Aww, this show is super cute. The gender-bender mini-drama Ma Boy initially got on my radar for its simple twist of taking the very familiar girl-dresses-like-boy-to-infiltrate-boy-world premise of so many dramas, and giving us a boy dressing as a girl. I know, right? Finally!
Some of the cross-dressing offerings in dramaland have been awesome and cracktastic, while others have been less so, so the premise alone isn’t enough to make this great. Thankfully, though, the show works with a charming vibe and enough heart to sustain its plot beyond the initial gimmick. That’s always a worry with these one-gimmick concepts, that the show will forget to have an emotional throughline or characters we care about. But one episode in and I’m already feeling for our hero(ine)’s predicament.
Ma Boy is definitely geared toward a younger crowd, airing on cable station Tooniverse, and there’s a distinct Disney Channel sort of vibe to it. It’s adolescence through a kaleidoscope, not quite real but enjoyable in a light and fizzy way. But it’s a Lizzie McGuire kind of Disney (What? The Lizzie McGuire TV series was great), not… I dunno, whatever forgettable stuff they’re churning out these days. And you know, I have a lot of fondness for those Disney and ABC Family movies/shows—I have seen waaay too many Hilary Duff and Amanda Bynes projects—or at least the good ones, which take little slices of life and make them engaging and relatable.
This is a very short offering, clocking in at a mere 3 episodes, so that’s one limitation. If you watch knowing that this is aimed at a different audience than the prime-time broadcast dramas we’re used to, and adjust expectations accordingly, you might find Ma Boy to be a pleasant watch. You know, if this stuff is your kind of thing.
SONG OF THE DAY
Touch – “같이 걷자” (Let’s Walk Together), the group our lead, Sun-woong, belongs to.
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EPISODE 1: “Who are you?”
This is our heroine, GEU-RIM (Kim So-hyun), a newly arrived transfer student to the Daehan Arts High School in Seoul, which is basically another Dream High. A big fish in her old, smaller pond, she’s about to find out that she’s not automatically the coolest at her new school.
That doesn’t get her too down, though, because Geu-rim has a bright personality. She keeps her outlook sunny and brushes aside the naysayers.
Kim So-hyun has built her young resumé playing evil characters—notably the young queen in The Moon That Embraces the Sun and the sister-burning (and -abandoning) character in Rooftop Prince—so it’s a change of pace for her to play the cheery heroine. As it turns out, I think she suits upbeat roles and she’s got a bit of an Amanda Bynes vibe; overall I find her endearing.
Geu-rim has a huge crush on the teen idol of the day, TAE-JOON (Min-hoo), who’s in her class at school. He’s essentially the school’s marquee star, going to class in between shooting music videos.
She quickly learns that even liking idols isn’t fair game at this school; a trio of mean girls claims exclusive rights to Tae-joon stalking/fawning/adoring. The call themselves Tackle, derived from “Tae-joon’s Club,” although it may as well refer to the way they attack anyone who dares look in beloved Tae-joon’s direction. Geu-rim’s all, “Whatever, weirdos,” which makes me like her even more because Tackle’s fuming all on their own and she doesn’t care.
Then there’s IRENE (Sun-woong), the school’s other megastar. She’s a CF queen, Korea’s little sister, and cultivates an aura of mystique that stirs a frenzy of curiosity about her. Tabloid reporters stalk her trying to find a crack in the mysterious facade, and at school she literally leaves boys drooling in her wake.
Too bad for them Irene’s a boy.
I’ll give you a moment to let that sink in. Scroll up. Scroll down. Scroll up again. Yep, still a boy.
Irene’s real identity is HYUN-WOO, who is a very reluctant participant in this masquerade. He’s grown tired of playing the role, and especially balks at the news that he’s been assigned a roommate. A girl roommate.
Hyun-woo’s uncle/manager tries to argue with the principal to keep Irene in a single room, since the school has hitherto been accommodating of their big star’s peculiarities (Irene doesn’t speak, for instance, doing schoolwork only in written form). But the headmaster is feeling the pressure of favoritism complaints and Uncle is unable to give a good reason for Irene needing a single… so roomies it is!
So how did Hyun-woo become Irene?
We flash back to a year ago, when Hyun-woo’s just a teenage boy with a dream of becoming a performer. But despite his hard work and drive, he keeps getting rejected from auditions, so he’s not even a proper trainee. Just a wannabe.
Uncle, who runs his own struggling entertainment company, has a last-minute cancellation and worries about filling the schedule. His manager-assistant jokes that they should use pretty-faced Hyun-woo to fill in for the girl’s spot… and out of desperation they twist his arm into agreeing.
