The “Was” in She Was Pretty

Ji Sung-joon (Park Seo-joon) wrapping his coat around Kim Hye-jin (Hwang Jung-eum) in a back hug in front of a frame at a beach in 2015 Korean drama She Was Pretty

Does our opinion of an acorn change slightly when we recall that it was once part of a majestic oak tree previously looming tall on some revered mountain? Yet, an acorn has a brand new life waiting to be unleashed from within, on whichever shores animal companions bring it to. It does not want to be locked away in some dark museum, forever remembered as a dead tree.

Similarly, does knowledge of someone’s past enhance or detract from our understanding of him? While She Was Pretty‘s lead character Hye-jin hides from her childhood beau, Sung-joon, out of insecurity about herself—after he grows up successful and good-looking and she underemployed and “ugly”—their colleague Shin-hyuk hides away from everyone to be himself.

Hye-jin’s anxiety around Sung-joon subsides, however, when she finds him a changed person on the inside as well. Indignant at his insults at her eventual workplace, where he becomes her supervisor while thinking that she is just an incompetent assistant with the same name, she resolves to stay on and prove him wrong. Since Sung-joon Present is no longer Sung-joon Past, why should she still concern herself with how the discovery of her identity will taint his image of first love? The past has to have a presence, to borrow T. S. Eliot’s words, to have greater chance of amounting to something more than stale memories.

Kim Hye-jin (Hwang Jung-eum) looking into the mirrorand pondering about beauty in 2015 Korean drama She Was Pretty

Kim Hye-jin (with partial makeover)

More accurately, it is the perceived absence of a person’s past self that persuades old acquaintances to view him differently. On some subconscious level, the past may still be informing the present. Previous conduct sometimes sets up expectations for current behavior, and contrasts between expectations and reality can make the person’s present-day qualities appear more pronounced. It is also the past that tells us how deserving someone is of his current fortune or misfortune and how forgivable his present flaws are, depending on hurdles he had to overcome and whether experiences should have taught him better. Indeed, recalling Sung-joon’s younger days as an obese boy a head shorter than his peers, Hye-jin mocks the man she now sees as a pompous upstart behind his back. That may be an act of spite, but it is not unusual that people expect those who have been outcasts and laggards before to show more compassion towards new stragglers.

Nostalgia, on the other hand, may sometimes spur us to dig hard for the past within the present. And it may happen that the former self lies dormant inside the present self or thrives on in another disguise. There are times, too, when only people familiar with the person’s history can appreciate his potential and hazard guesses about unspoken needs and anxieties. When Sung-joon staggers out of his car onto a busy road in a stupor one rainy night, to the gasps of spectators, Hye-jin is the only one who understands that he is reliving childhood memories of losing his mother under similar conditions. As coincidences bring them together in more casual settings, Sung-joon also starts to loosen up and reveal his more easygoing and kinder side. It is then that she realizes the boy she loves has always been there. He is not a collection of beautiful memories best revisited in the mind with wistfulness, but a flesh-and-blood human being who still needs care and support.

Ji Sung-joon (Park Seo-joon) and Kim Hye-jin (Hwang Jung-eum) during their work trip in 2015 Korean drama She Was Pretty

Pre-makeover Kim Hye-jin (left) and Ji Sung-joon (right)

However, Hye-jin’s perception of him becomes slightly precarious from this point onward. Her vision of Sung-joon seems to be stuck in the past at times, as she imagines cherubic, grade school Sung-joon pontificating about art history when adult Sung-joon discusses Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s works in all seriousness and playing grown-up when he presides over a meeting without any sign of his childhood awkwardness. Yet Sung-joon is now not just a fragile boy coping with vulnerabilities. He is strong and mature in admirable ways: putting his prestigious job on the line and traveling all the way from New York to Korea to rescue the careers of a talented team of people he does not personally know; accepting harsh censure from subordinates; broaching awkward topics like his unexpected affection for the flustered “new” Hye-jin in a forthright, patient and collected manner; showing empathy for her conflicted feelings with respect to their romance, etc. This being a story with a decidedly happy ending, we know that Hye-jin’s attitude is innocuous—her mental dramas are enacted more in the name of theatrical fun. But taken to an extreme outside the screen, the habit of reframing present characteristics as remnants of the past can be unfair and obstructive.

Shin-hyuk, a features editor, is another victim of the past. When he first became an English author, his publisher used his background as an oriental adoptee in the United States as a selling point and meddled with his writing to the point that it no longer felt like his. To get people to see him and his novels for what they are, rid of preconceptions influenced by his biographical details, he decides to conceal his identity and adopt the perplexing pseudonym “Ten.” And so it goes that he leads a double life with triumphs and probably deadline frenzies he cannot share face-to-face with anyone. Beyond professional matters, co-workers know him only as a carefree prankster—until circumstances force him to author his own reveal in their magazine to boost sales figures and save everyone’s job, so that Hye-jin, whom he also feels affection for, need not face the heartbreak of a separation from Sung-joon.

Kim Shin-hyuk (Choi Siwon) in 2015 Korean romantic comedy She Was Pretty

Kim Shin-hyuk

This struggle with people refusing to detach the writing from the author’s life history is not unfamiliar among writers. It attests to not only how second-hand accounts of someone’s past can distort current facts even more than first-hand knowledge does, but also how a limited visage of the past may lead to wrongful conclusions. Many individuals have a tendency to fill in for themselves the gaps between known sections of the person’s past and the present, through fantasies based on stereotypical patterns or their own experiences. It is as if the other party does not have individuality or free thought. When such imagination of past history informs appraisal of present personality and merits, it perpetuates an injustice toward personhood and sets us back in the fight against societal discrimination.

With this many external factors potentially working against the person’s favor, it can even be hard for him to hold on to his own conception of himself. In time, he may start to behave as others think he had, and forsake pursuits where others think him incapable. On further thought, though, it is exactly because the risks are so high that one must work hard at reinforcing self-belief. She Was Pretty concludes with the observation that some supporting characters in daily life end up as supporting characters because they envisage themselves as so, giving up too readily and content to let opportunities fly by. They may dismiss Cinderella tales as unrealistic, but they are not doing anything with at least a remote chance of turning them into reality.

Unable to keep his past under wraps anymore, Shin-hyuk pens a novel titled Ten. Perhaps it preempts misconceptions of the novelist by giving a full account of his life from his own perspective, as an open leading character, probably the second best option to anonymity. For herself, Hye-jin realizes that doing what you love and being where your heart desires are what give you a beautiful glow. With that, she and Sung-joon rekindles their past relationship while each moves beyond the shadow of his/her individual past, he overcoming his childhood trauma and she happy as a children’s story writer in her pretty freckles and curls.

Ah, look at the woods sheltering the couple where they vacation. That might be where a sapling would like the chance to be.

Upper image: Ji Sung-joon (Park Seo-joon) and Kim Hye-jin (Hwang Jung-eum) in the finale of 2015 Korean drama She Was Pretty, with she reading a storybook Lower image: Ji Sung-joon (Park Seo-joon) and Kim Hye-jin (Hwang Jung-eum)'s picnic scene in the finale of 2015 Korean drama She Was Pretty

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5 thoughts on “The “Was” in She Was Pretty

  1. “…some supporting characters in daily life end up as supporting characters because they envisage themselves as so, giving up too readily and content to let opportunities fly by.” So true.

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