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It’s so strange seeing Lee Min Jung playing such a timid girl with low self-esteem in Big, when I still remember her as the wacky, confident, 4-D second girl from the 2009 K-drama extravaganza Boys over Flowers (Kkotboda Namja – 25 Episodes).  Of course I watched, and enjoyed, this crazy popular drama (based on the classic manga series of the same title, but in Japanese, you know), which launched the career of Lee Min Ho, and made pretty boy quartets the It accessory in dramas.  Lee Min Jung played a potentially really unlikable character – the rich, parent-approved fiancée who gets in the way of our main couple – but I actually semi-rooted for her to get the guy since she was so brazen and shameless.  But I mostly just wanted the leading man, Gu Jun Pyo, to get whatever he wanted, since he was the best thing in this really fun drama.

The basic premise of Boys over Flowers is like a Cinderella-story: you have the poor girl who meets the rich boy who can change her status, but that is where the similarity pretty much ends.  Geum Jan Di (Gu Hye Sun) is a kind of jaded middle-class girl who is out of her element at the tony Shinhwa High School.  She only managed to secure a spot at this elite school because of an act of reckless heroism, and this impulse to save people gets her into the worst trouble of her life.  For she soon raises the ire of the infamous F4 (Flower Four – since they are all so pretty).

This loudly dressed school gang is made up of 4 of the wealthiest and dreamiest boys in the school (and probably Korea): the underworld heir, Song Woo Bin (Kim Joon), the potter prince So Yi Jung (Kim Bum), the sensitive violin-playing Yoon Ji Hoo (Kim Hyun Joong), and most important of all, Gu Jun Pyo (Lee Min Ho), the chaebol heir to Shinhwa Group (as in Shinhwa High School, too).  These wealthy, pretty, but awful kids start to make her life hell for daring to stand up to them.  But she’s a strong girl, maybe even a little stupid, so she perseveres and doesn’t let the extreme bullying get her down.  It helps that she meets one boy who makes this all worth it – Ji Hoo-Sunbae, who makes going to school everyday just a little more bearable.

Jan Di might have been able to handle the bullying, but there’s no way she can handle the pretty, but psychotic, oddball leader of the F4, Jun Pyo, once he falls hopelessly in love with her.  Oh Jan Di, don’t you know that “standing up” to that type of guy is the most surefire way to get him to pledge eternal love to you?

She absolutely hates him, but he seems to have an endless supply of patience, delusion, and confidence when it comes to Jan Di, and life in general.  Her family is totally on his side (including Ahn Suk Hwan as her doting father), too, much to her consternation.  His wealth is mind-boggling, and he can get anything he wants, but once Jan Di enters his life, he comes to learn that maybe he can’t get everything.

For even if Jan Di were to get over Ji Hoo-Sunbae, and love him in return, his super evil mama would never let her precious son marry some nobody.  And when his mama wants to put up obstacles, she doesn’t play around – a fiancée, getting people fired, forcing people into homelessness, ruining lives, faking deaths, etc.

It helped that the actress looks so mean to me – I was impressed that Jan Di could face off with her at all, actually.  There were other insane obstacles to their love (this drama was not above flirting with things like amnesia), but I always thought that the solution rested with our short-skirted heroine.  Will Jan Di choose Jun Pyo over Ji Hoo?  Will she choose a crazy love over an easy life?  It’s a drama, so I’m sure you can guess what happens.

This was one of those mega-hype dramas that totally became such a thing, and I don’t think it was for no reason, either.  This was a super fun, easy-to-watch-and-get-really-into drama, featuring lots of mania-making moments and people.  Would kkotminams ever have been as popular if not for the F4?  And for some strange reason I felt a burning desire to eat gyeran mali, fish cakes, and ramen, and to make adorable bento boxes.

I think most of the credit is due to Jun Pyo (and some lesser credit to his hair) for being a terrible person you couldn’t help but like.  The drama went to some pretty crazy places, like lots of secret plots, modeling interludes, amnesia, and Macau, but a constant throughout was Jun Pyo’s unrelenting focus on Jan Di.

Even though this was supposed to be Jan Di’s story, Jun Pyo easily stole the drama, and entered the realm of legendary drama hero, just as his pama also became the hairdo of legend.  Before this drama there were so many mean and jerky first guys (like Mong Ryong in Sassy Girl Chun Hyang, or Young Jae in Full House), but the slightly off Jun Pyo made that kind of character his own.

