Adjusting to a dramaverse without the beauty that is Liar Game is pretty difficult, as most other dramas, somehow, fail to live up to expectations. I began watching Birth of a Beauty after sparing the appropriate mourning time for Liar Game Season 1, and boy was it underwhelming at first. Yet, slowly but surely, the show’s begun to grow on me. Yet quite a few fundamental flaws exist within its makeup that prevent it from being as good as it could have been.
The premise is simply enough. An oversized woman, Sa Geum Ran (SGR) believes herself to be happily married to Lee Kang Joon (LKJ) and suffers under the hands of her in-laws to maintain her marriage. She is, thus, horrified to discover that her husband has been carrying on with beautiful, cold announcer Gyo Chae Yeon (GCY) for quite a while and that her in-laws prefer the Other Woman to her. Confronting her husband with the affair, she is handed back her wedding ring and promptly dismissed after he informs her that he’ll be filing for divorce. Heartbroken at the callous treatment, and the gloating smiles on her in-laws’ faces, she drives off into the night and is met with an accident. Bruised and battered she arrives at restaurant chain owner-pretending-to-be-cosmetic-surgeon Han Tae Hee’s (HTH) place and begs him for a drastic transformation. Seeing that HTH has had feelings for GCY for quite a while, he agrees to help in hope that both of them will get back the respective people they love. And thus, SGR is transformed, through numerous invasive plastic surgery procedures, into Sara. LKJ, GCY and the evil in-laws believe SGR to have died in the car accident and don’t even bother mourning her, instead transferring every assert she owned into their name, and gloating at her death in joy. HTH and Sara vow to do everything they can to break up GCY and LKJ who have just announced their wedding plans.
At first the plan is to separate the two, for Sara to make off with the husband she still loves despite his callous treatment of her, and for HTH to make off with GCY whom he still loves despite her callous treatment of him. With LKJ an easy target for the now-beautiful and unrecognizable Sara’s charms, everything appears to be according to plan.
That is, until Sara remembers a crucial part from the night of her accident and realizes that LKJ was behind it.
Love turns into hatred, as Sara vows revenge on all who were complicit in her ‘death’.
Infiltrating her in-laws home as the lovely, talented girl-next-door, she begins a campaign of torment and terror (for them that is, it’s highly amusing for any viewer watching to see them get their just desserts). HTH, feeling sympathy for her, happily aids her along, as he’ll still get GCY regardless of what happens to LKJ> Yet things change when he begins to feel curiously breathless around Sara. Suddenly GCY just doesn’t seem to matter as much. Even the startling discovery that she was an accomplice to Sara’s murder (a fact that Sara does her best ot hide from HTH as she’s afraid that it’ll hurt him) barely makes his heart ache, and even then, it’s pity for Sara. Could he be falling in love with his own creation? But is it Sara he loves? Or Sa Geum Ran?
Things are complicated by the reveal that HTH is the legitimate son, and heir to the corporation that LKJ and the sinister Han Min Hyuk (HMH) work in, Winner Group. Add to that the fact that his Grandmother is now in danger from both HMH (the illegitimate son) and his scheming mother, and we’ve quite the tale on our hands.
So much for SBS’s makjang-free policy.
Now, I’ve seen Jo Sang Wook in a multitude of other works, most recently Good Doctor, where I alternated between wanting to slap him and hug him, and Paradise Ranch where I just wanted to slap him. I’ve heard a great many good things about TEN, but haven’t had the time to see it (which is definitely going to change, considering that holidays are but two exams away!). Point being that I have seen him in action before, but never like this. The man is hilarious, exuding this brash and comic swagger that instantly sucks you in.
Considering the variety of his aliases, Han Tae Hee aka. Han Dong Eun aka Dong Geul, I’m just going to go with the name he’s lived by this entire time, HTH. What makes HTH so special is is marked disparity, from past drama heroes. He’ll have you clutching your sides, one second and wanting to hug him the next. JSW manages to balance the nuances of HTH’s Broken Heart Syndrome, and being torn between his desire to be reunited with his family and protecting the promise he made to his father, with finesse and aplomb. He’s genuine, a wee bit gruff, a chaebol and a genius to boot. Seeing the influx of geniuses in Kdramaland at the moment, and how they’re all stern and harsh until falling madly in love with heroine after which their mental faculties undergo a lobotomy (HWJ does not count here because he’s NDJ’s vicious and faithful dog, and retains those qualities and his awesome mental capabilities even while falling for NDJ and afterwards), the hilarity built into HTH’s character is super refreshing to see.
