20 Thoughts: My Lovely Sam Soon
Updated: Sep 18, 2021
Title: My Lovely Sam Soon (내 이름은 김삼순; lit. My Name Is Kim Sam Soon)
Network: MBC (2005)
Length: 1 season (16 episodes, approx. 60 min each)
Director (PD): Kim Yun-cheol
Writer: Kim Do-woo
Cast: Kim Sun-ah, Hyun Bin, Jung Ryeo-won, Daniel Henney
Disclaimer: there will be all kinds of spoilers! Also, art being what it is, what I like and what you like will almost certainly be different, and that's ok. I would love to hear your take on my take, so please leave comments !
1. My Lovely Sam Soon first aired in South Korea in the summer of 2005, and was an instant hit. It averaged 38% ratings with its final episode hitting a nearly unprecedented 50%, meaning every other household in South Korea watched the finale. Viewers, particularly female viewers in their 20s and 30s, identified closely with the title character, and empathized with her plight. During its run, the drama won praise for its realistic portrayal of modern womanhood and relationships. Indeed, so popular was MLSS that its success was jokingly dubbed the Kim Sam Soon Syndrome. In 2011, the drama had a well-received stage adaptation as well.
2. MLSS's success was not limited to just South Korea. Rounding out the first Korean Wave (Hallyu), the drama was also huge outside South Korea, especially in the Philippines, where it ran to unprecedented ratings and later spawned a popular long-running remake, and in Japan, where it remained in syndication for years after its original broadcast. MLSS was one of the first k-dramas to be seen widely outside Asia, airing in the United States (on special access cable in certain markets), and in various countries in Europe and the Middle East. It was also one of the first Korean series to be broadcast in some countries in Africa, and one of the first to be dubbed into Spanish for broadcast in Mexico, where it was a moderate hit that created a new appetite for Korean content.
2. Unusually for a mainstream commercial hit, MLSS was also a critically acclaimed series, especially in South Korea. In addition to sweeping the MBC Awards that year, the drama won the Grand Prize (Daesang) at the 42nd Baeksang Arts Awards, as well as Best Miniseries accolades at the Seoul International Drama Awards (the inaugural winner, and one of only four Korean series to ever win the award). MLSS was also the topic of critical academic work, including peer-reviewed journal articles assessing the show's value as a feminist text. (Whether MLSS is actually feminist remains an open question).
3. So what is My Lovely Sam Soon about? On the surface, it's a fairly straightforward romantic comedy (emphasis on the comedy part). Kim Sam Soon, the show's title character, is a slightly overweight, slightly over-the-hill, out-of-work pastry chef who is looking for work and for love. Coincidentally, she finds both at a restaurant owned by toothsome chaebol Hyun Jin Heon. That's pretty much the entire plot of MLSS, which indulges in a number of common k-drama tropes: a poor-but-kind female lead, a rich-and-arrogant male lead, a meet-cute that is anything but, a Cinderella-type romantic plot, exes who disappear for years at a time and suddenly reappear, and even the contrivance of a fake dating contract. Sixteen years on, MLSS can seem a bit dated. It was the last of the big Hallyu hits to be filmed in standard definition and to air before the advent of YouTube and streaming services. The hairstyles, the fashions (OMG the fashions!), and even the physical violence are all very much of 2005, and should be left there.
4. But fortunately, MLSS is a drama whose charms go well beyond just the surface. Indeed, underneath the dated production values is a timeless classic. It is an iconoclastic production, at once an homage to k-drama and a rebuff to its most annoying conventions. MLSS proved to be lightning in a bottle, the perfect marriage of a brilliant script, an excellent cast, and a director with a unique vision. In my opinion, MLSS may be one of the best dramas of all-time, a profound rumination on loss, the power of memory, and learning to live with yourself.
5. The greatest triumph of MLSS is Kim Sam Soon herself, a heroine for the ages. Dubbed the Korean Bridget Jones, I think this comparison actually does Sam Soon a disservice. She is much more like the heroine of Bridget Jones' source material, Pride and Prejudice. Like Elizabeth Bennett, Sam Soon stands out from the crowd because she's intellectually curious, keenly observant, and most importantly, not afraid to speak her mind. Unlike Elizabeth Bennett, however, Sam Soon is part of a patriarchal culture that celebrates conformity and where women are often asked to be perfect and demure, so Sam Soon--brash, foul-mouthed, a bit violent, bluntly honest to the point of rudeness--defies societal expectations. But she's also brave and funny and has a world of love to give to the person who deserves it. She's a ball of various insecurities, but so self-possessed that others are inevitably drawn to her. She is, in short, a total mess, somehow both a breath of fresh air and a brewing typhoon, and she stays that way through the entire series, a winner even when she loses.
