The Interest of Love tells a story of two who never quite make it | By Carl Ackerman (Winter 2024)
American K-drama fans will often say that the typical Korean romance drama can be frustrating, with the slow pace of the love story, usually involving a relationship that ruptures halfway through the series, followed by a painful period for the lovers, and usually, but not always, some kind of resolution.
It’s worse for viewers, however, if the story ends with an unclear reconciliation; K-drama writers are also known to leave the fate of our heroes frustratingly unresolved.
The central romance of The Interest of Love takes place at KCU Bank, making the English translation of the title a clever play on words. Sang-soo Ha (Yeon-seok Yoo) is a mid-level bank employee who is striving for a decent and orderly life and is bound by many moral principles. Sang-soo falls in love with Soo-young Ahn (Ga-young Moon), a teller who trained him as an intern. In one of the first scenes in this drama, Sang-soo is seen watching Soo-young working diligently at the bank; she catches a glimpse of his desire, which leads to their first date which we soon find out is an ill-fated event.
The first date ends in failure. The effects of the bad date come up in the relationship a few times during the rest of the story. While she waited in a restaurant, he was late because he was counting the receipts at the bank. Sang-soo hurries to the location, while Soo-young looks for him out the window of the restaurant. Soo-young sees Sang-soo hesitate and turn back for a bit as he approaches, seemingly losing his nerve to meet Soo-young.
As a result, Soo-young, who witnesses this hesitation, and his apparent rejection, leaves the restaurant before he gets there. The effect of this botched date is that they both choose other partners. Sang-soo gets involved with another coworker, Mi-gyeong Park (Sae-rok Keum), who is from a wealthy background. Su-yeong falls for Jong-hyun Jeong (Ga-ram Jung), the bank security guard. Jong-hyun longs for a better career. He is conscientious and efficient at doing the small chores that other bank employees give him because of his low status.
This drama highlights the status and layers of hierarchy that typify the corporate world in Korea. We learn that Sang-soo’s mother raised him as a single parent, and moved into the status of the petit bourgeoisie by managing a high-end beauty spa. Soo-young’s family comes from a small town outside of Seoul, where her parents own a local restaurant. The parents of security guard Jong-hyun are farmers, and he is aspiring to be a police officer, but first he must pass a difficult standardized test — these three represent the working middle-class sector of Korean society, and all are striving to do a bit better. All three have complications from their childhoods that are driving them to work hard and advance their careers.
In contrast, Sang-soo’s new girlfriend Mi-gyeong is so rich that she buys a car for her boyfriend, because she says his is too broken down. For Sang-soo, the gift is excessive to the point of embarrassment. It becomes one of the many sources of friction in their relationship.
The depiction of the daily struggle for one’s livelihood is one of the most endearing qualities of The Interest of Love. Issues of sexual harassment in the workplace, the complications of getting married for love (as opposed to marrying for social advancement), and the issues of basic business survival (especially for a Korean bank), also come into play.
The new relationships of both main characters eventually falter and fail, and the two lovers are drawn back together after many years. Sang-soo is working for the same company, but a different location. The two run into one another at workplace events, in various scenarios where their relationship could have been rekindled, but they never quite make it back to a steady relationship, despite the fact that they are still in love.
The two encounter one another at several banking outings; a seminar and even a type of bank camping expedition. There is always something preventing them from declaring their love for one another at the right time. My favorite scenes are when they are together at a lovely beach — waves breaking, beautiful weather, lots of sand.
In one such scene, Soo-young has decided she will leave the KCU bank. She throws her bank identity lanyard into the sea, and Sang-soo dives in the cold water fully dressed in order to recover it. He is successful, which causes both to reflect on whether the incident is a sign of what is meant to be.
The yearning of these two for one another is the draw of this drama, but also makes viewers newly frustrated after each episode, although we stay motivated to root for our heroes and to stay hopeful.
My favorite beach scene is when Soo-young builds a sand castle when Sang-soo arrives. In a philosophical discussion about this sand creation, Soo-Young mentions that she often destroys her sand constructions because they are ephemeral. She says she would rather destroy them than leave them to their fate.
Sang-soo is puzzled by the remark and feels she is saying she preferred to run from the relationship rather than taking a chance on Sang-soo. He believes that the metaphor Soo-young creates is a false one; he believes in the durability of relationships, despite the reality that a relationship may erode and end on its own, just as a high tide may eventually wash away a sand castle. He persuades Soo-young to leave the beach and let the castle stand; he wants her to leave open what will happen to it in the future.
He later takes a photo of the sand castle, which (significantly) has survived for some time, and sends it to Soo-young. This scene represents the differences in the perspectives of our two protagonists, and hints that their relationship might yet stand the test of time.
The beach scenes (with romantic music in the background) reminds me of the interactions of Robert Redford (Hubbell Gardiner) and Barbara Streisand (Katie Morosky) in the film The Way We Were. In one scene, Redford and Streisand are frolicking on the beach in Malibu (California), absorbed in their love for one another. Redford plays a film writer who takes the easiest path in the 1950s. His wife, on the other hand, chooses a difficult but intellectually honest path, remaining a proud leftist who speaks out against the House Un-American Activities Committee. Still, the beach scene unites them in the same way the beach scenes of The Interest of Love unite Sang-soo and Soo-young, in demonstrating how true their love is, despite the difficult circumstances of their lives.
Of course, in the backgrounds of both of these love stories are two sensational songs. The song from The Way We Were became a smash hit for Streisand, and I suspect the Wonder Why song by Kyoung Seo will also do well in the Korean and international marketplaces. Each of the songs make their story deeply romantic, memorable and soulful.