In a quaint alleyway in the heart of Seoul, a scarred, reticent chef known only as “Master” operates a low-key eatery from midnight to seven in the morning. The menu has just one modest dish, but patrons are free to order whatever they want. Night after night, various sorts of workers drop by and share their woes and joys over the hearty dishes, while Master looks on with a small smile from the kitchen, rarely interjecting a remark except to serve food.
One regular, a down-and-out musician, has this ritual of burying a chunk of butter under white rice, letting it simmer for half a minute there while he sits back contentedly with folded arms, lightly adding a few dashes of soy sauce after that, and then mixing everything together. Looking on in admiration, the other patrons would imitate him and this small place in 2015 Korean drama Midnight Diner, adapted from a Japanese comic series of the same name, becomes a cocoon of simple bliss. In lieu of cash, Master permits the musician to repay him with a guitar performance, bringing more cheer to everyone. These happenings make them momentarily overlook a haughty food critic invited to the eatery one night.
The twist you are waiting for is this: the crowd-pleaser in the room and the most irksome man there are long-lost prospective in-laws. The musician, the critic and the critic’s sister used to eat butter rice whenever the musician visited the siblings’ house. She is the subject of his love song. But will a romantic relationship be the same after so many years? Besides switching the song from the Japanese enka (a form of sentimental ballad) “The Woman in Hakodate” in the original to the trot (a genre of enka-influenced Korean music) song “Young Lady in Red Shoes,” the adaptation wove in Korean essayist Pi Cheon-deuk’s thoughts on Asako, a Japanese girl he was supposedly fond of.
Through simple yet beautiful prose in his well-known masterpiece “Affinity,” Pi recounted their encounters from the 1920s to the 1950s. When they first met in Tokyo, he was a teen and she a first-grader. Asako, as young and cute as the sweet peas she plucked for Pi then, wrapped her arms around his neck, kissed his cheek and gave him her handkerchief and little ring as farewell gifts. Watching from the side, her mother remarked with a smile that they would make a great pair in ten years’ time. The second time they met, Asako had blossomed into a fair and sophisticated college junior like the magnolias blooming in her garden. They chatted about literature and shook hands lightly before parting. However, before they could meet for a third time, the Second World War and Korean War broke out. Thus, by their third meeting, she was a married woman whose face resembled withering lilies. They merely bowed at each other. Pi regretted going for the last meeting. Yet he planned to visit the scenic Chuncheon, where the sister college of her alma mater was located.
There is a claim that “Affinity” was a short story erroneously published as an essay and Pi had a different personality in real life, but authenticity is not the concern of this discussion. The concern here is that although the essay’s Pi (hereafter referred to as “P” for brevity and to avoid confusion with the writer) had an authentic life to lead as far as the character himself knew, his thoughts and actions might have been driven by a longing for a kind of dramatic narrative. Alongside the descriptions of Asako’s resemblance to flowers and interactions between P and Asako run references to fiction. When they first parted, P gifted Asako a copy of Andersen’s tales. During their second encounter, Asako fetched a lovely green umbrella which P thought probably made him fond of the film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. During his third visit, he noted with disappointment that she was staying in a house similar to the one on the cover of the Andersen book, but not with him.
There are other, more probable explanations for these references, but they alone do not seem to invalidate the theory of P experiencing thrill from the thought of living out a wondrous tale and feeling morose after missing opportunities to actually live it. His expression of regret at the third meeting even suggests that the integrity of his memories and openness of possibilities mattered more to him than knowing how she was doing and being ready to offer help, assuming that the regret was not a result of hindsight bias. Yet a thread of memories and understanding willfully detached from current reality would amount to fiction. Was his intended trip to Chuncheon merely part of an innocuous nostalgia for the younger Asako and his previous relationship with Asako, or an attempt to indulge in fantasy then? Could his presumed fondness of her have begun when the vision Asako’s mother offered felt so moving that it ignited in the impressionable youth a desire to make her prediction come true and colored his views of young Asako? Moreover, the karmic affinity referred to in the Korean title implies some predetermined development—almost like a script.
We may not know what makes P tick, but the idea is that there may be people in such situations who yearn for love not because of the other party, but for the sake of the potential narrative. A narrative-powered life does have some benefits—it helps us organize our pasts and future plans, enhances our sense of identity where collective narratives are concerned, and sometimes motivates us to work hard for certain goals, maybe because we see ourselves as long-suffering protagonists deserving happy endings. Dramatic narratives, however, are incongruous with reality in that they usually have fixed sets of tones, preset timings and a cooperative cast. You rarely see a melodrama introducing wacky comedic elements in the 40th episode, a completely ad-libbed production (one exception is improvisational theater) or actors acting different stories in the same scene. Framing life as a dramatic narrative can thus lead to inflexibility in thinking and adaptation (“This has been my character for the past forty years. I cannot change it.”). It also fails to consider whether the people required to make the narrative works consent.
In relation to these points, psychologist Robert Sternberg expounded the theory that different types of narratives have different strengths and weaknesses in romantic relationships. Some pairs of narratives are also more compatible than others in his opinion. Therefore, it is advisable, he believed, to choose partners whose narrative dreams complement or function harmoniously with our own. In the above instance, though, we know little about Asako beyond her looks, personality and background. Exactly what type of fairy tale has she been looking forward to in her pretty house: a damsel-in-distress trope like Sleeping Beauty’s, a rags-to-riches story a la Cinderella, or a tale of nurture like “The Frog Prince”? Either P did not know the answer too or he thought it not important enough to include in the account. In any case, it may not be essential for the emotional and artistic appeal of this “essay.” But for fictional romances in general to carry realism, there is a need for producers and the like to refrain from objectifying either gender and instead delve into their ideals and philosophies. The cases of Asako and the critic’s sister call into question literary/screen representations of women, but caution against objectification of men in productions marketed to female consumers may be necessary as well.
Wild speculations aside, “Affinity” does hold philosophical significance for its readers. Although P has missed the boat, our fates are probably not carved in stone yet. His lament at the difficulty of getting person, timing and place right is really a reminder to seize and create opportunities whenever possible—in other words, to make that confession today! Back in Midnight Diner, the critic gently informs the musician that the sister is now running a karaoke shop after turning down her arranged marriage to someone else years ago, and the musician joins her. In the original, the shop is situated in Hakodate. In the Korean version, the location is Chuncheon. Meanwhile in Seoul, men and women, proud and prejudiced, tuck in to the same butter rice elbow-to-elbow in a cosy eatery.