Arang vs. Faith, Part VI: The Romance

This is the last of the Arang vs. Faith comparisons. It is a bit late, since both shows have ended - but the Internets are still abuzz with people getting over this very fact. One of the Faith pages on Facebook has actually started to dedicate each day to a Faith episode: That's some laudable coping strategy!

Heck, it was an intense drama summer and not least because of these two shows, which kept us company for so many weeks and made Monday to Thursday drama-expectation days. And if you like the romance aspects of KDramas, both Faith and Arang and the Magistrate made you get your money's worth.  


The Imja-couple doesn't exactly start off on the right foot. He kidnaps her from modern Seoul and she is terrified of him for the first few episodes. Well, at least until she stabs him with his sword and almost kills him - not because of the stabbing, but because she operates on him, which causes sepsis. Choi Young has great healing abilities and a strong inner ki but she messes with it. I am not sure whether there's a bigger message in this, because it is one of the million little things the drama didn't pick up or clarify (like anything to do with the different ki-powers). Was it a statement pro ancient medicine contra modern medicine? Or not a statement? Then why did she need to stab him and almost kill him? I have no clue how this advances the story, unless it was all about the bottle of Aspirins, which is one of the most consistently used props/items in Faith. Let's assume it was.
From early on, it is clear that Choi Young is fascinated and a little bit awed by this force-of-nature woman who waltzes in and doesn't shut up. One of my favorite scenes is early in the drama, when he watches her through the screen in secret, sees her baring her leg, shies back confused ... but then peaks in again. His falling in love with her is a gradual thing, driven by his strong protector-sense, which makes him care for her from the very beginning (though not romantically at first). It is his warrior-promise to bring her back that links these two characters so fatefully: The more endangered she becomes, the stronger his feelings grow. That she also tries to protect him amuses him at times, and touches him at others. She is not a woman that passively awaits her fate - she is accustomed to taking things into her own hands; and that is what makes her character so special; and what makes her a match for the General.

She realizes her feelings for him much, much later than him ... only when she gets her hands on the diary of her future self and realizes the warning in it refers to Choi Young. She admits to Jang Bin that she has never been able to love and trust anybody before - which is a character trait of strong and independent women, who have to fight for recognition in their careers, and therefore deny themselves a certain softness, which they think would be read as weakness in the male dominated worlds they live in. When she realizes that it's Choi Young that she loves, and that it's him who is always behind her, protecting her, she is ready to sacrifice everything for him - even her own life.

I will not pretend to understand the time-travel aspect of this show, because it simply doesn't make sense to me (if she needs to go back into the past to leave clues for herself, then shouldn't she have experienced a future in which Choi Young has died? That doesn't seem the case, however). Faith's ending, which was entirely centered on the romance, was satisfying nonetheless. Her travelling through the time portal again and again, until she hits the right time and finds him again is very sweet. In fact, if I had to pick the best part about this show (which was greatly lacking in many departments in my opinion), it would be the romance.    
The pairing, hated by many in the beginning ('this woman is far too old for our Min-ho!'), worked wonders. The older, independent (but at the same time lonely and vulnerable) woman and the much younger, emotionally (half-)dead man: it worked. Just because she was so much older and he was the less experienced and the one in need of saving. The gradual, but seemingly natural growing closer, the feeling of comfort, tenderness, and familiarity between them ... that was part good acting, and part real friendship between the two. It was simply obvious that they felt at ease and very comfortable with each other.  
I will remember this show for a long time, not because I think it was good - it wasn't, objectively - but because the whole cast has left me with a fuzzy-warm feeling of family and togetherness. Everybody always gave their best and it was always apparent, even through all the bad writing and directing.  

