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 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.
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.
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…
…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.
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.
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.
Perhaps 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.