CW: Sexual Assault
Also, this one gets pretty personal, maybe because it’s a show about love
Original Broadcast Date: January 22, 2016 – March 12, 2016
Written by Hong Jin-ah, Directed by Kim Yun-cheol
Starring Han Ye-seul, Sung Joon, Jinwoon
As is customary with the “Recommended K-Drama” feature, I’ll explain my choice, though as always, I’d really rather not. “OMG, actress X” is one thing, but just wait. See, I first heard about Madame Antoine via YouTube, mentioned in a video essay about sexual assault in K-dramas. I’ll be sure to link the video in the future, but not in the context of this post. Specifically, the video discussed female perpetrators, for example the “ajumma” trope, where middle-aged women flock together and harass the young male lead. The problem, the video emphasizes, is that these scenarios are comedic. These women have no compunctions about inappropriate touching, and the usually strong man can’t speak against it because of Korea’s social hierarchy. A cultural thing, but this should ring familiar to anyone well-acquainted with American pop culture, where sexual assault is funny when a lady’s doing it. Accordingly, the video cites a moment from this show Madame Antoine: The Love Therapist, where a girl — a noona, not an ajumma — forcefully kisses a guy under the guise of helping him practice kissing the girl he’s actually attracted to. It’s also a “no becomes yes” scene, for anyone playing trope bingo. Please understand that when I say what I’m about to say, I’m not winking. Sexual assault is always wrong, and that’s a baseline for membership into human civilization. But the truth is, I proceeded to watch Madame Antoine because this scene sparked in me a perverse desire.
The kiss is buried somewhere in the middle of the show, and it isn’t between the two leads, so I knew something else would be the focus. Madame Antoine, as its title nearly suggests, has something to do with Marie Antoinette. A 30s-something woman Go Hye-rim is a fortune-teller who channels the voice of the French queen, but this is not a fantasy K-drama — she’s a con artist. The show is up-front with that, and borderline too harsh, but it’s the first half of an interesting supposition. The story begins when Hye-rim’s cafe-set business becomes the research center for a hotshot psychologist’s latest experiment to determine whether women are truly capable of love. In this juxtaposition between a con artist healing people emotionally and a genuine scientist running a douchebag experiment, the show wonders about the morality of investigating the human mind. The hotshot is Dr. Choi Soo-hyun, who assigns three different men — A: a successful guy in his 30s, B: an athlete in his 20s, and C: a flower boy in his 20s — to court a woman, the test subject, and the theory is that she’ll go with A because he has the most money. I wish I were making this up, but somebody else already did. He casts the three men with himself as A, his younger brother Choi Seung-chan as B, and his assistant Won Ji-ho as C. After psychologist inevitably clashes with fortune-teller, the love experiment finds its test subject in Hye-rim, in no small part because the woman in the preliminary experiment was publicly humiliated in the end.
This is a show where characters are always speaking in riddles, careful not to say what might spoil the experiment — or worse. It’s a ticking time-bomb scenario, as we’re imagining and even sometimes treated to visualizations of Hye-rim’s anger if what she suspects is true, that these men are deceiving her. She’s a heartbroken divorcee with a distant daughter, and unlike Soo-hyun, she’d like to know that love is real. Naturally, these two begin to develop surprising feelings for each another, as they attend to the inner workings of their fusion café/psychiatric center. Contrived to work together by the experiment’s benefactor, a CEO and regular Hye-rim customer, the fortune-teller finds herself assisting the psychologist, and the psychologist has to accept her unexpectedly useful help. The arcs of the guest-character patients are broken up over two episodes each, making for an episodic format novel in my K-drama experience. Unlike the straight narratives of Cheer Up!, The Beauty Inside, and Search: WWW, Madame Antoine is an episodic show presented in a limited format — a structural compromise.
