You know how the after-effect of watching a particularly lovely drama can (ironically) put you in a bit of drama rut, purely because everything else just pales in comparison?
That’s what happened to me after I watched Nirvana In Fire (so awesome that it ruined me for a fair while, for other dramas), and more recently, that’s also pretty much how I felt after the wonderful hearts-in-eyes experience of Weightlifting Fairy. Despite the slew of new dramas that came out after that drama cycle, I felt like nothing much was grabbing my heart. Which is when I decided I ought to check out this drama. After all, everyone had been recommending this to me, including people who know my taste in dramas well, and they all promised that I would love this.
Thanks to all of you who suggested this one to me; I did end up loving this. It’s true that sometimes – or oftentimes – friends know you best. <3
Age Of Youth OST – Butterfly
STUFF I LOVED
Truth be told, I’ve been sorta procrastinating on this review (ok, on this and a whole bunch of other reviews too, I’m sorry you guys!), and a big part of the reason is that I find it hard to talk about these characters in summary.
Each of these girls has her own personality, growth &/or romance arc, and each of them could be the protagonist of her own separate story. So to try and summarize all of that, without going into epic detail about each character, and without skimping so much that it doesn’t do this show and these characters justice, felt like quite the challenge.
Today, I give you my best attempt at distilling what I loved about this show, in as concise a fashion as I can muster. 😉
1. The relatable characters
I really enjoyed the ensemble of characters, with 5 very different personalities making up the main cast of this story. There’s Eun Jae (Park Hye Soo) the shy, quiet one; Ye Eun (Han Seung Yeon) the bright, pretty one; Yi Na (Ryu Hwa Young) the sexy bombshell; Jin Myung (Han Ye Ri) the hardworking, reserved one; Ji Won (Park Eun Bin) the outspoken, bubbly one.
As I followed them on their journeys and got to know them better, I was pleasantly surprised to find that despite the 5 of them being so different in so many ways, I could identify with each of them in various ways, and that made the watch experience so much more relatable.
[MODERATE SPOILERS] For example, as an introvert myself, I identified with Eun Jae’s painfully awkward assimilation into the Belle Epoque house. Also, having been in an unhealthy relationship myself, I found it easy to understand Ye Eun’s difficulty in leaving her jerk boyfriend. I also found it easy to identify with Yi Na’s search for meaning and direction, and Jin Myung’s struggle to follow her head and subdue her heart. I also found myself identifying with Ji Won, who often felt like no one else would keep the conversation flowing if she didn’t do something. [END SPOILERS]
Over time, I grew genuinely fond of each of these girls, and by the finale, I felt like I’d added 5 new friends to my life (which also means that I’m waiting with bated breath for Season 2 – please be good, Season 2!).
2. The various growth and romance arcs
It’s true that some characters enjoyed more screen time than others, but overall, I really liked that each girl had her own growth arc &/or loveline. It’s not easy to juggle an ensemble cast, and I think Show did a pretty good job, given the circumstances. While I do wish that Ji Won had been given more screen time (we saw the least of her, among the 5 housemates), I am generally satisfied with what we did get, and I really enjoyed following each girl on her journey of self-discovery and growth.
For the record, my 2 favorite lovelines were between Eun Jae and her dorky sunbae Jong Yul (Shin Hyun Soo), and Jin Myung and sweet chef Jae Wan (Yoon Park).
The loveline between Eun Jae and dorky sunbae is just so much adorable awkward cuteness; I found myself grinning so much of the time when they were on my screen. Of course, sometimes I found that I had to pause the watch just because the secondhand embarrassment was too much for me, heh.
On the other side of the spectrum, the loveline between Jin Myung and Jae Wan is so full of poignance and pathos, that I often found my heart aching for this couple. I rooted for these two, so hard, from start to finish.
