THE SHORT VERDICT:
A show that manages to showcase friendship, romance, family, and reaching for your dreams, all in one cozy, ragtag package.
Despite bits of heightened drama, Show manages to feel organic and relatable pretty much all the way through. A thoroughly believable & sparky OTP, a solid supporting cast, and a breezy OST all come together to make this a warm, cracky, comfort-food sort of watch.
Homey and heady, at the same time, in the best way.
THE LONG VERDICT:
I’ve always liked the concept of friends-to-lovers stories, where besties-for-years suddenly find themselves attracted to each other, and bumble and fumble their way towards romance. But, I must say that in actually watching friends-to-lovers dramas, I haven’t ended up loving that many.
Case in point: 2007’s 9 End 2 Outs (also known as Bottom of the 9th with 2 Outs; also known as Two Outs in the Ninth Inning – yes, it’s complicated), which most viewers seem to love, but which left me, well, kinda cold, if I’m being brutally honest. I just never really managed to get into it, even though I faithfully watched it from beginning to end.
I’m happy to report, though, that Fight My Way has totally and unequivocally bucked that trend; I found this one easy to like, and right away too. Woot!
OST ALBUM: FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE
Here’s the OST album, in case you’d like to listen to it while you read the review.
STUFF I LOVED
1. The slice-of-life feel
Right away from episode 1, I loved Show’s homey feel. It reminded me of the Answer Me franchise (which I very much enjoy – reviews here, here and here), except that this story isn’t set in the past, and is less family-centric. A romance with Answer Me vibes? Yes please, and thank you.
One of my favorite things about this show, is that it’s about ordinary people living in an ordinary world. It’s somehow extra relatable to have characters that are not just regular people, but are regular people who are struggling in life, and have shelved their dreams, and have had failed relationships, and generally feel like losers. I imagine so many of us have felt like that at some point in our lives.
On that note, I also love that this show makes a point of driving home the idea of continuing to pursue your dreams, even if nothing’s gone your way and life seems to suck big time. That’s a loving kick in the pants for all of us, I feel like, heh.
I love that through it all, the characters in this drama world deal with love, loss and everything in-between, in very relatable, everyday ways.
[SPOILER] For example, in episode 12, we get a couple of very sweet, understated reconciliatory scenes between Dong Man (Park Seo Joon) and his dad (Son Byung Ho). Beneath the gruff exterior, we see that Dad cares about Dong Man a whole lot, and that Dong Man returns the sentiment. I thought it was really sweet, that they both expressed their care in the same understated way: by slipping a bit of money to each other, when the other person wasn’t looking. Such an ordinary-looking gesture, but one that said so much about the heart behind it. Likey. [END SPOILER]
2. Park Seo Joon as Dong Man
I just luff Dong Man.
If I had to describe Dong Man, I’d say he’s like a big ol’ dim lug, with a giant, simple heart who loves big and gives big. He sees things in black and white, and is therefore bewildered by any grays in-between. He’s simple and honest to a fault, and doesn’t seem to possess a mental filter to sift the words that come out of his mouth.
So basically, kinda like an overgrown, very large toddler, who happens to also be very buff, and whose body seems to be very.. er, aware of the female-ness of his best friend (more on that later, heh).
Park Seo Joon does a fantastic job bringing the adorably dim, earnest Dong Man to life, and I found myself becoming very fond of him very quickly.
Even though Dong Man’s no-filter honesty is a bit of a running joke in the show, I found that I loved him all the more, for his childlike, artless lack of guile. With Dong Man, I never felt like I had to piece together what he was thinking. He’d actually be the first to verbalize what he was thinking; a trait which I found very refreshing, and quite disarming.
Largely because of Dong Man’s adorkability, and Park Seo Joon’s seamless portrayal of said adorkability, I loved rooting for Dong Man as he pursued his dreams – and his dream girl – all the way to the very end.
Here are just a couple of my top Dong Man highlights.
The impulsive straight-shooter
There’s something very endearing about Dong Man giving his honest best shot at life.