This is an important point to me, so I have to break it down. The anime Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex literalized the television “mytharc” by putting it in the title. Case-of-the-week, episodic episodes are “standalone” and the actual story is “complex,” and you’d know which one you were watching because they’d say so at the title card. One may wonder about the narrative utility of anything apart from the actual story, and then, its necessity altogether. Do the characters grow and change as a result of the episodic stories which blink out with the reset? Sure, in some cases. However, the further literalization may disagree, via the onset of Stand Alone Complex compilation movies, which excised the standalone episodes to focus on what was considered more marketable, more true. To locate that narrative utility, we look to the shows which structure themselves entirely on episodic storytelling, like our loathsome homegrown network procedurals. A side effect of, let’s say, CBS storytelling is that the main characters feel like guests in each episode, while the actual guest characters suffer arcs the leads only witness. Whether or not we agree with it, this format’s popularity was supplanted by prestige TV, which explored the opposite end of the spectrum with “episodes” diffuse at either end and plodding pacing throughout.
My question for Madame Antoine and any show, really, is why settle for a traditional structure? Rather, “why have you settled,” and “on this”? It’s not that the choice was incorrect, but I have to know it was a choice. What does it do? Was there a way to develop units of story framed by theme, rather than patient-of-the-week? It bothers me because at the end, when the “complex” arc is complete, the “standalone” feel suddenly arbitrary, generally speaking. They could’ve been anything, and now they float apart from the real narrative, never having been fastened down by — I’m sorry — a more critical look. I should say that this bothered me a lot when I was younger and trying to write television spec scripts of my own, caught between a multiple choice of structures. The only way I can decide is if there’s a rationale behind each as they apply to this story, and I shall weigh those rationales. And you know what? Madame Antoine writer Hong Jin-ah is a writer and I am not. Because ultimately, two paragraphs later, it doesn’t matter. What I learned with Madame Antoine especially, and precedents in my experience like The Office, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, even the Mass Effect video game series, is that the reset is a comfort. Each of these dear examples offers a single or a small handful of locations repeated throughout. To my film student brain, where every frame should be unique, the idea was unacceptable. Settings impressionistically reflect each scene and each scene is unique! These days, I appreciate this return to spaces, which then develop and deepen.
There are other locations, but we spend most of our time in the café/center. This is a three-story building at the end of a hilly dead-end street, with a massive wooden staircase on the outside.
The first floor is the café with a decidedly non-open floor plan, allowing for depth and frames-within-frames. Hye-rim is either at the counter or speaking French behind the beads. The indoor staircase is also prominent, and adjacent to the counter so that people are visibly coming and going. Multiple actions can be composed in a single shot. (You’ll also please notice Hye-rim’s winter fashion sense).
On the second floor is the psychology office, with a reception desk and halls and doors. It’s an equally appealing space, despite being whiter and colder, more antiseptic.
Soo-hyun’s office is a relatively warm environment, and we walk through its design in the first episode. Connected to an observational closet via two-way mirror, this room becomes a space for the guest patients. Perhaps it’s the gymnast who’s gone literally blind with saesang hate or a little girl who kills bugs and sings inappropriately at funerals.
This was my first thought about the show, watching Soo-hyun search for clues in a patient’s home like the CBS detective. As sensitivity toward police violence reached the mainstream in 2020, a distinction was drawn between police and mental health experts as crisis responders. For myself, I also wondered if we could finally, mercifully, call an indefinite moratorium on police procedurals, dubbed “copaganda” once upon a time. Instead of procedural shows about police, why not apply that structure to other professions like teachers — and now, perhaps, psychologists. In Madame Antoine, it’s the same mystery structure. Soo-hyun and Hye-rim interview the patient’s friends and family, search physical locations, “interrogate” the “prime suspect” (I mean, it’s a therapy session, but still fact-finding), and in the end, the smoking gun is revealed. This is where our analogy clinches, but where the show itself might suffer. Madame Antoine’s depiction of psychology is incidentally a lot like fortune-telling, where eventually the psychologist has collected enough information to correctly guess the final, arbitrarily hidden piece. In the case of the first patient, the gymnast, there was no reason she needed to hide that her anxiety came from anti-fans who were ironically cheering from the stands. It is discovered — noticed, even — and there is no significant insight into the human mind or even a lesson the audience can take away.
