I know, I’m way behind on weighing in on Baby-Faced Beauty, with it almost halfway done with its 18-episode run. Most of the time if I fall behind on a drama, I’ll just let it go, but I’ve been finding this one sweet and charming — and incredibly pretty to look at — that I wanted to give it a proper introduction, at least.
The drama, like many others past and present, is based on one lie that snowballs out of control, which in this case is about age/identity. The show therefore plays a lot with the concept of age, seniority, and rank in the workplace, which is an interesting motif upon which to hang a story since age is one of those things that plays a huge part in the social fabric of modern Korea. It’s a part of every introduction between people, and built into every interaction big or small, since the very language used between people is determined by one’s age/rank relation to the other. The drama manages to work in the topic without being too heavy-handed about it, which I appreciate, and Jang Nara does a good job being cute, conflicted, and compelling as the 34-going-on-25 heroine.
SONG OF THE DAY
THE STORY: Episodes 1-4
Jang Nara plays LEE SO-YOUNG, a 34-year-old who has worked for 14 years at the same fabric company. Her dream is to become a fashion designer, and upon graduation of high school she’d been accepted into the design department of a university — if only her family hadn’t fallen into debt.
Unable to send herself to school and support them at the same time, So-young joined the workforce, her mother working late hours at a pojangmacha (street food tent) while her bratty younger sister SO-JIN (Oh Yeon-seo) had continued her spoiled, selfish ways of buying expensive clothing (ruining So-young’s credit) and flitting around being an insufferable social butterfly. Yes, we hate her. No, we don’t have to feel conflicted about it.
Now So-young’s longtime boss tells her apologetically that financial times are rough, and he has no choice but to let her go. Yet when she returns to beg for her job back, she finds that he’d lied — he’d actually just replaced her with a young thing fresh out of school, the kind of new employee all the older men love for her novelty and cuteness, no matter that she has no experience or competence with the job.
So-young grits her teeth and continues on her job-hunt, only to be turned away for reasons beyond her control — one boss is 33 and doesn’t want to hire a subordinate older than him, while another professes to care nothing for age but won’t hire people with bad credit. She manages to land a lowly position doing alterations for a neighborhood seamstress — but her sister takes advantage of this and swipes a customer’s Chanel jacket (to borrow, not that that makes the theft any better), and that gets her fired.
Then there’s CHOI JIN-WOOK (Daniel Choi), a marketing director at The Style, a fashion design company run by the sharp, stoic JI SEUNG-IL (Ryu Jin — So. Hot.). Jin-wook is roommates with one of the senior designers at the company, and loves his new car with a passion normally reserved for sentient beings.
There are hints that he’s from a wealthy background, but he regularly turns down his parents’ offers of money — he’s determined to make it on his own. Ah, I know the feeling, having once been that kind of stubborn brat convinced that accepting money from Mom meant I was failing to be independent. Maybe Jin-wook will grow out of it too.
Anyway, Jin-wook’s hyung takes him to a club, and think they’ve scored the jackpot when the hot, model-eque So-jin starts chatting them up. In actuality, she’s using them to hide from So-young, who’s followed her here and is chasing her down to retrieve the jacket. Long story short, So-young ends up in a tug-of-war with Jin-wook over the jacket, and tumbles into an oversize, decorative martini trying to fetch it back.
That, alas, is not nearly as fun as it sounds, and she winds up both tipsy (from glugging accidentally), and stained red. Jin-wook helps her climb out, and the force sends the glass tumbling to the ground — landing them squarely on the hook for club damages, to the tune of 20 million won (approximately $16,000). So-young and Jin-wook nearly manage to escape together, but when it looks like they’re going to get caught, So-young ditches Jin-wook and runs away alone. Jin-wook is left with the fine and repair bill, and with great gnashing of teeth (and muttered curses about So-young), he sells his beloved car to pay for it.
So-jin promises to pay her sister back, but true to her irresponsible ways, she learns that the fitting model job she scored is harder than anticipated, and dumps it on her unni. So-young, reluctant to give up the pay, goes along and takes her sister’s place, figuring it’s only for a day.
So-young belatedly finds out that the job — which pays peanuts and involves being the errand girl — is actually for a week, and although she’s on edge from the fear of being outed as a fraud, she bears with it. Even though the designer’s studio is populated by snooty, hateful people like Nara, who orders her around like a slave.
To So-young’s surprise, people aren’t at all suspicious of her supposed age — 25 — and treat her with a stunning lack of respect in accordance with what they believe to be the natural, age-determined pecking order. She bears it all stoically, even though the “advice” the designers sling her way stings of condescension — not to mention irony, since she’s actually one of the oldest of the bunch.
