Where is the love?
Korean television dramas (K-dramas) rarely present a straightforward romance. They are often driven by convoluted courtships where likeable couples spend the series overcoming obstacles in order to eventually embark on an uplifting relationship. In My Lovely Samsoon, for example, the romance slowly develops between a “chubby,” down-on-her luck baker with an old-fashioned name (“Samsoon” has the ring of “Gertrude” or “Mildred”) and the attractive, arrogant heir to a hotel chain. Separated by economic class, social standing and family background, they endear themselves to the viewer and eventually become a couple.
Not every K-drama is so morally tidy, however. Consider the 2010 K-drama Baker King Kim Tak Goo, which features a couple whose romance is based on dysfunction rather than love. Baker King revolves around the plight of the title character, Kim Tak Goo: his separation from his mother, his slow development as a baker, and ultimate success in love and life. A complex romantic subplot, however, constantly intersects the main narrative. It features Ma Joon, whom everyone believes to be Tak Goo’s half-brother, and Ma Joon’s childhood sweetheart, Yoo Kyung.
Initially, Ma Joon and Yoo Kyung appear to be a familiar pair in K-dramas: a man and woman too different to be destined for couplehood because they come from radically different backgrounds, much like the romantic leads of My Lovely Samsoon, Secret Garden, Boys over Flowers and The Duo. The only male child in an affluent family, Ma Joon is taught from an early age to look down on others. Thanks to his obliging mother, Seo In Sook, he grows up arrogant and spoiled. On the other hand, Yoo Kyung comes from an impoverished rural background. While she is smart and a hard worker, she struggles through her life.
While the members of couples in other K-dramas become better people by overcoming their differences and coming together, Ma Joon and Yoo Kyung are morally compromised when they become a couple, and those problems are not easily resolved. Both characters, we learn, are the victims of childhood trauma. Yoo Kyung experienced physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her father for years before authorities intervened, while Ma Joon discovered, as a young boy, that he is actually the child of In Sook and Han Seung Jae, the family’s caretaker. When the adulterous couple assaulted his grandmother—an assault that contributes to her death—the young Ma Joon was a witness. These traumatic events render Ma Joon and Yoo Kyung capable of going to extreme lengths for revenge, and as adults, they bond over their desire to get back at those who treat them badly.
The heir apparent to his father’s baking empire, Ma Joon has liked Yoo Kyung since childhood, and continues to pursue her as an adult, but his efforts to help her draw the attention of In Sook, his mother, and they backfire terribly. Believing that the younger woman is attempting to seduce her son, In Sook punishes Yoo Kyung by thwarting her every effort to get ahead. She instigates her eviction from her apartment, abuses her as an employee at the baking company and ultimately sends thugs to force her to sign a resignation letter. Yoo Kyung becomes emotionally spent, and Ma Joon cannot contain his anger at his mother’s constant interference in his life.
Yoo Kyung and Ma Joon agree to date, and eventually marry, but it’s clear that they do so to gain revenge on In Sook. They may develop feelings for each other along the way, but these feelings are entangled in their mutual disdain for In Sook and desire for revenge. Indeed, after the wedding, Yoo Kyung actually surpasses Ma Joon in the way she punishes In Sook. She not only uses her position as the new “first lady” of the baking company to lord it over In Sook, she also uses her knowledge of In Sook’s involvement in Ma Joon’s grandmother’s death to rob In Sook of her influence in social circles.
Ma Joon eventually succumbs to the positive influence of his half-brother, Tak Goo, the “Baker King.” Yoo Kyung, however, continues on her downward moral spiral. By the end of the series, Ma Joon has to take his wife away in an effort to rehabilitate her negative ways, and she remains a questionable character who has not redeemed herself.
We often think of popular romance as a clear-cut moral fantasy: the good end happily, the bad get punished, and true love conquers all. Ma Joon and Yoo Kyung demonstrate, however, that in K-dramas, not all romances come from love and affection. They embark on a romance where traumas in the past and questionable morals in the present fundamentally complicate their love. Audiences are left to wonder: are they together because they love each other, or as part of their mutual need for revenge?
Crystal S. Anderson (PhD) is an associate professor in the English Department at Elon University (NC). Her primary area of research is comparative cultural studies (African American, Asian, Asian American) focusing on literature, visual culture and popular culture. She currently conducts research on Korean popular culture (K-pop and K-drama) at KPK: Kpop Kollective. Find out more about Crystal Anderson.