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.

The abuse theme is heavily featured.

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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When Less Is Truly More: ‘Move To Heaven’ And ‘Navillera’ Prove The Best Stories Are Simple

*This post is spoiler-free for both dramas.*

Quick caveat: I use the word “simple” several times in this post (and in the title, of course), so allow me to define it by the standards with which I am using it. By “simple,” I mean “not complicated.” I am not inferring, by any means, that these dramas are of poor quality, writing or otherwise. Quite the opposite, in fact. No, “simple” is good. And I’ll tell you why.

Ultimately, Move To Heaven and Navillera are simple stories with straightforward plots. There are no forbidden loves or birth secrets, no intricately interwoven webs of deception or melodramatic tales of a rags-to-riches protagonist. In fact, neither drama even has romance as a main plotline. Yet, I adored both dramas immensely. And I’m not the only one — tons of viewers globally are freaking loving them. Naturally, this got me thinking: why are these modest stories garnering so much worldwide attention?

Allow me to clarify that I’m not asking “Why?” because I don’t think they deserve praise or recognition — on the contrary, I think both dramas deserve all the attention they’re getting and more. Rather, I’m questioning their success in light of our current world. Cynicism aside, I think it’s undeniable that so many things in this world are complex — and I think media in general strives to meet those attention-grabbing standards with the likes of intersecting timelines, criminal masterminds, serial killers, melodrama, etc. The louder, crazier, more twisted and colorful, the better. And while all of these things have their time and place in movies and on television (because believe me, I love a good crime/mystery drama as much as the next person), it’s just plain refreshing and renewing to watch something without all of that once in a while.

Let’s take a brief look at Move To Heaven; I was struck almost instantly by how incredibly predictable this drama is. Nearly nothing about it surprised or shocked me. I don’t say that to diss it, but as an observation that fascinated me because — despite the lack of shock and awe — I was absolutely hooked. Which, of course, caused me to wonder why I loved it so much. Hence, this post.

Same goes for Navillera. I wouldn’t call it predictable, as I just did with Move To Heaven. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the ending. However, I found myself asking the same question because, when asked to describe the drama, I said, “It’s about a 70-year-old man who begins learning ballet…”. That’s it; that’s the bare bones. Now, I have issues with concision (read: I talk way too much), especially in regards to Asian dramas. (Hence, this blog, in all honesty.) So, the fact that I was able to give a short answer when asked what Navillera is about slightly astounded me. And, once again, I found myself wondering why I was so wholly invested in such a simple story.

I think I wrote this post for myself. I needed to figure out what it was about these stories that struck me to the core so unapologetically. The answer?

Move To Heaven and Navillera reminded me of the things in life that are truly meaningful: family, love, friendship. Human relationships. People growing, developing, failing, learning, and overcoming personal demons. People living life.

I don’t always need to watch murder mysteries or melodramas to feel invested. Once in a while, I may need to take a step back from all that and remember that sometimes the simple things in life are the most valuable, the most beautiful. Sometimes less is truly more.

As far as dramas go, Move To Heaven and Navillera can really ground you if you let them. They’ll also likely make you ugly-cry. At least, that’s what my friend said… .

As always, thank you for reading and happy drama-watching!

Currently watching: Mine, Law School

Next on my watch-list: Imitation

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Why ‘Law School’ Is The Drama I’ve Been Waiting For

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, Law School is very possibly the K-drama I’ve been waiting for. For my entire life. Allow me to sort through my thoughts on it because so far, I’m completely on board. In fact, if I have any reservations at this point, it’s only in the form of desperately hoping this drama stays as good as it’s starting off.

Keep reading to find out what I love so far — and what I would caution viewers to be wary of.

What to look forward to:

The story wastes no time getting started. We find ourselves in the midst of a mock trial, where an actual murder takes place during the allotted break time. You mean we get to the interesting part right away? Sign me up.

The characters are immediately fascinating. I won’t name names but lately I’ve dropped several dramas (that appeared very interesting initially) because I was simply unable to invest in the bland characters. It doesn’t matter how clever a story might be; if you have no characters to empathize with, root for, or at least be fascinated in, the drama won’t be worth watching (in my humble opinion). So far, these characters’ subtle glances and gestures draw the viewer in right away — and in mere minutes, I found myself both interested and invested in characters I know next to nothing about.

