The cast of Our Blues should have been the first indication that it was going to be an ambitious drama; the cast features well-known actors such as Lee Byung-hun (Mr. Sunshine), Shin Min-ah (Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha), Lee Jung-eun (Parasite), and even Kim Woo-bin, who is making his small-screen comeback in six years. They are joined by other established and rising actors to establish the expansive range of characters in Our Blues, which is bold in its sheer size of characters as well as its subject matter. Currently halfway through its run, however, Our Blues has skillfully utilized its large cast to explore a variety of challenging themes.
As an anthology, Our Blues focuses on a different set of characters each episode, with each coupling usually allotted between one and three episodes to round out their story.
The small town of Pureung, Jeju Island is the backdrop for these stories, and its residents include Jeong Eun-hui (Lee Jung-eun), a successful owner of several businesses who reconnects with her friend and first love Choi Han-su (Cha Seung-won). Park Jeong-jun (Kim Woo-bin), a captain of a boat, and Lee Yeong-ok (Han Ji-min), a newcomer to town who works as a haenyeo, a female free diver who harvests shellfish, work with Eun-hui at her seafood stall in the local market place. Jung In-kwon (Park Ji-hwan) and Bang Ho-sik (Choi Young-jun), single dads who are friends-turned-foes and whose children are dating each other in secret, can also be spotted in the same marketplace. Elsewhere in town, Lee Dong-seok (Lee Byung-hun), and Min Seon-a (Shin Min-ah), are drawn to each other throughout their adolescence to the present.
This review contains spoilers.
The characters are of diverse ages and personalities, and true to the drama’s name, each experience their own blues as they traverse through life and relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners.
Our Blues takes advantage of its huge cast to thoughtfully tackle heavier subjects. Seon-a, who is going through a divorce and waiting to hear if she will get custody of her young child, has depression. While her relationship with Dong-seok takes the forefront, her depression is not brushed aside as the drama portrays it from her point of view. In moments where her depression is overwhelming, she is shown drenched and dripping with water.
Two of the other characters, Jung Hyeon (Bae Hyun-sung) and Bang Yeong-ju (Roh Yoon-seo), face troubles of their own. They are two of the youngest characters in the drama as two high school students with feuding dads; Hyeon is In-kwon’s son and Yeong-ju is Ho-sik’s daughter. Despite having only one episode dedicated to the teens, their story is memorable for its somewhat frank discussion of teen pregnancy and even birth control that are not very common in Korean dramas.
Indeed, instead of using them as the poster children for first love, the drama takes a different approach as the two teens find out Yeong-ju is pregnant while dating in secret. Yeong-ju struggles with a lack of personal and institutional support both when seeking an abortion and when she decides not to go through with it. She is shamed by healthcare professionals and others in Pureung, indicating a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” outcome, especially for Yeong-ju, who will be a young mom.
There are exceptions, however, to the overall melancholy tone of the drama. A notable exception is Jeong-jun and Yeong-ok, whose story is the most typically romantic out of all the characters. The level-headed boat captain and the friendly but mysterious Yeong-ok begin a relationship without much hardship, and their story is a soothing change of pace from the more serious troubles their neighbours in town face. Their story seems to be far from over, however, and if all goes according to the Our Blues formula so far they are soon due to hit their own tempest soon.
There are several common elements found in each of the separate stories that help ground Our Blues. The first is the use of flashbacks. Given the small town setting, many of the characters have known each other for their whole lives, and there are frequent flashbacks to memories of their youth. For example, they are important in Eun-hui and Han-su’s story. The two start hanging out when Han-su moves back to Jeju Island from Seoul, and their current meetups are mostly initiated by Han-su who seeks to eventually borrow money from the now-successful Eun-hui. The present, tainted by Han-su’s deception, contrasts with the times of their youth when they were friends without any hidden motives or goals.
For Dong-seok and Seon-a, the past provides context for their complicated relationship and feelings for each other. Only hinted at in previous episodes, their dedicated episode is traced back to their teenage years where they found solace in each other that they could not have at home.
Similarly, In-kwon and Ho-sik have a complex history that extends beyond their feuds used as comic relief. As loyal friends during their teenage years to single parents who cleaned up their acts when they became the sole caretaker of their respective children, their lives mirror and intersect with each other in many ways. Flashbacks provide the context of how they ended up this way; they cut each other deeply as two friends who also intensely cared for one another.
Alongside the flashbacks, the setting itself is another factor that helps keep Our Blues intimate. Indeed, most of the characters have jobs that tie them to the ocean or to the local businesses. For example, Eun-hui owns several fish market stalls in the local marketplace, while Jeong-jun and Yeong-ok first meet because Jeong-jun carries the haenyeos out to the open ocean on his boat. Dong-seok, on the other hand, sells everything from food to clothing to home goods from his truck, traveling to isolated areas where there is a lack of supermarkets and other chain stores.
The characters are closely tied to the natural environment surrounding them, which eliminates anonymity and brings the characters together as they brave the elements side by side. When Yeong-ok does not return from a harvesting session in time, alarms are raised until she eventually returns unscathed. She is heavily chastised for risking both her life and the teamwork she has with the other haenyeos, who know that teamwork in the open ocean is essential for both good work and for survival.
The coastal weather, too, often matches the emotional arcs of the characters. As Hyeon and Yeong-ju tell their dads about Yeong-ju’s pregnancy, a typhoon shuts business down in the local marketplace; however, the two teens take comfort in the fact that their dads’ emotions, like the storm around them, will eventually pass and leave calm in its wake. In another scene, as Hyeon and In-kwon finally make up, the intensity of their emotions is matched by the pouring rain outside.
Though the first half of Our Blues has balanced its wide range of characters and themes without the drama feeling overcrowded, it remains to be seen whether the second half will continue its current momentum. With plenty of relationships left to explore and more heartbreak foreshadowed, it is certainly worth anticipating the types of stories to come in the latter half of Our Blues.
(images via tvN, UNESCO)