This review was written for the Korean Quarterly.
A young woman observes the neighbor across the way far too intently. A small dog may come to harm. A wedding ring goes missing. No, that last sentence is just a joke, this is not a remake of Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” it’s the romantic mishaps of the a group of young neighbors in manga-inspired “Flower Boy Next Door!”
The third installment in the Flower Boy series (“Flower Boy Ramen Shop” and “Shut Up Flower Boy Band” preceded it) proves that the Korean cable network TvN has a successful franchise on their hands with the flower boy conceit. Take a cast of attractive young men, add a central heroine to the mix, and spin a romantic tale. The one thing that the three dramas have done very well is to deliver well-cast stories that illustrate an understanding of human behavior. They’ve all succeeded exceedingly well in portraying some very genuine and touching emotions. The writers have captured the humor and the angst, as well as the vulnerabilities and egos of their characters. Furthermore, beyond the great casting work in selecting memorable lead performers, they have created supporting roles that mesh as successful ensembles.
Let’s meet the neighbors in question.
Go Dok-mi’s world unfolds before the viewer. Played by Park Shin-hye, Dok-mi is a shy, lovely little loner. She ekes out a living as a copy editor, a job that allows her to work from the safety of her home. Her daily routine revolves around her view of the world from her apartment window: more specifically, the view from her window into the windows of the very new, very nice (and taller) apartment building directly and far too closely in front of her tiny apartment. She’s been carrying a little stalker-like crush on the Mr. Perfect occupant of that apartment (and for his little dog too), for a while. She wakes when he does, exercises when he does, and spies upon him with toy-like yellow binoculars as if he’s some exotic species of bird. But most importantly, we discover that he is a safe choice for Dok-mi to love.
Dok-mi lives a hermit-like existence and the 100 yards or less that separates her from Mr. Perfect (a.k.a. Han Tae-jun, played by Jung-san Kim) could be many miles. It’s like watching a show on television; you get curious about what or whom you’re seeing, but they can’t see you back, they can’t be curious about you in return. It’s safe and comfortable and while it may leave you wanting more, you can’t be hurt if something goes wrong.
For one so young as Miss Park, she continues to show great depth in her portrayal of this damaged young woman. Those big dark eyes of Shin-hye Park’s hold a world of emotion. It will be the rare viewer that is not immediately on her side, wanting to know her story, and to cheer her on.
Dok-mi’s solitary existence is not completely unobserved, however. Just one door away is Oh Jin-rak, struggling webtoon creator and secret admirer played by Ji-hoon Kim – a very secret admirer! For several years he has quietly observed Dok-mi, almost with a similar intensity. He too could be compared to the naturalist observing a wild creature in the jungle and making sure to never raise the voice or make sudden gestures for fear of scaring it away, never to be seen again. Every day he leaves a single carton of milk outside her door with a cheery little cartoon on a Post-It Note. Hundreds of infinitesimally small and invisible gestures demonstrate his unspoken love day in and day out.
As for whether or not she notices him, or thinks of him, at the beginning of the story one might describe her impression of him as being someone she can’t avoid coming into contact with in a normal way, but he makes her uncomfortable. All outside encounters make her uncomfortable! Dok-mi’s life is one made up of daily debates as to how she can avoid leaving her apartment. She takes no chances that she will let him or anyone else into her world. (There are some fabulously awkward elevator rides!) She must sense that he has interest in her, but not necessarily as a woman, more like the way you might be interested in a neighbor, and only maybe the way a single man might be curious about a single woman. He’s never approached her in a pushy or threatening way – it’s illustrated in the way he talks to her. It’s so respectful; he speaks to her in the highest levels of politeness as if he’s just stepped out of a saguek! Maybe that makes her nervous!
Jin-rak shares both the flat and work with Yoo Dong-hyun (played by Kyung-pyo Go) and their story begins with their latest effort to pitch a webtoon to an editor of a popular website. Comedienne Seul-gi Kim hilariously shoots them down; it’s not original enough and besides, it’s a plagiarism of a hugely successful videogame, “Zombie Soccer.” Scrambling to salvage something of their pitch, Jin-rak and Dong-hoon try to downplay the similarities through their storyboards. Something does catch the editor’s sharp eyes; it’s a sketch of a solitary young woman. Sensing her interest, Jin-rak spins a story about the drawing – it won’t be about zombies, it will be a melo. In fact, it’s basically Dok-mi’s story told through a Jin-rak filter. She’s sold! The two partners are jubilant in this turn of events and we will have a webtoon within a drama based on a manga!
Entering the story in progress is the young “genius” game developer and visionary Enrique Geum who has returned to South Korea from Spain. His professional status is one at the celebrity level and his looks are such that a puckish smile can smooth over any irritation. Shi-yoon Yoon is well cast as Enrique because his looks carry off the playful, high energy, charmer whose brain fires away on all cylinders quite naturally. His return is not without a purpose; he’s come back to either close the books on or write the next chapter in a ten-year love.
Enrique enters Dok-mi’s world and turns it upside-down in the most appalling way to a recluse; he confronts her and provokes her at almost every turn. And he keeps calling her “ajumma” when she’s pretty much the same age as he is! He discovers her spy game on his hyung – oh yes, it turns out that one of the important people in Enrique’s mission is a very close friend, Mr. Perfect Neighbor – and willfully (it seems) mistakes her for a stalker/pervert. This begins a strange relationship in which he pokes and prods Dok-mi, both physically and emotionally, and challenges her to get out and experience life. From the beginning there is a strange, unspoken near-telepathy between the two. Is he reading her mind? Is he tuning into her thoughts? Or is he just coincidentally saying what she’s thinking?
