The Covid19 lockdown has provided a good chance to catch up on some classic dramas. With Netflix purchasing half of Korea’s back catalogue, this nostalgia tour has been made much easier. For new viewers, there are some old gems hidden behind Netflix’s algorithm and I Hear Your Voice is one of them.
I Hear Your Voice is one of the first Korean dramas I remember watching. This 2013 drama starred acting heavyweight Lee Bo-young as a public defender who gets help from – and eventually has a romance with – a much-younger telepath, played by the A-list model and actor, Lee Jong-suk.
I Hear Your Voice was a Noona romance with a very large 12-year age gap between Lee Jong-suk’s 19/20 year old Park Su-ha and Lee Bo-young’s 31/32 year old Jang Hye-sung. It’s almost the same age gap as the actors themselves.
Noona romances – where the woman is older than the man and is therefore his ‘Noona’ (lit. older sister) – are a product of Korea’s deeply hierarchical, age-based and hyper-patriarchal culture. Romances between a young woman and an older man are normalised so reversing this dynamic comes with a challenge to cultural mores and social standards. The popularity of Noona romances therefore comes from their inherent trangressiveness. A true Noona romance is one where the age difference is an issue – either for the characters or for the people around them – in a way that it wouldn’t be if the leads’ genders were reversed. In the case of I Hear Your Voice though, the romance is an issue only for the lead themselves and this is only one of the drama’s refreshing decisions.
Having rewatched I Hear Your Voice for the first time in a long time, I’m happy to report that the show holds up far more than I expected. Show just works, despite everything about it that shouldn’t work: the cliched childhood connection through shared trauma, the large age gap, the overuse of kdrama tropes and the somewhat preachy writing about justice.
Despite (or maybe even because of) all this, I Hear Your Voice really is the classic kdrama I remember it being and I’m happy to recommend it as a gateway drama to people exploring Korean content for the first time.
When he was a child, Park Su-ha witnessed his father’s murder in a staged car crash. Rendered mute by the head injury he received at the time, he is unable to communicate properly and faces the prospect of his father’s murderer walking free. Justice is served by 19-year-old witness, Jang Hye-sung, who risks her life to testify. Jang Hye-sung’s decision was influenced by her own recent encounter with injustice and her strained relationship with former friend turned nemesis, Seo Do-yeon. She nonetheless comes quickly to regret testifying when the perpetrator, Min Joon-kook (Jung Woong-in) threatens vengeance on herself and her family.
While his head injury has rendered him mute, Park Su-ha finds it has also given him a gift – telepathy. But, as he discovers in his father’s trial, the truth is worthless if you’re voiceless. And that ultimately is what I Hear Your Voice explores: how does justice get served for those who can’t be heard, either physically or socially? The answer of course is that those who have a voice need to speak for them.
Fast forward 12 years, Park Su-ha is in his final year of highschool and has built up a fantasy version of his “first love”: the girl who risked her life to get justice for his father and whom he has sworn to protect from Min Joon-kook. Jang Hye-sung in contrast has dived headfirst into cynicism, going through a routine as a lawyer with little enthusiasm. She no longer believes in justice and merely works to earn money. She gets a job as a public defender for the steady pay cheque and finds herself working with idealistic and enthusiastic lawyer, Cha Kwan-woo (a dorky and amenable Yoon Sang-hyun), whom she starts dating.
When she and Su-ha reunite over a case involving a classmate, he is crushed that she doesn’t recognise or remember him and that his idealised version of her is so far from whom she has become. Nonetheless, he uses his telepathy to help her with her cases as he starts to suspect that the recently-released Min Joon-kook has returned for his revenge.
I Like You, Noona: The Characters
Lee Jong-Suk as Park Su-ha
It says something about Korean culture and its language that it’s normal – even desirable – for a woman to refer to her boyfriend as ‘Oppa’ (lit. older brother) but a younger man often avoids referring to a romantic interest as ‘Noona’. It’s an artefact of the normalisation of older man/younger woman relationships.
While Jang Hye-sung regularly refers to Su-ha as her dongsaeng (a non-gender-specific term for a younger sibling), Su-ha resists calling her Noona, trying to put himself on the same level with her throughout the show. His desire to make himself seem older and more mature is driven by his desire for her to see him as a man rather than a child (with this the school uniform does not help).
This need to prove his maturity underpins much of Su-ha’s behaviour throughout the drama. He’s essentially trying to ape adulthood, an act that sometimes work but at other times fails him.
Lee Jong-suk is perfect for this role, combining pulchritudinous youth with his six feet of lanky height, his model’s body with his killer martial arts skills. He is emotional and sensitive but desperately fakes playing it cool as he attempts to convince everyone of his adulthood. Lee Jong-suk looks like a child and a man are at war within him and gives one of his best career performances as a result.
