“Boys over Flowers” (Series Review)

“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.

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Odd couple: the awkward Jan-Di (Koo Hye-Seon) and rich, egotistical Jun-Pyo (Lee Min-Ho).

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).

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The opening sequence presents a dramatic suicide attempt prompted by F4’s bullying and eagerly watched by the entire school body. (Jung Eui-Chul is great in a cameo as the suicidal student and his brother.)

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.

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The boys of F4 dress like nineteenth-century aristocrats. Yun Ji-Hoo (left, Kim Hyun-Joong), all in white, and Goo Jun-Pyo (Lee Min-Ho), wearing East Asian television’s most iconic fur collar. The two will be rivals for Jan-Di’s affection in the first half of the series.

“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.

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Jan-Di (Koo Hye-Seon) is the Asian relative of Cinderella. She rejects Jun-Pyo at first because he’s wealthy and doesn’t know how to work hard. And the boys are way more excited about giving her a makeover than she is about getting one.

6 thoughts on ““Boys over Flowers” (Series Review)

  1. Great review! Glad I’m not the only one who found most of the stuff that happened completely random and illogical. But I enjoyed it tho, especially Lee Min-Ho’s character.

  2. I found this site while searching “It’s Okay, That’s Love”‘s review and decided to read your drama reviews from the first post and really enjoyed reading this one. I found myself nodding to all of your opinion and laughing all the way. BOF is the first Korean Drama I watched and it’s still enjoyable to watch even after 8 years… And sometimes my friends and I will sing the soundtracks in karaoke just to feel nostalgic haha because we all agree that BOF is amazing as it was despite the irrational plot or any other unthinkable things.

    Anyway, I wish you will write a review for W: Two Worlds after its finale next week because I personally think it sets another level of K-Drama.

    • I hope I can write about W when I have time. It’s a great show, though it left me exhausted at the end. I’m still trying to decide if that’s a good thing or not.

      Thanks for reading!

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