‘Thirty-Nine:’ Happiness and Terminal Illness

In “Thirty-Nine,” viewers dive into the daily lives of a female trio of long-time friends. At the dawn of their forties, Mi-jo (Son Ye-jin) is a hardworking dermatologist planning to take a sabbatical abroad. Chan Young (Jeon Mi-Do) is navigating life through her job as an acting coach and her long-time relationship with a married man. As for Joo-Hee (Kim Ji-Hyun), she is a manager at a fancy department store seeking to get married. The lives of the three women get suddenly shaken up when Chan-Young gets diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. This news comes as a shock and all three women decide to make the best out of Chan-Young’s last months. 

Mi-Jo comes forth as a light-hearted yet somehow nonchalant woman. Her celibacy doesn’t seem to bother her, nor do the comments she receives on the matter. What I also find intriguing about her is how everything comes off as implicit. She talks about her impending gap year in a very detached way, while viewers find out that she is struggling with mental health issues. Although it is almost brushed off, we know she faces panic attacks and sees a therapist. Mi-Jo shows you that, although striving to achieve your professional goals might pay off, your mental health should not be neglected in the pursuit of reaching them. 

Jin-Seok (Lee Moo-Saeng) and Sun-Koo (Song Min-Ji). Courtesy of JTBC.

All the while, her ‘‘orphan’’ status is more lighted upon. I liked seeing that being developed because I got to dive into an orphan’s perspective. You see, Mi-Jo was, dare I say, “a lucky one,” as she was adopted into a wealthy family. However, although she was granted many privileges, she still lives with that uneasiness that she can’t seem to shake. She describes it to her newly-found boyfriend’s father when he expresses his non-comprehensiveness regarding his own adopted daughter. It was striking to witness Mi-Jo peacefully give viewers a taste of what it feels like to be an orphan. 

Chan-Young is probably my favorite character on the show. Viewers are soon told that she is involved with a married man. But what makes her story stand out, however, is how it is not what you think. She is not that bad person who’s trying to wreak havoc on a family. Her relationship with Jin-Seok (Lee) has been going on for years, yet they maintain a sexless relationship. Mi-Jo has a difficult time with their relationship because she cannot bear to see her friend sacrifice her life that way. But Jin-Seok is nothing like we expect him to be. 

Jin-Seok has been in love with Chan-Young since even before meeting his wife. Life made it so that, during a breakup, he got another woman pregnant and married her to take responsibility. It eventually turned out that the kid wasn’t his biological son. But meanwhile, he got attached while raising him, so he stayed. Years go by, and Chan-Young is still labeled “the mistress.” Their love for each other is undeniable, but who is to blame, in this kind of situation? Chan-Young and Jin-Seok’s romance challenges the classic “the other woman” archetype. They lift each other up and, well, their love is just too cute not to be rooted for. 

So-Won (Ahn So-Hee). Courtesy of JTBC.

Along the same lines, the friendship of the three protagonists is profoundly charming. Watching the show, it really hit me how natural they all were in each other’s company. “Thirty-Nine” is an ode to friendship and how deep it can get. More than mere friendship, it is a sister-like bond. “Calling them family isn’t enough to describe them,” confesses Mi-jo to her boyfriend. Not only do they love each other in a truly unwavering way, they also know each other like no one else does. My favorite scenes are probably when they get overwhelmed with worry about each other even when they were just having fun with their boyfriends. The actors all did a brilliant job at emoting a bond that has a great presence. The chemistry is so baffling that you have a tricky time wrapping your head around the fact that it’s all just fictional. 

As the story veers back and forth between present-day and Chan-Young’s inevitable funeral, viewers find themselves believing that the friendship will overcome all — even death. While the characters used to lead their lives facing basic issues (like grappling to find a love match, the pressure of being single in your late thirties, and being unhappy at work…), suddenly, something unexpectedly transpires and everything changes. What’s mystifying is how you expect the show to be a light story about aging, friendship, a sabbatical, and then, boom. The plot turns out to be conscientiously addressing how one feels when their life gets punched by disease. The news causes the characters to question their approach to their own lives and viewers organically end up doing the same. 

“Thirty-Nine” is currently streaming on Netflix. 

By Sourour Elfourti

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