Not too long ago, lots of people on my Twitter feed were going gaga over Meteor Garden 2018, and so I dipped my toes in too, out of curiosity (yes, despite stating firmly that I had had my fill of the story via the J- and K-versions). I really liked the first episode, but found myself losing interest in the next few episodes, so much so that I ended up dropping out early, after just 4 episodes.
BUT! Plot twist!
I found similar tsundere-male-lead-campus-romance crack in My ID is Gangnam Beauty instead. This kinda-sorta gave me the addictive feels I once had over Boys Over Flowers many, many moons ago (ironically, I can’t bear to watch BOF now), but I liked this one better, and slurped up the first 10+ episodes back-to-back. Woah, indeed.
Yes, there are caveats, but they aren’t dissimilar to the ones you’d need to make for Meteor Garden 2018 too, so – fair play? 😉
ADJUSTING THE LENS
The main adjustment one would need to make, for this show, is the acting. Unfortunately, the acting of Im Soo Hyang and Cha Eun Woo, who play our leads Mi Rae and Kyung Seok, leans on the stiffer side of things.
Mi Rae is portrayed as a rather awkward character, and while Im Soo Hyang makes her sufficiently ungainly, it does come across as rather flat and one-note. On the other side of the table, Kyung Seok is a character that is rather unexpressive by nature, and therefore, Cha Eun Woo’s acting limitations don’t come into play as much. That said, even though the acting isn’t fabulous, it does feel sincere, and I was very much able to root for our characters from early on.
Another thing to keep in mind is, Show begins with a somewhat disturbing emphasis on physical appearance, with Mi Rae mentally rating the features of every female that crosses her line of sight. This almost turned me off watching the show, to be honest. But hang in there, the face rating doesn’t continue for long, AND, Show does call it out as bad behavior.
Lastly, things do feel a little clunky in spots, but if you’re able to just roll with it, Show is quite the warm, cracky sort of watch.
STUFF I ENJOYED
1. Mi Rae’s characterization and journey
Mi Rae is portrayed as a highly insecure character, and that insecurity stays with her through much of our story. If Mi Rae hadn’t spent her whole life feeling inferior and insecure, I would’ve found her continued self-doubt annoying. But, given that she’d been bullied her whole life, there is a lot for her to work through emotionally and psychologically, even though she looks pretty now. And so her insecurity and self-doubt feels understandable, in this context.
[MINOR SPOILER] There’s a lot of pathos in the fact that Mi Rae goes through extensive surgery, just because she wants to be an ordinary person. Not to be better than others, or attempt to be a superstar. She does it because she wants to be ordinary, and no longer the outcast. And then in episode 1, when she cries and tells Mom (Kim Sun Hwa) that she’s having fun; that people like her, someone like her; it’s really so poignant and sad. She’s never felt that it would be possible for people to like someone like her. Oof. [END SPOILER]
To me, what makes Mi Rae sympathetic is her attitude. She doesn’t see herself as a pretty girl that’s better than others, even though she’s had plastic surgery and is now considered a pretty girl. She’s still insecure in her own skin, and still awkward when talking with others. Only her physical appearance has changed; she’s still shy and awkward on the inside, and she’s just trying her best to fit in. That made my heart go out to Mi Rae.
In essence, I think this show would appeal to anyone who’s struggled to fit in. Beyond the topic of plastic surgery, this is about Mi Rae’s struggle for self-acceptance, and also, her struggle to be comfortable in her own skin, around others; the desire for others to accept and like her. I could empathize with that, and that made me root for Mi Rae pretty much from the get-go.
On the acting front, Im Soo Hyang plays Mi Rae with an awkwardness that is a little obvious in her facial expressions, but I particularly appreciate the slight gawky quality she gives Mi Rae’s gait. Mi Rae’s got a slightly awkward way of walking, like she’s just a little uncomfortable in her own skin, and I think that’s quite perfect.
