Review: Miss Korea (MBC, 2014)

Premise: Hyun Joon is the owner of a struggling cosmetics company during the 1997 economic crisis. Oh Ji Young, his ex-flame, is an elevator girl facing unemployment and zero prospects for the future. They decide to join forces and enter the Miss Korea contest as a last ditch effort to stay afloat. Will they succeed despite the odds?

Miss Korea ep 7

Big hair = big dreams

If you’re looking for a thoughtful and rich story about underdogs and picking yourself up after a fall, look no further than Miss Korea. If you’re looking for your next crack drama though, you should probably turn elsewhere because this won’t satisfy any compulsive viewing urges.

However if you do decide to turn away, you’d really be missing out. Because apart from the entirely subjective viewing experience aside, I found Miss Korea to be a delightful drama full of characters who are all shades of interesting and far beyond staid K-drama tropes. In other words, this drama is peopled with…people.

What happens when life doesn’t turn out the way you expected? Most of Miss Korea‘s characters are in dire straits, and in the face of an uncertain future, set about striving to make lemonade with the lemons life has handed them.

Miss Korea Episode 1

Desperation drives them.  Hyun Joon (Lee Sun Kyun), a high school top student who went to the best university in Korea, now is on the verge of losing everything he’s worked for. Oh Ji Young (Lee Yoon Hee), his former flame who never saw past high school, now finds herself at her mid-20s, at a dead-end. Elevator girls are a dying profession, and Ji Young joins the beauty pageant because she needs the money, but she also sees it as a way to finally make something of herself before it’s too late.

They band together at first purely for the money–he needs her to win the contest so she can be a product ambassador for his ailing company, she needs his backing–but since this is K-drama, they slowly rekindle their relationship. Their joint struggle for success is really a struggle to re-claim a sense of self-worth during difficult times.

If this doesn’t sound quite like a light and fluffy rom-com ala Miss Congeniality, that’s because it isn’t. Miss Korea is a tad more down-to-earth and sober. It’s set during a time of deep recession so it makes sense that it’s not all rainbows and unicorns, a point the show makes by using a filter that drains it of bright colour. There’s an air of wistful regret, but the drama is far from being gloomy and it hums along cheerily.

There’s plenty of comedy to enjoy thanks to a host of quirky side characters that populate this world–Ji Young’s family consists of four doting, over-protective men including a dad she calls ‘mum’; Hyun Joon’s sidekicks are a gangster called Teacher Jung (Lee Sung Min) and three co-workers more comfortable in a lab than the cut-throat world of beauty contests. There’s Yang Choon Ja (Hong Ji Min), a beauty queen groomer with delusions of grandeur who is the show’s biggest hoot!

Miss Korea ep 13

Beauty tips ala Choon Ja: It’s all in your ass

Then there’s the towering figure of President Ma (Lee Mi Sook), the queen-bee of the pageant world. A former Miss Korea herself, she runs beauty boot camps like a general going into battle. Despite fielding her own candidates to the contest, she has a soft spot for Ji Young in whom she sees a bit of herself. She’s the stern mother figure everyone is terribly afraid of, and yet will fiercely defend to the ends of the earth.

The characters and their evolving relationships are at the heart of the drama. Miss Korea unfolds through the small, intimate moments in conversations and interactions between these odd balls and eccentrics, down-and-outs and has-beens. For instance, there’s the charming if unlikely love-line that grows between the older gangster Teacher Jung and Hwa Jung, the chief chemist of Ji Hoon’s company. I adored them together and they most certainly overshadowed the main couple for me thanks to being a really novel pair. Miss Korea ep 14

Another favourite is President Ma’s love-hate relationship with Choon Ja, a former lieutenant who left to set up her own beauty school–lots of comedy (and poignancy) with these two!  They are an OTP of sorts too in a drama that has many connective threads between it’s cast of characters.

Antagonists are plenty, from a former school mate-turned-investor, to petty pageant competitors. But none of them are one-note moustache-twirling villains. Ok fine, there is one, sort of, but he’s not that important.

For a show centered around beauty pageants,  Miss Korea surprisingly has much more to say than just regurgitating platitudes about beauty being only skin deep. It’s treatment of Ji Young, the pageant grande dames, and all the contestants, and the ridiculous regiments they have to go through, tells me the drama isn’t blind to the plight of women being judged as objects. But it’s a sign of clever writing that the social commentary is sly and funny instead of didactic.

At the end of the day, the drama centres Hyun Joon and Ji Young’s respective uphill climbs. They tackle their problems with gumption and a clear-eyed realism that’s a refreshing change from the relentlessly plucky and perky caricatures we’ve seen elsewhere; the drama throws curve ball after curve ball at them but they adapt, dodge, keep calm and carry on.

Even after the competition ends, the challenges don’t stop for them. They don’t get a happily ever after, you-win-at-life prize that so many dramas spin as fairytale endings. I really liked that nothing came easy for them. As in life, the curve balls kept coming. What matters is the company you keep along the way and the attitude with which you face the world. Hyun Joon and Ji Young didn’t always tackle things with selfless grace, but when it counts, they had each other’s backs, and they never stopped striving for themselves and each other.

