THE SHORT VERDICT:
Quiet, low-key and unassuming, Miss Korea is the modest little drama that could.
What Miss Korea lacks in big plot movement, it makes up for with attentive character establishment and development, which gives this series its almost-but-not-quite slice-of-life, almost-family-drama feel. Populated by earnest characters who feel ordinary, real and likable, Miss Korea is the kind of show that one develops a slow but enduring affection for.
Another helpful thing to know: Despite its title and premise, Miss Korea isn’t really about beauty pageants per se. It’s more about how ordinary people muster up their inner mettle, to face seemingly insurmountable challenges; not only to survive, but to pursue meaning and happiness in their lives.
An underrated, heartwarming little gem.
THE LONG VERDICT:
In a nutshell, Miss Korea is an underdog drama about underdogs.
When Miss Korea aired, it was in direct competition with ratings sweeper You From Another Star, which took not just the dramaverse, but practically the entire world by storm. There’s even this article out there, detailing how the intergalactic juggernaut known as You From Another Star has changed lives in China.
Which means that the meta is just perfect, coz not only is Miss Korea the little underdog drama striving against more big-budget, shiny competition, Miss Korea is about a group of underdogs striving against more big-budget, shiny competition. There’s just something that I find so apt about that.
While Miss Korea is nowhere as cracktastic as You From Another Star, it’s endearing and charming in its own modest way. Given the chance, this one might grow on you yet.
STORYTELLING, FEEL & TONE
Despite its title and premise, Miss Korea really isn’t about our cast of characters fixating on the Miss Korea pageant per se. Rather, it’s about a motley group of ordinary folk experiencing a particular dark moment in South Korea’s economy. In 1997, jobs are shaky, businesses are going bust, and everyone feels the brunt in some way.
Which means that despite the show’s warm core, the overall tone of the drama is one that leans more dark and sober, and less bright and cheery. Honestly, sometimes it’s hard to watch because it’s just not easy to see characters that you’ve come to care about get beaten up by life. Because our characters are living in a time where everyone else in that world is struggling with desperation and hopelessness too, there are times when the watching the show can feel particularly sobering.
On the upside, the show doesn’t overdo it, and keeps the dark tone moderate. Another upside is that as our characters grapple with life, we do get to experience milestones, victories and payoffs with them, and these bring the bright spots to the drama.
Another source of bright spots is the regular flashbacks to our characters in school. Seeing Lee Sun Gyun and his ahjusshi friends decked out in high school uniform, acting like teenagers, is cute, ridiculous and never gets old.
The pacing of the show leans slow, and it takes a while to get to know our characters and their situations properly. On the upside, the show is carefully written. Characters are nicely fleshed out, and context is painted with care and enough subtlety so that the focus remains on our characters on a micro level.
Eventually, it’s likely that the show will sink its roots into you in a tangible way. By the halfway point, I genuinely cared about our characters. And by the time I said good-bye to them at the end, I felt them – and the show – linger with me.
As narrow as the focus can sometimes be, this show has a way of making me care. So no, you don’t have to be into beauty pageants to actually care about our characters in this show. Heck, at one point, this show even had me caring about lip gloss. As a plot point.
MY 4 FAVORITE THINGS IN THIS DRAMA
Treatment of the OTP
There’s something very fresh, genuine and natural about the way our OTP is portrayed that I enjoy very much.
First of all, the forming of the relationship feels natural.
When we first meet these characters, they are estranged and living very different lives, despite clearly knowing each other from before. I found the writing around how their relationship eventually blossoms believable, and the execution, organic. Credit too, to Lee Yeon Hee and Lee Sun Gyun for performances that feel sincere and authentic.
Secondly, the dynamic of the relationship itself feels natural.
This is not an OTP given to the dramatics that have become hallmarks of dramaland. We’re not dealing with a rich
alien chaebol and a dirt-poor Candy. We don’t get showy declarations of love. There are no Falling Kisses. Nor Dramatic Backhugs. Nor Endless Tears. Nor Noble-Idiocy-induced Separations.
It’s actually refreshing to see two regular, normal people fall in love and go about it in an understated, everyday, normal sort of way. It feels fresh and quite delightful to see them talk and actually communicate. And perhaps my favorite thing of all about this relationship, is this couple’s natural tendency and immediate instinct to be genuinely happy for the other person.
