Thursday, October 11, 2012

Drama Review: To the Beautiful You (2012)

Grade: B-

Cross-dressing romantic comedy

What it’s about
The fourth Asian drama to be based on Japan’s Hana Kimi manga series, To the Beautiful You is the story of an American girl who moves to her Korean homeland in hopes of inspiring her favorite angst-ridden athlete to return to competition. The catch? Her big plan to spend time with him involves pretending to be a boy and attending his boys-only boarding school.

Initial impression
I hate to admit it, but 15 more episodes of this and I will be a happy girl. It’s the perfect, breezy mixture of zingy chemistry, teen melodrama, and goofy comedy. (Okay. I could have done without the banana peel bit. Has anyone outside of Looney Tunes ever actually stepped on one and slid like that?) But then again, I’m always a sucker for high school shows, even if I’m officially old enough to be skeeved out by the shirtless infants prowling around the locker room. Try again after the puberty fairy visits, boys.

Final verdict
If you’re looking for a youthful drama that’s cute, cuddly, and cotton-candy delicious, To the Beautiful You is just the ticket. If you’re in the mood for something that accurately represents any aspect of life on planet Earth or includes things like logic or nuanced characterization, you should keep on going. 

There’s nothing particularly good about this show, but thanks to its likeable characters and sweet OTP shenanigans, it managed to be a fun diversion with just enough narrative momentum to keep me coming back week after week.

I’m also happy to report that To the Beautiful You actually has some emotional weight and tackles some of the thornier concerns gender-bending dramas so often ignore (memorably including “where should I hide my tampons while living in all-boys dormitory?”). Its idol leads do a reasonable job of carrying the show, but TTBY’s real heart and soul is its second male lead, Cha Eun Gyul. Played by an professoinal actor with a slew of credits to his name (how novel!), Eun Gyul often seems to have parachuted in from some other, better drama. The rest of the characters are thinly drawn at best, with seemingly no lives or motivations beyond the claustrophobic world of Genie High.

Flawed as it may be, this empty-calorie treat is light, bright, and full of sly references to the cross-dressing Kdramas that came before it. Watching it may barely require consciousness, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time if you—like me—are happy to overlook some serious missed opportunities in favor of goofy fun.

Random thoughts
Episode 1. I tried not to watch this show, but it turns out that I’m even more defenseless in the face of gender-bending dramas than I originally thought. Also, was that just a patented Go Eun Chan bang-blow? I saw what you did there, Show, and I liked it.

Episode 1. Stop the presses! Did they just acknowledge the existence of menstruation with a shot of the female lead hiding boxes of pads in her dresser? There may not be much originality in this drama, but maybe they’ll finally explain how a girl in disguise is able to share a room and bathroom with a boy for an entire school year without getting tripped up by bodily functions. I sure hope she invested in boy’s underwear, at least, or laundry day is going to be pretty awkward.

Episode 1. Sangchu, will you be my pillow? You look like you’d be soft and cozy, a welcome change from the vicious wolverine that passes for a cat in my household.

Episode 2. So where does your average all-boys school come by female cheerleaders? Are they gisaengs? Is there a girl’s school across the lake? Also, I keep cracking up every time someone tries to make the high-jump seem epically important, and/or trips the female lead. You’re a puppyish laugh-riot, Show.

Episode 3. Excuse me, but are you eating a hamburger with a fork and knife? You may pass as a boy, but nobody would ever believe you’d spent any time in America.

Episode 3.
Dear Kdrama Overlords:

If you ever need English-language proofreading, I’m just an e-mail away. I’d be delighted to help clarify, for example, the not-insignificant difference between the words “lunch” and “launch.”


Episode 4. So I like a melodramatic rescue just as much as the next girl, but there are some problems with the follow-through this time. That creepy boy is edging from serial rapist territory to serial killer territory, yet you don’t report his actions to the police? Or get PTSD? Really?

