Updated: Mar 6
Welcome to the first piece of the Saranghae Series, a collection of articles devoted to breaking down and analyzing the tropes, the trends, and the cultural nuances of recurring scenes in k-drama.
Here, we take a look at an essential scene of the k-drama rom-com: the confession. We also take a look at our favorite heart-melting, knee-weakening scenes from some of our favorite couples.
How do you prefer your romantic confessions? Daring and straightforward after a near-death experience? Long and rambling with a side of soju-induced courage? Or sweet and innocent capped with a forehead kiss? K-drama has got romantic confessions down to a science, which is why confession scenes are probably the most replayed and re-shared.
The confession, whether intentional or half-conscious, simple or grandiose, successful or steeped in failure, is the turning point of a romantic relationship, and is the reason why k-drama writers take such painstaking efforts to write their confession scenes. This is the lead character’s major moment of naked vulnerability, and thankfully in this day and age, either of the leads can confess first! However, to ensure that a confession scene has maximum impact and significance, it must be structured in a way that the audience can relate to the fear, anxiety, and stress that come with it. A really memorable confession is a major highlight of a well-told love story and, in order to be successful, must have a combination of certain elements.
The first element of an amazing confession scene is a well-written dialogue and its timing, one that argues beyond doubt that the couple is meant to be together at this point in time, and not earlier. Interestingly enough, many confession dialogues do not utter the word "love" at all. Sometimes, it's a shy, "I like you." Often, no words are needed at all. An unexpected kiss, or an arm casually draped around the shoulder can signify the start of a whole new direction in the relationship. But no matter how the confession is expressed, it needs to be said or done at the right time and under the right conditions of the story. If done too early in the show, it becomes weird and creepy. Said too late, and it is just downright frustrating or infuriating.
But words on a script can only go so far, which brings us to the second critical element of a memorable confession scene. In theory, putting two good-looking people together should be enough for a rom-com, but it does not make it great. Palpable chemistry is what makes or breaks the authenticity of the confession scene and adds necessary weight to the words of our brave confessor. The chemistry must have been built up carefully and meticulously in prior episodes, with a handful of will-they-or-won't-they moments to keep us watching and waiting. Bonus points if there has been an incredible amount of unresolved sexual tension simmering for the last five episodes or so. Without the necessary build-up, the penultimate confession scene just becomes a flat and completely contrived moment.
But remember that the confession is only one half of the scene. We need to watch for the reaction of the other party: Will he accept her love? Will she walk out? Will they embrace the love head-on, or will this end in embarrassment and tears? The reaction must be as satisfying as the confession itself: It will either beautifully resolve the tension of the moment, or will simply undo everything and
turn it into just another cheesy, forgettable minute in k-dramaland.
Finally, there is the matter of the audience's stress. Viewers must have as much investment in the romance as the characters themselves. We must have pined for the love interest as much as the lead has for the last eight or so episodes. We must have gone through each almost-but-not-yet scene, hoping that someone would finally break through the barrier of repressed emotions to say what we have known all along: that the two leads belong together. Once again, timing is crucial. If we're not so invested yet in these two, and a confession comes too early in the game, it throws the whole plot off and makes the romance forced and off-putting.
Other elements also come into play to amplify the confession scene, such as setting and imagery (Petals! First snow!), the background music (cue instrumental version of the theme song), and lighting (Bokeh! Bokeh everywhere!).
There are many ways to confess a love, and they usually fall on a spectrum that ranges from ultra-serious on one end, to hilarious and awkward on the other. Confession scenes are also either realistic or parodic, and contemporary k-drama has no problem writing a scene that can either happen in real life, or one that serves as a wish fulfillment for its largely female audience.
K-dramaland has produced thousands of rom-coms, yet only a handful of confession scenes have become memorable. Why? Blame it on a number of things: formulaic and lazy dialogue, non-existent chemistry, a lousy setting, or unremarkable characters. It's also likely that the scene was not relatable nor comfortable for today's audience (wrist-grabbing in 2021? Really?!?). In short, the writers and their actors simply failed to evoke the dizzying rush of emotions in a way that only a well-crafted rom-com scene can.
