SPOILER WARNING: DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T FINISHED THE SERIES YET!!
(일리있는 사랑 / llriittneun Sarang)
I watched this drama in-between because (again) I saw a gifset on Tumblr which made me go ‘ohh romance’ and I checked it out. In the end it took me longer than expected to finish it, and it was also a heavier drama than I’d anticipated.
The series had 20 episodes, which is kind of long for a regular K-drama I think. Also, each episode lasted and felt especially long because so many emotionally draining stuff happened in each chapter, ans so it took me quite some time to finish as I couldn’t watch it in one go. I also happened to be involved in a fight with someone at the time I started watching, so a lot of things hit close to home in a certain way, so that’s also why it took a little more emotional effort finishing this.
Let me start with why I started it in the first place. First, Lee Shi Young always delivers. I really like her as an actress, I’ve seen several different dramas with her and she always plays a different character. I’ve never seen her play the same kind of character twice. The last I watched of her was Lookout, which I really liked, in which she was tough but also really angsty. Other than that, I’ve only seen her in comedy roles, she’s never afraid to show weird and ugly sides, and I admire that. I liked her character a little less in this drama because it was such a typical kind of person and I guess I prefer her acting when she’s a little bit extra. That’s why I really liked her in the beginning, when she was still an energetic and eccentric high school student which allowed her to show another fun and weird side.
I also knew the actor who played the second male lead, Lee Soo Hyeok, so I was curious what he would bring to the table. For some reason he always plays an unsympathetic character. I think this is the third drama I’ve seen of him after White Christmas and King of High School (I’ve always called him ‘alien vampire’ because of his unique face) and in all three of those dramas he plays a cold, distant guy. Interesting choice to put him beside the versatile Lee Shi Young.
Okay, so here’s the story. Kim Il Ri (played by Lee Shi Young) was an eccentric student at an all-girls high school, she would perform dance rituals so that aliens would pick her up and take her to Andromeda, and so her classmates teasingly called her ‘Andro’. Unconcerned by this, she lives her own outgoing life. Then, a temporary new biology teacher enters, Jang Hee Tae (played by Uhm Tae Woong) and Il Ri falls in love with him, even though he is much older than she is. He specializes in fish, and she fondly calls him ‘Myung Tae’ (‘pollock’). She swears to protect him and even confesses her love. In the beginning, Hee Tae writes it off as a teenage phase, but he slowly gets more interested in her eccentricity as well. At a certain point after she’s told him she can’t help how she feels, they’re almost hit by a car and Il Ri pushes him out of the way, causing her to get hit instead and she falls into a coma. Distraught and feeling guilty, Hee Tae leaves for the sea, where he works as a fish researcher on a boat for a long time after finally returning.
He coincidentally meets Il Ri again, completely recovered and working as an interior painter. The only side effect that remains from her coma is hyperventilation syndrome, which occurs whenever she’s very shocked or upset by something. She greets him again as if nothing has changed, the two hit it off and not long afterwards, they get married.
During their married life of seven years, a lot happens which we don’t see, because we skip right to the part where the ‘affair’ starts. So the only parts we see are the high school flashbacks where they first meet up until the accident, the moment they meet again after several years have passed since the coma, and then when they’ve already been married for seven years.
I may not have made this clear from the start because I started about Il Ri, but the main narrator of the story is Hee Tae. We hear his thoughts most of the time. Even though the summary on dramawiki said that the viewpoints of both Hee Tae and Il Ri would be covered, I found that most of it is filtered through Hee Tae’s point of view.
Even though they seem to be a desirable couple, they still get confronted by other people with the fact that Il Ri is still very young and she has married the first man she fell in love with. She never experienced dating, or a passionate fling, or anything like that. She fell in love with a grown-up man and married him. She never looked at anyone else.
That’s why it might not seem too crazy when she suddenly meets another man, closer to her own age, who makes her heart flutter. She’s not used to experiencing that, so it both amuses and confuses her (amuses, mostly, in the beginning, until the guy starts acting on it).
This other man is Kim Joon (played by Lee Soo Hyeok), a carpenter with a workshop nearby. He works alone, and values his privacy. He meets Il Ri when she is sent by her company to help paint his workshop in the final stages of its completion. In the beginning they don’t really take well to each other, finding each other disrespectful etcetera. But you know how it goes in K-dramas, the best relationships often commence with a rocky start. Tension between then occurs after Il Ri has a hyperventilation attack in front of him and uses the palm of his hand as her airbag to have something to blow in. This brings about some complicated passionate feelings from Carpenter Kim’s side.
Before going into much detail, I want to talk about something else which is a very important but also complicated part of the series: Hee Tae’s family.
