Recently, I stumbled upon Boys Over Flowers (꽃보다 남자), the second kdrama series I ever saw nearly a year ago, and found myself watching it all over again! Had you asked me a few weeks earlier, I would have declared myself no longer compelled to revisit the tale of Jan Di’s misadventures among the spoilt rich. Don’t get me wrong: I greatly enjoyed it the first time around. I remember breezing through each episode eager for the next; entranced by the novelty of it all; appalled by the excesses on display – especially when it came to peer cruelty; mildly amused by the over-the-top comedic hijinks; somewhat taken aback culturally and yet glued, I say, GLUED to the screen, thoroughly entertained in the most unexpected ways!
So here I am, a year and some five or six dozen kdramas later, believing myself wiser and endowed with a more seasoned, critically discerning palate, never imagining that what I mostly remembered as a fluffy teenage rom-com could capture, let alone hold my attention anymore. So why even look at it? Well, I just happened to be looking for Jan Di’s rendition of Shim Soo Bong’s teuroteu classic “I Know Nothing But Love” for a post I was drafting, so I had to browse a little to find the episode and the scene with her performance. Before I knew it, I was no longer browsing but rather following the story, rewinding a little to recollect what happened just before the moment I had landed on, rewinding yet again, deciding that I might as well start at the beginning, starting at the beginning and realizing, by episode six (or was it eight), that it had me – again! But how? Why? 하지만 어떻게? 왜?
It turns out that although Boys Over Flowers may seem at first glance to be little more than some sweetly overwrought broad comedy showcase of pop culture types, it is in fact one of those meticulously crafted examinations of society’s unquestioned ethical shortcomings. The drama was an instant hit when it first came out in 2009 and it is still going strong, attracting new fans across the globe some four years on. As I found myself watching the entire series once again, engrossed in a surprisingly well developed bildungsroman, it occurred to me that unpacking the ethical complexities of Boys Over Flowers might in fact offer some insight into the enduring charm of Korean Drama, perhaps even a key to understanding how millions of non-Korean speakers the world over who would otherwise ignore television entertainment make nothing of the supposed cultural and language barrier to become avid aficionados of KDrama.
The character types in Boys Over Flowers initially all seem like typical rom-com fare (kdrama style, of course), but they behave in rather disconcerting ways for light entertainment. On the surface we see the standard, plucky golden-hearted Candy and the emotionally dissociated Chaebol Prince thrown together and falling in love despite all odds. Surely, we cannot begrudge our heroine the opportunity fate offers to lift her and her family out of poverty and into a life of assured luxury? Upon closer examination, however, things are not so simple. For although Geum Jan Di is hardworking, courageous and ever optimistic even in the face of woefully oppressive circumstances, her [designated] prince and his posse leave much to be desired when it comes to character. In fact, the aforementioned prince, and subsequently his mother, are responsible for most, if not all of the misery Jan Di and her family are forced to endure in the story. From the moment we first hear of F4 (the Flower Four), the most terrifying clique of pampered pretty boys at the Shin Hwa Academy — the exclusive institution for excessively cosseted children of the moneyed powerful — and see them in action, languidly strutting through the ennui of their obscenely privileged lives, it becomes justifiably difficult to imagine how this drama could in fact be a comedy.
Although polished and alluring on the surface, the unbelievably self-absorbed, arrogant and off-handedly sadistic members of F4 can incite their fellow students to visit a shocking variety of humiliations on their peers, perpetrating a series of hazings that involve subjecting defenseless targets to calumny, bullying and ostracism, simply by issuing the dreaded Red Card on whomever they wish to torment. Even more unsettling is the fact that the cruel, servile mob unquestioningly preys upon the unprotected all for the dubious distinction of demonstrating its obsequious devotion to F4. It apparently never occurs to any of them that they are faceless to F4: any single one of them might receive a Red Card and, in their turn, become prey. With such principal and ancillary characters, Boys Over Flowers might seem to be setting up a mere morality tale; one where the oppressors get their comeuppance, their flock of blind sheep receive a wake-up call and the heroine emerges triumphant. Difficult as it may be to picture after this first impression, the F4 actually turn out to be the ‘good’ guys and their leader — the somewhat witless heir to the most powerful chaebol fortune of them all, a boy who refers to himself as “The Divine Gu Jun Pyo” — becomes the romantic hero to our lovely Jan Di.