I loved the moment in episode 4 when Dong Man puts Tak Su (Kim Gun Woo) in his place, and then quits the job he hates, to pursue his fighting dreams. I also love that right away, he rushes to hug Ae Ra (Kim Ji Won). Instinctively, that’s what feels right to him, even if his brain hasn’t processed that he might like her. He just wants to share his highs with her, and simply goes for it. Gotta love that.
And then there’s episode 12, when Dong Man decides to grab life by the horns and give it his all without holding back. That’s a badass, cool sentiment, and one that I really dig. I love how he expresses that he’s deciding to fight Tak Su now instead of later, to rid himself of the ghost of that non-fight from 10 years ago. AND, I love even more, how he expresses it to Ae Ra, literally shouting his love for her at the top of his lungs. It’s all kinds of adorable and super endearing, and makes me wanna burst, a little bit. ❤️
The hyperaware clueless sexy boy
Being as simple as he is, for a good long stretch, Dong Man has no clue that he actually might have feelings for Ae Ra. In Show’s early episodes, Dong Man regularly finds himself reacting in very strange, acute, toe-curling ways to Ae Ra’s proximity, and his unsettled discombobulation is simply gold.
Major props to Park Seo Joon for delivering those moments in such detailed, painful, hilarious glory. Every time Dong Man is discombobulated by Ae Ra’s nearness, I felt like I could feel his every fiber reacting to her. Like the time in episode 9, when Ae Ra touched his ear. That shot of his feet squirming felt like such a inside, intimate peek at the way his insides were reacting to her touch. Mmph.
On a related note, as clueless as Dong Man appears to be, boy’s got moves when the occasion calls for it. The way he pulls Ae Ra down into a lying down position in episode 14, with just one tug of her legs, and then leans over her, is so sexy, and so manly. Swoon.
3. Kim Ji Won as Ae Ra
I’ve had a soft spot for Kim Ji Won for a long time, and despite my heightened expectations of her in this role, she absolutely did not disappoint. Kim Ji Won is, in a word, awesome as Ae Ra, and I love her.
First of all, I like that Ae Ra is so relatable as a lead character. She doesn’t have perfect hair days, wears slouchy t-shirts at home, and has moments of low self-esteem. She doesn’t have it all together, but she wants to have it better together, and is working to figure out her life. Isn’t that just like so many of us?
Besides being relatable, I also found Ae Ra pretty inspirational too. Through events big and small, we see that Ae Ra is truly a good person; the kind of person who loves fiercely and wholeheartedly, and doesn’t hesitate to help, especially if it’s her friends who are in need; the kind of person who often puts others before self; the kind of person who has compassion for others.
One of my early favorite Ae Ra moments is in episode 5, when she cuts short her date with almost-boyfriend Moo Bin (cameo by Choi Woo Shik), just so that she can be there for Dong Man during his debut MMA fight, even though she desperately doesn’t want to – cannot bear to – see Dong Man get hurt. That just says so much about how much she cares for Dong Man, and how she puts his needs before her own. What a sweetheart.
Another Ae Ra moment that really stands out to me, is the time in episode 14, when Ae Ra gets the job instead of losing out to the very annoying Hye Ran (Lee Elliya). I seriously love that the first thing Ae Ra does when she steps out of the room, is to marvel that she got the job. She doesn’t stop to gloat over the fact that she was chosen over Hye Ran, even though Hye Ran’s always lorded it over her. In fact, it feels like the thought doesn’t even occur to her. That one thing stands out to me, so much, as a profound statement of the kind of person Ae Ra is. She’s made of good stuff, she is. ❤️
4. Dong Man & Ae Ra together
Not gonna lie; my absolute favorite thing in this show, is when Dong Man and Ae Ra were together on my screen. Whether they were just friends, newly dating, or feeling their way through the uncertain, murky territory in-between, they were always a delight to watch.
Park Seo Joon and Kim Ji Won are fantastic together. They have such a shared, natural, easy vibe, that when I watch them, I truly believe that Ae Ra and Dong Man have been close for years and years, and as a result, feel super comfortable around each other.
These two bicker a whole lot, and don’t hold back at all, when they’re around each other. In fact, it kinda feels like they get a special kind of satisfaction ribbing each other.
