Saranghae for Show: Contract Relationships in K-dramas

Updated: Apr 13

Dong-hyun and Seo-jun sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G. First comes… marriage??? That can’t be right. It might seem strange to think of arranged marriages and contract relationships as something of a reality in today’s world. But in some parts of the world, it’s still very much a thing. And up until the late 18th century, marriage wasn’t really so much a matter of love as it was a social and economic contract.

It’s not at all uncommon to see arranged marriages in k-drama sageuk (historical show) courts. Betrothals and marriages are part and parcel of the political machinations of the ruling families. There’s bound to be a scheming dowager queen or a disgruntled concubine plotting in every other episode. On the other hand, a young king or the high-ranking official who was actually in love with his wife was the anomaly.


But modern romances are another matter entirely. Falling in love, happily-ever-afters, and weddings are staples in k-dramas, too. What’s surprising is that a comparison of the real-life South Korean stats shows that between the years 2000 and 2020, marriages in Seoul halved and birth rates declined by more than 60%.


If k-drama is to be believed, maybe there is merit to the idea of going back to contract relationships (i.e. marriages or relationships for any reason other than love) to find love. Who knows?

 

The Contract Relationship Checklist

Should you decide to go the contract marriage/relationship route, you might want to use this k-drama checklist before you decide to make the contract legal, binding, and permanent. (You know I’m kidding about this, right?)

(Literally) Sleep together. So it's raining and the concierge/landlady insists that the leads must spend the night together because there are no other rooms available and it's late. And if it's not the rain that's driving them together, it's a parent/grandparent/relative who must not be clued in that the couple is, in fact, only just pretending. They have no other choice but to play along and secretly enjoy it. It'll be purely platonic of course, but they'll wake up in each other's arms anyway. Because when your defenses are down as in sleep, your heart is free to express itself. Or so k-drama would have us believe.

Play it up to the crowd. Maybe one of the leads wants to show up an ex or maybe even just a mean bully or an adoring fan----whoever the audience is, the reluctant couple must now ooze affection and sweetness. It's awkward of course, but then just as suddenly it'll be all too natural and the next thing you know, they have 10-second eye lock in front of everyone else.

Reveal secrets to a stranger. It seems that when two people are very clear that their relationship has an expiration date, they no longer need to put their best foot forward. In this way, the characters often find it easier to confide in each other and show their true selves. This definitely speeds up the getting-to-know-you phase and helps them achieve a level of comfort they don’t have with other people.

Fake it till you make it. All this trying to fool other people and the couple ends up fooling themselves. It may have been fake to begin with, but then suddenly (and not surprisingly for the audience) the feelings become real. And now the couple must make the choice: when the circumstances that caused them to be together in the first place are no longer there, will they still choose to be together?


Contrary to the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt, k-dramas about contract relationships prove that familiarity actually breeds attraction. When two attractive people (as they always are in k-dramaland) are forced to occupy close quarters, sparks are bound to fly. It is this charged environment where the possibility of some romantic thing happening between two strangers that makes contract relationships so fun to watch.

 

If contract relationships and marriages are your jam, you might enjoy some of these.


Pre-2010s

The pre-2010 contract marriage dramas often launched the careers of some now big-time stars.

If you want to see a very (very) young Song Hye-kyo and Rain butt heads and get married for the sake of house ownership, then Full House (2004) should be right up your alley. The drama with its hate-to-love trope has been remade in eight different countries in Asia.


Likewise, a young Yoon Eun-hye (of Coffee Prince fame) and a tall and lanky Ju Ji-hoon play high school students whose grandfathers arranged their marriage when they were still babies in 2006’s Princess Hours (alt title Goong). Ju Ji-hoon is the Crown Prince in a fictional modern-day Korean monarchy who is in love with someone else. Yoon Eun-hye is the fish-out-of-water who needs to balance her schoolwork and palace duties. It’s a teenage romantic comedy with a lot of angst and bad hair and it’s oh-so-bingeable.