뭐?!? 잠깐만… Did something get lost in translation? Everyone knows that heroes are strong, sensitive, intelligent and resourceful. They don’t revel in using others to torture their peers out of sheer boredom (?)! If anything, they do the very opposite: they inspire the weak and protect the persecuted; they shield even the unsuspecting from harm and never, ever, EVER intentionally cause anyone suffering. So how? What could possibly account for Gu Jun Pyo emerging as a hero in this story?
In the answer to that query lies the magical mystery of the irresistible appeal of KDrama: the willingness, and proven ability, to use and often upend familiar tropes for the sake of stories that interrogate the obvious in search of basic truths about the human condition; the capacity to take a simple story about the improbable love between a boy and a girl and make it the stage for proposing the possibility of a better world, a world in which the rich and powerful can also intentionally be conscientious, responsible and compassionate; in other words, more ethically evolved… No doubt there is at least one reader out there crying “Bollocks!” I won’t challenge the call; I’ll just ask that you bear with me a moment longer as I sift through the ethical iniquities wrought by wealth that Boys Over Flowers offers up as case studies in its rather Aristotelean endeavor to draft an optimistic sketch of the world as it could be. I imagine that after you have considered such a close reading, you, too, may begin to suspect that this most unlikely specimen of bildungsroman owes its remarkable success not to its cliché-saturated comic veneer, but rather to its easy-going repudiation of facile stereotypes — especially as regards the ethical mettle of young girls and women, to its patent disdain for society’s mindless servility to “might—is—right” power structures and to its poetic optimism that people can become better versions of themselves and indeed thrive and triumph.
At the center of the story’s conflict are, of course, Geum Jan Di and Gu Jun Pyo. The former repeatedly asserts and reaffirms the independence of her will even under the duress of oppressively damning circumstances. Meanwhile, the latter — an apparently unwitting pawn and propagator of that system of persecution and oppression that keeps the masses servile while making the privileged more indifferent and more callously vicious and remorseless in their indifference — gradually and painfully evolves from his privileged savagery. In this story Geum Jan Di has to repeatedly battle the widely held notion that material wealth exempts the rich from basic ethical imperatives to behave like, let alone be, good neighbors. For, in the perverse reality in which we live, it does not necessarily follow that those who can afford to be generous, even kind, actually act to realize their potential to contribute to the well-being of their fellow man.
It is rather fitting that Boys Over Flowers is set in the anamorphic world of adolescents since they are particularly prone to insect-like behavior. One of the unwritten social codes that governs Shin Hwa Academy’s fledgling population of future Corporate Overlords dictates that the powerful moneyed may behave however they want to without regard for the well-being of others nor concern for the consequences of their actions since material wealth makes them better than everyone else. And these are not just spoilt rich kids who will become rich adults. No. They are the scion “of the most elitist 1% of the top 1% of the social class.” They are the future Masters of the Universe, educated from kindergarten through university at Shin Hwa Academy, aka the “Corporate Shrine”, an institution created by the grand patriarch of the Korean economy’s dominant chaebol, the Shin Hwa Group. In the very first minute of the very first episode, we get a quick tour of the school that this particular pubescent hive mind inhabits, and learn a truth universally acknowledged:
that if a family does not have a Shin Hwa graduate, they don’t even have a right to go anywhere in the business world.
In this institution founded by Gu Jun Pyo’s grandfather and established by special legislative dispensation granted by the President of the Republic, the young Crown Prince of the Shin Hwa Group and future captain of the largest vessel of the Korean and, ostensibly, global economy, rules over both students and faculty with the frivolous tyranny of a bored preschooler. It is a great credit to Boys Over Flowers that it can establish this seemingly simple yet loaded premise with both subtlety and flair within the show’s first thirty minutes! And because all this is presented in that first thirty minutes, it can be easy to overlook the dire picture such a premise proposes for the future of the other 99.9999% whose lives will be affected by the caprices of the Gu Jun Pyos of the world. For Gu Jun Pyo’s role as prince among the Masters of the Universe is assured. It begins to be clear that this addictive blockbuster comedy’s primary agenda may not really be whether or not the boy makes the girl his devotedly grateful Cinderella; nor even whether the evil rich get their just deserts to the solace and delighted relief of the exploited masses.
