I just finished bawling my eyes out after watching episodes 19 and 20 of What’s Up? (Again.) For those of you who aren’t into K-drama, it’s still safe to read on, because what I’m about to say extends beyond the drama.
I was crying for the obvious reasons: a beloved professor’s decline in health and eventual death; the inability of the main couple to be together; college kids banding together in times of hardship.
When you follow characters for twenty episodes and the writer, Song Ji-na, really has a grasp on the message, the ending can really make or break the show. Sometimes, if the bulk of the show is strong, it can get away with a disappointing ending. But this show, despite its strength, would’ve really been hurt by a weak ending.
But the ending wasn’t weak. For me, it was because the ending really told my story: the journey of an artist in discovering art’s role in her life. It really tied the overarching themes together and made a point in a way that most musical dramas fail to do.
All of the characters are involved in art in one way or another: aspiring singers, current idols, hidden talents, ardent fans, parents of artists, children of artists, teachers of artists, the movers and the pushers.
Basically, if there is life and breath, there is art.
Art is the creative part of the human soul. After we work and eat and drink, what is left? It’s this strange, intrinsic desire to create and band together with people and nature. Art can become a chore if the artist creates for a purpose other than that immaculate connection with everything around the artist.
What does that MEAN?
For me and my art, music, I practice and work and sweat. It’s hard and sometimes infuriating work. I lose sight of what music is in my need to make a living.
But music brings me back. When I play, or when I make music with someone else, or when I rehearse and discuss ideas with other people, that’s when that intrinsic desire to create is fulfilled.
The part of the art that is the most fulfilling is the part I can never be paid for. It’s that unbreakable bond between people and life – it pulls you out of yourself and connects you to everything.
So what does the ending of What’s Up? have to do with all of this?
The professor who haphazardly guides the kids through their musical theater education, Sun Woo-young, speaks to his class. He is terminally ill and wants to leave them a taste of what he believes art is. Here is the dialogue between Woo-young and his students.
Jae-hun (student director of the students’ musical): We are in the process of gathering ideas to get noticed by the judges [of a musical theater competition.]
Woo-young: So you should you try to get noticed by the judges?
Jae-hun: That…well, we are doing this in order to win in a competition. If we’re doing it anyway, might as well win, right? I hear there’s some prize money, too.
Woo-young: (Shakes his head, struggles to the board and writes, “Show stopper”) Who knows what this means? (Remember, this show is in Korean and he wrote in English.)
Byung-gun (a musical aficionado): A situation where the audience continues to clap so hard that the performance cannot continue.
Woo-young: Yes, acting that melts one’s heart. The audience clapping, touched by it. This is our goal.
(Puts a hand over his heart.)
Everyone put your hand on your heart. Can you feel what’s in there? It should be there. This black little hole. Every person has at least one of these in their hearts. But because that hole is so empty and cold, you try everything to fill it up.
Some people try to fill it up by trying to earn as much money as they can. Some try to meet someone, thinking loving someone might fill up the emptiness. You get into a relationship, get hurt, and so in the process that hole sometimes gets bigger. And some people, they are so afraid of that hole, they drink their lives away. Or they do drugs.
People like us, who are performers, how do we fill up that hole? Right here, this word “show stopper.”
My acting. My singing. When people react to this and passionately clap at our performances, that’s when that hole disappears.
Of course it is momentary, but still, that hole gets filled up. That’s when your heart finally becomes warm.
This…is our goal.
What he’s talking about, the filling of the hole, it’s unbelievably true. But it happens more often than just on stage. When artists gather to rehearse and discuss, when they get the creative juices going, that hole is also filled.
But there is a road block: You. Your “self”. Your mind. Your thoughts.
It’s quite an experience to “fill the hole”. It’s exhilarating. There can be no fear, no anxiety, no happiness, no sadness, no human emotion. It is less of a feeling/action and more of a state of being – one that does not happen very often. It’s why the stage is the only place many people can fill the hole.
There is a magical disconnect with reality caused by adrenaline, other chemicals that I don’t quite understand, and the spirit. It pushes you beyond yourself and delivers you to a “show stopping” ending.
For Byung-gun, the musical encyclopedia and singer extraordinaire, the stage was the place he could not sing. His mind got in the way – an audience meant negative judgement to him and that was a block. He was only able to completely free himself when he was alone. He could let loose and “go crazy” with no fear.
Tae-yi, a girl who once found it easy to throw everything away to music and let it fill her, lost her voice. The agency she signed with ran her through the training gauntlet and reality prevented her from coming out of herself. It was only after she let all of that go that she found her voice again.
When Jae-hun, the director of the student musical, was first introduced, he was a delinquent. He was running from trouble and stumbled across a young woman singing. The sound filled him and planted within him the desire to do the same. It’s why he went to school – he desperately wanted to find a way to “fill the hole” again.
Jae-hun shows us that a listener can feel just as strongly as a performer. When the artist literally “loses his mind”, “goes crazy” and just IS, then he can connect directly with his audience. When he cries, they cry. When he laughs, they laugh. Everyone becomes lost to the moment.
This is what “filling a hole” is. It’s filling it with a connection to other people and life.
A heart isn’t touched, it’s filled.
This post is dedicated to Zgzgirl Unni. She was my support during the last stages of drama-watching. Yes, that is the sad state of addiction I am in.