I just love how their demonstrations of love can be so subdued and matter-of-fact, and yet at the same time, so heartfelt and real. It shows us that you don’t need grandiose gestures of love in order to have romance; that we can potentially experience the same kind of love and sweetness too, coz it feels so accessible and normal.
There are a couple of things that I particularly enjoy about the relationship dynamics between our OTP.
And perhaps still on that point about their relationship feeling like something we can enjoy too, maybe we should be taking notes or something 😉
Equal Opportunity Skinship
In quite a departure from kdrama norms (& perhaps Real Life too, depending on where you’re coming from), our heroine Ji Young (Lee Yeon Hee) is often the one to initiate skinship and closeness.
Like in this scene from episode 20, where she cheerily greets Hyung Joon (Lee Sun Gyun) with literal open arms, so that they can start their date with a hug. How awesome is she?
Throughout the show, there are multiple instances where she is the one to reach for Hyung Joon’s hand, and the one to cuddle up close to him, and I love that she does it all without a shred of self-consciousness or petulance. Instead, she’s consistently warm and upbeat and cheerful about it, and because of this, I love her even more.
I’d love her more too, if I were Hyung Joon.
They really enjoy being together
Another thing I love about this OTP is how much they clearly enjoy being together.
Like this scene (above) in episode 6 where Ji Young finally tells Hyung Joon that she’ll enter Miss Korea with him. The childlike delight on Hyung Joon’s face, and the absolute adoration in his eyes as he looks at her is clear as day. And Ji Young finally smiles her first genuine smile of contentment all series long.
Another scene I love is in episode 11, when Ji Young literally runs home in the freezing cold in order to see Hyung Joon for a bit in the middle of the night, even though she’s supposed to be at the pageant training camp.
She quietly lies down facing Hyung Joon and when he wakes with a start, she confesses that it’s lonely at the camp. Hyung Joon asks, “And you want to be with me?.. I thought you said you wouldn’t like me.”
Ji Young admits it with sweet matter-of-fact-ness, “Yes, but it’s not going so well. So.. I’m just going to like you. A lot. I’m just going to like you.”
Hyung Joon’s face breaks into this gentle, tender smile with a mix of wonder and “what am I going to do with you?” in his eyes, while Ji Young smiles back at him contentedly.
Aw. Ji Young’s sweet confession is pretty awesome. And them just looking at each other, soaking up the other person’s presence, is really sweet.
I really luffed this scene.
I loved, too, this little scene in episode 16, when Ji Young and Hyung Joon finally connect again after the pageant, during which Hyung Joon couldn’t be present.
Aw. Wouldja look at those happy faces? They look they’re about to explode with joy from the combined awesome of Ji Young’s pageant win and being together.
Such a sight for sore eyes, truly. ❤
They demand tenacity from each other
One of the most awesome things about this OTP is that they demand tenacity from each other.
Instead of coddling each other in times of stress or difficulty, they each remain strong and expect the other to do the same. This standard that they instinctively set, to be their best and to expect the best, really helps each to draw out the mettle and strength of the other, and I think it’s just fantastic stuff.
One example is this scene in episode 8, when Ji Young can’t sleep coz she’s nervous about the pageant preliminaries and wakes up Hyung Joon in the middle of the night.
She confesses how nervous she is, and instead of holding her and telling her it’ll all be ok like other male leads in dramaland might’ve done, Hyung Joon suggests that they practice together, and they start to run through her paces right there in his bedroom.
Later, Ji Young dives under the blankets to avoid potentially being discovered when they hear footsteps outside the room, and our OTP gets to spend a few moments up-close-and-personal. It’s a potentially rawr-inducing moment, and to Hyung Joon’s credit, he doesn’t try to kiss her. I love that he chooses instead to address her main concern – the competition – and tells her gently and reassuringly, “Don’t be nervous. You’re going to do well.”
Another similar moment that I really love is in episode 11.
After the representative from BaDa Cosmetics, Kim Kang Shik (Jo Sang Ki), makes a barefaced threat to Hyung Joon to give up or risk losing his company, both Ji Young and Hyung Joon tell him without hesitation that they won’t give up.
After Kang Shik walks away, Ji Young immediately turns to Hyung Joon and tells him, “Good job. If you said you were going to give up, I would’ve beaten the crap out of you.”
Hyung Joon tells her that she might really not be able to become Miss Korea and asks her if she still thinks he did a good job. Ji Young replies, “Well, because of me your company might fall apart. Did I still do well?”
Hyung Joon thoughtfully nods his agreement. And then Ji Young smiles, and Mms her agreement too.
