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[Off the Pages] New character shapes entirely different storyline in ‘My Name is Loh Ki-wan’

Novel 'I Met Loh Ki-wan,' film adaptation diverge with change in narrators

March 27, 2024 - 16:23 By Hwang Dong-hee
Korean edition (left) of "I Met Loh Ki-wan" and poster for Netflix film "My Name is Loh Ki-wan" (Changbi Publishers, Netflix)

Recently released Netflix film “My Name is Loh Ki-wan,” starring Song Joong-ki, draws from Cho Hae-jin’s 2011 novel, “I Met Loh Ki-wan,” if only very loosely.

The film diverges significantly from the novel in characterization and narrative to the extent that one could argue it tells a wholly distinct story.

In the cinematic adaptation, Song plays the titular role of a North Korean refugee on a journey to find a new home in a foreign land where he does not speak the language or understand the customs.

English edition of "I Met Loh Ki-wan" (University of Hawaii Press)

As evident from the subtle difference in their titles, the narrative voice changes from the novel to film. The novel unfolds through a first-person narrator, referred to as “I,” or “Kim.” The reader encounters Loh’s struggles through his journal, which is read and interpreted by Kim.

Kim, a TV scriptwriter, is conflicted with personal and professional guilt when a well-intentioned decision leads to tragedy. In tracing Loh's story, she embarks on her own journey, parallel to Loh's, to understand what drives a person to continue living after tremendous loss and ultimate despair.

Kim reenacts Loh's journal entries, literally following his footsteps -- walking up and down the streets named in his diary, checking in at the same hostel and eating at the same McDonald's. She imagines what Loh may have felt in each situation, empathizing with him: She becomes enraged on his behalf when, three years later, she encounters the same cold and indifferent hostel.

The film, on the other hand, places Loh as the central narrator, opting for a more direct and visual portrayal. This thrusts the audience directly into Loh's harrowing reality, with scenes depicting his mother's bloody death and his desperate acts of survival in a stark, straightforward manner.

"My Name is Loh Ki-wan" (Netflix)

With the change in narrator, central figures Kim and Dr. Pak have been removed for the film.

In the novel, Pak serves as the key link between Kim and Loh, as he comes into possession of Loh's journal after assisting him in acquiring refugee status. The ethnic Korean French Belgian doctor, who was born in North Korea but fled to the South, gave up his medical career to engage in volunteer work assisting refugees in obtaining refugee status.

He feels empathy for Loh, similarly burdened with guilt over his mother's death. Eventually, readers discover Pak’s profound remorse over the life-and-death decisions he made on behalf of his patients.

With the removal of these main characters, the novel's overarching theme also is no more. These characters are intricately woven into a narrative that poses fundamental questions about humanity, forgiveness and compassion.

"My Name is Loh Ki-wan" (Netflix)

With Marie, film turns into dire melodrama

With the absence of Kim and Pak, the new character Marie, a wayward, affluent young woman, is introduced, resulting in a shift in tone to melodrama.

A Korean Belgian national and former Olympic markswoman who has become a drug addict, Marie participates in illegal shooting competitions in what seems to be an act of rebellion after the sudden loss of her mother. She encounters Loh when she steals his wallet at a launderette. Drugs, gambling and organized crime are newly added to the plot with the introduction of Marie.

After Marie appears roughly a third of the way into the film, the plot departs completely from the novel, charting an entirely new course for its remainder.

During a press conference on Feb. 27, director Kim Hee-jin mentioned that it was the production company, Yong Film, that had suggested adapting the novel into a melodrama.

In the novel Loh's romance unfolds differently, as he falls for Layka, a Filipina woman he meets while working at a restaurant. Their encounter, however, occurs as Loh's solitary journey reaches its end, "arriving at the last 20 pages of Loh's journal," as the narrator Kim describes it.

While the book delves into themes of empathy and compassion, the film morphs into a love story between two deeply wounded people.

The English edition of “I Met Loh Ki-wan” became available, translated by Lee Ji-eun and published by the University of Hawaii Press, in August 2019.


Literature is a wellspring of inspiration across various formats, including film, drama series and stage productions. In this series, The Korea Herald explores the intersection of literature and its adaptations, reviewing and analyzing the transformations of original text into imagery. -- Ed.