Before Eugene gained fame for the hugely successful Penthouse, she played a teenager whose drunken one-night stand resulted in being married to stranger Kim Jae-won. While they both clearly do not like each other, they love their daughter and so for her sake try to become a happy family all the while growing up and fulfilling their dreams in Wonderful LIfe (2005).

Lee Dong-gun (Lovers in Paris, Angel’s Last Mission: Love) is a public prosecutor who must wed a girl ten years his junior because of some strange outdated Korean clan law. He now has to live with Han Ji-hye’s character who is head-over-heels in love with him in 2004’s Sweet 18.



 

Post 2010s

The reasons for two people being forced to marry in the 21st century just keep getting more and more absurd. But hey, we’ll suspend our disbelief if it’ll make us kilig.


All in the Family

It’s family pressure that brings about successful plastic surgeon Gong Gi-tae (Yeon Woo-jin) and waitress Joo Jang-mi’s (Han Groo) fake engagement in Marriage Not Dating (2014). And it’s a grandmother who plays cupid for Jang Hyuk and Jang Na-ra, whose drunken one-night stand (Seriously people, stop drinking!), leads the two to a shotgun marriage in Fated to Love You. Not to be outdone, a meddling grandfather brings two young people together in Something About 1%, which was released in 2003 and remade in 2016 (and yes, I watched them both!). In a quest to find a woman with a heart of gold for his cold, callous grandson, Lee Jae-in (Ha Seok-jin)’s grandfather forces his grandson to marry elementary school teacher Kim Da-hyun (Jeon So-min). It's another meddling grandfather that pushes Kang Tae-mu (Ahn Hyo-seop) to ask Shin Ha-ri (Kim Se-jeong) to pretend to be his girlfriend for a time in Business Proposal.


Money Matters

Housing must be really expensive in Seoul for IT employee and introvert Nam Se-hee (Lee Min-ki) to marry homeless writer Yoon Ji-ho (Jung So-min) so that they can share living expenses for a two-year period in Because This Is My First Life (2017). Love isn’t part of the deal either for Jo Soo-min and Kim Geon-won who decide to get married so they can get the government financial support for new couples in Ending Again (2020).


Makjang Madness

It’s some weird scheming that causes clueless Ju Ji-hoon to marry a doppelgänger in his second fictional contract marriage in Mask (2015). And it’s a kidnapping gone wrong that lands a bleeding Sung Hoon at the vet where he meets Kim Jae-kyung, who coincidentally seems like a perfect candidate to contract a fake relationship with in Noble, My Love (2015).


Price of Fame

Fear of a scandal causes Kwon Yul (Lee Beom-soo), Korea’s youngest prime minister and widower with three children, to enter into a contract marriage with tabloid writer Nam Da-jung (Im Yoon-ah) in Prime Minister and I (2013). Meanwhile, it’s a television show that brings together cash-strapped magazine reporter (Is contract marriage an occupational hazard for reporters?) Lee Geun-young (Choi Soo-young ) and superstar Hoo Joon (Choi Tae-joon) in So I Married an Antifan (2021).


Yoon Eun-Hye

Yes, she is her own category. Yoon Eun-hye sure must like the contract relationship trope as she has not just two (the first being Princess Hours) but THREE romantic comedies based on it. In Lie To Me (2011), she plays opposite Kang Ji-Hwan and in Love Alert (alt title Fluttering Warning) she signs a contract with Chun Jung-myung.

 

Whatever the reasons k-drama writers come up with, diehard fans of the trope will take it. Because what can be better escapist fare from real-world issues than gorgeous actors and actresses pretending to be actual people having fake relationships that turn into true love?

 

Also, check out our other Saranghae features that offer a bit of a dive into Korean popular culture:

Why Hong Du-sik & Yoon Hye-jin of "Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha" Are K-drama #CoupleGoals

How to Leave the K-drama Friendzone

The Shaman in K-drama and Popular Culture

Love and Amnesia in K-dramas

The K-drama Confession

Searching for Soulmates

Alcohol and K-drama

Fate in Fantasy K-dramas

Shakespeare in K-dramaland

K-drama Medical Characters We Love

Infidelity in K-drama

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