|Boys over Flowers: Cake wreck in 3... 2...1...|
But Kdrama does traffic in antiheroes. There’s the recently wrapped Cruel City, which by all reports was peopled by drug dealers and prostitutes. Essentially every male lead written by Lee Kyung Hee obviously fits the bill, from tricksy former gigolo Ma Roo in Nice Guy to I’m Sorry I Love You’s dirty, mean Moo Hyuk. And you can also find a cache of antiheroes in an unexpected place: romantic comedies and melodramas.
What else can you call a character like Boys over Flowers’s Joon Pyo? He doesn’t eat orphans for breakfast or spend his spare time torturing kittens, but he’s certainly no hero. Instead of being morally upright and sympathetic, he’s self-centered and devoted to making people miserable. When a girl with a crush on him gives Joon Pyo a cake, he throws it in her face in front of their whole school. And when somebody offends him, they’re marked for destruction by Shin Hwa’s entire student body with the dreaded red card of the F4.
But the drama never really acknowledges that his behavior makes him something less than desirable. He goes about his business without remorse or repercussion, with girls falling at his feet wherever he goes. He’s rich and powerful and handsome, so naturally they want him. The fact that he would be happier to crush you than look at you is never really discussed—by the drama, or by us. Nobody writes about Joon Pyo as anti-hero, because we’re so wrapped up in Joon Pyo as babe.
This character does have some things going for him. He’s loyal, has keen fashion sense, and is willing to to follow his heart wherever it leads—even into the arms of the poorest, loneliest girl in his status-obsessed school. By the end of the show, his love for that girl also gives him something like redemption. He grows up some, and finds more constructive ways to spend his time. (Whether Joon Pyo’s redemption is more than skin deep, we never really know—he doesn’t apologize to any of the people he squashed and never repents for what he’s done. It’s all water under the bridge as soon as he decides he loves Jan Di, the show’s pseudo-spunky female lead.)
|Playful Kiss: True heroes usually spend less time making “Bitch, please” faces.|
I’ve been making my way through They Kiss Again, sequel to the 2005 Taiwanese drama It Started with a Kiss and predecessor to Korea’s Playful Kiss. The male leads in all the various incarnations of this series are also secret antiheroes. They’re mean and arrogant and like to laugh at the failings of their goofy, imperfect female lead. And yet they’re always treated as a trophy of inestimable value—they’re handsome, rich, and smart, and acquiring them is literally the only thing the show’s female lead ever cares about. The nasty temper and proclivity toward yelling that come with those things are just unquestioned parts of his personality, and are rarely shown in a negative light or used as a source of comedy. (In an American setting, this kind of character morphs into a Sheldon from Big Bang Theory—he’s fussy and fastidious and painfully out of step with the world around him.)
In contrast, the horrible behavior of the male lead in Master’s Sun is played for laughs. The Hong sisters, its writers, are notoriously fond of toying with Kdrama tropes, and they’ve built a number of funny moments around Joong Won’s kingly attitude. The best so far involved a rescue mission that was aborted midstream, lest it offend a potential investor in his company. Instead of freeing the female lead from captivity in the investor’s house, Joong Won backs off the instant money comes up. “Don’t open the door,” says the investor as the two of them stand outside of Gong Shil’s prison. After about two seconds of deliberation, he decides to comply—only to see the female lead come busting out under her own steam. “I didn’t open the door!” he proclaims several times over the course of the next scene, just to be sure that nobody believes he would actually put do-gooding before his personal interests.
|Master’s Sun: “Just a reminder—I didn’t open the door.”|
So why are antihero types at the heart of so many romances, when you probably wouldn’t want to actually spend time with them in real life? And why do they always win in the end? I’m sure part of the reason is that they’re interesting characters—nice guys make for boring leads. A male lead who starts off as a jerk is a great thing from a drama’s perspective: it allows for stories about him being a creep and about his redemption, and gives the actor who plays him lots of room to grow the character into something new. Jerkhood has its wish-fulfillment appeal for viewers. What could be better than changing the very DNA of a cold, heartless man so much that he’ll love you forever, with bottomless passion and eternal fervor? (Which, of course, is almost always what happens by the end of the show.) Another added bonus is that winning him brings financial gain and almost godlike power—when you control the king of the world, it makes you empress of the universe.
The lineage of these characters is often traced back to Mr. Darcy, the dashing hero of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. But it seems to me that Kdramas miss a key element of Darcy’s story: He sometimes misbehaved, but was ultimately revealed to have been a decent guy all along. (Darcy acted like a bastard because he was all torn up about the book’s true creep having taken advantage of his sister and left her with a ruined reputation.) For Kdrama leads, on the other hand, decency isn’t an inherent personality trait; instead, it’s usually inspired by the love of their everygirl female lead.
|What Happened in Bali: So much pretty, so many antihero antics.|
(So Ji Sub was way cuter before he got his eyes done, wasn't he?)
A Selection of Antiheroes
Woo Han, Shining Inheritance. Relatable every-guy Lee Seung Gi convincingly morphs from a spoiled slacker to a besotted workaholic. Redemption status: Full
Lee Shin, Heartstrings. Forcing girls to buy coffee for you is not courtship. And noble idiocy can’t save your character after you’ve manhandled your female lead—even if you thought it was for her own good. Redemption status: Epic fail
Jun Pyo, Boys over Flowers. If you cause someone to almost jump off a building in the first five minutes of your drama, you’re automatically an antihero. Redemption status: Questionable
Jee Ha, Spring Waltz. Perhaps the most Mr. Darcy of them all, Jee Ha’s bad behavior arises from the painful loss of his first love. Redemption status: Sublime
Joo Won, Secret Garden. In spite of what this drama might lead you to believe, belittling a girl’s purse is not the way to her heart. (The foam kiss, on the other hand, just might be.) Redemption status: This mean boy metamorphosed into a domesticated pussycat
Tae Joo, Que Sera, Sera. From aggressive gigolo to responsible husband material in 16 episodes. Well played, Kdrama. Redemption status: Ongoing
Kang Jae, Lovers. A gangster with a heart of steel brings turf warfare into the life of a shallow-as-a-teaspoon plastic surgeon. Sorrow and misery commence, along with some hot kissing. Redemption status: An all-around success
Moo Hyuk, I’m Sorry, I Love You. I just hope his dirty, callous, and mean personality isn’t contagious. On the bright side, he didn’t make out with his sister—much. Redemption status: If he was redeemed, it was by accident
Jae Min and In Wook, What Happened in Bali. This pair of true antiheroes breaks laws and hearts wherever they go. Redemption status: Not happening. Ever
***P.S.—No Thursday review this week. I’m still in the middle of They Kiss Again. Next up, some more contemporary (and shorter!) dramas, I think.