K-drama review: You Are Beautiful

Tae-gyung, Min-ho/Mi-nyeo, Jermy and Shin-woo are the members of fictional K-pop group A.N.Jell.

This has not been a great few months for me, healthwise, so I am always glad to find TV shows that are entertaining, ones that don’t use too much brainpower but aren’t, you know, shit. You Are Beautiful (SBS 2009) perfectly fit the bill.

This light comedy romantic drama starts with a major nod to Sound of Music, as our heroine, a novice nun, runs clumsily late to mass. This is Ko Mi-nyeo (played by Park Shin-hye, who I know from Doctors and Pinocchio – which I loved – and Memories of the Alhambra – which I did not love – among others) and we learn that she is planning to take her vows soon, but her Mother Superior isn’t convinced this is the right choice for Mi-nyeo, and so enthusiastically encourages her to take a leave of absence to join a singing group as part of a ridiculous plan that is brought to her by music manager, Ma Hoon-yi.

Mi-nyeo’s brother Mi-nam has apparently won a talent contest to join K-pop group A.N.Jell, but he then had some botched plastic surgery that means he needs to secretly stay in hospital for a while. Handily, Mi-nyeo is his identical twin, so could she dress up as a man for a month so that the music label doesn’t find out? Also handily, her singing voice sounds a lot like her brother’s, so the only training she needs is to add emotion. Oh, how will she find emotional meaning surrounded by handsome young men?

Mi-nyeo agrees to this plan based on lies and dishonesty both to save her brother’s career and in the hope that if her brother becomes famous, their mother will come and find them. The twins were raised at an orphanage run by the convent after their composer father died, and never knowing their singer mother is their greatest sorrow. Hoon-yi and the band’s stylist Coordi will help keep Mi-nyeo’s secret until the real Mi-nam returns.

The other three members of A.N.Jell have already made five albums together and are megastars, so they’re not wholly convinced about their new member. There’s the arrogant “leader” Hwang Tae-gyung (Jang Keun-suk, one of the biggest Hallyu stars), the gentle Kang Shin-woo (Jung Yong-hwa) and the bubbly Jermy (Lee Hong-gi). Shin-woo figures out pretty quickly that “Mi-nam” is a woman but decides to stay quiet and help her keep her secret, not even letting her know that he knows. Tae-gyung is next to find out and makes sure that Mi-nyeo knows this is a huge burden on him, but then secretly goes to extraordinary lengths to help her.

The reaction of Jermy to all this was a little troubling at first. He sees that his bandmates are being extra sweet and conspiratorial with “Mi-nam” and has a homophobic “OMG what if my friends are gay?” phase that bothered me. But then he finds himself attracted to “Mi-nam” and questions his own sexuality. Towards the end of the show we see him reading slashfic about A.N.Jell written by fans and enjoying it greatly, so I guess he grows as a person?

The one big mystery delaying the inevitable romance is that one of the band members also has mysterious parentage comprising a composer father and a singer mother. Could they be siblings? Or could the link between them be more complicated than that?

Mi-nyeo is hardly a master of disguise, but Park Shin-hye is charming enough to get away with the silliness of it.

That all three men in A.N.Jell fall for Mi-nyeo is over the top, but then everything about this show is. There is little to no subtlety. The acting is not amazing, tending to exaggeration with lots of tears, hysterics, anger and longing pained looks. There’s a conniving fellow pop star blackmailing Tae-gyung, a woman who turns up claiming to be Mi-nam’s aunt who is after money, and a tabloid journalist sniffing around who has figured out that something odd is going on.

Surprisingly, there is also minimal sexism. Yes, Mi-nyeo does have to be rescued a few times, but she also rescues others, or at least rescues herself, on many occasions. In men’s clothes she remains sweet and unworldly, but she isn’t afraid and finds ways to convince others that she is her brother. True to her almost-nun origins, when the romance does finally get going it is extremely innocent, with more of the big climatic moments being hugs or even exchanged glances than kisses.

This has all the trappings of what I’ve come to think of as “classic” K-drama: glamour, money, mistaken identity, misunderstandings, a secret protector, mysterious parentage, designer clothes and accessories, men with ridiculous hair, overblown musical score. And the crossdressing element isn’t all that unusual either (see for example, Coffee Prince or Love in the Moonlight). But none of the worst elements are here: the wrist grabbing, forced kisses and stalkery behaviour. I think it helps that there is very little abuse of power and position, and that the men are attracted to Mi-nyeo while she’s short-haired and in baggy men’s clothes, they don’t need to “feminise” her to see her beauty (hence the title).

This is a window into the world of K-pop, though not a believable one and with minimal attempts to show its less glamorous side. Also, considering the setting, this show was one of the worst offenders to date for only playing the same two (not great) K-pop songs over and over again (sung by the show’s stars, naturally). But mostly, it’s a silly, sweet, romantic romp that doesn’t require a fully working brain. So it’s exactly what I needed.