imperfect strangers

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For those who wish to watch something a little less bloodthirsty and more contemplative… On The Way To The Airport is a must-watch. I found the first two episodes excellent in explaining why Soo Ah (Kim Ha Neul) and Do Woo (Lee Sang Yoon) are organically, logically, irresistibly drawn to each other. Lovely portrayals by Kim Ha Neul and Lee Sang Yoon, plus their chemistry is so there right off the bat. It is delicate and tremulous, yet simmering with mature, emotional depth. Their gazes speak volumes. It’s perfect casting and I couldn’t ask for more.

I honestly didn’t expect KHN and LSY to execute their roles so well. I wasn’t worried about their acting chops, but fretted whether they would have enough rapport to coax viewers to emotionally question the legitimacy of their ambiguous – or not – relationship. I was convinced from their first interaction and though I know better than to ship them, I understand why their mutual attraction developed in such a short span of time.

Soo Ah (SA) and Do Woo (DW) spend a lot of time texting each other or conversing face-to-face. And individually, they spend most of the time chatting/arguing with those around them. It’s This drama is really about the power of communication – the beautiful, the bad, and if you aren’t careful, the dangerous part creeps up on you. It also questions the act of comfort between the opposite sex – is there such a thing as too much comfort when the initial innocence and kindness morphs into something more…an inexplicable yearning, a mutual dependency passionately craved by the two parties?

The thing is, SA and DW start off by being just nice, kind human beings, with a shared love and interest in their respective daughters. Their daughters are roomies at a homestay in Malaysia, where the girls study in an international school. The doting parents swap info about the girls through text messages, and are never formally introduced in person.

But tragedy strikes when DW’s daughter passes away in a freak car accident in Malaysia and SA’s well-intended kindness unwittingly sets their forbidden relationship into motion. SA, sees DW distressed at the airport, and gives up her ticket for him. At that point, she doesn’t know who he is but only overhears that someone he knows has passed away.

Since SA’s daughter is/was roomies with DW’s daughter, she sees a picture of him in their room but doesn’t connect the dots yet. SA later finds out his daughter has passed away and is saddened since the two girls were good friends. They meet again on their flight back to Seoul and recognition hits SA. She greets him (she is an air stewardess) at his seat, introducing herself.

From then on, their interactions are purely based on honest comfort and their roles as parents. They text each other to find out how the other is coping. DW’s wife obviously has a deep, dark secret and resents their daughter, even in death. She orders the owner of the homestay to get rid of her daughter’s belongings instead of sending them back to Korea. But SA makes a trip up to collect her daughter’s belongings, and finds out that the things are to be thrown away. She decides to take DW’s daughter’s belongings with her and return them to him. Unknown to her, DW has also made a trip to Malaysia to collect his daughter’s ashes.

They meet again on their flight back to Seoul and SA informs DW that she has something for him. He patiently waits for her until she’s done with work. They meet up and chat about their daughters while it rains outside. While SA feel bad for talking about the dead girl, DW is more than happy to because he is not allowed to mention her name at home. When SA discovers DW has his daughter’s ashes with him, she silently places her hand over his backpack (where the urn is kept) and thanks the dead girl for being a friend to her daughter. DW is moved by her action.

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The rain continues to fall. DW offers to give SA a lift home. He runs off to get this car, leaving his luggage and backpack which contains the urn on the ground. SA picks up his backpack from the ground and clutches it preciously to her chest. DW sees her doing this as he drives up, and again is stirred by her kindness, her caring nature. He shelters her with a brolly to the car, his arm around her but courteously keeping a distance. SA is startled at his proximity.

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He sends her back home and requests they see each other again. She agrees readily though one can see and sense her interest in him. They chat about themselves as he drives on, obviously having a good time. They have a moment of physical awareness when they both reach over to the backseat to get her luggage. SA alights, thanks DW, and tries to compose herself when she is out of sight. She is affected by their closeness earlier.

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But she makes a U-turn from her home when she finds out her daughter is somewhere else. DW offers to drive her to her next venue and suggests they stop for awhile by the Han River. There, he lets his daughter’s ashes be blown away by the wind. His daughter had loved the sunset over the Han River.

DW breaks down and SA can see his shoulders trembling with sobs from behind even as she remains in the car. She starts to tear herself and when DW turns around, he stops short at the answering sorrow in her eyes. They gaze at each other, eyes wet, she sharing his pain.

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The writer did a nifty yet thoughtful job setting up the story premise in the first two episodes. SA’s and DW’s less-than-perfect relationship with their spouses are revealed, and we only get hints of why they are as they are. DW’s pain is palatable and painful to see, even more so since he holds it in most of the time. It is drama serendipity that SA gets acquainted with him in such a time in his life. And while he was the only who comforts her at first by understanding how she feels to have her child studying away from home, she becomes his chief source of comfort when he loses his daughter. Because of their children, they form a natural bond, one that holds important with DW’s tragedy.

I really like the drama despite it breaking my heart in just two episodes. It’s almost a slice-of-life kinda story, but not totally. It shows how grief can bring people together or tear them apart. It shows how cracks can form in marriages, why cracks form in marriages. It also shows how communication – be it through technology or an exchange of gazes – can be so powerful and moving. The cinematography is swathed in languidly rich hues and the directing is grounded.

LSY is very good here, his eyes the windows to his hurting soul, even as he watches SA’s every move carefully, intrigued by her. I think this is one of the best characters I’ve seen KHN take on and she’s effortlessly down-to-earth yet confident as SA. Their chemistry is laden with emotional intensity – that scene where SA travels down the escalator in the airport to where is waiting for her, and DW looks up and their eyes meet. WHOA. Their curiosity, their anticipation…and the underlying sense of comfort they bring to each other… all there in their eyes.

That last scene where DW turns around, his wounded gaze snagging SA’s sympathetic one…again that wordless exchange of comfort and understanding. Gotta say LSY and KHN didn’t take long to settle in at all and give the drama a strong foundation for the rest of the story to take off and unfold. I’m so on board this flight!

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