Review – When A Man Loves
Deep satisfied sigh. What a cool melodrama! Talk about an unusual plotline that hooked. I was completely swept up into this romantic entanglement. Not quite a love triangle, not quite NOT a love triangle. There was more nuance and character development in this drama than most shows. You’ll be hating someone in one episode and completely understanding them and sympathizing with them in the next. Shades of gray, my friends. It’s a show about how your life experiences define you, even when you’ve changed your life.
Plotline Short Version: A gangster falls for the daughter of the man he’s terrorizing and a series of events leads him to change his ways and give up his life of crime to reemerge several years later as a successful businessman. When he runs into the daughter again – he sweeps her into his new life, with promises of financial security and his heart. However, our young lady is wary of her new suitor. He’s over a decade older than her, excessively smitten, and… ya know… a bit scary. While she’s attempting to let this man into her life, she meets another man – her age – whom she shares natural chemistry with. Unfortunately, his life is equally tied to the reformed gangsters. It’s a struggle of will, of families, of obligations and of fear as these three circle around each other. And it’s really great tv.
Overall Rating – 9/10. One Person’s Love Is Not Enough To Carry Two Hearts.
LOTS OF SPOILERS, life musings, dating advice, and rambling follow…
So… where to start?
Let’s start with the gangsters.
Introducing our first male lead – the “reformed” gangster, played by Song Seung-Heon. Let’s just say it – this guy is hunky. He is not only hunky, but his perfectly tailored, tight fitting clothing leaves little to imagination – it’s clear he’s hunky in every scene. Nice face, amazing body.
When we are introduced to hunky Gangster 1, he is floating around the top of the gangster hierarchy. Not quite the eye of the pyramid, but definitely not just support staff either. He’s running around in a black suit with all his black suited friends, tearing up businesses and terrorizing whatever poor fools were stupid enough to borrow money from his loan shark boss.
In this show, that fool is a bookstore owner and his family. He’s in debt and his business is struggling. His oldest daughter is about to start applying for colleges, the top of the class. As the gangster moves in on the family, our black suited hunk discovers this and projects his own lost opportunities onto his young lady. He too was once a bright young student with the possibility of college and a career in front of him… before life threw him in the dumpster and turned him into a villain. He makes a bold move and spares the family, enraging his gang boss. There is a bloody altercation, and our male lead is left scarred but alive – while his boss bites the dust.
Introducing Gangster 2, the right arm, played by Kim Sung-Oh. This actor is extremely compelling – as was his story line. He’s got a younger brother at home he’s been supporting, making sure he won’t end up in the same criminal boat. When his gang boss dies, he takes the full blame for the murder – making his best friend promise to look out for his nerdy sibling while he’s behind bars. He tells his brother he’s going abroad and his bestie makes good on his promise, putting the youngster through college and supporting him along the way.
I loved Gangster 2. He was a complicated mess. He loved his brother, but he also loved his best friend. He was the wildest of the lot, as he hadn’t had years to adjust to being on the straight and narrow like his friends – he’d been in jail. So even though they put him in an expensive suit and gave him a job, he struggled to maintain being “civilized,” always breaking into violent fights or following his emotional gut reactions. Kim Sung-Oh was ideal casting – as there is something soft about him but also a whole lot of crazy comes through his performances.
Side Note: Gangster 3, the gambler, was also mesmerizing. This is the dude who was used to being on the bottom of the food chain and struggling. He’d risen up while Gangster 2 was in jail, but quickly fell back down the line when Gangster 2 got out of jail. He was annoyed and frustrated and torn. His gambling addiction made him a liability, but the loyalty between the gangsters kept him in check… usually.
So back to the set up. Hunky Gangster 1 is now the president of his own company. He’s been financially supporting his crush and the younger brother of Gangster 2, both of which have finished college and are looking to get their feet wet in the business world. His lady love is struggling, however, because of her family’s financial woes. When Gangster 1 finds her again, she’s a waitress making ends meet, having difficulty finding a career job that matches her education level.
Shin Se-Kyung plays our lead female – and this actress is perfect for the role. She’s really good at playing a repressed, introspective, slightly desperate and defeated woman. This is a woman who has struggled, who is trying to maintain composure while the world throws stones. Then Gangster 1 comes back, this time like Prince Charming, and sweeps her into his new and improvced life. He gives her a great job… but immediately makes it clear that he is part of the bargain. Date me and I’ll pull you out of your financial black hole.
