THE SHORT VERDICT:
Old-school, classic kdrama of the romantic, melodramatic variety, circa 2001.
Although not quite as wildly popular as Winter Sonata or Autumn In My Heart, Beautiful Days is actually a pretty good watch when you’re in the mood for retro melo.
Yes, it’s angsty, but it’s not depressingly so.
Plus, our male lead is a very smoldery Lee Byung Hun oozing oodles of machismo. If you like your kdrama heroes of the manly man variety, you might want to check this out.
THE LONG VERDICT:
Because Beautiful Days is a 2001 drama, there is a lot about it that fits snugly into that melo mold of yore that we’ve come to recognize. Pretty much any drama trope that you can name, you’ll find within the first 2 episodes.
In the first episode alone, there is murder, childhood crossing of paths, a car accident, a lost sister, a couple of dead parents & a dead grandmother, step-sibling hatred and a good dose of family politics.
Typical stuff of the classic kdrama that we’ve all seen before, right?
Well, yes. But all this makjang intensity is mostly in the set-up, and once we’re in the context of where our story happens (Ok, it takes 3 whole time skips to get there, but at least we get there quick, within the first episode), there is stuff to enjoy.
Mostly, I enjoyed the dynamics between certain characters, the chemistry between our OTP, and Lee Byung Hun’s magnetic turn as Lee Min Chul.
Lee Byung Hun as Lee Min Chul
I cannot deny that it was Lee Byung Hun that had me glued to my screen the first time I watched Beautiful Days.
Not only did he make Min Chul a believable, faceted character, he made Min Chul knee-wobblingly sexy. I was helpless in the face of his smoldering stares, meaningful gazes and sensuous kisses.
Yep, you read that right. We have actual hot sensuous kissing in a 2001 retro drama.
I present to you Exhibit A: Smoldering Stare:
Exhibit B: Meaningful Gaze:
And Exhibit C: Sensuous Kiss:
That’s pretty much how he affected me all series long. Coz there’s lots more smoldering and smooching where that came from.
More swoony stuff to come, I promise, but first, I’d like to credit Lee Byung Hun with a pretty awesome performance as Lee Min Chul.
Min Chul is written as a cold, aloof person in general, who is suspicious of others, due to his twisted childhood. Yon Soo (Choi Ji Woo) becomes the one to whom he turns when he is feeling down. But when he feels like she’s let him down &/or he feels threatened by her closeness to Sun Jae (Ryu Shi Won), he shuts her out.
When Min Chul gets angry, he’s like a caged animal, barely contained.
Lee Byung Hun was completely believable as Min Chul, and made him a faceted character with real pride, palpable inner conflicts, and emotional vulnerability. He made Min Chul feel very real, from every angle, as Min Chul charted a journey of personal growth through the show.
Here are just a few screencaps to showcase a few of the facets that Lee Byung Hun gave Min Chul.
Here’s Min Chul’s usual confident, charismatic persona:
And here’s Min Chul, pensive and broody in private:
And mildly angsty:
Yet sometimes cute & boyish:
At other times, tortured:
And completely devastated:
I enjoyed watching Lee Byung Hun in this character. He gave a wonderfully layered performance and it was quite a pleasure to behold. It made watching the sad parts worthwhile, because his portrayal was complex and moving.
The role gave him the scope to draw on so many different emotions at the same time, affording Lee Byung Hun many opportunities to dig deep and let his acting chops shine.
Also, I feel that Lee Byung Hun as Min Chul is actually quite an accessible lead in this.
He’s not super tall like most leads are, and not in super ripped shape, and is a little chunky, even – he’s way more ripped in more recent shows like Iris and GI Joe – so he has enough flaws to be accessible and believable as a regular guy. If a regular guy had that much star charisma.
On a more fangirly note, despite the fact that he’s got awful retro baggy suits and pants on, and despite the fact that he’s obviously not in the best shape for this show, he is One. Hot. Man.
I found myself holding my breath many times during the show, whenever he did his intense manly, manly thing onscreen.
Lee Byung Hun really became Min Chul for me, and I re-watched this show just for him.
Choi Ji Woo as Kim Yon Soo
At first glance, Choi Ji Woo seems to be playing every other melo heroine that’s she’s ever played. You know the type: hardworking, kind-hearted, poor, generous, long-suffering.
