So was this the ending I expected? I admit it was not. In fact, so firm was my belief that the ending would turn out different from the way it did, I could not believe my eyes even as the story unfolded right in front of my eyes. In hindsight, this ending does make sense, and it is narratively more logical and superior than its alternative. I’m going to go as far as to say that the overall quality of the drama may have been elevated as well, and in retrospect, the message that the drama seeks to deliver is admittedly pretty brilliant. So yes, I’ve eventually come to accept it and even appreciate it. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
EPISODE 20 RECAP
For the purpose of this recap, I want to try something different. In this particular episode, there are many time jumps backward and forward in time. Instead of recapping the episode the way the story is presented to us viewers, this recap is written in the sequence the events actually take place. Any suspense element is destroyed, but I’m sure most viewers would have had the chance to watch the episode by now anyway, right?
The story begins over 20 years ago in the Shin household. The Shin sisters were a year apart, and the younger one, Ji-hyun, always insisted on having everything her older sister, Ji-min, had. And so their mother bought everything in doubles, marking the older sister’s with a star and the little sister’s with a sun to tell their things apart.
During a trip one day, while waiting for a bus from Seoul to Jinan, Ji-hyun wandered off on her own at the bus terminal. Their mom left to retrieve her, asking little Ji-min to wait sitting on a bench. However, when the mom returned with Ji-hyun, Ji-min was nowhere to be found. For a week thereafter, they received two phone calls asking for ransom. But each time when they went to the meeting location, no one showed. And there had been no further notice ever since.
Little Ji-hyun initially cried for her missing “unni” (older sister), but being so young, she eventually forgot about her sister’s absence (and perhaps, even her existence?).
But the pain of losing their first child never left the parents, and maybe this is why the thought of losing their only remaining daughter in the same manner prevented the mom from being rational when In-jung, mistaken as Ji-hyun, almost got kidnapped years later.
In fact, Ji-min was briefly raised by her kidnapper, who called her by a new nickname. And perhaps from the trauma of what had happened to her, Ji-min forgot about her real identity and even her real name. However, the kidnapper eventually abandoned her again (this time at a train station in Chuncheon), and Ji-min ended up growing up under a new name, Yi-kyung, at an orphanage there. At the orphanage, she befriended a boy named Yi-soo, and the two naturally developed into lovers.
(The two cities, Chuncheon and Jinan, are pretty far from each other, which probably made it even less likely for Ji-min to be found. Jinan is marked by a green arrow at the south and Chuncheon is marked by a dotted gray box, located northeast of Seoul.)
Back from their trip from Jinan, teenage Yi-soo and Yi-kyung made a quick stop by a bank. Unbeknownst to Yi-kyung, Yi-soo opened up a bank account under her name and started to regularly deposit money into the account to save for their promised “February Love” pension.
Now in the present, Ji-hyun has become a wandering soul after a car accident, unknowingly borrowing her long-lost sister’s body, with the hopes of collecting three pure tears in order to return to her own.
In-jung, afraid that she will forever be haunted by Ji-hyun’s soul and lose Min-ho, decides to do the unthinkable. But as she slowly approaches Ji-hyun’s oxygen mask, Ji-hyun’s spirit screams for her to stop. And as if In-jung heard the scream, she suddenly stops in her tracks and sees her reflection in the glass behind her.
She panics as she realizes what she has become. She cries to Ji-hyun as she wonders, “What am I doing? How could I do this to you? This isn’t what I wanted.” She confesses that she did this not due to any fault of Ji-hyun’s but because of herself. She then gets down on her knees to sincerely apologize to her long-time friend.
Ji-hyun cries, collapsed on the floor, as she sees her friend apologize. And so like that, In-jung becomes Ji-hyun’s third (or is it her second?) pure tear-giver.
Having collected all three tears, Ji-hyun wakes up from her coma. She is in an examination room waiting to get tested, and in walks the Scheduler dressed in a doctor’s gown. Ji-hyun recognizes him right away, and wonders why she can see him. And in fact, she then realizes that she remembers her entire 49 days’ journey. But how can this be? That’s only for the dead… Oh, no!
The Scheduler says that this is their last gift to her, and she may refuse it if she wishes. He has been assigned his schedule for his final week, and his last assignment is… Ji-hyun. Her predestined date of death is 6 days from now. But she became involved in an unexpected car accident that would have prematurely shorten her life by almost two months, and so she was granted the gift of 49 days. Sympathetic of her inevitable fate when she has even succeeded in collecting her three tears, the powers up above have given her the gift to remember her 49 days’ journey, if she chooses.
