At the centre of the Kdrama Once Upon a Small Town is a love triangle, surrounded by a dozen rom-com clichés, tropes, and stereotypes. Here’s a brief rundown of all that the love triangle of Ahn Ja-young, Han Ji-yul, and Lee Sang-hyun entails.
The story of Netflix’s Once Upon a Small Town takes place in a remote village that goes by the name of Huidong. It is the residence of one of the protagonist’s grandparents.
The same protagonist, Han Ji-yul, is a veterinary doctor in Seoul, with a walled-off personality and a talent to keep the social boundaries up pretty firmly. However, the hard-working doctor is jolted by a call informing him of some seemingly tragic development with his grandfather in Huidong.
However, after visiting his grandfather and getting arrested while looking like a thief breaking in, Ji-yul realizes the whole thing was a prank by his grandfather, who has gone off for a world trip with his wife, leaving the responsibility of his veterinary hospital in the hands of his grandson.
The residents of Huidong are a complete one-eighty from Ji-yul and he’s forced to step out of his comfort zone and let people breach his personal space and boundaries.
One special annoying person that Ji-yul gets fed up with at the start is the local policewoman Ahn Ja-young, who keeps staring at him weirdly and gets a bit too close while doing it.
However, Han Ji-yul eventually subsides his grumpy side and his icy heart melts with the warmth that Ahn Ja-young emanates all the time. As he starts to warm up to her, an evident romantic feeling starts to take shape inside him as well.
Meanwhile, he’s yet to realize that he once shared a special bond with Ahn Ja-young long ago, a memory that she considers very precious to her, but one that continues to elude Han Ji-yul.
Ahn Ja-young keeps telling herself and her best friend Lee Sang-Hyun, that the reason for her constant stumbling upon Ji-yul is just so that she can assure his comfortable and temporary stay in the village.
However, it’s pretty clear that Ahn Ja-young’s heart also flutters for her “secret friend” from childhood in a way only possible in love.
Alas! The wholesomeness of the budding romance and relationship between Ja-young and Ji-yul is also surrounded by plenty of jealous one-sided lovers, gossipers, and even exes from the past.
The dreadful love triangle
Ahn Ja-young struck a secret friendship with a boy during the summer break when she was 12. This boy, who she called her “secret friend” went away once the break was over. It is revealed early on in the show that this secret friend is none other than Han Ji-yul himself.
He doesn’t remember her at all for a long time, though. However, before he recalls who Ahn Ja-young is and the memories with her that had gotten repressed, Ji-yul is already smitten by this annoyingly selfless person.
When he does end up recognizing who she is, Ji-yul’s affection and love for her only intensifies, even compelling him to do acts he cringes about later on. Han Ji-yul is undeniably vying for her love and is quite frequently desperate to express and extract a love confession.
Meanwhile, Ahn Ja-young obviously has non-platonic feelings for Ji-yul as well. The only things instilling hesitancy and doubt in her are external factors and the extras in her equation with Ji-yul.
That’s where Lee Sang-hyun enters. Ja-young’s best friend since childhood, Lee Sang-hyun has practically grown up with her and knows almost everything about her.
However, what has been a platonic dynamic for Ahn Ja-young, has been something more than that for Lee Sang-hyun, if not from the start, from a little while ago. His non-platonic feelings for Ahn Ja-young only increased with the arrival of Han Ji-yul, a man who Ja-young shares a precious memory with.
Declaration of war
Lee Sang-hyun is envious of the dynamic that Ja-young and Ji-yul have got going on right from the start. Ever since his arrival, Lee Sang-hyun has had his eyes on the veterinary doctor, always trying to see what he and Ja-young are up to and whether a development between them sabotages his chances with Ja-young or not.
Despite not being seen the same way by Ja-young, Lee Sang-hyun keeps imposing himself on her, trying to cheekily change her perception of him. Lee wants Ja-young to start seeing him as one of the other boys who she’d consider to have a non-platonic relationship with.
Meanwhile, he leaves no ambiguities about his feelings of vitriol against Ji-yul. Scoffing, sneering, and snarking at him at every turn, in addition to straight-up warning him to stay away from Ja-young, Lee Sang-hyun makes it clear that he sees Ji-yul as an eyesore.
While he’s generally the stoic and mature one, Han Ji-yul also finds himself competing or butting heads with Lee Sang-hyun. At this point in Once Upon a Small Town, the two men are basically engaged in a one-on-one to win the heart of the queen (Ja-young).
The war has commenced and it’ll be fascinating to see how this rivalry develops or devolves into something entirely new.
The triangle devolves
Once Upon a Small Town has been banking on its central love triangle and all the cliches that come with it. However, to up the ante even more, the drama has now made Ji-yul and Ja-young’s rosy story even thornier with new additions to the fray.
Ji-yul’s ex-girlfriend Min has also come to Huidong and is now eying to get him back, to win back his love, making a trope-y picture even more cliched.
However, if one were to insist on the geometrical treatment of the developments and character dynamics in Once Upon a Small Town, even with the addition of Min, the story is still moving within a love triangle, since Min and Lee Sang-hyun are essentially the same vertex of the love polygon.