Truly, there is so much more to the art and craft of the confession scene than simply "boy tells girl he loves her."
Below, we take a look at three of the usual confession styles used in k-dramaland, backed up by some of our favorite confession scenes.
Also, spoilers ahead.
The Straightforward Confession
Exhibit A: Jun-wan and Ik-sun in Hospital Playlist (2020)
In this refreshingly blunt confession, Jun-wan (Jung Kyung-ho), our “cold” doctor from Hospital Playlist, decides to tell the sister of his best friend that he likes her. With zero awkwardness or hesitation, he grabs Ik-sun’s hand and asks ever so matter-of-factly, “Have I told you that I like you?” While most leads take days----and even years----to confess, Jun-wan chucks that playbook out the window, throws the big brother act with it, and simply asks Ik-sun (Kwak Sun-young) to go out with him. Nothing fancy or extravagant, just a sincere love finally admitted, right then and there.
Major props to writer Lee Woo-jung who knows that not all romantic confessions need a snowy backdrop or even a shower of cherry blossom petals. Sometimes it just needs a light joke, some chocolate candies, and then an unsuspecting dose of forthrightness first thing in the morning. Lucky girl, this Ik-sun.
Exhibit B: Dong-man and Ae-ra in Fight for My Way (2017)
It's one of the most difficult risks to take: convincing your best friend that you're in love with her. Most of us have spent a greater part of this drama wanting to shake Ko Dong-man’s broad shoulders and tell him that the love of his life is right in front of him. By episode 10, viewers are at their wits' end waiting for Dong-man (Park Seo-joon) to finally make his move on his best friend, Ae-ra (Kim Ji-won). Enter an ex-girlfriend who wants him back. Ae-ra watches from the window and, as is wont in k-dramas, fully misunderstands the situation where Dong-man is telling his ex off. Just as she’s about to go down in history as yet another victim of a misunderstood moment, Dong-man finally figures out what he wants. He crosses the great divide from indecision to intention as he runs after her and kisses her.
“I won’t lose you again,” he says. “Let’s stop taking detours!”
Thankfully, his confession is straightforward and passionate, much like the character he portrays. He knows exactly the depth of the friendship he is giving up, but he offers her an equally sincere and stable relationship in its place. “I don’t do flings,” he tells her bluntly, assuring her of the depth of his feelings and commitment. And just like that, he takes the friendzone to the end zone.
The Comedic Confession
Exhibit A: Gang-tae and Moon-young in It's Okay to Not Be Okay (2020)
When your first “saranghae” doesn’t work, what’s a man to do? Repeat it, of course, in all the permutations available to the Korean language.
“Jinjja nomu nomu saranghae”
And the ever poetic, “YA!”
This hilarious scene is the reversal of the show’s first confession scene where a blunt Ko Moon-young (Seo Yea-ji) confesses to a rather shocked Moon Gang-tae (Kim Soo-hyun), who swiftly dismisses her feelings and ignores all her other attempts at seducing him. But now the tables have turned, and it’s up to Gang-tae to convince her that he’s now serious about taking their relationship to the next level. It’s this delightful twist----and their insane sexual chemistry----that makes this confession scene one for the k-drama books.
Exhibit B: Si-jin and Mo-yeon in Descendants of the Sun (2016)
The first half of the Descendants of the Sun is a will-she-or-won’t-she waiting game for Dr. Kang Mo-yeon (Song Hye-kyo). She very obviously desires the Captain Yoo Si-jin (Song Joong-ki) of the Special Forces Unit. The audience knows it. She knows it. He knows it. And yet, she stubbornly refuses to admit it out loud because she thinks that a relationship with someone who lives such a dangerous life is pointless. So when a near-death experience forces her to admit her feelings to herself, through a desperate last-minute recorded call to him which she doesn't get to send, her words of love and affection come out in all their unadulterated, unguarded glory. The problem is the recording gets played over the base’s loudspeakers. She’s not only confessing to him, she’s confessing to everyone within earshot! Now she must decide if her pride is worth hanging on to, if it means she must give up the incredibly charming and cocky Captain.