6. Kim Sam Soon is played by Kim Sun-a, now a decorated veteran of Korean entertainment, but back then, mostly a successful commercial model and film actress known for her comedic timing and her glamorous appearance. To play the title role in MLSS, KSA famously gained nearly 20 pounds, wore frumpy fashions, and used almost no makeup throughout, making her immediately relatable to a generation of women all over the world. Her commitment to the part and her immersion in the role was so complete that Kin Sun-a became synonymous with Kim Sam Soon. MLSS propelled KSA into super-stardom, but it also led to her being typecast as the "fat"/feisty girl, forcing the actress to take a step back before completely reinventing herself in dramas like Scent of a Woman (2011) and more recently, The Lady in Dignity (2017). Of her own admission, it has taken KSA years to get used to the idea that she will be always be Sam Soon.
7. MLSS also features Hyun Bin in his first-ever lead role in a drama. Having already gotten plenty of notice for his height and good looks as the second lead in Ireland, HB used his turn as the arrogant chaebol in MLSS as a launchpad to A-list stardom all over Asia. Lost in all the praise for his good looks, the extensive fan service (ahem) and his piano skills in MLSS was that he was already, at just 23, an excellent actor who brought both humor and the right amount of pathos to a mostly unlikable character. There are things that HB could not quite do in 2005 as an actor that he can do easily now, but as the kids say these days, he understood the assignment. The scene here is just a small sampling of what a painfully good actor HB was even at that age:
8. MLSS was HB's first time as the arrogant chaebol character he later perfected in other dramas (yes, Kim Joo Won, I mean you!). Much like Sam Soon, HB's character, Jin Heon, is a total mess, though he comes by the messiness honestly. He has lingering trauma, both emotional and physical, from a car accident that orphaned his niece and left him severely injured. If that wasn't enough, Hee-jin, his first love and girlfriend of five years, left him without explanation shortly after the accident. Predictably, he is not dealing with his past well, choosing instead to punish himself by just going through the motions of life and deliberately denying himself any joy. Things takes a turn when he hires Sam Soon to be the pastry chef at his restaurant, and eventually convinces her to pretend to be his girlfriend to get his mother off his back. She proceeds to metaphorically turn him inside out until he's able to confront his past and move on with his life.
9. Over the years, many viewers have noted that they love the drama and Sam Soon, but absolutely loathe Jin Heon. I'm going to go out on a limb and admit that I didn't really like the character, but I understood him and found him deeply relatable. He's not exactly like all the other chaebol jerks. He’s not a snob or a sociopath, nor is he a misanthrope who hates everyone around him (yes, Joo Won, still you). Indeed, underneath the aloof exterior and the weaponized sarcasm, Jin Heon is kind of a mensch. Of course, Jin Heon is far from perfect. He’s immature, overly transactional, sort of impulsive, and deeply inarticulate when it comes to his true feelings. Faced with either lying to Sam Soon or admitting his feelings honestly, he settles on childish posturing, making himself and everyone else miserable in the process.
But does any of this rise to Boys over Flowers-level toxic male behavior? I don't think so. For one, Jin Heon has enormous respect for Sam Soon's professional skills and repeatedly tells her as much. For another, Jin Heon does not put her in harm’s way, nor does he publicly humiliate her, or ever belittle her ambitions or her social status. Finally, Jin Heon grows up a little, allowing himself to be vulnerable, and more importantly, demonstrating that only he, of all the people around her, really gets Sam Soon. It's because he gets her, and has such strong faith that she will always get him, that he finally earns the right to be with her.
Why is Jin Heon the only one who gets Sam Soon though? Unlike everyone else in the drama, he actually listens intently when Sam Soon speaks, and remembers pretty much everything she says. He's curious about her, fascinated with her unique outlook on life, so he doesn't judge or underestimate her, and ultimately, this curiosity sparks the joy that makes him fall for her. (If you've seen the famous darts scene in Ted Lasso, you know exactly what I'm talking about).
10. Kim Yun-cheol made his drama debut as PD for MLSS. Already known for his artistic approach from The Swamp (2003), a telefilm that won several awards in South Korea and abroad, he wanted to make a British-style romantic comedy, i.e. an unpretentious and realistic drama that would still retain some of the fantasy structure k-drama fans were used to. As a result, MLSS does a lot of things that were not common in k-drama either then or now, but which nevertheless reinforce just how unusual the drama is.
