Hong Jung Eun and Hong Mi Ran, perhaps better known as the Hong Sisters, are the writers behind the recently ended MBC drama, Best Love. Since their debut in 2005 with Delightful Girl Choon Hyang (KBS, 2005), they’ve been continuing to crank out one drama after another, including My Girl (SBS, 2005-2006), Fantasy Couple (MBC, 2006), Hong Gil Dong (KBS, 2008), You’re Beautiful (SBS, 2009), My Girlfriend is a Gumiho (SBS, 2010), and most recently, Best Love (MBC, 2011).
I wanted to share this fascinating interview with the famous writing duo, conducted by 10asia. Enjoy!
Published June 24, 2011 // From 10asia.co.kr
Written by Choi Ji Eun
Photography by Chae Ki Won
Edited by Jang Kyung Jin
Translated by Blue1004
10asia: How does Best Love end? [Note: The interview was conducted before the airing of the final episode.]
Hong Mi Ran: Dokgo Jin and Gu Ae-jung marry, start a family, and have a child together. But all their problems don’t get resolved. Although they become a “bihogam” [unlikable] couple, they don’t let go of each other’s hands. Dokgo Jin loses his Vitamin Water endorsement, but in its place, he does a milk ad. When rumors circulate that they’re having problems in their marriage, they have to ponder over whether to go out on a public picnic together for all to see. Although it wasn’t wow-inducing, we thought of it as a happy ending in its own right.
Every story starts with a simple idea. How did Best Love first come about?
Hong Jung Eun: We didn’t plan from the start to do a story taking place in the showbiz world. From amnesia to cross-dressing, we’ve already tried everything that can be covered in a romantic comedy genre. And while agonizing over what to do next, we thought of the concept of “hogam and bihogam” [likable and unlikable image]. In what setting should we place a self-righteous, eccentric man and a kind, but slightly wily woman? We thought of many different options, including a farming village, and finally arrived at the entertainment world. And then we chose the entire country to act as the “mother-in-law.” (laughs)
From Hwang Tae-kyung (Jang Geun Suk) in You’re Beautiful to Cha Dae-woong (Lee Seung Gi) in My Girlfriend is a Gumiho, most of your male lead characters were in their early to mid 20s, but Dokgo Jin is in his late 30s. What changes when portraying a male lead character of a different age range?
Hong Mi Ran: We added in the “Iron Man” character with the artificial heart after the age of the character went up. The original set-up was that of a cold-hearted man who constantly checks his heart rate, but as his heart starts to race as he falls in love, he worries about whether he is dying. But since an actor also needs to film action scenes, we decided to change him from being a calm, cool-headed man to someone who is in fact too fiery (can either mean “passionate” or hot-tempered”) that he has to try to monitor his heart. We also decided that one of these days, he’ll fail to control himself and cause trouble. As it became increasingly likely that Cha Seung Won would play the role, we named the character Dokgo Jin, inspired by the idea of Dok Go Die [translator’s note: Korean expression meaning “to live and die alone”]. We imagined him to be the type of character who would say, “What the heck! If he [swimmer Park Tae Hwan] wins the gold medal, I would lose my CF contract to him.”
From Sung Choon-hyang (Han Chae Young) in Delightful Girl Choon-hyang to Joo Yoo-rin (Lee Da Hae) in My Girl, there have been other female lead characters that were tough as a weed, but Gu Ae-jung is still yet different from the others. Although a celebrity, she’s very ordinary, and although she knows the ways of the world, she hasn’t been tainted by it.
Hong Mi Ran: Even Yoo-rin’s difficult upbringing was turned into a comedy. For example, when she went around deceiving others, it was more at the level of being a cute lie than a fraud. Although it’s similar that we again wanted to show a woman who worked hard, when the setting changed to the entertainment world, I think we were able to portray her difficulties more realistically. Being a celebrity means that you have a job where others gossip about you and you become a regular topic of conversation. So everyone knows something about that field. Viewers may not know much about other occupations that are not of their own, but with words like “A-listers” and “bihogam” becoming household terms, people fully understand what it means for the popularity of a celebrity to fall.
In your past works, you’ve delayed dealing with the main conflicts until late into the drama. In contrast, the characters in Best Love revealed their feelings and experienced heartaches right from the start.
Hong Mi Ran: When Dokgo Jin of the fantasy world says “I like you,” the realistic Gu Ae-jung responds, “We two shouldn’t like each other.” That was the start of the melodrama. Those two are celebrities, but if they met while working together, their relationship would have unfolded differently. And if Gu Ae-jung had liked Dokgo Jin first, she would have not been able to confess it to him. Because of all the things that Ae-jung had to go through over the years, she would have known very well that she couldn’t be a match for him, and that the road ahead would be just too difficult. But to such a realistic woman, a man to whom his own feelings are the most important approached her first. When Dokgo Jin was rejected, it set his feelings for her on fire. On top of that, the biggest source of conflict was that the entire country was eyeing them as their “mother-in-law.”