What Gu Jun Pyo comes to learn, with every humbling glimpse through Jan Di’s eyes that he catches of himself, is that having the biggest pile of money does not make him better than everyone else. It does not even make him good, much less good enough for her. A creature of his upbringing, he cannot comprehend how such a thing is even possible. So first he tries to frighten her into submission by siccing the student mob on her with the infamous Red Card. When that does not work, he tries sending a select cadre of bullies to terrorize her. Next he incites the hoard to obloquy, at which point she snaps and… flattens him with a flying roundhouse kick (!) in front of his friends. Indeed… for even “the smallest worm will turn, being trodden on.” The new and exotic idea that someone — and a poor someone at that — can be indomitable germinates in the fallow furrows of Gu Jun Pyo’s mind. But his campaign to subdue her remains undeterred.
Presumptuous, entitled, and convinced that Geum Jan Di will be both awed and daunted upon experiencing how materially transformative money can be, Gu Jun Pyo even tries the “Pretty Woman” bribery approach, only it is not with the wish-fulfillment shopping spree endemic to rom-coms. Rather, Gu Jun Pyo opts for the [unprecedented] head-to-toe makeover abduction, complete with spa treatment (whilst Jan Di is still unconscious!), million-Won haut couture with bejeweled slippers and even custom salon hair extensions! Facing Jan Di’s consequent outrage, Gu Jun Pyo is mystified that she does not faint from gratitude at his largess, and utterly disoriented when she unequivocally repudiates him and flees his gilded cage. At this point, Gu Jun Pyo does not yet understand that flaunting material wealth, especially to gratify mere caprices, does not make him worthy of admiration, much less respect. Contrary to what he has grown up believing and having reaffirmed daily by society, money can only buy things. That people decide to attribute all manner of virtue to the moneyed party’s purchasing power, and are willing to offer almost anything of themselves in exchange for some reflected prestige is a different matter. So in addition to indomitable, Jan Di’s parting remarks now introduce another new idea to Gun Jun Pyo: that a person — and a poor one at that — can hold inviolable ethical principles which no amount of money, nor other species of coercion, can undermine.
As he continues to look for ways to compel Jan Di to capitulate and become one with the hive that worships him, The Divine Gu Jun Pyo at first fails to notice that what he wants from Jan Di is no longer submission, but rather acknowledgement and acceptance. When he finally has the temerity to ask the girl he has incessantly tormented in some way or another why she dislikes him, he catalogues the attributes that his worshippers swoon over and is simply shocked to discover that his behavior, more than anything, is the root of Jan Di’s unmitigated aversion and has determined her entire perception of him:
Jun Pyo: What is it about me that you don’t like? I’m good-looking, I’m tall, smart and rich. How can you not like Gu Jun Pyo? Are you just really stupid?
Jan Di: It seems like you don’t get it yet, but your whole being makes me sick! From you greasy mouth and your arrogant walk right down to your curly hair! It’s totally annoying!
Jun Pyo: [stunned] Are you on drugs?
Jan Di: I’m not done yet. The fact that only you guys [F4] don’t wear uniforms to school pisses me off. And that Red Card — issuing them to weak, defenseless kids and then laughing about it. That’s really the most disgusting. Do you want me to tell you again? In a word, Gu Jun Pyo, I hate everything about you as a person.
Jun Pyo, who has always simply enjoyed and flaunted his special privileges, like being able to wear whatever he wanted to his school; who has never thought twice about the consequences of his whims, like the real effects of the Red Card on its victims; who has, instead, derived amusement from the brutality and the suffering that ensued; is shocked upon hearing an unvarnished account of how he affects the lives of the people around him. His initial response is to undergo a make-over of his own: he straightens his hair and decrees that F4 will henceforth wear uniforms to school. But it is only a cosmetic change.
