I have now watched Cheese in the Trap starring Park Hae Jin and Kim Go Eun twice, and I will probably watch it again at some point. Based on a popular webtoon, Cheese has multilayered characters that are fun to come back to again and again, and a college setting that is almost 1980s in feel. Like most Kdramas, it is a romance involving a rich young man and a poor young woman; the difference in this story is that the affluence of the young man is almost an aside. It is certainly a reason why many try to take advantage of him or seek favors from him, but for once the problem between him and his young woman is something entirely different: a personality disorder.
Hong Seol (Kim Go Eun) is a college student who periodically takes time off to work and earn more money, especially if she doesn’t get a scholarship for the upcoming semester. However, in the first episode we quickly learn that this time Seol is thinking of taking time off specifically to avoid a sunbae (or senior) in her major. Yoo Jung (Park Hae Jin) has inexplicably gotten under her skin, and Seol is both intrigued by him and afraid of him. The reason for her very real fear only becomes completely clear by the end of the series: Yoo Jung has problems, but we, like him, are not sure they stem from himself or from the actions of those around him. It “takes two to tango” as they say, but most often if a person is repeating the same problems over and over, the root issue isn’t something outside of them. Cheese is largely about Yoo Jung realizing that he does actually have a problem, but it ends on a hopeful note that it is a problem that can be fixed.
Seol is almost an afterthought in this story. It’s not that she’s not her own person or is sort of a blank character, but she really is largely a vehicle to showcase Yoo Jung and to mirror him. Both students are smarter than average, and both have to continually deal with people trying to ride their coattails to success. Of those who have more, much more is expected. It’s frustrating, but it’s true. In fact, one of Seol’s business teachers points this out, and that duty Seol has is a lot more complicated than merely helping someone with their work or doing it for them–the teacher says that Seol is the type of person who can help those underachievers with less smarts be at their best. Yoo Jung gets similar advice from his father, the owner of a large company, but Yoo only belatedly understands what he’s been trying to say. The key, the very difficult key, for both characters to help others is for them to genuinely care about those others. Seol is mostly there, but she backtracks a bit after starting to date Yoo Jung, causing more difficulties. It is shown that by and large the other, almost insane characters, do care, but it is Seol, and especially Yoo Jung, who doesn’t.
I can’t say I really understood all this the first time watching Cheese in the Trap. Some stories are simply so layered that it requires multiple views or reads to really get the message, even if it’s being told or shown to you clearly. Also, this is a difficult thing to swallow: Other people, no matter how annoying they are to you, care about you. In fact, they may even be antagonizing you because they desire your love and attention. You are experiencing insane behavior and even hatred towards you, because you aren’t truly caring for others. That doesn’t mean that these other people don’t have a responsibility to behave well on their own–they do–but so, so often people do awful things as a reaction to another awful thing: heartlessness. Heartlessness from those wealthier, smarter, more beautiful, more capable and blessed with gifts and talents they neither asked for nor earned. And from those people, more is expected. If they don’t give you–a person of no talent, no riches, no beauty, a helping hand–who then will?
Let me give an example from the story. Yoo Jung’s father took in a couple of orphaned siblings when they were in elementary school. It is at first presumed that the father wanted to care for them and also thought Yoo Jung could use some siblings. This is somewhat true, however, it seems that the father actually thought that these siblings–Baek In Ho and Baek In Ha–could help his son turn out “normal.” And by normal, he means able to care for others, to be concerned for their feelings and well being. In flashbacks we see that at the beginning Yoo Jung didn’t have this problem: He did care for others and for these new siblings. But over time, perhaps because he thinks too much like his father, he became jaded and started to see everyone in his life as only people leeching off of him or trying to take advantage.
That in itself is not untrue. Plenty of people try to take advantage all the time. Baek In Ha (played by the amazing Lee Sung Kyung) is perhaps one of the most memorable Kdrama characters I’ve encountered. She is selfish to the point of insanity, shamelessly mooching off of Yoo Jung and his father, spending money like water, and refusing to work. She is also hilarious and charming, and it’s easy to see why so many people simply let her have her way. But In Ha is deeply damaged by past abandonment and abuse, as is her brother. Yoo Jung’s father may have given her food, nice clothes, and a roof over her head, but he did nothing to actually help her. She acts like an entitled welfare queen because that’s exactly what she is and she has never been disciplined or trained enough in order to reel herself back in to being a productive, self-reliant person. She is also sure that she will someday be abandoned. When Yoo Jung finally realizes the severe damage that he and his father have done to her by not enforcing boundaries and good behavior from a very age, nor seeking any sort of healing therapy for her, he decides the best course of action is to cut ties with her completely. This is ultimately what In Ha fears most, but it is necessary as their relationship is so, so toxic that it is making her act like a crazy person to the point that she physically harms others. After the final, clean break, we find that In Ha has given herself to another man who genuinely cares for her. Yes, she’s still a spoiled rich girl, but she is tempered by love, not only from her significant other, but love from her brother and a renewed relationship with him.
