For viewers who come to Korean television after watching shows from other countries, it’s often a surprise how conservative K-dramas can be. Again and again, we see romantic K-dramas that avoid the topic of sex completely—or handle it in elaborately roundabout ways. When I see the hot-for-each-other super-spies played by Kim Tae-Hee and Lee Byung-Hun lying in bed fully clothed during romantic scenes in IRIS, I have to wonder, did someone fail to explain to them how this works?
Cable channels can get away with more sex, but “more sex” in this context usually means bare shoulders or jokes about someone’s porn collection. But The Lover, which aired its 12 episodes on cable channel Mnet from April to June 2015, has rules of its own. Sometimes it’s hysterically funny, sometimes it’s just bizarre, but it never fails to go where no K-drama has gone before.
The Korean title is “Deo leobeo,” an English borrow word with two meanings: “lover” and “raunchy.” (Huge kudos to Viki’s volunteers for an outstanding job subtitling the show’s many puns and double meanings.) Both meanings inform these loosely connected sketches about couples who live together outside of marriage. We see every aspect of their day-to-day lives in these small apartments, from comforting each other about job troubles to arguing about the household condom supply or how to use the toilet.
The entertainment value of this show comes 0.5 percent from the microscopic story and 99.5 percent from its exuberant disregard of every convention of K-drama decency. Within the first thirty seconds of the first episode, the guy in apartment 609 gleefully flashes full frontal nudity for the camera, with a digital modesty blur. His girlfriend in 609 is equally surprising: she must be the first female K-drama character ever to smoke cigarettes. (The cigarettes are also blurred out digitally, though it’s not clear whether the producers are censoring themselves or making fun of such censorship.) And later in the first episode, in a double entendre-filled dialogue, a cute guy with a cheeky grin asks his new (male) roommate, “So do you like dicks?”
The gay guys upstairs, Joon-Jae and Takuya, inspired ardent fan devotion this summer, as measured in online fan-fiction and fan-made videos. Boys’ love fans be warned, however: the young men only appear on screen for a few minutes each episode. Boys’ love or shonen ai may be a well-established manga and fanfiction subgenre, but it’s still virtually taboo on Korean screens.
The Lover doesn’t give homosexuality much screen time, but at least it treats the guys with the same endearing lack of reverence it applies to everyone else. Joon-Jae and Takuya’s story is a weird cross-breed of a shonen ai manga and a Judd Apatow sex comedy. The flirtatious Japanese traveler Takuya pursues his introverted, loner roommate Joon-Jae with over-the-top, provocative antics (watch what he does with a spoon). The show teases the audience with an elaborate sight gag in episode two, parodying the entire genre of boys’ love (particularly the hardcore material of yaoi), and the producers winkingly insert the music from Brokeback Mountain at key moments. At times like this, the show’s main goal seems to be to laugh—affectionately—at shonen ai clichés.
Yet the show also depicts real sexual tension between the young men. Though The Lover lacks Answer Me 1997‘s poignancy, it’s still noteworthy for going straight to gay subject matter without messing around with gender-bender plot devices. A gender bender narrative can smartly elucidate gay themes, as in Coffee Prince, or collapse under its own ideological confusion, as in Hogu’s Love, but in either case, it’s ultimately a story about straight people.
In contrast, The Lover gives us—for possibly the first time ever in a K-drama—two male characters who appear equally attracted to each other.
It also treats love—whether gay or straight—with total irreverence. Takuya and Joon-Jae’s story may nod to shonen ai, but it belongs uniquely to The Lover, daring us to laugh at its outrageousness. The look on Joon-Jae’s face when Takuya innocently asks, “Do you like jajis?”—a word that means “sports jerseys” in his native Japanese, and sounds like “dicks” in Korean—may well be the look on the faces of viewers as well.
From the look in Takuya’s eye, he knows exactly what he’s saying, but his deadpan delivery is pure earnest-traveler-makes-vocabulary-mistake. Joon-Jae responds with a shy smile and an equally deadpan reply. It’s an exquisite comic scene. Their relationship moves forward like this—in the open, but also subterranean, wrapped in double meanings. The crisis in this flirtation will only occur if they have to admit what’s going on. To its credit, the Lover does take us to that point, though you’ll have to watch past the credits in the final episode to get there.
Most of the show focuses on two central couples: Oh Do-Shi and Ryoo Do-Ri—thirty-somethings with uncertain freelance careers—and Choi Jin-Nyeo and Jeong Yeong-Joon, a good-looking noona and her hot, unemployed musician boyfriend, who is 12 years younger than her. These couples have been dating for years. They’re experienced at sharing apartments and lives. Despite the title, sex is only one topic of conversation. These couples also conduct delicate negotiations over how to share the bathroom, the television remote, and their honest opinions of each other’s wardrobe choices.
The Lover’s fourth couple, Seol-Eun and Hwan-Jong, are the most “typical” in the building. They’ve followed the unwritten rules of Korean society, by getting engaged before moving in together. Although they’re the only couple in the building with marriage on the horizon, they’re also the least prepared for life together. It’s sometimes more painful than funny to watch Seol-Eun try to maintain her image of perfect femininity in the close quarters of a one-bedroom flat.
The Lover essentially feels like a sketch comedy show. The four couples it follows are connected by living in the same building, but they don’t often cross paths. And though the final episodes provide a wee bit of conflict and plot closure, it’s minimal. The show could just as easily be presented in 10-minute installments. It’s hard to watch an entire hour of these hijinks.
But if you can get past the rambling structure, the show has its own strange charisma. The best sketches are hilarious, or touching, or both. The camera work has the spontaneous feel of a reality show and the acting usually appears improvised. The actors even play characters with names almost identical to their own: Lee Joon-Jae, for instance, is played by Lee Jae-Joon, and Jeong Yeong-Joon is played by Jeong Joon-Yeong. It’s as if the whole thing was made as a fun actors’ prank.
The cast of The Lover includes Choi Yeo-Jin (the second lead in tvN’s Emergency Couple) as the good-looking homebody with the much-younger boyfriend, and Oh Jung-Se of Plus Nine Boys as the likable but realistically flawed Do-Shi. Although a few of the younger actors are better known as singing idols, they seem to throw themselves into the fun with enthusiasm. The show also features an outstanding soundtrack that’s a showcase of Korean indie talent.
As things turn more serious in the final episodes, we can see how much the characters care for each other. But we can also see the difficult financial, career and family obstacles that may separate these lovers. “Living together is an island between marriage and pain,” one character says.
These scenes have the ring of gospel truth. It’s hard for a twenty-year-old idol wannabe to marry a woman in her thirties (in Korean culture). It’s hard for a man without a job to live off his wife’s income (in any culture). And Takuya and Joon-Jae may have been born in the wrong time and place to acknowledge their feelings. Perhaps love doesn’t conquer all. In the end, the show’s conclusion is optimistic and open-ended, but not before The Lover has suggested the ways social responsibilities can interfere with individual fulfillment.
The Lover will probably be remembered most for its “indecency”—in the sense of defying television norms. Thanks in particular to the shonen ai, it seems destined to be an internet cult classic. But its heroes and heroines are “decent people” in the ways that matter most—people trying to meet their responsibilities to each other and society, in a world where not everyone’s desires are considered legitimate. Underneath the indignities that flesh is heir to, these lovers have good hearts. ♥