Episode 5. Show, I love you so much that I’m totally going to overlook the fact that you just left a kitten in a building slated for demolition the next day. And also that said building was still packed with furnishings—wouldn’t somebody have bothered to move them out before D-day?

Is it my imagination, or is the character of Cha Eun Gyul essentially one big Coffee Prince joke? There’s his name, for one thing, and in episode 3 he said “let’s take this as far as it can go” while heading off to confront the female lead. How Choi Han Gyul-esque!

Episode 8. I think this show sets some sort of record for slightly closeted gays in Korean entertainment. Not only is there lip-gloss boy and his intense man-crush on Cha Eun Gyul, there’s also the doctor, who had just as much trouble tearing his eyes away from Jae Hee’s smoking hot brother as I did.

— It gives me warm, fuzzy feelings that Jae Hee and her stepbrother are so loving. On the other hand, I’m a little concerned that he’s the first love who taught her to make s’mores. (Poorly, might I add: the whole point is to get the marshmallow charred and hot enough to melt the chocolate.)

—Dear Kdrama Overlords:

I know this show is based on existing source material, but I really think you should consider letting Cha Eun Gyul get the girl in the end. Both leads are cute, but he and Jae Hee clearly belong together.


Episode 9. Listen carefully, Show, because I’m only going to say this once. I like you. No . . . I love you!

—Did I mention that I love the cheesy little “woosh!” sound the shooting stars make? Like so many things about this show, it’s so lame it’s actually awesome.

Episode 10. Only in Korea could writers use tampons and porn stashes as props to enable chivalry. Why finding a pile of girlie magazines didn’t encourage the teachers to search the room more thoroughly is beyond me, but I guess it has something to do with the principal’s urgent desire to examine the contraband in more detail.

Episode 11. Cha Eun Gyul! You are the second bravest, most wonderful character in all of Korean drama. I can’t believe what you did just did, and it kills me that I know how it’s going to turn out.

— Does not compute: Tae Joon can leave campus to buy digestives, but Jae Hee can’t leave to buy tampons. Or is Shangchu actually some sort of Tampax-sniffing guard dog trained to protect the boys from PMS?

—Okay, Tae Joon. The jig is up—stop torturing poor Jae Hee and tell her that you know she’s a girl. Whatever your motivation may be for keeping silent this long, watching her suffer like this is cruel.

Episode 13. I’ve got the first order of business for South Korea’s new president to consider: making it illegal to store flowerpots anywhere above the ground floor. It would be a lifesaving piece of legislation, clearly.

— The kid who plays Tae Joon is a fine actor, until he reaches beyond his abilities and tries to do something crazy—like express emotion. Then he starts to seem like an extra from the movie The Polar Express, a film notoriously panned for the mechanical nature of its animated characters.

Episode 14. Way to jump to conclusions Eun Gyul. If I saw someone all wrapped up like that, my first thought would not be “Holy crap—are you a girl?’ It would be “Holy crap, did you break a rib or something?”

Watch it
Drama Fever

You might also like
The holy quartet of gender-bending Kdramas:  Coffee PrinceSungkyunkwan Scandal, Painter of the Wind, and You’re Beautiful

Heartstrings, for its youthful and fun summery vibe


  1. You're pretty spot-on with your analysis here. Looking at this drama with a critical eye is nearly impossible, and that's really not what it, nor its predecessors set out to do, I think.

    Lee Hyun-woo was a scene-stealer every time, and despite the drama's flaws, will go down as one of my favorite second leads. Puppy FTW!! On the other hand, the only thing that saved Sulli (and Jae-hee) and Minho (and Tae-joon) from getting the evil eye from me was each other. It wasn't the moments they were on-screen alone (though one could argue that TJ's moments in the bathroom were pretty darned cute), but the ones that included their interactions with one another that kept me coming back for more.

    Overall, it delivered on what it promised it would, and when the source material itself is lacking in plot sense, you can't ask for much from its adaptations.

