“The Red Sleeve” Heartbreaking Ending Explained- The Finale Recap [Episode 17]

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The Red Sleeve” wrapped up its run today, it aired episode 16 and 17 back to back, here is a recap of “The Red Sleeve” finale and its ending explained.

Related: “The Red Sleeve” Finale Episodes Scores Its Highest Ratings To Date

How many of Deok Im and Yi San’s children pass away?

“The Red Sleeve” final episode begins with the announcement of the death of their son due to measles. Deok Im isn’t allowed to see him because she’s never had it and is pregnant. He passed away at a very young age. Deok Im and San take the news especially hard, Deok Im even refuses to eat despite San’s pleading with her to do so. Eventually, she eats again because she’s pregnant with another child and must look after the child too.

However, that child also dies inside Deok Im. [see why below]

Why did Young Hee die?

Yes, she had a miscarriage and an affair. Deok Im goes to see Young Hee one last time before her execution, Young Hee says no one forced her to do this and she did as she wished because she wanted to be a woman of the one she loved. San tells Deok Im there is nothing he can do to help her since she’s committed crimes and must be punished accordingly.

Does Deok Im die?

Yes, Deok Im passes away in the final episode of “The Red Sleeve.” She falls ill while pregnant with her child, and while initially, San is the one who caught an eye infection while visiting a free clinic to check up on his people, Deok Im collapses while nurturing him.

Deok Im condition becomes worse and eventually passes away. She asks for her friends while on her death bed, she must see them before she goes, she’s all they have. San is by her side as she passes away.

In her final moments, she asks San that if in their next lives they were to be reborn and he sees her, he should act like he doesn’t know her. In her next life, she wishes to be reborn and live life the way she wants. She tells him she doesn’t hate or resent him

San takes it especially hard and refuses all his subordinates attempts to set him up with other concubines. They eventually choose a new royal concubine named Su but he never opens up to her. He then vows to forget Deok Im as the country’s king.

What happens to the king San? Does he pass away too?

Following the death of Deok Im, San retreats for a while but eventually decides to rise up again and rule his nation. He feels like an empty shell of his former self without Deok Im by his side.

He still misses her deeply and remembers her whenever he walks by a place they had an interaction in. He pretends to have forgotten about her.

He’s still sad about what she said to him prior to her passing and cries for her.

A bit of time passes after Deok Im’s death, San has grown a beard and is still ruling the nation well. He calls for a woman who remembers Deok Im during his final days. Kyung Hee shows up. She tells him Bok Yeon passed away a year before due to illness and she’s the only one who remembers Deok Im.

He asks her to bring her keepsake, and cries looking at the stuff she’s had.

However, he collapses one day and it looks like he’s dying too. He asks his people to leave him be while on his death bed, and when he closes his eyes he’s greeted by Deok Im when he wakes up.

Did San and Deok Im reunite at the end or was it just a dream?

It was a dream, not reality. When it seems that San is on his death bed, he opens his eyes and is greeted by Deok Im who wipes his face, it appears that almost everything that happened until now has been merely a bad dream.

After a conversation, she tells him he needs to go back, his people need him. He hesitates but walks to the front gate, he’s under the impression that this is reality which is likely a hallucination he’s experiencing due to his illness.

It becomes more clear after San recalls Deok Im’s death as he’s about to open the door to go back, he hesitates again and realizes this isn’t reality. He turns back to look at her standing behind him. He cries looking at her and then takes her hands to see the blooming flowers, she keeps telling him he needs to go back.

He holds her hands and tells her to love him, he says he won’t let go of this moment with her and will hope that this moment never changes.

Eventually, they kiss and hug, he doesn’t leave her side.

The end.

“The Red Sleeve” ending explained- Did San pass away?

It could be hinted that San chose to remain with Deok Im instead of going back, which means he passed away as well.

In voiceover, Deok Im says, ‘so this moment has become forever,’ which means he’s dead.

He misses her so much and while she tries to urge him to get back to his people which could be interpreted as she’s urging him to open his eyes and overcome his sickness, he chooses her. He’s so sad and empty without her and wanted to remain with her, this could be said to be the afterlife where they reunite and stay together in their lovely home happy in the presence of each other.

