In Defense of To The Beautiful You
Back in March, I spent a day at KPOPCON ‘14 in Berkeley. I was there mostly for the Idols in Drama panel, featuring Stephanie Parker from Viki interviewing Javabeans and Girlfriday from Dramabeans. They covered a lot of interesting topics at the intersection of KPop and KDrama, including the phenomenon of “Idol Dramas,” which Stephanie illustrated with a promo poster from To The Beautiful You. I had always assumed that the producers of TTBY had cast their two leads because they were pretty, already famous, and demographically correct for the roles (i.e. two young human beings, one male and one female). However, apparently it was more the other way around: the producers made TTBY in order to cast the two leads. It turns out that TTBY’s stars, Minho and Sulli, are both represented by SM Entertainment. And while SM Entertainment represents a few actors and models, they are primarily a music agency — one of the “Big Three" agencies in KPop. (Thank you to Divina Magracia, Ellen Ong, and Tuhina Das at the Hot Issue workshop for explaining the Big Three!) Sulli, Minho, and most of those pretty extras walking around in the background at TTBY’s all-boys boarding school were idols and SM Entertainment properties first, and only cast members in TTBY as an extension of that. As one of the panelists at KPOPCON put it: “Oh, you won’t cast our idols in your drama? Then we’ll make our own drama for them. So there!”
|SHINee's Minho (picture credit: soompi.com)|
The summer of 2012 was a heady time for me: it was the summer I discovered the wonderful world of Korean Television! Sometime in mid-to-late July that year, I was intrigued enough by a Gaksital screencap on Hulu to try watching it from the beginning, and I was instantly hooked. A few days later I had reached the end of the available episodes of Gaksital and started searching desperately for other KDramas to satisfy my sudden obsession. I quickly devoured Rooftop Prince, The Moon Embracing the Sun, The Princess’ Man, Secret Garden, and Sungkyunkwan Scandal, and was excitedly looking forward to the imminent debuts of Faith and Arang & the Magistrate, both of which started in mid-August. Fridays and Saturdays (when I was finally able to see the subbed episodes) were the high points of my week, but as with so many addictions, each Gaksital/Faith/Arang binge was followed by a crash. So to ease the transition, I picked up To The Beautiful You.
TTBY is the story of Gu Jae-Hee (Sulli), who was born in Korea to Korean parents but moved to California at age 5 when her mother married an American. Jae-Hee fails to thrive in the U.S., becoming a sad, shy teenager, until one day she sees Korean high-jump champion, Kang Tae-Joon (Minho) win a competition on TV. His success, and his personal motto — “A miracle is another name for hard effort” — inspire her to join her school's track team, where she discovers her self-confidence for the first time since leaving Korea.
|Unlike in Padam Padam... (or not?) the wings here are purely metaphorical.|
Like Gaksital, Faith, and Arang, TTBY was a Wednesday/Thursday drama, so it was typically available online at about the same time as the other three, and in many ways it made for the perfect dessert wine: pretty, sweet, and simple. I’m sure that even its haters must admit that TTBY was exceptionally lovely, employing a bright, over-saturated color palate, surprisingly artful photography, and a ludicrously beautiful cast. And for those of us who appreciate such things, it should be noted that we were repeatedly treated to visions of that beautiful cast in extended, minimally clothed montages that involved a lot of sweating and/or water. A special shout out to Kang Ha-Neul, and Seo Joon-Young in this category, who wasted few opportunities to display their young, muscled figures for us in multiple states of undress, and kudos also to Minho for a strong 3rd place finish.