It was very belated, but Yoo Jung realized that the best way to care for In Ha was to let her go. No more relationship of punishment and reward or “carrot and stick,” which was really all they had. Early on she may have been someone he would have thought to marry, but that was shattered when he realized that In Ha and In Ho, too, were there simply to take advantage of him–at least, that’s what he believed. Despite her crazy ravings, In Ha cares for Yoo Jung. She often says she understands him, and there’s no reason to doubt that she does, but her damaged self too often thinks this means he owes her something. Indeed, he does owe her something, but it’s something he may never be able to give her: the love, attentions, and affections of a family member/brother/husband. He can’t give this to her and realizes it’s best for her to let her go. Yoo Jung also for once understands that a big part of the problem is himself. No matter how crazy In Ha is, Yoo Jung and his father have not done right by her, and some of her behavior stems from theirs towards her.
So what exactly is Yoo Jung’s problem? He is jaded and cynical about other people, but that’s fairly normal. What’s not normal is how he deals with others who have wronged him or are trying to use them. A., he assumes that’s what’s going on when sometimes circumstances are actually the opposite. B., he doesn’t directly question others about their motives or call them out in a healthy, confrontational manner. This is because he is only viewing them as inferior in some way, rather than as individuals with desires and needs, and who with a little care and attention would behave much, much better. C., he lives by the motto of an “eye for an eye,” but the way he goes about getting back at someone is entirely duplicitous, underhanded, and all too often for Seol, frightening. For example, instead of bringing a peeping tom to the cops so they can charge him, Yoo Jung beats him to a bloody pulp in a flurry of violence that leaves Seol not thanking him, but shrinking from him. Another example: He continually does things for Seol, like helping her get a scholarship, but gets others in trouble or blackmails others into making way for both him and Seol. This is how his father must act, though we don’t get to see a lot of his father, and it is sociopathic behavior where the ends justify any means.
Seol isn’t as fully realized as the other characters, namely Yoo Jung, In Ha, and In Ho. While the other three seem to grow during the series, she only grows in her appreciation and understanding for Yoo Jung, not for those around her. After college, in the office world, she still coming across similar people trying to take advantage of her or earn her favor. She seems resigned to them, wisely not upsetting them, but also not really seeing them as people, merely a type of person. At this point, Yoo Jung is working on himself and his perceptions of other people, and our hope, is that once he returns to shower his love on Seol (and others), that he will in turn help her see people as well.
The best success in the series that Seol has for caring for another person is the way she treats Baek In Ho. In Ho used to be Yoo Jung’s best friend, but that was all shattered by a misunderstanding in high school. For whatever reason, the two connect and become genuine friends. At time it seems as if he’s the perfect man for Seol, but we easily forget that he was abused and damaged along with his sister. Although he may have fallen for Seol, it is likely because she was the catalyst for him to finally start healing and moving on from the past. In Ho, played by the very handsome and charming Seo Kang Joon, gets a lot more screen time than Park Hae Jin’s Yoo Jung, but it’s actually a relief in some ways, because Yoo Jung becomes so abhorrent after awhile. It is only in the last episodes that Yoo Jung realizes that he himself really has a problem and that it has to stop. He only has this epiphany because Seol gets physically injured by In Ha. If that never happened, I shudder to think what would have happened with Seol totally in love with Yoo Jung and supporting and affirming his dangerous and damaging behavior against others. Cheese in the Trap, indeed.
An entire novel could be written about the philosophy and world view of this show, as it is truly fascinating. It is definitely not your typical show or story in any country. One of these days, I hope to read the webtoon and see how different it is from the show. I have also heard that the Korean movie, also starring Park Hae Jin, treats Yoo Jung a bit more kindly. All of the actors, but especially the four leads, did a stellar job, and the series as a whole is both nostalgic (again, with that 80s feel, and at times unsettling as it seems like a camp of psychotic vampires is permanently camped around Seol. Cheese in the Trap is at its heart a morality tale: Those who do not learn to deal with conflict and adversity in a timely, upfront, and loving manner are dooming themselves to continually spiralling conflicts and adversity all the days of their life. Those who do not truly take the time and effort to know and really see people will find themselves constantly seeing and expecting only the worst in people, and will find them–and themselves–acting accordingly. It is so easy to see how others must take responsibility for themselves and their actions, but how difficult to see the same in oneself.