It was all a dream in San’s mind as he’s about to die. He dies and his new reality is staying beside Deok Im forever.

Related: 2PM’s Junho Gets Criticized For The Most Ridiculous Reason, Why Holding Yoona’s Sleeve Angered “The Red Sleeve” Viewers

“The Red Sleeve” ending- review

so… recapping this was very difficult because I was busy crying. It took me longer to get through it but I did. I was honestly not expecting them to go hard like that, and by that, I mean following the real-life events.

I read it a couple of weeks ago and was worried because of that, on the other hand, it makes sense they followed the original story because that’s what happened. Realistically speaking, it makes sense they’d follow the original storyline but some had assumed they wouldn’t because the drama got so popular and viewers prefer happy endings. I don’t mind sad endings and this ending was fit for the drama, I think they did well with their choice. The way the ending scene was crafted was done so well too, they left us with lingering happy thoughts so its not all sad and death, that was a nice gesture.

“The Red Sleeve” ending was one of the most heartbreaking endings I’ve seen in a historical kdrama, and it hurts more knowing its based on real events.

The highlight of the episode was everyone’s performance, Junho just… there are no words for this man’s performance, Se Young did so well too, honestly, everyone has done a marvelous job. I especially loved the scene where Junho’s character cries over his son’s death, which was done so well. Seriously Junho is one of my top 3 fav idols turned actors.

There are some complaints about Lee Se Young’s character and her ending scene before she passes away but I personally loved it. With the constraints in mind for the period this drama was based on, they didn’t do the worst job with her character as some are saying. She loved him but at the same time longed to live an independent life as a free woman but her occupation wouldn’t have ever allowed for that. I think people need to understand that the period the drama was based was very different from what we have right now. Women didn’t have much of a say over their future and this drama did a good job demonstrating that.

Deok Im’s longing for her friends on her death bed was a nice touch and the fact that she told him to ignore her in the next life could be because she wanted to be free, it doesn’t mean she hated him but I think she hated the system more. Of course, she wouldn’t have known in the future that us women would be able to live our lives freely in many parts of the world.

“The Red Sleeve” has won many awards two days ago at the 2021 MBC Drama awards, congrats to everyone.

What did you think of the ending? Did you like it or not? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below!

57 thoughts on ““The Red Sleeve” Heartbreaking Ending Explained- The Finale Recap [Episode 17]”

  1. Hi there,
    Thank you for your ending explain even though I knew already yet I just need to read or hear someone else explaining of this one.
    This drama took me by surprise while I was watching King’s affection. I lost interest fast with KA. This drama brought out all the emotions I could possibly have. I cried so much for 16 and 17 episodes. The caste, the main characters they all did marvelous acting. I so enjoyed very much and I will miss it because of the anticipation of waiting for the weekend.
    I also enjoy your review for this and explanation. Thanks Sara

    Reply
  2. I am from New Zealand and for the last four months I have watched nothing else but Korean dramas and films. My first ever series was Mr Sunshine. I have never liked watching subtitles but for some reason the Korean language was easier to understand. I am from the indiginous Maori race and there are so much similiarities between our races. I have watched nearly every historical K-drama there is and Empress Ki left a huge hole in my heart, so much I couldnt bring myself to watch the last two episodes. I grew up wisihing I lived in a palace, as a princess or queen but yeah no thank you. LOLS.

    Today’s finale I cried and cried, I was so mad that she had to die at the end, the loss of their son, baby in the puku. All they wanted was to be a real family. I used to get so mad at Lady Sung every episode and would yell at the tv saying hurry up and be his concubine but because I had already watched so many historicals already, I knew why she didnt want to be. I would ratcher who live on the outside and have the king visit her (why did they not choose this life?). The last episode would have many stunned but thats what you Koreans do best, you help us (the rest of the world) believe in romance again, the innocence of a fisrt kiss and how meaningful even a hug means between a couple. Your beautiful and handsome race, and stunning youthful looks. The best at comedy, I havent laughed so much, sorry America you have nothing on these tv shows.