The Scheduler tells her to go ahead and be angry, as she must be. But through her tears, Ji-hyun screams that she knows it won’t change anything. He gives her a pat on the shoulder, as he tells her the one thing beyond human control is the matter of life and death. (So true… and yet, so cruel.) And wisely, Ji-hyun elects to remember her past 47 days.
With his resident client, Ji-hyun, now awake and waiting to die again in 6 days, the Scheduler has been anxiously waiting to finish his one week of penalty duty himself. But his sunbae scheduler pages him and informs him that he can meet Yi-kyung now that his official 5-year tenure has ended. And then his sunbae asks whether his original wish (to clear up the misunderstanding, give Yi-kyung the rings, and assure her of his love for her), those things that wouldn’t help the living one bit, still remains unchanged.
He retorts back, “Are you crazy? It’s hard enough as it is seeing her suffer like this?” And so he has changed his wish to that of Yi-kyung forgetting him and moving on. She laughs at seeing how much he has grown. And that’s when he realizes that she gave him his memory back on purpose, so that he’d change his wish on his own accord after seeing how Yi-kyung suffers.
But now he’s curious as to the reason she allowed the barrier to be broken between Yi-kyung and Ji-hyun. She explains that without Yi-kyung having experienced Ji-hyun’s spirit, she will be too shocked when she meets Yi-soo again. The Scheduler suspects that there is another reason, but she merely says that the connection between those two girls connect well into the next life.
This is a good example of the brilliance of 49 Days. We, as viewers, have mused about how this drama seemingly bends its own rules all the time. “Oh wait, now he remembers?” “And now she sees the ghost too?!” But in fact, they were not done just as a plot device to move the story along. They were the plot in and of itself, done purposefully and intentionally. Very clever, indeed.
Having shed pure tears of love for Ji-hyun and repented for all that she has done, In-jung visits Min-ho and tries to stop him from what he seeks to do. But when Min-ho replies that he can’t stop himself even if it shreds him to pieces, In-jung goes to see his mom at the hospital to collect the documents he’s entrusted with her. And then she sends this evidence of Min-ho’s crime to the prosecutor.
After her meeting with Yi-soo and the three wonderful days they spent together, Yi-kyung remembers Ji-hyun’s words to her and comes to visit Ji-hyun at the hospital. To her surprise, Yi-kyung learns that Ji-hyun remembers her past 47 days. Yi-kyung asks Ji-hyun why she’s pretending to not remember Kang, when in fact she does. Ji-hyun answers, “Because I’m going to die soon.” And then she retells the story of the scheduler’s message to her.
Yi-kyung expresses how unfair this is, after all that Ji-hyun has gone through. But Ji-hyun has another perspective. If she had not had the gift of 49 days, her dad would have lost his company to Min-ho, and she would have lost her mind from the shock of being betrayed by her friend and her fiancé. Perhaps her fate was to commit suicide from that shock.
Because of her 49 days, she was able to receive love from Kang, love another, protect her dad’s company, and got a chance to look back at her life. Without that chance, she would have died after having lived a fake life.
But if Ji-hyun’s inevitable fate is to die, she wishes to appear to others as having lived happily till her very end, as the immature, naive, and cheerful Shin Ji-hyun she’s always been. Only she couldn’t pretend to not remember Yi-kyung as well.
As for Kang and her promise to tell him how she feels, she no longer sees any use for it for it’ll only give him greater heartache once she dies. Like the Scheduler, she too has learned from seeing Yi-kyung that the living need to go on living. So she asks Yi-kyung not to tell Kang any of this, for she wishes to remain as his friend until her death.
Meanwhile, Kang pays Min-ho a visit in prison. Kang is glad that he won’t have to see Min-ho self-destruct any further, but he asks that after serving his time, Min-ho return to being the hyung he has once respected and liked.
Kang also tells him how Ji-hyun is doing, but Min-ho doesn’t want to hear any of it.
That evening, unbeknownst to Ji-hyun, Yi-kyung stops by Heaven and tells Kang the truth of what Ji-hyun has told her earlier that day. She explains that she isn’t supposed to tell him, but is doing so because she can’t bear to watch Ji-hyun go through this alone. Yi-kyung understands Ji-hyun’s wishes, and in order for Ji-hyun to be sent off as her wish, she thinks Kang should know as well.
