Uncontrollably Fond has been one of the more buzzed-about projects of the year, and it finally premiered—to a strong start, upending the Wednesday-Thursday pecking order and claiming the top spot. (It grabbed 12.5% ratings, while Wanted drew 7.0% and Lucky Romance dropped to 6.6%.)
I went into Uncontrollably Fond with cautious optimism, not wanting to expect too much on one hand, and also not wanting the hype to stir that perverse contrarian streak inside, where you want anything that’s overhyped to fail. (Some things that are hyped are good! We can’t let other people’s expectations ruin our enjoyment of things! Don’t let them win!) Perhaps it helped to consciously avoid the buzz, because I was able to go in with a pretty clean slate, and found this premiere engaging and surprisingly moving. Also curiosity-stoking. Next episode, please! *holds out hand expectantly*
But fine, first let’s get to this one:
EPISODE 1 RECAP
In an empty church, a young couple grips hands tightly, wearing solemn faces. The groom starts to recites his wedding vows and promises never to let his wife’s hand go from this moment on.
Then he turns to face her, cupping her face tenderly in his hands.
Before he can seal the vow with a kiss, the doors of the church burst open, and gangsters pour inside. The leader accuses the groom of stealing his hyungnim’s woman—the groom counters that she was his woman from the start—and then orders his thugs to kill him.
The ensuing fight puts the groom at a grave disadvantage, and he’s soon bloody and battered despite doing his best to fight them off. It doesn’t look good…
His bride’s scream supplies the groom with renewed energy—he fights better and faster now, dodging attacks and delivering blows. A blow to the head doesn’t even slow him down, and he fights on.
Then the boss takes out a gun and shoots him—right in the heart.
The groom stands still in shock as he registers his wound. A tear falls from his eye.
He steps toward his bride, and bang! He’s shot again. But that doesn’t faze him, and neither does the next gunshot. By the time he snatches the gun away from the gangster, everyone looks puzzled.
“I don’t want to die,” the groom says matter-of-factly. And behind the cameras, the crew gapes: They’re on a drama set, the groom is actor SHIN JOON-YOUNG (Kim Woo-bin), and this is the big climactic finale.
The director points out that his death was written in from the start, but Joon-young says he changed his mind: “I can’t die this way, director.” He requests a script change and walks off.
Joon-young’s team is at their wits’ end, with the scriptwriter refusing to edit the ending. The finale airs tonight and they’re in danger of missing the broadcast; rumors of the discord have hit the internet and Joon-young is taking a netizen beating for his arrogance.
But things become clearer when Joon-young shows up at a hospital and speaks solemnly to his doctor, unable to wrap his head around the diagnosis he’d been given. How can he be so healthy and fit and be dying of an incurable disease that gives him less than a year to live? (What! Nobody told me we were in a terminal illness drama. My heart is not ready for this.)
He asks if the doctor could have mistaken his condition, or confused him for his fated-to-die drama character, but the doctor remains assured of his diagnosis. Joon-young asks with a touch of defiance, “What if I say I won’t die? How can you know when I’ll die? What if I refuse to die, then what?”
As he sits in his car afterward, Joon-young’s agency president pleads with him to just die—the drama has filmed everything else, and if he would just agree to die, everything would wrap up smoothly. His eyes fill with angry tears, not wanting to give in even to this fictional death.
On to a rainy field at nighttime, where a woman sets up a camera while talking to a friend on the phone, who sobs loudly into her ear. She’s NOH EUL (Suzy), and she’s stunned silent when her friend wails, “Shin Joon-young died!”
And then her friend clarifies that he died in the drama’s finale, and Eul relaxes.
Just then, Eul spots a truck pulling up in the rain and gets down low to the ground, her camera recording as several men do something with large metal barrels. Suddenly, her camera gets shoved aside as one of the men glares down at her threateningly. Whoops, caught.
Eul ends up locked up in a corporate conference room, and bangs on the door loudly until a middle-aged executive joins her inside. She pegs him (and his company) as a routine offender of illegal wastewater dumping, a charge he refutes readily. He’s identified her as a producer and returns her confiscated camera to her—with its memory wiped, of course.
She’s not fussed, though, saying cheerfully that she has plenty of footage already, from the other nights his company dumped their waste. The man’s composure flags, and he asks what she wants, ready to make a deal. Eul is offended when he pushes a thick envelope of money at her, yelling that he dares to think he can cover the truth with money.
But the next thing you know, Eul is depositing the cash into an ATM (minus one bill, which she keeps for herself). She calls her loan shark, “Grim Reaper,” to let him know of this payment. (She still owes roughly 27,000 dollars.)