    Red Sleeves I will never forget you.

    Nga mihi nui.

    Donna.

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  3. Okay so like I have a real question and I need an answer I barely started watching it but I just felt there was going to be a sad ending so I had to know if I was right. My question is did she love San like reading this make me a bit confused???

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    • Hi Beth. She most definitely loved him. She loved him A LOT. Think of how stubborn she is throughout the series about not wanting to be his concubine only to accept him in the end. She could’ve continued to refuse him and even told him that she could’ve found a way to leave (even if he forced her to stay) but she didn’t. She told her friends she is in love with him but in order to not lose him, she has to hide her true feelings. She knows as King, he can never truly just be hers and so to comfort herself, she has to never tell him she loves him. It’s her way of coping with it. There were so many moments when she was concubine that showed how sad she was because of the loneliness she felt. Her role then became merely a lady in waiting and nothing more. She hated the role but because she loved him so much, she sacrificed her freedom to be with him.

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        • Reading your blog and the comments is already like therapy!!! I was really so upset and shouting at my computer screen when deok im kept rejecting the king. I still have some doubts about her true love for him. I agree with one of the previous comments that she loved him but still had some regrets in the end about wanting to live a life that she wanted – not being imprisoned within the palace. I just have to accept that it is not the super romanticized storyline we are used to in other kdramas. And yes does anyone know what the yellow pouch means? Will especially miss watching Lee Junho now… so I started Wok of Love! His voice and aura reminds me so much of Park Seo Joon, one of the reasons I got hooked on kdramas!

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      • I felt so sorry for her when San decided to go and sleep with the queen instead of going to celebrate the pregnancy with Dok. How could he do that after everything nasty that queen had done.

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        • I believe it is not the same Queen )) The Queen they show to us is the Queen Dowager, the widow of his late Grandpa. But Yi San was also married and had a queen, his wife. He had a wife and various concubines )). But they don’t show the queen, this wife. From the history, it’s true she could not get pregnant and also she had a very good relations with Deok Im.

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    • Hey, after watching the last episode. She loved him from the start, the only reason she did not tell him because she felt that that is the only thing she still has control over. Being a concubine, you can’t even leave the palace. All the freedom and the adventure she had was replaced by her days spent just waiting for the king to come to her. She loves the King, but miserable and happy at the same time. In the end, it was her choice to be his concubine.

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    • Hi, Ms. Beth! I believe she loved him! She clearly gave up more than the King did even though he loved her sooo much! She gave up her entire self and “freedom” to be his royal concubine. The King was always asking her if she loved him. She replied on her deathbed that if she hadn’t loved him she would have run away a long time ago! I was trying to recall how many times she ingeniously saved him: 1. The 1st encounter when they were children and he was going to see his deceased grandmother as she strengthened him and gave him courage. 2. Tearing the pages from the forbidden book to keep him from being punished by his grandfather. 3. Saved him when his grandfather had him imprisoned for treason. 4.Saved him when the grandfather thought he had disrespected him at the banquet! 5. Warned him with the signal kite of the men planning to kill him. She was always protecting him but he felt like she didn’t really love him!

      Oh my goodness I am still trying to come to grips with the ending!

      When she told him to pass her by in the next life, I guess he had to live either those words every day after she passed!

      Oh, could someone tell me if the man he saw ion the Mountain was his grandfather?

      I am still processing the ending! All actors were outstanding!

      Reply
  4. I was too heartbroken with the story but it was ckear that they crafted a wonderful story of how a woman is dignified of who she is and a King acknowledged her strength. I applaud the team who made the ending knowing they are together and San finally gave Lady Sung his all by choosing to be with her, and that is not to be lonely anymore.

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  5. the cast was really good and excellent with their performance,specially junho the character was really made for him, I had been watching him in his previous drama’s and project and i think he really made a good choice for this character, I a hoping for a season 2 in the modern era/times to satisfy our cravings

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  6. Thanks so much for the explanation. I just don’t understand why Deok mi say those things to san before she pass? Poor san he thought her friends were more important and loved and he wasn’t.

