Park Wan, I don’t really mind it. The aunties really have interesting stories to tell. You just never get a chance to hear it in dramas, until now.
Speaking of flaws – there is something that must be said about No Hee Kyung’s depiction of women in this show. All of them are deeply flawed in some way and it seems they’ll only be redeemed or change through their character progression in the show. Park Wan is especially the worst of the bunch; though we do empathize with her frustrations, she’s not the perfect person in her personal life either by flirting with a married man (a dashing Shin Sung Woo) and breaking up with her perfect boyfriend abroad (Jo In Sung). The men, though they have made mistakes, are barely given screen time to really show off their flaws. They’re either dead (which pretty much absolves them by being absent) or proven to be actually very kind behind their wives’ back (like Shin Goo, who gives his money to support his siblings rather than take his wife to a trip to Italy). It’s an unfair balance, and could possibly be because No Hee Kyung wants to focus on the women’s lives and thus fleshes them out more than the men. It’s just that her writing choice is usually to make the female characters more insufferable as a way to prove their “well-rounded” characters, when there could probably be other ways to deal with that from a writing perspective.
I’m not saying that No Hee Kyung needs to make them “Candy girls” with the perfect personality and hard-working ethic though. That’s not what a modern woman is like either. But sometimes I feel like she really is trying to vilify the main female character for the sake of a character arc. (I see it here with Park Wan and I see it with Gong Hyo Jin‘s character in It’s Okay That’s Love, after some hindsight). I’ll go into the characters now, and maybe it’ll be clearer there:
Park Wan (Go Hyun Jung)
Let’s start with her, since she is pretty much the main character. She’s single, a translator by day and semi-successful writer by night, and secretly a smoker behind her mother’s back. As “everyone’s daughter” she finds herself always doing favors for her mom and aunts against her will, especially since her mother will trap her into doing something by announcing it in front of witnesses or guilts her into doing it. She has a love-hate relationship with her mother, understanding that she is all her mother has after her father cruelly cheated on her mother with the best friend. But sometimes her mom is just too overbearing and she can’t give her mother back all the attention that she is showered with.
As for her personal life, she has a flirtatious relationship with her publisher Han Dong Jin (Shin Sung Woo), who’s married with a kid. It’s suggested that she is actually having an affair with him, but it’s not entirely clear how close they are. Dong Jin does seem a little aloof with her when they interact, and keeps a safe distance when he hears Wan talk to her ex-boyfriend. (It would also be such a slap in the face to her mother to be a mistress when she saw how adultery wrecked her family too.) Wan also has a complicated relationship with Seo Yeon Ha (Jo In Sung), who was her boyfriend when she studied abroad and they seem to still have something going on. They talk to each other a lot over the phone or video calls, and seem very affectionate towards each other. And yet, it seems like they broke up rather than maintain a long distance relationship – possibly because both have different priorities in life. Yeon Ha doesn’t want to ever marry, while Wan does. But by the end of episode 2 you wonder what it is that she did (because, based on how the show is written you assume that it’s something she did) that broke them apart.
And that’s where I get annoyed with No Hee Kyung. She’s already made Wan appear like a bad daughter, and now makes her into someone who takes the harder route to happiness. Wan could have been very happy with Yeon Ha but no – it’s suggested that she ruins that bliss instead. It’s suggested that she’ll end up with Dong Jin, but we see so little of him and I feel like No Hee Kyung will sweep the whole “he’s a jerk because he’s cheating on his wife” scenario under the rug with the line, “I’m separated from my wife. We don’t love each other anymore.” And suddenly that’s supposed to absolve him of everything while we watch Wan be tortured at the aspect of breaking up another family? I can understand that Wan will have some issues about men considering that she didn’t have the greatest father figures in her life. But even then, let’s share some of the blame on the men, yeah? Her dad’s dead, so we can’t really go and kick a dead body further into the ground.
But Go Hyun Jung is amazing. Like seriously amazing as an actress. You know every thought in her mind with every expression she makes and you are just so present with her in all of her scenes. She makes you feel what she feels, and I really admire her for it. She’s the only one who can humanize No Hee Kyung’s words.
Jo Hee Ja (Kim Hye Ja)
This aunt is the most sympathetic and also probably the second female lead in my opinion. Hee Ja’s husband died while locked inside a closet. Yes, he slept in a closet. And yes, it’s because Hee Ja locked him in there every night. It wasn’t abuse per se, but rather it seemed that Hee Ja was paranoid he’d cheat on her and for her peace of mind the husband went along with it. But he also did not suffocate to death, so it’s not really her entire fault that he died. That being said, none of her children really wanted to take care of her except for Min Ho (Lee Kwang Soo, in his perfect self again. I forget that he is an exceptionally good actor because of how he is on Running Man.). Her children found her more of a hassle than her husband and had hoped she’d die first. So Min Ho willingly offers to take all responsibility, even though he complains that he’s tired about worrying her all the time.
