A Mini-Review and Discussion Forum:
Have you ever watched something so poignant in its humanity that you want to cry? I’m a drama watcher of indiscriminate tastes. I watch whatever I feel like, even if I’ve been told it’s bad. Sometimes I force myself to watch dramas that everyone says is great, with a reluctance that is akin to reading an acclaimed novel that I am just not that interested in. But I read/watch it nonetheless, or at least try to.
It’s important to broaden our horizons, to try new and different things. If after a bite you don’t like it, then you can set it aside with more understanding of your own tastes. Last month, I watched Goodbye Solo, a low-rated (but not so low-rated as to warrant the “it’s a flop moniker” attached to it) modern K-drama that aired back in 2006. This is not a full review – I am not prepared or adequately able to review this meaningful drama. This is merely an attempt to bring some recognition to this gem and to create a forum to discuss it.
Even back then, it didn’t have any idols in the cast, any widely perceived heavyweights amongst the lead actors, or any grand fanfare or reception. It was a slice-of-life drama about people living in Seoul who are tangentially or directly connect with a mute grandmother who runs a small neighborhood restaurant.
There is no grand narrative, no building climax, no explosive catharsis. Like a gorgeous mountain stream, which flows unbidden regardless of who splashes in its banks, the characters of Goodbye Solo almost appear to exist outside of this drama which depicts a segment of their lives. Unlike characters created explicitly for a drama, structured so dramatically as to be entertaining but not relatable, the people in Goodbye Solo are living, breathing human beings.
As viewers we only watch a small portion of their lives, with glimpses into some childhood moments, with understanding and comprehension that their lives will continue to move on even after the end credits roll on the sixteen episode of this drama. I have never watched a Noh Hee Kyung penned drama before, and her work is magnificent in its humanness.
We watch as a group of (almost) universally capable actors bring these flesh-and-blood characters to life. We spend sixteen too-short hours with these people, watching the ebbs and flows of their current situations and plights come alive. Noh Hee Kyung has written people who could be our next door neighbors, our co-workers, our favorite deli owner – but she has given them compelling, rich, and dramatic stories to frame their journey. [Though I concede none of us have neighbors around us who look collectively as goodlooking as the four leads, but that’s a leap of faith I’m happy to take].
Even though Goodbye Solo isn’t chock full of heightened tensions and extreme emotions, it isn’t boring because it’s about people who feel real. It’s fascinating because it’s about people who feel genuine emotions, but whose lives are as dramatic, if not more, than the clichéd characters that populate nine out of ten K-dramas. How Noh Hee Kyung pulls this off is a herculean feat of literary magic that I merely am honored to have watched.
In the hands of a hack PD, the script for Goodbye Solo could have resulted in a tableau unfolding like a mélange of plot twists and forced beats. In the hands of the lyrical director and producer who presented this drama to us, Goodbye Solo is as beautiful to watch even with the sound muted.
This is not a drama where the plot is important to its forward momentum. It is a character study where what happens is only tangentially as important as how that person reacts and deals with it. If I were to pen a synopsis for this drama, which I am woefully unfit to do, it would be this:
Chung Jung Myung plays Kim Min Ho – a happy-go-lucky bartender who retains an hopeful outlook on life. He has elected to cut ties with his real family after suffering the emotional trauma of being an unfortunate victim of a failed marriage. Min Ho thinks life is still worth living, aiming to be happy, but he cannot exist in a vacuum. Pretty soon, he will have to make decisions and hard choices that will require him to confront the life he rejected in order to create the life he seeks.
Yoon So Yi plays Kim Soo Hee – an artist who is dating Min Ho’s best friend, and the daughter of a woman seeking validation and support from a string of men in her life. Soo Hee is clear she is not her mother’s daughter, but as her heart brings her closer to Min Ho, she is forced to make decisions that question her own validation of her path in life.
Lee Jae Ryung is Kang Ho Chul – a gangster dating Min Ho’s good girl friend Mi Ri. Ho Chul is gruff and straightforward about who he is. But it’s not clear he really understands who he is himself. But he does know he loves Mi Ri and is unapologetic about his chosen profession. What he has are hidden regrets that prevents him from daring to love Mi Ri unconditionally and without reservation.
Kim Min Hee becomes Choi Mi Ri – a sassy straightforward girl who loves, hates, and cries like every emotion is real and worth being expressed. Mi Ri has left her family over their disapproval of Ho Chul, but she has found a surrogate family in the gang at the restaurant and an emotional anchor in her love of Ho Chul. Mi Ri is the id of the group, saying things better left unsaid. Because a life lived only with half-a-heart is not a life worth living for Mi Ri.
Kim Nam Gil is Yoo Ji An – a reserved and seemingly upstanding young man who is Min Ho’s best friend, and Soo Hee’s boyfriend at the beginning of the drama. Ji An is the only hearing member of a hearing-impaired family, and he struggles between his real background and the manufactured one he has created. Ji An understands the concepts of loyalty, honesty, integrity, but he has painted himself in a corner with his self-constructed lies and doesn’t know how to start over again.
Bae Jung Ok as Oh Yoon Sook – a brassy and in-your-face ahjumma who has been forced to start her life anew after her husband discovers a lie she told years ago that means more to him than concrete proof of her decency as a wife and mother for many years. Yoon Sook has feelings that she refuses to acknowledge and hidden traumas she actively seeks to smother. But the time has come for her to show hand, and she will have to trust that the new friends she made in this group of solitary and damaged individuals can help her move on.
Na Moon Hee as Mi Young – a mute grandmother who with a childlike smile listens to everyone’s story and shares not a sliver of her own. She is the glue that holds this group together, even as she remains an enigma and a comforting presence to all. Her story is devastating, but her placid demeanor belies a strength that would rival anything ever seen onscreen.
The rest of the secondary characters are no less fully fleshed-out, triggering intense feelings in the viewer when watching even scenes that are throwaway in any other drama. The mutated carcass of the marriage that marks Min Ho’s parents is sad beyond belief to watch, of a man who loves his wife but cannot say it or make her love him, of a woman who is so miserable in a marriage that she has turned into an empty shell of a human being.
Min Ho’s brother, a man who was forced to accept ugly truths best left hidden at an age when he is too young to synthesize this information in a constructive matter, and has reached adulthood still retaining a bitter and angry adolescent inside of him.
These are the people who populate the world of Goodbye Solo. How does everyone’s story play out? It’s pointless to say, because if you haven’t watched this drama, how can you care about what happened to people you didn’t get to know. But those who have watched this exquisite drama, please feel free to share your thoughts and insights here.
This is by no means a perfect drama, in writing or execution. Nor does it include any of the melodrama or psychedelic plot twists that are a cornerstone to what makes K-dramas a success worldwide. There are unexpected plot developments, but within the lens of real life that nothing is shocking for the sake of shocking. The acting has its weak links, but no one’s performance annoyed me (well, okay, one person annoyed me and one person disappointed me, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not that bad).
How fortunate it is that so many of my drama friends all took up the call-to-arms to watch or re-watch this drama again just recently. I thought I would create a forum for some meaningful discussion of this drama, because I sure need it.
Thank you for the recommendation and the subtle prodding. I enjoyed every minute watching Goodbye Solo, and have found a drama I will savor re-watching time and again in the years to come. Now, let’s talk about this baby! Are you up for it?