What it’s about
Flower Boy Next Door is the deceptively thoughtful story of a lonely, damaged girl who re-enters the world with the help of a quirky new acquaintance, panda-suit wearing, scene stealing, heart-exploding Enrique Geum.
First impression posts
Here’s a quick pop quiz for you before we begin this review in earnest. Are you a drama watcher who:
1) enjoys goofy character studies that present wonderfully detailed universes but don’t necessary have much of an overarching plot, or
2) prefers shows that feature strong narrative throughlines and beginning-to-end, series-wide plots?
This drama tells the story of Go Dok Mi (Park Shin Hye), a lonely, introverted young woman who has almost totally withdrawn into her apartment. Although she has lived there for years, Dok Mi feels like a total stranger to the other residents in her down-at-the-heels apartment complex, a group that seems to spend most of their time staging small-scale protests at the behest of their security guard. Her biggest interaction with the outside world is spying on the painfully handsome doctor who lives in a bigger, nicer apartment in a brand-new building across the street. She may not speak to Tae Joon—or even know his name—but through the lenses of her sunshine-yellow binoculars he looks like her closest friend. Dok Mi has built her day around his routines, and watches him avidly without ever really considering that she might someday meet him in person.
When Enrique Geum (Yoon Si Yoon), Tae Joon’s visiting cousin, catches her peering into his windows, everything changes for both Dok Mi and the other residents of her floor. Enrique is a high-energy puppy-boy, all silly antics and open-hearted delight. A renowned game designer who has spent most of his life in Spain, he understands how distanced Dok Mi feels from the world around her. Growing up in a foreign country, he was always aware that he was different, which made him work all the harder to forge human connections. His games were what he had to offer, and he made them with love and devotion.
Of course Dok Mi and and Enrique start off on the wrong foot, with a panda-hat-clad Enrique outraged to realize that the person across the way has been playing peeping tom. But from the very beginning the two feel drawn together, connected on an almost psychic level. (Really, it might be an actually psychic level—the show dabbles in magical realism during a number of scenes when Enrique can seemingly read Dok Mi’s mind.) Their budding friendship draws Dok Mi out into the world and encourages her to befriend the people she finds there.
It even turns out that Dok Mi has her own watcher—Jin Rak, the gruff cartoonist next door. He has spent so much of his time dreaming about his quiet neighbor that she even seeps into his professional life: along with his assistant, the hardworking Dong Hoon, he creates a new webtoon called Flower Boy Next Door. In it, he both recounts and imagines Dok Mi’s story.
Like all the dramas in tvN’s Oh Boy! series, this show features a large cast of supporting characters that shape its plot. The most important of them is probably Do Hwi—Dok Mi’s high school best friend turned mean-girl tormenter, who tries to use their former friendship to get close to Jin Rak, whom she believes to be the secret heir to a chaebol fortune. My favorite of the peripheral (but indispensable) characters is the nameless editor of Jin Rak’s webtoon, whose brash, brusque mannerisms hide an overworked girl desperate to succeed in her chosen field. The final ingredient in their coalescing community is Watanabe, the new guy from down the hall. He’s a wannabe chef from Japan who brings the rest of the cast together with weekly cooking lessons.
Its characters are Flower Boy Next Door’s greatest strength. Even though most of them are slightly exaggerated in the way of Korean comedies, they’re charming and wonderful and utterly sympathetic, and as the show progresses the viewer is completely drawn into their lives.
It also doesn’t hurt that they’re portrayed by a group of incredibly likable actors, led by the lovely, expressive Park Shin Hye. A longtime veteran of dramas like You’re Beautiful and Heartstrings, Shin Hye is able to convey with a single look what would require a thousand lines of dialogue to say. She takes a journey with Dok Mi—from the beginning of the drama to its end, her bashful, downward-staring attitude evolves into the straight-backed posture of someone who knows her own worth.
