Behind the noona romance

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Behind the noona romance

Age serves an important role in the way characters relate to each other in K-dramas, and in romances especially so. Dramaland is particularly interested in the idea of a younger man-older woman romantic pairing, also known as the noona romance.

You don’t have to be a noona to enjoy a good noona romance, and the frequency at which these stories are produced is a clue to how much it resonates with viewers. Why do we enjoy these stories so much? Certainly there’s more behind the noona romance than vicarious enjoyment (though that’s a part of it), or the plot tension this age dynamic adds to a romance on a social level. How are noona romances used to serve the plot, and what messages might be hiding behind the noona romance?

Though noona romances are on an upswing with the recent Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food, currently airing Boyfriend, and the upcoming Romance is a Bonus Book, there were also a bunch of early dramas that were devoted to this relationship dynamic. These dramas were also great character-driven stories about heroines learning more about themselves, and making room in their lives for love. And yes, being wooed by a younger man turned out to be a crucial catalyst for their growth.

Dal Ja’s Spring is one of these dramas. It aired in 2007 and a favorite of many, Dal Ja’s Spring is about a career-focused heroine (played by Chae Rim), and the younger man she gets entangled with (played by Lee Min-ki). Thwarted by a one-sided love, and anxious to save face, Dal Ja starts up a contract relationship with Lee Min-ki’s character.

It’s no surprise that the story that unfolds is about the bumps on the road to their romance, but the drama handles the contract romance and noona romance themes in an enjoyable and light-handed way. Lee Min-ki’s character, though much younger, actually serves to ground Dal Ja’s flightiness. His presence also forces her to look inside herself, and at the things that are truly holding her back.

The title of Dal Ja’s Spring is important too. Spring, or the idea of re-awakening, is as central to this noona romance, as it is to 2010’s The Woman Who Still Wants To Marry. In this drama, Park Jin-hee plays a thirty-four-year-old TV reporter named Park Shin-young who’s always made her career her priority — and that’s where most of the plot tension comes from. Because what do you do when a young musician and student, Kim Bum, flirts with you, fights with you, writes rock songs about you? If you’re Shin-young, you wind up falling in love, a ten-year age difference be damned.

As in Dal Ja’s Spring, the romance in The Woman Who Still Wants To Marry is presented as a new season — or even a second chance — in life and love. Our heroine is once reminded that, “Even in theatre they have dark sets in between scenes… That’s happening to you too. This is just the dark phase before the start of your second chance in life.” And in this case, that second chance takes the shape of Kim Bum and his killer grin.

Why doesn’t she (or any of these noonas for that matter) just jump in head first? I remember thinking that during 2013’s I Hear Your Voice, as I watched the sweet romance between Lee Jong-seok and Lee Bo-young develop. It’s easy for the audience to dismiss the heroine’s misgivings as she’s romanced by a younger man, and sometimes her reservations might seem like an annoying plot barrier. However, when you take a step back, these noona romances have something very interesting to say about the power of choice.

In both Dal Ja’s Spring and The Woman Who Still Wants To Marry particularly, it’s the heroine’s inner conflicts that are the major source of tension in the drama. Both heroines are offered a new season in the form of a younger man. This younger man almost invariably adores her, looks past her faults, and has no reservations about their age gap. The choice of a new season is presented, but it’s left up to the heroines to choose to accept. If you think about it, this element is rarely explored in other romances where the question of age is not at the forefront.

K-dramas often treat falling in love like getting struck by lightning or drinking a love potion. There are endless rom-coms where the hero is completely smitten and has no control over his infatuation and adoration. The hero then harasses his way (eventually) into the heroine’s heart. Then there are other romances where the OTP is fated to be, and while the world (or chaebol elders, ever-returning first loves, trucks of doom, and other ill-fated happenings) threatens to separate them, nothing can truly keep them apart.

Noona romances are interesting in that unlike the more tropey romances, they often portray love and embarking on a relationship as being a choice. Dramaland makes it clear that love is magical, bigger than ourselves, and will often plow through any obstacles in its way — and while all of this is true, noona romances often linger (at least for a portion of the plot) over the heroines’ decision-making. They love each other, yes, and they are a great couple, but will the heroine be able to put her baggage aside and fully commit to the relationship?

If love is presented as a choice for our noonas, what sort of things get in the way of what seems like a perfectly acceptable and delightful proposition? Our first reaction would be to say the age of the hero. That’s not exactly fair though, because in most of these stories the hero not only proves his maturity and loyalty, but he himself has a total disregard of the age difference. While the noonas seem to be ashamed and hide from it, the heroes don’t mind one bit.

