The tension between good and evil, hero and villain, is another theme that permeates many dramas. What few drama writers explore in depth, though, are the forces driving characters to one side rather than the other, or even switching sides. Two oft-deployed plot devices in Korean productions are ‘heritage‘ and ‘psychopathy‘: the villain started off the series as a bright-eyed lad/lass yearning to do good but was persuaded otherwise by familial or political circumstances; alternatively, s/he was plainly evil to begin with. Yet environmental and genetic influences, in themselves, seem to be inadequate explanations for the disparity in moral behavior among people. After all, some folks cling onto their principles in spite of countervailing social influences. And most wrongdoers are just as biologically inclined as ordinary men to perform acts of benevolence. In other words, the key differentiating factor must surely be psychological.
In the fantasy melodrama ‘49 Days‘, we finally get a glimpse into the interplay between light and dark forces within the human psyche. Kang Min-ho, the heroine (Shin Ji-hyun)’s fiancé, was not your usual vengeful antagonist. Well-educated, capable and commanding the respect of his peers, all signs suggested he was fully competent of building a more than decent future for himself even without his machiavellian efforts. Yet, indignant with the abject poverty and series of familial tragedies he experienced in his formative years, he chose to try his hand at playing God, manipulating Ji-hyun’s affection for him and engaging in shady deals to reverse her perfectly innocent chaebol family’s fortunes just so that they would have a taste of the miserable destiny he was born with. Putting it another way, his revenge was not directed at his victims, but, as he proudly declared, at the supreme force of Fate. Min-ho’s inner world started crashing, however, when Ji-hyun’s soul got detached from her body in a near-fatal accident and entered the body of another woman.
Upon learning about Min-ho’s dastardly plans in her soul state, Ji-hyun treated him with undisguised disdain, baffling the latter, who was used to being held in regard and even admiration. To his even greater bafflement, he found himself growing attracted to this new Ji-hyun. Appearances and status could not be the reasons – in her new identity, Ji-hyun was an unkempt and lowly waitress, a far cry from her former self as the well-primped chaebol heiress he never truly fell in love with during their two years of courtship. He then asserted to himself that pride must be the cause of the turn of events – her hostile glares had aroused in him a desire to tame the lady and claim her heart. Yet the soft gaze he cast at her when she was staggering on the street and when she regained consciousness in her body was not that of a conqueror. The way a small burn on her hand filled him with anxiety was not how a predator would react to its prey. No conqueror or predator would think of bringing his victim to a humble childhood haunt he almost only frequented with his beloved mother either. Finally, the bitter tears he shed for Ji-hyun after news of her eventual death sunk in were more akin to those people normally shed for a lost love, rather than a lost trophy. What then explained his fondness for the post-accident Ji-hyun?
Some likely clues were scattered among the episodes: Min-ho noting to the body-swapped Ji-hyun that he felt at ease and was relieved of the burden of concealing his true self when he was with her; his fear of facing his mother; his co-conspirator, In-jung, pointing out that he halted his plans out of sympathy when he learnt about Ji-hyun’s father’s illness; his persuasion of her dad to undergo lifesaving surgery despite knowing that the latter had willed his entire business empire to him. The most poignant of all, however, must be Min-ho’s words to his former buddy Han Kang during their jail conversation:
I’ve always admired you for your wounds. Unlike me, you did not conceal them or let them distort your life.
It appears then that even as a twisted heart lay beneath the man’s gentle mannerisms, a thirst for good and uprightness bred beneath that twisted heart. The Ji-hyun who viewed him with the distaste he deserved possibly resonated with his lingering voice of reason and conscience. You could argue that Min-ho had actually fallen in love with justice, after all.
Yet the longing for a quality that could have been cultivated in oneself – to the extent that it blossoms into a fervent, lasting passion – does not make much logical sense. One may envy another person for her inheritance, luck or innate abilities – all of which are attributes beyond one’s control. One may also envy people for things within one’s reach until one obtains them. Why would a person, however, have to wait for moral relief from someone calling him out for the hypocrite he is? Is it not easier to change himself and be comfortable in his own skin instead?
Perhaps a form of akrasia (i.e. weakness of will) is at work here. Philosophers and psychologists have identified a number of decision-making flaws that may lead people to perform actions which would not align with their best judgement. These include: generation of too many or too few options, selection of inappropriate options owing to impulsivity or compulsive thinking, failure to select option due to ambivalence, and failure to act on selected option due to lack of motivation or inhibitory control. In the case of cool, calculated revenge tinged with subtle self-loathing, however, one senses that clouded thinking, rashness and apathy are not so much an issue as the will to pursue all lines of thought. The shrewd plotter is technically capable of deriving, comprehending and executing options. Yet, he may not be willing to give full consideration to all available options, in spite of his knowledge of their existence, especially if the evaluation of some options involves intense emotional labor.
If we contrast Min-ho with In-jung, who later repented for her actions, we find that whereas Min-ho repeatedly denied (even to himself) his sense of guilt and desire to help Ji-hyun’s family, In-jung was forthright about her doubts right from the start. She questioned whether it was right to continue with their scheme in the wake of Ji-hyun’s accident and whether they should really kill Ji-hyun to protect themselves. After becoming fully aware of how wrong their decisions were, she moved swiftly to correct things, persuading Min-ho to abandon the plan and retrieving the evidence necessary to have him arrested. It was no coincidence that she became Ji-hyun’s final savior.
This moral fortitude may be what distinguishes most individuals engaging in pro-social actions from individuals engaging in anti-social actions. The former, apparently, have the strength to face their conscience directly, on the one hand, and fight negative thoughts and feelings that threaten to twist them into any adversaries they once despise (Min-ho’s abusive dad and Han Kang’s unfaithful dad, for instance), on the other. In contrast, acts of revenge and destruction performed by the latter, including the kind rampage killers traumatized by peer bullying and social rejection may pride themselves for, demonstrate not true valor but mental fragility.
In the story, Ji-hyun needed to collect three teardrops shed out of pure love from three people biologically unrelated to her to return to life. If the first tear (shed by her longtime admirer) represented unconditional love while the second (shed by her bosom friend) represented steadfast friendship, then the third (shed by her frenemy – In-jung) must represent that which makes the first two possible: courage.