To the casual observer, it might look like these two can barely stand the sight of each other, but what really got me, is the magnitude and unwavering nature of the underlying care and affection that these two have for each other. I absolutely love the friendship between Ae Ra and Dong Man. Every clue that tells me about much they care about each other – as friends – makes my heart swell up with the warm fuzzies.
As a bonus, Show dishes out regular flashbacks of Dong Man and Ae Ra, both of when they were just little kidlets, and when they were in school. I loved all of the flashbacks; it just felt so satisfying to watch their friendship, even then.
Exhibit A: I’ll rescue you; you’ll rescue me
I love how they fly to each others’ rescue in episode 2, when Ae Ra gets targeted by the bunch of sneering rich guys. Dong Man promptly beats up the guys who are giving Ae Ra a hard time, and Ae Ra then gets Dong Man out of trouble and the holding cell, by threatening the guy right back. They are just so fiercely protective of each other. Aw.
Plus, afterwards, there’s encouragement and crying and hugging at the end. Which of course had to end with a punch to the head. These two are so cute. ❤️
Exhibit B: I’m there for you, even when I don’t think I want to be
It’s super adorable in episode 3 when Dong Man is grumpy about Ae Ra summoning him to the department store, but quickly gets all proud-excited when he realizes she’s about to make her first announcement. The way he puts his phone up to the speaker to get a good recording, and then beams with happiness, is so cute.
In the same episode, Dong Man has a particularly bad day, getting humiliated by his senior at work. I love how Dong Man goes to Ae Ra, as an automatic response. I love even more, that when he sees her, he can tell she’s had an epically bad day too. Most of all, I love that he doesn’t say a thing about his own sucky day, and extends himself to be her shelter and pillar of support on her bad day, so that she can cry it out. Awww.
Essentially, I just love-love-loved the closeness between Dong Man and Ae Ra.
From the way she bawls at him in episode 6 for allowing himself to get hurt, to how they reflex-leap into a hug at the news that Ae Ra’s gotten an interview in the same episode, to the way Dong Man looks at Ae Ra in episode 9, when she’s on stage doing her MC thing, with so much affection, endearment, confidence and pride, it’s just a whole lotta warm goodness packed up in a bickery, prickly, affectionate package. ❤️
The hyperaware in-between
Possibly even better than Dong Man and Ae Ra being the best of caring chums, is the growing, confusing, often hilarious hyperawareness between them. Like the time in episode 6 (above), when Dong Man’s legs literally almost give out under him as he realizes belatedly that he’s been hugging a braless Ae Ra. Just priceless.
Along with the confusing physical reactions, we also see both Dong Man and Ae Ra experiencing confusing feelings as their brains struggle to keep up with and make sense of their hearts. It’s funny, poignant sweetness all around, and I giggled and melted through all of it.
Exhibit A: I don’t want you to date him
In episode 4, when Ae Ra finds herself caught between Moo Bin and Dong Man, I love that Dong Man basically puts his foot down, without even realizing why.
When Ae Ra tells Moo Bin that she and Dong Man are like siblings, Dong Man retorts, “We aren’t siblings… I don’t want you to date him whether it’s official or not.”
Ae Ra counters, “You have never meddled with my dating life before,” and Dong Man answers simply, “I don’t know. But I don’t like it now.”
I gotta confess, I swooned a little at Dong Man’s matter-of-fact declaration. And then giggled at the dorkiness of Dong Man tagging along on Ae Ra’s ramen date with Moo Bin, and getting all petty-jealous in his own corner.
Exhibit B: reflex couple behavior
There a lot of times when we see Dong Man and Ae Ra behaving in couple-like ways, even as they are officially just friends. I find it all very endearing and sweet, that by reflex, they already treat each other as significant others.
We see a lot of this reflex couple behavior in episodes 5 and 6. Ae Ra drops everything to go to Dong Man when he asks, and then bawls when he gets hurt. When she gets mad at him, he tries to apologize through the closed door. He rushes to the hospital when she gets admitted, and gets mad when he sees another man kissing her. Also, they each always rush to explain things to the other. Dong Man explaining that he didn’t ask Hye Ran to come; Ae Ra explaining that the kiss isn’t what it looks like.