On top of that, it was largely innocent and good natured. As seems all-too-common in KDramaland, TTBY’s teenagers were expected to navigate a plethora of inappropriately adult situations, like moving halfway around the world or managing their own careers, with minimal adult supervision. But perhaps partly because they were still in high school (and certainly in large part because nobody was supposed to be "poor but cheerful and hardworking" - ugh!) it lacked the sort of drudgery that can sometimes accompany those tropes. Even the personal angst several characters had to endure somehow seemed more wholesome than usual, and never allowed itself to devolve into true melodrama. Similarly, there were antagonists in TTBY who could be petty and vindictive, but unlike the rest of my viewing schedule that summer, none of them were outright murderers! I should mention that there was a disturbing attempted rape and several hazing/bullying incidents with fairly nasty overtones in the first half of the series, but these scenes really were symptoms of the lazy storytelling — narrative crutches — rather than defining characteristics of either the story or the characters within it, and so were much easier to move past quickly, at least for me.
Best of all, TTBY was uncomplicated to the point where it didn’t even bother with pesky drama staples like character motivation or logic. TTBY was one thing, and one thing only: a series of excuses to place its two pretty idol leads in a long series of gorgeously shot, mildly-to-very titillating scenarios together, and it was steadfastly unwilling to waste its energy worrying overmuch about the mechanics of how or why said situations occurred. (Though it did make an effort to include plenty of PPL, of course. Did you buy a new Samsung camera in 2012? I can teach you how to use it!) As the glue to hold all these loosely related scenes together, TTBY employed slapstick comedy and gratuitous male semi-nudity the way most other dramas strive for a cohesive plot.
For discerning, experienced viewers like many of the folks over at Dramabeans, the total lack of quality in TTBY’s script was a fatal flaw (and perhaps additionally insulting for its denigration of the much-loved Hana-Kimi source material), but for me it was liberating. Still fairly new to KDrama and totally dependent on amateur subbers (special thank you to amateur subbers — I would never have fallen in love with KDrama without you!), it was kind of a relief to be freed from the pressure to understand what was going on in the plot or why a character was doing what she was doing at any given time. With TTBY, I could turn off my brain, let go of the emotional traumas wrought by that week's Gaksital, Faith, and/or Arang, and just enjoy the bright lights and pretty colors flitting mindlessly across my screen. (Really, I cannot overstate the gorgeousness of this show. Huge, unironic kudos to the production design, lighting, and photography teams!)
Even for these reasons alone I would have happily imbibed TTBY as a scrumptious "after-dinner" delight for the entirety of its run. But then, right about the time Nice Guy replaced Gaksital in the Wed/Thurs lineup, something strange happened to me with TTBY: Incredibly, unbelievably, and against all odds and expectations, I started to realize I was looking forward to it more than any other show I watched each week! This was in part due to the nature of its competition, which had all entered fairly heavy melo phases by then, making TTBY’s airheadedness all that much more of a relief. But what truly elevated TTBY from mere pretty fluff to a genuine delight for me was actor Lee Hyun-Woo.
Like the majority of the supporting cast in TTBY (as opposed to the leads and the extras), Lee Hyun-Woo is neither an idol nor an SM Entertainment property. He is an actor, and in Hyun-Woo's case in particular, an actor with an impressive resume of dramas and movies for someone still so young (he turned 21 in American years in March). So you may not know his name, but you might well recognize his face. Most recently he starred with Kim Soo-Hyun and Park Ki-Woong in the smash-hit movie Secretly Greatly (aka Covertness), but in TTBY he plays Sulli’s best friend at Genie High, who falls madly in love with her even though he believes she’s a boy.
In keeping with TTBY's mostly silly tone, Hyun-Woo's character, Cha Eun-Gyul, is boisterously, almost clownishly cheery. He lays on the aegyo thick and fast, and spends his personal time posting campy selfies to social media and daydreaming a series of increasingly ridiculous fantasies, typically involving himself and/or Jae-Hee (both with and without Tae-Joon).
It is to Sulli and Minho's credit that they usually enacted Eun-Gyul's daydream sequences with less of the underlying embarrassment I sometimes sensed from them during the more ludicrous events in their characters' "real" lives, but it was Hyun-Woo who really sold these scenes. Whether we saw him within the fantasy itself or just followed his facial expressions as he woolgathered, plotted, or worried about what shenanigans Jae-Hee and Tae-Joon might be up to without him, Eun-Gyul's every agony and ecstasy was painted across Hyun-Woo's adorable face with wild, engaging, addictive abandon.
