Warning: This post is merely a shameless excuse to post screencaps of Choi Siwon.
We’re four episodes into She Was Pretty and it’s time for a 1st quarter review: stay or go?
With a plot based on hidden identities and first loves, this MBC romantic comedy isn’t breaking any ground. But it’s a well-executed broad comedy featuring two great heroines and the divine Choi Siwon playing second lead. I wish the first lead (played by the excellent Park Seo-Joon) were as interesting, but that’s an unusual and welcome problem for a K-drama, where the men often have better developed characters than the women.
Our hero, Ji Sung-Joon, has a work-life balance problem. He apparently can only do his job—as deputy chief editor of fictional fashion magazine Most—by being a condescending jerk. I can’t overstate how stale this character feels. He’s a standard-issue K-drama hero of the traditional mold (below).
Luckily, Park Seo-Joon plays the role. After seeing him play the sincere, starry-eyed younger lover in Witch’s Romance and the goofy novelist brother in Kill Me, Heal Me, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. There must be a decent man in there somewhere, right?
When Sung-Joon returns to Seoul after a few years in the United States (where apparently we turn nice boys into impatient men), he has one mission in mind: find his old friend Kim Hye-Jin, the girl who was nice to him in middle school—his first love, of course. Hye-Jin (Hwang Jung-Eum, below) is less enthusiastic about meeting up again, however. She remembers him fondly, but thinks first loves should stay imaginary and idealized.
The central plot device is as simple as they come: back in school, Hye-Jin was pretty and Sung-Joon was overweight and homely. Now things have changed. Hye-Jin isn’t trying to stay ahead in the glamour wars: for this role Hwang Jung-Eum sports a perma-press hairdo reminiscent of her look in Full House: Take Two. While Sung-Joon is the kind of over-styled hero who works at a fashion magazine. I’ll bet you he shows up wearing an ascot sooner or later.
If you’ve watched K-dramas, you know that wearing fancy clothes signifies “good-looking,” while dressing casually signifies “ugly.” According to the publicity notes, Choi Siwon is “very ordinary” in this show. Perhaps because he wears jeans to work? In what universe does the average man look like Choi Siwon?
In any case, Hye-Jin likes the casual look, and doesn’t want to spoil Sung-Joon’s heavily romanticized image of her, so she sends her glamorous best friend Min Ha-Ri (Go Jun-Hee, below) to meet him in her place.
This opening conceit is hard to swallow, because it isn’t an honest mistake. It’s a deliberate deception. Another thing that’s hard to swallow: Sung-Joon and Hye-Jin appear to have had personality transplants since their school days. The panicky Sung-Joon is now an iceberg of calm (is it our American pharmaceuticals?) and the once confident Hye-Jin now seems more interested in her own problems than in helping the people around her.
But the mark of a good K-drama is whether it rises above its contrivances. And if we can look past the implausible personality shifts, She Was Pretty does offer an interesting plot about remembering the past. Sung-Joon remembers things through such rose-tinted glasses that he doesn’t even recognize Hye-Jin in the present. He believes Ha-Ri’s charade, perhaps because she’s gorgeous and he wants to believe. Though he increasingly senses something isn’t right, he puts aside all rational thinking skills where she’s concerned.
Meanwhile, Hye-Jin is reluctant to meet up with Sung-Joon from the beginning. And when she accidentally finds herself working for Sung-Joon at Most, her first priority is to avoid discovery. She isn’t particularly interested in getting to know him in the present. The past is past. She wants to preserve her good memories of Seung-Joon by avoiding him.
Sensible girl. Sung-Joon repeatedly asks her to do things that aren’t her job, then berates her for failing to excel. The fact that he’s unpleasant to everyone at the office just confirms that somewhere along the way he took a turn to the dark side.
But She was Pretty is still a likable show, for reasons that have nothing to do with the leading couple. The friendship between Hye-Jin and her best friend Ha-Ri, for one thing.
These childhood friends and modern-day roommates rely on each other so much that they call each other “wife,” despite major personality and fashion differences. Ha-Ri is a glamour puss, while Hye-Jin embraces a frumpy look that goes well beyond having unkempt hair (unkempt by strict Korean standards, I hasten to add). She’s dressing for comfort. In her own way she rocks the comfortable, androgynous look. In the show’s best nod to anti-fashionistas everywhere, Hye-Jin’s colleague Shin-Hyuk takes to her calling her “Jackson” because her white socks with black shoes resemble M.J.’s classic look. Shin-Hyuk is more forgiving of her fashion sense than I am—those socks were driving me nuts—and I salute him for his broad-mindedness. (Note to self: doesn’t matter if socks are black or white.)