He was more freak than full-out jerk, and that weirdness made up for a lot, as did his unwavering devotion to one girl.  So many leading men have a wishy-washy period, during which they often vacillate between the bitchy first love and the heroine, but Jun Pyo didn’t need that kind of lameness.

The closest other drama character I can think of is probably the eccentric Kim Joo Won from the wonderful Secret Garden, but since he constantly brought up icky class issues, and provided insulting interpretations of beloved fairy tales, Jun Pyo wins.  He was easily the most compelling, and even most likable character in the whole drama, at least after he stopped trying to make Jan Di’s life so hellish.

He was stupid and out of touch with the rest of the world, but isn’t that what drama characters are supposed to be like?  His violent tendencies were less ok, and I was less of a fan of his poor little rich boy moments, but I guess the story needed a fast reason for his attraction to the plebeian way of life.  He almost reminded me of James Spader’s Steff in Pretty in Pink, if Steff had been way cooler about Andie, nicer, more bizarre, and, I guess, Asian.  And that’s a pretty big compliment from me.

I’m not an intense Lee Min Ho fan, but I have to admit that he was really, really good in this role.  He shocked me by being able to do the dramatic parts as well as the goofy bits, so he’s layered.  Even though I knew that he had some range, I was shocked to see him become a great action star in City Hunter.  He seemed so awkward and clumsy here, that it’s still hard for me to reconcile the goofy Jun Pyo with City Hunter, the fighting machine.

He also played someone pretty milquetoast in I’m Your Teacher, which further added to my shock to see him become Pu Chai.  I want to see his Boys follow-up drama, Personal Preference, and I am mildly curious about his upcoming fusion-fantasy sageuk, Faith, which features a time traveling doctor, and Lee Min Ho as an armor-clad warrior.  So he continues to build his diverse resume, I see.

Jun Pyo might not have been so likable on his own, so it helped that Jan Di was so infuriating at times, and even kind of unlikable.  I thought she should have just appreciated Jun Pyo early on, instead of being so wishy-washy and lame.  Even at the end, I never really felt that she loved him that much, and that made you feel a little bad for Jun Pyo, like she was using him, or something.  She also had a revolting goody-two-shoes streak that disgusted me to no end.

I thought Gu Hye Sun did a very serviceable job in this role, but I’ve just never really connected with her as an actress.  I don’t know what’s the problem – she can be funny, dramatic, and stuff, but there’s something missing.  Since I don’t particularly like this multi-hyphenate (she’s an author-actress-director), and none of her other dramas seem that fun, this is the only thing I’ve seen her in.

I’m a little curious about Strongest Chil Woo, and I was tempted by The Musical, but that was just because of Choi Daniel.  But since there was such a strong risk that I’d see him sing in earnest, I just couldn’t.  She’s an ok singer, though, and her desperate rendition of that old Korean standard, “Sarangbakke Nan Molla,” was pretty moving.  I might have cried.

Another big draw of the drama was the whole idea of the F4 – they were like this crazy awesome, organic idol group of Shinhwa.  I’m surprised that the concept didn’t pop up in dramas before this one.  There have always been lackeys and entourages, but did any of them have names?  I can think of a few other quartets indebted to them – the Jalgeum Quartet from Sungkyunkwan Scandal, ANJell from You’re Beautiful, and who knows how many others in dramas I haven’t seen yet.  Who knows the appeal behind the idea of a group of attractive guys who all like you to varying degrees of intensity?

The other members of the F4 didn’t really bring much to the drama, to me at least.  Woo Bin hardly spoke, and when he did it was mainly to say really embarrassing things like, “Yeeah!”  I’m not spelling that right, but whatever.  He was in a band called T-Max, which sang the calypso flavored camptastic theme song for this drama, “Almost Paradise,” but I don’t know if he sang at all.  His acting career never seemed to take off, so he’s in the army now, and who knows what will happen afterwards?

So Yi Jung might have been more interesting if I had liked Kim Bum better, but his whole side story with Jan Di’s middle-class best friend, Chu Ga Eul (Kim So Eun), never really captivated me.  He had family issues, such as an AWOL hyung (played by an underused Im Joo Hwan) who took his first love (not on purpose, though!), and a philandering father.  The strangest scene he had was when he was trying to show a club owner the dangers of messing with the F4, and so did a little dance.  I’m not sure what he was trying to prove, but I guess it worked.  And his whole saxophone hobby was not my cup of tea at all.

I guess Ji Hoo was the second most prominent member of the F4, since he was also the second lead, but I don’t think he was a good rival to Jun Pyo.  Ji Hoo was hilariously calm and prissy, especially when he was kayaking, but there was just no contest between him and Jun Pyo.