Hee Tae is the oldest of three, and the whole family was living in the same house until Hee Tae married and moved somewhere else with Il Ri. But the house is still a regular visiting place. They mostly visit to see Hee Soo, Hee Tae’s younger sister, who seems to be paralyzed and can’t move or speak.
We meet Hee Soo in the high school flashbacks, before she becomes like this. She is very tall and skinny, a dancer, and she seems friendly enough. However, it becomes clear later on that she collapsed on the day Hee Tae and Il Ri got back from their honeymoon and after that somehow she never got better. Exactly how she collapsed or what happened, is never specified or shown – we just have to accept that she ‘collapsed’ and then was paralyzed and became a patient in her own house.
The interesting thing is that even though her character is immobile throughout the whole series, she plays a really big role. We see her walking around the house, eating with the rest of the family, taking walks with Il Ri, dancing through the hospital halls, clipping her nails and stretching in her room. None of this is real, but I suppose this is what she is doing in her mind. She’s also talking a lot, with everyone who comes to visit her, but in real life she’s not saying anything and no one can hear her. It was kind of complicated and I’m still not sure what exactly the point of it all was. Every dialogue she had in the series, and everything she was doing was not real. Maybe it was to show that even though she couldn’t move anymore, she was still mentally a very active person. But this was one of things that I didn’t really understand. Also, the change of hairstyle.
When she was still healthy, she had long wavy hair, but after she became immobile they supposedly cut her hair. I thought that maybe it was because they wouldn’t be able to take care of her long hair anymore, and to save everyone from the trouble of brushing it for her? I couldn’t help but wonder why, instead of just cutting her hair, they had to give her that weird bob haircut. I almost didn’t recognize who she was supposed to be when she was first shown with the short hair.
But what puzzled me a bit (or at least made me wonder if there was a reason for it) was that sometimes during her imaginary outings outside of bed they showed her with her long hair, and sometimes with her short hair. I couldn’t help wondering if there was a reason for that difference, or maybe I just missed it (because I do, I’m not someone who always immediately sees all the symbolism and references).
Anyhow, after Il Ri enters the Jang family, the task to regularly take care of Hee Soo fell to her, no matter how much her own mother disapproves of that. She never argues with it, she is fond of Hee Soo and enjoys spending time with her, but as her own daily life starts changing because of the ‘affair’, cases in which she neglects or plain forgets about leaving Hee Soo by herself occur more often. One time she even forgets leaving Hee Soo alone on the balcony when it starts raining heavily and her mother-in-law finds her and scolds Il Ri for it.
You might say there is a lot left to be desired in the relationship, Hee Tae and Il Ri don’t have a lot of romantic moments, it’s all grown-up stuff and taking care of the in-laws. So when suddenly this younger handsome guy appears who has nothing to do with that and shows genuine romantic interest, I guess you could understand how that would make Il Ri’s heart flutter.
However, and this is one of my main critique points for this series: until what point is something defined as an ‘affair’? I watched a Japanese drama about affairs before (Hirugao), and there I completely disagreed. In the case of Hirugao, the two persons involved were both married, but they found a certain tenderness in each other that they couldn’t feel with their spouses, but in the end they only held hands and kissed maybe once before already ending it for the sake of not wanting to break their marriages. In the case of Valid Love, there were a few passionate kisses, but they were both quite aggressively initiated by Kim Joon, and here too, Il Ri insisted on ending it because she didn’t want to ruin her marriage. It got out because of a leaked sabotaging photo Hee Tae got on his phone, and all hell broke lose.
I think it’s good to critically look at these situations. In the case of Hirugao, I was shocked to see how the two ‘cheaters’ were treated like they’d committed some inhumane criminal act and they were torn away from each other like animals when they were found. That’s where I found myself thinking ‘why would love be a criminal act?’ Most of it was because the spouses were too busy to think about romance. They didn’t even sleep together, they ended it after one or two kisses, is that really an affair? In my opinion, an affair is something that people continue to do whilst being fully aware of the consequences. Voluntarily committing to a second relationship even though they are legally bound to someone else. In this case, it wasn’t like that.
Il Ri’s heart was temporarily swayed by someone else, and for that she got scolded and kicked out of the house. Hee Tae was really angry with her, and even though she first tried to make things better, he couldn’t forgive her. When he finally started remembering the good times again, it was too late for Il Ri. Their feelings passed each other there.
