A Love Letter to Happiness

Once upon a time in Korea, a drama was so compelling that I watched it in spite of the zombies, the pandemic mentions, and the terrible people who were trying to stymie our OTP from beginning to end. It was a tale of power and corruption and doing the right thing even when everyone else is out to get you. For Valentine’s Day, with the help of my friends and avid Happiness fans Tina Woelke and WheresWallace, we’ve penned a love letter to this incredible drama. 

Dear Happiness,

The closer we look at you, the more we see that every detail is connected and layered, making for a rich and evocative study of human nature through the use of a wonder tale story framework, a twist on zombie tropes, and extraordinary cinematic techniques. Let us show off the ways we fell in love with you!

(Tread carefully, because there will be spoilers!)

Happiness is a Wonder Tale (Karie the Maknae)

Looking at it from a literary angle, I realized Happiness is a pandemic wonder tale, meant to be a cathartic journey through troubling times and terrible people with an uplifting ending. But what is a wonder tale?

Simply put, a wonder tale is a fairy tale. As the fairy tale has progressed through the ages, it’s transformed into the subversive wonder tale we often see today, one that uses the fantastical elements found in oral tradition and early fairy tales to subvert the current value system and keep wonder, curiosity, creativity, and hope alive. 

Wonder tales have a certain accepted structure:

  • A moral lesson
  • Heroic and villainous characters
  • Magical helpers and magical items
  • People who need to be rescued
  • Obstacles that need to be conquered to lead to a reward
  • A once upon a time that leads to a happily ever after

In his introduction to Spells of Enchantment, Jack Zipes discusses wonder tales and fairy tales, saying, “…[fairy tales] emanate from specific struggles to humanize bestial and barbaric forces, which have terrorized our minds and communities in concrete ways, threatening to destroy free will and human compassion. The fairy tale sets out to conquer the concrete terror through metaphors.” 

The two-year global struggle with a pandemic that seems never-ending definitely fits the definition of a ‘concrete terror’. It’s easy to drown in the miserable news splashed across screens and social media feeds, which made watching Happiness an enthralling contrast. Why? Because it had a pandemic with a happy ending. I mean, who does that? 

Let’s walk Happiness through the wonder tale structure and make sure it fits, shall we?

The moral lesson of Happiness is that self interest is the enemy. Throughout the series, greed and the pursuit of power take down the people who worked against our humble, heroic OTP, while those who put the interests of others above their own get their own happy ending. Yi Hyun and Sae Bom receive “magical” objects, like the gun or the walkie-talked that connects them with the outside world, from a “magical” helper – Colonel Han Tae Sook, who operates as the wise old man who is barely a step or two ahead of our OTP but is doing his best with the resources at hand to bring about a happy ending. 

Subversion runs rampantly throughout Happiness, especially as seen in the drama’s villains. The people who would normally be put on a pedestal – the doctor, the lawyer, the aristocratic lady – are shown to be wolves in sheep’s clothing. Their career choices should ideally be filled by selfless people who are willing to serve, but instead, these unscrupulous characters use their situations to benefit themselves. As Henryson says of “The Wolf and the Lamb,” the fable of Aesop Yi Hyun references, the true wolves are those who oppress the poor: dishonest lawyers, landowners intent on extending their estates, and aristocrats who exploit their estates. 

On the other hand, people who need rescuing are all over the place, but the most poignant rescues are between Yi Hyun and Sae Bom. They take turns saving each other from the zombies, the machinations of the selfish tenants, and from the serial killer at the end who threatens to upend all their good work for his own enjoyment. Theirs is a slow-burning romance, a contract marriage that becomes a true marriage of equals as they work together and discover a depth of emotion they didn’t know they already had. Their story is the once upon a time that leads to a happily ever after.

Indeed, the best part of Happiness is the happily ever after. As J.R.R. Tolkein said in his Lang lecture, the consolation of a fairy tale is that it has a happy ending. Fairy tales will take their characters through sorrow and failure, because those are necessary to the joy of deliverance, and fulfill the oldest and deepest desire, the Escape from Death. A fairy tale denies the “universal final defeat, […] giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” 

In the end, despite everything, Happiness is about hope.

Happiness is the Return of the Living Dead (WheresWallace)

In the West, zombie stories are hallowed shells, shuffling around never-ending seasons of The Walking Dead and empty European disaster films that look more like numetal mosh pits than a bloody apocalypse. Even zombie pioneer George Romero’s death was shrouded by disappointingly tepid last films

With Train to Busan, South Korea breathed new life into the genre in the same way Japan’s Ringu did to ghosts. Korean zombies aren’t a huge stylistic departure from their Western influences – particularly Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later – but their storytelling leans heavily on memorable characters that make us weep when they become inevitable chum and present a much-needed return to Romero-inspired societal allegories.