This is what people do with their significant others, and it’s just quite charming that Dong Man and Ae Ra already function this way, without their minds or hearts any the wiser.
Exhibit C: You make my heart flutter
In episode 7, Dong Man rushes to Ae Ra’s side in the wake of her split with turned-out-to-be-an-asshat Moo Bin. It’s so sweet how Dong Man promptly kicks off his own shoes the moment he realizes that Ae Ra doesn’t have shoes, so that she can wear his. And I do love that when she starts crying, he knows just what she needs; something to hide her crying face, and a hug. It’s no wonder her heart flutters. And it’s little wonder too, that she blurts it out to his face.
“What’s it to you whether or not I date another guy? Why are you hugging me? I told you to stay out of it. I told you you’ll regret it.”
“Would I get involved if you did anything right? It’s because you always get hit and step on turd…”
“I’m saying you make my heart flutter.”
“My heart flutters… every time you do that. That’s why. My heart flutters. Something’s wrong with me.”
Aw. Gotta love that can’t-hold-it-in honesty in their relationship, heh.
As our OTP
I enjoy Ae Ra and Dong Man together, so much. As a new couple, their years of friendship mix endearingly with their new, adorable shyness around each other. Through the new-couple gingerness, they are refreshingly candid.
In episode 11, I love that Ae Ra tells Dong Man that he is actually Wrist Guy, and I love that she does it so matter-of-factly. She doesn’t try to hide it from him so that she won’t appear at a disadvantage for liking him first. She just tells him, and I love it.
I also love how guileless Dong Man is, as he approaches his new girlfriend. When he’s thinking out loud and stating that he’d like to kiss her, it’s super endearing. And when he’s articulating something that he’s thought about – like how if it’s all or nothing for them, then he’d like it to be all (swoon) – he comes across as so earnest and childlike. I luff him.
Here are just 3 of my favorite OTP moments in the show.
Exhibit A: I’m in trouble
In episode 8, Dong Man wins his debut fight against his bullying sunbae. First of all, I love how Dong Man is so precise and swift, in winning the fight. I also love how matter-of-fact and nonchalant he is, after the fact. He isn’t at all blinded or distracted by the lights, attention, reporters, or questions. He completely ignores everything and everyone – including Tak Soo and Hye Ran – and beelines straight for Ae Ra.
I freaking love that he spots her in a crowd so easily, even when he’s in the ring and fighting, and she’s got her face and ears all covered up. And his final pronouncement is so perfect.
“I’m in trouble. Now you look pretty even when you’re crying.”
AHHHH. OHMYGAH. I LOVE IT. That’s such a PERFECT way of flipping around Dong Man’s perpetual phrase, that Ae Ra looks ugly when she cries. ❤️
Exhibit B: Let’s date
In episode 10, Dong Man finally moves to make things official with Ae Ra. That moment when Dong Man suddenly moves his hands to cup Ae Ra’s face, I swoon. It feels so intimate; his gaze is so steady and gentle as he searches her face, and his hands look so large and sexy.
Love the kiss, and the way Dong Man says, “Let’s date.” And he says it again, and then again, each time searching Ae Ra’s face, with an almost pleading undertone in his voice. I love that he tells her he is going to kiss her again, that he wants to kiss her again.
It feels like there’s so much pent-up emotion that he’s finally allowing expression, and it’s all kinds of swoony.
Exhibit C: Does your stomach not hurt anymore?
In episode 13, while Ae Ra is mid-babble about how Dong Man used to be her errand boy in school, Dong Man interrupts thoughtfully, saying, “You’re eating tteokbokki well now. Does your stomach not hurt anymore?” And then he pulls her in for a proper, smoochy kiss.
I love that Dong Man’s been holding back his desire for sexytimes with Ae Ra in consideration of her IBS acting up. And that moment when he pulls her in for a proper kiss, because her stomach is ok, is hawt. He’s been holding it in all this while, just patiently waiting for her to be relaxed enough so that her stomach doesn’t bother her.