Here are just a couple of Mi Rae moments that stood out for me:
E9. Mi Rae is very sweet, in how she feels so very happy that Kyung Seok and his mom (Park Joo Mi) are happy. She’s rejoicing in their happiness, and that really endears her to me. She’s so sincere and so sweet.
E10. I’m glad that when Soo Ah (Jo Woo Ri) showed her true colors to Mi Rae this episode, that Mi Rae didn’t shrink from her. I’m also glad she didn’t agree to help Soo Ah win over Kyung Seok. Instead, she calls Soo Ah out on not ever liking her to begin with. That is a big step for Mi Rae, and I cheer.
2. Kyung Seok’s characterization
Kyung Seok is what I would call a cold male lead done right. Importantly, he’s not mean, unlike many other cold male leads around dramaland. He’s just reticent, is all. At the same time, he can be straightforward when he wants to be, and he mostly is – unless he’s evading the question of whether he likes someone, heh.
If you watched Chinese youth drama A Love So Beautiful (suuuper cute, do check it out if you haven’t!), then you’d appreciate this comparison: Kyung Seok kinda-sorta reminds me of Jiang Chen in ALSB. He’s aloof and reticent but his family situation explains why he would be so emotionally distant. And, he has a soft spot for Mi Rae which is more obvious than the one Jiang Chen had for Xiao Xi. Both very excellent things, in my books.
One of the reasons this show felt so cracky to me, is because I loved the fact that untouchable golden pretty boy Kyung Seok appears drawn to Mi Rae from the moment we meet him. From early on, we see that he regularly steps in to help her or save her when she’s caught in a bit of a situation; it does intrigue.
Another thing I really enjoyed about Kyung Seok, is that he’s unafraid of calling people out on their bullshit. He won’t stand by and watch, at least, not when it has to do with Mi Rae, and that endeared him to me a whole lot.
Here are several Kyung Seok highlights which stood out to me:
E2. The way he trips up leery sunbae Chan Woo (Oh Hee Joon), and then basically calls out Soo Ah in the middle of her saccharine act, all to stand up for Mi Rae. I love it.
E9. Kyung Seok shows himself to be surprisingly principled, for someone who’s broke and hungry. I admire him for refusing to take someone else’s job away from them. Plus, he also declines to ask his mom for money, even though she offers to help him out.
E10. The scene where Kyung Seok meets his mom in the cafe and they talk and cry a little bit together, is beautifully done. His tears fall naturally, and it doesn’t look like Kyung Seok is holding the tears back. In this moment, it appeared to me that Kyung Seok is just reticent in general, but he’s not repressed. He will cry if he wants to, and I like that. Props to Cha Eun Woo for delivering the scene so well!
E11. Kyung Seok punching out a guy for saying sleazy things about Mi Rae. I like how unrepentant he is, even when the other guy threatens to press charges. He’s that adamant that the guy needed a beating, for what he said about Mi Rae.
E12. The scene where Kyung Seok tells Soo Ah must be mentally ill, is priceless. Talk about cutting through the crap and telling it like it is. And he says it so matter-of-factly, too.
3. OTP Squee
There’s something very charming about a guy who’s able to see a girl’s worth when she herself struggles to see it, and intently focuses his attention on her, while studiously ignoring all other female wiles jostling for his attention. Kyung Seok basically does that for Mi Rae from the beginning of our story, and consistently steps in to help her when he perceives that she’s in a tight spot. And I do love that he doesn’t care that his actions send everyone around them into a shocked tizzy.
I like the idea that he likes her first; before she even likes herself, really, and definitely before she allows herself to like him. Because of Mi Rae’s deep-seated insecurities, she needs much more convincing than the average person, which results in quite a few melty instances of Kyung Seok standing up for her, or saving her, or indicating romantic interest. My heart squeed a little every time he did something along those lines, and I hafta say, I had no complaints whatsoever, about the extended squee. 😉
Importantly, Kyung Seok is gentle and respectful through it all, and just as importantly, Mi Rae is a positive presence in Kyung Seok’s life as well. She becomes his go-to safe place, and teaches him a thing or two, about relating with other people – including his heretofore estranged mother.
