Thursday, August 8, 2013

Drama review: Meteor Garden (2001)




Grade: B+

Category: Youthful love story/Taiwanese

What it’s about
If you’re visiting this website, you almost certainly know already. Along with its international cousins Boys over Flowers and Hana Yori Dango, Meteor Garden is the most essential of drama romances. The first of four live-action series to be based on an original Japanese manga, Meteor Garden tells the story of an everyday college girl who catches the eye of her richest, meanest classmate. When she stands up to him, he decides to bully her out of school, only to fall madly (and rather inexplicably) in love with her unrelenting stubbornness and brave personality. They overcome countless obstacles on their quest to be together, including a number of other love interests and his nasty, controlling mother.

First impression
Oh, how I love you in all your guises, Hana Yori Dango. You are the queen of Cinderella stories and the ultimate comfort-food viewing. Your Japanese and Korean incarnations introduced me to new cultures—they were the first dramas I watched from each of their respective nations. This makes it strange to come to Meteor Garden with some knowledge of Taiwanese television—I’ve already seen all three of the leads in other shows, and have a good idea what to expect from both this drama’s story and its execution. Tdramas always seem to be more romantic than Jdramas and sexier than Kdramas, so I’m pretty certain that love is in the cards for the two of us.

Final verdict
Meteor Garden has all the shortcomings you’d expect from a drama of this vintage—it looks, feels, and sounds dated and its production values are bargain basement. But I’m still a sucker for its swoony, starry-eyed love story, and this might just be my favorite of its incarnations.


Although every Hana Yori Dango adaptation is based on the same source material, it’s amazing how different the final products are. It’s as if you gave the same Lego set to three different people, and they all fit the pieces together in their own way to make something totally unique. The builder from Japan chose to foreground the F4 bromance, the one from Korea focused on the central love triangle, and the Taiwanese one lavished her attention on the lead couple.

And what a couple it was. Of all the male leads I’ve seen in his role, I think Jerry Yun did the best job of making his Daoming Si a nuanced character. He doesn’t lose sight of the fact that hidden behind Si’s bluster and arrogance is a sad, lonely little boy. He’s never quite redeemed for being total a jerk, but his kryptonite-style weakness for his leading lady is so incredibly endearing it’s almost impossible to dislike him. Barbie Hsu as Shan Cai is a refreshing change after BoF’s spineless, accident-prone Jan Di. Shan Cai doens’t let anyone push her around—she calls the shots in her life and in her relationships, and is completely lacking the frustrating helplessness that all but destroyed the Korean version of her character.

Like most Taiwanese dramas, the universe around the leads is densely populated, and secondary characters regularly come and go. This makes the show feel bigger and more realistic than its claustrophobic Korean counterpart. Based on what I’ve seen online, this is true to the sprawling Hana Yori Dango manga, which encompasses 37 volumes and ran for 11 years of will-they-or-won’t-they shenanigans.

If Boys over Flowers is the story of Jan Di being saved by Jun Pyo and the F4, Meteor Garden is the story of every single man in greater Taipei falling in love with Shan Cai. The two characters we’re used to thinking of as leads in this story aren’t the only contenders for her affection. I was actually surprised to realize that MG’s Rui/Ji Hoo figure plays a much smaller role than he does in the other adaptations. He also caused me nary a twinge of second lead syndrome. Lei is blank and boring compared to book-mad Rui and 4D Ji Hoo. For the first and only time, this show’s leads made me believe that they could be happier together than apart.

The problem with Boys over Flowers is that it treats Jan Di and Jun Pyo finally getting together as the endgame; the show is utterly dedicated to keeping them apart until the last possible minute. In 25 episodes of BoF, I never once believed that Jan Di felt anything for Jun Pyo but pity and annoyance. Instead of crafting a relationship for its central couple, BoF spent all its time building a giant wall of circumstance and misunderstanding between them. Meteor Garden, in contrast, treats love as a continuum, not a closing scene. Its characters slowly move closer with each episode, growing and changing in response to their interactions. They’re a couple to root for. And that’s what makes MG an incredibly satisfying drama.

For me, Boys over Flowers was the version of this story to beat. Its epic extravagance and depth of characterization have stayed with me for years in spite of the show’s many flaws. (On the other hand, I remember approximately nothing about Hana Yori Dango, which I watched much more recently.) Because the first half of BoF follows the plot of Meteor Garden very closely, I spent most of the early episodes comparing the two shows. But around the halfway point differences started to creep in, and MG’s unique spirit began to show through. It’s less dependent on the school setting and more interested in its characters’ experience of the world around them, which I really liked.

