As a crochety oldster who abandoned mainstream American TV last year I have chosen to pursue the phenomenon that is K Dramas, which are on the lips and minds of many fans, young (high schoolers) and old (my 73 year old mother and her pals). They are making tidal waves in entertainment, spreading squee-worthy joy to many corners of the globe far beyond East Asia to South Asia, South America, Canada, the Middle East. My personal poll of asking how did folks discover K Dramas had very wide ranging answers. They were as varied as there are pickled vegetable dishes in Korea.
I dove into the phenomena of K Dramas–K is short for Korean–with the tsunami that is Boys Before Flowers. BBF started as a shojo manga, “Hana Yori Dango” by Yoko Kamio. The original manga, published from October 1992 through September 2003 in Margaret magazine, remains the best selling shojo manga in Japan. An anime TV series, two anime movies and live action full length films, and four TV series have been prodouced–in Taiwan (Meteor Garden), Japan (Hana Yori Dango), Korea (Kgotboda Namja), and China (also known as Meteor Garden where the violence is replaced with “inspirational messages” to suit the Party standards). Korea’s BBF is the most successful of these TV series adaptations.
BBF follows the adventures of Jan Di, an ordinary looking teenaged girl of very modest means and has the fortune of attending a prestigious school, Shinhwa High School, where she will mingle with the aristocratic socialites and (supposedly) intellectual elites of South Korea. The school is owned and run by the conglomerate Shinhwa Corporation, whose heir apparent, Joon Pyo, is the head of F4 (short for Flower 4), the BMOC group. Joon Pyo’s buddies are Ji Hoo (the sensitive musician with shy manners and caramel colored hair), Yi Jeong (the playboy with dreamy eyes who is a prodigy potter), and Woo Bin (the mellow peacemaker who is ashamed of his gangster family ties). Joon Pyo is the richest, handsomest, and most arrogant of the four, and is easily recognized by his uncontrollable mop of curly locks. Everyone who encounters F4 is instantly mesmerized and falls under their spell. Think Back Street Boys at the height of their popularity + Chuck Bass’s sartorial chic + Windsor Princes Wills and Harry royal cachet = F4. Jan Di, whose name is a homonym for wild grass or weed, pops into their lives, and unlike everyone else is not bemused by them. Her spunky spirit, unwavering ethics, tenacity, and straight forward truth telling keep the flower boys in line, and win some of their hearts. In true romantic drama fashion there is a love triangle with Joon Pyo and Ji Hoo vying for Jan Di’s love.
At first glance the show’s themes are very familiar–bullying and violence among teens, the strict social hierarchy, close family ties, friendship–but the writers have gone beyond the superficial to play out these scenarios. Social outcasts or misfits who have no status can and will be bullied to “non existence”. The first episode opens with a target of F4’s wrath who contemplates suicide. Jan Di’s future is tied up in her attendance at Shinhwa H.S. and romantic involvements with F4 because as a commoner this is her one chance to move beyond her social caste. Her family’s neurotic enthusiasm of Jandi’s prospects reflect the importance of the daughter landing a suitable husband who will secure not only her future but also that of the bride’s family. Family ties extend to grandparent figures too, whose actions are respected, sometimes feared, and whose words are heeded with Confucian filial piety. Unlike American high school dramas, sex is minimal, almost non existent beyond a few chaste kisses. The particulars of this story was easily adapted to the four countries because of the commonalities in culture they share, especially among Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. It should also be pointed out that the stylings of F4 personify the bishonen characters that originated in manga and now permeate mainstream entertainment. .
The show is very sleek, reflects very high production values, and a very generous budget. Casting is good with Ku Hye Sun (Jan Di) as a stand out and F4 played by double threat teen idol actors–it’s common for popular actors to also have singing careers in East Asia. All 25 episodes are available on Hulu and Netflix. A search for “Hana Yori Dango” on Netflix will produce the Japanese full length movie and anime series. However available dates have not yet been listed as of this posting.
An excellent online source for K Dramas is Dramabeans.com. As a bonus here is a photo display of the five main characters of Flowers Before Boys in all its carnations, manga and live TV productions. A flag in the lower right hand corner indicates the country of orgin.