(a) PD Kim wanted the drama to look a bit more like a film, and to this end, MLSS uses a series of long tracking shots to give various scenes a more cinematic feel. Here's an example (starting at 4:16) of a gorgeous tracking shot that follows Sam Soon as she walks through the restaurant. (This scene is 19 minutes of the two leads just hanging out, which was also an unprecedented and sort of crazy thing to do in a k-drama, but it totally works!)
(b) In order to make the drama as realistic as possible, PD Kim insisted on shooting scenes in various locations that would show Seoul as it actually is, a gritty and lived-in city that is home to 10 million people. To this end, many of MLSS's important scenes take place in seedy tunnels, at random bus stops, in noisy airports, and in one particularly crazy scene, at a subway station during rush hour with commuters milling around the two leads as they make an important emotional connection.
(c) Finally, in one of my favorite scenes, Sam Soon climbs Mt. Halla on Jeju Island partly to celebrate her 30th birthday and partly because she wants to start over as Jin Heon himself once told her he did. When she finally makes it to the top, complaining and swearing the entire way, Jin Heon is right there to meet her. In any other drama, this would be a moment of pure romance, the leads embracing in joyful reunion as violins swell and the OST plays in the background. But this is MLSS, so bracing against the wind and pelted by driving rain (at 2:24), Sam Soon and Jin Heon scream at each other as dense fog makes it impossible for them to even see properly. It's more farce than romance, but its also perfect for these two characters, and I don't think any other drama could have pulled this off.
11 Writer Kim Do-woo won a well-deserved Baeksang Award for MLSS. The drama is actually an adaptation of Ji Soo-hyun's viral internet novel of the same name. However, other than the basic plot and some aspects of the two protagonists, MLSS diverges in important ways from the novel. Writer Kim analyzed the plot structure and characters of several famous rom-coms in writing the screenplay for MLSS. But somehow, despite this obvious mish-mash of various pop culture tropes, MLSS is a drama that is more than the sum of its parts. The dialogue in MLSS sparkles with uncommon wit, even in the English subtitles. In Korean, it must be absolutely brilliant!
Writer Kim's greatest coup in this screenplay is Kim Sam Soon herself. Determined to use a blunt force instrument to educate k-drama viewers on modern romance, she plucked the preachy ahjumma/wise best friend/chubby sidekick character from the sidelines and put her front-and-center, Cinderella arriving at the ball without a fairy godmother but turning heads anyway, and still ending up with Prince Charming. By turning the everywoman into the protagonist of a fairytale romance, the writer gave viewers a heroine they could not only relate to, but also emulate.
Having mined such rich new ground with Kim Sam Soon, the writer chose to confine herself to the k-drama box for MLSS's male lead. He's the usual wealthy-but-repressed jerk we have seen in dramas before and since, right? Well, maybe, but I think the writer intends the male lead to be a test for her otherwise empowered and feisty female lead. That is, Jin Heon's behavior is meant to provoke exactly the negative reaction it does. Korean culture—still quite patriarchal and focused on men as the top of the hierarchical pyramid—often views male jealousy and possessiveness more positively than western culture does. The wrist grab, for example, is normalized as romantic, and so is the passive acquiescence to it. But because Sam Soon repeatedly calls Jin Heon out on his nonsense, the viewers see his behavior for what it is: rubbish that no woman should put up with.
12. I appreciate that the writer doesn't do anything to convince the viewers that Sam Soon and Jin Heon are perfect for each other or meant to be. Their first meeting is just a coincidence and the rest of the plot flows organically from that meeting. Sam Soon and Jin Heon are not tied together by a birth secret or brought together by a destiny neither really controls. Instead, they're just regular people who deal with their relationship like regular people do. If their relationship seems less epic and tender than others in k-drama (or even Jin Heon's prior relationship with Hee-jin), it also feels more sustainable because it is ordinary and everyday.
In Kim Do-woo's hands, the characters and plot of MLSS become pithy--and sometimes even angry--commentary on the conventions of k-drama and Korean society. In 2005, MLSS was considered revolutionary for its lack of conventional romance, and sixteen years later, it still feels that way. In most k-dramas, when a confession of love finally happens, it's usually against some gorgeous backdrop of fields or mountains and the couple trade sweet words and kisses, the entire scene punctuated by bliss and joy. In MLSS, Jin Heon's wrenching confession happens in the men's room and Sam Soon responds by yelling at him and berating him for making her so miserable for so long. It's hardly romantic, but it feels painfully sincere and real.