At first, when Jin-wook discovers that she’s the new temporary employee, he tries to demand her half of his settlement fees, which is only fair since they were both involved. However, she has no money to give him, and advises him to think of this as “a very expensive life lesson.” So Jin-wook takes to following her around, making her buy him drinks and lunch, determined to get his money back even if it has to be in dribs and drabs.
One ill-advised money-making method he picks up is to return a knockoff of a luxury bag to a store and demand a refund. He sends So-young to do it, not telling her it’s a fake, and she has to bear the ignominy of being assumed to be a grifter. Worse yet, a posh young woman (whom we’ll come to know as KANG YOON-SEO, played by Kim Min-seo) can’t find her wallet in the store, and the shopkeepers accuse So-young of stealing it.
The indignity is too much to bear, and So-young storms into the cafeteria to have it out with Jin-wook for setting her up. He’s dressed in a particularly nice suit today, because his sloppy fashion sense has been noticed by boss Seung-il multiple times, and he fears that he’ll be given the boot if he draws that kind of attention yet again. So he’s just spent a small fortune on a suit he can’t afford, which means it’s particularly infuriating when an enraged So-young dumps a bowl of kimchi all over him.
He retaliates by throwing a bowl of soup at her, but she ducks out of the way, and it sails into the boss’s face instead. Oops.
Jin-wook sinks into a pity party, sure he’s going to be fired after the soup incident AND the lack of a decent suit for his important presentation today. Feeling sympathy for him, So-young offers to help him fix the situation, in exchange for settling their mutual debts once and for all. With that, she gets to work — she borrows a sewing machine and scraps from the patternmaking studio, and quickly fashions a new jacket for him.
The result…is not something Jin-wook can wear with confidence — it’s a capelet, way too fussy and offbeat for him to pull off. But to his surprise, both Seung-il and the senior managing director eye it approvingly and ask to borrow it, to use as inspiration (for a woman’s cape, lol).
But just as soon as one crisis is solved, another pops up: The designers’ sample gown has disappeared. It’s senior designer Ki-hong who’s responsible — So-young had given it to him while he was half-sleeping on the job — but he blames her to save his own skin. In everyone’s haste to cover their own asses, Nara ends up being the scapegoat, and she in turn blames So-young, slapping her angrily.
Seung-il enters the designer’s studio at the tail end of this confrontation, and asks everybody who’s responsible. And while he absolves So-young of any blame in the matter, his explanation is even more crushing: He tells her she’s so insignificant that she has no right to be held responsible.
He gives the designers three hours to find the dress, and they scatter to try to salvage the situation. So-young is dismissed from the mess and the job, but she decides to make one last attempt to help, and requests to use the sewing machines. Curiosity piqued, the head of the patternmaking division, Director Baek, gives her permission and watches as So-young gets to work re-creating the dress entirely from memory.
When Seung-il brings Director Baek the cape So-young had also made, the director is impressed. And that’s how So-young, dismissed as errand girl, is offered the job as The Style’s newest, “youngest” designer.
Problem is, all week long people have assumed she’s her sister, 25-year-old So-jin. She’d have to tell the truth of her identity to be put on the official payroll…but telling the truth would probably get her fired. And this is her dream job, finally! What to do?
She waffles back and forth in a flurry of indecision, afraid of being caught for lying but also sorely tempted to let herself achieve her dream, even if for a short time. She’s paranoid that she’ll get caught every step of the way, but as it turns out, nobody cares that much about the photo on the ID card (her sister’s), and that’s that.
One added complication, however, comes in the form of new team manager Yoon-seo — the lady who’d sorta-kinda-accused her of stealing her wallet.
Yoon-seo’s on good terms with Seung-il, and also happens to be the daughter of Director Hyun, who has a senior management position. To be fair, Yoon-seo has the talent and the credentials for the job, but all her connections surely don’t hurt, either. She’s also got her sights set on Seung-il, doing her best to ingratiate herself with his young daughter.
She seems like a generally smart, fair person — but where So-young’s concerned, they just get off on the wrong foot. Plus, there’s the sneaking suspicion Yoon-seo has that So-young’s piqued Seung-il’s interest, despite how ridiculous that seems on the surface; there’s just something odd about the way Seung-il reacts when So-young’s involved.
Because this is a K-drama, Jin-wook also happens to know Yoon-seo, having had an adolescent crush on her before she moved to study in the U.S. When he spots her in the street, he even drives off after her, leaving So-young stranded in the street. (He has to wheedle his way back into her good graces, once he recovers his senses.)
