I will say this about Ma Boy: If the entire thing must hinge upon a single conceit, then at least it’s got that one conceit down pat. Because Hyun-woo (er, idol Sun-woong) is so pretty in both gender personas that you really can’t take your eyes off him sometimes.
The show continues with its frothy-light campus hijinks, and now our heroine finds herself entangled in this lie as well. She happens to be much more committed to protecting the secret, but on the downside, much less good at it. But hey, two heads put together are better than one… right?
SONG OF THE DAY
TTS (of SNSD) – “Twinkle,” which is used in this episode. [ Download ]
EPISODE 2: “HeartBeat”
Geu-rim gasps in shock. Irene… is a boy?
She doesn’t call a teacher after all, and Hyun-woo confirms his identity — speaking at last! — saying that he’s got his reasons for the disguise. She’s all, What reason could possibly explain this? That is a long story, so he just asks her to keep the secret.
Geu-rim protests that she’s still going to tell the teachers in the morning. Hyun-woo sighs, “Do whatever you want.” He takes his usual exit by hopping out the window.
Schoolyard. Irene huddles fearfully, surrounded by a mob of angry students, which include the girls jealous of her popularity and the boys humiliated at having liked a fraud. They hurl things, scorning, “You, a girl? Get lost! How dare you toy with people?!”
Our Head Mean Girl, Hye-ri, pulls off the wig and dumps water over Hyun-woo’s head. She leads the cheer to oust Irene from school.
This, of course, is all imagined. Geu-rim snaps back to real life — she’s mid-meeting with the principal, who welcomes her to the school in an oddly enthusiastic way, urging her to make her dreams come true. Hmm. Is she someone important?
Geu-rim overhears Tae-joon singing “A Goose’s Dream” in a rehearsal studio. It’s the same song she’d sung in class — saying it was a source of encouragement during a tough time — which spins us into flashback:
Tae-joon performs the same song at a hospital, for a group of patients. Ah, things are starting to make sense…
After he performs, he asks for a patient to sing for him and a little girl volunteers Geu-rim, outing her as a huge fan. So she gets up and sings “Over the Rainbow” in her pretty voice, which is noted by the principal in the audience.
Irene is missing from class the next day, so Geu-rim goes looking for her at her management company. The manager-hyung freaks out when Hyun-woo walks in and tries to stuff his head into a plastic bag. Yes, that’s helping.
Hyun-woo sighs that it’s fine, roommie knows all. Uncle nervously asks her to play along, since they can’t have the scandal blowing both Irene’s and Hyun-woo’s future to bits. Geu-rim isn’t thrilled about lying, but she says she doesn’t want anyone getting hurt because of her — a comment that makes Hyun-woo consider her curiously.
Geu-rim declares that fraud is still wrong, though, so her agreement to keep silent is only temporary. Only until they clean up the situation themselves. She adds another condition — so tiny, so sassy — that since the situation is going to inconvenience her life, Hyun-woo has to do everything she says. LOL.
Hyun-woo figures the upside of being outed is that he can walk around as himself in the dorm room, and the sight of him with shower-damp hair and in his undershirt has Geu-rim slapping her hands over her eyes in modesty. Then she peers between her fingers to sneak a look at all the pretty, glistening in slow-motion, soft-filtered backlighting. Why is he just as pretty as Hyun-woo as he was as Irene?
Hilariously, in the ensuing days Geu-rim ends up hovering over Irene at school, swooping in every time she thinks s/he might be in danger of discovery. (Which gets Irene’s fan club fuming at Geu-rim’s interference.) She clucks over her-him like an annoying mother hen, acting as lookout while Irene changes into gym clothes and tugging her hair to hide the Adam’s apple.
Hyun-woo protests that Geu-rim’s concern is going to draw more even attention… which isn’t wrong. She’s about as subtle as a tiptoeing elephant. Irene’s fanboys interpret their bickering as harassment, though, and plots to get back at Geu-rim, only to be stopped by Tae-joon’s fan club Tackle, who argue that they get first crack.
Tae-joon persists in courting Irene, asking her to be his dance partner for the upcoming school festival. Today, she gives him a nod yes, and he hoots in victory. So cute, you dense puppy boy.