He often seemed like he was in his own world, so I don’t think he minded very much.  I see that Kim Hyun Joong has been trying to make a go of it as the leading man, but I’m not too sure about that.  I’m curious about Mischievous Kiss for the plot rather than him, and I worry for his upcoming action drama, City Conquest.  I feel like he’s still in Jun Pyo’s shadow, somehow.

My one big criticism of the series was how Jan Di wasn’t integrated enough into the F4.  She should have been one of them, or at least a really important member.  I didn’t even get the strong impression that the other two liked her very much, and were just being indulgent of Jun Pyo.  The manga really had her be a central player throughout, but I guess the drama didn’t have enough time for that.  Sungkyunkwan Scandal did a better job of including the heroine into the group itself.  But it would be nice to include a female without her needing to pretend to be a boy, you know.

There were many guest stars with multiple episode arcs, and too many side characters to mention, so I’ll just point out my favorites.  I liked Jun Pyo’s mildly insane older sister (it must be in the Gu blood), Gu Jun Hee, played by Kim Hyun Joo.  I really liked her in Pretty Insun, and I wish she wasn’t just doing weekend dramas right now.

Even Han Chae Young was in this, as Min Seo Hyun, Ji Hoo’s first love.  It was so weird seeing her play someone so mature and normal – I kept waiting for her to spray someone with water, or something.  I miss the weird Han Chae Young, but I guess she won’t be appearing in any more dramas now.

But the two who stood out were Lee Si Young as the mysterious and possibly deranged Oh Min Ji, and Lee Min Jung as the rich fiancée, Ha Jae Kyung.  Lee Si Young wasn’t exactly funny here, but she was scary and twisted, so maybe she has layers.  This character was a little campier in the manga, but I guess the drama wanted something more dramatic.  I like her best in light comedies, but who knows what else she can bring to the table, right?

And even though I hate the second leads in dramas, I liked the whole Jae Kyung arc, which led to many awkward double dates between her, Jun Pyo, Jan Di, and Ji Hoo.

I was torn with Jae Kyung, because in some ways she and Jun Pyo were really well-suited to one another, and if not for Jan Di, you get the impression that they could have been happy together.

This drama really annoyingly split up the person you marry from your soulmate, so maybe she was Jun Pyo’s real soulmate.  I also thought Lee Min Ho had more chemistry with her than with Gu Hye Sung, but that could have just been my imagination.  She actually also had more chemistry with Gu Hye Sung, but who knows how these things happen.

She was like the female version of Jun Pyo, minus the psycho temper (at least from what we were shown), and it kind of makes sense that Jun Pyo would almost fall for someone just like him.

She was also Jan Di’s most formidable opponent since they actually liked each other, and Jae Kyung was super nice at the end.  Lee Min Jung went right to first girl roles after this, in the weekend Smile, You, and then in the really boring sounding drama Midas, and now Big.  I don’t think she’s bad as Gil Da Ran, but just not that great so far in Big.  Come on, you can do it!

I haven’t read the entire manga series, but I’ve read enough to have developed pretty strong opinions about the differences between the manga and the K-drama.  I agree with some of the changes, but I think some others were pretty senseless.  I think Yoko Kamio hadn’t intended on making Tsukasa, her Jun Pyo, the first guy, so he actually did some pretty reprehensible things at first (I won’t go into them because I want to keep things PG), so of course that had to go right away.

But reading it, after having seen so many dramas, how could she have thought that someone like Rui (Ji Hoo) would get the girl at the end?  I liked how Tsukushi was less of a goody-goody, and how she genuinely loved Tsukasa – none of this bittersweet husband vs. soul mate stuff.  I’ve really liked some of Kamio’s other series, like Cat Street, and even Matsuri Special about a female wrestler named Honey Princess.  Where’s that drama?

The drama was fun enough to make me think I’d probably like the story in any iteration.  I’m curious about the Japanese series (plus the anime), and also intrigued by the hit Taiwanese one, Meteor Garden.  I wasn’t so in love with Boys over Flowers (though it was still really, really fun and good – you should totally watch it!) that I don’t think it could have been done better, so I’m open-minded.  But I guess this sets the bar pretty high, especially Lee Min Ho’s performance.  Even Entertainment Weekly recently recommended it as a kind of Korean Gossip Girl (I don’t know about that), so this drama obviously has widespread appeal.  It’s a classic girl-and-pretty boy who has a posse of other pretty boys-hate-each-other-only-to-fall-in-love story, right?

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