Abusing Jun: The Way This K-Drama Deals With Domestic Abuse Hits Different

Spoiler warning: This post contains spoilers for the drama At A Distance, Spring Is Green.

Trigger warning [TW]: This post contains mentions and discussion of physical abuse and psychological abuse.

I wrote on At A Distance, Spring Is Green when it had a mere two episodes out — and as much as I casually enjoyed it then, I had no idea what I was getting into (or how hopelessly invested I’d become). I recall thinking I was signing up for a lot of fluffy cuteness. And though we do get that in the form of basically everyone in the drama (because they’re all adorable), our story goes far deeper and darker than anything I was expecting. It’s full of smiling, beautiful faces dealing with some of life’s ugliest issues. The most obvious example, of course, being Jun.

Since episode 1, At A Distance has made no secret of the fact that Yeo Jun (Park Ji Hoon) suffered some sort of abuse as a child. As the episodes air, viewers find out more of what that looked like as well as the current dynamic he has with his family. And as truly heartbreaking as all of these scenes are to watch, I found myself struck by the rather unique way this drama presents different forms of domestic abuse and the affects such abuse can have on a family.

Have other dramas done an incredible job portraying tough subjects like abuse? Absolutely! Yet the way At A Distance does so stands out to me — particularly considering the slice-of-life story about youth that it is. Perhaps this lies in just how much of the plot revolves around Jun’s struggles with his family; perhaps it’s because we get to see how damaging psychological (specifically verbal) abuse can truly be. Or perhaps it’s how Jun’s abusive dad is appropriately humanized.

Whatever the case, what At A Distance does feels like a step forward — a road paved, a way made. It feels progressive because, honestly, this type of social problem should be talked about more in dramas so that awareness can grow and we as humans can collectively face these issues together and proactively create change.

It just hits different.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at some specific aspects of At A Distance that aid in the unique way it goes about telling its toughest storyline.

The drama calls it like it is.

At A Distance takes a stand by showing how physical and verbal abuse from his parents have negatively affected Jun’s entire life. No meek skirting around the subject and no conveniently pulling it out when a character needs some “edge.” (Forgive the calloused phrasing, but we’ve all seen it done in shows.) Instead, the drama boldly faces the issue by calling it like it is: beating up your kid and telling them they shouldn’t have been born is not okay — it’s abusive.

Not only was I surprised by how openly the abuse is addressed, but also by how much focus it gets throughout the drama. Typically, an abusive past in TV shows means we get flashbacks here and there, maybe some references to it when called for. But in this case, it’s a massive part of Jun’s character arc, so At A Distance fittingly tackles the tough subject matter with plenty of screen time. (To clarify, that’s screen time spent on the topic in general, whether that means the abuse is being spoken of or thought about; I don’t mean “plenty of screen time” as in literally watching Jun get abused on-screen, though of course we do see some of that as well.)

And no, abuse is not fun to watch, hear, or think about. But it’s vital to address nonetheless because it is a social problem that exists in our world. The more it’s talked about, the more awareness it accumulates. (I know I said that in the beginning of this post; I’m perpetuating the point.) Then these behaviors — these cycles of toxicity — can be recognized, called out, and (hopefully one day) stopped as much as can ever be possible. And what better way to jump-start such critical conversations than via media?

Jun’s dad is humanized, which is actually a good thing in this case.

Before you say anything: yes, the line between trying to evoke sympathy for an antagonist and trying to further understand that antagonist is a fine one, but I think Drama does a superb job displaying the latter. Allow me to explain.

We see Jun’s dad (Kim Hyung Mook) on his own just enough to allow us to see him as a human being — one Jun has a very tangible history with — but not so much as to attempt to evoke sympathy for him. Now, it’s not like we see a ton of him when he’s not in a scene with Jun; there are only about two or three scenes I can think of where that’s the case. But because of these few purposeful, brief moments, viewers get to witness more of a character arc for him. So, rather than a flat archetype, we get a husband and a father with feelings and struggles of his own. In fact, I’d venture to say he’s more developed and well-rounded than most abusive drama-dads — and I think a lot of that is due to this particular creative choice.

Take the following scene, for instance: after his wife leaves him and his domestic violence becomes public knowledge, Jun’s dad wanders around his vast home by himself and eventually gets super drunk. It’s at this point that the drama gives him a few beats on-screen by himself as his new reality sets in. He then goes to visit Jun. In the ensuing conversation with his son, he yells about others looking down on him, to which Jun astutely counters that no one else looks down on him; he’s the one looking down on himself.

To my point, this already-excellent scene holds even more weight after having just witnessed Dad wandering alone around his gigantic, empty house and drowning himself in alcohol. Suddenly, his deep insecurity and loneliness (the latter of which is completely self-imposed) can be felt a lot more acutely; suddenly, everything feels a lot more personal. Without this scene, it would have been much easier to simply view him as an angry, drunk man yelling about people looking down on him.

This brief peek into Jun’s dad’s life without Jun present didn’t suddenly make me feel sorry for Mr. Yeo. But it did help me assemble a more complete picture of the father-son relationship he and Jun have.

The drama validates how damaging psychological abuse is.

Enter: Jun’s mom (So Hee Jung). The reason this mother-son relationship is such a tough pill to swallow boils down to the fact that it’s honestly just really difficult to watch her be so severely cruel to sweet Jun. He is starving for even a morsel of affection from her and she not only withholds that from him, but also actively psychologically abuses him. It’s brutal.