Meteor Garden might be the oldest of the HYD adaptations, but it still holds up surprisingly well and may just be the most engaging of them all. (Now I can’t wait to watch its sequel.)

This show is so old its promotional materials are virtually indistinguishable from early Nsync posters. Nice hair, JT.

Random thoughts
Episode 1. Poor Tsukushi/Jan Di/Shan Cai. No matter where she’s from, her parents are always flippin’ annoying.

—It’s kind of weird that they didn’t cover over Barbie Hsu’s tattoos in this drama. This show’s female lead doesn’t really seem the type to have so many of them.

—You can tell at one glance who this show’s Jun Pyo is, because his jawline is exactly like Lee Min Ho’s. The second leads aren’t so similar, though: Vic Zhou’s face is much stronger and more interesting than Kim Hyun Joong’s. As has happened with all the other versions of this drama I’ve seen, I fully expect to develop a near-fatal case of second lead syndrome.

—I love how Taiwanese schools apparently use grandfather-clock-essque chimes to announce the end of class. It’s way better than the horrible American bells that make it sound more like an air raid than the end of fourth period.

Episode 2. This show never really explores Si’s thought process in deciding he likes Shan Cai. BoF gave a stupid sort-of reason (“Hey, she must like me!”) but at least it was something. Must all versions of HYD be so logic averse?

—Well, Meteor Garden has at least one thing in common with BoF—limited and wildly inappropriate music. When Shan Cai is being abducted the car she’s in swerves and we hear “thunk” as one of her captors presumably knocks her out. But the background music is this cheery 1970s sounding twangy guitar, like Burl Ives is about to start singing.

—I like this drama so far, but it’s clear that nothing will ever top Boys over Flowers for me. That first scene showing the F4 walking into school with the sun behind them and “Almost Paradise” blaring in the background wasn’t just a great moment in drama history—it was mythbuilding in its rawest, most powerful form. Both Hana Yori Dango and Meteor Garden are fun to watch, but they just don’t own the epic, legendary bombast the story has to offer. (I might be prejudiced, though, as BoF was literally the gateway drug that led me into the wonderful world of Asian drama.)

Episode 3. I got an almost Luna Lovegood vibe from Ji Hoo in BoF, but Meteor Garden’s version of the character seems more moody and sad than spacey. I suspect this is closer to the source material, but I prefer Ji Hoo in all this 4D innocence.

—I’m probably the only person in the world who thinks this, but I actually liked Lee Min Ho’s silky curls in BoF. This version of the character looks like he recently stuck his finger in an electric outlet, which is somewhat less than appealing.

Episode 4. Jan Di’s ball attire was nothing to brag about, but at least she didn’t look like a stripper. Which is more than I can say for Shen Cai. Is the scene where Si tore her dress in half on the cutting room floor or something? [Finale note: Unfortunately, a version of that scene actually makes an appearance in a few episodes.]

—My experience attending balls is relatively limited, but I was under the impression that they required more than 10 guests to be in attendance. I know your budget isn’t sky high, but you could have done better, show.

Episode 5. Jun Pyo was a jerk in BoF, but I don’t remember a scene where he tried to rape Jan Di, unlike this version of the story. Tdramas are less afraid of sex than Kdramas, but they’re prone to serious issues of consent.

Episode 6. I like that this drama is set at a college rather than a high school, but I really miss the school uniforms of the other HYD adaptations. The way the F4 dressed in BoF set them apart from the other characters, while their street clothes just blend into the crowd in Meteor Garden. They seem less special and unicorn-esque when they’re slumming around in baggy jeans and vintage t-shirts like everyone else.

Episode 7. Barbie Hsu is certainly the prettiest girl to play this role. The best actress, not so much.

Episode 8. Only eight episodes in and this show has already featured a kiss hotter than all the skinship in BoF combined. The best part is that the female lead actually seems to be attracted to the male lead on a physical level, which is something I never sensed in any of the other adaptations. Jan Di barely tolerated Jun Pyo in BoF, and the Japanese couple weren’t much better.

Episode 10. I am so jealous of Vanness Wu’s satiny bob in this show. All the frizz serum in the world couldn’t make my hair that smooth.