That night, Joon-young gets a call from his attorney about his request to track a certain woman down. Asked how much detail he would like to know about her, Joon-young replies that he wants to know where she lives, what she does, whether she went to university, whether she’s married. His face darkens a little as he adds, “And if she’s married, what her husband does.”
And yet, he doesn’t want her knowing he was looking her up—nor does he even intend to meet her.
Eul walks home that night, and comes upon a donation bin, where she slips the last bill she’d kept. She looks up at a large screen mounted on the side of a building, her eyes wistful at the sight of Joon-young’s face in an advertisement.
Morning finds Joon-young in his huge, fancy mansion, where he’s awoken by his extremely well-behaved dog. The dog turns up its nose at the bowl of dog food he pours out, and Joon-young tells him that “after I’m gone” the dog will probably go to his manager hyung, who won’t feed him fancy food or do everything Joon-young does.
Joon-young cooks a pot of ramyun and takes a bite, then puts down his chopsticks and sighs that he got sick because he ate ramyun all the time instead of rice.
Eul tries to do chores and sweet-talk her landlady into not raising her rent, but the ajumma refuses to budge. Eul sighs that she has nowhere else to go.
Joon-young sits in his car outside a restaurant and watches (wistfully, perhaps) a table of customers and the ajumma who waits on them. He heads inside with his face covered up by a huge hood and sunglasses and orders a hundred bowls of the restaurant’s specialty, spicy beef soup.
She informs him coldly that she won’t sell soup to him, which makes Joon-young insist louder and louder that he wants some. Finally he shoves aside the hood and takes off the glasses, continuing to insist as the other diners recognize him and start filming him on their phones.
An ajusshi jumps in to smooth things over, and Ajumma barks at him to sprinkle salt after Joon-young leaves, like he’s some kind of bad energy needing cleansing. Joon-young hands over a card to the ajusshi asking him to approve his hundred bowls of soup, then pauses to ask a table of diners for just one spoonful.
Eul lays out on her rooftop platform, looking up at the sky and sighing over her nearly empty bank account, when she has to feed, clothe, and educate her younger brother.
Then she gets a snappish email from the production company where she works, telling her not to come in anymore: “We don’t need trash like you at our company.” Ouch.
After Joon-young leaves the restaurant, Ajusshi scolds Ajumma for being so harsh—to her very own son. Whoa. That’s some mother-son baggage we’ve got going on here. Ajusshi tells her that celebrities these days are worlds apart from entertainers of the past (considered vulgar professions), and that Joon-young makes much more money than he would as a prosecutor or judge (which is what she wanted for him). He argues that she can’t just ignore or look down on Joon-young, and if she keeps this up, her son may turn his back on her. Mom, however, is unmoved.
Joon-young returns home and declares today another failure, sitting with more ramyun as he asks his dog if he should just tell Mom he’s going to die soon. At least then she’d let him eat her soup.
His manager hyung Gook-young comes in to complain that he’s dropped projects that are extremely lucrative, and reminds him that his refusal to die in the drama is still a fresh blot on his image. Joon-young’s voice sharpens as he reminds Gook-young that he did die, as they wanted, and warns, “From now on I won’t do anything I don’t want to do.”
Eul bursts into a meeting at her production company job, armed with specialty drinks and a sickening amount of aegyo, pouring on the charm. Her boss, the company CEO, barks at her that she’s been fired, but Eul breezes right past that, telling them of a great scoop she’s working on.
Her sunbae interrupts, charging her with taking hush money while working on a number of past stories that she then dropped. The CEO asks derisively, “Don’t you even have a conscience?” and orders her out.
That knocks her down a bit, but Eul takes a moment and comes back as sunny as ever, reminding her CEO and sunbae of all the payoffs they’ve taken—even bigger sums for even bigger corruption scandals. They fidget uncomfortably, but cling to their righteous outrage as she pleads for one more chance.
Eul adds cheerfully (and possibly shoots herself in the foot) that this time she’ll do a really good job… of not getting caught, like her CEO and sunbae managed.
So it’s no wonder that the next time we see Eul, she’s drunk and babbling, not very repentant over taking bribes; rather, she feels unjustly punished when everyone else got off scot-free. She mutters about everybody in the world being bad, just as she’s joined by a stern-faced man, CHOI JI-TAE (Im Joo-hwan), who shakes his head at her. She wails that it’s unfair to be the only one fired, but upright and principled Ji-tae says it’s good that she got caught now, before becoming even more corrupted.