13. There are no villains in MLSS. The writer and the PD wanted to avoid the conventional "good vs. evil" structure common of most dramas, so even many of the supporting characters are written with enough nuance to make them feel like real people. The second female lead, Hee-jin, has a tragic backstory and engages in some passive-aggressive manipulation when she tries to get back together with Jin Heon. But in a departure from most second leads caught in a love triangle, she insists only that she was there first, and never attempts to throw Sam Soon under the bus. She never insinuates Sam Soon is not good enough, nor does she make a serious attempt to push Sam Soon out of the picture.
Similarly, Jin Heon's mother, the traditional chaebol parent, doesn't especially like Sam Soon, but her disapproval is fairly benign. She never insults Sam Soon directly, nor does she actively prevent Jin Heon from dating Sam Soon. Her interference in her son's life is motivated by a desire to see him move on from all the tragedy and just live, and that's much more nuance than this character usually gets in k-drama.
Indeed, all the characters, even the relatively minor ones, have a journey of sorts through the 16-episode arc of the show, and all the women are given enough agency to make their own choices.
14. It's pretty easy to understand why Jin Heon falls for Sam Soon. Just being around her sparks enough joy for him to leave his tragic past behind. Sam Soon, like Jin Heon himself, has not processed the sudden loss of a loved one well, and has lingering regret over the end of a cherished relationship, But she wears her grief lightly and is determined to love as fully as possible. How could Jin Heon, a man who just wants to be happy, not be moved by that?
But what does Sam Soon see in Jin Heon? After all, he's an obnoxious jerk who pulls her in different directions and won't be honest with her or himself. Indeed, Sam Soon is emphatic that she absolutely doesn't need him in her life. So why does she give in after he confesses?
Some of this is about her own insecurities, of course. She thinks Jin Heon might be her last shot at finding romance on her own terms, so she's willing to plunge in heart-first. But there's more to it than that.
After their reunion at the summit of Mt. Halla, Sam Soon and Jin Heon end up in a hotel room together. Touched by the fact that he climbed a mountain in bad weather and with a bad leg just to meet her, she asks him why. In most other dramas, this would be where the male lead either gives a full confession of his feelings or sings paeans to the female lead's various virtues. But Jin Heon doesn't do anything so obvious. Instead, finally speaking from the heart, he says (in loose translation):
Because you're Kim Sam Soon...If you were Kim Hee-jin, I wouldn't have come. But you're the only Kim Sam Soon in the world and you climbed there for me. This was the least I could do.
For Sam Soon, constantly dismissed by everyone as a weird oddball, this is everything. To know that the guy she's in love with sees all of her and still thinks she's special and one-of-a-kind? My heart melted a little at this too.
Here, I should point out that the subtitles (both on Viki and YouTube) translate Jin Heon's words to "my lovely Kim Sam Soon," and I'm not sure why. The Korean words are "하나뿐인 김삼순 (hanappun-in kimsamsun)" meaning "the one and only Kim Sam Soon," whereas "my lovely Kim Sam Soon" would be "나의 예쁜 김삼순 (naui yeppeun kimsamsun)." Spoken quickly enough, I suppose the two phrases could sound fairly similar?
My guess is the English title for the drama comes from this scene, and was adopted over the literal translation of the original Korean title, i.e. My Name Is Kim Sam Soon, because the name subplot was unlikely to resonate with English-speaking audiences.
I think "My Name Is Kim Sam Soon" is the better title though. Not only does it emphasize Sam Soon's journey from hating the name to embracing it and learning to love it, but it also frames the narrative in her terms. "My Lovely Sam Soon" instead sees her through Jin Heon's lens, which may be more romantic but is way less effective.
16. That name subplot is hugely significant in MLSS, of course, where a large portion of the narrative is driven by Sam Soon's need to change her name and with it, her identity and everything that she believes is holding her back. The name is a sore point for Sam Soon because (a) it's an old-fashioned slightly hick name and she'd rather be called "Hee-jin," more modern and trendy, and (b) she was given an odd name as a sort of throwaway gesture by her grandfather who was upset she wasn't a boy. As a result, Sam Soon has spent most of her life hating her name and feeling neglected by her family, except for her wonderful father who tells her "Sam Soon" is the most special name in the world.
This is reinforced by Jin Heon who thinks she's perfect as Sam Soon, and ultimately, it's his words that resonate as she tears up the name change document and decides to be Kim Sam Soon forever, reclaiming both the name and identity, but this time with confidence and self-assurance.
Basically, she helps him find happiness, and he helps her find herself.
