Beauty Queen Blues: First Impressions of Miss Korea

I’ve decided to limit my drama consumption to one currently-airing drama in an attempt to impose some structure, and hopefully some focus, to my drama life. Watching too many at one go spreads me too thin and I can feel my energy and attention span dissipate along with. Ironically, in order to decide which one to watch I have to watch more than one currently-airing drama, specifically two–Miss Korea and You From Another Star. I haven’t completely fallen for either of them, so I thought I’d see if putting my thoughts in order would help me decide.

The context

Miss Korea Episode 1 The biggest surprise is how this isn’t the Miss Congeniality-type of set-up that I’d originally assumed. Set in the throes of an economic downturn in 1997 known as the IMF crisis in Korea, this is considerably less upbeat than your regular rom-com. It’s an appropriate approach for a show that takes place during a time of social and economic hardship. I appreciate the show’s attention to detail that fleshes out the realities of the time–news broadcasts about the economy play in the background, characters refer to the decreasing value of the won, and there’s even an argument about selling gold jewellery when they should be donating it instead. There’re ample nods to the pop culture of the time which fly over my head but rack up nostalgia points for those in the know.

It’s still not a downer by a long shot. But over all, this is a low-key comedy shot-through with an air of wistful regret. Me likey this. 

The set-up

Money, or the lack of it, is what sets the plot in motion. Kim Hyun Joon and his friends face ruin as their cosmetics company is on the verge of bankruptcy. Oh Ji Young is an elevator girl with no prospects for the future. Hyun Joon and his buddies latches on to the idea that entering the Miss Korea pageant and winning will, with it’s publicity and marketing, save their company. There’s also a cash investment on the line. This is what brings our two leads together, but although their goals are similar on the surface, their interests aren’t as neatly aligned.Miss Korea Ep 4

Desperation means a potentially rich area for conflict for the show. Oh and did I mention that the leads happen to be old flames? Add the choice between money or love into the mix and it get’s even better. 

The cast and characters

It’s refreshing that these characters feel a touch more realistic than the aliens, movie stars, or prime ministers on offer at the moment. These are characters you might even have come across at some point in your life–the sweet star student in high school turned broke jerkface 15 years later, the neighbourhood wet dream of all the boys now turned cautionary tale. Points for a show that doesn’t seem interested in replicating tired hero/heroine tropes wholesale, so we do get nuance and some complexity.

Lee Sun Kyun and Lee Yoon Hee are very watchable as ex-es with heaps of baggage. It’s not exactly an even match of skills, but they are a pair I can buy. Plus any show that makes it’s leads fellate a sausage together like this, in it’s first episode no less…Miss Korea

…makes the 13-year old boy in me hoot with joy.

But the real gold is in the supporting cast, particularly thug-with-a-heart-of-gold Teacher Jung and the beauty queen bootcamp madam Ma Ae Ri. Ma Ae-Ri (a campy Lee Mi Sook) as a former Miss Korea trying to court Ji Young to join her, and Teacher Jung (Lee Sung Min) as a loan-shark’s minion, both complicate matters as characters who stir things up plot-wise, but also just inject a sense of fun to the proceedings.

The themes

Obviously, beauty is a big one. It’s interesting that Ji Young’s obvious beauty is not treated as a gift. Instead she suffers all the indignities that her beauty has brought to her life. At work as an elevator girl she chokes down an egg trying to hide her eating while on the job. She suffers harassment and coercion from a sleezeball superior.  It’s something that women like Ji Young working low-end service jobs all over the world face daily and come to believe–that the only thing that gets you through the day is to grit your teeth and bear it.Miss Korea Ep 2

It humanises her when one is tempted to throw some side-eye her way because here is someone who made it a habit to coast on her looks and male attention (it’s also interesting to note that as the only woman in her family, Ji Young has been surrounded by men and their scrutiny her whole life). Now that she’s run out of options, if her using looks is her only shot at turning her life around, then she’ll take it. 

While I don’t think the show is aiming for searing social commentary, but it’s tragic-comic treatment of the pageant world and her place in it show some sympathy and care.

 The wonky

MissKorea_Ep4_03Perhaps this won’t come as a surprise to those who have seen the production team’s previous effort Pasta (so I hear because I haven’t seen it yet), but the plotting is far from zippy. It’s most recent episodes circled back to where we were plot-wise back at episode four, while the story laboured over a plastic surgery subplot. Meanwhile, we don’t learn more about why Hyun Joon and Ji Young became estranged, or how they ended up down and out.

I’m getting impatient. For a cast of desperadoes in dire straits, there’s little sense of urgency here. Conversations tend to meander, and scenes go on for longer than necessary.

This is a show where the small character moments and the subtle comedy will carry the day instead of high-stakes, high-speed plotting. I’m not sure whether this is enough for me to stick with it, but I’m still curious to see where this will go at this point.

Or maybe I’m just hoping that the sausage will turn up again.

Note: If you’re interested to know more about the the IMF crisis and it’s impact I found Ask A Korean!’s primer to be very helpful and  thorough.

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11 thoughts on “Beauty Queen Blues: First Impressions of Miss Korea

  1. Aha! I think this is whats happening to me. Im watching four of the series airing right now and I feel tired and overwhelmed. Yesterday I felt so fed up that I decided to take a break by watching The Avengers and that didn’t work because the movie also bored me! (I told this to my boss and co workers today and they all touched my forehead to make sure I wasn’t feverish) Finally I watched a documentary called Blakfish which I found interesting so it was a relief to find out I still like “some” things! Anyway I don’t hate any drama but I’m also not hooked enough on any. Out of the four I find Miss Korea to be the most “intelectually stimulating” (I see you inner 13 year old boy has found other kind of stimulations ha!) Anyway! Great review as usual, I had not paid enough attention to the context of the drama. This makes it more interesting.

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    • HAR! The Avenger’s bored you?? Really? Sounds like burnout to me! I liked that one. Four dramas at one go? So are you going to drop a one or erm, three??
      Yeah, I agree Miss Korea is one of the more meaty one but it’s not crack-tastic for me.
      And please, as if you didn’t get a kick out of that sausage!! Don’t play now ;P

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      • I think it is burn out too! I’m taking a break and I have put the other dramas on hold, not dropped them completely. I will continue with Miss Korea and Empress Ki and my rewatch of Thank You (I actually finished the rewatch! couldn’t help it and marathoned it! so now its third rewatch for recapping and gifing lol) I think those three are manageable. And yes I think Ill give another chance to The Avengers when Im in the mood! and teehee to the sausage 😝

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    • PAHAHA! Yes! I’m not sure what the show was going for there, and her outfit did not help either. Like dead peacock for pants. Oddball is one thing, freaky is another!

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  2. Oh and I think we started growing impatient at around the same time as well! I want to watch Pasta sometime this year but if it has this pace I will have to wait until I get in a “patient” mood. Reading you is making me feel less crazy 😉 Thank you again and sorry for the multiple comments!

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    • Don’t worry bout the comments, I welcome them! Ditto about Pasta!! But I’m thinking Pasta has some food porn to help get you through the rough spots, right ;P

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      • Lol but true! food porn allowed me to finish Jewel in the Palace, that and the fact that my mom did get into it. But for more than half of it I only paid attention when there was food!!! (and that was basically every 5 min)

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