The Style holds a design competition for amateur designers, which briefly captures So-young’s attention. But she can’t enter as herself, so she puts the idea aside — but So-jin doesn’t. In particular, the large cash prize grabs her attention, so So-jin submits one of So-young’s designs…which wins, naturally.
Since So-young can’t claim the award when everything thinks she’s So-jin, her sister takes it upon herself to pass herself off as the winning designer, using Big Sis’s ID to claim the prize. Yeah, this isn’t gonna get complicated, is it?
A complication arises with one of the company’s distributors, Rosemary Department Store, and The Style is in danger of losing their account with them, which would be costly. Jin-wook’s contact there suggests that there’s one way to keep The Style in the loop…if they could find a way to satisfy Manager Ahn, who’s on the hunt for a twentysomething girlfriend.
Led by Jin-wook, the designers push So-young into being their sacrificial lamb, dressing her up in one of their own sample gowns and sending her on the blind date. Manager Ahn is thrilled to be dating a pretty young thing, and So-young grits her teeth through the encounter.
The date has to get cut short when the designers receive word that Seung-il wants to see the sample dress tonight, so So-young and Jin-wook race to his apartment that evening to make the hand-off. Of course, So-young can’t go in wearing the sample, so she borrows a uniform from a cleaning lady, and heads home.
Alas, she’s forgotten her cell phone in the dress pocket, so she has to return to Seung-il’s apartment to ask for its return. Only, she’s dressed like a janitor and dripping wet from the rain, and also manages to drop the contents of her coin purse all over his immaculate floor. Loath to upset him, she cautiously asks him to pick up the coins for her (he’s barred her from entry because she’s dripping), because she needs bus fare. She’s anxiously looking for the 500 won coin (about 50 cents), while he does a cursory sweep that returns mere pennies.
Somewhere in the course of this exchange, Seung-il has found a little humor in the absurdity, and when he later spots the 500 won coin, he pockets it with a smile, and makes sure to return it to her at the office the next day. Yoon-seo witnesses both scenes, senses something in the air, and turns even colder than usual toward So-young as a result.
So-young’s date with Manager Ahn has been a hit, but the problem is, it was too successful and now the ajusshi wants to date her. Jin-wook pleads with her to drag it out just a little longer, just till they can secure their account with the store again, but So-young angrily puts her foot down and tells him to “clean up your own crap.”
Jin-wook starts to have second thoughts and wonders if he isn’t perhaps being too pushy with her. But no matter, because Manager Ahn overhears their conversation, and their comments, combined with his overactive imagination, makes him assume they were out to con him. He accuses them of setting him up to be her sugar daddy, and says such horribly offensive things about So-young that Jin-wook can’t help but speak up in her defense.
That leads Manager Ahn to take a swing at Jin-wook, which erupts into a full-scale fight that lands the men at the police station. Jin-wook sends So-young home before the police are involved, but she can’t help feeling guilty and comes to the station anyway.
The problem is, that requires everyone to present their identification, and So-young gulps, fearing that this will blow up into an even bigger problem once it comes out that she was impersonating somebody else. She can’t bring herself to hand over her ID, but luckily, Jin-wook lands on another fact that negates its necessity: Manager Ahn had given her a pin as a gift, but used his business account to do it, and the threat of pressing that point makes him back off.
Jin-wook still has to deal with the police for the fight, though, and dutifully mans up to spend the night in jail. So-young feels guilty, but for the first time Jin-wook accepts his fate without whining like a child, and tells her that he’s taking her advice and “cleaning up my own crap.”
With Jin-wook’s fate hanging in the balance, So-young goes to the department store to plead with Manager Ahn for mercy on his behalf.
Although Baby-Faced Beauty isn’t that far out of the box in terms of romantic comedies, there’s a little something different about it that I really like. It’s largely the directorial style (and the gorgeous camera, swoon), which adds a touch of visual interest where many trendies just rely on the standard one-shot, one-shot, two-shot approach.
Where other rom-coms rely on a static camera — which isn’t bad, just un-noteworthy — Baby-Faced Beauty uses its camera to create interesting angles and points of view. True, sometimes I think they get a little carried away with the super-close-up distortions and the tilted camera angles, but most of the time it adds a fun touch, so I don’t mind. In its visual style, Baby-Faced Beauty is like Dr. Champ, or even Coffee Prince, where the stories are fairly conventional but a little atmospheric flair gives it a refreshing appeal. The screen quality sometimes looks more like film than drama as well.
Tonally, Baby-Faced Beauty hits the right spot for me — the pace is swift and the plot moves from one conflict to the next without dragging too much in one place. Combined with some interesting music selections and the lovely palette, it’s easy to get caught up in the funny situations and compelling conflicts.