3. Any time the girls are all together
My most favorite thing in this show, hands-down, over and above all the personal arcs and lovelines, is the development of the friendship among the 5 girls. From properly assimilating Eun Jae into the group, to breaking down barriers and clearing up long-standing misconceptions and misunderstandings, we get to witness this bunch of housemates slowly grow from a scattered collection of people sharing space, into a dynamic, cohesive family of sisters, and I love that. So Much. <3
Here’s a quick list of some of the moments that really stood out for me:
E4. It’s sweet that the housemates help one another, even when things aren’t exactly cordial – like them taking turns to bring blankets to Yi Na’s room – and even when they don’t understand what’s going on, like the way Ji Won just holds Jin Myung as she cries.
There’s something profound in that connection, like surface things can’t erode it. Like when Yi Na stands up for Ye Eun when Ye Eun’s treated badly by her boyfriend (Ji Il Joo), even though Ye Eun is the one who had given her the most grief previously.
E6. My favorite thing in this show, is to see the girls having fun together, and the Wonder Woman thing at the end of E6 is just wonderful.
E7. I do love that when Jin Myung needed someone to cover her job at the convenience store, that every single one of the other girls pitched in to help, even though it meant a sleepless night for all of them. Aw.
E9. I do love how all the girls show their support for Jin Myung as she goes off to her interview. The individual gifts, all labeled and set out next to her bed are so sweet. And Yi Na racing to the bus stop, trying (but failing) to lend Jin Myung a nicer pair of shoes too. Aw.
E10. The final scene of Ye Eun praying for her family, and then for her housemates, and then especially for Jin Myung, is sweet, and very telling of how much the girls mean to her. To her, they’ve become family. Love that.
4. The thought-provoking themes and ideas
This show is not as light nor as cheery as I typically prefer, but it’s got a sense of realism about it that sometimes throbs with truth, and almost becomes uncomfortable. I generally found myself chewing on the themes and ideas raised in an episode, long after the credits had stopped rolling; proof that Show had managed to get under my skin in a very good way indeed.
Here are 2 of the themes that I found particularly thought-provoking.
Episode 2: Lies
At first, it was all about the boxers, but by the end of the episode, you realize that when you expand the idea enough, it doesn’t only encompass bigger lies like Yi Na’s ambiguous relationships, but also the simple act of putting on makeup. Along with that comes the question of why we conceal our truth, and why we are ashamed of just putting our truth out there. It’s not something that’s going to make me stop putting on makeup, because makeup isn’t only about concealing truth, and is also about fun and self-expression. But it does make me think; why do I feel uncomfortable about showing my bare self to the world at large?
It’s also thought-provoking that all the girls have things that they want to hide. I felt bad for Ye Eun for how her boyfriend treats her thoughtlessly. But it’s also true that a lot of her discomfort comes from feeling unable to speak out her truth. She doesn’t feel able to confront him about giving her perfume samples and passing them off as an anniversary gift, and she doesn’t feel able to tell her housemates why she seems out of sorts. It’s pretty sad when you feel you need to create a pretend trip, and hole yourself away for a night, to create that facade of happiness that you want the world to see. And yet, isn’t that what we all do, to varying degrees?
Episode 3: Self-loathing & envy
Episode 3’s theme of self-loathing and envy feels poignant and sad. Yi Na rationalizes the decision to lead an easy life by depending on sugar daddies, but deep down, she loathes herself for living this way, and envies Jin Myung her diligent way of living, yet can’t bring herself to live similarly – and in that inability to bring herself to live similarly, lies another layer of self-loathing.
I feel like at the heart of it, Ye Eun also hates herself for not calling out her boyfriend on his inconsiderate behavior and just pretending that everything’s ok when she clearly doesn’t feel ok.
I found the self-loathing and envy among the girls ironic, but also thought-provoking. How often do we loath ourselves and envy someone else, not realizing that they might also loath themselves and envy us or someone else?
5. Show’s general handling
There’s a gentle restraint about this show’s handling that I really like. I generally loved the use of silent stretches, where the little details say so much, in the absence of dialogue.
These are two of the scenes that really stood out for me.
