We have a confession to make: We were predisposed to loving Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha. We’ve been fans of Kim Seon-ho's acting since Han Ji-pyeong stole our hearts in Start-Up. And we’ve been fans of Shin Min-ah for even longer. So when the two dimpled actors were set to star in a rom-com, we were psyched. But we didn’t expect to love it this much.
Part of it is due to the great chemistry not just between the two leads but among the entire cast. (We’re so ready to move to Gongjin!) Another part is the witty script (and as the behind-the-scenes shots tell us, the ad libs) that makes us laugh out loud and that lives up to the “com” part of the romcom (many other romcoms use the term liberally).
But more importantly, it’s been a while since we’ve seen a normal, healthy romantic relationship represented in k-drama. Hong Du-sik (Kim Seon-ho), for all his flaws and “dark” past, is a good man. He genuinely cares about others and finds ways to help. Yoon Hye-jin (Shin Min-ah), starts off as a little prickly and snobbish but shows wonderful (not to mention believable) character growth in the course of the series.
Below we look at six reasons why we think the SikHye couple, as they have been called by fans, should be k-drama #CoupleGoals.
1. They don’t enable problematic behavior but call each other out.
When she was acting all uptight and snobbish about the people of Gongjin, he called her out on it. He didn’t just tell why she made a mistake; he offered her a workable solution: “If you can’t pick up spilled milk, you should at least apologize to them for spilling the milk, rather than avoiding them.” And here’s the thing: She didn’t ignore his advice either. She found a way to make amends and in turn, he affirmed her for it. But Hye-jin didn’t shy away from letting Du-sik know that his reluctance to share his past with her made her feel like she was alone in the relationship. And when it was his turn to face his demons, Du-sik finally found the courage to unburden himself and grieve with her, where she accepted him and his past completely and unconditionally.
Calling each other out in a respectful manner is a healthy way to show audiences that just because couples seem to be made for each other, doesn’t mean they no longer have room to grow. It also goes against the drama staple of characters holding their grudges in and expecting their partners to miraculously read their minds. Hye-jin and Du-sik remind us that none of us are born knowing how to love and be loved. They give us hope that relationships are something to nurture and that good relationships help people become their better selves.
2. They have boundaries, but the boundaries aren’t set in stone.
As with any normal relationship, romantic or otherwise, healthy boundaries are necessary. Early on, SikHye intuitively set their boundaries but not without some pain. Recall, for example, how Du-sik thought it was natural to wipe some food off Hye-jin’s cheek but when she attempted to do the same to him, he recoiled and caused her to be confused and angry. Later on, Hye-jin caused some audiences to feel discomfort when she decided to move a boundary Du-sik had put up: his refusal to share things about his past. Hye-jin had every right to ask the boundary to be moved, just as Du-sik had every right to refuse her overture.
Also, when Hye-jin felt that Du-sik was sending her mixed signals that a lazier female lead could have easily misinterpreted—she nipped it in the bud immediately and frankly asked him if he liked her. When Du-sik denied it, she immediately asked him to stop doing the things that bothered her, and asked the community to not read into his actions as well. In our culture of rampant friendzoning and blurred lines, it takes courage to draw the line and refuse to be misled, especially when the intentions are not clear and it messes up your head in many ways.
How SikHye tested their boundaries well on the k-drama screen, and their dynamic is a good conversation starter for audiences on when to push and pull, give and take, compromise and stand firm, set up boundaries or remove them as couples see fit for each unique situation.
3. He’s not insecure about her earnings.
The scene at the end of Episode 12 has got to be a watershed moment for k-drama and sent out such a strong statement for women who have long been made to feel insecure about their own achievements and earnings.
In a shopping scene, Hye-jin bought expensive jewelry for herself as a reward. Later on, it seemed to her that Du-sik was uncomfortable and she fretted. When she confessed to him that she didn't wear the necklace and had sold it off, he was quick to assuage her fears and even affirmed her spending her hard-earned money on herself. He basically told her to do whatever she wanted with her own money. Unfazed, Du-sik casually admitted that since he couldn’t afford to buy her jewelry, he thought he’d make a jewelry box to hold all of her jewelry instead and promptly handed her one.