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  7. I think your analysis of the ending is wrong. The writer tried to copy Twilight’s Breaking Dawn plot when we all thought it was a reality but after all it was just a vision. Likewise, the whole episode 17 is but a nightmare. Otherwise it would have not shown the part when he woke up from taking a long nap. When he remembered Deok Im’s death, it was from a dream.
    But I understand where the misconception was coming from. The writers did a bad job trying to end the series with a worthwhile ending. They should have just stayed with the episode 16 and did a fast forward to 10 years later. Deok Im never uttered I Love You to San, which is sad because he was really in love with her. It’s almost like unnatural to have all the doubts and apprehension of returning the King’s affection

    Reply
      • If you watch the scene in Episode 16 again, When San woke up all scared you can clearly see him opening the gates and leave to do his duties as King. But in the last episode’s scene, we can clearly see him not open the gates and return to her. So, because of this it is evident that he had passed away and reunited with her in their happy place.

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    • The thing is… If you watch the scene in Episode 16 again, When San woke up all scared you can clearly see him opening the gates and leave to do his duties as King. But in the last episode’s scene, we can clearly see him not open the gates and return to her. So, because of this it is evident that he had passed away and reunited with her in their happy place.

      Reply
  8. I’m not familiar with Korean history, so when i watched this drama I ask myself that producents really have to be so cruel? After that I was searched for any complains about ending and found your article. Didn’t know that drama was based on true story – and good that i didn’t know before watch beacuse i could drown in the sea of tears. Moreover after read story about Deok Im, i think that producers made ending pretty light ;(

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  9. I guess this kind of ending is very subjective it’s “open” exactly for each viewer to be able to “create” the ending in their imagination according to the feelings they had during the drama (unless the screenwriter gives a statement or something and specify the ending). I believe that things may have happened the way you explained in the post, as well as he may have dreamed about all that and rethought his actions in order to avoid the dream’s outcome. As I said, I felt the scenes and lines were very subjective and not necessarily just one ending.

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    • I don’t think its as open as you think, the reason is the story is based on real life events. The last scene when he recalls her death seals it. It would’ve been a disservice to the actual people the story was based on to draw the conclusion you said. the reason why they tried to end it like that with Deok Im is to give viewers a lingering happy thought because the story itself is too sad

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  10. I love reading other people’s take on the ending 2 episodes because I have NOT cried so much over a drama in a LOOOONG time!!! And that there is a place for me to express my feelings about this show because it was SOOOO excellent. The actors were absolutely amazing. The emotions, the timing of comments, the ability to keep in character during tough moments. It was really well done and I appreciated the fact that they stayed with the facts of real life. It would have been way too unrealistic if they had Deok Im stay alive or some happily ever after. It was so excellent BECAUSE they kept the sorrow and sadness. That is real life. I agree with the comment ““The Red Sleeve” ending was one of the most heartbreaking endings I’ve seen in a historical kdrama, and it hurts more knowing its based on real events.”

    I don’t know what drama will be able to top this one for a LOOONG time. kudos to Lee Jun Ho, Lee Se Young and all the fabulous actors. That must have taken a lot of emotional energy for the last two episodes!! Kudos to the screen writers and director as well. Everyone did such an outstanding job. I’ll be re-watching this drama many times over.

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    • Fiquei muito triste, angustiada, não sabia do final da vida real, esperava ver amor e a formação de uma família. Foi o melhor dorama que assisti sem dúvida nenhuma, mas poderia ter acabado no 16, não queria vê-los passar por tanto sofrimento, me doeu muito, exatamente porque eu amei cada cena deste drama. Não vou mais assistir doramas que estiverem no ar pois não sabemos o final….

      Reply
    • I read that everyone involved had a very hard time filming the last episode. They were so emotional & cried a lot. I still cry just thinking about this drama. The king lost everything of her, their children & her, the love of his life.