Who could know that Irene would become an overnight sensation? “One job only” turned into another, and another… The money was a much-needed boon and now that Irene’s a huge star, it’s tough to let go of that income stream.
Still, Uncle reminds Hyun-woo that thanks to Irene, he got admitted into his dream school. It’ll just be a little while longer, he promises—when he gets the company in better shape, he’ll support Hyun-woo’s own dreams so he can take off the disguise and pursue a career in his own name.
Which is how Irene and Geu-rim end up sharing a room. It’s a bigger trial for Hyun-woo than for Geu-rim, who extends a friendly hand and suggests they get along well together. Hyun-woo keeps his mouth shut per usual, but notably his inner monologue groans that of ALL the students in the school, it had to be her. You know, the pretty new girl.
His cover’s at risk, though, so he hides behind his wig (covering his Adam’s apple is a nervous tic for him) and the icy persona. At least this way it seems like Irene shuns her out of disinterest rather than, oh, abject fear.
Geu-rim runs afoul of the Tackle girls again, who are fiercely protective over Tae-joon. The thing I like about Tae-joon is that although he’s a national star and the big man on campus, he’s actually a nice guy—even kind of dorky at times. Take the time Geu-rim runs into him and sprays him in food, and he just smiles and tells her it’s all right.
Tackle doesn’t think so, and bully her around. Fortunately, Tae-joon steps in and orders them to back off, coming to her rescue.
The hilarious thing is, Tae-joon thinks it’s Irene he’s saving, because he has a huuuuuge crush on her. It’s common knowledge that he’s been following Irene around and showering her with gifts, which she pointedly refuses.
But he’s not one to give up, and tries at every opportunity to win her favor. It’s actually really adorable; he kind of turns into a moony-eyed dolt around her. You also want to tell him he’s barking up the wrong tree, but y’know, the truth just might be a bigger shock than thinking Irene merely doesn’t like him.
As for Hyun-woo, he keeps his dancing hopes alive, although it’s fueled with this undercurrent of desperation. His dancing crew buddies are all better than he is and encourage him to do better next time, that it’s just a string of bad luck. But Hyun-woo says humbly that he failed because he’s not good enough.
His audition failures weigh on his mind—and that translates into a depressed-looking Irene. She’s got her own fanboy following, who assume she’s upset about her terrible living conditions. Thus they gang up on Geu-rim in a misguided sense of chivalry (ah, the irony—bullying a girl to defend a girl), telling her to get lost. Geu-rim, thankfully, has a lot more pluck than they do and sasses them right back, which gets them off her back. For now.
Sharing continues to be uncomfortable for Hyun-woo, who has to contend with Geu-rim barging into the bathroom (“What’s the problem between roommies?”) or walking around in a camisole after a shower.
On the other hand, Geu-rim is half-annoyed with Irene’s constant aloofness. The other half is determined to break down the barriers and become besties. Aw. She’s sweet.
With Irene constantly rebuffing his overtures, Tae-joon turns to Geu-rim for help. As the roommate, she should be able to figure out what Irene likes, right? She can ask around and give him hints so he can figure out how to appeal to her, can’t she?
That’s a blow to Geu-rim and her own monster crush, but she can’t refuse to help him. And so, she looks around the room for clues on Irene’s preferences. There’s nothing very telling, except for a dance notebook… and a photo of Hyun-woo. Ruh-roh. Geu-rim notes the resemblance and wonders if it’s Irene’s oppa, which, hey, is probably more logical than the truth.
Just then Irene returns, sees her looking at the photo, and angrily snatches it away. Geu-rim assumes Irene’s upset about the snooping, but Hyun-woo directs his ire toward his Uncle, insisting he wants to put an end to the charade. He’s thisclose to getting caught!
That night Geu-rim waits outside the school for Irene to come back so she can make amends, and gets in a bit of a pickle with some leering ajusshis. Just in time, she’s helped out by a mysterious stranger, who takes care of the thugs.
Hyun-woo’s shrouded in shadows so she doesn’t recognize him. He, on the other hand, is touched that she was waiting for him. Er, her. Her-him.
Hyun-woo takes out his frustration at the dance studio, practicing late into the night. His manager hyung warns him not to overdo it, asking teasingly whether he isn’t satisfied with all the work he’s doing as Irene.
Hyun-woo scoffs sadly, “Irene? Without Irene, what am I?” Aw. It’s an unexpected touch of bittersweetness, seeing our hero searching for some sense of identity when all he’s got as himself are a string of failed auditions. Then he shakes it off and gets back on his feet.