The ever-handsome Yoon Si Yoon as Enrique proves to be her perfect foil: his childlike candor and propensity toward panda suits is tempered with a powerful sense of empathy and tenderness. He’s an utter contrast to the typical male lead in Kdrama romcoms—instead of being distant and cold, he’s like a burst of sunshine in a dark room. He isn’t prickly and doesn’t withhold his emotions; he gladly shares his heart and his mind with everyone he meets. Yoon Si Yoon only has a few dramas to his name at this point, but he’s definitely an actor to watch. Like his contemporary Song Joong Ki of Nice Guy and A Werewolf Boy, Yoon Si Yoon disappears fully into his characters and embodies their emotional lives in an intense and convincing way.
Another of Flower Boy Next Door’s primary charms is that it’s not afraid of emotion, much like Enrique. The best of its episodes spend more time on characters talking about their feelings than they do on things like narrative or plot development: emotions serve as the show’s spine and its unifying principle. Most dramas revolve around circumstances that change—Amnesia! Cancer! Birth secrets! Corporate jockeying for power!—but Flower Boy Next Door is so very rewarding to the receptive viewer because it revolves around people that change.
These changes are reflected just as much in the look of the show as in its script. Everything about Flower Boy Next Door is beautiful and striking, from its blue/grey/orange color palate to its perfectly chosen props and cadre of dreamy flower boy leads. Throughout, developments in the characters are reflected perfectly in their surroundings. Early on, the drapes in Dok Mi’s apartment are like another character in the show: they’re always present, dark and heavy and made for blocking out the world. But when we’re reintroduced to Dok Mi after the time jump in episode 16, we see that the forbidding drapes are no more. In their place are a set of sheer, floaty curtains that let the daylight stream into her apartment—and into her life. Most dramas overlook little opportunities for visual storytelling like this, but Flower Boy Next Door’s obsession with detail serves it well.
I suspect this drama’s greatest successes and greatest flaws can be traced to its source material—an actual webtoon called I Steal Peeks at Him Everyday. (For those keeping score at home, that’s also the title of this show’s first episode.) Flower Boy Next Door does an amazing job on the micro level: it creates lovely moments and its characters are lavished with development. From Dok Mi going against her frugal nature to turn up her apartment’s heat whenever Enrique visits, to the evolution of the dark circles under the webtoon editor’s eyes, its meticulous attention to detail and the building-blocks of atmosphere make the show a transporting delight.
But when it comes to tying all its many pieces together on the macro level, Flower Boy Next Door is somewhat less successful.
Posted in weekly installments, I Steal Peeks at Him Everyday is a serial intended for long-term viability. Contrary to the concise format of Korean dramas, stalling is one of this medium’s prime directives: like American television shows, it needs to last for as long as people are interested in it. The first volume of this comic was posted in late June 2011, and its most recent installment, volume 54, went up just last month. The way you fill that much space in an ongoing creative effort is by slowly doling out attention-grabbing scenes and crafting perfect, bite-sized moments that don’t so much move forward as they jog in place. An over-arching, endgame plot is something you can only hint at if you don’t want to run out of content before you run out of serial.
And this is exactly what Flower Boy Next Door does. When viewed with a microscope, as you would see a single installment in a multi-year webtoon, it’s perfect. But seen with binoculars, as you would watch a sixteen-episode drama, it’s a mess of story threads that are dropped, circular plotting, and never-ending evasion.
For me, this wasn’t really a problem. I loved the central characters and their relationships so much that I didn’t need an over-arching plot—I just wanted to see them living their lives, and rejoice in their small triumphs. But for other viewers, this drama was frustratingly less than the sum of its parts. As a whole, things just didn’t hold together: Several secondary characters were dropped midstream without a satisfying explanation of their motives. Whole scenes existed for no reason other than dressing Yoon Si Yoon up in a panda suit or an ascot, making them feel disconnected from the drama’s overall storyline.
