I find it interesting that two of my current favorite second leads have so much and so little in common. Both Start-Up’s Ji-Pyeong and True Beauty’s Han Seo-Jun have a strong sense of family, sincerity, and loyalty. However, while Ji-Pyeong has an emotional advantage because of his childhood connection to Dal-Mi, Han Seo-Jun has no such advantage. In fact, Seo-Jun finds himself in much the same position as Do-San in Start-Up in his fight against a cemented connection between Ju-Gyeong and Su-Ho. And yet, neither Ji-Pyeong nor Seo-Jun succeeds in love. However, what they do succeed in is life.By Regina Ryals
I have second lead problems.
There, I said it. If there was a support group for second lead syndrome, I’d be the first one to sign up. From Seo Kang-Joon’s character in Cheese in the Trap to Jung Hae-in in While You Were Sleeping, Byeon Woo-Seok in Record of Youth, Gao Zhi Ting in A Love So Beautiful, Yook Sunjae in Who Are You: School 2015, and Kim Kyung-Nam in The King: Eternal Monarch—to name a few—there aren’t many dramas where the second leads don’t leave a deep impression. Considering the number of times I’ve had to soothe my aching heart after a finale, I’ve long come to terms with my second lead affections. There is something special about these characters and the way they connect to the female/male leads. There is something special about the way I connect with them.
That said, while second leads tend to leave scars on my heart, 2020/2021 came for my soul with Start Up’s Ji-Pyeong and True Beauty’s Han Seo-Jun. Ji-Pyeong touched me so profoundly that he holds the honor of being my first character thread on my drama Twitter.
His character taught me a lot about building success out of nothing and putting family before the heart. I didn’t think another second lead would tangle me up as severely as Ji-Pyeong.
Enter Han Seo-Jun in the Kdrama True Beauty.
It’s important to point out that I am in no way saying Ju-Gyeong should have fallen for Seo-Jun, nor am I saying that Seo-Jun is more important than our male lead, Lee Su-Ho. This piece is simply to show my appreciation for Seo-Jun as a character and actor Hwang In-Yeop’s portrayal of him. As a matter of fact, I honestly never expect the second lead to win in love. I think that’s part of my attraction to them. They either emphasize why the lead is an excellent choice or highlight what’s lacking about the main character so that he/she can grow as a person.
One of the most frustrating things when a show produces a second lead character as visceral as Ji-Pyeong in Start-Up or Seo-Jun in True Beauty is “team” fans’ need to tear each other down in their war for supremacy. The truth is, the reason we fall for specific characters is that we somehow personally connect with them. Some viewers connect most with Su-Ho. Others, like myself, connect most with Seo-Jun. Both characters are flawed. Seo-Jun is quick-tempered and reckless. Su-Ho is cold and often does not communicate well with those around him.
Let’s talk about Han Seo-Jun.
In True Beauty, Han Seo-Jun is the epitome of selflessness. Even in his misunderstanding with Su-Ho, he apologizes when he discovers the truth about Su-Ho’s father and the circumstances surrounding Se-Yeon’s suicide. From the moment he roared onto the scene on his motorcycle to the moment he held Ju-Gyeong in a desperate embrace at the end of episode 15, I knew Seo-Jun was going to own my heart. Although he fell deeply in love with Ju-Gyeong, Han Seo-Jun already had a lot working against him. He did not have the history with Ju-Gyeong that Su-Ho did. There were no emotional childhood memories nor any shared rooftop desperation. There is no particular place tying Seo-Jun to Ju-Gyeong, no comic book store that separates them from the world. Seo-Jun does not have the “bare-faced” advantage. He meets Ju-Gyeong in a wild moment in all of her makeup-covered glory. She meets him in all of his recklessness. The only thing connecting them is an accidentally stolen motorcycle helmet and their mothers’ long-standing friendship.
Already it is easy to see what Seo-Jun is up against. However, what sets Seo-Jun apart for me isn’t my first impression of him or his initial love rival status; it’s what he brings to the drama as a whole.
From the onset, Seo-Jun is a sincere character. He is motivated by emotion, which also often feeds his recklessness. Whether he is angry or in love, he gives a hundred percent of himself to those emotions without being overly violent or overly dependent, even in his misunderstanding with Su-Ho.
Su-Ho isn’t good at communicating his emotions. Although he stresses how important facing yourself is to Ju-Gyeong when he first encounters her on the rooftop (Su-Ho fears what happened to his friend Se-Yeon would also happen to Ju-Gyeong), he doesn’t practice what he preaches. Having his trust violated by his father, Su-Ho holds his feelings and emotions close to himself even as he encourages others to face them. The same goes for Su-Ho’s relationship with Seo-Jun. For years, Su-Ho has let Seo-Jun believe that the blame for their best friend Se-Yeon’s death lies squarely with Su-Ho.
Seo-Jun holds a grudge against Su-Ho because of his loyalty to Se-Yeon and Se-Yeon’s memory. Like everything Seo-Jun does, he gives the grudge against Su-Ho his all until he becomes aware of the truth. Immediately, he apologizes to Su-Ho, although he does so grudgingly. Seo-Jun owns up to his mistakes. He faces them. He takes account of his actions and expects others to do the same. There are countless examples of this, including Seo Jun’s confrontation with Su-Jin and the bullies from Ju-Gyeong’s previous school. Whether it’s romantic feelings, frustration, anger, or affection, Seo-Jun wears his emotions on his sleeve. There is no pretense. He is upfront with those around him. Once he realizes he has feelings for Ju-Gyeong, he doesn’t hide them from Su-Ho. He respects his friendship too much for that. While Seo-Jun steps back because he’s aware Ju-Gyeong doesn’t hold him in the same regard, he makes Su-Ho aware that he’s there to step in if Su-Ho messes up.