But all that overworking takes its toll on his body, and that night Hyun-woo shivers in bed with a fever. Geu-rim hears him in the middle of the night and wakes up, instantly alarmed at the fever and shaking, declaring that she’s off in search of a doctor.
But he grabs her hand and shakes his head no insistently. She says she’s going anyway, and when he falls out of bed to stop her, his wig falls off. Then he slumps over and Geu-rim grabs him to hold him up… and her hand connects with a very unmaidenly bosom.
Eyes wide, she gasps, “You… you…”
She thinks back to the photo she saw and connects that this is the guy. But just as she starts to panic and blurt something, Hyun-woo reaches up and covers her mouth to shush her.
This show is super adorable—it put a smile on my face practically the whole way through. No, it’s not doing anything edgy or genius, but it accomplishes its goal and does it with a nice, light touch. It’s benign and friendly.
Furthermore, while Ma Boy falls into the category of easy-breezy dramas, I wouldn’t automatically call it a throwaway. There’s a heart here, and Hyun-woo’s character is actually really compelling; I love the way he has this identity conflict beyond the obvious setup of him pretending to be a girl.
That’s actually something we didn’t see in many of the girl-dresses-as-boy dramas, even the better ones: You’re Beautiful and Sungkyunkwan Scandal’s heroines, for instance, didn’t experience internal turmoil over their disguises. Their motivations were always noble and their big fear was getting caught by others, but it didn’t cast them into the throes of identity crises.
That isn’t to say that Hyun-woo is going to spiral into a deep existential dilemma, of course. But I appreciate the subtle, sad, questioning attitude he holds about being Irene. This is a drama that could easily have run away to the crazy train simply on the basis of its one gag—pretty boy looks like a GIRL!—but Sun-woong plays Irene with a sort of quiet dignity.
Sure, there are the requisite comedic bits, like Irene cringing at his pretty roommate trying to use the toilet while he’s in the bathroom (oh, Korea, you and your love affair with the toilet—which, okay, I get after generations of having to use those terrible squatting commodes). Or hastily covering his throat every time anybody gets near. But you get the sense that Irene isn’t the sum of her joke-parts. There’s something to this guy, and I feel for him. There’s a melancholy aspect to his understanding that he is failing on his own merit (as dancer Hyun-woo), and succeeding with someone else’s name.
By the way, I like how there’s a distinct difference between the way Hyun-woo carries himself in both personas. Irene isn’t super-feminine (she pulls off the surly, silent, mysterious star reasonably well—thank goodness for hipsters making the slouch trendy), but he does hold himself differently when he’s being her. He’s light-footed and more flowing.
That makes it extra incongruous when he’s walking around as himself in the Irene getup, all broad shoulders and lumbering gait. HA. You definitely don’t look at the boy version and think he seems girly in behavior. Not aside from that face, because there are some angles where he just looks so much like his female half that it’s disconcerting to see him walking, dancing, and talking (with his deep voice) like an ordinary dude.
I also like the way they portray the Other Guy, aka Tae-joon, who could have been an ass. That’s such an easy archetype in dramaland that he could have stepped right into the shoes vacated by so many other haughty star characters and not missed a beat. But I like that he turns into this dork around Irene, all teenage infatuation and starry eyes. It’s so cute.
In fact, I like Tae-joon enough that I’m hoping he sees Geu-rim’s charms and goes after her instead, while Hyun-woo’s stuck pretending to be Irene, unable to challenge the rival. Alas, at a short 3 episodes, I don’t know that we’ll get to explore that angle. But I can hope!
Last but not least, there’s Kim So-hyun. Honestly her character doesn’t have much depth, and I don’t know that we’re going to get much backstory or internal struggle from her. There’s just no room for that in this show.
Thankfully I’m okay with Hyun-woo getting the bulk of that emotional storyline, and Geu-rim being the clever little helper bee. Based on the previews, it looks like the next episode will have her playing lookout/sidekick/cover-up for Hyun-woo, helping him keep his secret hidden from the rest of the school. Silly, but cute.
Granted, you’ll have to take my comments with the caveat that I’m totally adjusting my expectations for this genre and the length of the show. The acting isn’t extremely bad or extremely good; it’s a little green but pretty solid for what it needs to accomplish.
I had no great hope that this would be any good, so I’m pleasantly surprised at the execution and enjoying a world that’s sunnier than the one we inhabit. Maybe a little more candy-coated and rosy-colored, but in a good way.
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