One example of this occurs very early on in the drama after Jun gets verbally attacked and slapped by Dad. After her husband leaves, Mom swoops in with a gentle cheek caress and what initially appears to be concern but quickly turns into a barrage of soft-spoken, devastating verbal abuse.

It’s extremely telling, too, that this is the part where Jun’s tears start to fall — not during the aforementioned altercation with Dad.

Physical damage is simple to portray on-screen, but not so psychological. Drama does a great job showing that the words we say hold power — so, wield them wisely.

(Is it any wonder that Jun collects as many “friends” as he can get so as to receive affirmation from large amounts of people in the hopes of filling the void left by his worthless parents? And on a separate note entirely, is it possible to adopt drama characters?)

The drama shows how the abuse also affects Jun’s brother.

At A Distance does a great job of showing the Yeo family dynamics as they might exist in real life; and it takes it one step further by not only showing us how things look between Jun and his parents, but also between him and his older brother, Jun Wan (Na In Woo), a.k.a. Dramaland’s Best Big Brother Ever.

Jun Wan quite literally sacrifices his entire life to keep Jun safe the best way he knows how — by keeping him away from their parents. As a child, Jun Wan was also abused (by their dad) and makes up his mind to protect Jun from what happened to him by distancing his younger brother from their family as much as possible. How does his pre-adolescent mind decide to do that? By ostracizing Jun. It’s dysfunctional and backwards — but then again, what isn’t with this family?

To add to the utter, gut-wrenching tragedy of all of this is, of course, the fact that Jun has no idea what Jun Wan is doing. He genuinely thinks his older brother hates him and even remembers Jun Wan as being the one who abused him (which is false, but we won’t get into that aspect of the drama in this post).

I was amazed at the character of Jun Wan. I had an inkling since the start that he isn’t as evil as he is made out to be by Jun (who, at that point in the drama, sincerely believes that himself). But I wasn’t prepared for how truly selfless Jun Wan is, going so far as to give up incredible job opportunities to teach at Jun’s less affluent university just so that he can keep an eye on his younger brother from afar.

If there was any pair I could have used more screen time of, it’s definitely these two; I love watching their relationship grow from so dysfunctional and damaged to — still damaged, but a little more functional…and with a lot more hope.

Tragically (but realistically?), Jun’s family never reconciles.

Not going to lie: this irritated me at first. No, I did not want a neatly-wrapped-up-with-a-bow happy little family picnic at the end here — but I wanted closure, which I felt never happened in regards to Jun’s family. When the drama ends, Jun’s mom is still gone and his dad’s on his way to prison. As far as we know. And to be honest, it feels inconclusive. Rather than dwell in that frustration, however, I decided to look at it as being a choice towards realism instead. It makes it a bit more palpable.

Seriously, though, Jun’s dad makes it clear in his last scene that he’s not going to change. And Jun himself (very understandably) says that he’s not sure he can ever forgive his mom. So, there’s really no realistic way this family could somehow patch things up or even get halfway decent closure for Jun — at least not in the finite span of our drama’s run time.

And remember: a significant reconciliation within the family does happen — between Jun and his brother. And I love that.

We get to see Jun open up to someone about the abuse for the first time in his life.

This was one of my favorite moments between our male leads. After recalling a repressed memory and finding out about additional abuse going on within his family, Jun asks close friend and roommate Nam Soo Hyun (Bae In Hyuk) to sit and talk. The subject: fathers. Soo Hyun shares about the hero his own dad was, then asks about Jun’s father. And Jun tells him the truth. The scene poignantly ends with Jun tearfully asking Soo Hyun: “What do I do?”

These moments are so quiet and unassuming that such a scene might have been overlooked in a lesser production. But it’s such a significant turning point for Jun because not only does he recognize that he has a trustworthy friend he can lean on, but he also releases some of the darkness that’s been holed up inside of him his entire life. It’s a beginning step to healing for Jun, and I’m grateful the drama included this moment for viewers to witness.

Before moving on to my outro, I’d like to quickly highlight the brilliant performance Park Ji Hoon gives as Jun. He’s truly spectacular, and I wish him luck in his future projects. To say he owned this role is an understatement.

I love this drama as a whole (sans the final episode, but we aren’t going to get into that right now). So many things had to come together for this project to turn out so beautifully. All of the creators involved, every actor and actress, and — of course — the original webtoon writer themself. Bravo, all, on creating something meaningful.

And in conclusion, I’d like to end on a positive note because, let’s face it, this is a really heavy post. I mentioned I don’t like the finale, but one thing I do like about it is seeing the abundance of hope Jun now has in his life. Early on in the drama, we became acquainted with a happy-go-lucky young man whose sweet, bright smile was his armor. By the end, we get to see Jun find a tightknit group of people (including his older brother) who truly love him unconditionally. And as kitschy as it sounds, someone loving him for who he is — without him feeling like he has to earn it — is what he needs most. So I love that At A Distance gives him that.

Park Ji Hoon (Yeo Jun) with Kang Min Ah (Kim Soo Bin)

I could probably talk about this drama for hours, but alas: my free time is finite, as well as is yours. So, I’ll leave it here for now. I may not be going into as deep analysis as could be done, but hey — I’m starting the conversation.

Feel free to join.

As always, thank you for reading — and happy drama-watching! Until next post.

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