Ji-tae declines to drink with Eul tonight, and even the waitress unni clucks disapprovingly, asking what her dead parents would think to see her like this. Ji-tae tells Eul to reflect on her wrongs tonight and leaves.
Eul gets dramatic and declares that she’ll do just that, and then die. She’s making such a ruckus that a nearby diner calls out for her to die later, because he’s going to die over his dinner first. Manager Gook-young is at that table, trying to soothe ruffled feathers with the drunk PD, who’s fuming over Joon-young reneging on his contract.
At that name, Eul listens in with interest, while Gook-young speaks up in defense of Joon-young. He argues that they ponied up the contract breach fees, but the PD wails that it hardly compensates—not after how hard they worked to shoot that documentary about Joon-young.
Ah, and a light bulb goes off for Eul.
Drunk PD has to be assisted out of the restaurant, and Eul approaches the group outside to ask, “Shall I try persuading him?” She knows which documentary they were working on and explains that she can convince Joon-young to do the project.
They dismiss her confidence as mere bravado, but she makes a proposal: If she succeeds, they hire her. She swears to work honestly this time, without taking any bribes.
At a bit of a distance, Ji-tae hears the exchange, not having left yet.
Over at another lavish mansion, a girl reads a blog post and gets offended on behalf of “our Joon-young” at the gossip-mongering. She’s CHOI HARU, avid fangirl and Ji-tae’s younger sister. Ah, so the righteous oppa is super-rich. Haru’s father asks if she loves Joon-young that much, and the girl practically hugs herself and begs to marry him.
Dad is a former prosecutor and now assemblyman (Yoo Oh-sung), and his wife nags him not to work so hard. Assemblyman Choi sends the housekeeper out for privacy, and Mom thinks he’s going to scold her for nagging, only to have him hug her warmly. He thanks her for being his wife, and she smiles happily.
Meanwhile, Joon-young’s mother preps ingredients at her restaurant, and a headline from a newspaper she’s been using as placemat catches her eye: It’s Assemblyman Choi. She looks down at his picture with sad eyes and holds hand to heart, and uh, is this going where I think it’s going?
The sound of breaking glass draws Mom out of her thoughts, and she finds Restaurant Ajusshi with a collection of side dishes and ingredients. Ajusshi is a terrible liar and insists that all this food is totally not for Joon-young; it’s for his son’s friend. (Ah, Restaurant Ajusshi is manager Gook-young’s father. This premiere has too many characters!)
Then Ajusshi gets indignant, asking why it matters if he did give food to Joon-young, who has picky taste and only ever eats ramyun and kimbap. He wonders how Mom can be so cold, and all she says in return is “Then you be Joon-young’s mom.”
Eul shows up at Joon-youn’s front door, and the sight of her face in the monitor makes him gape in surprise. Eul declares that she’s not a crazy person or rabid fan, calling herself a nice, law-abiding citizen.
Manager Gook-young recognizes her and is surprised that she actually came; he explains to Joon-young how she claimed she would persuade Joon-young to do the documentary.
Gook-young says she seemed slightly crazy, but Eul replies that the manager ought to be on her side, reminding him that he had a lot of complaints about the star too. She lists his complaints, and Gook-young swears to Joon-young that he never said those things.
All the while, Joon-young just stares fiercely at the monitor. When she says he can chase her away if he deems her crazy, he interrupts and says, “I’ll chase you away now,” and shuts off the monitor.
Eul rings his doorbell repeatedly, but Joon-young’s already walking away. She turns to go… and then spies the security camera mounted in the entryway.
So when Joon-young flips to the security camera channel on his TV, he spots Eul standing in front of his door, holding a notebook up to the camera. She flips through it, Love, Actually-style: “I know you’re surprised. Please take your time continuing what you were doing. If you change your mind, please call me. Until you open the door, I’ll be waiting here quietly. ^^ ♥”
So Joon-young goes about his business, bathing his dog (named Pororo, which is absurd and adorable) and watching TV. All the while, Eul sits outside in the cold, even when it begins to snow. But when she calls her brother and suspects he’s skipping meals, she finally gets up to go—and leaves a tiny snowman in her stead, with the note: “I will be back.” Joon-young sees it in the camera monitor late that night.
In the morning, he packs up his outdoor gear, gets in one of his many fancy cars, and pulls out of his driveway… and the second his gate swings open, Eul dashes inside and blocks his car. He screeches to a stop, and she gets right in and wishes him good morning. He’s obviously uncomfortable with her presence, but she chatters along and says that although she expects that he’ll be feeling annoyed and confused, her business is urgent.