So sweet and so swoony. ❤️
5. The quartet of friends
In line with my affection for the long-time friendships in the Answer Me series, I also had a soft spot for the quartet of friends in this show. It’s sweet that they’ve known one another since forever ago, and still hang out on the regular now, as adults.
I love the little touches of them spending time together in their everyday routines. Like the way they have breakfast together in one apartment coz they all live literally within shouting distance of one another. Or the way they hang out on their secret balcony, with snacks and drinks, and chat the night away, while basking in the moonlight together.
These four were like a little hodge-podge family, and I found it altogether very endearing.
Special shout-out: the bromance between Coach Hwang & Dong Man
I found the reluctant bromance between Dong Man and Coach Hwang (Kim Sung Oh) a pretty endearing thing. I found it really cute, the way Coach basically fusses over Dong Man like a concerned mother hen. [SPOILER] Like the way Coach becomes all emotional in episode 8 after Dong Man gets his first MMA victory. Barely able to fight back tears, Coach wonders aloud how Dong Man could’ve held it in all these years. So cute. [END SPOILER]
On a tangent, I have to appreciate both men’s dedication to the role. Park Seo Joon definitely got buffer for his role as Dong Man. And so did Kim Sung Oh, who is literally looking the sexiest I’ve ever seen him. Rawr.
STUFF THAT WAS OK
The relationship between Joo Man and Seol Hee
The relationship between Joo Man (Ahn Jae Hong) and Seol Hee (Song Ha Yoon) is one of those things which added up to neutral for me, in this show. I didn’t love their story, but, I did feel like theirs was a story worth telling. On top of that, I also felt that they were a great foil for our main couple, to showcase that beyond the first flush of giddy courtship, couples often have issues to work through, and it’s not all a bed of roses.
The way we’re introduced to this couple, with Seol Hee as Joo Man’s hidden girlfriend at the office, I immediately felt sorry for Seol Hee. Not only was she Joo Man’s hidden girlfriend, it appeared to me that she seemed much more into Joo Man that he, her.
Even though Joo Man was sometimes sweet to Seol Hee, most of the time, it seemed like he was borderline ashamed of her, and that confused me and repelled me at the same time. Joo Man purposefully remaining in vague territory about his relationship status, and allowing people to think he was available when he wasn’t, is the thing that bugged me the most about his character.
Additionally, when Ye Jin (Pyo Ye Jin) actively started to pursue Joo Man, he didn’t encourage her, but neither did he actually discourage her. And the way he wasn’t being entirely honest with Seol Hee about the whole thing, made me so mad.
In episode 8, by the time Joo Man talked to Seol Hee about marriage, it sounded like he was giving in, a little bit, rather than like he actively wanted to marry her. I was pretty done with Joo Man by this point, to be honest.
By episode 11, I was actively rooting for Joo Man and Seol Hee to split up, and I was so happy for Seol Hee, when she finally did break up with him, and started to live her own life again. Not gonna lie, I found it pretty satisfying to see how miserable Joo Man was without Seol Hee, and I was happy for her, that she found a new purpose in life. I loved that she started her own little business, and did well at it.
In the end, though, I wasn’t very pleased with where Show left us with these two, but I’ll talk more about that later.
STUFF I DIDN’T LIKE
1. The clingy ex
I really disliked Hye Ran, who played Dong Man’s clingy ex to the hilt. Every time she turned on the aegyo and simpered in Dong Man’s direction, I disliked her more. Which probably means that Lee Elliya did a good job of the role.
To Show’s credit, Hye Ran eventually gets more humanized and becomes a more sympathetic character. Which I didn’t mind – as long as she left Dong Man alone, heh.
2. Show’s various missteps [SPOILERS]
Even though I enjoyed this show as a whole, there were a few times when I felt that Show could’ve done better. Here’s a quick spotlight on those things. Most of them aren’t huge deals, but I do feel like if Show had handled these things a little differently, I would’ve enjoyed my watch a little more.
E3. I feel like the big love ballad thing scoring slo-mo hero moments is getting old. This is the third kdrama I’ve seen it in, using the exact same song from The Bodyguard. First, it was in The Man Living In Our House. Then, it was in Strong Woman Do Bong Soon. And now, here. I’m genuinely curious: did the networks share the cost of the copyrights to this song, and are they now milking their investment for what it’s worth?
