Queen of Tears (Netflix)

This guest review is from Jeevani Charika! Jeevani (also known as Rhoda Baxter) writes award nominated romantic women’s fiction and romcoms. She has a YouTube channel teaching authors how to use Canva to make fun graphics.

She is a ‘resting’ microbiologist. She lives in Yorkshire in the UK, where she enjoys eating cake, playing with Lego and, when she’s run out of excuses, writing.

You can find out more about her (and get a free book) on her website, www.jeevanicharika.com. Her latest book The Winner Bakes It All is out now.

I watched my first K-drama in 2020 (when I watched Crash Landing On You) and I’ve been a little obsessed ever since. This month I watched Queen of Tears, a sixteen episode series currently streaming on Netflix.

Hong Hae In, daughter of a Chaebol family and the current CEO of the Queens department store, is married to Baek Hyun-Woo, lawyer and the son of farmers. They met when she was working ‘undercover’, posing as an intern at the Queens Group, and Hyun-Woo was a young lawyer. He thinks she’s poor, and she doesn’t correct him – partly because she’s fascinated by the fact that he’s seeing her and not her money. This is all backstory, which we hear right at the start because they are being interviewed for a ‘perfect couple’ story for a magazine. They’ve been married for three years and, despite the facade of perfection, things are not going well.

poster for queen of tears with the title in English and Korean against a sage green paneled wall with the two leads seated tensely on opposite ends of a rose couch looking at the camera. He has his hands on his knees and looks tense while she has her legs crossed away from him and looks sad

Hae In is played by Kim Ji Won, who is gorgeous and plays the balance between prickly and vulnerable incredibly well. Hyun Woo is played by Kim Soo Hyun – famously the highest paid actor in Korea. Both actors are very beautiful and very talented. Kim Soo Hyun though – my goodness can the man emote! He plays a role that straddles dramatic and comedic, but plays the funny parts absolutely straight (without any of the silliness that K-drama can sometimes slip into), which works really well – they’re still funny, but also tragic, because you feel like you’re watching a real person failing to maintain control.

Despite the title, we see more of Hyun Woo’s struggles than Hae In’s, partly because she is closed off and difficult to read for most of it. Like most male lead characters, he’s good at everything – he’s handsome (the flawless skin, the jawlines, the cheekbones, oh my), he’s a clever lawyer, a good boxer and an excellent marksman. But he’s also really easily fooled by the people he trusts and is a bit scared of his wife. The thing that I liked the most about him was how much care he took when it came to Hae In. He is the greenest of green flags.

Hae In is cold and aloof. She doesn’t let people into her life and she is extremely prickly with Hyun Woo in private. But when she finds out that she’s going to die, he is the first person she thinks to tell. Personally, I like a prickly heroine, but I know others struggle. As we learn more about Hae In, we see why she is like she is. Various things that happened in the past and how her family treated her has made her believe she doesn’t deserve to be loved. The fact that Hyun Woo loved her at all is astounding to her, so when they argue, each nursing their pain separately, it just confirms her belief that she’s not worthy of love.

Watching Hae In and Hyun Woo grieve separately is heartbreaking. It’s only when they cry together that they both start to heal.

A scene from the film inside the department store. Hae In is wearing a grey suit with a black tie and a smile, while Hyun Woo is wearing a black suit with pearls sewn onto it. He is smiling and she looks miserable

The story is a second chance romance, or a marriage in trouble, if you will. At the start, Hyun Woo is feeling trapped in his marriage. He and his wife are avoiding each other, and his in-laws are all terrible. He wants a divorce, but the power dynamic between him (farm boy, lawyer) and his wife (chaebol heiress) is against him. He discovers that between the pre-nup and Hae In’s will, he would get absolutely nothing if he divorced her, but he’s too miserable to care. His father in law tells him about how he demands absolute loyalty and how he would destroy anyone who betrays him by leaving the group, driving home the point that, for Hyun Woo, a divorce could be very dangerous – both for his career and his life. When his father-in-law declares that it’s time for Hyun Woo and Hae In to have a child, Hyun Woo decides that he’s had enough and drafts a divorce petition anyway. Before he can tell Hae In about it, she tells him that she has a brain tumour and has just been told she has three months to live.

Hae In’s diagnosis gives Hyun Woo a safe way to get out of his marriage. He would become widowed and slowly ease out of the family. His friend convinces him that he should stay with Hae In and persuade her to fall in love with him again so that she changes her will and leaves some of her shares to him. He’s reluctant, but he stays. He plays the devoted husband. When his feelings for her rekindle, he congratulates himself on being so good at pretending that he’s convinced even himself.