If the problem of the show’s structure is evident anywhere, it’s in this creative impulse toward character depth. Not only the patients but the cast itself is more so revealed than ever changes. The good K-dramas I’ve seen so far are emotional rollercoasters with dramatic peaks and valleys — amazingly, these shows set in a country where you have to be quiet on the train are intense, tightly-wound. Madame Antoine is different, without feeling like a genre deconstruction. There are dramatic moments, and then they’re resolved, and we’re back to the workplace. Hye-rim’s at the counter, Soo-hyun’s in his office. It is not that the interaction between characters so transforms them, but like in life, sometimes people have issues and sometimes they’re fine. It requires a different sort of narrative juggling, one with its own problems, given the constant close proximity of characters despite whichever conflict. The editing is selective with the logistics, when adversaries must necessarily cross paths to arrive at the scene we actually witness. Call it a slightly manipulative control of information — and that may well capture the character of the show. Madame Antoine is intimate; it doesn’t widen in scope but deepens the terms introduced right away. While this presents a unique set of problems commensurate with its unique approach to narrative, ultimately the resolution is satisfying and the finale is moving.
Soo-hyun is a surprisingly appealing male lead, in part for actor Sung Joon’s clever performance. I’d seen him before in his subsequent work The Villainess, where he was significantly less mean, even rescuing a baby from an explosion, if I recall. His character here is an obnoxious jerk, but unlike fellow smart-guy Ji-ho, he’s also very concerned about appearing smart. Where Ji-ho’s genius makes him awkward, Soo-hyun’s gifts make him pretentious, and that is a lot of fun. He shrinks from any situation or dialogue option that makes him look lesser, and in his shrinking, he looks lesser. It’s a contradiction that sees him ultimately try really hard, doing accidentally absurd things and maintaining a flat-affect monologue throughout. In his early, chilly encounters with Hye-rim, I’m seasoned enough to know that at some point, the confident front will melt. It’s at once inevitable and yet impossible to imagine how he’ll be “reduced” by the end, because he is such a convincing jerk. And I wonder, then, is this what viewers attracted to men want to see? It’s an archetypal character arc that depicts men in two compelling states: confident and vulnerable, and both are points along a narrative. Of course, in Madame Antoine, there are no character arcs, not really, so I was only half correct. Soo-hyun’s eventual vulnerability isn’t a side effect of the romance, an emerging new feature to enjoy — it becomes the story, and it’s a brutal consequence of two characters who find themselves trading attacks of emotional violence.
Hye-rim is a somewhat familiar female lead, being fun and a little ditzy but with a curious, caring heart. She may not be as intelligent as the men around her, but she’s smarter, with an instinctive read on every room. This is either womanly intuition or the fortune-teller’s observational skill set. It is also just enough but not too much, as Hye-rim has to be suspicious that Soo-hyun is running an experiment on her, but all too willing to believe his lies. Without a doubt, the experiment is a violation of Hye-rim, who may be a little vain and flattered by the tripartite attention, but hardly deserves the deception. She makes it clear when the non-Soo-hyun participants are nearly caught, and she tells Seung-chan and Ji-ho to kneel (only Ji-ho does) and apologize. Of course, there’s always some lie or addition to the experiment that keeps her in the dark, consistent with the show’s even narrative. But all the while, we wonder if the true love that Soo-hyun is increasingly feeling has already been compromised. His pretentious fastidiousness intensifies as inner turmoil, and he’s split between a self-designated scientist and human self. He loves Hye-rim, but for reasons yet unknown, he has to continue this experiment. Will she be okay with this? Have I gone too far?