—It’s amazing how thoroughly BoF removed the sex inherent in this story. The end result was a show that was sweet but felt utterly bloodless and neutered. It was fun to watch, but teenagers so totally blind to the existence of physical attraction seemed less realistic than an uber-rich chaebol falling in love with an everygirl like Jan Di. Meteor Garden goes all out—big sis just locked Shan Cai and Lei in a bedroom overnight under the assumption that they’d officially get together by getting it on. I’d like to see a Kdrama give that plot a whirl.

MG is the first time this love triangle hasn’t given me a major case of second lead syndrome. Si comes off as a spoiled brat, but I still feel bad for him—the girl he’s desperately in love with has just chosen to be with his best friend. Now if only he’d stop trying to force himself on her (twice in 10 episodes? Really?), I would fully be on his side.

Episode 11. The F4 giving away kisses to sell cake is the exact opposite of what would happen in an American version of this story. On these shores, this scene would involve the old car-wash cliché from teen movies—the F4 would tell Shan Cai that she’d sell more cake if only she were wearing a bikini, and sales would skyrocket the minute she took their advice. In Western entertainment, only girls use sex appeal to get things done. Yay for the power of the female desire in Asian dramas!

Episode 14. The Korean versions of this show and It Started with a Kiss have the very same problem: They never manage to make their leads seem to like each other. In the end each pair ended up as a couple, but their connection was never the slightest bit believable. In contrast, the Taiwanese shows both manage to foster a real spark between their leads. They might fight and say nasty things to each other, but their relationships feel like they’re based on genuine affection.

— This birthday party scene was infinitely better than BoF’s. Jan Di’s serenade was painful to watch, even if it was supposed to be semi-triumphant. The dramaverese may be very different from our solar system, but I find it hard to believe that even there someone could learn piano through osmosis.

—The key problem in the love story between Shan Cai and Si is that they don’t like each other as human beings. This would be a major stumbling block after they’d been married for a few years and the novelty wore off. I can see their future, and it’s full of frosty dinnertimes and brutal fights. A life lesson from the old and wise: When the sparkles and rainbows of new love wear off, you’d better like the person you’re left with. (And can you imagine any incarnation of the male lead being somebody’s dad without leaving them in desperate need of lifelong therapy? Although I guess I could see him with a daughter he doted on and a son he was incredibly mean to.)

Episode 15. Vanness Wu is clearly the Kim Bum of this cast—he’s so hot he steals every scene he’s in, even though he’s the third (fourth?) male lead. He was a little better looking back when Meteor Garden was made, I think. Like so many other actors, today he’s too skinny and anemic looking. (Oh my. Further research indicates that he actually grew up in America and speaks English every bit as well as I do. I wonder how his Chinese is?)

—Here’s a valuable new term: “Drama blinders.” As in—“It’s a good thing I have such well-developed drama blinders, or I’d be flying to Taiwan right now to have some severe words with this show’s screenwriter.” I know things are different in other parts of the world, but it’s supremely uncool to promote the kind of thinking Shan Cai is doing during this scene. “I hate guys who use violence,” she thinks in voiceover after being slapped by Si. “But I always mess things up and make him so angry he’d hit me.” It would be one thing if this line was examined in the course of the show, and the female lead realized that the victim of domestic violence is not to blame. But I’m sure that won’t happen.

—As an American viewer, I find the F4 discussing Si’s shocking virginity to be much more plausible than his character’s never-been-kissed status in BoF. The sexual mores in Korea are so different from the ones I’m used to that it’s actually hard to believe they’re real: How could a high school boy who’s that hot not have been fighting girls off with a stick (so to speak) for a decade?

Episode 16. I can’t imagine what the second season of this show is like. There are 10 more episodes in season 1, which must mean it covers a lot of the territory seen in BoF. So does that mean the second season is mostly new escapades? I’m excited to find out. (Also intriguing is that it was written by In Time with You’s screenwriter. That’s got to be a good sign, right?)

—So far, this episode deviates the most from BoF. It has to, because like 90 percent of its contents could never happen on a network show in Korea—especially one involving high schoolers.

—Oh, Taiwan. You always know how to kick things up a notch. Instead of walking in on the female lead sitting on the toilet like Ji Hoo did in BoF, Lei saves Shan Cai from drowning—while she’s buck naked in a hot spring. Also, this near-drowning is less laughable than all the many times Jan Di—purportedly a swimmer who once had her eyes on the Olympics—almost went to the bottom of a body of water in BoF. At least Shan Cai could blame being overheated on her peril, rather than sheer stupidity.

