Now that it’s almost December, I think it’s safe to crown my winner as my favorite drama of 2018, and yes, it’s Matrimonial Chaos (aka The Best Divorce). This kind of drama appeals to me most, so it may not suit the tastes of others, but if you too appreciate relationship-driven stories where most situations and conversations are grounded in realities that are familiar to anyone who has had adult romances (with all their inherent ups and downs), then this series will win you over as well.
The story revolves around divorces and separations and reconciliations and new beginnings, but not always in expected ways. It’s each of those little twists and turns – pivots – that enliven the drama. It’s a remake of a Japanese drama, Saikou no Rikon, so I don’t know how much is unique to this production and how much echoes the original version’s plot, but I applaud the efforts of either (or both) writer.
Annoying Suk-mo (Cha Tae-hyun), dreamer Hwi-roo (Bae Doona), reserved Yoo-young (Lee El), and impulsive Jang-hyun (Son Suk-goo)… it’s easy to try and describe each of the four main characters by some of their more pronounced personality traits, but that shortchanges the actors and the writer because there is so much more to the “chaos.” In fact, by the end of the story, it’s easy to see how many traits each of the four share.
Suk-mo, a security guard, and Hwi-roo, a substitute gym teacher, are the first couple introduced. They’ve been married for 3 years and have entered the phase where each is feeling a bit unappreciated for the things they bring to the marriage. They’ve lost sight of the things that brought them together, and it seems that the nagging Suk-mo is the least content. They’ve retreated to their private moments to work on their respective dreams (he wants to be a musician, she a children’s storybook writer), instead of sharing these ambitions. They have an interesting support network, of sorts, in his step-grandmother Mi-sook, played by the lovely Moon Sook, who runs a cafe and is on a curling team with Hwi-roo, and Ma-roo (played by Kim Hye-joon), Hwi-roo’s younger sister, who works in the cafe.
They notice a man (Jang-hyun) in their neighborhood who appears to have at least one relationship going on (evoking envy in Hwi-roo, who misses the passionate days of her relationship with Suk-mo). It comes as a burdensome revelation to Suk-mo that he is the husband of Yoo-young, not the recipient of those witnessed heady embraces and coincidentally Suk-mo’s college love. He’s a product designer and art instructor and she runs a small clothing atelier where she designs and constructs women’s clothing.
To get further into the details, and without any significant spoilers, I’ll continue after the jump.
I think that the self-righteous Suk-mo shares many characteristics of people we see reflected in advice columns: “My friend’s husband is having an affair, should I tell her?” or, “My friend’s husband is cheating on her, should I tell him I know?” In his case, his first inclination is always to butt in and expose deceptions, or correct the miscreants (like kids caught smoking cigarettes). He’d be insufferable if he always did that without at least trying to decide if that was a good or bad thing, or if he didn’t sometimes get that nosy butt kicked for his intrusions. But he is a catalyst in many ways, and he finds an unlikely co-conspirator in Jang-hyun. In different scenes they raise issues, uncomfortable issues, and don’t let others walk away in silence. The cafe is the setting for a number of meetings between the foursome – some are impromptu as they live in the same neighborhood, some are planned get-togethers, but they often end in unexpected ways. What keeps Suk-mo from being intolerable is that he is always trying to do the right thing and his heart really is in the right place. Even when he gets a little starry-eyed when he sees old flame Yoo-young, he tries hard to never overstep the bounds of propriety because it is not the moral/right thing to do.
Hwi-roo is the glue in this story. She is nurturing and kind, even if she’s less than the perfect housekeeper or housemate at times, there is little to fault in her character (unless toothpaste smears on the sink make you crazy). But when she realizes that she can’t have the kind of relationship she wants with Suk-mo, she’s the one to take action and complete the divorce papers. (Can this really be a spoiler when the alternate title is The Best Divorce?) She’s the one who gets to experiment with the life changes that come with divorce; meeting a man and forming a friendship that could potentially lead to romance, make choices about how and where she will live, and how she’ll maintain her close bond with Mi-sook. She’s also motivated by doing the right thing, just as Suk-mo is, but in different ways, like her open acceptance of Yoo-young and Jang-hyun into their circle. In her own way, she keeps the others in contact, because they want to be in her company.
As much Hwi-roo is the glue, Yoo-young is the cool and aloof star they orbit around. She’s so reserved and disciplined that it might be easy to dislike her – if she weren’t so clearly vulnerable and working hard to keep it all together. Things happen because Suk-mo wants her to be happy, Jang-hyun wants her to be happy, and Hwi-roo wants her new friend to be happy and make the right choices for herself. She shares a past with Suk-mo, she shares life experiences with her mother, she shares secrets about Suk-mo with Hwi-roo, and she has been hurt in her past at crucial points in time the way her husband has been hurt, but has chosen a different way to cope.
Jang-hyun is the most complicated of the group, and the one character that brought tears to my eyes when I least expected them, and then a shocked gasp at another point in the story. He seems so immature and almost childish as the story unfolds – the bee who can’t resist gathering the all-too-willing pollen from one flower after another – but the performance by Son Suk-goo reveals so much more. I’m not familiar with this actor but I will be looking forward to his next roles, if this is any indication of his talent. It’s hard to avoid spoilers with regards to Jang-hyun’s actions, so I’ll simply say that he is as far-removed from a stereotypical cheater character as they come.
The rest of the supporting cast is one that enriches the story and never detracts from it. Mi-sook is a darling; she’s not even a blood relative to Suk-mo, but she is so integral to his development, to the tone of acceptance and love in this story that I can’t imagine any other actress in this role, or a better supporting character. Ma-roo has her own brief bits of relationship and growth, from what appears to be an unconventional romance to taking on the role of older sister to a bratty kid. Suk-mo’s and Hwi-roo’s parents are interesting contrasting types that atypically don’t disparage their city/country-way differences – how refreshing is that?
I think what I appreciate most is that each of the characters grow and learn things about themselves, and develop in ways that are most fulfilling, but they don’t change intrinsically. They remain true to who they are, but learn more about how to accept (or tolerate) and love even the differences of those who they choose to be with. And that, my friends, is a lesson we can all hope to learn!