While all that is true, I did feel that Choi Ji Woo did well in the role. Nobody does pious rose-bud lips like her.
Plus, let the record show that she acted in Beautiful Days before she did Winter Sonata and Stairway to Heaven, so this character isn’t as done to death as you might think.
While Yon Soo’s character is written pretty close to the perfect long-suffering doormat, I liked that the writers gave her character more dimension at times, and her character shows flashes of strength, stubbornness and selfishness.
I especially enjoyed Yon Soo’s chemistry with Min Chul, and their relationship dynamics (more on that later).
Ryu Shi Won as Lee Sun Jae
Ryu Shi Won’s Lee Sun Jae was not a particularly memorable character for me. Ryu Shi Won did a decent job of the role, but was otherwise forgettable, I thought.
To me, he was made of typical second lead stuff: super patient and nice, always a step too late, makes tons of sacrifices for the heroine who doesn’t love him back.
On the upside(?), there were times that Sun Jae was unintentionally hilarious, because some of his scenes were the cheesiest.
[MINOR SPOILER ALERT]
There’s a scene in episode 11 where Sun Jae, in all seriousness, takes out a styrofoam keyboard – yes, styrofoam! – and fake-plays it while singing to Yon Soo.
To make it even more cheesy, cringe-worthy yet hilarious, Yon Soo responds in complete seriousness as well, while the background music fills in the music void with real keyboard sounds.
OMG I laughed so hard at this Super Serious Scene! >.<
[END MINOR SPOILER]
I also had serious issues with his middle parted hair, which didn’t endear him to me in the least. Thankfully, they changed it up about halfway through the series, and he ended up looking much better.
On a slight tangent, I was fascinated to learn that Ryu Shi Won was originally intended to be the male lead, but that audience reactions favored then-lesser-known Lee Byung Hun, so the writers changed things up so that Lee Byung Hun could get the girl.
Woah. An early example of Second Lead swooping in to get the girl! Interestingly, it happened too in Hotelier – with Bae Yong Jun swooping in from Second Lead Land to get the girl – which aired at the same time as Beautiful Days, both shows competing for ratings in the exact same hour.
That’s some fascinating context, isn’t it?
Anyhow. This would explain various Sun Jae-Yon Soo scenes, which I will get into later.
Lee Jung Hyun as Kim Se Na
There was a LOT of over-acting where Se Na was concerned.
Se Na is one of the shoutiest characters in the show, and Lee Jung Hyun didn’t hold back at all. She was screechy so much of the time that I rather disliked her character.
BUT. There were times in the show where Se Na was more quiet and pensive, and those were the moments that I really preferred.
These were the times when Se Na felt less like a caricature and more like a real person, and I’m happy to report that these moments surfaced with more regularity as the show progressed.
Shin Min Ah as Lee Min Ji
Beautiful Days was Shin Min Ah’s drama debut. Considering what a big star she is now, it’s rather fascinating to watch her in her early acting days.
You can definitely tell that her acting is a little rough around the edges, but Shin Min Ah still managed to come across as fairly natural and believable as the spoilt little rich girl with emotional scars.
I rather enjoyed Min Ji’s growth as a character through the series, and Shin Min Ah made her likable even though sometimes Min Ji really acted like a spoilt selfish brat.
Lee Yoo Jin as Kang Na Rae
I seriously love Na Rae’s character, and I freaking love Lee Yoo Jin in this role.
Na Rae’s the protective Amazon / Xena, who fiercely protects those whom she loves, namely Yon Soo and later on, Se Na. She’s always the voice of reason, and she’s intensely loyal.
I love that she has a cheery, sunny nature which is hard to get down. I love, too, that she’s bold and outspoken and unafraid to appear unladylike. Nothing like most typical kdrama heroines.
Despite her tomboyish ways, Na Rae is absolutely gorgeous, as you can see from this screencap of the girls having a whirl at a bridal boutique trying on gowns for fun:
Aw. She’s beautiful.
And Lee Yoo Jin makes her believable and likable with her natural and uninhibited delivery.
Which is why I’d like to know why she’s been stuck playing supporting roles? She played an almost identical character, just 3 years later, in Phoenix (2004).
A huge waste of talent, in my opinion. Tsk.
The story itself is classic retro melo, which honestly isn’t my favorite genre, so I wasn’t exactly in this for the story.