These two just worked together, for me, and I enjoyed watching them become closer and closer, over the course of the show.
Here are some of my favorite OTP moments:
E3. I like the fact that Kyung Seok and Mi Rae sought to have a conversation, to clear the elephants from the room about her plastic surgery and his opinion of her mindset, instead of just avoiding each other. And how healthy, that they both apologized to each other and acknowledged each other, in spite of the awkwardness. I liked that a lot.
E3. Kyung Seok fishing for Mi Rae to validate that she thinks he’s cool, is cute and quite amusing.
E5. Again, Kyung Seok and Mi Rae have a conversation and apologies are said, and sharing is done. I like it. I like that these two can talk quite easily with each other, when they are alone together. Mi Rae sharing about her experience with being estranged from her dad, and Kyung Seok not jumping to any conclusions about why she’s telling him that, and instead quietly and gently asking her questions, is nice to see. This is such a healthy foundation for a relationship, and I’d love to see more healthy conversations in dramaland!
E5. Kyung Seok showing shades of jealousy, on top of already being quite protective, is pretty great. He seems distinctly on guard around Woo Young (Kwak Dong Yeon), and he sits right up when he hears that Mi Rae is going to wait tables at the festival, coz she’d told him that she’d be busy that week.
E6. I do very much appreciate that Kyung Seok states to Soo Ah (Jo Woo Ri), with a hint of shyness, that Mi Rae was cute in middle school. Aw. I love that he saw the cute in her, even when everyone else only saw the flaws in her physical appearance.
E6. Eee! Kyung Seok joining the matchmaking game unasked, and then requesting to jump straight to pointing out who he’d like to be paired with, and then just unwaveringly pointing at Mi Rae. So decisively swoony.
E8. Kyung Seok getting jealous over little things, like when Mi Rae smiles in response to Woo Young, is very amusing to me.
E9. Kyung Seok telling Mi Rae not to let another guy carry her on his back, is the first concrete indication that he’s given, that he likes her and wants them to be more than friends. The other times were more implied. Like the movie date, where Mi Rae could talk herself into believing that it was all platonic. She can’t talk herself out of this one. Eee!
E14. Even though Mi Rae’s request to keep their relationship a secret isn’t what Kyung Seok wants personally, I’m touched that he agrees to everything Mi Rae asks, even when it’s highly inconvenient and puts them in some ridiculous situations. He doesn’t complain, and he doesn’t look at all annoyed. He seems to fully accept that this matters to Mi Rae, and therefore he’s all in with keeping up the ruse. How wonderfully sweet.
E14. I do love when that pleased smile plays at Kyung Seok’s lips, coz he’s happy that he’s dating Mi Rae. Aw.
E15. It’s sweet that Kyung Seok is more than willing to help Mi Rae fulfill her high school desire to do things the other kids did and she couldn’t.
E15. Mi Rae’s paralysis about her past appearance is really still eating into her, and she sincerely thinks that if Kyung Seok was reminded of her old face, that there’s a possibility he won’t like her anymore. To which I really like Kyung Seok’s response. “You’re just you.” Indeed. You tell her, boy. <3 He doesn’t like her for what she looks like; he just likes her for being her. And if he needs to bring on the kisses to prove it, I’m not gonna complain about that, at all.
4. Mi Rae’s friendship with Hyun Jung
I loved the friendship between Mi Rae and Hyun Jung (Min Do Hee). I loved that Hyun Jung was so accepting and supportive of Mi Rae, from beginning to end. She’s not judgmental at all, that Mi Rae went for surgery, nor jealous either. Just purely loving and supportive. I can’t help but love her. It’s just bonus that she’s played by Min Do Hee, who is cute and sassy, and gives Hyun Jung a spunk that I find natural and appealing.
I was a little disappointed that we didn’t see more of this friendship other than on the periphery, since I think these two besties are very endearing together. But, I recognize that this is Mi Rae’s story and her journey, and she needs to walk it on her own, and therefore, it was almost necessary that Hyun Jung mostly support Mi Rae from the sidelines.