Hee Ja overhears her children talking about how they wish she were dead, but she only has one takeaway: she wants to prove that she’s not a burden. So she tries her best to live alone and for herself. She moves to the Philippines to stay with one of her sons, but the Filipino maids there won’t let her do any household work (because that’s what they do) or be useful to the household. So she ends up going back to Korea and moving to her family home. It drives Min Ho crazy because it’s a big house and she’s all alone, but Hee Ja really wants to prove that she can live by herself.
But let’s be honest – Hee Ja can’t. It’s said that she has a bit of an Othello Syndrome, and she really is a bit paranoid. I don’t think she has Alzheimer’s but she’s the type that once she thinks she might have something, she most likely will have that “something.” She creates problems for herself unknowingly, suspecting that her neighbor Daniel Henney is winking at her every day when he’s really just winking at some stray cats down the street. (Although, who winks and does kissy faces from afar to kitties? Why don’t you just go down and pet those kitties! I know you have amazing biceps, Daniel Henney! I felt them when I met you!)
So I really want to see where Hee Ja ends up going in this drama because I’m afraid it’ll be quite tragic. I’m afraid she’ll end up getting sick and dying from a made-up disease that she never really had, but psychologically creates it for herself and she ends up having it. I love her relationship with her son, and I can totally understand where he’s coming from when he worries about her constantly and yet wants her to live her own life. She also has a bit of a Thelma & Louise relationship with one of the other friends, Jung Ah, and it’s quite cute. So all in all, Hee Ja has wonderful relationships with the people around her and she is so fragile and petite that it makes you want to protect her, and watch her, and see her blossom very, very carefully.
Moon Jung Ah (Na Moon Hee)
Now Jung Ah is a riot, and that’s because she’s brash and lovable. Jung Ah maintains an active and healthy lifestyle while also being a super traditional mother and wife. She believes that kimchi is good for the soul (when really, it’s probably not the best diet for babies) and that her husband is a hard worker who will take care of their finances. She strangely “works” for her daughters in cleaning up their houses and watching over her grandchildren, almost like a housekeeper, but it’s probably her only way to stay active in her household. Her husband Suk Gyun (Shin Goo) is still the breadwinner and quite miserly, so cleaning her daughter’s house is the only way she can support her sick mother in a hospice and have some spending money.
It’s really strange that she and her husband do not talk about each other’s finances or combine them. She doesn’t know what Suk Gyun does with his money and assumes that he saved a lot for their European trip. She doesn’t know that he’s giving his money to his siblings and in-laws. And she doesn’t expect her husband to help pay for her mother’s medical bills. So they have a bit of a traditional and odd household, but it’s one that sets up perfectly for her future conflict and growth: to stop relying on her husband and have her own adventures with Hee Ja. She and Hee Ja are going to learn together how to live on their own for themselves, and it’s a wonderful journey that they’re going to embark upon because you can’t help but cheer for these two. They’re best friends, and they’re very supportive of each other’s quirks. And you want them to be very happy because they have men in their lives who’d rather constrict them to their standards of what an elderly mother/wife should do: sit at the table while the husband eats or stay at home and watch TV and never go out.
Jang Nan Hee (Go Doo Shim)
The third leg of the trifecta that is Jung Ha, Hee Ja, and her, Nan Hee is Wan’s mother who suffers for attention but lives her life so fully you wouldn’t even realize it. Once her cheating husband passed away ten years ago, Nan Hee threw herself into running her restaurant and also enjoying life with her friends. (She drinks a lot of beer. More than I would think is healthy.) She gambles with her staff, she goes to dancing clubs and she teases Wan incessantly as if they’re best friends rather than mother and daughter. She also is the only one that is part of three generations in this drama; her mother, played by Kim Young Ok, is Wan’s grandmother and the oldest generation in the entire show. She’s the mother to all the aunts practically, even though in real life she is only four years older than Kim Hye Ja, who plays Hee Ja. So while Nan Hee struggles with her deaf and increasingly forgetful mother, she also becomes a suffocating mother to Wan.