It was the relationships and accompanying dynamics between characters that I found most interesting in this drama. Let’s take a lookie at the main ones.
Min Chul and Yon Soo
The chemistry between Lee Byung Hun and Choi Ji Woo was very good throughout the show.
In the early stages of attraction, Min Chul’s and Yon Soo’s scenes together were peppered with tension-laced interactions. I loved these and found them delicious to watch.
Once their relationship got going, their smooches sent the temperatures through the roof. Again, swoon-inducing, if you ever wanted to be kissed thoroughly and deeply by a manly man.
Later in the show, when their relationship became more established, their chemistry in their interactions was also completely believable as well.
One of the now-famous scenes that showcases this smoldering tension is the scene below, where Yon Soo can’t hold back her tears at work and Min Chul sees her crying through the glass door of the record store.
He stares at her for a long moment, then wipes her tears through the glass.
Completely cheesy, but so very swoony, right?
Early-Relationship Heady Smooches
In the early stages of their relationship, after they’ve started dating, the heady, intense excitement of their courtship is also palpable in their interactions.
In the scene below – which, come to think of it, is also pretty well-known – Min Chul steals a quick peck on Yon Soo’s forehead in a quiet moment at work and then walks away with a bit of a cheeky look.
As Yon Soo processes the moment that just passed, Min Chul swoops back in, taking her by surprise, this time for some serious smooching.
Squee! I replayed the scene several times, grinning like a loon and swooning into a puddle every time.
What struck me the most after their relationship became established, is how believable their skinship was. It was natural and believable; nothing awkward about it at all.
It was the little things, like how Min Chul touched Yon Soo, that communicated familiarity and intimacy in a way that screamed “REAL RELATIONSHIP!!!”
I really liked that about their interactions. Most of the credit goes to Lee Byung Hun, who used his more uninhibited character to great effect, like touching Yon Soo on the knee & absent-mindedly playing with her hair while looking completely at ease doing it.
Alright, besides the relatively frivolous (but oh-so-important!) chemistry stuff, I also appreciated how their characters were written to spark off and grow from drawing on each other.
I particularly liked that Yon Soo is the one who teaches the worldly-wise Min Chul how to express himself.
When Min Chul gives Yon Soo the contract for Se Na, he says it’s because he wouldn’t get to see her smile otherwise, and because she looks a lot like his mother when she smiled, it was a good investment.
Smiling, Yon Soo says,
“Must you put it that way? Just say you’re worried about me. Can’t you just say you’re worried about me, and so you’re doing this for Se Na? I still don’t know you completely; if you don’t put it simply, I might misunderstand you.
Tell me if you’re happy, or sad, or mad. Promise me you’ll reveal how you really feel.”
I loved that she taught him overtly, actually telling him how to express himself.
I found this a bold statement for a drama of that vintage, and doubly so, for a character who is as reserved as Yon Soo.
While Min Chul is the one who pushes Yon Soo around a lot, Yon Soo isn’t quite the complete doormat that she appears to be.
I really liked the moments in the drama where we were shown Yon Soo’s sense of self.
Somewhere in the middle stretch of the show, Min Chul’s father discovers their relationship, and tells Yon Soo to leave the house.
Yon Soo leaves without a word to Min Chul, and when Min Chul confronts her about it, he asks her why she should leave just because of what his father said.
I loved Yon Soo’s response. She tells Min Chul, “I left because I was angry, not because of your father.”
She tells Min Chul that she left because she feels insecure and small with him. NOT because he has more things than her or is better than her, but because her love for him clearly transcends his love for her, and she doesn’t want to be humiliated because of her love for him.
I love that she’s clear-minded and strong in her quietness and gentleness. Very nice.
Sun Jae and Yon Soo
Like I mentioned earlier in this review, Sun Jae was originally supposed to get the girl, which explains a LOT in terms of why the relationship between Sun Jae and Yon Soo was written the way it was, in the beginning of the show.
I’d watched the show already knowing that Lee Byung Hun’s character was the lead, so it had struck me as odd how Sun Jae and Yon Soo were given moments of intimacy in the early episodes. I found it especially odd for a drama of this vintage.
Here are just 2 examples of what I’m talking about.
Close proximity, tension-charged moments and a cute date.