Seo-Jun has a strong sense of loyalty and devotion towards his family and the people he cares about. One of the many reasons Seo-Jun immediately touched me as profoundly as Start-Up’s Ji-Pyeong is because he offers the same kind of uninhibited devotion and love towards his close friends as he does his mother and his sister. If Seo-Jun cares about someone, then that person is automatically a part of his family, whether they are related to him or not. He offers the same blanket of protection to his friends that he does to his family. When it comes to the people he cares about, there are no strings attached. They don’t have to do anything for him to garner his love and attention. Nowhere is this more obvious than in his relationship with Su-Ho. Even when discontent with each other, Seo-Jun doesn’t allow anyone to hurt Su-Ho. He steps in when needed and steps back when he’s not. Even after being rejected by Ju-Gyeong, Seo-Jun is never malicious or deceitful.
There is nothing more irresistible than someone passionate about something, whether it’s a person or a dream. Seo-Jun’s passion for singing and his love for Ju-Gyeong is magnetic. Despite having proven how much of a man he is by the way he takes responsibility for his family and his future, he still wants Ju-Gyeong to see him as such. The way he stands by her, the way he wipes her tears and makes sure she takes care of herself is incredibly endearing. He goes above and beyond.
Seo-Jun comes from a poor background. During True Beauty, viewers are aware that his mother is sick and that his father is gone. He works part-time jobs and takes care of things for his sister and mother while also managing to remain young and “seemingly” irresponsible. While he doesn’t have the same unscalable emotional walls built around himself that Su-Ho does, Seo-Jun uses his unbothered behavior as a shield to hide his true responsibility. He prefers for people to see him as reckless rather than pity him for his lack of wealth.
I am drawn to characters that are prideful without being prideful. Seo-Jun doesn’t expect or want anything from anybody, but he’s humbly grateful for it when he does receive help. When Su-Ho provides Seo-Jun’s mother the medical help she needs, Seo-Jun has no issue thanking him. Throughout the entire drama, we are aware Seo-Jun has his own problems, that he deals with the same emotional trauma Su-Ho does over their best friend’s death, but not once does he use his past or his problems to make people feel sorry for him. There are times I forgot that he was poor and dealing with past pain. He presents a jovial strength that bolsters those around him. Even while working a part-time job and being the male head of his household, he still attends school, watches over Ju-Gyeong, and helps Su-Ho work through his pain. Seo-Jun is a voice of reason.
In True Beauty, Seo-Jun made me glaringly aware of Su-Ho’s lack of communication and inability to connect with the people around him. While I understand Su-Ho and empathize with him, I feel like Su-Ho’s pain is no more important than Seo-Jun’s pain. Seo-Jun dealt with the same grief while also caring for his sister and sick mother. Nor is Su-Ho’s pain any more important than Ju-Gyeong’s pain, the emotional scars from her bullied past as well as her father’s financial woes. While Seo-Jun and Ju-Gyeong have a seemingly better support system than Su-Ho, Su-Ho is surrounded by people who care deeply about him. Su-Ho’s father truly loves him, as do the people who consider themselves Su-Ho’s friends. Su-Ho is a perfect example of a male lead who is strengthened by his friendship with the second lead. Seo-Jun causes Su-Ho to take an in-depth look at himself, which is much needed as the drama neared its completion.
True Beauty is everything its title represents. The drama explores abuse, suicide, bullying, cyber-bullying, and the external world of beauty. Amidst this, True Beauty gave us a second lead that represented the viewer. He said the things I wanted to say to the other characters, did the things I wanted to do to them, and he became exactly what I wanted him to become.
This may seem strange, but I never feel wronged when a second lead doesn’t end up with one of the main characters. At times, I even think specific second leads are too good for that. They have more powerful stories waiting for them, more prominent romances hiding on the horizon. For Seo-Jun, he has a burgeoning idol career.
Let’s stop trying to find ways to make a second lead superficial or wrong in order to explain why he/she wasn’t chosen. The heart wants what it wants. No matter how unique a second lead character is, there is no helping how the main character feels. In True Beauty, Su-Ho and Ju-Gyeong share a connection no one can break, and although it broke his heart, Seo-Jun understands this. Also, just because Seo-Jun fell in love with Ju-Gyeong before seeing her bare face doesn’t make his love for her any less powerful. It doesn’t make his feelings any less valid.
However, my favorite relationship in True Beauty is the one between Seo-Jun and Su-Ho. Although they share the same love for Ju-Gyeong, they never allow that to come between them. Deeper than that, they share a pain over Se-Yeon’s death only the two of them can understand. Their tears at the end are a form of letting go and moving forward. For me, their friendship is more powerful than the romance.
Today, I say goodbye to Seo-Jun. Thank you, Seo Jun. You made me cry. You broke my heart, but you gave it everything you had. I didn’t expect anything less than that from you. You didn’t run away. You faced your pain. Thank you, Hwang In-Yeop, for your fantastic portrayal. It came across perfectly. I have no regrets. However, I am not against a future drama where the main character surprises everyone by choosing the person waiting just off stage.
Hats off to second leads everywhere. If you are interested in watching this drama, check it out on Viki. I highly recommend.
I leave you with this quote from True Beauty. The yellow tulips he gave Ju-Gyeong is everything that hurts me about Han Seo-Jun, but it also represents the hope he gave everyone inside this drama. True Beauty would not be the same without him.