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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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)