Even with that limitation, though, I still very much enjoyed this pair of friends, and the scenes they shared.
5. Kyung Seok’s grudging blossoming friendship with Woo Young [SPOILERS]
With Woo Young set up to be the other guy nursing romantic feelings towards Mi Rae, I was expecting to be suitably amused and entertained by their jealous antics. But I wasn’t, quite so much. I was much less amused by their jealous behavior than I thought I would be, most probably because some of the one-upmanship looked like low blows to me. Basically, when they say things to undermine the other, it makes the person saying it look bad. And they both do it. Which isn’t what I was hoping for. I was hoping that the boys would trip over themselves trying to impress Mi Rae, without trying to put the other down in the process.
BUT. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the grudging friendship that grew between them, particularly after Kyung Seok moves into Woo Young’s apartment. They’re gruff about it, but these two do care about each other. We see it in how Woo Young consistently gives Kyung Seok advice, and we also see it in how Kyung Seok takes care of Woo Young when he’s drunk. I think my favorite moment with these two, is how Kyung Seok brushed Woo Young’s teeth when Woo Young drunkenly insisted that he had to brush his teeth before going to bed. So cute, that Kyung Seok acquiesced, just to satisfy Woo Young. The fact that Kyung Seok even made breakfast for a bewildered Woo Young the next morning, is just icing on the cake. Hee.
Mi Rae’s relationship with her parents
I really liked how close-knit and loving Mi Rae’s family is. I enjoyed seeing how consistently proud and supportive of Mi Rae her parents were, whether it was pre-surgery or post-surgery. Yes, Dad (Woo Hyun) is upset at first that Mi Rae got plastic surgery, but once that anger is resolved (very sweetly, I might add), all of the love comes pouring out, and I just liked watching Mi Rae’s parents love on her.
[SPOILER ALERT] I do rather like the father-daughter arc where Dad got all upset at her for having plastic surgery, and then we get to see them inch towards each other until they’re fully reconciled. And I love that what signifies that they’re fully reconciled, is how dad gets up in the middle of the night to change the photo in his taxi. Sweetness.
Also, I was touched that Dad was so angry partly because he never got to say goodbye to Mi Rae’s old face, which is a face he loved. Aw. It’s nice that Mom finally understands that in episode 7, and sincerely apologizes. That felt really right.[END SPOILER]
Kyung Seok’s Mom
I thought Kyung Seok’s mom (Na Hye Sung) was a great character. Successful and at the top of her game, yet down-to-earth, sensible, tactful and thoughtful, and gently sympathetic and caring. To my eyes, she handled herself with a great deal of elegance, grace, and a whole lotta heart, whether she was dealing with work matters, her children, or her ex-husband. I’d love to see more women like her in dramaland. <3
[SPOILER ALERT] I liked Mom so much that it pleased me a great deal that she was able to mend the broken relationships with her children, artificially estranged by the lies that her ex-husband (Do Sang Won) told them. I admired how much Mom holds herself back, when it comes to getting involved in her children’s lives. She loves them to bits, but recognizes that they aren’t used to having her around, and makes it a point to be respectful about their boundaries. I found that so refreshing, that she’s making sure not to pry, and it made me very happy that her efforts are rewarded, and she gets a full reconciliation with both her children.
Also, I got a good amount of satisfaction from the fact that Dad falls for Mom all over again – but is left in the cold.
Additionally, I really liked the way Kyung Seok’s mom reacts when she sees Kyung Seok and Mi Rae together in episode 14 and realizes they’re dating. She’s chill, but warm, and happy, with just a bit of teasing. Just perfect. <3 [END SPOILER]
Eun as a character
Even though Eun (Park Yoo Na) is a fairly peripheral character, I really like her. I feel like she’s such a role model for young women. She’s smart, she’s active in school, she spots bullshit when it’s there, and she’s also compassionate.
