The Third Charm has love, charm, empowered women, but no rom-com ending | By Carl Ackerman (Fall 2023)
Jerry Lewis starred in the 1963 comedy film The Nutty Professor in the role of Julius Kelp, a professor of chemistry who we first see blowing up a lab at his university and dealing with the consequences as the misfit on campus. Kelp wants more than anything to become popular and handsome, but he is anything but, with his hunched over demeanor, buck teeth, glasses, and introverted personality. He channels his energy into inventing a formula that turns him into the suave, song-producing gentleman Buddy Love, whose apparent purpose in life is to woo Stella Purdy (played by Stella Stevens).
This film, with its comedic and somewhat sarcastic interpretation of the Robert Luis Stevenson 1896 novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde comes to mind when one first meets Joon-young On (Kang-joon Seo) in the Korean drama The Third Charm.
An undergraduate student in a technical field, Joon-young On resembles the nutty professor with his overly shy demeanor, inability to hold a conversation with a woman, along with his salad bowl hairstyle and buck teeth. One of the opening scenes of the drama occurs in the context of a group blind date, set up by a group of college women with some of Joon-young’s more socially-sophisticated male friends. Joon-young is set up with a woman who is not like the others; Young-jae Lee (Esom) is a college drop-out who has become an ambitious aspiring hairdresser. That date is the beginning of a multi-year relationship between Joon-young and Young-jae, a saga which includes some long breaks and even a marriage. It becomes apparent that a happy ending to this relationship is not going to happen, despite the hopeful title.
In the first episodes of this heartbreaking drama, the parallels to the Jerry Lewis film become apparent. When Young-jae first gets to know Joon-young, she gives him a spot in a chair at her hair salon where she is an assistant manager. With that story in mind, we wait for the hair salon tonic to produce a Korean version of Buddy Love. This does not happen, but Joon-young ends up with a perm, which seems to embolden Joon-young, even making an impression on his rather bossy and intrusive younger sister, Ri-won On (Gyu-young Park). Up to this point, Ri-won believed her older brother was gay and was afraid to tell the family.
Ri-won’s fate is to marry the once man-about-town and local pub owner Sang-hyun Hyun (Sang-yi Lee); she becomes the family breadwinner of her family and bosses her husband in the same way she did her older brother. The actions of women in this drama describe women’s ability to make choices about their lives, as demonstrated by Young-jae, who ends the relationship with Joon-young twice, and by Ri-won who dominates her once-promiscuous husband. This plot device makes a statement about the standard treatment of women in Korean society by reversing the traditional gender roles in these two strong characters.
After our two protagonists break up the first time, Joon-young does become a sort of Buddy Love, as a successful police officer, who is both suave and sophisticated, but does have a bit of the quiet of Julius Kelp still in him. Young-jae’s career has taken off, which is good, since she has to support her disabled older brother, Dong-jae Lee (Dong-geun Yang). Dong-jae sells coffee from a van, often distributing drinks to customers in his wheelchair; his dream is to become a screen writer. One of the great joys of The Third Charm, is watching Dong-jae read his very life like script, copying the antics of his sister and Joon-young, as they progress on their three “charmed” relationships.
Young-jae’s life is complicated as she is plagued by So-hee Kim (Do-yeun Shin) as she begins her beauty parlor career and then after So-hee becomes a famous actress and hires her as her own hair stylist. There are two prominent scenes of the two pulling each other’s hair (a common occurrence in K-dramas). After these fights, for various reasons, Young-jae and Joon-young break up. Power to the hair pulling, so to speak.
Enter Ho-chul Choi (Woo-hyuk Min), a nice guy who is a plastic surgeon and loves Young-jae. He seems to always make the love duo in this drama into a trio. After the second break-up of our two protagonists, Ho-chul marries Young-jae, taking his practice to Portugal and setting up house with their adorable pre-school daughter.