Whenever a certain celebrity starts earning a “bihogam” image, the media acts as the driving force both before and after the fact. Even when Dokgo Jin causes a car accident, the reporters ask for an explanation from Gu Ae-jung. And the public falls into the trap as well. You’ve accurately portrayed the current realities of the Korean entertainment scene.
Hong Mi Ran: Through Gu Ae-jung’s press conference scene in episodes 13 and 14, we tried to show what that person has to bear in her shoulders. And that was a story we had to tell through Gu Ae-jung’s character. A celebrity’s image is consumed by the public, but as a public figure, he cannot avoid receiving criticisms when he breaks a law or an ethical code. But instead of seeing them as people who just hold a certain occupation, there are some people who forget to see them as fellow human beings. Even if they don’t write negative online comments about them, they perceive them as people who can be treated as they wish.
Hong Jung Eun: Back when I was working for an entertainment show program in the past, I was eating with the others in the meeting room one day. A comedian appeared on TV, and without thinking, I said aloud, “I just don’t like him for no reason at all.” I didn’t realize that that very comedian was standing far behind me. He pretended to have not heard me, but I felt ashamed and very sorry. Those who write negative online comments are probably the same way. If there really is a celebrity like Gu Ae-jung, some people forget that she’s another human being and not just “anyone” appearing on TV. So I hope those who watched Best Love also remember that that someone who you criticized, like Gu Ae-jung, works hard to put food on the table for her mother and her father, and that she gets hurt when others trash talk about her in front of her nephew, niece, son, or daughter. Even if we don’t expect for our drama to cause some sort of revolution, we hope that people would be reminded that those who we talk about might be standing behind our backs and hearing what we say.
Besides Dokgo Jin’s words that Gu Ae-jung is a “great woman once you get to know her,” you had to convince us as to why Dokgo Jin fell in love with her to this extent.
Hong Jung Eun: That’s why we included the scene of Gu Ae-jung getting slapped by Manager Jang.
Hong Mi Ran: Hasn’t Dokgo Jin also treated her poorly at first? Further, he’s not someone who would show up at the scene and yell at him, “What are you doing?” either. He was going to pretend to have not seen anything and just go on his way, but he couldn’t ignore it. Although Dokgo Jin is someone who only knows about himself and about protecting his own life, he’s not someone who can’t sympathize with a person in the same line of work as he is getting that kind of ill-treatment.
Hong Jung Eun: The strongest emotion Dokgo Jin felt about Ae-jung stems from the two extremes. He might not have felt strong feelings for other well-to-do celebrities, but Gu Ae-jung was in a situation that he himself vowed that he should never be in even in his worst nightmare. As he witnessed her bearing on with it, he felt even more sorry for her. As that grew into stronger love, he wanted to protect her. But instead of helping out coolly like Yoon Pil-joo did, he threw tantrums. (laughs)
Either because of pride or the situation they’re in, drama characters often hide their feelings for a long time. But it was refreshing that in Best Love, everyone had it out in the open their feelings for each other.
Hong Jung Eun: Dokgo Jin did not have the intention to end up with Gu Ae-jung from the start. He was embarrassed and felt miserable about liking someone like her, but because he couldn’t share it with anyone else, he confessed it to Ae-jung. But even if Dokgo Jin had confessed that he liked Ae-jung and that he would cut off Se-ri to date her, Ae-jung was not in the position to say, “Okay, let’s date then.” That was why Dokgo Jin was able to be even more honest with her.
Your past works had the tendency to just gloss over grim realities or serious difficulties. So although they gave us fantasy-like joy, it’s also true that something was left wanting. But like the last time after Fantasy Couple, it feels like you’ve grown through working on Best Love. How did you come to this point?
Hong Jung Eun: To give a fantasy-like entertainment, dramas can introduce amnesia, a cross-dressing idol group member, or other strong conflicts in the beginning, and then build characters from there. If the story continues in this manner, it can be entertaining, but viewers will not be able to personally relate to the amnesia arc or the cross-dressing arc. In Best Love, we wanted to start with a more realistic, grounded story. Your 30s is a period in your life when you have a job and you ponder over how much longer you want to do this work. So Ae-jung too must have thought how easy it would be to just marry a good man like Yoon Pil-joo, and a decision of what to do about this difficult hurdle posed by loving someone like Dokgo Jin would not have been an easy one.
Hong Mi Ran: In You’re Beautiful, I wrote it while thinking about how I used to like Sobangcha [a three-member Korean boy band in the late 90s]. In My Girlfriend is a Gumiho, we wanted to create a story about loving someone while putting your own life in the line, and by adding in a gumiho character, we wanted to create a scenario like that of A Chinese Ghost Story [1987 Hong Kong film]. In Best Love, as the age of the characters went up, their worries also became more mature. However, we didn’t aim to write them as more mature. We will probably be around 50 years old by the time we are able to write our thoughts into our dramas with much depth. (laughs)
As the love story progressed, in addition to emotions and dialogues expressed by the characters, literary works like Camellia, or devices like a potato, a Pororo toy, and magnets were used to show the development of their growing love. This drama in particular had many such objects. Why?