[SPOILER ALERT] She’s observant enough to pick up clues about Soo Ah’s lies from early on, but she wisely keeps quiet about it. In episode 15, when things with Soo Ah go south and everybody starts talking about her, instead of joining in and saying, yes, I knew all these things, she keeps quiet, and reaches out to Soo Ah, from a compassionate standpoint. Not because she likes Soo Ah, but because she doesn’t want to risk Soo Ah doing something silly and hurting herself. When she meets with Soo Ah, she asks questions without an accusing undertone, and listens without judgment. I mean, how awesome is she? [END SPOILER]
We absolutely could do with more young women like Eun, in dramaland.
STUFF I DIDN’T ENJOY SO MUCH
The amount of time spent on Soo Ah
In principle, I found Soo Ah (Jo Woo Ri) an interesting character, with more to mine than the average clingy stock kdrama second female lead.
[MODERATE SPOILERS] Yes, Soo Ah is a smiling manipulative bitch that we all love to hate, but she was quite intriguing, because it soon becomes clear that she’s suffering from the exact same societal expectations of women as Mi Rae, even though she’s considered a natural beauty at the top of her game. The pressure on her to stay at the top, leads her to diet pills, bulimia, depression, and lots of lies.
After watching Soo Ah for some time, where she puts on an act in front of everyone, I came to the conclusion that Soo Ah needs to feel power in her beauty. So when a guy seems to like another girl, she feels the need to assert her beauty and steal the guy’s attention for herself, not because she likes him, but because she needs to prove to herself that she is more beautiful and attractive. To her, life is a competition where dog eats dog, and only the fairest and most popular and most beautiful succeeds.
Soo Ah’s way of interacting with the world around her makes for interesting food for thought, because, even though everyone pretty much ends up hating on her (including us as viewers), in effect, Soo Ah is only part of the problem. The guys falling over themselves for her attentions is the other part of the problem. For example, if Soo Ah had hinted to Tae Young (Ryu Ki San) that she might like him, and Tae Young had responded like Kyung Seok, then nothing would have happened. It’s because Tae Young had been open to her flirting, that his relationship with Tae Hee (Lee Ye Rim) crumbled. In which case, Soo Ah’s interference can even be seen as a good thing for Tae Hee, who shouldn’t waste her time dating a guy who isn’t sure of his feelings for her. [END SPOILERS]
Even though we get to see the pressures associated with being pretty through Soo Ah’s character, I have to admit that I felt like we spent more screen time on Soo Ah than I would’ve preferred. I guess that’s testament to how effective Jo Woo Ri was, in making Soo Ah unlikable and annoying. Less manipulative Soo Ah, and more OTP Cute, is what I wanted on my screen. 😉
THEMES / IDEAS
For a show whose appeal lies so much in the amount of cute and squee it serves up, Show manages to touch on quite a few meaningful themes and ideas. I thought that was pretty impressive.
Here’s a quickish rundown of the ones that left the deepest impression on me:
E1. It’s a tough question that Show raises, I think. Should Mi Rae have avoided surgery and pressed on with the looks that she’d had, when no one would pay her any attention and nobody would give her a chance to show the talents she has? It was only because she now looks the way she does, that she got a chance to dance, and therefore shine.
E3. I feel like we’re getting snippets of real-world issues about plastic surgery. Mi Rae getting mistaken for someone else reminds me of when all the Miss Korea contestants for some pageant all looked similar to one another. Except here, we get to see how that affects Mi Rae.
E3. The psychology around why people treat Mi Rae poorly – is it because they’re jealous that she looks better than her given lot in life, and therefore is primed to received benefits that she wasn’t originally destined for? Or are they disgusted purely by the fact that she’s not a natural beauty?
E6. I do appreciate that Show is throwing light on a fair number of real-life struggles. We have the various females in the Chemistry department being told exactly what’s wrong with their appearance by the guys, on a regular basis, and it’s being passed off as jokes when it’s really an invasion of privacy. I like how the girls fought back this episode, and put the guys in their places.
