Why is Winter Sonata a Big Hit in Asia?
by Diana Lee
What is it about Winter Sonata that touches so many women of all ages throughout Asia? Upon a closer scrutiny, this Korean TV drama series offers more than a complex love story, intriguing plot twists, good acting, memorable scenes and lines, not to mention, breathtaking winter scenery backed up by melancholic music tunes. Under the crafty direction of Yun Seok Ho, the series presented a mastery of cinematic techniques tugging at one's heartstrings, like the sound and visual effects of a big screen effectively capturing one's imagination. Moreover, it addressed the perennial theme of love in all its complexity in our ever-changing society.
Unlike most tragedies with a sad ending, Winter Sonata reached a bittersweet conclusion even though everyone who had intimate connection with the two main characters paid the heavy price of emotional and mental agony. The story opened with Joon Sang portrayed by Bae Yong Jun in his finest performance and Yu Jin, played by the talented Choi Ji Woo, as two high school students who fell in love for the first time. Unfortunately, their ill-fated love suffered a cruel blow as our hero soon died in a car accident, leaving our heroine heart-broken and dispirited. Ten years later, Yu Jin found herself working on a ski resort project with Min Yeong who looked exactly like Joon Sang. Oddly enough, he was courting Yu Jin's high school rival, Chae Lin, deftly played by Park Sol Mi. Consequently, Yu Jin's uncontrollable attraction to Min Yeong jeopardized her engagement to her childhood admirer, Sang Hyuk, played by Park Yong Ha, who in conspiracy with Chae Lin, tried everything to separate the two destined lovers. When the truth came out that Min Yeong and Joon Sang were the same person and worse still, the suspicion that Joon Sang and Yu Jin were half-brother and sister, everyone involved was thrown into utter confusion, resulting in grief and detrimental pain.
Following the success of directing the TV drama series, Autumn Tales, Yun Seok Ho demonstrated his supremacy in making melodramas using symbolism, parallelism, repetition, and timing, as provocative ways to stir emotions and draw tears from the audience. The main symbols in Winter Sonata -- the star Polaris (representing Joon Sang), the missing puzzle piece (representing Yu Jin in Joon Sang's life), and the first snowfall of winter (representing the meeting of the two lovers) -- appeared repetitively throughout the melodrama to hammer the point of their significance they contributed to the story. Furthermore, the excellent use of parallelism and repetition compounded the dramatic effects in scenes -- whenever Yu Jin and Sang Hyuk were fighting, Min Yeong and Chae Lin were also arguing; when Yu Jin and Min Yeong strolled through their high school, each taking a different path, unaware of one another's presence; and when Yu Jin tried to tail whom she thought was Joon Sang in the crowd and later Sang Hyuk attempted to follow whom he thought was Yu Jin in the streets.
Although the drama is basically a love story, it tackled many contemporary themes: 1) character duality -- Joon Sang personified the dark side and Ming Yeong, the bright side; 2) identity problems -- Joon Sang searched for the identity of his father and later Min Yeong questioned his own identity; 3) different reactions to the loss of love -- Yu Jin's sad disposition, Joon Sang's escapes to America, San Hyuk's suicide attempt, and Chae Lin's drinking binge; 4) incestuous love remained a taboo in modern age; and 5) fate prevailed no matter what others did to prevent the destined lovers from getting together.
The main reason for Winter Sonata's popularity could be attributed to its bold exposition of the various aspects of love: 1) puppy love; 2) first love; 3) possessive love; 4) lost love; 5) parental love; and 6) true love. Everyone in the audience has experienced at least one or more of these different shades of love, where he or she could empathize with any of the characters at one time or another in this melodrama.
In high school, Choi Ji Woo and Bae Yong Jun in their roles convincingly demonstrated the beauty of innocence and sweetness of puppy love as they helped and defended each other. Then the puppy love blossomed into first love when their most impressionable memories consisted of things they did together for the first time. It was through this love that the gloom and anger in Joon Sang faded away when he was in the presence of Yu Jin.
The series also showed the negative impact of possessive love -- Sang Hyuk for Yu Jin and Chae Lin for Min Yeong -- in which Sang Hyuk and Chae Lin would do anything to keep their loved ones to themselves, including lying, scheming, and hurting others. When they finally lost their beloveds to the destined pair, they marched down a familiar path of self-destruction -- Sang Hyuk tried to commit suicide and Chae Lin slumped into a drinking stupor. However, mature love requires making sacrifices -- putting the beloved's happiness above everything else -- as seen in Sang Hyuk's release of Yu Jin to the revived Joon Sang, in Chae Lin's suggestion to Joon Sang to elope with Yu Jin despite everyone's disapproval of their marriage, in Joon Sang's decisions to place Yu Jin's well-being above all his needs, and in Yu Jin's respect for Joon Sang's resolution to bid their last farewell.
Even in modern times, family plays a dominant role in Asian culture. At the beginning, Joon Sang desperately sought parental love from a father he never knew, and later he could forgive his mother for all the wrongs she had done him. Suppressing her feelings, Yu Jin chose Sang Hyuk over Min Yeong to abide the wishes of Sang Hyuk's family and her own mother. As the drama unfolded, the meddling of three families -- Sang Hyuk's parents, Joon Sang's mother and Yu Jin's mother -- caused more harm than good with endless sorrow and tragic consequences to their offsprings.
Like all great love stories, true love as written in the stars exists in the one and only couple made for one another. Obviously, Joon Sang and Yu Jin were destined to be together, for they both fell in love with each other, not once but twice and could love no one else.
In conclusion, Winter Sonata delivered a tearjerker with a moving tale and unforgettable characters. It brought a paragon mate for a modern woman to life, exemplified by Joon Sang -- handsome, sensitive, intelligent, and successful in life. More importantly, he was able to love a woman with complete gentleness and understanding, even at the risk of his own welfare and happiness. In addition, the drama series successfully revealed the manifestations of love in real life, to which everyone in the audience could relate. As Winter Sonata makes its appearance around Asia, its popularity will certainly grow, for it possesses all the elements of a classic drama.
Diana Lee (www.uniorb.com) has traveled extensively and worked abroad in Cameroon, China and Japan. Her work has appeared in several magazines, ezines and anthologies. Interested in various forms of writing, she has written essays, poems, and short stories.