Wan succinctly puts it that Nan Hee is one who was starved for attention all her life. Her mother favored Nan Hee’s younger brother (who is a lot younger because the grandmother had him late), her husband favored his daughter Wan and mistress, and her best friend Young Won seemingly sided with the mistress and her husband by never telling Nan Hee of the affair. So it only makes sense that Nan Hee is someone who is also starved for affection, and yet she’ll never let you know it. She likes the attention that she gets at a dancing club but would never dance with anyone in the club. She wants to be admired and somewhat treasured, and no one in her life really gives her that. Wan is the only person who could, but Wan dismisses her quickly by not taking her advice or trying to get out of doing favors for her. So, it’s a bit sad – and you know that she and Wan will eventually have a closer relationship by the end of the series. I mean, it has to, right? That’s how the story normally goes…
But Nan Hee also has the other drama arc in the show that could arguably make her a second female lead. (I still think Hye Ja is more interesting, but Nan Hee does have the more conventional storyline.) Nan Hee has a longstanding feud with Young Won because of a bitter misunderstanding. It’s like high school never ends even after you leave it – there’s always still that girl you hate from school and you will unreasonably never talk to her again even though you’re all old and should let bygones be bygones. Granted, Nan Hee thinks that Young Won is in the wrong, but she never hears of Young Won’s side of the story. So! The goal of this storyline is to make Nan Hee learn of Young Won’s side of the story and make up with her. Because that’s what usually happens in a drama.
Lee Young Won (Park Won Suk) & Oh Choong Nam (Yoon Yeo Jung)
I’m lumping these two fine ladies together because honestly they haven’t had enough screen time to merit their own paragraphs yet. Also these two are best friends and so alike: hip and fresh, they live their lives as if they were Wan’s age. Young Won is a celebrity of sorts, so she is definitely more glamorous and flighty, always cheerful despite her more sensitive nature. She is also Wan’s favorite aunt, so we can see where some resentment from Nan Hee comes from. When we meet Young Won, she is so sweet that it almost feels fake and you think that you have to hate her. You feel like she really is the villain of the story. But Choong Nam points out that Young Won actually begged Nan Hee’s husband to stay with his family, and even told the mistress’s husband about the affair to break the two of them up. Young Won may not have told Nan Hee about the affair to begin with, but she did do everything in her power to keep Nan Hee’s marriage from falling apart. So in a way, there is no villain in this drama. You can’t hate Young Won for what she’s done (or hasn’t done).
As for Choong Nam, she cracks me up because she’s like that woman who went to the store “Forever 21” and took that sign seriously. She truly believes that she’s young and hip and still good to hang with the 40-somethings. She surrounds herself with intellectuals and artists, all of whom are indebted to her because she bought their worthless art and feeds them, but don’t like spending time with her because she’s old. Choong Nam is the epitome of an independent woman, someone who doesn’t care to get married because she finds herself completely satisfied with life and can do everything on her own.
It’s interesting that she’s like this because in the previews it’s suggested that she has a love line with Lee Sung Jae (Joo Hyun), who also happens to like Hee Ja. Hee Ja is someone who’s trying to be more like Choong Nam, and Choong Nam may find herself wanting to be like Hee Ja (where she’s more reliant on other people). And it’s all because of this man Sung Jae. Not sure how I feel about this man being the catalyst for change, but it is cute to see a love triangle form with the older generation.
This is for the other characters who have appeared but are secondary to the main cast. We’ve only gotten glimpses of them that it’s kind of hard to make a very good judgment on their character with just two episodes. Nevertheless, they’re all the men in the show, and so we have to give them some credit:
Jang Hyun Sung – are you seriously playing a good guy for once? YAY!
Shin Sung Woo – please don’t be a cad. But you look good. You’ve aged well.
Jo In Sung – you look mighty fine. Why the heck did Wan leave you?! I have a bit of a problem with his relationship with Wan, but I hear it clears up by episode 3. Either way, it’s a shame that he’s only got a cameo.
Lee Kwang Soo – another cameo role, and a shame at that. Lee Kwang Soo plays his role to a tee, going toe to toe with Go Hyun Jung for “Most Exasperatedly Loyal Child” in this show. It’s a bit hard to imagine that Lee Kwang Soo plays a father and husband to his own family (that we never see) because he still seems like a little kid to me, but he certainly is believable at playing Hee Ja’s son.
Daniel Henney – stop winking at cats. Just adopt them already.
So… In Conclusion
This is definitely a more serious drama that will somehow still lighten up your hearts but also make you want to call up your mother or grandmother right away and see how they are. (Right before they start nagging you and you regret calling them in the first place.) It’s a sweet drama, and one that I definitely want to check out more of.