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Boys Over Flowers

In the quite pleasing film, She’s Out of My League, where Kirk and Molly debate whether a 5 can rise more than two ranks towards a perfect 10, or in the reality TV show, Beauty and the Geek, we confront the eternal question of the mismatched couple. For better or worse, human society seems to be hard-wired with expectations as to what makes a perfect couple. Many across all cultures are disturbed by pairs that fail to conform to the prevailing orthodoxy. In this, there are many perceived provocations based on racial, age, class, intelligence, religious, wealth and aesthetic criteria. The most interesting time when prejudices are most tested is when the couple are young. What may seem a natural evolution of their emotions can represent a direct threat to the expectations of their parents whose reactions can either drive the couple apart or drive them away, e.g. as in films about race from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner onward.

One of the more interesting discussions of these issues began in the shojo manga series called Hana Yori Dango, becoming the top-selling manga in Japan. It has subsequently been through different incarnations as both live-action and anime films, an anime series and now a Korean TV adaptation called Boys Over Flowers. It deals with the increasingly complex relationships between a group of teens in a top school. The social pecking order is dominated by four boys from the wealthiest families in the country. Although different in personality and interests, they share the reality of privilege, knowing that nothing will be denied them both as boys and when they grow into adults and take their place as leaders of business, the arts and society in general. Calling themselves F4, they have never experienced anything less than complete deference. This serene progress towards social dominance is shattered when a girl from a lower middle class family is admitted into the school on a swimming scholarship. Jan-di neither knows nor cares anything for reputation and, when she is bullied by F4, she physically knocks the leader of F4, Joon-pyu, off his feet. As the ultimate spoiled rich kid, raised by a nanny and servants rather than his parents, this comes as a rude awakening to Joon-pyu. Inevitably, his outrage provokes an increasingly vicious campaign of harassment but, when Jan-di fails to surrender, he becomes more interested in her as a person.

One of the reasons for Jan-di’s survival is the covert support offered by another member of  F4. Ji-hoo is the grandson of the former President of Korea and his family have strong links to the arts and medicine. This produces the necessary triangle of affection in which Ji-hoo will be the steady friend hoping for more, while the erratic Joon-pyu proves the more sexually attractive foil. The first sequence in the twenty-five episode serial charts the change in Joon-pyu’s world view. It’s a delight, mixing some drama with some genuinely funny sequences as his naive attempts to switch from aggression to courtship receive short shrift from Jan-di. She sees little beyond the spoiled brat who covets what he cannot have. More importantly, she is interested in maximising the opportunities her attendance at the school offers. She now has the chance to go on to university and a relatively high-flying career. Something that would have been denied the daughter of a family whose income depends on operating a laundrette.

Potentially, this might have produced a stable stand-off but, as is always the way in TV dramas, Joon-pyu’s mother appears on the scene, With her husband in a coma, she has been running Shin-hwa, one of Korea’s largest corporations. Her primary objective is to marry off her son to the daughter of another major corporation, producing a merger of family ownerships through the marriage. His entanglement with Jan-di is a direct threat to this plan so she directly intervenes to break up the relationship. Declaring war on Jan-di, she first tries to buy her off and, when this fails, she buys up the city block in which the family’s laundrette is based and evicts the family. With no source of income, they leave their daughter behind and disappear into the countryside to find another way of making a living. What becomes immediately apparent is that Joon-pyu is incapable of standing up to his mother. His character proves unexpectedly weak and, within a short space of time, he finds himself engaged to the heiress. This drives Jan-di closer to Ji-hoon.

Had the story retained some cohesion around this basic plot, it would have been a greater success. The mother is wonderfully malevolent and represents the mountain Joon-pyu must climb to become a responsible adult. But it fell into a basic trap. Feeling more drama was required, there are a number of different subplots in which Jan-di is threatened and injured so badly she can no longer swim. Similarly, Joon-pyu is injured in an attempted murder attempt and, while in hospital suffering temporary amnesia, is almost seduced by an opportunist patient. Further and more worryingly, Jan-di’s constancy becomes steadily less credible as the serial unwinds. Although Joon-pyu is eventually able to redeem himself, his vacillations would have driven even a saint away.

Thus, this is definitely worth watching for the first half and then dip in and out of it to see how the various elements are worked out. Looking at the performances, Koo Hye Sun as Jan-di is wonderful, picking up prizes and awards for both her own role and for the chemistry with Lee Min Ho as Joon-pyu. It’s perhaps a surprising outcome given that Koo Hye Sun is more than three years older than Lee Min Ho yet played a girl younger than him on-screen. Almost without exception, all the supporting cast are outstanding, even though some roles are woefully underwritten. Lee Hye Young as the outraged and manipulative mother is consistently watchable, while Ahn Suk Hwan and Im Ye Jin as Jan-di’s parents are salt-of-the earth self-employed, naively ambitious but ultimately virtuous lower middle class.

You can download the main OST theme here.

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