New Review: Because this Life is our First (2017)

Here’s the detailed review (for a condensed version and more K-rom-com recommendations, go here):

Because this Life is our First
Just as with Hogu’s Love, writer Yoon Nan Joong creates a refreshingly different drama that addresses current problems in Korean society. Important gender-related topics like gender inequality, sexual harassment, and the unfair patriarchal structures show up. These are often discussed in connection with more general social problems like the lack of social mobility and the frustrating financial and professional situation that many of the younger generation face, epitomized by the crazy housing situation in Seoul.

Using these current social woes as a background, the drama circles around the meaning of marriage in contemporary Korean society. How to negotiate relationships with the heady mix of cultural traditions, social expectations, family pressure and lack of material success? One night stands, romantic cohabitation, and contractual marriage are the three alternatives that our characters (three couples in their late 20s / early 30s) choose in the beginning. But when emotions come into play, things get messy.

The drama portrays the changes in the relationships of the three couples. It is not quite an ensemble piece, though: We do spend more time with our first leads, a mortgage-poor IT engineer (Lee Min Ki) and an unemployed screenwriter (Jung So Min, who is also in Playful Kiss and Father is Strange), who move in together for financial reasons. Typical drama tropes (contractual marriage, love triangle, kissing at sunset) show up but they are often inverted and more than once the plot moves in a surprising direction. Characters are flawed in the way real people have flaws and not in some grandiose, unrelatable manner – and there’s no reformed handsome millionaire here who saves the day. Even though the topics weigh heavily, the tone is often surprisingly light and there are lots of funny details, some of them unusual for a TV show – like how annoyingly difficult it is to find a bra that actually fits.

A reasonable beginning

While the drama has generally been well received, two bones of contention are hotly debated. The first one is a love triangle that develops midway, with the alternative love interest turning into a stalker (or not?) Looking back I think it was an interesting mix of topics but while watching it the guy’s relentless pursuit of Jung So Min’s character and her wishy-washy response really got on my nerves.

The second issue relates to the last two episodes. Here, suddenly, a shift happens. The show slows down, turns talkative like some French movies – characters constantly have deep conversations and exchange philosophical observations. The female lead turns into a blathering oracle of Delphi. Or is the writer messing with us again? Because the main character’s mother completely undermines all the theorizing – after listening to her daughter’s meditations on love and marriage she simply says: “You’re talking crap” – and leaves. As if these conversational changes were not bewildering enough, there’s more: Both leads act totally out of character. This is done to show the transforming power of love but it comes so suddenly and out of nowhere that it doesn’t feel right, especially the bizarre behavior of the female lead.

But not to worry, there is a happy ending for everybody, and the coupling of our leads is really supposed to serve as a role model. They do what the feisty lawyer daughter in Father is Strange wanted to – namely, define the form of her relationship with her partner only, without considering social expectations or traditions. As Lee Min Ki’s character rebelliously states: “What’s so great about the Korean tradition?”

This drama clearly wants to make you think. And there is lot of obvious subtext here – so if you are a teacher or student who wants to discuss K-dramas academically, this is a good drama to choose. But because it is more brainy and almost an ensemble piece, it doesn’t carry quite the emotional punch of your typical K-drama.

Inventive and rebellious, relevant and cutting edge. But also uneven and sometimes exasperating how it tries so obviously to mess with the viewer’s expectations. I almost gave up twice, but in the end I was very glad I didn’t. Excellent (minus).

tvN. Written by Yoon Nan Joong, who also wrote Flower Boy Ramen Shop and Hogu’s Love.

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