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  11. Hello Jass! I just finished watching last epi of TRS and immediately search for ending explained because i was quite confused with the ending so here I am and thanks for the explanation!
    Honestly wasnt expecting such a tragic epi 17 – crown prince died, young hee died, deok im died, bok yeon died and finally the king also! That is too much death in 1 episode please wished the ending could be better but cant complain since they still show that San & Deok Im is reunited and they will live happily even in hereafter
    This drama brought out so many emotions in me and i actually rewatched epi 1-15 while waiting for today! Gonna miss all the wonderful casts but i will miss Jun Ho’s and his voice the most … omg really makes my heart flutter like a million times .. haha! Kudos to everyone who makes TRS such a great drama!

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  12. Can’t believe I cried am so heartbroken the way it ended. Never knew it would end like this… thought all the tragedy was a mere dream, never knew it’s reality

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  13. Hi, thank you for your explanation. I needed reaffirmation from another viewer regarding what I already understand from the ending.. just incase I got it wrong I am still heartbroken from the endings nevertheless. It must have been hell for San without Deok I’m all those years after her passing. And yet he had to be strong as a king. That’s the perils of Kdramas..the lows can be very hard. Truly enjoyed this drama.

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  14. The ‘red sleeve’ follow the same story line of Yi San. When you had watched, enjoyed n enamored by Yi San the true history, this didn’t give an much of sensation. I would take this is more like ‘ romance of the King’s courts’.
    Yes, the good chemistry of Junho n Lee Se Young beautiful, sweet n they click so well in their role.

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  15. Hello. I believe that when she dies
    She really kept hiding her love from him since as she said, the only thing she could decide. And the friend confirms it by telling San Years later that if he did not realize that she was only bragging but that she really loved him ..

    I was left with a question that someone help me !! What does the yellow bag mean?

    Reply
  16. I watched this whole drama in one sitting. I am so exhausted, mentall amd physically. It was an amzing story, with amazing actors. Only complaint I had was after like ep 12 for a couple episodes there I just didnt undertand everyones reactions and where the story was going at that point. I think the major time skips without warning made it very hard to follow at times. But it truly wrapped up beautifully in the end.
    This is going into my top 4 favourite dramas

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  17. Bastante desgarrador el capítulo, ambos tuvieron actuaciones maravillosas lo cual agregó realismo a las escenas, me quedo con los últimos 10 minutos para superar la depresión que me dejaron.

    Excelente drama, Lee Se-young me fascinó ♥.♥

    Reply
  18. Thank you for the spoiler.Now I know for sure I will avoid this.I never want to watch sad ending dramas/movies.Read the real story,and was wondering if they going to follow.
    I really appreciate when people post spoilers, as it saves me lots of time and I don’t need to go through a devastating time afterwards.

    Reply
    • Yeah I’m debating if to continue watching or not because not knowing it was based on real life event I naively thought it would have an happy ending and I’m in no mood for tragedies right now. And I’m still in love with The King’s Affection so I’ll probably do a rewatch of that. 🙂

      Reply
      • I read that everyone involved had a very hard time filming the last episode. They were so emotional & cried a lot. I still cry just thinking about this drama. The king lost everything of her, their children & her, the love of his life.

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  19. I know that The Red Sleeves was based on a true story. I was hoping that the series would end with Duk Im’s pregnancy, and not continue with the real sad ending of San and Duk Im. I wish this series ended in episode 16!
    I have great respect for Junho’s interpretation of the drama’s character! It was brilliantly arresting, believable, captivating et al!
    I stopped watching ep 17 when the opening scene showed the king wailing with his son in his arms! I told myself… oh my! This drama is going for the jugulars!!
    Now that I’ve read the synopsis, I can now calmly finish episode 17.

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  20. Reading your blog and the comments is already like therapy!!! I was really so upset and shouting at my computer screen when deok im kept rejecting the king. I still have some doubts about her true love for him. I agree with one of the previous comments that she loved him but still had some regrets in the end about wanting to live a life that she wanted – not being imprisoned within the palace. I just have to accept that it is not the super romanticized storyline we are used to in other kdramas. And yes does anyone know what the yellow pouch means? Will especially miss watching Lee Junho now… so I started Wok of Love! His voice and aura reminds me so much of Park Seo Joon, one of the reasons I got hooked on kdramas!

