“Running in the rain is just like going through something that is going to happen anyway”
Kang In’s 2018 South Korean series Tempted (original title: Widaehan Yuhokja) is loosely based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel Dangerous Liaisons (original title: Les liaisons dangereuses), much like Roger Kumble’s 1999 Cruel Intentions. Surprisingly, the series proved more popular internationally than in its native South Korea. Is a European mindset, with its contrasting take on the subtleties of romance, the reason behind this, or is there an underlying issue that strips the series of its appeal?
In a spiteful bid to stop their parents from getting married, Kwon Shi-hyun (Woo Do-hwan) and Choi Soo-ji (Moon Ga-young) hatch a plan to beat their pitiful parents to the altar. However, seeing as the idea lacks the usual challenge they like to indulge in, they make a parallel deal. Kwon Shi-hyun will make Eun Tae-hee (Soo-Young Park), Choi Soo-ji’s academic rival, fall madly in love with him, then leave her to wither away with a broken heart. Lee Se-joo (Kim Min-jae), the third wheel of their wicked wheelbarrow, is kept partially in the loop and encourages the cruelest of behaviours to please Choi Soo-ji, who seems oblivious to the man’s feelings. Meanwhile, Kwon Shi-hyun discovers the gentleness of the girl he is tasked with hurting, and can’t help but shift his priorities. Against all odds, Eun Tae-hee becomes a beacon of light in his world, the one he taught he had lost when his mother passed away. But once a deal with the devil has been made, simply walking away isn’t an option.
The series presents a bridge between the Eastern and Western cultures, weaving the wicked roots of the plot into delicate scenes that feature the play of facial mimicry and furtive glances. The fragility of emotion in the Eastern culture is reflected in the tight link between the elusive beauty of cherry blossoms and true love. This sugary rapture might prove too indiscernible to an audience that is not accustomed to it, especially when it begins to fade away on a backdrop of squealing tragedy, angst and bloody betrayal. While this certainly makes for a magnetising swirl of colourful undertones, keeping the two cultures balanced for the duration of thirty-two episodes is quite a challenge – one the story fails to measure up to.
Tempted manoeuvres the murky, sizzling tension of seduction to an impressive degree. The constant sense of mistrust and danger blends with Eun Tae-hee’s perception of Kwon Shi-hyun as a man on the verge of morphing into either Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde at any moment. As though layering paint on bare walls, the tantilising promise to see teeth sank into a forbidden fruit builds a sense of constraint, and the eventual pining for freedom. The fabric of this need for release is thickened by a web of strained relationships between the three masterminds and their prey. But when the eventual release unshackles the main protagonist, the hiss of the show’s tensity dissipates, too.
At this point, the ambiance of the series shifts into a South Korean take on Gossip Girl (2007-2012), not lacking any of the standard melodrama and artful instillment of second-hand embarrassment. The plot, clearly leaning towards the usual Korean tropes, hones in on the disparaged fickleness of relationships. This departure from the inner-workings of a dubious conscience to a more mundane sphere is reflected in the words that seem to rattle the second half of the show: “All relationships change. If you’re not sincere, they just change a bit quicker.”
The most disappointing consequence of the show losing its balance is what becomes of Eun Tae-hee’s character development. From a strong-willed and independent girl, she is reduced to a blubbering mess that has no qualms about public self-humiliation. All her goals and self-worth seem to get washed away in the rain as she keeps falling onto her knees on the cold, grating concrete in a bid to make a disinterested man glance her way. When the plot veers off in the direction of a creaking generation gap, as opposed to the prickly romance, all the effort of crafting a headstrong female in the first act of Tempted seems as inconsequential as the tenstion between the parents and their children.
And so, the show’s first half seems to pander to the West, while the rest is meant to indulge the East. But in the case of Tempted, two halves don’t make a whole.
Viki Rakuten, Netflix, KissAsian