Miss Korea Ep 5

Don’t mess with the Pres

All the performances here are top-notch, notably from the older veterans Lee Mi Sook, Lee Sung Min and Hong Ji Min who are a tonne of fun to watch. Lee Sung Min as Teacher Jung steals every scene he’s in! The younger actors aren’t too shabby either– Lee Sun Kyun has a rare ability to make Hyun Joon the arrogant male lead feel approachable and sincere. He’s more like the Everyman version of the jerk chaebol we’re familiar with.

But it’s Lee Yoon Hee who can walk away from this with pride. Having been written off as a terrible actress before this role, she’s  convincing as Ji Young. It feels like she might have drawn from her own experience of being dismissed for being just another talentless pretty face. It’s not powerful prize-winning work, but it’s credible and solid.

So much to love here, and yet I never did quite fall in love with this drama. The main drawback for me was there’s little forward momentum to story. Even the climax of pageant finals felt strangely devoid of urgency. I picked this up as it aired, and then dropped it as my attention kept wandering.

But I felt a certain pull to return to it–maybe because it had so many curious ladies–and I’m really glad I did, because then I realised that the story is meant to unfold like a gently rippling brook, not in tidal waves of epic drama. Not much excitement here, but plenty of subtle low-key delights. It’s so low-key, sedate even, that there were times I wished it was more compulsive viewing.

But despite this, and a few minor missteps like some dissatisfaction with Hyun Joon’s character and the flimsiness of two of his Vivi Cosmetics comrades, I’d say Miss Korea is a winner.

N/B: To appreciate some of the drama’s realistic touches and for more context of the ’97 crisis, I suggest reading Ask a Korean’s primer . It’s detailed but not in an annoying, info-dumpy way.

Miss Korea 

Starring: Lee Sun Kyun, Lee Yoon Hee, Lee Mi Sook, Lee Sung Min, Hong Ji Min
Overall rating: 4/5
Recommended: Yes, and if you get sleepy just "pull it all into your anus"
Director: Kwon Seok Jang
Screenwriter:  Seo Sook Hyang (Pasta)

 

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15 thoughts on “Review: Miss Korea (MBC, 2014)

  1. Yay! You finished it! And, why do you write so good? Ugh! Jealous! Anyway, great review. As you know I had a different experience as I did get hooked on it and felt the compulsion to watch each week. I agree on Teacher Jung being extra awesome and all the ladies of course. I was in love with so many female characters in this! I didn’t think of Hyoon Joon as a chaebol? I thought of him as an underdog from the start seeing him so powerless and struggling to save his company. I felt his pain but I also got mad at him when he was trying to use JiYoung and practically sell her to that eeky ex classmate turned investor. Defintely gray characters all of them and a very unique story in my opinion. It’s among my favorites (although I still have many dramas to watch :))

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    • Shucks, thanks for the kind words my dear!

      Yeah funny how we watch the same thing and can have entirely different experiences! I didn’t see Hyun Joon as a chaebol, I mean that he had that arrogant jerky demeanour that we expect frm chaebol leads. You didn’t get that? I was kind of put off by him in the begining especially since I got the impression that he thought himself better than her. Which they never addressed!!
      I loved all the ladies here, truly a wealth of wonderful, multifaceted women. Not a weakling in sight!!

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      • He did see himself as someone with more ambition than her maybe? I’m not sure but when they were younger I think he wanted to study while she only wanted to be his girlfriend right? I vaguely recall him trying to encourage her to study? So yes, I think he was embarrassed by her but I found it interesting that his “superior” attitude had nothing to do with social class. It’s still wrong but it was “different” and I can understand him to a certain extent. In the “present” she didn’t want him to drag her down right? She finally had a dream and she didn’t want him to get in the way, and it seems like he felt the same about her in the past? So I found the evolution of their relationship beautiful, romantic, because both were real people, with their selfish side, their individual dreams and drive but somehow found themselves caring for the other and found a way to be a supportive team.

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      • Yeah you’re right in that it wasn’t class that got between them and that is different from the usual. He basically outgrew her and dumped her (I guess, coz I don’t think they showed how they broke up right?) Growing apart coz you hv diff goals and dreams is realistic yes, but I got the sense that he always thought himself better than her which irks me. And the way he approached her in the beginning didn’t do him any favours, and that whole “pimping” thing–yeeeurgh. But they evolved together so wonderfully, and really became a team, that I was happy to overlook his icky beginnings.He super redeemed himself in that way, but I wished they’d addressed the reasons for their earlier breakup, and allow her some kind of like, yeah you were a dick to me moment, and allow him to say how much he regrets thinking she wasn’t good enough for him. I think that would’ve rounded out their whole relationship, cos it seemed like there was some of baggage on her part.