Also unwelcome were the show’s many “cheat” cliffhangers. Time and again, episodes closed with shocking developments (Jin Rak caught the car! Enrique heard her confessing and is heartbroken!) that didn’t carry over into the next episode. The first few times this happened, it was amusing. But when episodes 14 and 15 rolled around it was impossible to take them seriously—the show had squandered its believability by reusing the same transparent tricks too many times.
So could Flower Boy Next Door has been a better drama? Probably.
Could I have loved it more? Probably not. It’s a humane, fairy-tale-tinted foray into the lives of some of the most indelible characters Kdrama has ever created.
Spying on the Boy Next Door: Field Notes from the Series
I’m still new to watching Kdramas while they’re still airing in Korea. Flower Boy Next Door is the first show I’ve watched this way that I really loved—and I almost wonder if part of that love stems from the amazing community that the show inspired. Reading them being smart and insightful definitely helped me be more smart and insightful myself. For examples of their wonder, check out FBND meta on Tumblr, the show’s Soompi forum, and its Dramabeans recaps.
• From the whimsical score to the stacks of manuscripts on Dok Mi’s desk to the delighted look on her face when she opened her drapes to spy on the cute boy across the way, this brisk and breezy comedy had me at hello. More, please!
• I really like Dok Mi’s reluctance to interact with the people around her. Being an introvert isn’t the end of the world, although she is taking it to Howard-Hughesian extremes. I hope the show doesn’t totally strip her of her shyness as it continues—that was my great sorrow with Protect the Boss, which was otherwise very enjoyable. The quirks and emotional problems of its male lead disappeared as soon as they weren’t essential to the love story, leaving him just another selfish chaebol son rather than a multidimensional character struggling to be happy in spite of himself.
• Did I mention that the outfit I’m wearing as I watch this episode is practically identical to Dok Mi’s? My two sweaters and shirt are even the same colors. Really, we’re similar in lots of ways: I also spend my days hunched over manuscripts, loathe human interaction, and go totally bonkers at the sight of cute puppies. We’re pretty much twins, except I’m more of a tragic spinster than an adorable Korean girl about to be swept off her feet by Yoon Si Yoon. Damn it.
• Current verdict: better than I dared hope for.
• Will this scene with Yoon Si Yoon in the panda hat ever get old? I’ve watched it like five times and laughed harder with each one. What kills me is the look of utter, absolute seriousness on his face when the camera first finds him: it’s hard to carry off dark and outraged when wearing what’s essentially a stuffed animal on your head, but he totally does it. As others have said, Enrique is without a doubt a manic pixie dream boy, and I could not possibly love him more.
• If I were the sort of person capable of making a gif, I would make one of the webtoon editor bellowing “must be full of love!” in this episode. If there were a spy camera in my living room the moment I decided to ditch Gaksital after watching less than ten minutes of the first episode, this is exactly what it would have recorded.
• Dramafever, I can not possibly thank you enough for your speedy subbing of this series! It has been like heaven to come home after work and discover that the new episodes are already ready to watch. You’ve made my cruddy week.
• This episode’s ending was a total cheat—the last ten seconds or so never happened in the timeline of episode 4.
• The most egregious act of spycraft involved in this drama? That would be its writers coming all the way to America so they could use me as inspiration foe Dok Mi. There’s probably a hidden camera in my living room right now.
• I listened to the Drama Fever podcast that focuses on FBND in preparation for this episode. It stars an all-male cast of Drama Fever employees—and it’s becoming increasingly clear that I want real, actual boys as far away from this show as possible. They ruin it with their boyishness. (LOL. Sort of.)
• I love how Dok Mi treats her big, poofy jackets as security blankets, or maybe even body armor. In each of the last two episodes she’s responded to moments of vulnerability by zipping up and huddling away, as if she she might actually be able to will herself into invisibility. Actually, most of the characters on this show have coats that say a lot about them. Dok Mi’s high school bully is styled as a fox in the opening credits, and she always wears fluffy fur coats. Enrique’s jacket is bright enough to be seen from the international space station and covered with complicated closures and cords, just right for a tech wiz withe the soul of a little boy. And the scruffy next-door neighbor’s jacket is the embodiment of practicality and straightforward usability, which are just the traits he finds so appealing in Dok Mi.