I just freaking love that they insist on each other’s courage and tenacity without hesitation.
How awesome is Ji Young’s immediate response to Hyung Joon, that she would’ve beaten him up if he’d given up? I love that they both refuse to cave even though the stakes are high for them both. Hyung Joon won’t give up even if it means that he may not be able to save his company because of Ji Young, and Ji Young won’t give up even if it means that she may not win Miss Korea because of Hyung Joon.
There’s something so very endearing and awesome about that.
They really care about each other
Another fantastic thing about this couple is how they truly care for each other. Each is genuinely happy for the other person, regardless of his or her own circumstances. In fact, I’d venture to say that each thinks of the other’s success, safety and happiness first, before thinking of their own. And this is something that happens consistently over the course of the show.
A classic example of this dynamic at work between them is at the end of episode 15. Hyung Joon finally staggers past a shop window and sees Ji Young accepting her Miss Korea crown on TV. He’s just had the Worst Day Ever, and at this moment in time, has pretty much lost everything. His life is officially a mess. And yet, he smiles with tearful joy to see that Ji Young has achieved her dream.
On stage, Ji Young has no idea what’s happened to Hyung Joon and why he never showed up for the pageant, but she thanks him and the Vivi team with grateful tears in her eyes and tells them that she’s standing on the stage wearing the BB cream that they personally made.
I love that Hyung Joon instinctively shares in Ji Young’s joy despite the chaos in his own life, and I love that Ji Young trusts him and thanks him and finds a way to plug the BB cream right away on top of it all.
I love that they care about each other in such a deep and genuine way.
The Surprise Secondary Couple [SPOILER]
Another significant highlight in the show for me is the coming together of the odd couple, Teacher Jung (Lee Sung Min) and Dr. Go Hwa Jung (Song Sun Mi).
I’m pretty impressed with the writers for pulling this off, coz the two characters are as different as chalk and cheese, what with one being a gangster debt collector and the other being a genteel researcher. Plus, they start out the show hating each others’ guts too. Despite all that, how they come together feels believable and organic. Kudos to the writers, and to the actors too, for making this relationship feel authentic and engaging.
Even more than the cuteness of their awkward courtship, I really enjoyed watching their gruff expressions of self-sacrificing love for each other. Like Teacher Jung giving up his house to get funds for the Vivi team so that Hwa Jung won’t be heartbroken by Vivi’s failure. Or Hwa Jung giving up her apartment so that Teacher Jung has a place to sleep. And possibly my favorite one of them all: Teacher Jung going back to Jeju Island to get Hwa Jung’s necklace back from the pawn shop without thought for himself.
He does it without thinking of getting back his own necklace. He does it without a personal agenda too, coz at this point in time, he believes that Hwa Jung is leaving for further studies and that there’s no longer any hope for them to continue their relationship. He does it for her simply because he feels that she’ll be lonely by herself in a foreign land, and he believes that having the necklace that her mother gave her, would give her comfort.
Aw. How sweet is that? ❤
This show is practically a masterclass in practical, everyday ways of showing love, I tell ya.
The Vivi Team
The Vivi team is a motley crew that really grew on me.
They’re an earnest, hard-working, good-hearted bunch of quirky individuals, and as we progressed through the episodes, I couldn’t help but root for this underdog team to triumph over their bigger, more established corporate competitors.
I liked their work ethic of wanting to provide quality products to customers at an affordable price; I appreciated their genuine pride in their products; I loved how wholeheartedly they try to help Ji Young prepare for the Miss Korea pageant, even though they have no experience in beauty pageants whatsoever.
Their earnest support of Ji Young is sincere and heartfelt, though, and I loved seeing how excited and happy they were each time Ji Young did well.
And I particularly love this shot of the quirky clumsy Vivi boys doing squats with Ji Young. Y’know. For solidarity.
Ji Young’s Household of Mothering Men
Another quirky, motley, endearing bunch are the men in Ji Young’s household.
From Grandpa (Jang Yong), to Dad aka “Mom” (Jung Kyu Soo), to Uncle (Jung Suk Yong) to Oppa (Baek Bong Ki), they all mother her relentlessly and are super protective of her, and it’s really cute.
I love how the men awkwardly try to figure out how to protect Ji Young as well as support her over the course of the show. They’re often clumsy about it, but their love for Ji Young is whole-hearted, and it’s clear that they would pretty much do anything for her.
