If I had to describe this drama in one word, that word would be “charming”. The series had its flaws, but the show as a whole was so alluring and charming that I was able to overlook them and fully enjoy this fairy tale love story between North Korean Captain Ri Jeong-Hyeok and South Korean CEO Yoon Se-Ri. The romance between the second leads, Gu Seung-Jun and Seo Dan, was engaging and meaningful.
Besides the romances, there was so much warmth in all the friendships, particularly those between Jeong-Heok’s comrades (Company Five) including Manbok and Se-Ri with the fellow ahjummas in the military village. Their interactions were filled with so much humour, joy and camaraderie. Add in sweeping Switzerland landscapes, the celebration of cooking and food and a moving OST to the mix and you have a drama that will linger on in the memories of many for a long time.
Let me start off with the flaws of the show. The first one, which I felt was a major one, was Se-Ri’s back story with her family, because it’s so central to her story of rejection and growth. I hoped we would get more scenes of how she suffered growing up and how she eventually came to that decision to leave her family to set up her company, but we did not. The key scene we had about her past came late in the series and that was when her stepmother left her at the beach. Most of what we got about Se-Ri’s past started only at that moment in Switzerland where she wanted to end of her life, but it would have been even better if we went further back. Se-Ri’s stepmother’s redemption also seemed rather convenient at the end, like a convenient device so that she would have someone next to her while Jeong-Heok went back. We barely even got any interaction scenes between Se-Ri and her father, which I felt was strange.
The next thing that also bothered me had more to do with the offenses committed by Jeong Heok. Sure, he was a heroic and I loved him as a character, but he definitely made many grave errors from a military perspective. While he is a captain, surely no military force would allow any soldier to draw out that much ammunition without prior approval or checking. And let’s not even get into him trespassing over into South Korean territory. Given the amount of public attention he received, I was surprised he wasn’t spotted earlier and taken in.
As for what I liked about the show, there’s really too much to talk about. The show does humour so well, and in fact, that was what really drew me in the first episode. It was able to poke fun at aspects of both North and South Korean life, while not being offensive. Ju-Meok’s obsession with South Korean dramas, particularly Stairway to Heaven, was hilarious and he effectively became the translator of South Korean culture in the early episodes, which made for several hilarious moments. I felt the humour in the show was not overdone and ensured the show was tonally balanced even towards the end. I found that there was so much creativity in the humour, as the show was able to milk even difficult situations and turn them into moments for laughs. I found Manbok using his wire-tapping skills to listen in on the conversations in Se-Ri’s room while she was in coma really brilliant as it created so many funny moments.
Besides the humour, I appreciated the portrayal of life in North Korea. While certainly idyllic and not the full picture, it was certainly a celebration of going back to the basics of life, where food is made from scratch and taken from nature. Without technology to preserve food, meat is kept in salt crocks and even ramyeon is made from scratch. They cook their clams by simply flame-grilling them and then drink so-ju from their shells. Kimchi is salted using sea-water and preserved in a kimchi cellar, which enhances the fermentation. As a food lover, I enjoyed the detailed portrayal of food. Beyond food, I understand that there was attention paid to ensure the actors spoke using North Korean accents and used terms more commonly used in the North than in the south, much of this would probably have been lost in translation. Electrical outages are part and parcel of life there, and in fact, people learn to live with limited durations of electricity and find their own ways around it. Heating works through furnaces in each home, unlike modern heating. A warm bath requires tedious effort of heating water to fill a tub, and then surrounding the tub with a curtain. The detailed depiction of life in North Korea was certainly appreciated and brought home the point about celebrating the simpler things in life.
Coming back to our leads, I really enjoyed not just the romances, but how each of our leads grew throughout the show. We see at the start that Se-Ri has learnt to be strong, confident and independent, but at the same time, she has also become emotionally cold and isolated. She refuses to let others see her vulnerabilities, because in her family and corporate world, those will be exploited. Yet, being in the North Korea village, she gradually opens herself up to relationships. Initially, it is due to necessity as she needs Jeong Heok and his comrade’s help to survive and conceal herself. However, she gradually grows to enjoy spending time in their company and is even reluctant to head back to Seoul because while she’s a nobody in North Korea, it is the first time in a long while she has actually felt a sense of community and belonging, where people genuinely appreciate her for who she is, and enjoy spending time with her. When she makes that sacrifice to stay behind for Jeong Heok, it is a true moment of growth for her, and of course, a landmark moment in their relationship. Through their relationship, she learns that life is not just about survival, but that life is worth celebrating too. Instead of spending Christmas at a meeting, sometimes it’s worth just spending time decorating a tree and making it beautiful.
