The Saranghae Series: Searching for Soulmates
Finding one’s soulmate is the bread and butter of romantic stories. But k-drama does it a little bit better. In this second article of our Saranghae Series, we talk about what makes finding one’s soulmate in k-dramaland a little extra.
There’s an entire generation of adults between the ages of 35 and 50, who for a brief moment in their lives, believed that "You complete me,” is the most romantic thing they can ever say to or hear from their significant other (at least until they realized how toxic it can be to approach a relationship seeking wholeness from the other). The main cause for this strange phenomenon was an American film called Jerry Maguire. Released in 1996, it featured Tom Cruise in his movie star prime and Renee Zelwegger, an up-and-coming actress, in a romance that profited from a great script, good acting, believable chemistry, and a hit song by Bruce Springsteen.
Of course, the concept of being someone’s soulmate predates the film by thousands of years. Plato’s explanation of the Greek myth of human beings being born with four legs, four arms, and two faces is often cited. According to the same myth, Zeus feared humans’ power so much that he struck them in two and forced them to spend their entire lives hoping to reconnect with their soul’s other half—their soulmate. (Following this line of thought, one would also wonder if Zeus really were afraid of human power, he probably shouldn’t have spent so much time populating the earth with demigods. But I digress…)
This concept of duality and complementarity is found in ancient Chinese philosophy as well. Both yin and yang are necessary to create cosmic balance. Whether you subscribe to Eastern or Western thought, the central idea is basic: there is someone out there for everyone. Fate has a hand on us finding the one person with whom we can spend the rest of our lives in a blissfully happy state.
The soulmate plot has thrived so well that it has become a cliché for over two millennia. How, then, does one keep something so ancient, so fresh? K-drama writers have a few tricks up their sleeves when it comes to that.
First, they’ll set up a completely rare condition for the male or female lead. The more interesting the situation, the better for the drama. It needs to be something that can be hidden but radically affects their lives—a medical, psychic, or mystical challenge that the lead has to deal with and that isolates him or her from the world.
Second, they’ll write the other half of the couple to be the antithesis. She’s got the illness? He’s the cure. (Notice that he doesn’t have the cure; he is the cure.) He’s a little different? She’s the one person who actually doesn’t mind. You get the point.
Finally, they’ll put the couple in various situations where they realize that they need the other to survive. This leads to the realization that their external compatibility is only the first step to their internal destiny. The drama then ends with various reincarnations of the same line: “You complete me.” As a bonus, the writers might throw in a heartwarming truth about the human condition.
Below are some k-dramas that creatively present the soulmate storyline and make the viewers long to find their own soulmates. Minor spoilers ahead.
I Am Not A Robot (2017-18)
Kim Min-kyu (Yoo Seung-ho) stars as a chaebol (a member of a very wealthy family) who is allergic to human touch. This debilitating illness keeps him isolated from everyone around him and unable to form genuine connections with others. Chae Soo-bin plays a human being, Jo Ji-ah, who needs to pretend to be a robot named AJI 3. Of course, Jo Ji-ah happens to be the one person that Min-kyu is immune to. The sci-fi premise actually belies one of the most heartfelt romances in k-dramaland. The robot technology really only highlights the often taken-for-granted truth that human beings need connections to become human.
About Time (2018)
Another drama, another chaebol (because if they’re going to be obscenely wealthy and devastatingly handsome anyway, they might as well have great romances too!). Choi Michaela (Lee Sung-kyung) has the special ability to see the remaining days, hours, and seconds left in a person’s life. To her, it looks like a digital countdown timer on people’s skin. What makes it worse is, she is able to see her own remaining time. This causes her to live a conflicted life, torn between wanting to YOLO or to make things as ordinary as they can be. Enter chaebol, Lee Do-ha (Lee Sang-yoon), who, Michaela notices, causes her life clock to stop its countdown. The rest is a story of two people coming to grips with the reality that time is fleeting but love makes the journey worthwhile.
Master’s Sun (2013)
This couldn’t possibly be about another chaebol could it? *Shaking my head and patting reader’s hand. “It’ll be alright. I promise.”* The talented Gong Hyo-jin does what she does best in this k-drama. She plays Tae Gong-shi, a perpetually terrified woman, who sees ghosts around her. However, when she’s with chaebol Joo Joong-won (played by the debonair So Ji-sub), the dead people magically disappear. This prompts Gong-shi to hang on to Joong-won for dear life. Both leads adeptly maneuver the heavy themes of death and dying along with the levity of their banter and obvious chemistry as they come to terms with the skeletons in their closet and the ghosts of their past.
Beauty Inside (2018)
Based on a 2015 Korean film, this k-drama tells the story of a popular actress Han Se-gye (Seo Hyun-jin) who, once a month, morphs into a different body. She has no control over whom she transforms into (male, female, young, old) or when it happens. She spends part of her month pretending to play a character and the other half literally living in someone else’s skin. She then meets Seo Do-jae (Lee Min-ki), an airline executive. (Does that count as being a chaebol? Anyway…) Lucky for her, he happens to have prosopagnosia, or the inability to recognize faces. As they deal with the challenges of both their handicaps, they consistently choose to hold on to what lies beneath, proving that love is not only skin deep.
Oh My Venus (2015)
In another So Ji-sub romantic comedy, we are treated to the sparkling chemistry between an overweight, overlooked wallflower played by Shin Min-a and a wealthy, personal trainer to the Hollywood stars with a hidden illness played by So Ji-sub. (Apparently, non-chaebol peasants have no hope of finding our soulmates). As he trains her and helps her overcome her self-esteem issues, she inspires him to open up as well. The drama follows the two as they begin to mend physically and emotionally, showing us that it takes a village to help us heal.
Even if we know k-drama only sets us up for an ending we’re coming to expect, we still watch it anyway. Maybe because in a world where relationships can get so complicated, we find it comforting to imagine a life where soulmates can exist and the universe conspires with us to meet, so we can be whole again.
You can read the first part of our Saranghae Series about k-drama confessions here.