This review was originally written for and appeared in the Korean Quarterly.
It cannot be easy being third off the blocks in adapting an iconic manga for television. The Taiwanese hit the ground running in 2001 with their version, making stars of Barbie Hsu and the young men playing the notorious “F4” in “Meteor Garden.” The Japanese brought the comic novel to life in 2005 and had a hit with their telling of “Hana Yori Dango.” So when production began in late 2008 for the Korean adaptation, I approached it with both curiosity and trepidation having seen and enjoyed the prior dramatizations.
The two earlier versions had their own unique appeal and created memorable characters: how could this version possibly compete when you have idols like Jerry Yan and Vic Chou competing for Barbie Hsu’s hand (“Meteor Garden”), or the equally talented and attractive Jun Matsumoto and Shun Oguri chasing Inoue Mao (“Hana Yori Dango”)?
Devoted viewers of Asian dramas surely would have their scorecards out, ready to compare one version to the next. The potential for disappointment, especially when you have to go up against a very recent hit, is high. In its favor, the production team worked with the author of the original manga and received very high marks for their adaptation and casting of the main roles. The author even remarked that the Korean cast most resembled her characters. So, how would this play out? Could the new kids win over the loyalists? And more importantly, can they win the hearts of those coming fresh to the “Hana Yori Dango” story? Time would tell – in 25 installments.
The Fabulous F4
The action gets underway at Shinhwa High School, an exclusive academy for the fabulously rich, beautiful, and socially/politically connected. The school is ruled by the infamous F4, four incredibly handsome young men from various backgrounds. There is Song Woo Bin, played by pop star Joon Kim, from pop group T-Max. He’s the heir to a powerful criminal organization. Next up is So Yi Jung, the talented ceramic artist, played by Bum Kim. The third member of the group is the sensitive musician, Yoon Ji Hoo, played by pop star Hyun Joong Kim, from pop group SS501. Finally, there is the leader of the group, arguably the handsomest of this bunch of flower boys, the scion of an incredibly wealthy family, the spoiled and hot-tempered Goo Joon Pyo, played by Min Ho Lee. What F4 says at Shinhwa goes. Into this privileged enclave waltzes Geum Jan Di, played by Hye Seon Gu, or, more appropriately, in barges in Geum Jan Di on her bicycle, making a dry cleaning delivery.
Unfortunately, first impressions of “Boys Over Flowers” (also referred to as “Boys Before Flowers”) did not initially make a convert out of this viewer. Perhaps because of a familiarity and fondness for the original story, the early episodes of the drama seemed to take some shortcuts with the plot that make the motivation of the main characters confusing at some points and downright inexplicable at others.
Jan Di arrives at this school as an outsider and interjects herself into a situation in which a young man, harassed by F4 to the point of desperation (though the viewer does not, at this point, have any indications as to just how serious this hazing has been), is about to toss himself off a tall school building. She harasses him too because she needs to have his dry cleaning bill paid, but she also manages to prevent him from committing suicide. This creates “a spectacle” that calls unattractive attention to the school and F4, so in a way to keep Jan Di from calling further attention to herself and the school, she is offered a swimming scholarship, thanks to the machinations of Goo Jun Pyo’s manipulative mother. And so she enters the exclusive academy, lured by the promise of pool time, and proceeds to turn her nose up at the members of F4.
Those new to the story will be only slightly confused by her grudge against the members of the elite group, but others more familiar will feel shortchanged. In prior adaptations (and it would aid new viewers to know this), her character has been a scholarship student for a period of time so she has witnessed on several occasions how F4 has turned the school into a bullying machine with the distribution of a single red card on a victim’s locker. When she stands up to them for the first time it is then clearly a “Very Big Deal.” However, in the “Boys Over Flowers” adaptation, Jan Di appears to come into the school without having known the reach and power of F4, but also with a very big chip on her small shoulders. In an early encounter with Goo Jun Pyo, after her nose is bloodied when she’s being hazed, he sincerely offers her his handkerchief and she snarls at him seemingly without provocation. If this is the director’s idea of “meet cute,” it fails. It’s very difficult to see throughout much of the early episodes where the charm is in Jan Di.
She’s slightly more charming, though, when she inadvertently intrudes on private space – a school staircase – of the more reclusive member of F4, Yoon Ji Hoo. Given to venting her frustrations by shouting into the anonymous air space found in every exterior stairwell, her rantings amuse Ji Hoo, and in a quiet, almost behind the scenes way, he befriends her. His quiet and serene manner, a radical 180 degrees from her own personality, makes her heart go pitter-patter and his knight errantry leaves her swooning over him, her first crush. Ji Hoo, however, sees the interest of his friend Jun Pyo in this “weed,” Jan Di, and is content to play second fiddle. He has feelings for another, an older woman and wishes to pursue her.
The story unfolds and begins to make more sense by the third episode, once some of the background information concerning the power of F4 and their hold over the students is clarified and the young cast settles down into their roles. Hyun Joong Kim (Ji Hoo) received some harsh criticism for his performance, particularly in these earlier episodes. To a degree, this can be attributed to this being his first acting role in a drama, but the almost emotionless – some might say “wooden” – performance is something that is also prescribed by the role of Ji Hoo (Hanazawa Rui, in the original manga). The character is described as almost autistic, very withdrawn. It is the outgoing and vivacious Jan Di (Makino) who helps pull him out of his shell. And this is indeed the case as the drama unfolds.