Arang and the Magistrate

Kim Eun-oh's and Arang's love is obviously doomed from the beginning. She is a ghost, he is a human. He doesn't like ghosts (because he can seem them and they constantly want things from him) and she doesn't like him, because he is cold, rough, and uses her rather obviously to find his mother. Nonetheless, he falls for her very quickly ... well, who wouldn't she is drop-dead-gorgeous, sassy, funny, ... and holds they key to finding his mother.
She, on the other hand, doesn't succumb to love all that easily - at least she doesn't admit it. Arang, as a new soul, doesn’t know man-woman love. Her previous self, Lee Seo-rim, didn’t know that kind of love either – she had a crush on a guy she saw one time; it was a crush on an idea more than a real person, the idea of freedom. She led a secluded, lonely life and she might have hoped to get out into the world with Joo-wal. I think it could have been any guy at that stage (though she certainly wouldn't agree with that).
However, though she doesn't know that she is in love, I never doubted Arang’s growing attraction for Eun-oh. They shared the first ‘moment’ during the measuring scene (that clearly caused both of them a fast beating heart!), and it just continued from then: she is always touched when he fights for her in the barn; when he fights off the creepy-reapers; when he falls over the cliff and she saves him/he saves her; when he meets Joo-wal and Arang on the street and just reaches out his hand; when they go see the blooming trees together; when he takes her to 'heaven' (a field of flowers); when he gets beaten up for her sake; when he gives her the shoes; when he gives her three new hanbok; etc.
While I think they were always equally in love with each other, Arang had a fundamentally different perspective on things for a long time. Eun-oh always knew (intellectually) that their time was  limited, but being human, he knew that even limited time was time to be used. Arang, on the other hand, has little hope - how could she, having no past and no future. And then, she shows the typical noble idiocy of so many KDrama characters: She pushes him away in the believe that it will lessen his pain once she is gone. Good for him that he doesn't put up with it. Noble idiocy should be banned from Dramaland, it is so irksome!

The cruelest part of this drama was how the aspect of fast passing time was made so palpable (the moon, the moon!) - and the aspect of inevitable heartbreak and doom so clear. In a drama which was fundamentally about death, about being dead, and about not wanting to be dead, the love between the two leads came with a bitter-sweet aftertaste at all times. There were so many sweet, heartwarming moments - and so many heartbreaking ones right after. I obviously like that there was a happy ending ... but in a way, this happy ending doesn't feel as satisfying as the one in Faith. In Faith, there was no cheating life and death; just a little time-travelling. In Arang, there is major cheating: re-incarnation, and in the exact same bodies at that! Sure, they deserve it, for ridding the world of a huge imbalance in the forces of the universe. But still. I find time-travelling much more believable. 

Who Wins? 

Faith! Wow. Is that a first?

Even though there is a lot I didn't like about Lee Min-ho's acting, he deserves the highest of praise for making this romance work so well. Sure, Kim Hee-seon certainly was helpful (and I remember him mentioning this in some post-Faith interviews); but she did not change much as a character throughout the drama - whereas Min-ho grew into a man capable of love in front of our very eyes. And, as I said above: The romance worked so well because there was a feeling of comfort and familiarity between them; one that wasn't just acting, but real. These two people really liked each other (though not romantically) - but as friends.

Shin Min-ah and Lee Jun-ki are both exceptional actors and they never disappointed, not once. Particularly Jun-ki's acting was intense from beginning to end and he really gave his all. They are a well-matched couple, no doubt about that. And while the acting during the romance scenes was also exceptional, it did not touch me as much as the romance in Faith. In hindsight, I think it is the friendship that I felt between Lee Min-ho and Kim Hee-seon that I didn't feel between Shin Min-ah and Lee Jun-ki. I felt a lingering distance between them, a slight discomfort, which may be super subtle, but enough to tip the balance.

This might sound weird, but it might have helped that one of the actors in Faith is married with child. You can act as lovey-dovey as you want, and you can feel safe. When both are unmarried and not otherwise liaised (and one just came back from serving in the military for two years), not going full-out might be a sign of caution. From what I have read about 'scandals' in Korea, not much is need to make life for public figures very, very difficult. The other option is that Shin Min-ah and Lee Jun-ki just don't really like each other - which would be a pity, because they sure look good together.