Women make up the majority of k-drama viewers, and it's not a stretch to assume that most female viewers have had to learn to hide their achievements, earnings, and even their shopping purchases from their partners for most of their lives. This has been documented in gender research as well, where many women are implicitly taught at a very young age to not "outshine" men; otherwise, they risk being unlikeable or that they would come off as "intimidating." So imagine our surprise when we finally had a male lead who not only accepts the idiosyncrasies of his lover but also explicitly asks her not to be ashamed of her (obviously higher) earnings and her expensive taste. Hong Banjang’s heartfelt gift showed that he was sensitive and secure enough with himself not to let their socio-economic differences get to him—a rare sight in k-drama we would like to see more of in the future.
4. They communicate and allow their relationship to change and grow.
While it was clear that there was some physical attraction between them, their initial bickering proved that dating each other was the farthest thing on their mind. Probably one of the loveliest things that SikHye did was that they made the mature and gradual transition from friendship to infatuation to deep love. Most dramas would have us believe that all it takes is one moment to know that another is our OTL (One True Love) and somehow, that OTL would magically know and understand everything about us. But Du-sik and Hye-jin gamely (and hilariously) took the time to get to know each other and learned to rely on each other before labeling their feelings as romantic. They took the time to see each other through even some of the worst and most embarrassing incidents (Episode 6 cringey dance to support dear Ju-ri, anyone?), giving them a strong foundation for what was to come later on.
SikHye's communication skills are also a unicorn in k-dramaland: from Hye-jin calling out Du-sik on potential friendzoning behavior to Du-sik confronting her and the "biological crisis" to their hilarious confession and eventual proposal, they always knew where they stood with each other. They were also even honest with other people, such as Du-sik admitting to her father that he wasn't her boyfriend, prompting even more admiration from her father instead of the expected anger. Hye-jin's gracious and honest rejection of Ji PD (one of the best we've seen in k-dramas) cleared the air and at the same time managed to convey her respect and affection for him. Even Hye-jin’s confession to Du-sik was a definitive, thought-out decision and not just some drunken disclosure, and Du-sik's insisting that he respond to her confession by saying that he, too, clearly and unambiguously liked her back (instead of assuming the kiss was it) was a wonderful addition to an already amazing and incredibly honest confession scene.
5. They have deep relationships apart from each other.
To live in Gongjin is to be part of the inclusive Gongjin community. Often, romance dramas show the male or female lead having a few acquaintances and almost no solid, intimate friendships. Many k-drama couples also tend to take place in a vacuum, and we as the audience have to wonder if they have anyone outside their significant other to confide in or be with. Life would certainly have been easier for many k-drama couples had they only had fuller lives and rich relationships apart from each other.
The communitarian feel of the whole drama shows both Du-sik and Hye-jin having many strong and interesting bonds with their families, friends, and everyone else in Gongjin. Both are active members of a community, and many of their conversations with others have nothing to do with their romantic relationship with each other. Du-sik is shown to have strong relationships with the elders of the community and friendships with other male figures. He also often talks to them about non-Hye-jin things. Hye-jin as well is depicted as someone with a close friend and a family she regularly gets in touch with and learns to integrate herself with the larger community.
In fact, Hye-jin, when making a choice whether to remain in Gongjin or get a more lucrative job back in Seoul, told Du-sik that she was staying in Gongjin—for Gongjin's sake. She had work to do, she said and she had fallen in love with Gongjin too. He was a major factor in her decision to stay but he wasn’t the ONLY factor. Even Du-sik’s friendship with Ji PD—probably one of the better love triangles in k-drama—organically progressed from rivalry to deep, healthy male friendship that served both parties even well after SikHye got together.
6. They work on themselves, together.
Most k-dramas are quick to employ the time-gap cliche or some form of noble idiocy where the characters feel they are so damaged that they opt to work on themselves separately. Or sometimes, one partner works on themselves while the other party waits on helplessly, without assurance that they'll even be together once the emotional time gap is done.
No such thing in Gonjin! SikHye worked on their personal issues while they relied on each other, which is one of the gifts of being in a relationship. Some k-drama romances would have us think that people can only ever be successful at relationships when they’ve figured things out for themselves and come with no baggage. But SikHye showed us that relationships help make the load lighter. And no, couples don’t need to employ the noble idiocy trope ("I will remove myself from your life to spare you from suffering.”). Instead, they can actually talk through their feelings and even continue to get professional help all while staying together.