Which leads us to Romance 1. Though she is impressed with the obvious transformation of Gangster 1 into a reputable business man, our leading female is not head over heels. In fact, wary would be an overstatement. Her mother is thrilled at the prospect of a wealthy in-law, however, even if it is the same guy who busted out their bookstore’s window and bought her daughter for sex a few years ago. (hey, he totally did buy her. Just cause he didn’t go through with it, doesn’t diminish this tidbit. He bought her and basically acted like he owned a piece of her the rest of the show.) Gangster 1 goes into full tilt boogie romance mode, which is comical to say the least. He’s never dated anyone before, never figured out the complicated dance between men and women, never muddied the waters of love. So he’s like a teenage boy, immature, smitten, following his love interest around like a lost puppy. It’s endearing enough that she decides to give it a shot.
She’ll date gangster. He’s handsome, successful, and clearly over the moon about her. Hoping her heart will follow her feet, she starts to spend time with the guy and a strained relationship develops. He acts childish and in turn she treats him like a child. Whether or not she’s fully invested does not seem to deter his romantic ambition. He’ll make her love him, damn it. With time. In his mind, there is no doubt she’ll one day come around, so he ignores her obvious discomfort and hesitation. She’s his, remember? He bought her. He’s entitled to heart.
It’s remarkable. And it’s fascinating. And, I think, if you’ve dated a bit you can relate. Most of us have dated someone who looks good on paper – ie, they fit most of the criteria you are looking for in a match but for whatever reason you just don’t mesh. These two just don’t mesh.
It’s also a classic case of Duckie Syndrome. There’s a great 1980’s movie called Pretty in Pink in which a character called Duckie is obsessively in love with his next door neighbor. He’s adorable. He’s funny, loyal, and seemingly perfect.
The problem is, his next door neighbor just doesn’t feel the same. She likes someone else. As viewers, we’re torn. Everyone would like to have a relationship in which someone adores them. So we are rooting for Duckie. Even though we know, instinctively, it would never work. Gangster 1 is this show’s Duckie. We find ourselves smitten with him – and his cute, awkward, one-sided love. And just like in Pretty in Pink, sometimes that leads to viewers being angry, irrationally, with the female lead. There was a lot of hate mail in the comment section about the female lead of this show – how dare she not fall in love with our hunky gangster! She’s playing him! She’s toying with his emotions! Uh, no she wasn’t. She tried. But you can’t make love happen. The heart is a fickle thing but it generally knows what’s best for us.
There’s actually a LOT of one-sided love in this show – and it leads to the general unhappiness of all involved. You gotta ask yourself at some point… Is it really love if it makes you that miserable? Some say love has to be shared to be felt. I would say this drama proves that theory.
Enter leading male 2, the younger brother of the gangster – now grown into a post-grad entering the business world. He’s a happy-go-lucky guy, smart, laid back, and genuine.
He meets our female lead while she’s on vacation in Guam. They spend three glorious days together – and the contrast between the relationships comes into clear focus. Around him, she’s carefree, playful, happy and relaxed. The two communicate easily. Their rapport is natural and unrestrained. They’re two people falling in love…
Unfortunately, their vacations end. And she’s back to her lovelorn boss, her struggling family, and her budding career. A few days later, much to her surprise, her vacation honey shows up at work – now her team leader! She has to confess that she’s dating someone else – and he has to back up out of respect.
Needless to say, dating the guy you don’t really like while the guy you do like is smiling at you every day is hell on earth for our leading lady. But she’s promised to give our gangster a shot and makes good on the deal. They date and attempt to get closer. But we know, as viewers, it’s in vain. True love is within hands reach and its only natural that our youngsters hands keep moving towards each other.
As a viewer, I was in heaven. What a fabulous love triangle! The pent up attraction between the two youths. The blind, oblivious love of our gangster. The frustration and sadness of our female lead. Ooo la la such a game of hearts!
If you really look at this poster, you won’t have any doubts to what’s happening in this show. Look at her face! It may be called When A Man Loves, but that is not the face of a woman in love.