As of this writing, All of Us are Dead, the new Netflix K-Drama, took the #1 spot on the platform’s US charts. It’s a big-budget action blockbuster, full of zombie spectacle and a (possible) raging love letter to the Sewol Ferry Disaster victims. Despite its success, I can’t help but think of the smaller, more intimate, home run of a zombie drama from last year: Happiness.

Happiness is a zombie drama, and it isn’t. The Maknae brought me on to splice those discernments, so let’s look at a few of these tropes and how Happiness subverted them.

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Sympathy for Mr. Zombie

Every zombie film/show has its own zombie rules. The change-up Happiness employs is that the infected go cannibalistically rabid for a short period of time, then revert to their human self when their thirst is quenched. This introduces a new moral variable – our infected are still human.

Personifying zombies isn’t new: think about Bub in Romero’s Day of the Dead, Liv in iZombie, and the OTP in Warm Bodies. By humanizing the monsters, they ask the audience: Are these people worth saving? 

A human/zombie romance isn’t common, but it’s becoming a thing, and the relationship between Jung Yi Hyun and Yoon Sae Bom might be the most potent argument for it. When Yi Hyun is in the midst of his cannibalistic fugue state, it’s Sae Bom’s voice that jerks him out of it. Love wins, and because of it, humanity is saved.

All of Us are Commentary

From the braindead mall consumerism in Dawn of the Dead to depictions of first/third world colonialism in Fulci’s Zombi 2, all great zombie content works as social commentary. Happiness is hot on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, so while we watch this story about a virus, we have our own, currently ravaging the world.

Characters acting like idiots is an age-old horror trope. Being chased in a home invasion slasher? Let’s have a character scream uncontrollably. If you say some ghost’s name three times, he comes out and kills you? Well, you know I can’t turn down a triple dog dare. 

Happiness is full of bad decisions from all of the characters that endanger the common good, and much of it is informed by the worst parts of how our society encountered the COVID-19  pandemic: selfishness, denial, carelessness, and short-sighted solutions.

Pride and Prejudice and (Korean) Zombies

The divide between the rich and poor might seem popular in K-content, but it’s one of those universal themes that ties South Korea to its rising international audience. Land of the Dead was Romero’s most class-conscious film, and in the disaster crisis parts of zombie content, it’s hard not to see depictions of urban centers falling first and then disrupting the comfortability of affluent middle America.

Happiness delves into a class separation of its characters by creating an upstairs/downstairs dynamic: the owners on the higher levels, renters below. But Happiness adds a private cleaning crew that happened to be on site when the pandemic hit. This carves out another relationship between residents and labor, in which the trades are on the bottom of the totem pole in a vacant second floor unit with no means of returning home – if only they could take a Bye Bye Balloon or something.

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Happiness could have used the help that All of Us are Dead is receiving from Netflix’s massive platform and Squid Game-sized budget. Its modest zombie mayhem pales in comparison, and its distribution on the more niche streamer, Viki, limits its reach. But Happiness was the little engine that could, and by being leaner, was able to convey its socio-political themes and the humanity in a zombie story on an intimate and potently powerful scale.

Happiness is Arresting Cinematography (Tina Woelke)

Happiness wears its artistry lightly, effectively and unobtrusively using visual elements to bolster its themes: the unity of our lead couple in the face of fear, the enraged helplessness of the self-centered building residents, the humanity of the infected, and the shifting power dynamics between those groups. Through the masterful use of setting and lighting, blocking and movement, point of view, and camera angles and movement that emphasize the tension and containment of the story, Happiness is captivating on a very visual level. 

Setting and lighting

Beginning with the opening credits, we see people framed in the boxes, or series of boxes, of daily life: windows, hallways, mirrors, doorways, elevators, stairways. The characters, isolated in a housing complex as part of a clinical and social experiment, travel back and forth and up and down, moving like mice in a laboratory maze. Even the rooftop is lined with boxes, and the view is of other buildings crowding in the background.

However, unlike the dimly lit government research building where Colonel Tae-Seok makes murky decisions and the infected suffer in institutionally lit rooms, glass-block boxes, or trailers, the lighting in the apartment building isn’t dark or spooky, as one would expect in a closed-space horror film. Most scenes are set during the day. Sunlight filters through windows, blinds, and around hallway corners. It’s not entirely claustrophobic: there is hope filtering in from the outside.