• When I check the status bar during other shows, it’s because I’m bored and ready to do something else. When I check the status bar during this show, it means I’m already dreading that the episode has to end. “Only 44 minutes left? Nooo!”
• Ah, the eternal struggle between the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other continues: I’m spoiled rotten for this episode, which makes it less fun to watch. Yet I can’t bring myself to avoid sites likely to reveal more than I need to know before I see it for myself.
• I love you, Enrique, but I can’t believe you just read what she wrote without her permission. That’s way worse than accidentally wrecking someone’s first kiss, even.
• Jin Rak should go ahead and get a sandwich board that reads “Terrible Lay.” It’s great that he’s into Dok Mi and all, but way to turn her into a sexless virgin with all this talk about not needing Eros in their relationship.
• Just what kind of editor is Dok Mi? The term “proofreader” has been bandied around, and she does seem to be working on page proofs. But the level of editing she’s doing—inserting whole sentences about Spanish castles and fact checking the details of Enrique’s life—would be more appropriate for a developmental editor, who works on a book way earlier in the publication process. I’m a little annoyed that Enrique complained about her edits: This is her job and he’s misleading her employer into thinking she’s doing it badly. (Unfortunately, sponsoring editors tend to take the author’s word about things like that, no matter how wrong they are. I knew someone years ago who edited novels by a super famous [but slightly washed up] author, and she literally wasn’t allowed to make a single edit that didn’t involve chronology fixes. If you’d read this author’s work, you’d know she would have unquestionably benefited from more editing. But heaven forbid anyone touch the novelist’s sacred words—it was all about her ego, not the quality of her book.)
• What a delight this show has turned out to be. Every step of the way, it’s better, sweeter, and smarter than I expected. It’s always true to its characters—from Enrique playing video games with the kids at the sauna, to Dok Mi turning up the heat in her apartment because she has a visitor, to those yellow binoculars on the windowsill. The story feels like it grows organically from these characters, instead of the characters being manipulated for the sake of the story. I also have to admit that I’ve literally had 75 percent of the conversations in this particular episode.
• Two predictions: 1. Jin Rak is actually going to be a rebel chaebol son, hiding out under a false name. Those guys in suits are actually sent by his family. 2. The series will end with Enrique subletting Dok Mi’s apartment while she uses up her savings traveling around the world. By herself, but not—she’ll share the journey with people she meets on the road. [Ed: Well, I’m one for one.]
• That was an exercise in futility. I was so excited to see this episode that I started watching even though Viki said it was only 95 percent subbed. In truth, it was more like 75 percent—only one or two lines had been translated in the entire last quarter. Which, of course, was super frustrating, although my own fault—I should have just waited for Drama Fever to post it tomorrow like a good little girl. You didn’t really need subtitles for the last scene, but I’m pretty sure that what seemed to happen didn’t actually happen, like that earlier pair of episodes that didn’t quite match up from end to beginning.
• My new OTP? That would be Dok Mi and Hippo. This episode could have used a little more Enrique/Dok Mi action but next week sure looks promising on that front.
• Dear Writer of this wonderful show: Please don’t make that teacher into a real molester. I don’t think I could take the added dimension to Dok Mi’s unhappiness. (Or Do Hwi’s perfidy.) Sincerely, Amanda
• Thanks for assuaging practically all the fears that motivated me to write today’s post, show. But couldn’t you have done it last week?
• Yoon Si Yoon, I want you to know that I’m totally available for a whirlwind noona romance. All you need to do is say the word, and I’ll kiss you with way more gusto than Dok Mi could muster.