E13. I kind of didn’t want birth secrets in this show, but Show insisted on it, and by episode 13, Show had used the mysterious landlady (Jin Hee Kyung) a few times in key narrative ways, and hinted at potential parentage to either or both of our leads. I didn’t enjoy this angle. Why did Show have to hint at faux-cest between Dong Man and Ae Ra?
E15. The so-called turnaround by Kyung Ku (Kang Ki Doong) is kind of lame, to be honest. It’s not a result of smart writing or clever editing. He had clearly been set up to appear malicious in earlier episodes. And now, to flip it around and position it as all a misunderstanding, and paint him as a good guy who’s turned over a new leaf, just doesn’t work for me.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
The penultimate lead-up
Generally speaking, I felt satisfied with the penultimate episode, even though we are served with a fair bit of angst.
The dilemma for both Dong Man and Ae Ra feels real, not manufactured. Dong Man’s dream is to fight, and Ae Ra can’t bear to see him get hurt. I can believe that even though she knew Dong Man wasn’t likely to give up fighting because of her ultimatum, that she was desperate enough to keep him out of harm’s way, to risk her relationship with him and use herself as collateral. It’s a believable deal-breaker between them, and I wasn’t even sure how Show was going to resolve this one, since I couldn’t imagine either of them believably backing down.
Kudos to Park Seo Joon, whose delivery of Dong Man’s wide-ranging emotions this episode felt so real and raw. The desperation on the roof, as he tried to persuade Ae Ra not to break up with him; the overwhelming sense of loss and pain, as it begins to sink in what’s happened between them; the burgeoning sadness in his eyes, as he asked Bok Hee to take care of Ae Ra, because it seemed that he wouldn’t be able to, anymore.
So heartbreaking. Sob.
On another note, I felt satisfied with the treatment of the birth secret, in that at least it doesn’t make Dong Man and Ae Ra siblings. And I can see the similarities between Ae Ra and her mom; they both shine in the limelight and are opinionated and independent women, so at least Show has been consistent in their characterizations.
The ending itself
That said, I have to say that I felt distinctly underwhelmed – let down, even – by Show’s last episode.
Don’t get me wrong; I was rooting for a happy ending pretty much all-around, for our characters. I just feel like Show kind of gave up working to feel real and raw, and sorta copped out and conveniently gave everyone a neat bow, with cutesies thrown in, never mind if resolutions felt robust or well-earned.
For one thing, I felt kinda peeved when Show gave Joo Man and Seol Hee a sudden we-can’t-help-it romantic reconciliation. Sure, Dong Man had been miserable without her, but, Seol Hee had been doing so well without him, that I wanted her to keep on living her own life, and being strong, and learning to be whole on her own, at least for a little while longer.
I thought it would’ve been more powerful, for these two to have reconciled as friends; for them to have been able to accept and care for each other as part of the quartet, despite having split up as a couple. I would’ve been happy to have left them as friends who were learning to appreciate and care for each other all over again, with an open ending for possibly more, in the future.
As for our lead couple, I felt like the ultimatum from the previous episode had all of its gravitas robbed from it, with Dong Man’s proposal and Ae Ra’s sudden acceptance. Whatever happened to not being able to watch him get hurt in the ring?
I mean, I get that people can come to compromises, and people can change their minds about what is a deal-breaker and what isn’t. But, Show didn’t give us any of that. Instead, all of our OTP’s problems seemed to have been poofed away by one (admittedly rather swoony, resolute) marriage proposal.
In the face of all this convenient happiness, I acutely missed Show’s raw touch from the episodes prior. I wanted my real and raw characters to have an ending that felt real, raw and truly happy. I felt like with the convenient happy ending, that these characters were getting shortchanged – as were we, as an audience.
In the end, though, despite my disappointment with Show’s treatment of its final episode, I must admit that I loved many other things in this drama, and I will continue to think of this show, and Dong Man and Ae Ra in particular, with a great deal of fondness.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A tad short of perfect, but still a nicely balanced mix of real & raw, with warm & bright.
FINAL GRADE: B++