Kim Joon still tried winning Il Ri, but after they stop seeing each other one-on-one, Il Ri never shows the same interest in him again as she did in the beginning. Maybe she still likes him, but it wasn’t really clear to me. Honestly I didn’t think they made a very good pair, I didn’t feel their chemistry and was rooting for Hee Tae. First of all because of the depth we are given regarding the relationship between Il Ri and Hee Tae. And secondly because Kim Joon in my opinion was really selfish throughout the whole story. He only cared about his own feelings, he didn’t even care about Hee Tae and the attachments Il Ri had to the Jang family. When they were about to divorce he just plain asked Hee Tae if it was okay if he would take Il Ri then, not even flinching at the realization that he was partially responsible for ruining a married couple’s relationship. He even decides by himself to take Il Ri away to live somewhere together, telling Hee Tae of this plan before he even asks Il Ri herself if she’s even up for it (which she isn’t).
I remember one scene that I really approved of was when Il Ri sat around the table with both men and came clean about her feelings. It’s common in K-dramas that conflicts arise because there’s always someone not telling the complete truth about how they’re feeling so this was very refreshing. She just told them straight that she had feelings for them both and that she couldn’t help what had happened. The rest was up to the two stubborn men. Il Ri gave her own kind of strength, because she was caught up between two alpha males who tried to shove her aside whenever something was happening (‘go back inside, let the men talk’ etc.) but she never complied with that. She was like ‘no way, I’m involved in this too’, and I admired her standing up for herself like that. She didn’t let the men handle her, she handled herself.
The series’ title is not only a word pun (because apparently ‘ilri’ means ‘valid’), but it’s a good title because the main theme throughout the story was if Il Ri’s love was ‘valid’. She experienced her exciting ‘first love’ and her stable ‘last love’ in the opposite order (quoted from dramawiki because it’s such a good way to describe it). However, since the narration was mostly from Hee Tae, I can’t really say that I understood how Il Ri felt about everything. She got someone’s interest by being her giggly and talkative self, maybe she didn’t even want it to happen, but it did. The real thing to consider, I think, is what weighs the most: all the good times you’ve had and the trust and the stability of being a married couple for 7 years even though maybe the magic has worn off a bit, or the one time that one of you makes a mistake (and immediately corrects it).
Asking each other ‘When was the last time your heart fluttered for me?’ was a key dialogue in that. Not being able to answer the question was too.
In the end Il Ri still felt too much commitment to Hee Tae and his family to leave for good. Even if she would leave, she’d somehow come back again.
So many people, including her mother, her younger sister and Carpenter Kim told her that she needs to leave there, she shouldn’t be asked to take care of both Hee Soo and her mother-in-law when she starts developing dementia, but she still wants to stay. There was no moment in which she thought ‘You know what, you’re right! I’m not wasting my life like this anymore!’ No, she would say ‘Don’t talk like that, you don’t understand. I want to take care of them. They’re my family.’ This made me think of Taiwanese drama series My Life Plan A and B, in which the female lead is in fact almost like a slave to her in-law family and does feel this way, like she isn’t appreciated enough and she wished she’d chosen her own career over staying with her husband’s demanding family. I think this says a lot about Il Ri’s sincerity, others might think she’s being pressured by her in-laws, but she never thinks of it like that herself.
The plot of Hee Tae’s mother developing dementia initially felt a bit unnecessary for me, but in the end it kind of bound everyone together again. We’d just had this whole ‘affair’ drama, things were super tense between Il Ri and the two men, and then this happens and they find themselves involuntarily getting involved with each other again. I feel like the main motive for Mrs. Go’s dementia was to get Kim Joon more involved in their family as well. Mrs. Go mistakes him for a younger version of her husband and starts visiting his workshop several times. She calls him ‘Mr. Jang’, and Kim Joon doesn’t tell her otherwise so she accepts her illusion as the truth.
When Hee Tae and Il Ri find out about it, they initially try and play along and urge Carpenter Kim to keep pretending to be Mr. Jang, but when the real Mr. Jang finds out it leads to rioting fights in the house, because Mrs. Go doesn’t recognize her real husband anymore which is really painful for the whole family.
Mrs. Go is a really proud woman, so she doesn’t even fully acknowledge her own illness in the beginning, and the rest of the family is constantly smoothing out all her actions with things like ‘No, you can’t help it, you’re just sick, we don’t blame you’, but I’m glad that there was a confrontation where she was faced with her dementia and the fact that she was unable to recognize her own husband.
I don’t know, I think it’s good to take things into account and know when to be subtle when it concerns a sick person, but I feel like in the end, what the sick person needs to know and wants to hear is the truth about what’s wrong with them, no matter how difficult, and that they will appreciate that more than when everyone around them has to pretend everything is fine.