Jung Hae-in’s character, in Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food, happily shares that his girlfriend is thirty-five. In Temperature of Love, Yang Se-jong’s character boldly declares to his noona (played by Seo Hyun-jin) that, “I’m twenty-four; I’ve already done my military service.” And in Witch’s Romance, Park Seo-joon’s character is more concerned by his age than Uhm Jung-hwa’s, when he asks if her refusal of him is because he’s too young.

These heroes have no doubt about the woman they’ve chosen. In fact, I can’t think of a noona romance I’ve seen where it was the younger hero that was beating himself up over his age, and breaking things off with the heroine because of it.

What is it that the age disparity does to the inner workings of our noonas, then? It’s about so much more than being perceived as socially awkward, or drawing attention to the seniority of the heroine. To me, one of the primary things the age difference does is open up space for doubt. Dating a younger man seems to wake up worries in our heroines about whether their love is truly a lasting one. It tests her confidence in their relationship, and even more so, her confidence in herself.

While this questioning can happen in any relationship, very few non-noona romances actively feature the heroine deciding to take that step forward — and that’s because noona romances rely on age disparity to give the heroine that moment of pause. This shows up in the plot through worries like, “Can I keep my current life/career/goals and love this person?” or “Can I trust his love is true?” or “Is this what I really want for myself?” These internal doubts can be stronger than any outside antagonist that drives the couple apart.

Often, our heroines use the heroes’ age as a reason or proof not to trust in his love, but most of the time, the issue lies inside of the heroine herself. There are a lot of noonas who are presented with quite a magical romance — but who falter in a mess of hesitation and insecurity after the initial excitement has settled down.

This was particularly felt in Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food. The heroine (played by Sohn Ye-jin) is wrapped up in her job, dating the wrong guy, and clearly missing some magic in her life. When she meets the character played by Jung Hae-in, everything starts to change. But he’s the childhood friend of her younger brother, and this throws a major wrench into their romance.

While not without its faults, the drama was a poignant exploration of what insecurity, self-doubt, and the power of outside perception can do to a romance that would have (and should have) otherwise thrived. It’s also a great example of how noona romances force the heroine to look within to face her issues, and decide whether to trust the love that’s offered to her. The noonas may have a wonderful romance in their lives, but it’s clear that they have to learn how to love and value themselves before they can fully accept the heart of the hero.

That’s not to say all noonas romances dig quite this deep. There are many dramas where the noona romance exists more for comedy’s sake. In the zany 2014 drama High School King of Savvy, our hero (played by Seo In-gook) is in high school, and the heroine (played by Lee Hana) works in the office where Seo In-gook poses as his older brother. Their age disparity isn’t central to the plot tension of the drama — rather, it acts as a fun element that adds to the drama’s flavor.

The same goes for 2011’s Flower Boy Ramyun Shop, where heroine Lee Chung-ah is hilariously teased, borderline harassed, and totally adored by the privileged high-schooler played by Jung Il-woo. The noona romance here is more for the comedy, and to argue that what the heart chooses doesn’t always make sense. And let’s not forget the noona romance subplot in Angry Mom, which, though wonderful, was more about building and softening the character played by Ji-soo than it was about the psyche of the heroine.

As we’ve seen, noona romances use their age-disparate relationships in different ways, and to tell different kinds of stories. They can bring out themes, scaffold character development, or function merely as an ode to the logic of the heart. Something I think they all have in common is that at their core, they’re about recognizing value.

One of the things that made me fall in love with K-dramas many years ago is the way that love is portrayed. OTP love goes deeper than surface level and physical attraction. Love is continually shown to be about valuing and cherishing the other person and there are a multitude of tender forehead kisses and back hugs meant to illustrate this deep, patient, and unconditional love.

This idea of recognizing the value in another person can come out even more strongly in noona romances because they’re often about a young hero seeing the value in a woman who feels she’s already missed her chance. In Dal Ja’s Spring, or The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry, the heroines are given a new chapter when the hero sees their value. In stories like Witch’s Romance, Temperature of Love, and Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food, it’s the heroine who needs to do the growing, even though she’s the older one in the relationship. Again, the fact that the hero values her so deeply is what spurs that growth.

Whether it’s about learning to value yourself, learning what it means to truly love and be loved, or giving up immature expectations for a real-life romance — a good noona romance has so much depth to explore. While each drama is different, and plays with age dynamics in its own way, each has the opportunity to be a rich story that explores the imperfections of human nature. After all, behind the noona romance, there’s just a story about people.

 
Addendum: Apologies to all the other lovely noona romances I didn’t get to address here. You know who you are!

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