From making a 180-degree turnaround to support her bid for Miss Korea, to giving her oily ex-manager (Jang Won Young) a sound beating to teach him a lesson, to recording a cheesy family cheer for Ji Young, to visiting her with food, this household of mothering men do all that they can to show their support and love for the precious daughter of their family.
And dontcha just love this shot of the men dancing and jumping in glee in their jammies while watching Ji Young compete live on TV?
MY 4 FAVORITE CHARACTERS
Lee Yeon Hee as Oh Ji Young
Just like how Jung Ryu Won went in my mind from meh to OMG-I-luff-her! in her role in History of the Salaryman, Lee Yeon Hee charted a similar journey in my mind with this show.
I’d seen Lee Yeon Hee before, in One Fine Day (2006) and in snippets of Ghost (2012), and I’d consistently found her pretty, but utterly bland and uninteresting.
Imagine how hard my jaw hit the floor when I found myself flat-out loving her performance here in Miss Korea. I mean, she makes Ji Young strong yet vulnerable. And she plays Ji Young so naturally, and gives Ji Young a distinct sense of fragility beneath her veneer of bravado, which makes her feel so accessible, likable and real.
I am so blown away, seriously. Where has this version of Lee Yeon Hee been hiding, all this time?? And can she never go away, pretty please?
There’re a good number of things to love about Ji Young, and these are my top 3.
What gets to me is that Ji Young isn’t fearless. She has anxieties and fears and insecurities just like anyone else. But she musters up the courage anyway. I love that about her. And she’s loyal while she’s at it too.
In the incident in episode 8 when she runs back home to spend a bit of time with Hyung Joon, she admits to feeling lonely coz things are tough-going in the training camp. Yet, she consistently doesn’t allow her peers’ persistent bullying to get her down. She stands up for herself and also bravely puts her chin up to weather it all.
In episode 11, the pageant hopefuls are all told that they will be signed to an endorsement deal with BaDa Cosmetics if they win, and Ji Young speaks up without hesitation to publicly turn down the endorsement deal because she wants to stick with Vivi. I love that fierce loyalty in her.
When the big day of the pageant comes around and the entire Vivi team doesn’t show up, I love that Ji Young powers on by herself even though it would usually take a whole team of people to get a contestant ready. Through it all, her vulnerability peeks through her resilience, and you can tell she’s being brave. I can’t help but feel proud of her for valiantly powering through no matter what her emotions were on the inside.
This screenshot is taken just a moment after Ji Young lets her eyes linger on the empty seats that should’ve been occupied by the Vivi team. Her gaze falters for just a brief moment, before she musters up a smile for the camera. If you look a little closely, you can totally see the sheen of tears in her eyes. It’s clearly not easy for her to soldier on without her team cheering her on from the sidelines, but she squares her shoulders and does it anyway.
How can I not love her, right?
Another thing I love about Ji Young is how gracious she is.
More than once, she chooses to forgive, when someone else in her place might’ve held a grudge instead. Like when she’s targeted and bullied during the pageant. And when she accepts the endorsement deal for Dream Department Store, despite the bad memories she’s had there, caused by her ex-manager.
Ji Young could’ve easily chosen to do the endorsement deal for a rival department store, since she’d been offered more than one endorsement deal. And she could’ve easily turned down Dream just to spite her ex-manager. But she doesn’t. When he grovels desperately before her, she doesn’t taunt him or revel in his misery. Instead, she accepts the deal and gives him a way to make amends, which is more gracious than most other people would be in her place, I suspect.
I particularly love how gracious – and honest – Ji Young is when dealing with Yoon’s (Lee Ki Woo) feelings for her.
In episode 11, Ji Young calls him out on his feelings for her, letting him know that she’s very much aware of his crush.
In the face of Yoon’s embarrassment, though, Ji Young is gentle, and doesn’t beat around the bush, “Don’t like me. I have someone I like, Oppa. I’m sorry.” She smiles. “You were one step too late.”
So refreshingly candid, yet while remaining gentle and gracious.
It’s no wonder Yoon is so smitten with her.
I love that Ji Young is determined and persistent and won’t give up easy. She’s committed to not only her pageant dreams, but to the love in her life too.
And perhaps the scene that best encapsulates that heartfelt, unwavering steadfastness in her, is this one in episode 12, when she confronts Hyung Joon about his plan to break up with her after the Miss Korea pageant, as part of his promise to Yoon.