It sort of recalls Dal Ja’s Spring for me (although I don’t think it’s quite as good), in that it’s about more than just a romance at the center. I like that it’s a workplace drama, that there are themes at play beyond a love story. Age is the obvious motif at play here, given that So-young’s reason for being at The Style is predicated on her lie, but thankfully we quickly move past the initial lie to touch on the ramifications of age, seniority, respect, and interpersonal relationships that serve as corollaries to the main conflict.
Caveats: I will say that the first two or so episodes have their rough moments, in that it’s difficult to get behind these characters when so many of them are acting in irritating ways. For instance, both So-young and Jin-wook act pretty childish in the initial encounters, to the extent that you don’t quite know which side you’re on because they’re both being stupid. She ditched him and left him with a huge settlement bill, but he jumps to conclusions, acts before she can explains things, and digs himself into holes based on his own impetuousness.
It takes a full four or so episodes for the romantic chemistry to kick in — I’d wondered earlier on if we were ever going to feel it, because So-young and Jin-wook were more like bickering siblings for a long stretch there. But thankfully, it does kick in eventually, particularly at the end of the fourth episode when he finally grows up and takes responsibility for his own crap, as he says, and acts like an adult. That continues in the following episodes, and while he still has his flashes of childishness, they’re much more endearing when displayed alongside some maturity. Immature adults acting like spoiled brats = insufferable. Grown-ups acting occasionally childish = adorable.
Another factor that had me on the fence during the first four episodes is, well, everybody outside of the main trio. The designers at The Style are aggravating with their selfish, backstabby ways, and there were more than a few scenes where I found myself dearly wishing I could reach inside the screen to slap some sense into a few of them. The way they treat So-young is appalling, although to be honest I don’t think it’s too terribly off the mark for real life, and that’s partly why I was willing to hang in there until the story takes an upswing and So-young starts to have a few successes mixed in with her hardships.
There’s also So-jin, who inspires me to violent thoughts. I understand that she’s mostly a plot device needed to keep So-young’s lie/conflict in motion, and for that reason alone I force myself to ignore her as much as possible and just focus on the story, minimizing her presence in it. Thank goodness for the gorgeous camera, because that alone gave me enough reason to keep going until the characters started to grate on my nerves less.
One thing built into the premise that I love is the dissonance created by the age lie. When she’s at the office as So-jin, So-young has to act the respectful maknae and do the coffee runs and defer to everybody. If her real age were known, as the newest employee she’d still be the most junior, but people would take more care in how they treated her on a personal level. This also carries over into the romantic storylines, because it’s assumed she’s several years younger than Jin-wook, and a full decade younger than the boss. In reality, she’s way older than Jin-wook and only one year younger than Seung-il. And because of her real age, she can treat Jin-wook like a noona, using banmal and not putting up with his crap. All the while, because he doesn’t know her real age, he just assumes she’s a youngster with frighteningly opinionated stances on everything. Heh.
As for So-young: I find her to be a likable character I root for, even if there are some scenes where I dearly wished she’d stand up for herself. But given her circumstances, it’s understandable why she doesn’t, and the script does a good job of establishing that conflict within herself — her desire to speak her mind and demand respect, countering her earnest desire to be recognized for her talent for once in her underappreciated life. This is her dream come true, and she’s lived too long to give it up in a fit of pride.
Even so, she’s not a total doormat, and I appreciate the scenes when she tells people to cut the crap and grow up. Like Jin-wook, for instance. When he screws up and fears he’s about to be fired, she finds him crying in a pity party, and tells him with a mix of exasperation and sympathy that crying about a problem won’t fix anything — he’s better off trying to figure out how to fix it.
And then, when she finds herself in a crushing situation, she takes a minute to cry in the bathroom stall at the unjustness of it all — and then pulls herself together, grits her teeth, and finds her way out.
When she re-creates the lost sample dress, she isn’t doing it to save her job or clear her name — in essence, she’s asking for respect from people who deem her unworthy of it. And even if she doesn’t earn theirs, well, it’s okay because she’s really claiming self-respect.
All in all, I find Baby-Faced Beauty to be charming and quick-paced, and recent episodes have improved upon the earlier episodes — really, I think it takes three or four episodes to hit its stride, if you can get past the aggravating supporting characters for that long. I’m sorry I don’t have the time to recap this drama properly, just due to the schedule being what it is. (If I can find a spare moment, I’ll consider popping back in with periodic updates, but I make no promises.) I mean this as no insult to Lie To Me (I wouldn’t have stuck with it if it weren’t appealing in its own way), but I do sorta think Baby-Faced Beauty woulda been a better pick. Oh well. No use dwelling on the past, so onward we go.