Lee Bo-young as Jang Hye-sung
Lee Bo-young is one of Korea’s best actors so it’s not surprising that her performance in I Hear Your Voice is so nuanced and complex. Working with someone so proficient and experienced probably elevated Jong-suk’s performance too.
After a youth of disappointment and disillusionment, Jang Hye-sung has mastered the art of pretending not to care. It’s a practiced facade of cynicism and false confidence that she uses to cover up her inner anger and feelings of betrayal. If you don’t care, the world can’t hurt you. But a lawyer who doesn’t care – whether about clients, the truth or justice – is simply bad at their job.
Nonetheless, Hye-sung’s cynicism is not as deep-rooted as she likes to pretend it is. She has a practiced tendency to always say the exact opposite of what she’s secretly thinking and feeling and is therefore a woman who definitely benefits from having a telepath in her life.
Bo-young nails Hye-sung’s contradictions; the bright smart girl who had to grow up hard and fast. The truism that cynicism is the product of disappointed optimism sums up this character: a woman who secretly wants to be better in a better world but has crafted a facade of disinterest in anything but money.
She becomes a public defender only because it comes with a steady income. Through a combination of Su-ha’s telepathic insights and Cha Kwan-woo’s idealism, she is slowly inspired to work hard for her clients, becoming their voice in the system.
Because of the age difference – Park Su-ha spends the first half in highschool – Hye-sung doesn’t see Su-ha as a viable romantic prospect for much of the drama. In fact, the idea is so unthinkable to her that Su-ha has to blatantly confess his feelings for her to realise he has them.
It’s a far more realistic portrayal of this kind of age difference. It simply isn’t normal for a person in their 30s to be romantically interested in a highschool student and Hye-sung certainly isn’t. The two are brought together by their fear of Min Joon-kook as they deal with a Korean justice system classically disinterested in stalking cases.
For the drama’s first eight or so episodes, Joon-kook plays a psychological game as he convinces the world he has repented while terrorising Hye-sung and framing Su-ha as mentally unstable. While the two move in together for mutual protection and form strong bonds, they keep a younger brother/ older sister dynamic and she begins dating somebody else her own age.
It’s only after a time jump of a year and a somewhat cliched amnesia plotline that she develops feelings for him. These she tries to suppress, believing it to be inappropriate and even exploitative for her to be romantically interested in somebody so much younger than her.
So for a show with a highschool boy and a much older woman, the Noona romance is better portrayed than expected.
Looking back on this show and rewatching it now, I’m really surprised and pleased at some of its decisions.
Yes, from a technical perspective, the show has some issues around its direction that make it seem dated. The decision to freeze-frame characters while Su-ha reads their thoughts is only one of many directorial decisions that make the show seem cheap and the direction lacklustre and uninspired. This writer can also be a bit… naff… for want of a better word. Her dramas are always a little over-written and a little heavy-handed. But it’s still nice to watch a drama where the writer knows the themes they’re trying to explore and never loses sight of them.
The show is trope heavy but nonetheless uses those tropes to full effect. While I had issues with some of the show’s more tropey plot points while I was originally watching – Cohabitation! Trucks of Doom! Amnesia! – these bother me less now than they did then. I see that despite their cliched nature they still have a purpose in the text.
Unlike a lot of other Korean dramas where the romance becomes the point of the show, this is a show about justice that happens to have romance in it. Nobody comments on or cares about Hye-sung’s relationship with Su-ha – both before or after they start dating. Even her childhood nemesis and enemy prosecutor, Seo Do-yeon, never engages with Su-ha and barely mentions their relationship through the drama. The scenes between the two women are entirely about their own relationship and how they feel about justice, revenge, the law and their own frenemy status.
In another refreshing decision, the antagonist has a relationship with each of the leads independently of each other. So he’s not targeting one because of their relationship with the other: he’s targeting them both due to their involvement in his conviction for the murder of Su-ha’s father.
There’s no annoying noble idiocy where they talk endlessly about giving the other up ‘for their own good’. The entire romance is very grounded and believable and their decision to date or not date has little to do with the judgement of the world or the actions of the antagonist but is entirely about their own internal relationship issues.
Female characters are allowed to be unlikable. Male characters are allowed to have believable emotions. The female lead dates other men. The second female lead’s flaws are not shallow and she has her own arc and her own story. Same with the second male lead.
Most importantly, as mentioned above, the show remains thematically on point throughout – even when it starts to get a little bit ridiculous and even with a villain who is poorly drawn and a little too much of a plot device.
Overall, I Hear Your Voice has grown better with age, not worse. It may not be as slick as many modern dramas but it knows what it wants to say and never loses sight of that.
I highly recommend it as a gateway drama into Korean television.