• I love the thoughtful way this show’s characters view the world. Dok Mi’s story about seeing the security guard hang up his hat was so, so wonderful. As a girl who longs for consistency and stability, of course she found it deeply compelling that the everyday life of her new home was so predictable that you could chart it on the walls. But the end of the scene was a little different—as Jin Rak talks about the marks they’ve made themselves, the camera pulls back until he and Dok Mi are nothing more than tiny figures in the great, man-made canyon between soaring apartment buildings. It’s like the show is acknowledging the futility of their hopes about leaving their marks—they’re little and ephemeral and insubstantial. How could they ever have an impact on something so very solid as the world? We’ve actually seen that, like the security guard, both Jin Rak and Enrique have actually changed the fundamental being of the building. Each has painted on a wall—it’s Dok Mi who hasn’t had an impact, with the post-its and taped-up photographs that serve as her only decorations.
• Lead actors often have mid-drama makeovers, but Flower Boy Next Door really takes it to another level: By sending Enrique’s luggage—along with his rainbow of little-boy short pants—off to Spain at the end of the last episode, the writers have forced him to adopt Tae Joon’s sophisticated dream-boat wardrobe. All those clowny get-ups had become visual shorthand for his character’s shiny happiness, and without this armor it’s like we have to get to know him again from scratch.
• The big recappers are wondering where this show will get its narrative tension now that the leads have gotten together, but I think there’s lots of potential left in these characters and situations. We still don’t know why Jin Rak changed his name, or why Do Hwi is so obsessed with him. Dong Hoon still needs to get together with Girl Editor (please, God—I love her more and more), and Dok Mi still has to find out about the webtoon. Plus, there’s just as much storytelling potential in being in love as there is in falling in love, although we rarely see it in popular entertainment.
• I love that Dok Mi now feels totally comfortable inviting Enrique into her inner sanctum, the apartment that she’s turned into her own world. The thing that really killed me, though, was that she wrote in front of him. If there’s some more powerful way to indicate that he’s now a full, beloved part of her interior life, I don’t know what it would be. The ability to be silent with someone is a sign of great friendship, but the ability to loose yourself in writing in front of someone is a sign of a profound feeling of safety and love. I have to do some writing as part of my job and it’s the most awkward thing in the world to sit at my desk, surrounded by people, and get my head where it needs to be to produce something that doesn’t suck. It’s like I’m naked. (“Did I just make a weird face?” “Did I just say something strange out loud?” “Did anybody notice that groan?”) Writing is a transporting experience, and it leaves you exposed in all sorts of ways—physical, emotional, and mental. For Dok Mi to be comfortable being that defenseless in front of Enrique… ::dreamy sigh::
• I can’t even believe how awesome it is to love Korean drama. Yesterday we got an episode of the show everyone’s obsessed with. And today we get ANOTHER. It’s like perfect vehicle for utter fan madness.
• It’s interesting that the big kiss is edited a bit differently in the show than it was in the preview: less time is spent on the wide shot, so you don’t notice Park Shin Hye standing there, straight as an arrow, with her arms dangling limply at her sides. I get that this might just be a semi-awkward first kiss that the show is going to use as a plot point, but it just seems so similar to Park’s other on-screen kisses that I wonder if it’s just the best we’re going to get. On the other hand, Yoon Si Yoon is such a hot kisser that I think I was spontaneously impregnated just by watching this scene. Yowza!
• Is this really going to turn into one of those rare, precious dramas where the lead couple gets together before the last episode? No amnesia? No meddling mothers? No noble idiocy? There is truly no end to your fabulosity, FBND.
• I said “So cute!” more during this forty-five minute episode than I’ve said it in my entire life up to now. It looks as if we’re not getting out of this show without some noble idiocy after all, but at least it’s super sweet in the meanwhile. I think Enrique really is a fairy.
• I like that the Viki eps include previews for Nine. I think this one may have even used Ben Folds for background music, which is pretty excellent. What’s not pretty excellent, on the other hand, is the female lead’s bowl cut. I’ve skipped shows altogether over better hair than that.
