My Favourite Soap Opera

It's Winter Love Song, a tortured, trashy Korean masterpiece on Shaw's Multicultural Channel.

By Steve Burgess 21 May 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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On a recent trip to Japan I spent some time watching sumo on TV.  There were of course no subtitles, so I didn't know who was fighting who. Next day I would read about the fights in the papers and try to match up the descriptions with what I had seen the night before. I did succeed in identifying the eventual champion, Asashoryu, so that I could watch his triumphal progress through the field of challengers. Even without knowing the wrestlers' names, it was entertaining. For all its arcane ceremony, sumo is a very basic sort of contest. Not knowing the relative skills of the competitors beforehand, it was fun to watch them settle in for battle and try to see in their eyes who had the confident bearing of a winner.

It might be a stretch to say that soap operas, like sumo, are so basic and universal that they too can be followed without words. Subtitles do help. But the basic forms are always there and easily recognizable. And thanks to the handy English at the bottom of the screen, anyone can appreciate the tortured Korean mini-series Winter Love Song, Fridays at 2 and 9PM on Shaw Multicultural Channel 20.

Even her smile sobs

Poor Shaw Multicultural--so marginal that it doesn't even make the channel listing of the TV Times. The only way to catch its programs are to be told about them, or to happen upon them while channel surfing. I can't recall exactly what stopped my remote finger the first time I saw Winter Love Song--probably the ineffably sad eyes of Yujin, the female lead (played by Choi-Ji Woo). She has one of those faces that appears to weep for all the world's suffering, even when she smiles. And Lord knows she has enough troubles of her own.

Just listen: She's engaged to Sang-hyuk. But doesn't love him. If she tries to leave him though, he'll stop eating and dwindle away to near death, while Yujin's own mother will be so distraught she'll collapse and end up in hospital.

Naturally Yujin has discovered all of this first hand because she's tried to leave more than once. There's this other guy (maybe two guys--we're not sure). His name is Min-hyung and he sure is cute. He's got glasses and auburn hair and usually wears a scarf and a quiet, searching gaze. Yujin was stunned when she met him because he was a dead ringer for Joon-sang, her deceased childhood sweetie. So they fell blissfully in love. That's when Sang-hyuk stopped eating. The passive-aggressive tactic worked like a damn, and Yujin (pressured by friends and family) dutifully trudged back to Sang-hyuk to re-schedule the wedding and save his pathetic life. Every time Yujin is with Sang-hyuk she looks like she's eaten a greasy Korean pancake that didn't agree with her, but Sang-hyuk doesn't seem to mind one bit. Whatever it takes to get her down the aisle is OK with him.

The mysterious Joon-Sang

Meanwhile Min-hyung is puzzled. He keeps hearing about the mysterious Joon-sang he so resembles, and whom Yujin so loved. Is the dead Joon-sang his twin brother? Or is Joon-sang alive… with a new identity?

Just days after the Friends finale featured a mad dash to the airport to intercept a departing love, Winter Love Song coincidentally employed the same plot twist as Yujin chased the departing Min-hyung. Or Joon-Sang. Whoever he is, he later got hit by a truck. I don't know how it comes out yet--he's still in a coma.

Apparently I am not the first to discover the cross-cultural appeal of Winter Love Song. The show proved so popular in Japan that Bae-Yung Jun, who plays Min-hyung/Joon-Sang, was mobbed on a recent visit. (Poor fiancé Sang-hyuk--he's good looking too. But he's interfering with their happiness, and nobody loves a roadblock.)

Something Western drama lacks


Winter Love Song may be over the top in the time-honoured soap opera style, but it has a haunting quality that comes from its very Asian themes of duty and unfulfilled longing, not to mention Yujin's sad eyes. Although the twisted triangle is familiar to Western audiences, the behavior of Yujin seems like a throwback. Her devotion to family, duty and propriety disappeared from most Western romantic drama long ago. Vancouverites seeking the same themes will have to catch the Vancouver Opera production of Verdi's La Traviata, currently at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. There too, the duties of family threaten to override the imperatives of love, but that story is over a century old.

Winter Love Song may not be high culture, but neither was the opera in its heyday. As glossy Harlequin-style trash, it's a hoot. Catching up to it now might be a little tough, since the plot line is fairly well advanced (once the amnesia wears off it's got to be near the end). But at least next time Shaw airs it, maybe they might even list it in the paper, along with the rest of the station's programming. Who knows what other subtitled treasures might be waiting on Channel 20?

Steve Burgess reviews television, and other indulgences, for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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