In the calumny-driven crisis that befalls Jan Di at the same time Jun Pyo is dressing to please her, it becomes clear that he still only cares about his own feelings and is not at all concerned about Jan Di’s well-being. Once Jun Pyo’s friends clear Jan Di’s name and Jun Pyo himself saves her from the morally self-justifying mob that attacked her, a new path forms for sincere friendship to develop between the erstwhile tormentor and the indomitable former target of his onslaught. For although Jun Pyo now realizes that he has in fact fallen in love with Jan Di, it will take him somewhat longer to understand that he must first become a good man who can, and does, put the well-being of others before his own desires — essentially a better man than he has been — before he can be good enough for her.
The education of Gu Jun Pyo is slow and painful and costly. Jan Di sees him grow, never letting him get away with indulging his pettiness, and her antipathy dissolves, giving way to amity. But the toll for Jun Pyo’s quest to become a good man, a better man, is steep. It cuts deepest when his father has a heart attack and Jun Pyo is coerced by his mother into believing that he has to give up Jan Di in order to assume his duties as the heir of Shin Hwa. No longer the selfish, impetuous, boy, he still doesn’t know how to not hurt Jan Di, but he does recognize and assume the responsibility of ensuring the well-being of the 70,000 people whose livelihood depends on Shin Hwa’s institutional and economic stability. And so he pushes Jan Di away just when she is ready to openly acknowledge how well she likes him, how she, too, has grown to love Jun Pyo.
But as this is a comedy, our lovebirds must, and do, find their way back to each other in the end. I found it particularly gratifying that even after they overcome all the external obstacles to their nascent love and Jun Pyo proposes that they wed, Jan Di asserts that they both still need to grow as individuals before they can bind themselves to each other. Jun Pyo has to leave for America, his mission being to develop a more ethically responsible culture within the Shin Hwa Group by introducing widespread reform to reverse the corrosion of its social, political and economic integrity. For her part, Jan Di wants to dedicate herself to realizing her own vision of her best self by going to medical school and becoming a doctor. She sends him off to cultivate his own growth with the promise that should he return to her “a really amazing man,” then she will think about his proposal.
The gradual awakening of the F4 to the possibility that they, too, can willfully behave well and be good citizens in spite of their wealth and privilege runs through the heart of Boys Over Flowers. Each of the boys in turn accepts the legitimacy of Jan Di’s challenge to their complacency and learns to be protective of the defenseless, generous and empowering to the needful, and forgiving to the contrite — and they accomplish all this without using any of their considerable pecuniary resources but instead by simply giving of themselves. Unsurprisingly, the leader of the pack, the Divine Gu Jun Pyo, is the most transformed of the group — a development that underscores the dramatic value of introducing him in his casually cruel, unevolved state when he first encounters Jan Di. Upon Jun Pyo’s return from abroad, his mission of ethical corporate reform a resounding success, his heart set as ever on renewing his marriage proposal to Jan Di, all
four five friends are happily reunited after four years of abundant growth. Gone are the stone-faced, bored bullies, wilting in their pointless ennui. The Flower Four have blossomed, thriving in the light of becoming good men, better men, each ready to assume the role accorded him by his station with compassion and a more evolved ethical sensibility. It is reasonable to assume that ordinary, hardworking citizens will generally prefer that those with the power to make decisions that affect their lives care about the well-being of the ordinary person. As it draws to a close, Boys Over Flowers offers the reassuring possibility that a new generation of Masters of the Universe that is more conscientious than the last could be the one inheriting the mantle of responsibility over the welfare of the other 99.9999%.
I look forward to taking occasional notes about this beautiful story. In the end, I found that I did not really mind the slapstick hijinks that peppered the first few episodes, nor the occasionally spitball-like plotting. The way I see it, this aspect of the drama paralleled Gu Jun Pyo’s evolution from feckless boy to responsible man. As he grows, suffering because, for the first time in his life, he has to strive for something — winning Jan Di’s heart and having her accept his — the drama sheds its puerile tendencies and assumes a more mellow attitude that eventually sees our happy band of friends strolling into the sunset together.