E6. There’s also the musings of Kyung Seok’s mum, who grew up pretty, and how that ended up being a negative thing in her life, when she allowed her looks to direct the way her life unfolded. I like Show’s message, that beauty goes beyond looks.
E7. I notice that this show keeps showing us how to apologize properly. When the sunbaes half-ass the apology at the after-party, they get grilled on precisely what they’re apologizing for, before everyone lets it go with a toast. And then when Kyung Seok meets his mom and she says she doesn’t even know what to say to him, even though she feels sorry, he tells her that if she feels sorry, she should apologize. And in an earlier episode too, when Yoo Jin (Lee Tae Sun) feels sorry to Jung Boon (Jung Seung Hye) but doesn’t know what to do about it, Kyung Seok instructs him to just go ahead and apologize, and tell her how he feels so sorry that he doesn’t know what to say. I find this a rather refreshing motif.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
This finale is a little underwhelming in spots, but overall, I found it a sweet round-up of our story.
We spend more time than I would like, on Soo Ah’s arc, with her landing in hospital after the fright of Dong Won (Ham Sung Min) threatening her with “acid,” and everyone else coming to her rescue. Still, I appreciate that Soo Ah’s problems aren’t whooshed away magically, and that she takes time off from school to start afresh. I also liked the shot of honesty that the whole thing provokes from Mi Rae, who finally articulates that 1, she hates Soo Ah right back, and 2, yes, she wasn’t happy and that’s why she got plastic surgery, but 3, is Soo Ah so happy after all, because she’s pretty?
I like that Mi Rae finally gives voice to the lesson that she’s been learning all this time: that you don’t need to be pretty in order to have the right to live.
Sure, Mom & Dad’s glee that Mi Rae’s boyfriend is the super handsome Do Kyung Seok kind of dilutes the whole message that appearances aren’t everything, but I decided to cut them some slack because they’ve felt so much pain over their daughter being bullied for her looks all her life, that it must feel doubly satisfying to them that now that Mi Rae’s dating, her boyfriend turns out to be the handsomest boy they’ve ever seen. Heh.
I’m pleased that even though Tae Young tells Tae Hee that he can’t stop thinking about her, that she doesn’t take him back. In fact, I kinda love her response, “Really? That’s too bad. I don’t think about you anymore. There are people who look okay when you’re just friends… but once you start dating them, they’re not that great. You were like that. So I got over it pretty quickly. Don’t feel too hurt by it though. See you.” YES, girl. You tell him. He doesn’t get to cheat on you emotionally with another girl, then dump you, then get to take you back after it turns out he was being played by the other girl.
We also get a good dose of OTP Cute, with Mi Rae springing a birthday surprise on Kyung Seok. What stands out to me, though, is how far Mi Rae has come. She used to be crippled by the thought of what other people thought of her, but now, despite Kyung Seok’s protests to keep it down, she blithely sings him a birthday song, even though there are other diners in the restaurant. I felt proud of her for that. Also, she used to be so averse to taking pictures, first, because she hated the way she looked, and then, because she was self-conscious about her plastic surgery. And now, here she is, whipping out the selfie stick so that she and Kyung Seok can take a couple wefie together. Aw. And she’s even confident enough to plant a kiss on his cheek! Kya! I felt so proud of her.
Kyung Seok’s lovey-dovey musings about proposing to Mi Rae in the future is a little sudden, I felt, but I appreciate the sentiment, that he never thought he would ever want to get married, but with Mi Rae, he’s changed his mind. And I like the reminder that even though this story has largely been about Mi Rae’s journey, Kyung Seok has grown and changed too, and Mi Rae’s played a significant role in that.
As we close out our story, I’m happy to see Mi Rae and Kyung Seok rocking their matching hoodies on campus, and taking all their classmates’ teasing in their stride. No more hiding, no more embarrassment; just the boldness to be, which is something I dig very much indeed.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A little clunky in spots, but heartfelt at its core. Also, nicely cracky for a good part of its run.
FINAL GRADE: B