Meanwhile, Seung-chan and Ji-ho are also attempting to woo Hye-rim, with Seung-chan the favored horse out of the gate. Dead last in the fMRI-measured ranking is poor Ji-ho, a borderline savant with multiple academic disciplines under his belt and a mind better suited to the Rubik’s Cube than small talk. As he assures Seung-chan early on, “I’m a flower boy,” which is true enough, but his awkward overtures repel Hye-rim and instead attract the attention of her filmmaker sister Yoo-rim. It’s a sudden, intense attraction — Yoo-rim falls in love with him right away. This is how our non-consensual moment happens, after she makes it her mission to help Ji-ho with Hye-rim, for example in the practice of kissing. She takes him by the hand and shoves him against the wall, and you have to imagine the EKG of my shame-guilt spiking. While Hong Jin-ah may be less interested in interrogating this tropey instance, she is concerned with the further complications of a developing relationship that remains one-sided. Ji-ho finds new ways to chant Hye-rim’s name like a mantra, and Yoo-rim responds with an eye roll and physical punishment, being a black belt in hapkido. He just doesn’t get it, over and over again, and it takes a toll on Yoo-rim’s self-esteem — though we learn it’s actually irritating an old wound.
To my mild surprise, Ji-ho turns out to be a big jerk, running exactly counter to my expectations for Seung-chan. After all, the shy, socially awkward guy is the likelier candidate for audience sympathy over “blustering athlete.” However, Yoo-rim spending time with the distracted Ji-ho just to spend time with him has a precedent in her life, revealed in a gut-wrenching monologue delivered to her historically more popular older sister. Seung-chan on the other hand, after I’ve adjusted to the Soo-hyun/Ji-ho dynamic established in the first episode, is introduced so late he doesn’t have an opportunity for characterization. In fact, he’s given more backstory than the others, maybe to compensate. In storytelling terms, I find characters compelling when they’re presented in real-time, the approach that acquits with more showing than telling. We don’t see Seung-chan on the mound, but we’re told he’s an ex-baseball star and Soo-hyun’s younger half-brother. At first glance, he’s a smiling probable-bro who only seems to disrupt the narrative.
Seung-chan pushes his big smile in people’s faces, and embodies “hang in there, buddy” or whatever motivational posters amidst a sea of workday faces. But it’s this annoying enthusiasm that leads him to wrap up the resident ajumma Dr. Bae Mi-ran in a jacket at their first encounter, giving her a ride on his scooter and commenting on how pretty she looks. He’s insistent, but he’s terribly charming, and his state of constant excitement is infectious. This moment incites strong feelings in Dr. Bae, who was only there to assist Soo-hyun and got more than she bargained for, holding tightly to his abdomen on the scooter. Like Yoo-rim, she quickly falls in love, but with a 36-year age gap, she doesn’t expect her feelings to be returned. To its credit, the show acknowledges the realities of the social stigma. While Soo-hyun and Hye-rim find it heartwarming that an older woman can still find love (they talk about it like a biological miracle), who but Ji-ho finds it “disgusting.” What a jerk. This is only one of Dr. Bae’s secrets, the other being that she’s dying of cancer. She writes a bucket list, and number one is “Get close to Seung-chan,” which she amends as “Get very, very close to Seung-chan,” and when we see it later, she’s drawn stars around the letters. She has to contrive situations that recapture those original feelings, like hiking dates or convenience store meals; pretenses that might plausibly deny romantic approach. It’s extremely bittersweet, though the “sweet” is adorable and the “bitter” undergirded by aching tragedy.
We have our expected three romances between six characters, and each of them explore boundaries. For myself, Seung-chan and Bae Mi-ran constitute the most interesting storyline, where the stakes aren’t a breakup but something much larger. What I’m describing may be our next trope of the night, the “Second Lead Syndrome,” defined by UrbanDictionary at the time of this writing as “wanting so desperately for the lead actress of a drama to end up with the better guy, [knowing] that she is going to end up with the lead bad guy in the end,” and of course that should be “character,” not “actress,” but I suppose lines do blur. This was most acute with Cheer Up!, whose secondary spoke in the love triangle was indeed the more compelling one. With Madame Antoine, it’s that the second romance is the more compelling one, just as it was for me in Search: WWW, which notably began with Lee Da-hee beating up her eventual paramour. Writing for Feminism in India, Swarna Jain notes that the Second Lead Syndrome is an opportunity, that it “sends a larger message of how unrequited love and rejection must be accepted and the consent of the other must be valued.” There’s that word again!