Kang says between his tears that all he wishes for is for Ji-hyun to live. He asks whether there is no option for Ji-hyun to stay alive, even if it means that he’d never see her again.
True to her words, Ji-hyun continues to live her remaining days as the bright and cheerful Shin Ji-hyun. While enjoying a meal with her parents back at home, her parents share that it feels like a dream to be able to eat with their daughter again. Ji-hyun commends herself for making her parents’ dream come true, but we can see that she is trying to hold back her tears. And after dinner, Ji-hyun returns to her room and silently removes all her belongings.
The next morning, as Ji-hyun heads to Yi-kyung’s, she takes her time to touch the railing on the staircase she’s taken so many times before. Yi-kyung greets her, and the two sisters make kimbap together. Ji-hyun regrets that she can’t stay by Yi-kyung’s side much longer, but guarantees her that Yi-kyung will soon be surrounded by many good people.
With the kimbap picnic basket in hand, Ji-hyun fetches Kang from his restaurant. Despite knowing everything and what is to become of Ji-hyun, Kang continues to feign ignorance.
Ji-hyun asks him to go on a picnic together, borrowing him as her boyfriend for the day. He agrees, but in return, he asks to borrow her as his girlfriend for just one day tomorrow.
At the picnic, they eat the kimbap, take photos, and joke around together. But just then, Ji-hyun’s bracelet falls out of Kang’s pocket. Ji-hyun acts surprised to see it, but finally tells him the story behind the bracelet.
Ji-hyun confesses that she was actually quite close with his mom. One day teenage Ji-hyun asked why Kang was so mean to his mom, and she explained it was because she didn’t tell him what he wanted to know. When you love someone so much, it’s sometimes better to leave him to misunderstand and spare him the pain of the truth.
Kang realizes that they’re the same words that Ji-hyun had once repeated to him. In response, he quotes Ji-hyun’s words from the past that it is indeed much harder for the person who has to deceive to protect the person he loves. And of course, this applies to both Ji-hyun and Kang’s current situation. Ji-hyun pretends to not remember her 49 days and her love for Kang in order to spare him the pain when he’d have to lose her again. Kang pretends to not know that she knows what she’s pretending to not know (gah, did I even get this right?) in order to respect her final wish.
He takes her to a statue, and tells her that if she tosses a coin here and makes a wish, the wish will come true. Ji-hyun tosses a coin and closes her eyes to make her wish, and Kang turns to her and closes his eyes to make his wish.
Kang: Please let Ji-hyun live by my side.
Ji-hyun: Please let Kang forget me.
After dropping Ji-hyun off at the hospital, Kang keeps repeating to himself that he did the right thing.
Back at the hospital after returning from the picnic, Ji-hyun whispers to each of her parents how happy she was to have been born as their daughter. But in the midst of their laughters, Ji-hyun suddenly grabs her stomach in pain before collapsing to the ground and closing her eyes. While her parents frantically call the medical staff in panic, Ji-hyun’s soul pops out and is greeted by the Scheduler.
Ji-hyun follows the Scheduler to the elevator, but not before asking him who her final two tears came from. She guesses Seo-woo and Yi-kyung, but he corrects her that although Seo-woo was one of them, Yi-kyung was not. In fact, it was In-jung. She looks surprised, but she instantly brightens up at the truth that In-jung did sincerely love her.
Satisfied, they continue their walk to the elevator. Standing in front of the elevator, the two spirits shake each other’s hands without a word. With a wave of his hand, the elevator door opens and Ji-hyun steps inside. With tears in their eyes, they smile at each other as they part goodbye.
Back in Ji-hyun’s hospital room, her mom and dad weep over her dead body, as the doctor pronounces the cause of death as acute collapsed artery as a consequence of her earlier car accident. Kang comes running in and cries as he looks at Ji-hyun’s body covered under the white sheet.
At Ji-hyun’s funeral, her friends bury her ashes and plant a tree in its place. In-jung watches everything from afar, but is unable to approach any closer. And Min-ho sobs miserably in his jail cell.
Back at home, Ji-hyun’s mom and dad note how Ji-hyun removed all her belongings from her room as if she had known of her impending death. Reminiscing over her final words to them, they realize that she had woken up just to say her final goodbye.