Hong Jung Eun: We added in Camellia or Chunhyangjeon because we thought they were the easiest in delivering a emotion across. Everyone knows the story of Chunhyangjeon, and Camellia is the most childish and the cutest story when it comes to that of a one-sided love.
Hong Mi Ran: Also, there was the issue that as a top star, Dokgo Jin is not able to go out much. There weren’t that many locations where Dokgo Jin and Gu Ae-jung could meet. In order to make their meetings fun, we used Gu Ae-jung’s nephew “Ding Dong” to act as their go-between. And since Dokgo Jin is a very childish character, “Ding Dong’s” toys went well with him.
Like Na Sang-shil of Fantasy Couple, adults in Best Love realize things about themselves during their conversations with children.
Hong Mi Ran: To us, children are not just merely pure, innocent beings that need to be adored and act cute. We added the child character thinking of him as a human being who happens to have lived exactly 7 years of his life. We don’t mean to showcase the untainted world through the eyes of the children.
Hong Jung Eun: Because Dokgo Jin and Na Sang-shil have really strong personalities, there comes a point when consistency gets broken when they clash with other adults. That’s why we added friends like Kang-ja and Ding Dong, who would be willing to listen to their stories as they are.
From beverages, household products, to cellphones, there were many product placements (PPL) throughout the drama. As writers, it must be difficult to incorporate them into the story, but the realities of drama production these days must mean that PPL can not be done without. How do you try to approach this issue?
Hong Jung Eun: Due to the tight budget, we do incorporate PPL within the extent that they don’t harm the overall quality of the drama. So in the case of the Vitamin Water, we tried to incorporate a story from the get-go of how Ae-jung drinks a beverage with Dokgo Jin’s picture on the label and Dokgo Jin places the bottle against her cheek, and then a few episodes later, places the bottle against her cheek on the side of his face to demonstrate the progress of his love. We try to handle the issue by using products that we can write into the story without much of a problem.
Hong Mi Ran: It’s inevitable that production cost cannot be ignored when making a drama. With more money, we can create a better film set or add in a couple more supporting actors to make an even better picture. With more money, the staff and crew would also be able to get paid a little faster. Even though our dramas did not have very high ratings, we are proud that our dramas never faced problems with paying the staff and the actors. In a way, it sounds embarrassing for us to say this as writers, but we try to make the most of the drama while keeping the production cost down so that we can’t ever fail (come out with a loss). We need to make a living too, and it also helps provide the environment where we can continue to make good dramas.
Overall, your dramas had relatively good commercial success. But as the industry has been evolving, it has become difficult for TV dramas to achieve high TV ratings. Do you feel a great deal of pressure because of this issue?
Hong Mi Ran: Since the raw data about the TV ratings makes the news, it’s inevitable that we feel stressed. There are times where we fret about why the ratings didn’t come out as high as we had anticipated. We think we’re progressing at the right pace for the flow of the story, but when we hear criticisms that the story is too weak or boring, we wonder about whether we’re really doing something wrong or whether we should add in some more impactful conflicts into the story. We still try to develop the story as we had originally planned, but when the ratings are low, it’s hard.
Hong Jung Eun: The stronger the character, conflicts get handled smoothly in order to stay consistent and true to that character. For example, Dokgo Jin and Na Sang-shil are not characters who get easily swayed by others, and we do not want to create conflicts at the sacrifice of staying true to their characters. How to stay true to the characters while continuing to be entertaining throughout a 16-episode miniseries is something that we have to continue to ponder over and work on.
You’re Beautiful earned more popularity in Japan, Taiwan, and other Asian countries than it did domestically. Why do you think it was so popular overseas?
Hong Jung Eun: Because it’s easy to understand. The story is easy to understand, and the humor translates well. Dramas that did well across Asia, like My Girl and You’re Beautiful, had lovable characters, and so it seems that fans like that aspect of those dramas.
Hong Mi Ran: We were invited to go to Japan next week because You’re Beautiful will be remade in Japan, starring actors from the Johnny agency. I am going with the hidden agenda of perhaps getting an autograph from Kimura Takuya (laughs), but I think we might be able to watch the first episode there. Once we do, we will have a better idea of what the response will be like.
The things you pondered over while writing Best Love… how will they be reflected in your future dramas?
Hong Mi Ran: Honestly, we worry about how much longer we can do romantic comedies that are developed based on the characters. The comedy that we’re aiming for is like the movie Life is Beautiful (La vita è bella). To portray a comedy within the context of the great tragedy that was World World II requires a great deal of experience/depth. We hope to one day do something like that. But no matter what, we want to continue to make dramas that we won’t be embarrassed to watch alongside our nephews and nieces. I think we just need to take it one step at a time, while building on our strengths. Just like how Dokgo Jin’s character was able to be created because of our experience in writing Na Sang-shil’s character.