In recent years, as ever attempting to resolve the convolutions of my sexuality, I’ve arrived at the idea of “paradoxical enthusiastic consent.” This, before things get stranger, is all theoretical. My level of self-esteem makes the prospect of dating impossible, as I’d never disrespect an attractive lady with my proximity. In practical terms, I know how poor a conversationalist I am, to say nothing of the superficial aspects I hazard to catalogue here. My ideal romantic scenario — one I’m never too concerned about — is that the woman is so enthusiastic, she’d be willing to act without my consent. That is the baseline: “she” would have to be that interested. So for me, the fantasy of Madame Antoine is that the women are so attracted to the men they’re willing to go to similar extreme lengths. Now, the link between sexual fantasy and reality is clearer than we’d like, though this is a conversation I first remember during the film proceedings of 50 Shades of Gray, something on the order of “Let the ladies have their abuse fantasies.” As reviewed, sexual assault is wrong on TV and everywhere, but in the privacy of one’s own mind? Madame Antoine tests the characters’ boundaries with these ethics of fantasy, centering this tension in the endgame.
For all my indecision, the pendulum finally swings in favor of the show’s structure, for the comfort of its familiar space as well as the demonstration of process. Like with the smoking guns of the gymnast, the idol, the split-personality punk chick, Soo-hyun’s show-inciting, unethical experiment is eventually rationalized with the reveal of a backstory. He, not even the CEO, is the final patient. After Hye-rim learns for the last time that he’s been deceiving her these past four months, her heart is broken again, and she decides to return the favor. I mean, this is after about a dozen warnings, so she’s ready for blood. She reappears in his life to seemingly forgive him and takes him out on a day-long date. That night, she checks the time and says it’s up. This has all been a deception. Sound familiar? This is what it feels like.
On paper, it sounds fair. I think the show believes it’s fair. But because of the narrative structure, that old chestnut, it becomes a matter of moral debate. What happened is that before this fateful non-date, we’ve learned that Soo-hyun was abandoned by his mother at a young age, and this memory-eating trauma was exacerbated by an indifferent stepmother, half-brother (Seung-chan), and father. His birth mother arrives at the center one day to reconnect and seek forgiveness, and Soo-hyun has considerable difficulty with it, leaving the actress’s eyebrows permanently tented. In fact, this trauma is the basis of his belief that women aren’t capable of love, the basis of the very experiment. If his sexist theory is correct, he can rationalize the abandonment. Unfortunately, the birth-mother drama coincides with Hye-rim’s deception, and we linger on his face, utterly broken, nightmare realized.
Soo-hyun starts drinking, buys a little dog and names it Hye-rim, then attempts suicide, like the guy in the beginning of Oldboy. After the timely intervention of Seung-chan, and Dr. Bae’s uncomfortable urging, Soo-hyun and Hye-rim respectively are brought back to the literal center. Hye-rim initiates her second experiment (or third?): the Soo-hyun Rehabilitation Project. She will sit in the psychologist seat, and he’ll assume the opposite. Unfortunately, he’s still a burnt-out husk, and takes every opportunity to demean her profession and talk around the issue. Does he realize what she’s doing for him? Does the show? At this point, Hye-rim is being nice to Soo-hyun because he almost killed himself. It’s uncomfortable, and another example of how suicide is so often incompatible with narrative. However, the scene where Dr. Bae encourages Hye-rim to help Soo-hyun is the more dire consequence of the show’s creative choices. In it, the otherwise good doctor takes Soo-hyun’s side entirely, and the scene dismisses Hye-rim’s own scars. But he experimented on me! Oh? How quaint. But it was the premise of the show… For the record, Dr. Bae, it is not Hye-rim’s responsibility to piece Soo-hyun back together.
