Where do I begin? When I was talking to the amazing students at Seoul Women’s University this summer, many of them recommended this drama to me. It was phenomenally popular in Korea and has been a popular export internationally. As a pop-culture reference, it seemed like an important show for me to experience. So, without any further beating around the bush, here’s my review:
Summary: After saving a student at a posh private school from a suicide attempt, plucky and poor Guem Jan-di is given a scholarship to the academy. The school is run by F4 a group of four rich bullies. There’s the smug handsome heir to the biggest company in Korea, Goo Jun-pyo; the quiet, musically talented Yoon Ji-hoo; the pottery prodigy playboy, So Yi-young; and the casanova gangster, Song Woo-bin. Guem Jan-di ends up taking the group head-on in a battle of will until romantic feelings begin getting in the way.
Characters: Our heroine, Guem Jan-di is “plucky.” Meaning she yells a lot and occasionally kicks people. Yet, at the same time she is a perfect Cinderella. She always seems to need rescuing. For a girl whose only talent is supposed to be swimming, she seems to nearly drown an awful lot. In kissing scenes she is completely passive– she stands completely still with her eyes shut as the male doing the kissing leans into her.
Our male characters are extremely unlikable from the start. They encourage the entire school to bully a student to the point of suicide and never show any remorse for it. They all come packaged with tragic back stories that are supposed to make them sympathetic, but in no way excuse their actions. Ultimately, they are supposed to “learn” from Guem Jan-di, she is supposed to “tame” them while they pamper her with weekends away, pretty dresses, and nights out.
Cha Ga-eul, Guem Jan-di’s best friend is also very passive, but her romantic subplot is at times less annoying than the main plot. Guem Jan-di’s family is extremely annoying. Stereotypical loud, over the top family.
Plot: The love story was painfully long and drawn out with ridiculous barriers constantly being put up against them. Plenty of plot points are over the top (a kidnapping? a crazy car race?) and somewhat sexist (Guem Jan-di ending up as Goo Jun-pyo’s “personal maid” for a time).
Also, it seems that there are no teachers at this posh private school. It’s just run by monstrous children who very viciously bully others. This is a very dark side to the show, but that is glossed over and they focus on this teenage romance instead.
I will say, this show and other Korean dramas aren’t afraid of showing people who are in economic distress. That is something that the US media often ignores– or uses as a premise, but pushes to the side. Like Eun chan of “Coffee Prince,” Jan-di works multiple jobs to help keep her family properly provided for. The difficulties of being poor are actually a part of the plots of these dramas, which is a point in their favor. Though, in this case it does add to the CInderella comparison.
Style Points: 9/10 The boys of F4 are always extremely well dressed. Sometimes it’s too trendy, but the eye candy (at least as far as fashion goes) was on a very high level in this show.
Feminist Points: 3/10 For all her “I kick bullies in the face” attitude, Guem Jan-di is ultimately very passive and constantly needing a man or sometime the entire F4 to swoop in and save her. She does set some boundaries and actually works toward her own goal by the end of the series– actually developing a bit of independence, for which I added another point.
Throat Punch Factor: 9.5/10 Oh my goodness. I wanted to punch Goo Jun-pyo in the face in nearly every scene. Most of the F4 deserve some throat-punching, especially in the early episodes.
Overall, I felt very frustrated with the characters. The things that kept me motivated to watch it were: everyone seeming to know and love this show, and the fact that I like Lee Min Ho and Kim Sang Bum. I would never do a rewatch. It drove me crazy. Maybe if they had kept it to 16 episodes or so, it wouldn’t be so bad, but it was 25. Twenty five.