Originally written for Fandom Following.
Whenever I get into a new entertainment product, I look at it as an adventure in fangirling. I having spent the last fourteen years observing fanfiction trends, and appreciating the work other fans put into supporting their favorite entertainment product (I’m going to keep saying entertainment product until someone gives me a better word for these things/properties/franchises that we build fandoms for). I have always been interested in different fandom trends, histories, and even just what fandom looks like in different entertainment mediums. However, as someone who at one point wanted to study fandom in its many forms, I would be missing a good chunk of the story if I only looked at American entertainment products. Fangirls rarely keep to their own cultures.
People have been trying to get me into Korean dramas for years, but it was my friend, Dee, who was ultimately successful. I started my fangirl journey as an anime lover, and I dabbled in Kpop for a few months before finally settling into American TV and Comics, but I’ve put off k-dramas for years simply because of a lack of interest. However, I have noticed that within (and without) the fangirl community there is a preoccupation with Korean entertainment products. I don’t know what it is about them, but, especially when anime is your gateway drug into fandom, Korean television and Korean pop music will eventually suck you in. And somehow they both managed to get me with Boys Over Flowers.
First premiering in South Korea in early 2009, Boys Over Flowers is considered the fifth television adaptation of the Japanese manga, Hana Yori Dango, by Yoko Kamio. South Korea was the third country out of 8 (Turkey, Indonesia, and the United States are not listed on Wikipedia, but they have all had their own adaptations) to adapt the manga, and is ultimately the most successful. Boys Over Flowers is the story of scholarship student, Geum JanDi’s experience at the exclusive Shinhwa High School, and her relationship with the popular quartet, F4.
Let’s back up for two seconds. As I’ve said before, I was into Kpop for a few months during eighth grade. My best friend at the time was a Filipina who got me into the group, Shinhwa, whom I ended up liking because of the obvious American R&B influence in their music. Now I wasn’t the biggest Shinhwa fan, but they stuck around in my head because of this particular collaboration with their SM Town labelmates (which, at the time, included BoA of Inuyasha and Kindomg Hearts fame). Imagine my shock when I find out that not only is Shinhwa the name of the school in which most of Boys Over Flowers is set, but it’s also the name of the elementary school and university that F4 attended, as well as the company that the leader of F4 is heir to.
So you know I renamed all the male leads after my favorite Kpop group, right? Admittedly, Shinhwa had six members to F4’s four, but it ended up working out really well in the end. Hit me up in the comments if you want to know who I matched up together and why.
In any case, Boys Over Flowers was possibly the most drama filled show I have ever seen in my life. It could not have worked on American television, especially in this day and age, but it is ridiculously entertaining. To be completely honest, I hate dramas because I feel like they’re almost too much for my heart (and probably too realistic), but a lot of what went on in Boys Over Flowers was so fantastic that it made the more realistic moments much easier to handle. And it’s all ridiculously addictive.
I can’t use Boys Over Flowers to pass judgement on Korean dramas as whole, but, from what I have seen, a lot of things that went on in the show are indicative of the genre. Again, a lot of these things could not work on American television, especially not 2016.
In Boys Over Flowers, the lead characters are (from left to right) Gu Jun Pyo, Geum Jan Di, Yoon Ji Hoo, So Yi Jung, and Song Woo Bin. The male leads, in that same order, are numbered 1st to 4th by plot prominence.
Please note that you should never fall in love with the second male lead.
Being the second male is not a bad thing, storyline wise. Whereas in the US, exploring the backstory of anyone beyond the main leads is iffy at best, in Korea, they will always flesh out the second male lead if only to later destroy your heart. Boys Over Flowers actually took the time to flesh out quite a few of their minor and major characters, with the exception of the fourth male lead, Song Woo Bin. My theory is that they took out Woo Bin’s storyline because he was supposed to have a thing for older women, but I don’t know enough about South Korean culture to confirm this. Interestingly enough, that was not the most shocking thing about his character.
Speaking of Woo Bin, Dee (the friend who introduced me to this K-drama hell) wanted to point out something about him that tends to show up in K-dramas and K-pop a lot. In the show, Woo Bin is the only member of F4 that uses American slang – Black American slang in particular. This is not new for Korean pop culture; a big part of the reason that K-pop is so big is because it appropriates Black American culture without actually using any black people. And it’s interesting that Woo Bin is the one using Black American slang when he’s the known mafia prince. They even make a point to tell you that he’s somewhat ashamed of it. It’s almost like they’re saying that black = crime = bad.
I’m not even going to get into the cringe-worthy appearances of white people in this show. It’s not as bad, but it’s jarring.
Song Woo Bin is actually the most stable character in the whole group, and the most likely to save you from possible death. For being a mafia prince, he has the least bit of drama and his five minutes of storyline is ultimately used to serve So Yi Jung’s plot. This also comes after a haircut that makes Woo Bin ten times more attractive, but still unbelievably single.
I don’t know if this is the same with all K-dramas, but the ship-bating in Boys Over Flowers was ridiculous. It’s best not to go in with an idea of who ends up with who, because the show will tease you with Jun Pyo/Jan Di and then drown you in all of that Ji Hoo/Jan Di goodness. And let’s not even talk about Yi Jung and they way he played with Ga Eul’s heart, or even how Ha Jae Kyung went from like-able to annoying to heartbreaking in her ten episode arc. I can imagine that the ship wars were outrageous. I am told that they’re still going on even now, which makes sense because they were still ship-baiting up through the last ten minutes of the series finale.
All in all, I loved Boys Over Flowers, despite its cultural appropriation. Besides the love drama and terrible behavior of rich teenagers, I felt like this was a story about friendship. F4 always seemed to be there for each other, even when two of their members were in love with the same girl and punching each other every episode. Jan Di and Ga Eul’s friendship was unwavering, and Ha Jae Kyung’s friendship with Jan Di made it very hard to hate her. And despite the fact that every new friend she made seemed to ruin her romantic relationships, Jan Di stayed relatively warm-hearted and resilient throughout the whole thing.
(The Seoul chapter of the Young Women’s Christian Association criticized Jan Di for being “passive and dependent”, but I thought that she was plenty active and independent when it came to taking control of her life. While I would have admittedly fought or sued just about everyone who had done me wrong if I were in her shoes, that does not necessarily mean that I would need to. Ultimately, success and living well really is the best revenge.)
Should you find yourself the time, you should watch Boys Over Flowers. It’s popular for a reason. While this won’t be my last foray into Korean dramas, I will always remember Boys Over Flowers for the way that it connected me to an old fandom and introduced me to a new one.
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All images courtesy of Group 8/ Korean Broadcasting System.