The mystery is far more complex than it initially appears. What starts as a classic whodunit quickly spirals into an intriguing web of deception and secrets. And it seems like nearly everyone has something to hide.

The leading lady is both humorously relatable and intelligent. I’ve only ever seen Ryu Hye Young in Reply 1988, but that was enough for me to know she has excellent comedic timing — something she brings to this role in a subtle, down-to-earth way. But we know it won’t only be giggles and grins when it comes to Kang Sol; she’s putting herself through law school for a very personal reason and something tells me this girl won’t stop until justice (in her eyes) is served.

The soundtrack is phenomenal. I don’t usually get too enthusiastic about soundtracks, but this music is incredibly gorgeous (and haunting). It’s used tactfully, supporting scenes properly rather than distracting from them.

The cast is stellar. If you’ve been watching K-dramas for any length of time, you’ll likely notice several extremely talented and familiar faces right off the bat (Lee David, Ryu Hye Young, and Kim Beom, to name only a few). Those you don’t recognize will quickly grab your attention. Everyone is doing a phenomenal job in the mere four episodes out, which makes me all the more excited for what’s to come!

A word of caution:

The time hops require careful following. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that I often have to pay extra close attention when a drama involves several timelines. Please don’t let this deter you from watching; the different timelines (which are really just large flashbacks) are well-done and are no doubt presented as clearly as the production team deemed possible. They’re also absolutely necessary for the story. And once you get into the swing of it, they’re not difficult to follow. But if this kind of thing is typically harder for you to keep track of (again, maybe it’s just me!), I’d suggest simply going into the drama expecting it and you’ll be fine.

(Update as of 05/12/2021: These time hops/flashbacks really only occur heavily in the first episode or two. It’s not something that continues consistently as the drama airs. I just thought that was worth noting.)

If it seems like I’m grasping for straws with the “timelines” thing, it’s because I am. I simply don’t have anything truly negative to say about the drama yet. And like I said in the beginning of this post, I’m hoping beyond hope that it remains that way. Because right now, Law School is the most interesting drama I’ve watched in a long, long time.

In short, if you’re on the hunt for a new drama in which to fully invest your time and soul — er, I mean just your time — then I highly suggest giving Law School a shot. Unless you hate interesting stories, you likely won’t be disappointed.

Follow my blog to receive an email every time I post. And/or you can follow me on Twitter at @kaylamuses where I tweet every post I publish (as well some of my extra thoughts here and there in between blog postings). As always, thank you for reading — and happy drama-watching!

Why ‘Nobody Knows’ Oddball Villain Is Giving The Joker A Run For His Money

As someone who typically likes the antagonistic characters in dramas, finding a villain I love to hate (and hate to love) is exhilarating because — let’s be real — not every antagonist is created equal. Yet, from the moment Baek Sang Ho (played by the brilliant Park Hoon) first strolls on-screen in Nobody Knows — with his boyish charm and sinister finesse — I (along with viewers across the globe) was left captivated, curious, and wanting more of this new villain.

Baek Sang Ho is a peculiar juxtaposition in and of himself. On paper, he sounds like a stand-up guy: he’s a philanthropic hotel owner who seems to derive genuine joy from helping sick, abandoned, and/or troubled youth. Yet, he’s easily one of the most terrifying villains I’ve seen on-screen. Simultaneously friendly, charismatic, and utterly, utterly unpredictable, Sang Ho is just as likely to embrace you in a warm hug as he is to beat you half-conscious. It’s a gross understatement to say he keeps viewers on their toes like no other character I’ve seen before. (In fact, it took me several episodes to even realize which side he is on — if any!)

Park Hoon as Baek Sang Ho (with Ahn Ji Ho as Ko Eun Ho)

He’s remarkably quick-witted, often one step ahead of others. Because of what we know of his backstory, I’d say this is due not so much to the power and influence he has accrued for himself, but rather to his heightened survival instincts bred from an unfortunate upbringing. (But more on that later.)

Simply as a reference point to those unfamiliar with the drama, I’ve compared him in conversation to both the classic Joker and Andrew Scott’s Moriarty. This is not to weigh characters against each other (because I strongly dislike doing so), but is only an attempt to portray — at least in part — the general vibes of Sang Ho’s absolute bizarreness.

