“Boys over Flowers” is usually over-the-top, occasionally awful, but impossible to stop watching.
Even several years after it aired, “Boys over Flowers” is still one of the most well-known K-dramas overseas. It wasn’t the highest-rated show of 2009 or the best. But the Japanese manga Hana yori Dango and its many adaptations (in Japan, Taiwan, and Korea) were a phenomenon across Asia. The plot is driven by the contrivances of shojo manga. The dangers the heroine faces are Gothic and over-the-top. But “Boys over Flowers” is doing exactly what it came to do.
For decades, Japan’s shojo manga (comics for girls) have placed heroines in perilous situations. A shojo manga drips with emotion and depends on implausible coincidences. Roughly speaking, they aim to entertain twelve-year-old girls with wild imaginations. Getting this on film in a way that is watchable to anyone older than twelve is a challenge.
“Boys over Flowers” nails the assignment, more or less. Feisty, unfashionable dry cleaner’s daughter Jan-Di (Gu Hye-Seon) clashes with the rich bullies at a fancy private high school, leading to violent face-offs between the young woman and the whole school. But opposites typically attract in these stories, and to everyone’s surprise, she becomes unlikely girlfriend to the group’s condescending ringleader, Gu Jun-Pyo (Lee Min-Ho).
The 25 episodes are a roller-coaster of kidnapping, revenge, jealous rivals, an arranged marriage, and that melodrama favorite, amnesia. Also, several people nearly drown, only to be heroically rescued. And one character has a family member hidden away comatose in a spare bedroom.
The four heirs nicknamed F4 enjoy racing high-speed cars at the track and taking their private jets to private islands. With a lifestyle like that, kidnapping and amnesia might be the only things that can slow them down. The perverse pleasure of “Boys over Flowers” is this total embrace of hyperbole. This is not only fantasy. This is the most exaggerated fantasy anyone could think of.
Twelve-year-old girls usually get fed stuff like Twilight, which is only hilarious by accident. But “Boys over Flowers” knows it’s absurd. The opening credits feature images of the characters as flat cardboard cutouts. Glitter and stars surround them like faces in a scrapbook. No one requires us to believe they’re three-dimensional people.
The actors and production make sure that F4 are unbelievably glamorous, a gravity-defying act in the center circus ring rather than something plausibly earth-bound. Even the soundtrack has a touch of another world. When it takes a break from Korean pop music, it turns to a light waltz and a Romantic piano piece à la Chopin, touches of ancien regime Europe.
Having abandoned realism from the very start of the credits, “Boys over Flowers” turns to fantasy. This romance is about spending money, not revealing emotions. We visit scenic locations around the Pacific: New Caledonia, Macau and Jeju Island. The hotel in Macau resembles the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, with its ersatz canals and gondolas, and like Las Vegas itself, “Boys over Flowers” transcends tackiness by pushing artificiality further than you would have thought possible.
To offset the tale’s fascination with wealth, heroine Jan-Di cares more about her family than money. In a running joke, Jan-Di’s parents are eager to sell her off to Jun-Pyo, so they can jump on the gravy train. But Jan-Di is a Lizzie Bennett type. She has a prejudice against the rich. And Jun-Pyo’s first attempts to woo Jan-Di are as insulting and hilarious as anything Jane Austen ever invented for Mr. Darcy. Lee Min-Ho has a talent for making fun of himself without sacrificing any of his leading man charisma. His baffled expressions when Jan-Di rejects him recall a young Cary Grant in a nineteen-thirties screwball comedy.
“Boys over Flowers” is also a bromance. We should hate F4. Their bullying almost makes a student commit suicide in the series’ opening sequence. But their friendship is visually compelling, even if it is emotionally underdeveloped. The four actors are not uniformly strong. Woo-Bin and Ji-Hoo are played by pop idols Kim Joon and Kim Hyun-Joong, who don’t have much previous screen experience. Kim Hyun-Joong in particular slows down proceedings as Ji-Hoo, the second male lead. But the F4 Boys effortlessly look united against the world. When a love triangle threatens to divide Ji-Hoo and Jun-Pyo, viewers may be more worried about the friendships than the romance.
The lead actress, Gu Hye-Seon, was already a leading lady when she made “Boys over Flowers.” It’s odd then that she’s less charismatic and interesting than her co-stars here. Her attempts to act awkward feel hammy, overdone. She’s a beautiful woman pretending to be plain. By contrast, the F4 boys appear more natural—even though they’re larger than life.
The biggest challenge for this series is its long length, 25 episodes, too many to remain consistently interesting. The heroine Jan-Di faces a seemingly endless series of obstacles. Jun-Pyo’s mother predictably tries everything to get rid of her, from offering her a pay-off, to putting her parents out of business, to demolishing the apartment building where Jan-Di lives. And the moments when Jan-Di and Jun-Pyo trust each other are few and far between.