        And I loved how she was the one who, when he was trying to be the noble idiot, was like, no you’re not! Nope having that!

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      • Ahhhh she was so awesome wasn’t she? I shed tears when she busted his noble idiocy attempt. I agree about what you said before. I had not thought about but you are right.

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      • Thank you for your very detailed review. I was obsessed with it as it aired and continue to love it in my rewatch.
        I want to point out that yes, their break-up was shown explicitly, in episode 9. He wanted her to dream bigger for herself, even offering to help her, but she did not want the same thing. She did not want to spend their time together studying like he suggested, she wanted to go out and have fun with him.

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  2. Great review! I really liked Miss Korea, even if it felt a little slow to start. Once we got to the actual pageant I was hooked. As I was watching this along with You From Another Star, I felt as though I cared more for the Miss Korea characters than the YFAS ones. I love it when dramas have strong female characters, and in this case there were several. I was really taken with Ji Young and Ma Won Jang. Even Jae Hee was quite a compelling character with a proper backstory, but the actress was a newbie.

    I’d like to think that on a bleak day, watching Miss Korea gives one hope.

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    • Thanks for reading! I dropped YFAS like a hot potato halfway through so no points for guessing which one ranks much higher in my book. Jae Hee was great! She upended my expectations, as did so many of the ladies in this show. MK IS very hopeful isn’t it? And I loved the overall sense that it gave me of life being a journey of ups and downs, and it’s the people around you who’ll make it worth while 🙂

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  3. I enjoyed this drama too, also because of the down to Earth feeling it has. The part where the girls had to sing and dance like a professional girl’s band was very good actually, not just an easy made thing for the occasion.

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  4. Sounds like a great drama for my daily drama night-cap, actually. Low-key but interesting and meaningful, and not overly exciting or cracky (coz otherwise how will I get any sleep?). I had to stop reading about halfway, coz I felt I was getting into overly spoilery territory, but from what I did read, it definitely sounds like a drama that’s worth checking out 🙂

    Also, if this is your stream-of-consciousness review, you can totally keep at it. You sound completely coherent to me! ^^

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    • Oh dear, was it spoilery? You mean the part about the relationships and love lines?? Eeek, I’ll put up a warning in a bit. Sorry!
      And yes it’s THE perfect drama to unwind to. And yes, lots of goodies here, particularly the awesome womenfolk!
      And this a modified SOC writing, I just didn’t bother to rewrite and edit a whole lot. 😀

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  5. I watched the first episode, and stopped because of several “issues” that came up for me. But then I started reading all these great reviews for it, making it sound like the kind of drama I’d enjoy watching, so I tried again. Still couldn’t get into it. In case anyone else felt the same way, I’d like to share the “problems” I had with this drama:
    First off, I’d like to say I loved Pasta, the screenwriter’s previous work. I loved the male lead in Pasta, he showed that he could be the male lead. I liked the shy vibe of the drama, you could feel the two leads liked each other, yet it managed to be an enjoyable romance without any need for kissing. For me, that was satisfying enough. Can’t say the same for others who felt it was missing some physical action in the love department.
    I gave it some thought, and compared my completely different reactions to Pasta and Miss Korea, and realized that it might be because of the female leads that I loved one and not the other. I don’t like to criticize actors and actresses harshly, I try not to say anything if I don’t have anything nice to say, but honestly, it’s the female lead that mostly led me to drop this drama. She is not expressive enough, you don’t feel her vulnerability or what she’s thinking. I miss Gong Hyo Jin’s softness and the warmth she gave her role in Pasta. The sweet smiles that lit up the screen. The quiet joy that you felt watching her in Pasta. Sometimes it’s nice watching different actresses and see how they portray their characters, and find out that some are indeed more adept at it than others. Let’s just say in my personal opinion the female lead was miscast in Miss Korea. Lastly, I did not like the big age difference between the main characters in real life. If they were supposed to be in school at the same time, they should be no more than 4-5 years apart, not 13 years! I know that men look more youthful than women, and the male lead does not show his age, but it’s too much. They can’t expect viewers to believe a 39 year old man went to school with a 26 year old woman, do they? They’re practically from different generations, and the difference shows in subtle, unconscious ways. As someone who is interested in film, that kind of unnatural casting bothers me. As a director/screenwriter, I would not allow it to happen, because it just makes things harder.

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    • Yeah, if you didn’t take to Lee Yoon Hee it would be hard to get into this drama to say the least. Was it an indelible performance, one that no other actress could hv played? No it wasn’t, but I thought she did well enough for me to feel for her character, and she never once took me out of the story. Same goes for the age gap between the actors. It’s impossible not to notice it, but it was a minor issue because the story was meaty enough, and the overall quality of both actors performances were above par enough for me to let it go. Both the leads had a lovely rapport too, not sizzling, but sweet and familiar. I think that helped sell the relationship as well and overcome the visible age difference. Thanks for reading, and for sharing your well considered thoughts! And I should watch Pasta at some point too…

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