Not only is he both friendly and freaky, but Sang Ho is also incredibly funny — which is always an added bonus for any villain in my book. Of course, if your main villain’s sense of humor often includes the moral agony of others, things can get disturbing real quick. But Park Hoon’s comedic timing is definitely 10/10, and I’ve found myself chuckling when I’m not sure whether I should be laughing or not. It’s definitely unsettling, which seems to be the epitome of our oddball villain.

Yoon Chan Young as Dong Myung

Of course, his character is beautifully written (the entire drama is), but let’s give credit where credit is due: Park Hoon is owning this role. It’s his. Every movement, no matter how subtle — every idiosyncrasy, glance, nervous tic, hand gesture– every single choice Park Hoon makes as an actor is what creates Baek Sang Ho. His performance is truly nothing short of genius.

It should be noted that Sang Ho’s antics are not merely to amuse (or startle) viewers. His behavior is likely in part due to his bleak backstory, something we’ve only been given morsels of thus far. But it’s been enough to keep us anxiously waiting to find out more. And finally, in the last two episodes to air (11 and 12), we’re given a clearer sense as to what his childhood was like.

Warning: spoilers ahead about Sang Ho’s backstory, but I’ll tell you when they’re over.

In a couple well-placed flashbacks, we see that Sang Ho was abandoned by his mother, who never registered his birth. He was found by Seo Sang Won, who took the boy back to the church where he abused him daily, forcing young Sang Ho to memorize the entire ‘New Life Gospel’ by heart — and whipping him cruelly if he got even one word incorrect.

There’s no doubt we will find out much more about Sang Ho — but for right now, we are shown (at least in part) what life was like for him as a kid: full of abuse from adults who should have cared for and protected him.

End of spoilers.

Nobody Knows is doing a fantastic job with its main antagonist. While honestly presenting a fellow human being, the drama never crosses the delicate line of excusing Sang Ho’s crimes with a tragic childhood; instead, it simply reveals a person who may indeed be a product of his environment, but is making his own choices too. He’s not paraded around as one to pity, which makes him all the more pitiful.

Bonus mind nugget (a.k.a. something to think about until the next episode): Baek Sang Ho’s obsession with choice. Several times in the drama, we’ve seen how significant the power of choice is to him. (This is spoiler-free, so don’t worry.) In a recent episode, the group is discussing their next move and one of them declares that Sang Ho has no choice. He suddenly throws an almost childlike tantrum, viciously insisting over and over that he does have a choice. In episodes before that, he’s let a couple people he intends to get rid of choose their own path, essentially allowing them choose how they die. It should be noted that he’s remarkably casual and polite about it, which of course only multiplies the creep factor.

On an ending note, I have to say that I am loving Sang Ho’s little gang as well. Doo Seok, Hee Dong, and Sun A (played by Shin Jae Hwi, Tae Won Suk, and Park Min Jung, respectively) are totally killing it as Sang Ho’s group of buddies/henchmen.

Tae Won Suk as Hee Dong
Shin Jae Hwi as Doo Seok
Park Min Jung as Sun A

It’s both surprising and immensely refreshing that these three aren’t merely Sang Ho’s underlings, but also his best friends. Instead of churning out tool-like characters who remain in the shadows of the main antagonist and have minimal (if any) character development/backstory/personality, the drama paints three very distinct, vibrant characters who are just as important to the story as anyone else.

Sang Ho himself says that if you don’t trust people, you won’t get betrayed. Interestingly, however, he seems to trust Doo Seok, Hee Dong, and Sun A implicitly…I wonder why. We know he saved Doo Seok and that he and Hee Dong knew each other in childhood and possibly even grew up together — but we haven’t yet learned about Sun A. However, I have a feeling that we’ll soon find out a lot more about this trio…as well as our main villain.

Nobody Knows deserves all the attention and support from viewers it can get (and then some), so let’s spread the love for this drama!

What do you think of Park Hoon as Baek Sang Ho? Who’s your favorite character so far? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Happy viewing, friends.

(Psst! If you’d like to read my first impressions of Nobody Knows, you can check out that post here!)

Sang Ho’s character poster image source: https://programs.sbs.co.kr/drama/nobodyknows/visualboard/63073/?cmd=view&page=1&board_no=293626