The way this odd couple support each other’s lifestyle and fashion choices makes them the most interesting pairing in the show. Hye-Jin and Ha-Ri serve as foils for each other, with Hye-Jin teasing Ha-Ri about her mini-skirt (“it’s the size of a sock”) and Ha-Ri suggesting Hye-Jin could stand to learn a little about cosmetics to advance her career (“don’t look down on fashion just because you don’t understand it”). But they love and defend each other.
Ha-Ri is an interesting character in her own right, possibly more interesting than Hye-Jin. She’s a beautiful woman with a fashionable wardrobe, but you get the sense she’s not dressing up to impress men. She’s confident enough to be friends with the decidedly unfashionable Hye-Jin. This character feels three-dimensional, a woman caught in the contradictions of our time—she wants to look good, but should that really require her to fend off a bad pick-up artist with a pineapple?
Her stepmother calls her immoral because she parties with her male friends and her male friends themselves can’t seem to see past her mile-long legs. Though she wants to end her charade as Hye-Jin, she keeps losing her nerve and getting drawn in to Sung-Joon’s confidences. And because he’s Mr. Sweet with her, she’s starting to fall for him. She’s a character who wants better relationships with others, and that makes her compelling.
But the best thing about She Was Pretty is Choi Siwon playing Hye-Jin’s co-worker Kim Shin-Hyuk (above and below). “The team’s ace,” as Shin-Hyuk modestly introduces himself, he’s a staff writer and secret heir to a publishing company. (Every writer should be so lucky.)
K-drama has never seen a chaebol heir quite like this before. Shin-Hyuk is a charming pest, a shameless cadger with a cool motorcycle and a child’s delight in street vendor teokbokki.
As with Choi Siwon’s hilarious performance in 2012’s King of Dramas (or even his cameo at the start of this summer’s Masked Prosecutor), you have to wonder how much of this character is scripted and how much is Choi Siwon’s own original lunacy. He throws his whole body into every gag. Sure, his sexy, mischievous journalist in She Was Pretty isn’t that different from his sexy, mischievous actor in King of Dramas, but who cares? Just try to keep a straight face when he does his impersonation of drunk Hye-Jin in episode four. And what about that scene where he convinces Hye-Jin that tails on a coin are actually heads? The guy’s dangerously good at getting his way. It’s fun to watch him smooth-talk his way into getting Hye-Jin to buy him food. (She thinks he must have big student loans.) It will also be fun to see what happens if he ever runs into obstacles he can’t overcome with a dimpled smile.
Until now, She Was Pretty has been ninety percent comedy, without much development of the relationships. Luckily, it’s funny, in a broad, zany way. Hwang Jung-Eum’s skills at over-the-top comedy fit perfectly with this role and she’s well-matched in Choi Siwon.
It’s hard not to get Second Lead Syndrome here, with so much outstanding comic energy in the Hye-Jin/Shin-Hyuk relationship. Sung-Joon and Hye-Jin’s relationship has been entirely antagonistic, and not even much fun to watch. And Sung-Joon and second lead Ha-Ri have the potential to be an interesting couple—except for that whole lying-about-her-identity thing.
And that’s the one problem with She Was Pretty. Even in episode four, the lie continues, despite a few hints to Sung-Joon that not all is right in First-Love-Land. And Hye-Jin dislikes him enough (for good reasons) that she doesn’t care to enlighten him. When can we move ahead with the Life Lessons?
As a comedy, She Was Pretty is entertaining. (Bonus comedy points for the ubiquitous character actor Hwang Seok-Jeong hamming it up as a bizarre fashionista who speaks fluent gibberish, above.) As a romance, it’s already making me desperately hope the writers will try something novel. Why not let Sung-Joon learn his lesson about first love and then move on? Maybe this is his chance to grow up. Let Shin-Hyuk get the girl.
But that might not be in the cards. In episode four, Hye-Jin finally gives in to temptation and tells Sung-Joon off. Sung-Joon looks like he’s considering the possibility he’s not the person he thought he was. Perhaps he doesn’t realize how he comes across? When you’re a plump little boy, you can get away with being anti-social; when you’re the office hottie, your anti-social ways just look like snobbery.
Another serious note enters in episode four: a jarring disclosure from Shin-Hyuk—how can he have angst?—plus confirmation that he’s the Most staff’s secret chaebol. As he goes home to a lonely hotel suite, it’s clear there’s more to him than the teasing big brother he’s been playing towards Hye-Jin. Can Choi Siwon do serious? I don’t know, but I’ll stick around to find out. Whatever comes next might not make any sense, but as long as Choi Siwon occasionally shouts “Jackson!” I’m in. ♥
(Sorry Park Seo-Joon, I even gave Choi Siwon the featured image for this post. But it’s been so long since we’ve seen him, and he’s going into the army in a few months, and I have a ton of screen caps of you already, and—well, if I really have to be honest, ahem, CSW’s ridiculously hot.)