I want to watch it again! Okay, the pacing fell off a bit in the last three episodes. But it erred on the side of meandering, rather than falling into chaos, so I easily forgive it. It never lost sight of its main storyline and that storyline was awesome. I cannot think of another k-drama love story that so celebrated the power and autonomy and worth of the female lead like Miss Korea celebrated Oh Ji-young. (Lee Yeon-hee completely won me over. Her Gu Family Book outing is forgotten. I can’t wait to see what she does next.)
[edited to add: Spoilers! I spoil a whole heck of a lot below…]
And Oh Ji-young was worthy of being celebrated. I adored her and the way she approached the world. The fierceness of her little high school self flirting so heavily with the bashful Hyung-joon, her dance past the boys’ school that gets all the boys buying cigarettes from her family’s store, that beyond kickass scene where she rescues her fellow elevator girls from their gross manager and that prevy party room — giving them mannequins to use instead… I’ve seen k-drama characters be confident before (though I feel like the “doesn’t realize she’s pretty” trope is the more popular one) but this was such an aware realization.
Oh Ji-young knew she was attractive and she used it, but she also fully understood the dangers and limitations of beauty. The whole setting of the Miss Korea pageant was used to examine, with a surprising amount of honesty, the kind of world that bases a woman’s worth on her physical attributes. The fleetingness of physical beauty, the arbitrariness of it (what is “beauty” after all?), the illusion of it, none of that was ignored. Plastic surgery, padding, makeup, hairstyling, duck-tape: all the tricks of the trade were paraded in front of the viewers. Physical beauty was shown and then it was undermined.
There’s a scene where the always perfectly coiffed Director Ma is getting a massage and she lifts her head from the table to skewer someone, and the actress (Lee Mi-sook — whom I couldn’t possibly adore more) isn’t wearing a lick of makeup. Or when Ji-young was running in her bathing suit, to make it to the competition. Hyung-joon gives her his shoes to use so she’s not running in heels. It undercuts the sexiness implied by the bathing suit and focuses on the practicalities — Ji-young’s got to get there, but she can’t twist an ankle either.
There was a lot about who owns a woman’s beauty to the story as well. Yoon (Lee Ki-woo showing us he can do skeevy as well as he can do adorable) thought he could buy Ji-young. The gross manager treated the elevator girls like his personal playthings. Even the pageant had pimps hanging around its fringes and sponsors treating the contestants as their piggybanks.
That’s what made the mid-drama turnaround on Hyung-joon’s part so awesome. In the first half he wanted to use Ji-young’s beauty to save his company. Even when he shifted to treating her as a team member, the contest wasn’t about her. Making the choice to support her — even at the cost of his own ambition — put the focus back onto Ji-young’s dreams and desires. She owned her beauty and it was her choice how to use it.
(I loved how Hyung-joon became one of the girls (or would it be ajummas?) when he was supporting Ji-young. He interacted with Director Ma and Director Yang as one of them — not as a guy slumming it with the ladies. Lee Sun-kyun played those scenes so, so perfectly.)
That focus on the wants and interests of the female character carried throughout. The women drove this drama in a way I so rarely see. It’s a small thing, but that Jung Sun-saeng buys shoes that perfectly suit Go Hwa-jung’s style (not sexy heels because he sees her as pretty and doesn’t that just win you over and change everything?) resonated with me. He likes her for her.
Or that epic ripping apart of the “noble idiot” trope. Jung’s point that the braver and more selfless move is to stick around and let the girl decide if she needs to kick you to the curb is so true. Let her make the decision on what will best help her life. Don’t make these secret decisions all on your own. (We seriously need to figure out how to send Jung Sun-saeng into all the dramas to knock some sense into other male leads.)
But the drama also had its eyes open to the politics and artifice of the pageant world itself. I thought it was interesting that part of the reason Ji-young won is that she was a “type” the judges were looking for in that specific time. She didn’t win on sheer grit and determination — though that certainly played a part — there was luck involved as well. (Which — I think that reflects the acting world, quite frankly. An actress needs a certain level of attractiveness and skill. But she also needs to mesh with the “type” the director is looking for.)
As I said, the pacing did drop off at the end. Some bows were tied a little too neatly (the whole thing with Yoon — his role as spoiler was reversed a little too thoroughly for me to buy) and some story threads went more detailed than I thought needed (there were maybe two scenes too many with Director Yang sucking back up to Director Ma).
But I adored that Ji-young and Hyung-joon are heading out into the world together, as equals, with both of their dreams and ambitions treated as important. And I loved that little cameo moment with Jung So-min and the implications that Ji-young is Director Ma’s true apprentice. This was a scrappy little drama with a whole lot to say and it charmed me thoroughly.
(One culture shock moment: that Kim Jae-hee’s public confession did not end her father’s political career. I guess mistresses and the subsequent children are just… normal? I’ll admit that boggled me. Explains why birth-secrets are such a drama-staple though.)
Also! How adorable were Ji-young’s family? I loved their scenes, especially when they were all sitting around in their long-johns.