Kang is alone in his office when he is suddenly alerted by the sound of Ji-hyun calling his name. He looks around to find no one there, but that is when his eyes land on Yi-kyung’s box that Ji-hyun (as Yi-kyung) had entrusted to him. Inside is a letter to him from Ji-hyun, but signed under Yi-kyung’s name, asking him to be her friend as he has been to Ji-hyun.
Kang returns the box to Yi-kyung, but as she looks through the contents of the box, she is startled to find Yi-soo’s locker key inside. She realizes that she has not yet cleaned out his belongings. They go to Yi-soo’s old studio together and Yi-kyung opens up his old locker. Inside, she finds his old belongings, along with her backpack that she had when she was abandoned. She thought she had tossed it away when she left the orphanage, but realizes that Yi-soo must have brought it back. Kang looks on as Yi-kyung opens the bag to take out her little pink shoe and Yi-soo’s bank book gifted to her.
Yi-kyung cries alone in her room as she reads Yi-soo’s message to her written in the bank book, and the Scheduler cries as he watches her.
After his little adventure with Yi-kyung, Kang goes to visit Ji-hyun’s parents, and finds them arguing over old photos. After the dad leaves the room, Kang sits down and picks up one of the photos. He wonders who is the little girl in the photo, and the mom tells him about their missing daughter, Ji-min.
But to his surprise, Kang immediately recognizes the backpack and the shoes worn by the little girl in the picture. They’re exactly the same ones that he helped Yi-kyung find just a moment ago.
He takes Ji-hyun’s mom to go see Yi-kyung. Yi-kyung feels certain that she was abandoned by her own mother, but at the mom’s insistence, Yi-kyung hands her the backpack. Seeing the star drawn in the inside cover of the backpack and the shoe with a star stitched to the side, the mom cries as she realizes that she has finally found her Ji-min again.
Even as I guessed that the sister arc was coming, I agree with others that it wasn’t truly necessary. The hints were pretty evident, and I don’t agree that they should have continued to give more hints throughout the series because this really wasn’t what this drama was about. Even so, I find the sister arc emotionally satisfying because it gave Yi-kyung another opportunity to realize how loved she has been and deserves to be. And what can I say? I feel happy for her.
Life slowly returns to normal. And Kang is finally able to bid farewell to Ji-hyun:
Kang: Ji-hyun, I finally understand why you you wanted to leave without a word. In choosing to be silent and lonely by yourself, you’ve allowed those you’ve left behind to be comforted through you. I’ll trust your words that your 49 days was a blessing as they’ve returned everyone to their rightful place. Be happy wherever it may be, Ji-hyun.
Two years later:
In-jung is back in Jinan. As she sees three high schoolers pass her by, she reminisces over her own teenage years with Ji-hyun and Seo-woo, and smiles.
She then goes to visit Min-ho in prison, and after many attempts, finally sees him for the first time in two years. She tells him that his mother is doing well at a hospital in Jinan. Min-ho asks her to stop helping him, as he doesn’t want to be further indebted to her and he still has three more years to go in prison.
She tells him that she’ll just continue on for those three years because she’s the one who made him this way. He tells her that she need not feel guilty because even though she was the one to first suggest it, it was he who chose to act upon it. And together, they share their regrets over their past.
Kang is at a construction site overseeing a building he’s designed.
Manager Oh’s wife brings her pregnant self over to visit Yi-kyung at Heaven, as today is her last day working there. Seo-woo is dating Ki-joon, the male waiter at Heaven. And Dr. Noh visits Yi-kyung, as her friend and her life saver.
Yi-kyung is quitting her job at Heaven to head to Haemido to work at the new resort. She was hired at her dad’s company after a formal hiring process, without using any privilege from being the company president’s daughter.
Before heading off to Haemido together, Yi-kyung and Kang pay a visit to Ji-hyun and Yi-soo, whom they’ve buried side by side with identical trees. Like the two trees marking those who have passed, the two living stand side by side as they each give a narration.
Yi-kyung: Ji-hyun, Han Kang has been busy working. And as you have requested, he’s been a very good friend to me. Due to your loving personality, I was able to adjust well among the folks at Heaven who believed me to be you.
Kang: Ji-hyun, though people know they’re all going to die, they live as if they aren’t. Because of your 49 days, I’m living my life as if it’s my 49 days. For through your 49 days, I saw things change that would have never changed if you had not known of when you would die. Here lie the two most important people in our lives.