Hae In has spent most of her life feeling survivor guilt because she believes her older brother died saving her. Her mother has rejected her because of her own grief, so Hae In doesn’t believe that she deserves love. So she buries herself in her work. Sales targets and money are her guiding lights. She loves Hyun Woo, but doesn’t know how to show it … or even how to recognise caring when she sees it. It takes a near death experience for her to finally tell him that she loves him and to accept that, possibly, he might just love her back. One of the nicest things about her story arc is how she rewrites the stories she tells herself about herself and learns to accept that other people love her, and that she need not have been alone all this time.

A still from their wedding with an arch of peach and pink flowers and greenery behind the bride and groom

When Hae In finds out that she’s going to die, she decides to try all the things she has been ‘wasting’, which includes flirting with her own husband. Of course, after years of sleeping in separate bedrooms and barely speaking to each other, her affection comes as a surprise to him. She’s so hurt when he doesn’t reciprocate that she immediately puts her defences back up. When she finds out about the divorce papers, she is furious with him. Because her anger gives her more impetus to live and fight, Hyun Woo doesn’t tell her how his feelings have changed.

A large part of the story is watching these two fools fall in love with each other again, all the while kidding themselves that they’re only spending time together for other reasons.
To make things even more complicated, a friend (possibly an ex-boyfriend?) of Hae In’s from her university days – Yoon Eun Sung – appears on the scene. He’s clearly interested in Hae In and Hae In’s family all vastly prefer him to Hyun Woo. Seeing Eun Sung and Hae In together irritates the heck out of Hyun Woo. As the story progresses we see that Eun Sung’s intentions are far more sinister than they first appear. Park Sun Hoon, who plays Eun Sung does a brilliant job – playing a nuanced villain who is simultaneously greedy and ruthless but also obsessively in love.

It wouldn’t be a K-drama without something else going on. There is a major subplot around a group of people trying to take down all three generations of the Hong family. There’s kidnappings, poisoning, attempted murder, betrayals and plot twists galore.

A scene of the two leads on a bench in the park reading a book, She is leaning back against him while he has his arm around her shoulders

The supporting characters in both Hyun Woo’s family and in Hae In’s family are wonderful. The two families are opposites of each other. One is loving and messy. The other is cold and divided. Seeing the Hong family mellow and unite as the story progresses is one of the nicest things.

I liked that the supporting characters feel like real people. They each have a complete character arc and no one is left unchanged by the end of the story. Some of the subplots are there to add to the drama, some for comic relief and others, like the story of Hae In’s little brother, are genuinely moving.

There are places where you need to suspend disbelief from time to time – it is all fantasy after all. Medical procedures lead to recoveries that seem unlikely, and recoveries that are very smooth at that. Also, Grace the Hong family matchmaker seems to do about a hundred different jobs for the family like a human version of Miss Rabbit from Peppa Pig.

There’s a few things about this drama that I especially liked. It frames love as acts of service (something I think about a lot). No matter what Hyun Woo is saying to his friends and family about the state of his marriage, he is looking out for Hae In all the time. He does his best to do the right thing for her, even when he knows it would hurt him.

I also liked the appreciation of forearms as sexy. There’s a great scene where he’s reading the newspaper with his sleeves rolled up and she tells him to stop flirting with other women and roll down his sleeves. It’s about time forearms got more love, I say. When she’s talking about him, she says “he’s sexy with his sleeves rolled up”. Which is so true.

Poster for Queen of Tears with characters facing each other on a bridge. She is wearing a dress while he has a dark shirt on with his sleeves rolled up

A trigger warning, should you need it: The show talks about cancer a lot. It skims very lightly over the visceral horrors of it, but the emotional impact is looked into in some depth.

The one serious criticism I have of this show is that, despite being a romantic drama, there weren’t enough kissing scenes. This drama has zero heat, which is fine, it’s a sweet story. There was plenty of chemistry, a few almost kisses, but only one actual kiss scene. I would have loved more. Also, what a waste of Kim Soo Hyun’s skills (I refer you to the kissing scenes in It’s Okay Not To Be Okay for context).

There is a happy ending though – which wasn’t obvious at all at the start of the final episode. The story is extremely emotional (I was a mess at the end of episode 14), but it’s also funny and dramatic in turns, which stops it from being overwhelming. If you want an emotional rollercoaster, then try Queen of Tears.

Trailers? We’ve got three!

Queen of Tears is streaming on Netflix US. 

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