by Regina Kim
When the MBC family drama Indomitable Daughters-in-Law began airing back in June, many fans of Korean drama might not have expected much from the series. After all, the premise seems pretty absurd, even for Koreans: three generations of daughters-in-law all live in a 300-year-old traditional hanok-style house run by Choi Mak-nyeo (played by veteran actress Kang Bu-ja), a grandmother who is the “head” daughter-in-law. In real life, you probably can’t find such a household in contemporary South Korea. But despite the strange setting, the drama does a great job of making its characters believable so that viewers can relate to them. Through numerous interwoven subplots that detail the everyday ups and downs of the all-female household, the drama sucks viewers into the story and makes them care about the characters as if they were part of their own families. We find ourselves rooting for the dutiful Oh Young-shim (played by Shin Ae-ra), who loses her unfaithful husband in a car accident and overcomes other great adversities while never losing her cheerful attitude. When Kim Soon-jung, the younger granddaughter of Mak-nyeo, finds out that she is pregnant and gets dumped by her boyfriend, we feel her pain, and we later rejoice when we see her older sister Yeon-jung (played by former Miss Korea Honey Lee) beat up the ex-boyfriend and threaten to pummel him with a baseball bat.
And when Yeon-jung’s new boyfriend turns out to be the son of her mother’s first love (who we find out still loves her after 40 years), we’re not sure whose side we’re on since we’ve come to care for both Yeon-jung and her mother Hye-ja. And we’re not sure either what we would do if we found ourselves in such a sticky situation.
Indomitable Daughters-in-Law gives the audience a fascinating glimpse into Korean culture. We see the clash between the traditional and the modern, a constant conflict that characterizes so much of Korean society today. Viewers can easily contrast Mak-nyeo the grandmother, who is stuck in her old-fashioned mindset and is reluctant to break with tradition, with her daughter and granddaughters, who are more in step with the times and often struggle to reconcile their old family customs with current practices.
Many of the scenes in the drama would be hard for Western audiences to understand. For example, why are three generations all living under one roof? Why does everyone listen to the grandmother when many of the things she says are irrational and outdated? Why are Moon Shin-woo’s parents so opposed to his relationship with Young-shim, whom Shin-woo’s mother keeps calling an “old widow,” although she is technically not that much older than Shin-woo? Why do the newly married wives move in with their in-laws and put up with all their nonsense? The list goes on…
To understand all this, you’d have to realize that social status is still very important in South Korea, and your social status is usually determined by your wealth, education, and family background. In addition, even in South Korea today, widows and divorced women are often stigmatized, whereas being a widower or a divorced man is less frowned upon (though now with South Korea’s having one of the highest divorce rates in the world, that is changing too).But most of all, you’d have to understand the importance of family, which still remains the core essence of Korean culture today, and the emphasis on filial piety (hyodo), which applies not only to the relationship between parents and their children, but also to the relationship between married couples and their in-laws. While families in South Korea are becoming increasingly nuclear, it is still not uncommon for a newlywed wife to move in with her husband and his parents. And with the tremendous amount of respect that is shown to elders in Korean society, the word of the oldest member of the household—be it a grandfather, grandmother, father, or mother—carries the day.
Most American viewers might find this drama to be quite different from the TV shows they are used to watching. Like in other Korean family dramas, there are no explosions or sex or cursing or violence. Some of the scenes may seem too melodramatic and over-the-top. But the drama beautifully illustrates the struggles and joys that ordinary people experience every day, and it has a lot to teach us through the portrayal of its characters. For example, Moon Shin-woo is the epitome of a gentleman and every woman’s fantasy. He would definitely be a good role model for men who are looking for tips on how to treat a lady properly. Oh Young-shim’s fearless attitude and positive demeanor are something that all of us should try to emulate whenever we are faced with hardships. And for all of Grandma Mak-nyeo’s old-fashioned ways, there are nevertheless little gems of advice that occasionally come out of her mouth that can be applied to our lives today.
All in all, I highly recommend watching Indomitable Daughters-in-Law, which finished airing on MBC in November. Don’t be deterred by the number of episodes (there are 113)—each episode is pretty short (about 30 minutes), and what’s more, this is the type of drama that is often popular among Koreans of ALL ages (though rarely promoted outside of Korea because they’re too…well, “Korean”). It is a family drama, meaning that it won’t have gripping action sequences like City Hunter or Athena or feature a plethora of eye-candy for its viewers like Boys Over Flowers or You’re Beautiful (though actor Park Yoon Jae, who plays Moon Shin-woo and is none other than actress Chae Rim’s younger brother, is a total hottie who steams up the screen better than the entire male cast of BOF, in my opinion! And for the guys, well, of course there’s always Honey Lee!). But the characters are all well-portrayed, the acting is superb, and the storylines are intricately developed. Most importantly, the drama gives you a window into the Korean psyche and also offers some great tidbits of moral advice along the way (but not in a preachy manner). And while there may be some exaggerated moments that make you shake your head and roll your eyes, the drama does an overall wonderful job of showing us the beauty and adventure we can find in our everyday lives if we’re strong and willing enough to overcome obstacles that face us.