E4. We see how Jin Myung considers the various sneakers in a shoe store, before we see her giving Jae Wan the knife sharpener as a gift – and then we see that she’s still wearing that same pair of ratty sneakers from before. That act says so much; about how much she cares about him; about how she put him first; about how making him smile meant more to her than walking in new shoes.
E9. Show’s eloquence in its restraint really stood out to me in this episode, when Jin Myung breaks down and Jae Wan takes her home on his motorbike. The wordless scene says so much: her tired, broken spirit as she lays her head on his shoulder; his surprise at the action, and the importance of that moment to him, as tears sheen in his eyes; the music overlaid on that moment, so gentle and delicate, paired so perfectly with a moment that feels so precious and fragile. So well delivered and executed with so much care.
STUFF I LOVED LESS
As much as I enjoyed this show, I have to admit that there were some narrative choices Show made that didn’t work so well for me.
1. The creepy ghost thread
There’s a ghost/murder undertone to this show that gets introduced pretty much right away in episode 1, and I.. still don’t quite know how I feel about that.
On the plus side, it does act as a catalyst in driving our various narrative threads forward. However, I found the tonal shifts rather jarring, and therefore found the ghost thing a bit of an annoying distraction from all the other good things going on in our story.
2. The reveal [SPOILERS]
In episode 10, Show reveals that Ji Won had lied about being able to see ghosts, which is supposed to turn everything on its head and be super clever. I think.
For me, though, the reveal didn’t work very well. In all the earlier instances when Ji Won had talked about seeing ghosts, she’d looked dead serious; not deadpan-I’m-actually-joking serious, but Dead Serious. And, significantly (for me, anyway), she’d looked genuinely alarmed when she’d said that the ghost was angry.
Which means that this reveal didn’t work for me; I felt underwhelmed more than anything, to be honest. I felt like the writer had either copped out, or like they hadn’t informed Park Eun Bin that Ji Won was supposed to be lying, and so she hadn’t realized that her character didn’t actually see ghosts, and therefore failed to tweak her delivery to accommodate the deception.
Maybe if Park Eun Bin’s delivery of the ghost-related lines could’ve been more ambiguous, this might have worked better for me.
3. The kidnapping arc [SPOILERS]
The kidnapping arc in episode 11 felt a little sudden to me, even though Show had hinted at Doo Young’s violent tendencies before. It doesn’t feel so much like Show didn’t build up to it; it just feels like Show chose a more dramatic path than was absolutely necessary. Which is pretty much my beef with this arc, because it felt at odds with the otherwise restrained handling of the narrative.
Still, it was great to see that the girls picked up on Ye Eun’s situation from clues that arose purely from how well they know Ye Eun, and it was also great to see them dash over to save Ye Eun without any hesitation. The boys each running over to see their girls was also rather sweet, even though I found it weird that after that First Proper Date, that this is the only contact we’ve seen Jin Myung having with Jae Wan.
The other thing that felt out of place (for lack of a better word), is the fact that in the news clip, it is mentioned, among the other charges, that Doo Young is also being charged with rape. I would imagine that if Show really wanted to go there (not that I think it’s necessary for Show to go there, since it’s a very traumatic subject), that there should have been some indication of it in the scenes between Doo Young and Ye Eun while he was holding her captive.
Essentially, I feel it’s a disservice to the subject, and to everyone (including every rape victim anywhere, ever), to toss the word “rape” in, then casually gloss over it, particularly since Show chooses to show Ye Eun completely bright and cheery in the aftermath of her kidnapping.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
Going into the finale hour, I already knew that we would get an open-ended sort of ending, because 1, there was just way too much stuff to have it all resolved in a single hour, and 2, because that’s just not how this show rolls.
All series long, I’d felt like I was getting to simply live life with these girls; not the polished-up, SNS- & Instagram-worthy kind of life that people like to put on display, but the real, often messy kind of life. And well, the real, often messy kind of life just doesn’t get resolved neatly and conveniently because you’ve reached the end of a particular hour of programming. It’s precisely one of the things I like about this show, and I’m generally satisfied with where we leave each of our heroines.