One thing we learn about Enrique that mitigates his hyperactive, overly talkative manner that not infrequently registers as irritating is that he might be as lonely and isolated in his own way as “his ajumma.” He’s a prodigy, so clearly he wouldn’t have many peers who would be doing the same thing as he is, it seems like his parents (like all manga-based stories seem to tell it) are pretty much absentees in his life, and it seems too that lots of people want a piece of his talent rather than a real connection with him as a person. How many people in his life really seem to care about him and how he’s feeling?
That said, this viewer would rather spend time with the other guy!
Even Enrique must agree (to a degree) because he strikes up a friendship with Jin-rak, and takes an interest in his work. Maybe he knows that it’s a good strategy to keep your rivals close, but truthfully it seems more a case of an openhearted and lonely kid happily reaching out in friendship to an interesting hyung. There is an interesting, begrudging (on Jin-rak’s part) competitive “bromance” that develops as the story unfolds.
Ji-hoon Kim is quite simply delightful in this role. It’s quite different from others he’s undertaken. He’s very expressive and each of his reactions to the various circumstances in which he finds himself ring true. The viewer will especially relate to his demeanor when another character enters the story – the bully of the piece – Cha Do-hwi, played with a deliciously witchy flair by Soo-jin Park. Do-hwi an opportunistic wench and she single-mindedly and selfishly tries to insert herself into the lives of our protagonists. Jin-rak is alluring to her because he might actually be somebody else – a somebody who comes from money. And Do-hwi loves money. But the many diverse and truthful reactions delivered by Ji-hoon Kim’s Jin-rak as she barges in unwanted, flops shamelessly into his arms, or tries to stumble into a forced kiss are hilarious and spot on. You will find your own lips curling in disgust the same way his do at her obvious ways, and you will celebrate the fact that here is a male character that is written to not fall for this malarkey!
But the person into whose life Do-hwi most insidiously tries to shoehorn her way into is that of her former schoolmate, Go Dok-mi. Her plan is to use Dok-mi to gain access to Jin-rak. Who will defend Dok-mi? Or will she learn to take a stand for herself?
“Flower Boy Next Door” will be a challenge for the viewer who has suffered the pangs of Second Lead Syndrome. Many a time you may find yourself wanting Jin-rak to step up and make his case to Dok-mi. That respectful distance has to close, and pronto. After all, Enrique is not waiting and watching – take a note from the prodigy, please! You want her to discover this really super nice and caring guy right across the hallway, the guy who’s been taking care of her in those little invisible ways all this time. (Doesn’t she really want to know who is leaving her the milk with those adorable little sketches?)
But at the same time, the more you get to see what Enrique is all about (though he’s still a little too childish at times – could it be that he is playing the enfant terrible role for his fans because that is what they expect and he’s kind of stuck in it?) you come to see how his “seize the day and take some chances” approach to life is much more what she needs right now. Hero A has been giving her time to heal and she’s stuck in a rut; Hero B is dragging her into this world.
As one watches this drama it becomes clear that the writer really understood the psychology of its characters. Even as frustrating and overly childish as Shi-yoon Yoon’s Enrique behaves, there are reasons for his behavioral choices, just as the way Ji-hoon Kim creates a Jin-rak who is wistful, respectful, and longingly lonely. Shin-hye Park is completely recognizable as a young woman isolated in life first by a lack of family and then by her so-called friends as a result of cruelty. Most compelling are the diary entries that Dok-mi regularly makes. They are little bits of poetry and expressions of fear, and of longing, and of a desire to change.
They are doing pretty good stuff at TvN and drama fans can anticipate future offerings with increasing confidence. As mentioned at the top of this review, another of the series’ strengths is in developing a balanced ensemble. Jin-rak’s roommate Dong-hoon is so completely normal, thanks to the characterization by Kyung-pyo Go and the “panda-eyed” and manically overworked editor played by Seul-gi Kim balances the thoughtful and introspective worlds of Dok-mi by being so opposite in character. Mr. Perfect neighbor is played to plastic perfection – the man vacuums before going to work! – by Jung-san Kim. Enrique’s first love is a relatively small role, that of Yoon Seo-young (Yoon-hye Kim), but she is equal parts friend and brat in a perfectly normal way. The rest of the cast is rounded out by the other occupants of the building – a young Japanese boy who has come to Korea to master its cuisine, a mysterious woman who may have a pivotal role in the future of their building, and a security guard nursing his own secret crush. Friendships are formed and lives are changed.
After having seen all of the Flower Boy offerings, the conclusion is this one has a lot to offer. It’s not as tight a composition as “Shut Up Flower Boy Band” but it might be the most insightful when it comes to exploring loneliness, particularly in a drama that is might be perceived to be a fluffier romance. In fact, while there are playful aspects to much of it, there is some serious psychology at work in this one.
All in all, while the story didn’t sustain the depth and promise of the first half, I still recommend it for the thoughtful exploration of the main characters’ psychological makeup. It made me really think about who they were, how they came to be that way, what would be the best thing for them. I always appreciate a drama that makes me care enough about the characters that I put this level of thought into who they are and how even if the story may lag or I mentally rewrite the direction it takes, it’s still gratifying to make connections to characters and feel that you understand them, relate to them on some level, and most importantly, want their stories to continue just a little while longer.
Watch this drama legally at Dramafever.com