The hilarity of the scene, as well as the utter secondhand embarrassment we feel for Dr. Kang is a surefire way to make us squeal, cringe, and laugh at the way love makes utter fools of us all.
The Heartfelt Confession
Exhibit A: Han-gyeul and Eun-chan in Coffee Prince (2007)
In this 2007 gender-bender, Eun-chan (Yoon Eun-hye) disguises herself as a man to land a higher-paying job that accepts only men (how relevant up to this day!). After trying to figure out his emotions and the possible consequences of his attraction to another "man," Han-gyeul (Gong Yoo) haplessly tells Eun-chan,“I like you. I don’t care if you’re a man or an alien anymore."
As (pseudo) homosexual love was considered taboo in 2007 Korea, we see Han-gyeul try his best to suppress his emotions. However, love is too potent a force of nature to either contain or ignore. By the middle of the series, Han-gyeul is so attracted to Eun-chan that he can’t help but eventually pour his heart out in a confession that was ahead of its time, proving that love indeed transcends sex or gender----maybe even species?
Exhibit B: Jin-ah and Joon-hee in Something in the Rain (2018)
They say one must grab the opportunity when it presents itself----and in the case of Something in the Rain, the grabbing can be quite literal. Who can forget that moment when Yoon Jin-ah (Son Ye-jin), a noona (older woman) marks her territory by grabbing the hand of Joon-hee (Jung Hae-in) under the dining table, leaving the poor man shocked and incoherent? But once things have settled and a mutual understanding has been established by our leads, a confession by Jin-ah once again has the power to stop our boy Joon-hee in his tracks. While biking, he happens upon a sound file his lady love left for him, detailing how grateful and how happy she is to have someone love and respect her as much as he does. Her confession is so sincere and so honest, that it overwhelms Joon-hee and brings him to tears. The feels of the entire scene are pushed to even greater kilig heights as Rachel Yamagata’s whispery vocals kick in, adding more poignancy to the already incredibly sentimental----and unforgettable----scene.
Exhibit C: Captain Ri and Se-ri in Crash Landing on You (2019)
Not every confession happens under romantic circumstances----sometimes that first “saranghaeyo” is uttered over a rushed phone call, through tears, followed by the bone-chilling sound of a gunshot. Such was the confession of Yoon Se-ri (Son Ye--jin) to Captain Ri (Hyun Bin) as she was held at gunpoint by unknown assailants, leaving him in stunned silence as tears rolled down his handsome face.
This cliffhanger happens exactly halfway through Crash Landing on You, so although we as viewers know this isn't the end for our star-crossed lovers, we can feel Ri Jeong-hyeok's pain and despair as he's left to wonder: “Is she still alive? Where is she? Will I ever see her again?” This stressful mix of horror, anguish, uncertainty, and desperation infuses the confession scene with more urgency and investment from the audience than any other style.
Fortunately for our North Korean captain, he later gets to confess his feelings to Yoon Se-ri over soju----telling her that he wants to remain in South Korea to marry, raise twins, and grow old with her----in one of the drama's most memorable scenes. The scene is so earnest and heartfelt that, as revealed in the behind-the-scenes footage, even Son Ye-jin couldn't stop her tears from flowing after the cameras had stopped rolling.
From the awkward beginning to the uncertain end, the k-drama confession scene is a stressful, nerve-wracking moment for both the characters AND the audience. But when carefully written and executed, it can transform an adequate moment into something truly unforgettable and even remind us all of that beautiful moment when we first realized we were in love.
What's your favorite k-drama confession scene?
Read more of the Saranghae Series here.