After spending a bunch of time vacuuming the carpet while sorting out her thoughts, Ji Young doesn’t beat around the bush and gets straight to the point with Hyung Joon, “On the day that the Miss Korea pageant ends… are you going break up with me?”
When Hyung Joon only stares at her silently in response, Ji Young asks again, “Are you?”
Hyung Joon answers in the affirmative with a deadness in his eyes, “After I make you the first place winner.”
Ji Young smirks in response, “How touching..” then continues in steady, even tones as the a sheen of tears hints at her eyes, “There’s a saying that all the contestants have. ‘I want to be in the second half with you’. At the end of the first half, they pick the top 15 contestants. So, if you’re not in the top 15 you won’t be able to be in the second half, which is the highlight of the pageant. If you pack your bags and quietly leave the training camp, no one says anything. During the second half, they’re too busy choosing the winner of Miss Korea. Other than the top 15, no one remembers the other 37 contestants.”
Ji Young takes a breath as her voice begins to quiver, “Knowing you’re not going to be there, it feels like the second half is already gone. I feel like my life is just up to the first half.”
Hyung Joon begins, “Ji Young-ah..” but Ji Young continues, with tears and determination both rising, “So I decided. I’m going to make it to the second half of Miss Korea. And I’m going to make it to the second half with love as well. You just end it at the first half. It doesn’t matter. Just end it like you promised in the contract.”
With the quiver in her voice growing with each breath, Ji Young declares, “I’m not going to let you go. I won’t let you go. I’m sick and tired of not finishing what I started. Since I’ve lived like that my whole life, it feels like crap. Unless I’m crazy, why would I let you go at this point?” A tear rolls down Ji Young’s cheek, “You walk on eggshells around me. You’re thoughtful. You think I’m the prettiest woman in Korea. You’re going to make sure that I’m going to be called a president’s wife. And… And… you’re pitiful.”
“And?” Hyung Joon prompts. “You’re foolish.” Ji Young’s crying openly now.
Hyung Joon prompts her again, “And?”
Ji Young starts to cry out, “And…” ..and Hyung Joon swoops in to kiss her.
It’s a deep, hungry, searching kiss, and Ji Young kisses him right back. Hyung Joon puts his arms all around her and holds her tight, and again, she holds him tight right back.
Augh. So, so good.
This is possibly the best response to noble idiocy that I’ve seen by a character, ever.
I love how Ji Young works it all out and decides that Hyung Joon can break up with her as he promised Yoon, but that she’s not going to let him go.
What a great scene. It totally grabbed me by the heart. Can’t breathe and it feels so good.
Lee Sun Gyun as Kim Hyung Joon
Much as I enjoy Lee Sun Gyun (That Voice. Those Eyes.), I hafta confess that I didn’t always like Hyung Joon as a character.
There were moments in the show – mostly in the earlier episodes – where I watched Hyung Joon and thought to myself, “This guy can be such an ass.”
But that’s also part of what makes Hyung Joon feel like such a real person. He’s flawed and imperfect, and when he’s under pressure to save his company, he can make decisions that make him look like a self-serving, calculative, manipulative jerk.
Over the course of the show, though, Hyung Joon redeems himself as a character. Slowly but surely, I found myself growing to like him in increasing measure. And there were even moments when I admired him.
That’s growth, right there.
Also, I never ever got tired of seeing Lee Sun Gyun play Past Hyung Joon, all shy, dorky and bespectacled.
There are a couple of things that I really like about Hyung Joon, and these are my pick for top 3.
Hyung Joon really does care. Although there are times when his decisions are self-serving, when it comes down to the wire, Hyung Joon proves that he really does care – for Ji Young, and for the Vivi team. And when push comes to shove, he’d sooner sacrifice his own interests than allow something bad to happen to the people that he cares about.
Like the time in episode 4 when he walks onstage during the pageant and carries Ji Young off the stage, for fear that she’ll hurt herself trying to compete in broken heels. This, despite knowing what it means to their chances of winning, and by extension, to the future of his company. But he does it anyway.
Or the time in episode 6 where Hyung Joon is practically beside himself with worry over Ji Young getting breast augmentation surgery for free as the model for a clinic that wants to have before and after photos.
He rushes over to the clinic while Ji Young’s on the operating table and puts down his own security deposit money down for Ji Young’s surgery, demanding that any “before” photos be deleted.
That he uses the only funds that he has towards Ji Young’s surgery, even though she is still with Queen salon at this point, and even though this will put his company in even more danger, is telling.