Yi-kyung: Here are the two people who changed our lives and left beautifully.
Kang: Because of the 49 days’ journey that we shared with these two…
Yi-kyung: We live as if today is our precious last.
Kang: Ji-hyun, because I met you…
Yi-kyung: Yi-soo, because I met you…
Kang: I was happy.
Yi-kyung: I was happy.
Unlike what many others may believe, I don’t think the “surprise” ending of having Ji-hyun die was done for any shock effect or to have a more powerful impact. Nor do I think 49 Days is like those other Korean melodramas (Stairway to Heaven, Bad Guy, and many others) that kill off the main characters just simply to be melodramatic and be a tearjerker. On the contrary, Ji-hyun’s death serves a specific purpose for the thematic message of this drama.
So what is this message? Is it to reinforce the notion that whether you lose a loved one, the living must gather strength and go on living? No, the story of Yi-soo and Yi-kyung would have been sufficient for that. Is it to show that you can never know when you’ll die, so you must always live your life to the fullest as if today is your last? Hmm, it’s perhaps true that that’s one message the drama seeks to tell, but that message could have been delivered even if Ji-hyun survived. In fact, through the lessons learned during her 49 days’ journey (or perhaps just at the knowledge of being alive again, even if she can’t remember her 49 days), I have no doubt that Ji-hyun would have had new-found appreciation for her life.
Instead, I think the scriptwriter wanted to show through the two mirror relationships a lesson on saying a beautiful goodbye. Yi-soo is dead and he knows he has no chance of coming back alive. Yi-kyung thinks she has no purpose in living and has every reason to join Yi-soo in the “other world.” In essence, for five years, she was never able to bid farewell to Yi-soo. But through Ji-hyun and her reunion with Yi-soo, Yi-kyung learns that the true way to express her love for the dead is to let him go and live her remaining days being happy.
In contrast, Ji-hyun has a chance (or at least she believes she does) at life again. She has every reason to come back alive, especially now that she has found the love of her life. Oh, and how desperately and earnestly she wants to live, as we have seen for the first 19 episodes of this drama! But as it is in life, we all must die someday, some just sooner than others. And when that time comes, as it does for Ji-hyun, we learn from her how to bid farewell to the world behind. The most beautiful goodbye is one in which you love others even as you leave. This point was also made in an earlier episode in which Yi-kyung remarks about how she sees from Ji-hyun that having a family means that you have someone else to worry about even as you have death come knocking on your door.
I don’t agree with how the ones that leave (Ji-hyun and Kang’s mom) express their love, even if it means lying to spare the pain of the truth to the loved ones who will be left behind. This idea of lying to protect is often illustrated in other Korean dramas as well, but I just can’t agree with it. Once the truth gets revealed (as it always will someday), the truth learned too late will bring even greater pain. Instead, I think the true way to love others even at your deathbed is to show and express that love with no holding back.
But that aside, the message as it stands is still very poignant and relevant. Some have called 49 Days a drama about having a second chance. Others have called it a drama exploring life and death. I think the best way to describe it, as cliché as it may be, is to call it a love story. It is a lesson on how to truly love in both life and in death.
Okay, that was my brain speaking about how intellectually stimulating the ending for 49 Days was, and how far it was from being “stupid” or “inappropriate” as some others may think it. But now I will have to talk about why I hated it, even as I agree with my mother who calls it the most perfect ending to this drama.
You see, she was never emotionally invested in this drama as I was. She was not the one blogging about Jo Hyun Jae’s nipples or posting weekly Youtube clips on 49 Days. I’d like to think of myself as someone who can appreciate many different types of K-dramas (and contrary to popular opinion, not all are fluffy rom-coms or makjangs!). But when I watch a drama, I also want to know exactly what I’m getting myself into.
And when it comes to 49 Days, I can’t help but feel misled. Perhaps it is not to the fault of the drama itself, but for 19 episodes, I watched this drama believing that I had a nice tasty Big Mac sandwich (a fluffy, happy romance, even if it isn’t any “good” for me) waiting for me at the end. But instead, I was handed a caviar and was told, “Hey, this is not what you ordered, but this is better stuff.” No matter how much better this caviar is, when I was waiting in line for a Big Mac, that caviar just simply can’t satisfy my original craving, you see.
It doesn’t change my high opinion of the drama and my respect for the writer. But… but… I really wanted that Big Mac! Can you blame me?