Edited by Seo Hae Lan
Translated by Kim Hoyeun
My Dearest is soaring against the odds. Despite a lukewarm start in the ratings compared to competing shows, it quickly captured viewers’ hearts and posted double-digit numbers for MBC dramas in quite some time. On the surface, it’s another tale of a man and a woman falling in love — seemingly tame in today’s market flooded with sensationalized shows. Yet, by focusing on the raw emotion of love and the lives of the people experiencing the tough times, My Dearest manages to be both familiar and refreshingly new.
Set in 1636, in a village called Neungkunli, a man named Lee Jang Hyun lives. He’s a sort of “anti-marriage” advocate who dates but never intends to marry. But one day, he falls head over heels at first sight for Yoo Gil Chae, a young noblewoman renowned for charming all the men in her village. Meanwhile, Gil Chae has been nursing a childhood crush on Nam Yeon Jun, a scholar she grew up with. Yeon Jun is engaged to Gil Chae’s long-time friend, Kyung Eun Ae, which makes her ratchet up her urgency to win his heart before they tie the knot. Jang Hyun, ignored by Gil Chae, still lingers around her, making her increasingly aware of his presence and feeling uncomfortable. When the Qing invades and the king is besieged in Namhansanseong, the scholars rally to fight “for the king,” while Jang Hyun takes up arms to protect Gil Chae and the kind villagers of Neungkunli. Through war and loss, both Jang Hyun and Gil Chae come to awakenings — she finds true love; he discovers the lengths he’d go to for love.
Drawing inspiration from the novel Gone with the Wind, the series transposes Scarlett and Rhett into Gil Chae and Jang Hyun. The idyllic Atlanta becomes the tranquil Neungkunli, and the character dynamics roughly follow the original narrative. Yet, by setting it against the backdrop of the Qing invasion rather than the American Civil War, the story gains a distinctly Korean flavor. Notably, My Dearest diverges from other dramas set during the Qing invasion by eschewing a focus on royal figures. While others dwell on the heroic resistance at Namhansanseong or conflicts with the crown prince post-exile, this drama opts for spotlighting the soldiers risking their lives and the women like Gil Chae fighting for survival. Espionage and the crown prince’s exile also add layers to the tale, offering new perspectives on the war.
Yet, at its core, My Dearest is a love story that tugs at the heartstrings. Jang Hyun and Gil Chae endure cycles of meeting and parting amidst a world unraveling, solidifying their love for each other and ultimately betting it all. They start like a rom-com couple, squabbling and purposely hurting each other with words, yet becoming the first ones they think of and lean on. The show weaves personal scars, wartime tragedies, and historical sorrow into an emotionally charged tapestry.
What rounds out My Dearest is the exceptional acting. Among a solid ensemble, Namkoong Min and Ahn Eun Jin, who play Jang Hyun and Gil Chae respectively, deliver performances that exceed expectations. Through Ahn Eun Jin’s portrayal, Gil Chae transitions from a naive young woman to a love-wise adult, an arc that is immensely satisfying to witness. Namkoong Min, already an “award-winning actor,” proves once again that his choices pay off. Jang Hyun is a multi-faceted character—seemingly jaded yet passionate, cold yet warm-hearted, selfish but ultimately choosing what’s “right.” It’s a role that could easily falter in less capable hands, making his brilliant interpretation even more impressive.
Originally slated for 20 episodes, My Dearest concludes its first 10-episode run and is set to return after a brief hiatus. There’s still so much to see. When will Jang Hyun, who’s in Shenyang, return? How will Gil Chae, who’s in peril, save her family while smashing the gender norms of her time? Will Yeon Jun, a cowardly and feeble man, and Eun Ae, still confined to traditional roles, find happiness? And what threat does the tragic story of the crown prince that we already know of pose to our two lovers? So, when does Part 2 start? (9/10)
Editor Seo Hae Lan: I’m not picky and like all genres. I am in constant search of a balance between criticism and a fan’s heart.