The exchange is witnessed by Irene’s most persistent paparazzo, however, who has been snooping around the school to get at her secrets. The two mega-stars, flirting with each other? “I’ve got you now,” he crows. At least manager-hyung is on the ball, and he drags the tabloid reporter aside and confiscates his camera.
That night Hyun-woo slips out of his dorm room, this time in Irene disguise. Only, tonight he finds Geu-rim standing there as disapproving watchdog, holding up the rules she’s drawn up, pointing at the curfew clause. Aw, it’s funny ’cause she’s tiny and he’s huge, and yet he grumbles like a Saint Bernard ceding to an angry kitten.
Their budding argument attracts the attention of a guard, so they duck and head for cover, ending up in an empty dance studio. Ignoring Geu-rim, Hyun-woo starts practicing and she watches, impressed.
They take a break on the terrace, and she asks about couple dance Tae-joon asked Irene to partner him on, though she clucks in disapproval when Hyun-woo says he’s thinking of doing it just to poach some of his dance moves. Now that we’ve seen her flashback, we know her soft spot for Tae-joon isn’t just his idol status, but because he’d been a source of moral support.
Geu-rim explains being quite sick for a while, spending a lot of her time in a hospital due to leukemia. She describes the painful treatments and being afraid — but when she liked Tae-joon’s music, she felt “just like the other healthy kids.”
Then one day Tae-joon happened to visit her hospital, and as he’d signed an autograph he’d promised they’d meet again, someday when she got better. That gave her a lot of encouragement, and made her want to get better to fulfill that promise.
She assures Hyun-woo she’s healthy now, and asks why he practices so hard at his dancing. He says, “Just… because I want to do it well.” She asks, “Not because you like it?”
That idea catches him off-guard. Hm, light bulb moment, perhaps? She says it didn’t look like he enjoyed it: “It looked like you were fighting with dancing.”
Irene’s Idiot Trio and the Tackle Idiot Trio converge to make an idiot hexagon. More brains, but somehow not more smarts. They reluctantly join forces to prevent the Tae-joon–Irene couple dance.
Geu-rim finds an mp3 player on her desk, loaded with the song “Twinkle” (posted above). Hyun-woo awkwardly coughs and does the I-was-throwing-it-away-so-you-might-as-well-have-my-castoff thing, where it’s clearly an excuse to give her nice things. Adorable. He turns away like it doesn’t matter, but smiles to himself at her reaction.
She’s also excited about the upcoming class trip, which doubles as the workshop for their festival performance. She chides Hyun-woo about his lax attitude, telling him that partnering with Tae-joon is something she’d love but doesn’t have the chance to do. So he’d better do a good job, especially since Tae-joon’s so enthusiastic about working with Irene.
That gives Hyun-woo An Idea, and he goes to bed smiling.
The next day, Tae-joon finds Geu-rim and tells her she’s going to be part of their performance too. It was Irene’s idea to make Geu-rim the main singer while they do her backup dance, and he’s over the moon that she texted him. Aw Hyun-woo, you big softie. Why is this silly teen love triangle so heartwarming? They’re just cuddly and good-natured, which is so refreshing. Plus, Tae-joon’s enthusiasm is cute; he’s even come up with a group title: Taegurin (a mashup of their names).
That has Tackle fuming, and they get to work strategizing. Leader Hye-ri deems the fanboys’ scheme dumb and lo-tech (lock Geu-rim in a shed somewhere), and this unholy union meets its end.
Instead, Hye-ri comes up with a plan of her own, which involves offering Geu-rim a soda as “apology gift.” Don’t take it! Haven’t you seen every tween camp movie ever?
Thankfully Geu-rim is rightfully suspicious and decides to throw it away… just as Tae-joon appears and snatches the can. Glug…glug…glug! Oh noes.
Sure enough, the dosed drink gives him a violent case of diarrhea and renders him unable to dance. Geu-rim soothes him by rubbing his belly comfortingly (mom’s ole “medicine hand” treatment) and tells him to hang in there.
Meanwhile, Hyun-woo spends most of the day out on another job as Irene. He’s eager to get to the workshop camp, which shocks his uncle and manager since this is the first time he’s ever been interested in a school event before.
