Saranghae, Stranger: Love and Amnesia in K-dramas
Anyone who loves good stories knows how powerful they can be. Many scientific studies have shown that fictional stories promote empathy and enhance learning. But the regular k-drama fan doesn’t need science to tell us how a series can lift our mood, connect us with others, and give us opportunities to get away from it all. There’s one peculiar thing that they enable us to do, too—a good k-drama allows us to imagine a world where we can explore interesting questions about humanity without making lab rats out of each other. (There’s a paper about that theory, actually).
No one wants to live in a makjang world and yet there we are week after week, waiting for the madness and the kimchi slapping, all at once gleeful and judgmental when it happens. “I would never do that,” we tell ourselves. “Kimchi doesn’t come cheap. I’d be more likely to throw water in someone’s face.”
Or we can stay to watch an entire series and not be bothered at all that we’re rooting for a
former member of the mafia who uses underhanded means so long as he dresses in fancy Italian suits and looks like Song Joong-ki. Would we be as forgiving if we had to work with someone from an actual crime syndicate? How much value do we place on someone’s looks when we decide to trust him or her? Interesting conversations all, but no one would ever sign up for that life experiment.
Okay, well, maybe there’d be a few volunteers.
Making a memory, losing one’s memory, and choosing which memories to keep as we age are part of those hypothetical scenarios that many of us may want to explore vicariously. It is not surprising, then, why themes about memories are so popular in fiction in general. Amnesia, the total or partial loss of memory, in particular, is a common plot point that writers use to create interesting situations for characters. If someone ran the numbers, the chances of one getting amnesia in the fictional world is as high as one in every 10 persons. In the real world it’s more like one in every one million. (No really, we don’t know the stats but you get the point.)
But the stories of amnesiacs do raise very valid questions about who we are as humans. For example, how much of who we are is based on memory? Can we love even if we don’t know who we are? And how much of loving is remembering?
K-drama proposes some thought-provoking answers to these questions by using amnesia as one of its favorite plot points in romance stories.
Amnesia as a meet-cute
If k-drama decides to give one of the main leads amnesia before s/he meets the opposite lead, it’s usually to strip the character down to his/her bare essentials. Just who are we when we’re no longer concerned with who our families are or what jobs we have? When we’re no longer carrying around labels, not even our names, do we become the purest versions of ourselves?
Take these dramas for example: (Minor spoilers ahead!)
Shopping King Louis/ Shopaholic Louis (2016)
The romantic comedy stars Seo In-geuk who is introduced as Louis, a selfish, spoiled heir with a shopping problem who suddenly loses his memory. Enter Bok-shil (Nam Ji-hyun), a country lass who gets swindled by city folk. Louis then attaches himself to Bok-shil as he is completely clueless about the ways of the world. They, of course, fall in love in the process.
Had it not been for his amnesia, Louis would never have given Bok-shil a second look. She’s not in his social class. But because Louis is no longer concerned with the external things, he’s able to see past wealth and status, even his own. If love makes the rest of us blind, Louis’s amnesia and his love open his eyes to the more essential things in life. The question is, when he recovers his memory, his name, and his status, will he still choose to be in love?
100 Days My Prince (2018)
In this sageuk (historical drama), Crown Prince Lee Yul (Do Kyung-soo) survives an assassination attempt but develops amnesia. Seeking to free herself from the royal decree that all single women of a marriageable age should wed, Yeon Hong-shim (Nam Ji-hyun must really like these amnesia stories!) takes advantage of Lee Yul’s amnesia and convinces him that he is her long-lost fiancé.
Once again, Yul’s memory loss provides a good excuse for a meeting and marriage between two star-crossed lovers. Yul’s amnesia also gives him a personality overhaul and turns the arrogant prince into a reserved, kind, and somewhat bemused peasant. When he regains his memory (and we know he will eventually), does he return to the palace and the Crown Princess or does he give up his birthright for love?
Amnesia as conflict
But what happens when two people fall in love and the one of them gets amnesia? Can you love someone if you can’t remember who they are? Or can the soul and heart remember what the mind can forget?
(Major spoilers ahead. I repeat, major spoilers ahead!)
Fated to Love You (2014)
Lee Gun (Jang Hyuk) and Kim Mi Young (Jang Nara) meet in a cruise ship, have a one-night stand, and are forced to marry. However, as the couple starts to develop feelings for each other, Lee Gun gets the devastating news that he has inherited a disease that will eventually cause him to forget his loved ones. In a misguided attempt to save his wife from future suffering, he pushes her away.
Ah, what better plot than a cocktail of noble idiocy and amnesia. If we are faced with the possibility of losing a loved one in the future, do we hold on tightly to the present moment and deal with the impending loss later, or do we let go now to ease the pain of separation in the future?
Devilish Joy/ Devilish Charm (2018)
Sparks fly the first time chaebol Gong Ma-seong (Choi Jin-hyuk, who also starred in Fated to Love You) meets actress Ju Gi-ppeum (Song Ha-yoon). They spend a whirlwind first day together and decide to meet up later in the evening. But of course, the k-drama gods intervene and Ma-seong never makes it to the meeting, having been involved in a life-threatening accident that causes him to have amnesia and short-term memory loss. He can now only retain memories for 24 hours before getting a clean slate the next day.
Several years later, the two meet under other serendipitous but unfortunate circumstances. Gi-ppeum remembers everything perfectly but Ma-seong only has vague feelings of recognition. Contrary to the song, he remembers the feeling, but not the girl. As the two continue to interact, Ma-seong begins to understand that this girl may be the key to unlocking his past. Can he ever love her if he can’t remember her the next day?
Flower of Evil
“You and I somehow got lost…that’s why we need to have a starting point so that we don’t get lost again.” After a life-threatening injury, the anti-hero Hyun-soo (Lee Joon-gi) wakes up with amnesia. Prior to the injury, he had been living a double life as a murder suspect married to a detective who is tasked to hunt him down. But even as the couple managed to live through one devastating revelation to the next—while confirming their love for another along the way—Hyun-soo's amnesia now provides a chance for his wife to walk away from the marriage once and for all. Will she leave, knowing that he will be able to carry on, thanks to the ignorance that amnesia has blessed him with? Or will she stay and rebuild her marriage to a man who no longer knows himself, much less his own wife?