HSY on the other hand took a while, and damn long one at that, to grow on me. It’s not that I mind her naivete, I mean I adored NDJ, but it’s just the way that HSY tries to affect it, that I find super grating. Add to that, that he face simply does not move the way it should (which I suppose makes her the perfect actress for this role, seeing the amount of procedures she’s had done), and it’s honestly a little painful to see her try that wide-eyed look of innocence.
I loved HYS in Fantasy Couple and Spy Myung Wol (despite whatever happened to the plot in that show) and was really expecting to like her in this one so the first few episodes were a bit disappointing.
That is, until we got to the revenge arc. Whew! HYS finally began to shine when Sara began her revenge. Those cold glances, mixed with syrupy sweet were exactly what this show needed and gave Sara the very edge of complexity that she needed. SGR was a doormat, there’s no doubt about that, and you can’t help but feel for her. HYS manages to channel the pain and rage experienced by both SGR and Sara while balancing it with their finer points, forgiveness and understanding, in a manner is that super fun to see. Sara becomes more and more real, from her revenge and the way she goes about it, to the emptiness that she acknowledge when performing said revenge. It’s a one hell of a character to play and HYS has it down pat (though the aegyo is still a little off-putting).
Wang Ji Hye, who plays GCY, also took some time getting used to. I swear every role she takes is like this. I’ve seen her as the Other Woman in Personal Taste, Hotel King (though that was more like spurned evil former girlfriend) and now this. She’s hilarious in real life (I recommend watching ep 219 of Running Man the entire cast of Birth of a Beauty appears and WJH really shines) which makes me want to stomp on her face a little less when watching her onscreen. Got to say though, her face has HYS’s problem in that it just doesn’t really move much. She manages to emote pretty well through her eyes, but it’s little hard to focus on that when all I see are the numerous skin-tightening and face-whitening procedures she’s had since Personal Taste. Woman, you are in your prime, stop doing stupid things to your face (Lee Da Hae’s another one, girl just can’t move her face. At all). Too bad, as they’re both such good actresses, but have sacrifice that ability for the purpose of remaining beautiful (which you’d have been without all that surgery, but I’m guessing that Korean beauty standards speak differently). She does make a pretty good villainess though and seeing her in role after role like this, only makes her easier to hate. I do wish there was more to her character than just: The Other Woman who is now being uprooted in her own marriage by another Other Woman who is really the first wife whom she uprooted. There’s got to be more to her character than being over-controlling and spiteful. Perhaps that’s more Liar Game residue speaking, I guess I just miss Jamie.
LKJ is a complete and utter slimeball, played to perfection by Jung Gyu Woon. I like how we were kept guessing as to the true nature of his character at first. The show honestly had me fooled that he was one of those people who simply found someone they loved outside her their marriage, that he truly loved GCY and this second marriage was important to him. Hell, I was even wondering whether SGR was a sad victim of the true love he unfortunately found outside his marriage. Boy was I wrong. The disgusting creature that emerged from its chrysalis was awesome to see, as layer after layer of LKJ’s true nature was peeled back revealing only more slime. I’m pretty glad they didn’t try to humanize a serial adulterer/murderer/in-law imprisoner like him (Yes I’m looking at you Temptation). And I look forward to his character hitting new lows in humanity, now that he’s finally been put where he belongs.
Han Min Hyuk, played by Han Sang Jin is a little more of an enigma. I can’t fault him for being bitter, his upbringing appears to have been far from ideal with a cold and dismissive Grandmother and a scheming mother. It’s hard to fault Park Man Duk (the grandmother, PMD) for having been so cruel to HMH’s mother who is honestly disgusting to have gone so far as to drug a HTH’s father in order to gain a share of the Winner Group Inheritance for herself. But at the same time, a child should never have to pay for his parent’s sins. Whatever the bad blood that existed between the two families, HMH’s wellbeing should have come first. No child should have had to grow up knowing that they were an aberration and on that his mother and PMD are both to blame. Therefore, it only make sense for him to seek to supplant the matriarch that cause his mother and him, such grief so many years.