• This drama is like 85 percent show and 15 percent fan service. The panda dance? “I speak polar bear”? Girl Editor reeling in her man? If we fans were writing the script, it couldn’t push our buttons any more precisely than it does now.
• “My Mother is the opposite of me. She’s a chatterbox.”—Enrique; “!!!!!!!!!!!!”—Amanda. I would love, love, love to meet Enrique’s parents. What kind of people could have raised such a charm monster?
• What? No elephants in the winter? Do they cruise the Mediterranean or something?
• I’m still really enjoying this show, which is aces when it comes to both character development and sweetness. At this point, though, it’s flailing a little on the story front—from episode to episode there’s very little actual progress. It’s recycling the same old cliff-hanger scares—Enrique’s going back to Spain! Dok Mi is running away again!—rather than taking us (and its characters) to new places. This episode’s cliffhanger is particularly egregious and feels a little cheap; the show is hinting that Dok Mi and Jin Rak plotted to break Enrique’s heart so he would leave her to follow his dream, but it’s hard to believe this won’t turn out to be some big misunderstanding that’s cleared up in the first two minutes of episode 15, to be followed by the same old FBND recipe: 40 percent Erique and Dok Mi cuteness, 30 percent Enrique shenanigans, and 30 percent assorted bromances. Ultimately, this episode’s closing maneuvered the characters into places they need to be—for a change, Dok Mi will have to be the confessor, not the confessee—but it still left me hungry for a little something more.
• Dok Mi, the great thing about being a freelancer is that you can go to Spain if you want—your work is portable, and so are you! Eat some tapas, spend some time in the sunshine, make out with Enrique until your lips are sore. That’s what you really want to do, right?
• I’ve been trolling this show’s Tumblr tag so much that I’m automatically turning every scene into an animated gif in my head. I particularly look forward to seeing Dok Mi in a panda hat on my dashboard for a long, long time to come.
• Practically this entire episode was devoted to people sitting around talking about their feelings. To some, that might sound like a bad thing, but to me it was perfect. In fact, I kind of resent the time wasted on cliffhanger fodder—the show is at its most lovely when it’s just about people being people, not evil fans plotting against their hero’s girlfriend or somebody threatening to leave the country. Still, this episode was packed with treats, from Dok Mi acting like Enrique to the revelation of the landlord’s identity and Dong Hoon’s excursion with Girl Editor. Like the rest of this series, it’s a sweet, touching character study wrapped up in goofy antics.
• I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen Dramafever post an episode the same day it aired in Korea. They’re usually a full day behind Viki when posting new episodes, but not today—Viki was still at 87 percent complete when I started watching on Dramafever. The powers that be must have realized that FBND viewership plummeted as soon as it became available sooner at Viki. We English-language speakers are incredibly lucky when it comes to speedy subbing, and we’re also incredibly spoiled about it.
• Goal! A deliriously happy ending was had by all. (Except me, who may have have to seek counseling to deal with my grief about the end of this bright and beautiful show.)
• As always, the attention to detail in this episode stellar. The blanket Enrique covers Dok Mi with is in his signature shade of orange, the webtoon editor’s dark circles are gone, and Dok Mi has gotten new drapes, sheer ones so she can’t use them to keep the world out. But the detail that officially sealed my eternal love for Flower Boy Next Door is the fact that Dok Mi has one of her patented, towel-wrapped hot-water bottles on her desk when she’s reading Enrique’s letter. Just as I always hoped, Dok Mi may have changed in the corse of this drama, but she’s still herself.
• I love that the two characters I’ve seen Yoon Si Yoon play are emotionally accessible straight-shooters who aren’t afraid to cry because they like a girl so much. In each role, his native, puppyish charm was the character’s defining trait, and made me love him utterly. All the real-life details I’ve heard about him are marvelous, too: he loves books and is charming and thoughtful about how he approaches his work.