Joon-young gives her three seconds to get out of the car, which she blithely ignores, and then he peels out at high speed. He drives recklessly, swerving violently through traffic, giving Eul palpitations. But when he gives her the opportunity to get out at a red light, she declines, and prepares a firm grip on the car.
He shoots off into traffic once more, and swerves into the opposite lane to pass a car—right into the path of an oncoming truck. He swerves out of the way in the nick of time, but it’s too much for Eul, and she’s forced to vomit at the side of the road.
Joon-young tosses a few bills at her side and tells her that’ll cover her treatment, adding that they ought not see each other again. He gets back in the car and drives off.
Eul lies down in the road right then and there, looking up at the snowy sky, tears slipping from her eyes.
Joon-young drives on as the snow flurries grow stronger, and turns on the radio to a news announcement of an accident: A truck slipped on the road and hit a twentysomething woman, on the very road he’s traveling now. Joon-young recalls passing by an ambulance a short time ago and can’t shake his unease as the woman’s injuries are described as severe.
He makes a U-turn and heads back to the spot where he’d pulled over, but finds no sign of Eul.
Joon-young resumes his drive, and takes a call from his attorney: He’s located that woman. Joon-young replies, “So have I.”
He pulls over the car, and looks off in the distance: A woman trudges along the side of the road, wobbling unsteadily on her feet. He drives closer and runs up to Eul, staring down at her intently.
She stares, too, then breaks into a smile. “Have you changed your mind?” she asks. “Is that why you came back?” She explains that she’s not doing all this just to score a job for herself. She says the documentary will do a lot to improve his rude image, and earn money…
He cuts her off, speaking in banmal: “Don’t you know me?” She replies that everybody knows who he is, but he cuts her off again, saying her name with intensity: “Noh Eul. Don’t you know me?!”
“I know you,” she answers, dropping to banmal. “You son of a bitch.”
Ah, interesting. Although I do my best not to let background knowledge of a show (from promos and teasers) affect how I watch the actual show itself, I didn’t except for Uncontrollably Fond to dive right in to the present day without some sort of flashback or reference to the past, because we were told ages ago that they were first loves who somehow got separated, and reunite again as adults. But the episode was fairly withholding about background information, and I accepted the plot as the show presented it, wondering when we’d be given more clues. And things kept unfolding, and Joon-young betrayed nothing about possibly knowing Eul, and Eul kept speaking to Joon-young in polite speech, as though he were a stranger.
It gave the episode a dose of tension and energy that I wasn’t expected, but really appreciated. It kept me on the edge of my seat, wanting for somebody to break first, to acknowledge each other, to fill us in on what must be pretty epic backstory.
I suppose the wait had the same effect on the characters as well, because Joon-young kept feigning ignorance until it came out in an angry outburst, and her answer was a lot stronger than her behavior leading up to that point would have suggested. So now I’m dying to know what happened, which means that as a premiere, it did its job. Curiosity piqued, mission accomplished, I’ll be back tomorrow.
I was afraid that Joon-young’s mix of charm and aggression would make me hate the character—and more to the point, hate Kim Woo-bin, after losing a lot of affection for him post-Heirs. (So charming, but so aggravating!) But Joon-young was a lot more than some spoiled, rich move star, and I found myself going absolutely all-in with him and his painful loneliness. As soon as the show told me he was dying (how can the show kill him), it shifted everything; what seemed like annoyingly smug flirting in the promos now makes sense with a ticking clock, and it pulls strings in the heart that I wasn’t expecting to be pulled.
I suspect that similar layers are going on with Eul’s character, but those weren’t played out as much—or perhaps they were, but you just can’t compete with Dying Hero. In any case, I like that she’s cheerful to an almost offensive degree; she’s not just cheerful, she’s cheerful as defense mechanism, maybe even sometimes as offense mechanism. She’s shameless and willfully cheerful, so much so that it makes her tone-deaf, yet that hints at more stuff going on beneath the surface and I’m curious to know what that is.
More than anything, I’m glad and relieved to see writer Lee Kyung-hee back with moody, melancholy romance; I am such a fan of some of her work, but not all of it, and I didn’t know which style we’d get. Her intense, classic melodramas (I’m Sorry, I Love You; A Love to Kill) were what made her name (as well as the flashier Nice Guy), but I much prefer her lighter sentimental melos, like Will It Snow For Christmas and Thank You. I find the romantic, pensive touch of this drama a refreshing change of pace, and also appreciate that when it occasionally lightens up, it doesn’t turn into a different kind of drama by pouring on the comedy. So far the show is giving me the sense of a sentimental, bittersweet romance with a strong current of emotion balanced by a dash of lightness, and that speaks to me. A lot.