The Perils of
Pauline Jan Di
The pattern of the story is fairly repetitive: Jan Di will get into trouble, Gun Pyo or Ji Hoo (or all the members of F4 will pool their talents and resources) work to get her out of trouble.
Those who are sensitive to the insidious aspects of school bullying will find several scenes in which Jan Di is bullied, once even to the point of near sexual assault, appalling and should consider whether to allow younger children to watch this story. There is no denying the attractiveness of the actors, the settings, and the wardrobe, but underneath it all, there is a story of some cruelty. This Cinderella gets to go to a ball or two, but she also faces humiliation on a fairly regular basis. That said; her resourcefulness and optimism go a long way towards making her less of a victim than she might have been. And not every mishap is one caused by someone looking to harm Jan Di. She does a pretty good job of making her own problems!
Hye Seon Gu is a very popular young actress, having created memorable roles in dramas such as “Pure 19” and “The King and I,” but she fails to set the right tone with her interpretation of Geum Jan Di. Her interpretation is often unflatteringly cartoon-like and does not convey the subtle strength and pluckiness of the character. An invincible spirit is not conveyed by shouting, or by screwing up your face into a pout or a grimace.
It’s very difficult to see how or when she realizes the heart of Gun Pyo – too often he is all but handing it to her on a silver platter and Jan Di, as played by the actress, reacts with a brittleness that does not convince one that she’s at all interested in the young man. And when one considers the young man in question, it’s all the more puzzling because Min Ho Lee is physically the most attractive of all the actors who have played this role. While he lacks the reckless anger that Jun Matsumoto brought to his interpretation, Min Ho Lee more than adequately conveys the isolation and frustration and longing for love and belonging that is essential to the role. He brings a strength and maturity to the character too, in spite of his relative youth. When, in the latter stages of the drama, he and Ji Hoo are competing for Jan Di’s love, both young men come alive and you feel the dramatic tension, and yes, heat, rise too.
The Good, the Bad, and the Unnecessary (Plots)
As mentioned, this drama is 25 episodes long so there are additional storylines to round out the drama, including a number of jealous girls who want Gun Pyo for themselves and try their best to win his affections. Gun Pyo’s controlling mother (Hye Young Lee) who wants no weedy little Jan Di for her son and will do what she can to pluck that pesky weed from her son’s world, including introducing a pretender for the prince’s hand. The last member of F4, Song Woo Bin, is primarily along as a support system for the gang and unfortunately represents a wasted opportunity.
Also included in the subplots are Jan Di’s parents and young brother (Suk Hwan Ahn, Ye Jin Im, and Ji Bin Park, respectively) who are thoughtless, greedy, and really don’t seem to have that much affection for their daughter or sister. The one plus to their storyline in this adaptation is that they are not as venal as the single mother in “Meteor Garden,” but they are also not as hapless but well-meaning as in “Hana Yori Dango.” Mostly, they are extraneous, but perhaps the greatest sin of omission in this adaptation is the love between family members, so much so that Jan Di would tolerate bullying and other hazards to remain at the school to garner the diploma that would set her family on the path to future success. Instead, her primary motivation for staying at the school appears to be the swim team.
Charming Best Friends
The biggest of the subplots involves Jan Di’s friend, Ga Eul, played by So Eun Kim, who falls hard for the unattainable playboy potter Yi Jung. So Eun Kim is fresh and likeable, and in fact brings some of the sweetness and strength of character to her interpretation of Ga Eul that is missing in Jan Di. Her resolve and sense of self as she tries to figure out why Yi Jung is the way he is (it’s a brother and a love issue) makes her an attractive character. Her scenes with Bum Kim play beautifully and one could wish for more (and a resolution to their story). Bum Kim is also very appealing as the bad boy with his own secret. When he slants his eyes and gives the viewer (or the love-struck Ga Eul) a wicked sideways glance, you’re sunk. It’s impish and knowing and surprisingly mature.
This is a very glossy drama with a lot of eye candy for the viewers, especially with the handsome “flower boys” of F4. The work of the production team shows too: every episode looks expensive and polished. The drama filmed on location in New Caledonia, Macau, and Jeju Island, and the sequences at Shinhwa, Gun Pyo’s mansion, Ji Hoo’s home, and Yi Jung’s pottery workshop look and feel high class. Of each of the versions, this one has the best wardrobe and settings.
In spite of some intrusive subplots, or the shampoo, rinse, repeat nature of Jan Di getting into trouble, getting rescued, etcetera, there is a quick and lively pace to the drama. The drama spun off several soundtracks, including the debatable choice of “Almost Paradise” as a theme, that have included a number of popular tracks. Generally, it’s glossy good fun on the surface. The actors should go on to bigger and better things and no doubt will, especially the highly charismatic and telegenic Min Ho Lee. But, when all is said and done, “Boys Over Flowers” is not the one to claim the prize as the best adaptation of the manga. For this viewer, that goes to “Hana Yori Dango.”
Watch “Boys Over Flowers” on Dramafever.com.