Just as telling is how he then runs through the hospital hallways yelling Ji Young’s name. “Ji Young-ah!! Oh Ji Young!” … “Hey, don’t be scared! I’ll be waiting for you so don’t be scared!”
He totally cares. And I dig that very much.
He knows Ji Young
For all the years that Hyung Joon and Ji Young drifted apart, I love that Hyung Joon truly knows her and understands what makes her tick.
I particularly love that the gift that he gives her in episode 11, a little box to be opened “when you’re having a difficult time and need conviction,” turns out to be so perfect.
After a particularly harrowing first night in the camp, Ji Young remembers the gift box and opens it, to find it packed neatly with chewing gum sticks. The very stuff that she used to chew constantly, back in high school when she was the prettiest, most popular girl in school.
Ji Young takes out a stick, unwraps it, and starts to chew. Soon, she’s blowing her signature bubbles. And soon after, she’s got her smile and her confidence back.
Gah. I just freaking love that Hyung Joon’s gift to Ji Young is something so small yet so appropriate, and it hits right home.
He knows exactly what will speak to her heart, and he prepares it for her, in advance. So, so perfect.
On a tangent, I just love that idea of “common” chewing gum sticks neatly packed in an expensive-looking, elegant box. That’s a metaphor for Ji Young herself, a normal, every-woman entering the Miss Korea pageant that’s populated by more “high-society” types.
That the gum hits the perfect spot, just like Ji Young turns out to be the perfect Miss Korea that hits the sweet spot for the people? Even more perfect. ❤
Another thing I enjoy about Hyung Joon is that he’s smart. Like, really smart.
I’m not sure if the idea for BB cream came from him, since the show is never explicit about it, but the idea for colored lip gloss is definitely his. I love that Hyung Joon doesn’t let the past get him down, but powers on with new ideas for the future, while riding on the past. I think that’s a really great quality.
I also really love the way Hyung Joon finally resolves the animosity and underhanded under-cutting techniques from Kang Shik in episode 20.
As the Vivi counter continues to do well at the department store, Kang Shik saunters over to drawl sarcastically, “You made a lot of money.”
Instead of getting his hackles up, Hyung Joon replies amiably, “Ah yes, thanks to you.”
Then Hyung Joon continues, in the same genial, rather earnest tone, “If… by any chance… you’re thinking of stabbing us in the back by making a copy of our lip gloss through a distributor… well, you’re too late for that, Hyung-nim. The other general stores have agreed to accept our products again.”
Hyung Joon pauses, then offers a friendly explanation, “I mean, the customers are king. The customers are looking for it so what can the general stores do but comply? And I’ll say it again so you can bear it mind.” Hyung Joon leans forward meaningfully, “You haven’t forgotten… that we can make the BB cream too, right? If we wanted to, we can make a knock-off BB cream right away, Hyung-nim.”
Kang Shik raises his eyebrows, “Are you threatening me right now?”
Hyung Joon pooh-poohs the notion, “Ah.. I’m just saying let’s not be that way to each other right now.” Maintaining his friendly tone, Hyung Joon continues persuasively, “I told you last time. Let’s help each other out. Let’s live well together. I haven’t changed at all. And my thoughts about that haven’t changed either. If you change the way you think, then I think everyone will be happy.”
Kang Shik clearly understands he’s been defeated, but says nothing and simply walks away.
Cheerfully, Hyung Joon calls out after him, “Goodbye, Hyung-nim!” And then smiles this understated, contented, fantastic little smile.
I just love how smart Hyung Joon is, to resolve the animosity with Kang Shik in such a low-key, simple but effective way.
And I love how friendly Hyung Joon remains through it all, even while “threatening” Kang Shik. He does it in the friendliest way possible, saying that they should just co-exist together. And you can tell that that’s really what Hyung Joon is after – not to win, but just to co-exist comfortably. Very nice.
Lee Mi Sook as Director Ma
Lee Mi Sook is a total scene stealer as Ma Ae Ri, the larger-than-life beauty salon director who grooms girls to be Miss Korea, year after year.
Director Ma is elegant, classy and above all, completely focused on the Miss Korea pageant. Her experience and expertise practically spills out of her pores, she lives and breathes Miss Korea so much.
Over the course of the show, Director Ma shows herself to be a truly awesome character, and I can’t help but love her. Plus, Lee Mi Sook does a fantastic, fantastic job bringing the character to haughty, classy, arched-eyebrowed life.