Similarly, as much as I enjoyed the awkward prettiness of Sulli and Minho together, it was in her scenes with Hyun-Woo where Sulli most shined. (Don't get me wrong, I stand by my earlier assertion that both Sulli and Minho's performances were no more than barely adequate in general, but Sulli in particular seemed to do her best work, such as it were, with Hyun-Woo.) Hyun-Woo's acting in TTBY isn't the sort of "art" that will likely ever earn him wide acclaim, but for me his total commitment to every scene, regardless of logic, dignity, or quality of dialogue, is exactly what I look for in a performance, no matter what the medium. And occasionally that skill even rubbed off a little on his co-stars. (It’s also worth noting that the scriptwriter seemed to do his best work with Eun-Gyul, making his journey rounded, reasonable, heartfelt, and highly entertaining, which sets him significantly apart from the rest of the cast.)
Although not standing out for their performances in quite the same way as Lee Hyun-Woo, TTBY had several other guest or supporting actors worth noting as well for one reason or another. These included actor Kim Woo-Bin (as Jae-Hee’s older Korean-American friend and admirer in episodes 9-10) and ZE:A’s Hwang Kwang-Hee (as a pouty, lipgloss-obsessed classmate with a flaming crush on Eun-Gyul), neither of whom are my cup of tea in general, but others out there seem to really like them. I already mentioned my admiration for the physical work done in TTBY by Kang Ha-Neul and Seo Joon-Young as Genie High classmates, and their performances (particularly Joon-Young’s) were entertaining as well, while Ki Tae-Young, Lee Young-Eung, and Kang Kyeong-Joon rounded out the pretty quotient on campus with solid, if unremarkable performances as Genie faculty. Also, TTBY is where I first saw Korean-Canadian actor Julien Kang, my soft spot for whom I explored in more detail in my review of Dream. Sadly, Julien remained fully clothed in TTBY, but I guess we can’t always have everything.
The harsh truth is that nonsensical/unexplained character motivation and logical inconsistencies in plot are hardly rarities in KDramas. Yes, TTBY was a worse offender than most, but if these were actual crimes, the writer and director of TTBY would have plenty of company in jail. In fact, as the most brazen offenders, TTBY’s production team would rule that prison like kings, the same way TTBY itself rules (in my book, at least) over all those dramas that try to slip their little cheats past the viewers under the cover of stories that are otherwise supposed make sense. I contend that their chutzpah, combined with their dedication to visual beauty and Lee Hyun-Woo's virtuoso comedy, made To The Beautiful You a cheesy, nonsensical, and utterly, utterly delightful triumph!
It is worth noting that TTBY’s overall mindlessness extended to its treatment of several potentially sensitive social issues, particularly homosexuality and sexism. As a gender-bending rom-com, it was impossible to avoid these topics entirely, but TTBY generally trod a fairly neutral (or oblivious) path through the potential landmines, and people with very strong opinions about what constitutes “right” or “wrong” might well be offended by TTBY’s failure to commit to any one side. Also, TTBY manages to stand out for its conspicuous lack of rounded female characters in a field that is hardly overrun with balanced female representations to begin with (i.e. television in general and Korean television in particular). While I certainly empathize with the “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” mentality when it comes to overcoming centuries of oppression and deeply entrenched biases, I also think that in striking a balance on social issues, TTBY kept itself more widely accessible, and there is something to be said for that. Similarly, by virtue of its primary setting (in an all-male boarding school), I can understand, if not fully condone, the female underrepresentation, and also have to admit that the two-dimensionality of TTBY’s very few females was, at least, fairly well mirrored by the two-dimensionality of its sea of very pretty, minimally clothed males. What is more, it would be a bit hypocritical of me to expect insightful social commentary or powerful role models from something that was otherwise so vapid, 안그래?