I’ve always maintained that time travel shows are either hit or miss. There’s really no in between. So it’s always a pleasant surprise when a series like OCN’s 2018 miniseries My First Love (애간장 /Longing Heart) comes along and secures itself in the former category. The fact that OCN, a network that has become known for dark, gritty dramas, was the home to this lighthearted romantic drama is surprising enough. But a charming cast brings to life a script that knows exactly what it wants to be and doesn’t try to be something it is not. (Which, more often than not, is the case with drama series involving traveling through time and space.)
Now, OCN is certainly no stranger to romantic dramas. One of the very first Korean dramas I ever watched, Someday with Lee Jin Wook and Bae Doona, was OCN’s very first full-length original series. And it was one of the reasons I get swept up by the Korean wave. My First Love is similar, in the sense that it features many of the hallmarks of Korean drama that have enthralled, charmed and yes, swept viewers around the world into Hallyu.
The series centers around 28-year-old math teacher Kang Shin Woo (Lee Jung Shin) who has never forgotten his first love Han Ji Soo (Lee Yeol Eum). Having longed for her for the last ten years, he suddenly meets her one day. Though the meeting is far from what he ever dreamed of as Ji Soo is less than receptive of their reunion.
However, an accident results in Shin Woo soon finding himself back in the year 2007 where he meets his younger, 18-year-old self (Seo Ji Hoon) and relives the moment he first fell in love with Ji Soo. Shin Woo uses this opportunity to try and steer his younger self away from the regrets of his past and toward a happier future with Ji Soo. But Shin Woo finds the unwritten laws of time travel won’t make things as simple as he thinks. And unexpectedly uncovering truths about his past give both his 28-year-old and 18-year-old self new outlooks on his own life and of his present and future.
My First Love/Longing Heart is a wonderful blend of the most irresistible of Korean drama themes. With everything from coming of age angst to sweet first love to the role of destiny and fate in our lives, the series covers quite a bit in its ten fast-paced episodes. Though there are a lot of moving pieces, especially when it involves a time travel element, everything falls into place.
Like I mentioned earlier, time travel and time loop stories can be hit or miss. But this series was a hit, creatively. It landed it punches. It never tries to craft some grand, pretentious narrative. The focus is always on the romance and the relationships (whether teenage friendships or family). The time travel is somewhat of a plot device, but one that doesn’t take away from the sincere, character-driven drama.
The time travel aspect is handled well. Obviously, it may get confusing (as all time travel stories can be). But it is simple enough to understand in the end. And even then, the romance and relationships are the main focus.
It’s actually almost unexpected to have those relationships really take center stage. But it is a welcome and pleasant surprise. Indeed, well-placed twists and surprises add to the excitement and fun. Touches of nostalgia support the dreamlike aura. And the sincere character moments make for ultimately satisfying emotional pay-offs.
The cast is a strong group. Leading lady Lee Yeol Eum as Ji Soo delivers a steady performance that suits the character and her complicated emotions. As the series unravels certain truths, she is able to effectively convey the varied emotions while maintaining a strong chemistry with both Lee Jung Shin and Seo Ji Hoon.
Kim Min Seok, Min Do Hee and Lee Jo Hyung are charming as the friends serving as our two heroes’ sidekicks both in the past and present. And the always dependable and scene stealing Kim Sun Young delivers some of the most impactful scenes in the series as Shin Woo’s mother.
But the highlights come from both Lee Jung Shin and especially Seo Ji Hoon. The two talented actors balance the challenge of having to make the two Shin Woos the same, yet distinct. And they successfully accomplish that. Their chemistry is probably the strongest of any relationship in the series. And their interactions are always amusing and fun. But there’s also a depth and meaningful aspect to the unique friendship they form as they try to figure out their past, present and future together.
When the series reaches its emotional climax, both actors effortlessly deliver. And there is no first or second lead here like a typical romance drama. Both deserve and get equal billing. And in a substantive way that is so great to see. Neither character is sacrificed for the other. And that in turn allows both Lee Jung Shin and Seo Ji Hoon to shine.
Overall, My First Love/Longing Heart is a great series. It doesn’t try to be what it is not. And it really doesn’t attempt to reach an unattainable goal like other similarly themed time travel series have tried to do. But that doesn’t mean any less effort was put into this series. Instead, the series is assured at what it wants to do and what it wants to be. And that confidence shows in how well all the moving parts, from the story to the characters to the performances, come together in what is an ultimately satisfying drama experience.