Director Ma is one seriously strong character. She’s shrewd and very smart, and at the same time, it’s clear that she feels deeply too.
In fact, I felt that Director Ma was like a lover, almost, to her brood of hopefuls; not in any kind of hanky-panky sense, but in the emotional bond that she has with them. When they are with her, she tends to them with genuine care and seems almost motherly, albeit with a military streak a mile wide. The moment they are not with her, though, she is like a spurned lover, who won’t even give them a second glance.
We learn super fast that Director Ma is not someone to be trifled with.
Beyond the scary streak, however, there’s something that I found myself applauding again and again, and then again, over the course of the show, and that is, Director Ma is gracious and very, very classy.
Sometimes we see this quality in her play out in full scenes, and at other times, we see it in the little, almost throwaway moments. Here’s a quick list of Director Ma classy awesome:
- E7. When Director Yang (Hong Ji Min) suddenly cozies up to Director Ma after multiple scenes of direct, catty competition, Director Ma actually answers without malice and agrees to solve the problem. Director Ma really is a nice person underneath the hard outer shell.
- E7. Hyung Joon drags Ji Young to Queen Salon and asks Director Ma to do Ji Young’s hair just once. Most people in Director Ma’s position would throw them out, but she agrees to do Ji Young’s hair, in the spirit of fair competition. Director Ma really tends to surprise with her graciousness. And she really does have a genuine love for all things Miss Korea.
- E9. Director Ma shows us that she really does care about Miss Korea as an icon, and it’s not just about winning the competition. She doesn’t report what she knows about the malt water, and instead seeks to find a solution that will protect the Miss Korea pageant from further scandal.
- E9. Director Ma having dinner with Sun Joo (Kang Han Na) and offering to help her and her child if she quietly withdraws from the competition is the classy, caring Director Ma we’ve come to know. It’s in how she does it. There’s no malice and no threats, and she tries to understand the girl’s situation. She’s just classy and above all the screaming and hysterics that Director Yang engages in.
- E9. Director Ma doesn’t even jump to her own defense when Director Yang comes in kicking and screaming, assuming that Director Ma blew the whistle on Sun Joo. Instead, Director Ma looks at how Jae Hee (Go Sung Hee) should have come in first. And at how Director Yang is damned if she knows, and damned if she doesn’t. One of her strong beliefs is really looking at your own part to play in it, rather than looking at who to blame. Gotta respect that about her.
- E15. Director Ma doesn’t cave under pressure from Jae Hee’s dad (Go In Bum). Not only that, she gives Ji Young the tip to use the ladies’ washroom to get ready in instead, when Ji Young can’t find an available mirror on her own in the main dressing room.
A small-ish beat that I particularly love is how Director Ma quietly starts promoting the Vivi gloss in episode 19. It’s clear that she is doing it in part because it’s a quality product, and in part because she wants to help the Vivi team. I love that she finds a subtle, balanced way to do it.
When the situation allows for it, she presents the gloss as an option to her celebrity customer. She doesn’t just plug it willy-nilly. I love how she’s totally got her head screwed on straight and does what she feels is right, at the right time, in the right manner, never mind what people might think, and never mind her past competitive relationship with Vivi.
Her quiet way of promoting the gloss is just typical awesome Director Ma.
She may be a little eccentric in her fierce love for all things Miss Korea, but she’s also one classy, classy lady. Love it. Love her.
Lee Sung Min as Teacher Jung
From the moment we meet him, we can tell that Teacher Jung isn’t a very good gangster or a very good debt collector.
Given one last chance to “make good” by his disdainful President Hwang (Jung Seung Kil) through collecting on Vivi’s outstanding debt, Teacher Jung is effectively backed into a corner and close to desperate.
Lee Sung Min is fantastic as Teacher Jung, giving him shades of desperation and vulnerability and getting us to care about him as a character, even though he’s supposed to be one of the bad guys.
I remember the very first moment that I felt sorry for Teacher Jung.
It’s in episode 3, after he’s practically had his guts beaten out of him by President Hwang for not having made progress on collecting on the Vivi debt.
I just find it so pitiful, really, that he has to clean the bathroom that’s been smeared all over by his own blood. There’s just something so pathetic about that, that I just couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.
As the show progresses, we get an increasing sense of Teacher Jung’s attachment to the Vivi team. Even his attempt to sell the BB cream sample in episode 6 to BaDa is endearingly half-hearted, coz he’s clearly started to care about the Vivi guys.