I felt relieved for Eun Jae, that she could finally free herself of the burden that she’d carried all these years: the belief that her dad had quite possibly killed her brother, and the belief that she’d quite possibly killed her dad. It horrified me to imagine Eun Jae potentially carrying that burden for life, if the insurance company hadn’t come knocking, and started poking around for answers. It made me think of how our perceptions and beliefs shape our lives, and how it’s so important to not let them cripple us.
I loved how all the girls poured themselves into looking for Eun Jae and worrying about her, when she didn’t come home. And I love how they rallied round her, and assured her of their support and loyalty, no matter what happened. Aw.
Similarly, I felt relieved for Jin Myung, that (a) she didn’t end up killing her brother and herself, (b) she finally felt released from the burden that she’d been carrying all these years, and (c) she finally felt free to explore her life as creatively as she wanted. It is sad, what happened with her brother and her mom, but the silver lining is that the girls are all there to lend their love and support, even as she works at processing everything and moving on.
While I would’ve loved to see more romance between Jin Myung and Jae Wan this hour, I absolutely appreciate the sentiment, that self-care should come first for Jin Myung. She needs to heal and focus on herself, before she’ll be ready to properly love someone else. When she’s in a better, more healed-up place, I’m sure the relationship that she’ll be able to have with Jae Wan will be that much happier and healthier too.
I’m not fond of the new haircut that Yi Na sports by the end of the episode, but (shallow things aside), I am happy for her, that she’s finally decided to start valuing herself and her life. I found it a little amusing that she’s embarrassed to be searching for a purpose at this age, because really, she’s so young, and has so many good years ahead of her. I wanted to reach into the screen, pat her on the shoulder, and tell her that she’s not alone, and that lotsa people spend their entire lives trying to figure out their purpose.
I thought it was sweet of Yi Na to give Ahjusshi a gift bought with her own money, but I felt Yi Na wanted his approval a little too much, which made her gravitation towards him feel almost quasi-romantic, and that felt kinda weird. But, I rationalize that Yi Na sees him more as a father figure. I also rationalize that as Yi Na grows more confident in her own skin, that the approval of someone else will matter a lot less to her.
Overall, I feel that we saw a lot less of Ji Won in this series compared to the other girls, and that’s a pity. But I do appreciate the treatment of the burden that her lies had on her, and the process she goes through, of questioning the effect of her lies on other people. While we don’t see if Ji Won manages to stop the habitual lying, I did like the conversation that she had with Jin Myung, where, without the need for too many words, Jin Myung assures Ji Won that her lie didn’t affect her badly.
Another thing I do appreciate about Ji Won’s (limited) arc, is that even though Show establishes that her outspoken personality is something that intimidates the boys and gets in the way of the dating experience that she so dearly craves, she doesn’t change that outspoken personality for the sake of attracting boys. She continues to be herself, while still hoping to find a special someone, and that’s a sentiment I definitely appreciate.
Mainly, I’m just glad that Ye Eun got away from her jerk boyfriend, especially since we got to see just how messed up and violent he really was. Even though Ye Eun is overly bright in the aftermath, on further thought, I found this a pretty realistic interpretation of her character. We’ve already seen how much importance Ye Eun places on appearances, and the lengths she will go to, to maintain appearances.
We’ve come to understand that showing the world that she’s fine and living a good life is important to her. So, it really should come as little surprise that she would slip into denial in the aftermath of the kidnapping, and insist that she’s perfectly fine. It’s also one of the stages most people go through, I believe, in processing traumatic events.
So while we don’t get to see Ye Eun move beyond the denial stage in processing what happened with Doo Young, I do have trust in her sisterhood support network, that they’ll be there for her to walk her through all the other stages, to come out stronger and healthier on the other side. Because that’s what true friends do, and that’s what these girls are. <3
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Imperfect, but sweetly endearing in its imperfection.
FINAL GRADE: B++