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  21. Thank you for the ending explanation. I, too, was confused whether the ending was a reality or a dream, but after reading your explanation, I believe the latter which makes me sad and happy at the same time. Yes, Doek Im didn’t tell Yi San she loves him, and Yi San doubting her love, but he finally found out how much she loves him by seeing the contents of her belongings which contain things she kept of their memories together. I’ve never cried SOO much on KDrama since watching Moon Lovers Scarlet Heart Ryeo! And just like Moon Lovers, it may take me a while to watch period KDramas again! I’m still devastated and sad!
    Love this KDrama that it’s in my top 5!

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  22. Hi. There’s a part in Episode 7 where soldiers were Shooting arrows and one caught the King’s attention. He turned out to be The cousin of Deok Im. Who were his parents?

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  23. I must admit I hadn’t realised it was a true story. I would have braised myself for the ending had I known. For those of you who enjoyed this drama (and have the stomach for melodramas) may I also recommend Moon Lovers Scarlet Heart Ryeo. If you haven’t seen it, it is epic and probably the best of its kind. I personally prefer more light-hearted shows but should give credit where credit is due. PS I was rather impressed with Junho’s performance in red sleeve cuff

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  24. I must admit I hadn’t realised it was a true story. I would have braised myself for the ending had I known. For those of you who enjoyed this drama (and have the stomach for melodramas) may I also recommend Moon Lovers Scarlet Heart Ryeo. If you haven’t seen it, it is epic and probably the best of its kind. I personally prefer more light-hearted shows but should give credit where credit is due. PS I was rather impressed with Junho’s performance in red sleeve

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  25. Wow, what a ride that was. The writer and the director decided to raise this drama to some Greek tragedy levels. The episode 12 when the demented old King was trying to kill his grandson thinking that it was his son was reminded me of a famous painting “The Ivan the Terrible is killing his son”. But I did not see the reason to have 17 episodes though and still, these dramas, not having the budget of the Game of Thrones’s levels, have their limits. A lot of talking, dialogues taking place in the same rooms with the same decorations, instead of action. Luckily, we had a few fighting scenes and they showed us (once!!) the King on a horse! ). What is true though is that the actors and Junho playing the King in particular, redefined how these roles should be played. I tried to watch another historical kdrama after The Red Sleeve and I thought : “omg, no, this is not how the King should be played, there is absolutely no depth…”. In brief, he spoiled all other historical kdramas for me forever I am afraid )). But I believe he would not be able to do that if he did not have such good actress as Lee Se Young opposite him. Out of all awards given by various Korean networks for being the Best Onscreen Couple (or equivalent) so far this year they are the only onscreen couple which fully deserved that award. They were very in tune I thought. And great supporting cast! I will be looking forward to the next project of the Director Jung Ji In. Please come back to us with another great work ))

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  26. I just finished watching The Red Sleeve. I was so emotionally touched by the story. I could not get certain scenes out of my head. I did not want to believe that Duk Im really dies. I kept hoping she would imitate a character in a book her friend Bok Yeon describes of a woman who fakes her death to escape. I wanted to see Duk Im living in some remote country side living her best life. Duk Im endured so much tragedy and she did it with such strength and commitment, it was hard to see her true suffering at times until she broke at the end. Although this drama saddened me, I think it had the biggest impact emotionally. Junho and Se Young where phenomenally in this. Great chemistry!

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  27. I just finished watching The Red Sleeve. I was so emotionally touched by the story. I could not get certain scenes out of my head. I did not want to believe that Duk Im really dies. I kept hoping she would imitate a character in a book her friend Bok Yeon describes of a woman who fakes her death to escape. I wanted to see Duk Im living in some remote country side living her best life. Duk Im endured so much tragedy and she did it with such strength and commitment, it was hard to see her true suffering at times until she broke at the end. Although this drama saddened me, I think it had the biggest impact emotionally. Junho and Se Young where phenomenal in this. Great chemistry!

    Reply

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