I appreciated that Se-Ri retained her strength even when Jeong Heok was not beside her, when she first returned to Seoul, and even in the finale, when they had to separate. She was not weakened without her man beside her, but she still missed him and wanted to be with him. However, missing the one you love does not mean life takes a standstill and you spend hours in tears. It means you live life honouring that person, and living the way he/she would want you to. This is why I also enjoyed the finale very much, especially the segment where she lived her life while receiving texts from Jeong Heok. And eventually, she made her own way, using her own talents and what she had built up in her company, to find two weeks a year to spend time with him. From start to end, Se-Ri was never weak, but she was actively making choices that helped her to eventually grow as a person.
Jeong-Heok has always been a good person at heart, but also similarly, not quite emotionally opened up. A stoic figure of authority and strength, he was always looked up to, but never allowed anyone to come near to him emotionally, as evidenced in his scenes with Dan. He always put others’ needs above his own, and was always respectful of authority – be it his superiors’ or his father’s. When Se-Ri crash-lands into his life, he is forced to put aside his principles – to lie for her sake, to do an illegal boat-to-boat mission. However, when his dad keeps Se-Ri to protect him and his future, he realises he needs to make his own decisions and stand up for what / the person he believes in. Beyond the growth, Se-Ri brings out that childlikeness in him, which leads to several cute interactions too (and his pout has become one of the viral moments of the show). He eventually decides to go back to his passion of musical performance, something that evidently brings him joy, and that leads to his final union with Seri.
And I cannot end off this review without talking about Seung-Jun and Dan. To be honest, at times I felt their interactions and romance were more interesting than that of our lead characters, but mainly because they both clearly went through so much more growth. Seung-Jun was a cheat who was charming yet deceptive and often used his charm for his own good. Dan starts off the show being selfish and possessive – she has always had feelings for Jeong-Heok and knows he doesn’t feel anything for her, yet she insists on holding on to him out of pride. She’s so strong-willed and strong-minded that nobody can shake her out of her dogged determination to get married to Jeong-Heok at all costs – except for Seung-Jun who is able to tell her the truth as it is, without any varnishing or embellishment. Seung-Jun unabashedly tells her how much she makes his heart flutter, yet she only opens up to him much later and we see how perfect they are for each other. I loved how Dan retains her strength even as she falls for Seung-Jun – she never fawns over him even as she realises that she likes him. As much as the ending has pained most viewers, I can’t see how they could have that happy ending, given that Seung-Jun has committed too much crime to escape the hands of the law. The ending gives Dan the ending she truly deserves, as she realises she can decide to be single as it is the new trend. The love she has received from Seung-Jun has given her that confidence to walk tall and strong, even without a man.
At the heart of CLOY is really a celebration of relationships – both in terms of romance and friendships. Many of the heartwarming moments that brought tears to my eyes were not just those between our lead couples, but moments of reunion between Se-Ri and Jeong Heok’s comrades. I loved the scene when they reunited in Seoul and also when they departed from her at the demarcation line. I felt the pain of Jeong Heok as much as I felt the pain of the comrades.
With the multiple coincidences surrouding Jeong Heok and Seri’s relationship, one could say that the show is wildly unrealistic. They met first at Switzerland, then crash-landed into each other in North Korea. Even without knowing Seri’s address, Jeong Heok finally found her in Seoul and then even in Switzerland, they did not know each other’s addresses, but Se-Ri eventually paraglided into his arms again. We never head into such shows hoping for realism. We head into such dramas with a desire to be lost in its fairy-tale charm, where we see that it is possible for destiny to be so magical in bringing people together at the right time and right place, even when life seems on the wrong track. CLoY has won the hearts of many, because it is that story of hope that we all need.