The drama focuses quite a lot on the inner workings of family, dysfunctional families that is. We see HTH’s family has quite a few dead bodies (literally and figuratively) which need sorting out. What truly happened to his parents? Was that explosion perhaps engineered by HMH’s mother in an attempt to gain status and wealth? Due to fury at being rejected from the family? (though seriously lady, what were you thinking of saying when bringing that kid in tow with you? Oh hey there! I drugged your son and essentially raped him. Here’s the kid, now give me some money? Yeah that would work alright.) But it’s LKJ’s family that has taken centre stage so far. I love that this show doesn’t bother even trying to excuse their actions or make us empathize with them. We’re shown just exactly who they are, and it’s never more satisfying to see them get their comeuppance. From the wife-beating father, to the cheating hypocritical mother, to the eldest daughter who’s in severe debt, to the youngest daughter who’s part of a pyramid scheme, we see humanity at its very lowest. Though I do sort of root for the father, seeing as he’s the only one who ever showed SGR some modicum of kindness and certainly cares more for morality than the other three. Korean traditional values are mocked to high heaven in this show, with SGR’s transformation into Sara highlighting their ideal of a stereotypical daughter-in-law as well as their beauty standards. Character-wise, SGR is everything Korea touts as the perfect daughter-in-law, honest, humble, and hardworking. She’ll go the dishes and the housework and whatever other menial drudgery her in-laws manage to cook up. She’ll lap up their scorn and mockery without retort and continue to be the best wife she can be. She only fails one aspect of the Korean model of perfection: beauty. And that sole aspect is enough for her in-laws (excluding her father-in-law) to discard her as worthless. The mother and her two daughter delight in the affair and rubbing SGR’s nose in it, they happily use the excuse that the affair was her fault seeing how fat she was. GCY is SGR’s antithesis in every way, she’s beautiful, but not honest, hardworking or humble, yet she’s easily accept into the family at the start. It’s both saddening and frightening to realize that such behaviour exists in the real world (one only needs to look at the comments on comedienne Lee Guk Joo’s W Korean pictorial to see this). What’s even more so, is how depressingly easy it is for Sara to worm her way into the heart of her former in-law’s family after her transformation. Now not only is she honest, hardworking and humble, she’s also beautiful. And her former in-laws fall over themselves trying to win the friendship of the sweet-natured girl next door (who is secretly plotting their demise).
Their subsequent treatment of GCY after she (rightfully) storms out is proof of this.
(I almost feel sorry for you)
She’s openly treated like trash, simply for being unwilling to put with her husband’s serial adultery and having to do all the dishes and the housework. The show does a great job mocking these ingrained Korean values, but it’s actually pretty saddening that such tasks and treatment are actually even considered part of Korean tradition. Not to generalize that say that everyone does it, but the majority definitely does, and that makes it all the more saddening. It should be interesting to see what GCY does now that she knows Sara’s true identity and just how she’ll twist that to her favour. That is one seriously pissed off woman (though she deserves every bit of treatment she’s been getting) and I wonder how Sara and HTH are going to get out of this one.
Yet there are some pretty large holes that take the focus off the very good questions the show poses. Most of the plot elements and the methods they use to take revenge are rather unrealistic. From Sara’s near-miss when exiting LKJ’s bedroom, to the detective kit stored in her coat (it arguably IS her coat), to the restoration of her in-laws home by a warm-hearted HTH after Sara’s destruction of it, every time the stakes get high, this show manages to reduce them to nothing by not going about things in a realistic manner. Granted the premise is unrealistic in and of itself, but this show would be much better if that was the only unrealistic element within it.