Things get messy. Really messy. Our former gangsters struggle to stay above the law when things get out of their control. Our young lovers struggle to overcome family objections and their loyalty to the man who helped them get through college. Our hearts try not to melt when the hormones of our youngsters get the best of them.
It’s so good!
There are all sorts of delicious side stories, too. The younger brother of the female lead and his commitment to make it in the entertainment industry, though it seems clear to me he’s not that great. (seriously, when he’s dancing with the other young guy from the restaurant, one clearly outshines the other as a natural dancer… and it’s not the one paying to become a star). The mystery of what happened with Gangster 1’s mother and brother. The rivalry and tension between Gangster 1 and another gangster who’s also caught in a one-sided love affair. The pressure of international business. The pressure of family. The pressure of society to conform.
It’s enough that every episode is filled with intrigue.
Side Note: What do you know about Pilates? Cause this show is like an infomercial for Pilates. Our second lead female, the confident, devious woman who clearly is an ideal match for Gangster 1, though he’ll have none of it thank you, spends an enormous amount of time in this show doing Pilates. Clearly it’s working for her, too, though honestly all those machines and pulley contraptions just seemed ridiculous to me.
Side, Side Note: The written language is a beautiful thing. Through it you can express things you would never verbally say. Poetry, for example. Metaphors. The quiet things your mind puts together when others are not around. Outside the bookstore, there was a chalkboard… which all of our characters used to relate their feelings to each other, through their own words, through the words of others. I loved it. I loved how they were passing these public notes around to each other – I loved the handwriting – I loved the dog-eared books of poetry and novels they got inspiration from.
Seriously, it is impossible to watch this drama and not want to dig out your favorite quotes and poems and share them with someone. Anyone. Even if it’s just an anonymous letter to the world.
Sideways, Backwards Side Note: How freakin’ cool was the CEO who was looking for all his sons – both real and adopted? That man was all heart! Not only was he willing to take in the relatives of anyone he loved, but he was even ready to call the gangster “my son” who kept his actual son from him.
As far as this guy was concerned, his heart had enough room to house everyone. All these sad, lonely grown men were welcome into his life. I swear, I kinda sniffled over it. So often in K-Dramas actual paternity is such a conundrum (example: “I just found out you’re not my biological child and thus love you less and will possibly shun/disinherit you”… we see that a lot in shows). This dude was all about forgiveness and love.
MASSIVE SPOILER SIDE NOTE: If you’ve watched it all, then you undoubtedly have opinions on the final episode. A lot happens in that last hour. Most of it is deeply satisfying. Even the stuff that isn’t… well, it still kind of is. Here’s my opinion: I loved it. Yup. Even after grumbling about how incompatible the two leads were this entire review, I felt that they’d grown up – finally found some common ground to stand on – given up on their prejudices and assumptions about one another. She didn’t need him anymore… now she could just explore what it felt like to want him. He didn’t feel entitled to her love anymore (though he did buy her father’s old bookstore… so, I can’t help but say there’s still a bit of him that wants to purchase his way into her life). And yeah, I still think the young lovers were awesome together – but just like real life, your first love doesn’t always last. That they moved apart amicably was lovely. That everyone had found a way to piece together their tricky connections and be at ease at the end… that was brilliant writing.
I couldn’t help but compare the relationship to that in Empress Ki, because it was the exact opposite. In this show, our male lead knows the female lead needs him, financially – and takes advantage of that need to draw her closer. In Empress Ki, it is the male lead that needs the female lead, desperately, and uses his authority to keep his love interest close to him. Both men are using their power to manipulate the women they love – but in totally different ways. And it has totally different effects because of where it’s coming from. The hunky gangster kinda seemed like an ass for using our lady’s financial problems to keep her close, cause you knew he knew he was doing it – and he excused his own behavior because what he felt was genuine, even when he knew she didn’t feel the same. And yeah – he totally knew. The man spent years being a loan shark, he knew good and well what financial desperation could do to people and how to use that to his advantage… maybe it was just instinct for him. That’s why I liked the last episode of this show – and how it finally relaxed that power play between the two leads so they could come together more naturally, without the strain of manipulation.
Anyways, I liked it. By the last episode, I was finally ready to cheer for our first male. Duckie… looks like you might get the girl after all…