Episode 18. Damn, Si. If this was a Korean drama you’d have to be married before you got to kiss a girl like that. (And even then, you probably wouldn’t do it.) But on Taiwanese TV, you remove your tongue from somewhere just south of Shan Cai’s tonsils and say “Let’s officially date.” You’re the best, Taiwan.

—Morning wood. Being something of a dirty bird, that was naturally my first thought when I saw this scene with Shan Cai waking up Si. But even Meteor Garden didn’t dare go there, in spite of the healthy fondness for sex that seems inherent in so many Taiwanese dramas. Bummer.

—As if this story wasn’t problematic enough from a gender standpoint, naturally the female lead would become the male lead’s servant. What cave person could resist putting her in a fancy maid’s uniform and making her service his every whim? It works for me from a cute perspective, if not a moral one. With some tweaks it could have been less troublesome, though—like if Si had a massive change of heart after watching his beloved clean the floor on her hands and knees and started to treat the staff with more kindness and respect. If I recall correctly, that’s not what happened in BoF, and I don’t imagine it will happen here, either.

Episode 20. Si’s mother has quite the hairstyle—it’s part Republican woman on the campaign trail and part victim of a nightmarish wind-tunnel accident. How could she even sit in a car with that fortress on her head?

Episode 21. “I drank last night and felt the urge to scuba dive,” says the random young man who doesn’t have a direct parallel in BoF. “Well, if that’s not a Darwin Award waiting to happen, I don’t know what is,” says Amanda.

Episode 23. One of the things that sets this show apart from BoF is the female lead—she’s a bland everygirl, but she doesn’t need to be rescued from physical or moral peril twice an episode, unlike the ill-fated Geum Jan Di. The few Taiwanese dramas I’ve watched have all had stronger female leads than you normally see in Kdramas, which makes them a nice change of pace from the airheaded, “oetekke” wailing types.

Episode 26. I can’t get over how weird it is to watch these characters inhabit a world where sex not exists, but also could possibly happen to one of them. The other versions of this story were utterly sexless in contrast (which admittedly felt semi-appropriate because their characters were still in high school).

Episode 27. That was one of the finest drama finales I can remember. It was exciting and moving and full of fabulous characters being fabulous.


You might also like
Meteor Rain and Meteor Garden II, this drama’s sequels

• The other three series based on the same manga—Hana Yori Dango, Boys over Flowers, and Meteor Shower

It Started with a Kiss, another Taiwanese drama based on a Japanese manga, and Playful Kiss, a Korean drama based on the show based on the manga. (My god, my head is spinning.)

18 comments:

  1. Well, you've successfully perked my interest again for reviving this drama from my abominable on-hold list. Or did I officially drop it? I can't remember anymore. I've been monitoring your side bar about all the steamy kisses and such - but I remember being utterly bored by 6 eps. I think I will give it another shot soon.

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    1. You might not want to take my word for it... I'm clearly super susceptible to this story. You know how I felt about BoF =X

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  2. Where did you watch this? I can't find it anywhere and would love to see this show.

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    1. As far as I know it's not available streaming from any legal sources. Several YouTube users have posted all the episodes of both seasons, though. Sugoideas also has them. When I was watching many of the episodes were missing pieces, so I ended up having to go to Youtube anyways.

      I wish Dramafever would get more of these old shows so they would be easier to watch :b

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  3. Mmm...Vanness. I should probably start out all my comments like that. I think plotwise this is the version that makes the most sense. I love the darkness and production value of the jdrama version. The kdrama version is more like a pesky little brother that you have fond memories of but most of the time bugs you to death.

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  4. I love Meteor Garden! And I agree that this version is the best version of all the HYD adaptations. Meteor Garden was the very first asian drama that I've watched, which sparked my interest into the drama world. Even after 10 years of being a drama viewer, Meteor Garden has continued being one of my favorite dramas (I think I've watched it over again at least once every two years or so). However, the sequel, Meteor Garden 2, totally SUCKS! I watched it once a few years ago and vowed to never watch it again. Maybe I should watch it again, though, to see if I will change my mind about it.

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  5. loved your comments as usual! mow i want to re watch this. i love F4 amd especially jerry yan and vaness wu! oh who can pick favorites out of these 4 lol!