In the end, Hee Soo passes away and I think that with this a lot is solved. Hee Soo was always aware that she kept people worried and she felt like such a burden and honestly, what she had wasn’t life. She wasn’t living, she was a vegetable. She had nothing left to live for, she would just lie on a bed without being able to speak a word or move a muscle and only watch as her family bustled about and talked to her about things which she could never experience herself. The only way she could communicate was through her eyes, through blinking (once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no’), piercing stares and tears. The moment where she expresses that she wishes to die was a very emotional moment, because she couldn’t say it. She said it, in her mind, but nobody could hear her.
So I really thought it was a good thing for her that she passed away. She could finally be free and that made her the happiest. After that, I felt like a lot of tension disappeared, Il Ri didn’t really have a legal reason anymore to keep visiting and she initially leaves, but then meets Hee Tae again and they somehow end up reminiscing again and rediscovering that fluttering feeling they used to feel for each other. It’s better that they were able to make a clean start like this, after the whole aftermath, and after all the stress was gone and the anger about the ‘affair’ had also passed. In the end, Hee Tae and Il Ri get back together and Kim Joon moves away on his own and they’re all more or less at peace with everything.
In the meantime, there is a little comic relief created by Hee Tae’s younger brother Gi Tae (Park Jung Min) and Il Ri’s younger sister Yi Ri (Han Eu Ddeum), who are polar opposites and always fighting, but they end up falling for each other as well. I’m not sure if this is going to work out, because they’re legally in-laws but it was a bit of light and sweet within all the heavy emotions.
Conclusively, I’m still mostly confused about Hee Soo’s function, although I do feel that she wasn’t only something that kept binding Il Ri to the Jang family. There is a bit of foreshadowing in the first episode where we meet Hee Soo before everything happens and Hee Tae narrates that ‘she would later become Il Ri’s poltergeist’. So I thought that maybe she would be a super mean sister-in-law but in the end it took a very different turn. I don’t really see her as Il Ri’s poltergeist, though, but maybe indeed a as a factor keeping her close. At a certain point there seemed to be a parallel between her and Il Ri, where she was maybe even a mirror for a moment.
Hee Soo was alive but she wasn’t ‘living’. She missed taking walks, dancing, moving, as she used to be a very physically active person.
Il Ri used to be very active as well, running around, dancing to Andromeda, but after all that happened she was derived of a lot of that past eccentricity.
I believe towards the end she said something to Hee Soo like ‘I feel like these days I’ve been breathing but not really ‘living’ doing things I like’. This becomes even clearer when Il Ri has another hyperventilation attack and doesn’t wake up for about a week. Just before passing away, Hee Soo visits her (in her head, I suppose) and suddenly Il Ri becomes like Hee Soo, sitting up straight in bed while actually she’s still unconscious.
Hee Soo tells her that she needs to wake up, that she still has a lot of things to do, things she likes.
After passing away, we also see Hee Soo with a bright smile running along the streets, dancing, taking pictures in the park – finally free from her physical imprisonment.
Overall, it was a very heavy emotional drama which dealt with complicated emotions and the ‘validness’ of certain emotions. In the end, the shared experiences and memories of a 7-year marriage were strong enough to bring Hee Tae and Il Ri back together and get over one instance of wavering trust. I think that means that the bond between them is that good. If it wasn’t, it would’ve probably ended a lot easier for both of them and they would’ve been able to say ‘Okay bye then’ a lot quicker. But it was so clear that they both still had so many lingering feelings and a mutual feeling of responsibility towards their in-laws. They would never be able to become strangers after that, to just let it go and start new lives. Their bond was too strong, even a younger handsome distraction couldn’t break that.
It occurred to me that we always look for reasons and explanations when it comes to feeling. Why do we feel like that? Is it okay if I feel like this? But you know what, feelings don’t give a damn about ‘why’ or ‘how’. They just happen. The thing with marriage is that you’re lawfully bound to one person and you’re not supposed to go beyond those borders. But feelings don’t care about borders and laws. If you’re married but your heart flutters for someone else, that’s just that. What you do with it is up to you. It’s our own reactions to those feelings that make things complicated. Sometimes you have to let it go, sometimes you feel like you have to act on it. It differs per person.
But I still think it’s wrong to get angry at a person for falling in love, because no-one can help falling in love. There is no logic or science to feelings, the heart responds as it likes.
So looking for the ‘validness’ of feelings seems a little much to me. Because it tries to put rules and regulations on invisible things we can’t control.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying cheating is legit. People who are actively having an affair definitely have something to explain and apologize for. And you can get angry at them for being unfaithful and breaking the trust, that’s all normal. But I don’t think you can get angry at them for falling in love with someone else.
Because that’s out of all our hands.