Ironically, Joon-young, back in Korea, has left the police force, and in an effort to find happiness, begins a second career as a professional chef, which takes him (you guessed it) to Portugal. The trio does not meet in Portugal, even though as we find out, in flashbacks, that they live close to one another and visit the same Romanesque plaza. They will meet a bit later at Joon-young’s custom restaurant, designed for just one couple, back in Seoul.
Ho-chul and Young-jae meet at Joon-young’s restaurant in the process of getting divorced. However, Joon-young doesn’t have a clue about the meaning of this dinner, and the three characters have a notably awkward dinner scene.
Joon-young is busy anyway, as he is about to get married to Se-eun Min (Yoon-hye Kim), a police officer who fell in love with him when he led her team at the Seoul police department. Se-eun also visited him in Portugal, announcing her love for him at the airport as she ended a visit. Joon-young was clueless at the airport; he was just as clueless about what was really going on as Young-jae met with her husband at the restaurant. Jerry Lewis could not have done it better.
Min Se-eun gets abandoned on her wedding day in Seoul; the parents of the couple are not pleased, and there is a long unbearable scene where Joon-young’s father is hitting him on the back (and in which Joon-young has turned back into Professor Kelp and just accepts the suffering).
Young-jae, after her divorce, is recovering from another very difficult loss. She returns to a small town where both she and Joon-young once did some community service. She also renews her relationship with a loving elderly couple. Joon-young ends up leaving his restaurant in Seoul and goes to New York, where he accepts a position as a master chef. Joon-young has returned to a more moderate version of the alter-ego Buddy Love, but it is a more positive one – he has shed the false pride but kept the self assurance.
The story of The Third Charm is like three Greek tragedies, but it is very interesting nonetheless. It is an emotional roller coaster ride – three times! Perhaps, as an American, I was hoping for a happy ending at the end of the ride. For reasons that are uniquely Korean, this expectation is a wrong one for predicting the end of many K-dramas.
The best comedic moments of The Third Charm are in the interaction of Young-jae’s brother Dong-jae with his good friend Joo-ran Baek (Yoon-ji Lee), who was Young-jae’s boss at the original hair salon. She is always complaining about her love life; she even takes care of a boyfriend’s dog, and lies about liking the dog when she clearly does not. The friendship between Joo-ran and Dong-jae turns into love, especially after Joo-ran discovers she has cancer, and Dong-jae becomes her main support.
The wedding dance scene, with Dong-jae in his wheelchair, is touching, and their true love almost makes us want to focus on their relationship rather than the tortuous interchange between the two main characters. The one happy ending is that Dong-jae does become a successful screen-writer, which was his dream. By the end, it appears Joo-ran’s cancer is in remission.
The truly remarkable characteristic of this K-drama is the role reversal among the partners. For example, Young-jae calls the shots throughout the three disappointing flirtations with Joon-young, while at the same time, Joon-young’s younger sister has taken on the breadwinner role and dominates her unmotivated house-husband. There is also a role-reversal in the relationship of Joon-young’s parents. His mother is a school principal and his father is a teacher at a pay grade well below his wife’s. He uses honorific language with her, even at home. This makes for a third significant role reversal in this drama.
There are also traditional women characters in the drama, like the failed bride Se-eun, and for a short time, Joo-ran Baek, who is running after every attractive man she meets. These women often do not meet good fates. They are a foil to the women characters who radically reverse their roles and have powerfully different results.
The ancient Greeks would have appreciated The Third Charm because the story resembles three tragic plays (or perhaps one tragic three-act play), wonderfully written, produced and acted, but constructed so no true love triumphs in the end. The exception to its refusal to happily wrap up the ending may be in the true love between some of the secondary characters, who are the Greek chorus of the story. The lead characters, conversely, suffer through an interesting but disappointing romance. It is the opposite of the feel-good rom-com ending. They are unlucky and are cursed with bad timing; only deep sadness can describe their fate.