While at first I was left scratching my head, it all makes sense now. No wonder the dynamic shifted noticeably once the writers changed their minds and started shifting Lee Byung Hun into lead position.
What this leaves Sun Jae with is to some measure, the classic One Sided Love That Cannot Be.
At the same time, the show does give him a growth arc, and he does seem to sincerely settle into a platonic friendship with Yon Soo, so it’s all good in the end.
Sun Jae and Se Na
From their accidental first meeting to the extended one-sided crush that Se Na nurses through most of the show, and then finally to their eventual friendship, Sun Jae’s relationship with Se Na goes through one of the largest growth arcs in the show.
For that reason alone, I find their relationship worth a mention.
I admit that I was really annoyed with Se Na’s dogged crush on Sun Jae through most of the show.
But by the end of the series, I rather liked the dynamic between them. They finally settled into their friendship, and they finally became fully transparent and sincere with each other.
I thought that this felt more genuine and more precious than if they’d tried dating, and I was happy with where the series left them.
Na Rae and Yon Soo + Na Rae and Se Na
I loved Na Rae’s friendships with Yon Soo and Se Na.
She’s so full of love, compassion and empathy for her friends, and she’s so fiercely loyal, that she would sacrifice her own interests for their sakes.
[MINOR SPOILER ALERT]
Na Rae’s dream is to be an artist manager, but when her chance comes and she’s assigned the nasty girl instead of Se Na, she says without hesitation that she’d rather not be a manager than to do it without Se Na.
She swiftly turns down the offer and laughs it off, before taking a moment in private to tear a little at the loss. Aww.
[END MINOR SPOILER]
Gotta love Na Rae.
She’s all about loyalty. When Sena or Yon Soo are upset, Narae literally comes running. She’ll scold, but ultimately, she’s always on their side. Best friend, evar.
I loved, too, Na Rae’s protective ways, particularly around Se Na.
Just check out how she pulls Se Na to her like a protective mother hen, not just when Se Na’s being threatened, but also in casual affection.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: gotta love Na Rae.
Have I mentioned that Na Rae looks like Cameron Diaz when she smiles? She does!
Yon Soo and Min Ji
I also really liked Yon Soo’s arc with Min Ji.
Min Ji starts out the show hating everything and everyone except her oppa Min Chul, and it’s sweet to witness how she slowly opens up to Yon Soo and eventually comes to love her.
Not only does Yon Soo help Min Ji to open up, she helps Min Ji to find her dream and pursue it.
I found the interactions between Yon Soo and Min Ji increasingly sweet as Min Ji started to care about Yon Soo, and their relationship growth was rather moving to witness.
One of the nice bonuses of watching retro dramas is the unexpected cameos that tend to pop up.
Uhm Jung Hwa makes a cameo appearance as herself in episode 1 and there’s a scene with hoards of fans screaming her name: UhmJungHwa!UhmJungHwa!UhmJungHwa!
She then shows up again in episode 2 to receive a singing award.
Also, Psy makes a quick-as-a-flash cameo appearance in a later episode (I think it’s episode 18).
Ok, despite the goodies in this show, there’s a lot of retro to grapple with while watching it, I have to admit.
Everyone’s hair is bleached to within an inch of its life. The fashion is atrocious and flamboyant. And they are rather heavy-handed with the OST; often the music is overly dramatic, though there are some poppy, happy, retro English songs thanks to the record store setting.
Plus, Beautiful Days dances on the edge of being strongly melodramatic, with lots of classic melo tropes used quite liberally.
Often, though, the show pulls a surprise by having a character respond differently than what we might expect in a strong melo.
[MINOR SPOILER ALERT]
One example is a scene where Min Chul is throwing his temper around brusquely with Yon Soo. Then when he tells her that they’re having dinner with Min Ji and she declines, I half expect him to explode at her, but instead, he softens.
Those surprises are nice and rather refreshing.
[END MINOR SPOILER]
The middle stretch gets a little draggy, but I found this an engaging and absorbing watch overall.
In the end, Beautiful Days is about making your days beautiful; about second chances, reconciled siblings, friendship and love.
Plus, it has a happy ending. Which is a pretty rare thing in old-school dramas.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Nice for when you’re in the mood for retro. Or for some sensuous smooches from a manly man hero 😉
FINAL GRADE: A-