There are two men at odds with each other in Once Upon a Small Town — and the reason for their contention is Ahn Ja-young, the girl they both have romantic feelings for. Who will Ja-young fall for though, is the query everyone’s pondering right now.
Once Upon a Small Town is a refreshing Korean comedy-drama that is mostly a slice-of-life affair as well. Four episodes have been released so far and the show has already thrown all the omnipresent tropes and clichés of the rom-com genre our way.
One of the biggest tropes found in the aforementioned media — a love triangle — has already made its way and become the central tenet to the story of this show. The three vertices of this triangle of love are Ahn Ja-young, Han Ji-yul, and Lee Sang-hyun.
Before we delve into the predictions, speculations, and educated guesses, let’s get some expository info about the three leads out of the way.
Han Ji-yul is a veterinary doctor who gets pranked by his grandfather into house sitting while also handling things at his veterinary hospital back in Huidong village. Ji-yul is a generally reserved guy who prefers to keep boundaries and his personal space intact.
Ahn Ji-yul is the extroverted local cop of Huidong who knows just about every resident of the village. From minor inconveniences to emergencies, Ja-young is the name everyone utters to get their issues resolved. What’s more is that Ja-young obliges, happily, to every call for help.
Lee Sang-hyun is Ja-young’s best friend from childhood and the two have essentially grown up together since the very start. However, Sang-hyun also has latent romantic feelings for his best friend, which he has only recently started expressing, following the arrival of Ji-yul, who he fears might steal away his love.
Sang-hyun does have reasons to fear and grow jealous of Han Ji-yul, especially after the secret Ahn Ja-young shared with him involving her and the veterinary doctor.
While the outsider doctor has some obvious plot advantages, Sang-hyun has the advantages pertaining to a lifetime of shared experiences and great insight that only a best friend can be privy to. So who will Ahn Ja-young fall for in Once Upon a Small Town?
Han Ji-yul — From secret friends to open lovers?
Han Ji-yul is in many ways, a polar opposite of Ahn Ja-young, at least with a cursory glance at his character traits list. However, there might be more similarities that the two share than you know.
Much like Ahn Ja-young, Han Ji-yul is not one to shy away from extending a helping hand either. While his empathy may seem greater for animals than for humans, most of the cases he attends to also help the humans deal with the problem.
He is compassionate and a hard worker — both of these traits are championed by Ahn Ja-young the most out of any other character in ‘Once Upon a Small Town’. Both of them also hail from similarly sad backgrounds, Ja-young was raised by her grandmother and Ji-yul’s parents passed away.
Whereas Ja-young has surrounded herself with the endless calls for help from every Huidong resident, Ji-yul has been surrounding himself with work, always busy doing something or the other.
However, these are not the only parallel qualities they have with each other. Perhaps the most important thing they share is the one thing that the show’s premise revolves around — that they were once “secret friends” for a brief period in their childhood.
Ahn Ja-young has been wishing it so much that Ji-yul would remember even a bit about the summer break when they were 12 that they became “secret friends” with each other. While Ja-young treasures that memory a lot and keeps it very close to her heart, Ji-yul has been utterly oblivious about it so far.
It’s bound to click someday, when he’d make the connection and a spark of flashback sequences will hit Ji-yul, with him realizing that the girl he’s falling for (or has fallen for by that time) is actually a childhood friend of his as well.
And when that happens, there are very few things that can stop the two from blooming their relationship into more than just a platonic one. There is a possibility Han Ji-yul doesn’t end up with Ja-young but you could say that he has plot armor against those speculations. But what about the other contender though?
Lee Sang-hyun — Near and dear, does the childhood buddy have a chance?
Sang-hyun is evidently envious of the increasing proximity between Ja-young and Ji-yul. He has known Ja-young for all their lives and to lose her to some outsider who won’t even stay in the town for long is something he can’t simply digest.
There’s a certain intimacy that Sang-hyun and Ja-young share but while the latter has always exhibited a clearly platonic sense of intimacy towards Sang-hyun, the guy has definitely changed now. Sang-hyun wants not a buddy-buddy treatment but one like any other man would have.
So far it has only seemed that Sang-hyun has non-platonic, romantic feelings for Ja-young that she doesn’t reciprocate at all. It’s unrequited love, at least the kind that Sang-hyun is seeking.
However, who can tell what the future holds for them? It might entail the possibility that Ahn Ja-young does go through a rapid perspective shift that also translates into some romantic awakenings for Sang-hyun.
For the time being, however, there seems to be no such presence of a trajectory that leads to such a scenario. Plus, defeating the plot point as big as the “secret friendship” that Ahn Ja-young and Han Ji-yul share would be very difficult.
The jury’s still out but from where I stand, the backgrounds, the traits, and the lifestyle they share similarities in are a clear and strong indication that the show has packed an expected and obvious development to Ja-young and Ji-yul’s relationship.