K-Drama: Tear-stained romance a guilty pleasure

How are things with me in the post-Descendants Of The Sun era?

I'm okay, actually. The grand K-romance of the year has ended for more than a week now and I don't have withdrawal symptoms. Then again, I was never that addicted to the globetrotting, military-themed drama. I never got that drunk.

As a love story, Descendants went down like cider. It was an easy, buzzy drink you could have with a group of friends, a collective crush on Captain Yoo Si Jin or Dr Kang Mo Yeon you could share with the Internet which would transport you back to your puppy love years.

I needed something stronger, though, so for weeks, Marriage Contract has been my nightcap, a secret narcotic, a guilty pleasure of a tear-stained romance that I want to soak up by myself.

The hoary South Korean drama stars Lee Seo Jin as Han Ji Hoon, a rich man's son who needs to buy a liver to save his dying mother, and U-ie as Kang Hye Soo, a poor widow who agrees to sell her organ.

Hye Soo is a walking hard-luck story. She has loan sharks chasing her for her late husband's debts, a brain tumour she can't afford treatment for and a young daughter she wants to live for. She is desperate enough to agree to marry Ji Hoon, so that she can legally give her liver to his mother, as a member of his family.

He is a playboy who is clearly heading for a comeuppance: the kind of man who wakes up with a girlfriend in a hotel, hands her a break-up present and leaves. The kind of guy who would have left in his first encounter with Hye Soo, after his car nearly hits her and she collapses, if a matronly crowd that gathers around them hadn't pushed him to rush her to hospital.

The drama indulges one of the deadliest instances of female wishful thinking: namely, that a bad boy who meets the right woman will make a good husband. And it works like a charm because it is orchestrated and played beautifully, at every teary step on the bumpy road to redemption.

Lee and U-ie are an inspired match, each suffering as exquisitely as the other, as obstacles present themselves - Hye Soo's daughter dislikes Ji Hoon initially and an ex-girlfriend reappears in his life inopportunely - but mostly melt away into sympathy and sighing music.

Lee is better known as a reality television star who suffers entertainingly in challenging situations on unscripted shows including Grandpas Over Flowers. But, really, with the right script, he can do more, from gruff restraint and piercing regret to full-blown heartache.

U-ie is especially fine as a woman on a razor edge between love and death, between ecstasy and agony. She might not cry as prettily as Descendants' Song Hye Kyo, for example, but her tears are also less ornamental. Her pain is palpable, as if her character's happiness is a shard of precious glass that hurts her to hold.

Marriage Contract is a potent blend of cliche and tears. Sip it carefully.

Page Turner, a story of salvation and self-actualisation, goes down like a pick-me-up.

The Korean mini-drama takes the idea of a page turner - a person who turns music sheets for a pianist and has the power to make or break a performance - and spins it into a tale about three aspiring musicians that is spiky and sweet.

A piano student (Kim So Hyun) goes blind after a car accident, her rival (Shin Jae Ha) feels guilty because he prayed for her ruin and their stories form a triangle with that of an acquaintance (Ji Soo), a high jumper who is suddenly learning music.

In each of the three episodes that unfold around an improbable quest to win a two-piano contest, the trio become one another's actual and metaphorical page turners in permutations that are surprising and moving. Although romance isn't in the mix here, the drama has a dash of youthful insanity that is delightful.

This article was first published on April 27, 2016.
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