Blocking and movement

Throughout the drama, most of the residents peer around doors, huddle in their apartments, or gather in the gym. As the narrative progressives, relationships and power dynamics shift, and people move around in the frame, with the bad people often clumping together. The poor cleaning lady, stuck the bottom of the totem pole WheresWallace pointed out above, meekly hangs back. Through it all, Andrew and the doctor are always off to the side or in the background, observing, judging, and laughing.

In contrast, Sae Bom and Hyun stride the hallways purposefully, knocking on doors and drawing people out, with the shared purpose of maintaining order and safety. They look outside, or at each other. Most notably, from the moment they meet, Hyun and Sae Bom gravitate to rooftops, which represent escape, openness, and freedom of choice. They always look up at the sky and bask in the sun, offering a moment of relief from the maze and showing us the freedom from fear that they represent.

Andrew and the Colonel also go to the roof. The Colonel meets our OTP there as he begins to follow their humanitarian approach to the crisis. In contrast, Andrew just stands and looks down on the rest of humanity.

Point of view and camera angles

Following the usual zombie tropes, we sometimes see the infected from overhead, running frantically/helplessly. But more often we see longish close-ups of their faces, emphasizing their expressions, which makes us confront and empathize with them as human beings, not monsters. Unlike the other residents, Hyun and Sae Bom look at the victims and other residents; they hold their gazes. They empathize. Sae Bom, in particular, reaches out and touches people, touching arms, stroking hair.

Generally the show’s cinematography is clean and subtle, not showy. But there’s a brief, striking exception in episode 11. Our leads are in the elevator (another box). Sae Bom realizes that Hyun is infected, and he pushes her away – trying to protect her, as always. But she moves closer, and the view shifts from the previous two-shots and shot-reverse-shots to a series of abrupt blackouts before each step, giving each footfall weight and intent. It’s an unusually dramatic visual moment, underscoring an essential turning point in their relationship. She declares her feelings for him. She’s not giving up on him.

Camera movement

Happiness repeats another dramatic visual style: swooping zooms at moments of dramatic emotional shift. The camera pulls back to extreme longshots or circles a character encountering a moment of despair or helplessness, all set against the tribal, inexorably thumping theme music of “Realize, realize,” or, in later poignant moments, against grave, simple, gospel-style humming. (Note: music is used sparingly in this drama. There’s no incidental music, just a very few themes that underscore emotional gravity.)

One remarkable example of this occurs in episode 3. Discussing the infected, Hyun strikes a victim-laden truck, which rocks ominously, and says, “These people are also enduring with all their strength.” The Colonel stands, bowed, between the freezer trucks; the camera moves back to show him boxed in by his difficult choices, trying to balance finding a cure for his wife, treating the victims as human, and protecting the uninfected.

When you can pull yourself out of the story, take a moment to appreciate the times when the camera pulls away quickly, showing our characters as tiny and helpless and boxed in, but still fighting to survive. There’s a thrilling moment in episode 7 where Yi Hyun is racing down the stairs…actually, you should watch it for yourself. It’s an amazing sequence that demands complete attention.

The same swooping visual effect signifies a change in tone, however, in episode 11. Sae Bom, little Seo Yoon, and wounded Jung Kook have gone outside to safety. Hyun, facing off with serial killer Andrew, defies him and throws a valuable key from the rooftop. The camera pulls back far, far distant to show him, small but mighty, whooping in triumph as the music also soars. In this moment, Hyun exerts control. His loved ones are safe and he no longer has to protect them. He’s free to fight back against evil, using the weapon at hand–his own infection.

We return briefly to the feeling of helplessness by the end of episode 11 after that pivotal moment. Back in the government building, Sae Bom watches the love-letter video from Hyun and desperately longs to escape and rescue him. We see her trapped in a room surrounded by other prisoners, echoing the opening credits. 

In the final episode, a year later, we have our happy ending. Outside the building, the camera sweeps along with Seo Yoon as she runs around the playground, the same area that had been surrendered to the infected a year before. The camera faces our leads head on as they walk together, united and gazing outward, as he reminds her of that day in high school on the roof when she told him, “Our future is full of choices.”

The Inevitable Conclusion

There you have it, drama fans – our passionate love letter to the unusual zombie drama Happiness. Expertly crafted by writer Han Sang Woon and expertly presented by director Ahn Gil Ho, this drama pulls at our heartstrings and makes us rethink not only what it means to be human, but what it is to accept and protect humans even when they don’t necessarily deserve protecting. There’s so much more we could discuss, but we will end it with a plea to go watch Happiness for yourselves. It’s an experience you will not forget.

Until the next lockdown (too soon?), I remain –

Karie the Maknae

Dramas with a Side of Kimchi

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