Like it or not, time passes relentlessly. And life goes on. But sometimes, on some fine day, you feel suddenly sober and look back at a critical moment when you had to make a big decision at a crossroads in your life. And in the end, if the decision led to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you, very good. You can say now, “그때 그렇게 결정하길 참 잘 했지 (At that time, I made the right decision).” 

On the other hand, sometimes you may have experienced frustration or dismay because you didn’t have any choice due to your situation, your family, your loved ones, or other people involved forcing you to take it or leave it. In such a case, Koreans would say an idiomatic expression “어쩔 수 없었다 (didn’t have any choice; couldn’t help …ing; there was nothing else I could do)” This expression can be used for an event at any time in the past. It can be just yesterday or many years ago. 

  • 그때는 어쩔 수 없었어요 At that time, I didn’t have any choice. [idiomatic. 어쩔 = 어찌 할 what to do; (verb)-ㄹ 수 없다 cannot …; literally, it means “I could not do anything else” = “I didn’t have any choice, I didn’t have any other option” ]

Furthermore, Koreans often use an adverbial phrase based on this expression: 어쩔 수 없이 or 할 수 없이 (without any other choice; can not help but …; have no choice but to …):

  • 그녀는 할 수 없이 집으로 돌아왔다 Without any other choice, she came back home
  • 난 그때 어쩔 수 없이 파리를 떠나야 했지 At that time, I had no choice but to leave Paris

In the final episode of a riveting thriller 형사록 2 Shadow Detective, Season 2 (2022), a veteran actor 이성민 utters “그땐 어쩔 수 없었어” at the right moment when he imagines that his junior colleague appears as a ghost continuing to investigate his career tainted with mistakes and efforts to correct them in the vagaries of typical Korean workplaces. And then, he sees himself running like he always did as a detective, and stopping at a crossroads, nearly out of breath, as if he were at a loss, now “without any other choice”. After playing the role of a tough, unstoppable, lone policeman throughout the two seasons of this intense thriller, he finally lets his guard down and bursts into tears at this amazing scene. His soulful performance of such profound emotions, combined with the innovative presentation of his imagination, pulls at the heartstrings of every middle-aged viewer who has tasted all kinds of bitterness and sweetness, regrets, joy, resentment, and forgiveness, looking back at a crossroads in life. 

In his past works, including 미생 Misaeng: Incomplete Life (2014), 공작 The Spy Gone North (2018), 재벌집 막내아들 Reborn Rich (2022), 이성민 has been an extraordinary supporting actor who performed rather like a lead actor. K-Drama is not a genre where only handsome actors and stunning actresses succeed no matter how badly they perform. Not anymore. When I watch from afar the ever-evolving performance skills of many average-looking but very fine actors like 이성민, I feel like applauding them for their talents and lifelong efforts to excel, no matter what they look like, no matter how old they are. 

Men are like wine – some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age.

 – Pope John XXIII (1881 – 1963)

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