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  6. I've always thought that the spin-kick to the head/punch to same was the cause of Gu Jun Pyo's/Tsukasa's love. It knocked something loose in his brain causing major personality changes. He needed a doctor!

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  7. I am really happy to see MG get coverage today. Makes me want to revisit my own thoughts on the versions. I will however actually have to get through the Japanese version and that will be a chore for me because, well, yawn.

    I always think of the 3 versions this way:

    BOF=Lifestyles of the Rich and (Insanely, and Insane) Shameless
    HYD Japanese Version=The (Bored, and Boring) Nouveau Riche
    MG=The Long Hot Summer Season Never Ends, the (small town ans small minded) land and mill owners run the town as their kids run amok.

    I'd love to hear your thoughts on MG2, specifically Dao Ming Si's character development.

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  8. I have watched both MG and MG2. MG was the best version of the 3. But I advise you to avoid MG2 if you want to retain any love for the series. It was the first time I actually hated the writer, hated the direction the leads were given and screamed at my poor defenseless lappy's screen.
    My family must have thought I was insane. They asked what I was screaming about in my room and I rather sheepishly explained it all. They laughed that I would become so invested in a mere fictional tv program.

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  9. Now I feel like watching it again. The Taiwanese version of Rui ended up being my favourite of the 3. I preferred him to Ji Hoo because Ji Hoo never freaking let go of Jan Di (he's not supposed to be like that!), but why did I prefer him to Oguri Shun? Oh, I think it was because he laughed more, lol. Hmmm, yeah, a rewatch is definitely on the cards.

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  10. My own reason for seeking out 'Meteor Garden' (which, by the way, is still available in it's entirety at aznv.TV) was when I learned that my favorite female personality, Goo Hye Sun (who had already won my heart as 'Yang Gukwha' in the Korean daily hit drama 'Pure 19' aka 'Pure in Heart') had accepted the role that I was certain would make her a star in the Korean version of 'Hana Yori Dango.' As an actual human male, one look art Barbie Hsu as 'Shan Cai' put away any need for a dramatic story line for why a rich, spoiled guy might fall for a commoner because no red-blooded heterosexual male alive or dead ever really gives or gave a rat's ass what any female who arouses his senses comes or came from, but, in the drama world, things are different. Having seen all three productions in the order of their arrival, I still find 'Shan Cai' and Barbie as the prettiest and feistiest, Mao Inoue's three hops and a punch to the face the cutest move, her co-star and love interest the most wooden and unlikable of the three who played the role (with each of these guys never winning a single iota of my forgiveness for the many crimes they'd committed against humanity and their eventual lady-loves prior to their being broken) and the incredible rubber-faced Goo Hye Sun as the perfect human embodiment of what a manga character brought to life both looks and sounds like. Her ability to stretch and contort that beautiful face of hers and explode cartoon-like into the character that the actual writer of the manga Kamio Yoko gave her personal seal of approval to withstands any of the zany fan girl antagonism that continues to be thrust in her direction before, during, and after she made those 4F stiffs into "stars." While I enjoyed pretty much every character and player outside of the brat pack boys I still rate 'Meteor Garden' and Shan Cai as my personal favorites, give points to 'Boys Over Flowers' to fleshing out and featuring more of the female best buddy (it seemed like Rainie Yang got a bit short changed in MG, but she has continued to do well, so I won't complain about it as her later career been both noteworthy and successful) and, as great as they usually are, I nearly always leave the nine or ten episode Japanese dramas wanting for more. I like pretty everything about J-dramas except for, all too hasty their races to the finish. Korean productions will nearly always rule the roost for glamour, production, and an endless supply of impossibly beautiful faces and high quality acting in every age bracket. The only place that they ever tend to suffer from is the inclusion of idol stars who are bailed out by the pros. Goo Hye Sun's tiny back and shoulders must still be in pain from lugging all of those guys around. No wonder 'Jandi' nearly drowned so many times...

    Robbo

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  11. Wow! Now I've just GOT to watch this! I read and LOVED the manga back in highschool, so I very much doubted any of the dramas could ever live up to the original. Hopefully I won't be disappointed! (Btw, it sounds like the Taiwanese version's a lot closer to the original?)

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  12. I am a Meteor Garden Fanatic since 10 years ago and until now! I feel like 10 years younger because it's aired again on ABS-CBN. The Meteor Garden F4 are still cuties btw. Cheers! :)

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  13. I really hope they can come up with meteor garden 3 :D

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