Written by Lee Na-eun
Directed by Kim Yoon-jin
Original Air Date: December 6th 2021-January 25th 2022
Don’t let its early moments of gentle comedy fool you. Our Beloved Summer is very funny in places, but its elegiac and dreamy credit sequence is very reflective of its observational and melancholy nature.
Even better is that what we have here is a K-drama that is about the perils of being characters in a K-drama. Not that its leads are part of a scripted series, but the documentary that forms so much of the backstory and the infrastructure of its story feels like it’s being used to pass comment on the tropes, storytelling methods and characterisations of being part of South Korea’s television landscape.
At one point a writer becomes involved in the production of the documentary that it’s centred on, accompanied by notes on how to make things better and more interesting for the audience.
The fevered fan interest from an adoring audience, the ability to go viral, the creation of memes and characters the play into archetypes, all these ideas come under the microscope in a series that initially looks as if it’s going to be a fluffy comedic piece but which instead throws itself further into the realm of heartache and angst the more it goes on.
Yes, the main couple get together two-thirds of the way through (there’s a kiss in the rain, it’s glorious) and there are moments of lovely humour, but when the writing for this one gets into the emotional murk, it really goes for it. Stolen moments for secret tears, heart-rending break-ups, they’re all there amongst the more comedic sequences.
Every episode is named after a movie, and it’s apt that Love, Actually is namechecked because it pays tribute to its creepiest moment by actually avoiding the creepy element because the art of observation and loving from afar also gets forms a big part of the central story.
The series that one could easily compare this to is Lovestruck in the City, but with episodes that run for well over an hour, this takes a slower-paced approach to its observations on love, memory, and the yearning for something that might have become lost through the passage of time. Where last year’s best K-drama (yes, I miss it dreadfully and think of it constantly) played out its documentary leanings as a filmmaking choice it returned to with those fourth-wall-breaking asides and deadpan voiceover, the documentary element here is hardwired into so much of how its characters deal with their past.
The memories of that very past proves frequently inescapable, but they are memories that aren’t just their own, they are always in the ether ready to be rediscovered and rebooted for a return visit…just like a television series can be.
It goes without saying that this is a luscious and visually beautiful series. There is nothing I love more than a great aspect ratio change, especially when utilised in a naturalistic way. Scenes in the past are in a 1:85-1 screen size, while present-day sequences are in shot in scope. The colour tone of the past has a dreamy haze to it (similar to Lovestruck) but the colour palette of the present day has a naturalistic tone.
The scripts from writer Lee Na-eun beautifully convey the tenderness of memory and how it can translate into bittered confusion in the present. There is a simplicity to life as a teenager, even if the emotions that one is experiencing are intense and on a scale that feels immense. We may get a better balance of those emotions when we’re older, but the circumstances around us might prove more trying.
It’s this theme that we find the main leads struggle with throughout. There is an elegiac sense of nostalgia to the flashback sequences, all hazily lit as if they are bittersweet memories being recalled, while the more naturalistic palette of the present hints at just how much more embittered adulthood can be even if you’ve proven yourself.
It goes without saying that Choi Woo-shik (Parasite) and Kim Da-mi (Itaewon Class) are sensational, especially during the height of the angstier plot developments in the middle of the season. However, it’s Kim Sung-cheol who puts in some of the most devastating work, especially in the last third. His character is essentially a second male lead who must contend with being a second male lead in the life of his friends and the object of his affections, and whose stoic nature leads to him shutting his friends away from the more devastating parts of his personal life.
A subplot involving his mother is amongst some of the gut-wrenching plotting of any television in recent memory. It’s not an exaggeration to say that a peach has never carried so much heartbreak.
One might groan inwardly at the prospect of the series throwing its hat into a love triangle story, but it never takes the easy option in this regard and opts for a more darkly gentle exploration of self-isolation and depression in a way that goes beyond the glossier trappings any other series might have fallen into. It retains until the very end that a spark of near complex realism that it never abandons, the only time it ends up doing so is arguably in the very final scene, but by then it’s a welcome moment that ends the story on a lovely bittersweet note.
Best of all, the series gets better as it goes on. Yes, it plays itself out to a dreamy pop soundtrack, but there is considerable heft to a lot of this. It’s no mere rom-com. There’s nothing wrong with that, I adore the genre and Korean television does it as entertainingly as anyone else in the world, but it’s great to see a series like this revel in being both very funny and deeply poignant. There is a tenderness to its atmosphere and the flexibility of its tone means that we might only be in the early stages of 2022, but it’s going to be hard for any other K-drama to match this as the year goes on.
It’s a quiet and lovely little masterpiece.