The ability to think appears to be turned on and off depending on the circumstance. No one questions the multiple coincidental bump-ins with the new friendly neighbourhood beauty. No one questions LKJ’s sudden interest in her. It takes LKJ a hell of a long time to even begin to faintly suspect Sara’s sudden pursuit of him despite that extremely strange excuse she gave about her dog dying. He should have been suspicious the moment those balloons exploded at that party, as they were one of the few people in that restaurant, or have checked out a list of who was there that in an attempt to find who was distributing the photo. GCY doesn’t make the connection that Sara is SGR until episode 8, even after Sara mentions SGR in episode 5. The doctors, nurses and security at this mental hospital must be super lax for anyone to just go in and out like that. How on earth did HTH and Sara stuff those balloons with pictures, let alone having them explode at the right time? Why wasn’t HMH suspicious upon finding that Sara was not a real member of the security detailing at that party? It’s all pretty strange, that only Sara and HTH appear to have any real ability to think. I get that these elements have allowed for the fun zippiness of the show so far, but they’ve been stretched a bit further than they should have been. And the problem with that is it reduces the quality of the show. Because a serious edge will soon be upon us (I mean we’ve 11 more episodes, it has to come) what with the answers behind the explosion and HTH’s parents’ deaths and all, and GCY’s upcoming reveal (I betting that it’ll happen) that Sara is SGR, and then the show is going to plunge straight into makjang/angsty crying territory (or not, it could always just not, and make my day) which will really make that disparity between the fun that characterized the earlier parts of the show and this, so much more pronounced. If they’d maintained a steady show grounded in reality for the most part, then this jump won’t be as obvious. But by lowering the stakes so much during these episodes, the show doesn’t build as much of a need to watch it in its viewers. This is definitely not an I Must Catch This Show à la Liar Game, but more of a Yeah This Show is Fun kind of show. And that’s a pity, with characters like these it could be much more.
Onto our uber-fun duo, who honestly feel more like great friends rather than would-be lovers. I’m honestly not feeling any chemistry between them. Scratch that, I do feel HTH’s love for Sara, and her growing affection for him, but there’s no spark between them, no palpable chemistry like HWJ and NDJ’s that makes me clutch my screen and squeal. Not that I mind (that much), plus it actually makes sense that they’d start off as friends and grow onto something deeper and stronger. I suppose it’s more Liar Game residue speaking, yearning for more of those glances between HWJ and NDJ. Though these aren’t too bad.
(Not awkward at all, you two)
The reveal that he liked her was far faster than I’d expect, and dealt with in a manner just as amusing as what this show has provided so far. Sara and HTH’s subsequent reactions are even more hilarious, with JSW pulling off a perfect mixture of petulance, confusion and attraction, while HSY does the same.
(Can he get any cuter?)
I love how great of a team, these two are though, happily upping the scale of their plan, and readjusting it to squeeze maximum amount of pain they can from LKJ and the others.
Yet what makes this so heartwarming is that none of this is to HTH’s benefit. It may have been at the start, when he still cared for GCY, yet that’s long past. He’s doing it purely for Sara, running risk after risk in the process, with his plans getting more and more outlandish and it’s adorable to see. His disguises range from homeless bum to doctor to security guard while he tries to preserve her happiness.
He encourages her, understands the emptiness that fills her now that revenge is all she lives for pulls her out of the funk and shows her what more she can live for and comforts her after they succeed in getting a confession out of her scumbag husband.
He indulges in her food cravings and subs as her personal trainer/yoga partner, much to his increasing discomfort at his awareness around her and the (ahem, well) natural response it has around him.
Man if it weren’t for HWJ, I would be all over this guy. Unfortunately, a different genius preoccupies my days.
Sara was completely right when she called GCY a fool for rejecting a man this perfect for a scumbag like LKJ. And speaking of her, boy does she hold up her end of the deal. I was worried as to whether this was going to turn out like Angel Eyes where no matter how much I tried to see it, one person appeared to love the other far more (damn it, Yoon Soo Wan) but with the conclusion (or is it?) of Sara’s revenge, with LKJ firmly behind bars as of Episode 9, HTH’s story has risen to the forefront and Sara’s compassionate side comes out in full force. We see a reversal of sorts with Sara actively trying to protect HTH’s happiness. Not that she didn’t do so before, but it’s on a far larger scale now that they trust in each other so much more. From aiding with this Broken Heart Syndrome to cooking to cheer him up, she makes a great partner and thankfully rescinds my doubts in the progression of this relationship.
I love that the first thing she thinks of upon seeing that he’s gone off to rescue her mother, is to comfort his grandmother.
I love that they put each other first consistently. I thought it’d seen every romantic aspect of baking (throwing flour on each other, getting icing on each other, etc) but NEVER mixing dough.
It makes for a great pair to root for and I’m really looking forward to seeing how their relationship deepens with HTH’s confession.
Well that one and this one too.
All in all, it’s a pretty fun, and thought-provoking ride so far, and I’d recommend it to anyone in need of a good laugh who doesn’t want to watch complete fluff. The next episode shows Sara asking HTH just exactly whom he likes, SGR (her ‘dowdy’ old self) or Sara. It’s definitely going to be interesting seeing his answer!