17. The other thread that runs through the drama's 16 episode arc is the importance of time and memory. Early on, Sam Soon warns Hee-jin off, telling her that memories have no power. I didn't understand this at first, but on a second watch, her meaning became much more obvious. Memories are to be cherished, but we don't live in our memories and they have no influence over our current lives.
This is in direct contrast to Hee-jin who is holding on to her memories because it's pretty much all she has left. She's desperate to reclaim a past where she is healthy and happily in love. But it turns out her memories are mostly one-sided and a bit tainted. Her nostalgia alone isn't enough to sustain a relationship, because memories have no power.
When they break up, Hee-jin reminds Jin Heon that even his newfound affection for Sam Soon will fade with time. He concedes this but then says "People, though they know they will die, continue to live." This is basically half the message of MLSS. Love is fragile and probably fleeting, but we pursue it anyway.
18. One of the many ways MLSS stands out from dramas both old and new is in its frank depiction of sex and female sexual desire. K-dramas usually involve sweet and somewhat innocent romance and barely acknowledge the existence of sex. In most dramas, a woman's sexual experiences are quiet and happen off-screen, often the source of guilt, or she has relationships and these are rationalized away as a function of her unhappiness. Female characters are barely ever allowed to enjoy sex for its own sake, because Koreans, despite living in a relatively modern, couple-oriented society, nevertheless treat sex as somewhat taboo and place high value on female chastity.
In contrast, in MLSS, references to sex are sprinkled throughout the show. None of the characters are judged for expressing their desire or for having sex. Why? Because it's 2005, and as Jin Heon explains to his mother, "it's not illegal or immoral, so what's the big deal?"
It's not that the drama is especially explicit, but various characters openly expressing their desires was unprecedented then and is still rare now. Sam Soon talks about having hungered for a long time, and how much it tortured her to resist Jin Heon's charms. Her sister, Yi Young, has a friends-with-benefits relationship with a restaurant chef and is content to keep things casual. Just this level of expression would make MLSS pretty rare, but the drama takes it a step further.
Half of an entire episode is dedicated to Jin Heon trying to persuade Sam Soon to smash. She resists, not because she doesn't want to, but because she has body image issues. (The actors appear in the episode in rumpled pajamas, unstyled hair and no makeup, in a scene so natural it will probably never be duplicated in k-drama again).
Similarly, a good chunk of the final episode is devoted to Jin Heon wandering the streets of Seoul looking for condoms when he and Sam Soon decide to finally consummate their union. Unfortunately, she falls asleep and thwarts his plans. They do ultimately get down to business though, and with such enthusiasm that they both end up with bloody noses (k-drama shorthand for hard work)!
This is another way in which MLSS subverts viewer expectations of k-drama. Sam Soon is a k-drama heroine, yes, but she is not confined by the conventions of the genre, and her desires can't be constrained by it either. She swears, she eats whatever she wants, she has sex, all while retaining the charm and inherent goodness we expect in our lead characters.
K-drama may sell its fans on the idea of idealized and pure romance, but ultimately, the fans themselves are real people, and there is room for their earthier expectations within the genre too. Drama writers, take note.
19. What's a good drama without its OST, right? Clazziquai Project's "She Is" punctuates the entire series, and has had a long and fruitful post-MLSS life. There's also the slightly melancholy Bonbon au Chocolat riff that runs through most episodes, and Sam Soon's theme song, "Inside My Heart" by Kim Jung-eun, is especially evocative. My favorite though is probably Ji Sun's "Ee byul mot han ee byul," gorgeous and tragic.
I also really enjoyed the various pieces of non-Korean music featured throughout MLSS. "Over the Rainbow" and Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love with You" both figure prominently in the drama. But there is also a completely unexpected appearance from Westlife's cover of "Mack the Knife" in the first episode, and Dionne Warwick's "This Girl's in Love" that plays over one of Sam Soon's more desperate moments midway through the series.
20. Finally, to round out this dissertation-length ramble on one of my favorite k-dramas, here are my two favorite scenes from the whole series.
In this first clip, Sam Soon and Jin Heon go toe-to-toe unleashing an entire bag of snarky monkeys in the process. Why? Because they like each other but are way in denial about it.
One of my favorite scenes in the entire drama is the epilogue. Sam Soon and Jin Heon walk through the city hand-in-hand as Sam Soon's slightly melancholy voiceover sums up the larger meaning of the series: life is messy, people are complicated, love is hard. But equally, life goes on, and the best you can do is to live in the moment and learn to love yourself.
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