That characters don’t change makes it difficult to buy some of the later developments, like when Ji-ho switches from Hye-rim to Yoo-rim without much explanation other than guilt, or when Hye-rim returns to help Soo-hyun out of guilt, or when Seung-chan treks to Jeju to retrieve Dr. Bae at least partly out of guilt. Is this any foundation for true love? Hye-rim forges ahead, despite the angling of a friend from college, the suspiciously foreign-sounding “Clare.” In the show’s climax, she brings Soo-hyun to an important site from his youth, and he’s able to interact with his younger self, as if he’s walked into a flashback. Madame Antoine flirts with hallucinations and dreams, and I do appreciate that the cinematic language of K-dramas, like anime, is fluid, with voiceovers whenever needed. Still, this is an odd scene, because it doesn’t actually make sense. Nor does the Soo-hyun Rehabilitation Project as a whole. Is Hye-rim trying to return Soo-hyun’s senses to him or is this about rekindling the romance? Why is Soo-hyun’s interaction with his younger self the show’s ultimate smoking gun? Hye-rim tells him, “The only one who can comfort that child is you,” and he hugs him[self] but there’s nothing spoken. Again, and finally, there is no psychological breakthrough, no character moment. And yet, it is very moving.
Is K-drama just a smokescreen of fluttering piano and good acting? I don’t want this conclusion to be like with Search: WWW, where I feel more than I think, and thus one excludes the other. I watched the scene again and read through a handy recap of episodes 14 through 16, and I’m just not sure where the big moment was. I’m left to assemble it myself: Hye-rim needs to prove that her love for Soo-hyun is real, in a reversal of their original scenario, as she needs to prove to him that love exists at all. And I think she accomplishes this before the scene in question, which means that Soo-hyun is able to realize the existence of love and then heal himself. I think I just needed Soo-hyun to actually say something, like, “You won’t always be abandoned,” because this would also solve the cycle of emotional violence he incites. It would be the end of a character arc, but pop quiz, are there arcs in Madame Antoine?
Our unique storytelling instead requires leaps in logic, where Teflon characters who may be affected by plot points now won’t be when the plot shifts in the opposite direction. The cast and scenarios are malleable in ways stories aren’t supposed to be, and upon the final destination, as always, it doesn’t matter. In its aftermath, I sat in the silence of the show’s absence, lonely, as I no longer had this thing that made me feel comfortable. Is that enough? The show’s navigation of consent and emotional violence surfaces its flaws, and I may be learning to simply excuse them. I understood Soo-hyun, because in the absence of professional psychiatry, I have to trace my “paradoxical enthusiastic consent” to the circumstances of my birth. I was “abandoned” as a baby, not a young child, and my eventual family was far more loving than Soo-hyun’s. Even still, it cannot be a coincidence that I’m adopted and also a little messed up. A little — enough to enjoy Madame Antoine in instances where I know I shouldn’t. Is it okay?
There are at least three extra-funny moments I need to highlight, as I held onto them assuming they’d form a larger pattern but never did, adding to their charm. The first is early on, when Yoo-rim is talking with Hye-rim and takes a call, learns that she won a filmmaking award and her prize is a drone — just like what Ji-ho talked about earlier (to spy on Hye-rim). Yoo-rim, unaware of the spying part, which admittedly doesn’t come into play, rejoices. “A drone! A drone!” or whatever, and then we end the scene on a close-up of Hye-rim who says, smiling, “What’s a drone?” The comedic timing is perfect, but I don’t know why it’s even a joke. Who doesn’t know what a drone is in 2016? Then there’s the scene later where Hye-rim is eating noodles with Seung-chan, and he leaves her with a thinker, to which she suddenly chews rapidly and the scene cuts. Character quirk or a bit of improv by Han Ye-seul? Finally, when Soo-hyun’s other college friend attempts to escape from the police, he finds himself halfway down a staircase, caught between two guys. He decides to make the heroic leap off the side, and then lands and immediately collapses. I know that wasn’t intentional comedy, but it was funny as hell.