    1. I think it's possible to look at TTBY with a critical eye...but it would just make you sad if you did. So why not sit back and look at it with an idiot eye and be semi-delighted, like me? ;)

      I completely agree that Sulli and Minho's cuteness was the crack that made this show so hard to stop watching—it was fan service that the writers gave us, without bothering themselves with any of the hard ploty/scripty things. I think I might be spending my time in the near future watching Lee Hyun-woo's old dramas. (In which he must play a fetus, he's so young.)

    2. I'm going to have to be looking for Lee Hyun Woo in something else as well. He was the glue that held everything together. I would definitely like to see more of him.

    3. That's why I'm so totally excited for his new movie next year with Kim Soo-hyun and (now) Park Ki-woong. Shenanigans abound! And this time he'll be in presence of some truly great talents, so it'll be loads of fun to watch them on screen together. It's a shame Lee Hyun-woo hasn't been in more projects that tickle my fancy, though, so I'll just have to wait for Covertness to come out.

    4. I really want Lee Hyun-woo to be the lead in some angsty teen drama, though. Just one movie can't compare to the delight of seeing him for sixteen hours straight.

  2. Lol. Your "he reaches beyond his abilities and tries to do something crazy—like express emotion." still cracks me up. :)

    Oh btw.. Not sure if you ever ran into this, but I was doing some ehh... "research" last night, and came across this article about KPOP dance vids from 1996-2000 and of course I couldn't resist. You'll see some familiar faces and hairdos as featured in AM 1997. Even forgetting the featured videos, the article itself is hilarious.

    1. Fun! Thanks for the link :)

      Did you watch the Making-of AM 1997 on Drama Fever? I just got around to it last night, and it was really cute. (I find one of its claims hard to believe, though: that H.O.T. were Korea's first idols. How could that be possible? The West's first idol was like...Mozart.)

    2. LOL! @ the Mozart comment. I really need to get on this AM 1997 bandwagon. I hear it's a fun one.

    3. Oh please DO join the bandwagon!

      I haven't watched the making-of yet. I am going to attempt to separate myself from this show for at a day (yeah right) and try to relive it slowly, one day at a time. :D

    4. "Fun" isn't the word for AM 1997. It's more like..."earth-shatteringly wonderful."


  3. I love this show for all of its shallow sparkliness and Eun Gyul lol. I don't care how ridiculous it may be :P

  4. Yay you've started Soulmate! It is very silly, but I love it. I loved Min-ae and Soo-kyung's characters, and the soundtrack is one of my favorite drama OSTs ever. I do think Answer Me 1997 is better, but where watching AM1997 is like bittersweet chocolate that makes me want to laugh and cry and makes my heart ache nostalgically, Soulmate makes me feel giddy and start humming one of the theme songs. It's my feel-good drama, basically.

    That being said, I'm not particularily fond of the ending. I wonder what you'll think of it.

    1. I'm looking forward to getting a bit more into Soulmates—it's definitely light and funny, but I'm being driven bonkers by all these damn near misses between what I imagine will eventually be the leads. In a lot of ways, this show feels like the Kdrama missing link; it's the grandmother of all today's urban rom-coms like I Need Romance and The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry.

  5. Personally i liked the Taiwanese version waaay better. But i agree, TTBY is so sweet and breezy and with the beautiful sets, it's hard to not enjoy it. Though with this said, i highly recommend you to watch the Taiwanese version when you have time. :)

  6. I don't understand why TTBY has a low rating in korea. I mean here in Philippines, its a BOMB! It is the best korean drama i've watched so far. I love the plot of the story.. the characters.. the OSTs.. EVERYTHING! I cried niagra falls and laughed and fangirled as if there's no tomorrow. I got really attached to the characters and i just couldn't get enough of them. But i am really unsatisfied with the ending. TO THE BEAUTIFUL YOU SEASON 2 PLEASE :D

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