Eventually, instead of hanging over them like a foreboding shadow, Teacher Jung starts to help out around Vivi, and I really liked seeing that.
Basically, Teacher Jung’s the kind of guy who’s all gruff grizzly bear on the outside, but is like a big burly selfless father to the Vivi team on the inside. I love that he eventually quietly gives up his house to stay in a motel, and uses the money from the house to help fund Vivi’s lip gloss venture. And all without breathing a word to anyone too.
At the same time, I also really like the friendship that blossomed between Teacher Jung and Hyung Joon, against all odds.
I particularly love this shot of the two of them, holding their breath in anxious unison and clasping nervous hands while waiting to hear the results of the pageant preliminaries.
Don’t they sorta look like brothers like that? So cute.
Special Shout Out: Hong Ji Min as Director Yang
OMG Hong Ji Min is a total hoot as the theatrical, OTT Director Yang, who’s clearly as delusional about her own elegance as she is crass.
Her characterization is anything but subtle, but Director Yang definitely brings the laughs with her melodramatic, affected ways.
One of Director Yang’s mantras which I might never be able to forget is the catchphrase that she keeps using to coach her pageant hopefuls on their posture.
Literally translated, it means, “The strength is in the butt-hole!”
Now that’s a phrase I never thought I’d hear in my kdrama. Nor a sentence I ever thought I’d write. Anywhere.
[END MINOR SPOILER]
There is one major and one minor weakness that I’d like to highlight with regard to this show.
With so much goodness to offer when it’s taken apart, it’d be natural to assume that Miss Korea’s quite the rollicking watch. But it isn’t.
This show’s main weakness is that it can be slow at times, and there are stretches where it feels like not much is happening. Those were the times that I had to muster up my will to power through.
While I appreciate that the show allows a good amount of time post-pageant for consequences, fall-outs and resolutions to play out, it also meant that the show loses dramatic tension towards the end.
[SPOILERS THROUGH THE END OF THE REVIEW]
On a much more minor note, some things aren’t ever quite explained.
The biggest one being, I never understood Kang Shik’s vendetta against Vivi. Considering that he’s the main source of conflict in the final episodes, it makes sense that we should know why he’s got such a personal agenda against Hyung Joon and Vivi, coz it’s clearly not all business. But we never get that explanation, and that niggled at me.
Another minor-ish beef I had was how Sun Young (Ha Yun Joo) and Jae Hee were portrayed as being unable to sing or dance to save their lives. And then quite quickly, a few episodes later in episode 14, with no explanation, they are suddenly stage-ready. That.. didn’t ring true for me and was a minor peeve.
All in all, though, this show’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses, and there are lots of goodies to be had for the patient viewer.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING
I really enjoyed the ending of this show.
Because the Miss Korea pageant happens so early in the show, we get to spend a good chunk of time with our characters post-pageant, and that’s quite satisfying indeed.
I love that we get to see our OTP do what they do best: consistently taking pleasure in each others’ successes and victories, and each putting the others’ well-being and happiness above their own.
I really appreciate the closure between Ji Young and Yoon. I love that she reaches out to him to have that talk to close things so graciously and amicably. Kudos to Ji Young for being that kind of girl.
Also, I freaking love the scene where Teacher Jung and Hwa Jung finally, officially get together. As the love-birds share their first official kiss as a couple, the Vivi boys try not to fall apart in shock outside the store. Their shock and dismay is hilarious as they sputter, “We can’t keep up. We don’t have that kind of power.” Hahaha. I practically cried with laughter at this scene.
Essentially, nothing terribly dramatic happens in our final episode, but it’s a pleasant, positive, heartwarming ending. And we come away with the feeling that the characters’ lives will carry on and that they will continue to stand strong in the face of any challenges, long after the cameras have stopped rolling.
And that’s a very nice note to go out on indeed.
THEMES & TAKEAWAYS
There are several strong themes that surface over the course of the show that I like very much:
- That there’s strength – and hope – if we would just work together.
- That even when faced with forces that are much bigger and stronger than ourselves, we have reserves of resilience and creativity that will help us to power through.
- That beyond a singular goal, it’s important to find meaning in life.
- That in life, there are second chances.
Thought-provoking and uplifting messages indeed.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Mild, warm and quietly satisfying. Like a mug of warm tea on rainy afternoon.
FINAL GRADE: B+