With the clock ticking and his car stuck in traffic, Hyun-woo urges hyung to drive faster to make it in time.
The Tackle girls rub their hands together gleefully at the thought of Geu-rim being taken out of the performance and thus usurping her spot. Just then, they get a message from Tae-joon, who asks them for a favor…
Tae-joon heads for the hospital and asks Geu-rim to go onstage in his place — he doesn’t want to ruin this opportunity for Irene. Ha, are we setting up for a Shakespeare In Love merry-go-round where the participants get swapped in and out, leaving our OTP?
But no, it’s Tackle who fill in as the backup singers. They’ve only got half their hearts in it — well, if they’ve got any to begin with — but no matter, because Geu-rim shines as she sings TTS’s “Twinkle,” which is a crowd-pleaser.
It’s enough to get Geu-rim on the festival performance list. Tackle is furious that their plan went awry, but vow that they’ll make sure Round 2 succeeds.
They’ll have to get in line, because it’s the fanboys’ turn to strike: They send Geu-rim a congratulatory text and invite her to a celebratory party. Then they’ll humiliate her and post that on the school homepage, which ought to send her far, far away. Oh, these “evil schemes” are so quaint and adorable, especially after a string of actual evil drama schemes.
However! Hye-ri realizes she dropped her trendy new bracelets while fixing up that laxative-laced drink, and she heads back to the building to search for it. That gets her locked inside instead of Geu-rim. Commence humiliation!
Geu-rim arrives outside the room to hear Hye-ri screaming in horror (at spooky noises and other ghostly pranks), and rescues her. Funny how the joke wouldn’t have done a thing to Geu-rim, but Hye-ri’s so trembling and weak that Geu-rim has to help her walk. Geu-rim: “If you’re scared this easily, how did you ever manage to pick on other kids so much?” Haha.
It’s sweet, though, that this brings the girls together, even if just a little. Geu-rim tells Hye-ri that if her behavior were as pretty as her face, she’d be liked by everyone. Hye-ri retorts that she’d better not use this against her, but there’s no bite to her words.
Hyun-woo arrives late that night, annoyed to have missed the performances. He peers inside the room wondering where Geu-rim is, and sets out in search of her.
She’s outside, walking out a leg cramp while listening to Hyun-woo’s mp3 player by the pool. So she’s taken by surprise when the other two Tackle girls shove her into the water, laughing and trying to take a picture of her drowned-rat look. Too bad they forgot the camera. Really not so bright; it’s like with three heads put together, they’re almost as smart as a regular person. Missing one, they’re doomed.
But Geu-rim loses the player and fishes around the water looking for it. Just then, her leg cramp acts up; she starts to flail and calls for help.
Thankfully Hyun-woo has an eye out and sees her from their balcony. Diving into the water, losing his wig and female accessories in the process, Hyun-woo pulls her out to safety.
The shock sends Geu-rim to tears, and he comforts her. The girls return with a camera — and see Hyun-woo and Geu-rim together. So does the lurking paparazzo, for that matter. Thankfully he’s not recognizable from that vantage point, but it IS a curious sight.
Hyun-woo isn’t so great dealing with a crying girl, so he blusters, “Are you crazy? Why would you swim at this hour?” She holds up the mp3 player in response. Aw, do you feel like an ass now?
They have an awkward parting, with each one telling the other to go already, hiding their reluctance to leave behind a facade of irritability. But he sneaks a look at her heading back inside, while she stays up tossing and turning.
The next morning, there’s a hot gossip item spreading amongst the school, which features Geu-rim by the pool with her mystery man. She gets pulled aside by a teacher, and her first worry is that Irene’s identity has been outed. The real problem is that dating at school is prohibited, though, and she’s told to explain herself.
Geu-rim says the boy helped pull her out of the water — that’s all. The teacher asks for the student’s name so they can check her story… and… well, she can’t do that.
Tae-joon and Hyun-woo both get the same photo text. Realizing the implications, they both immediately head back to school.
Okay, so the situations are pretty stock, as far as school-age rom-coms go, and I’m pretty sure there’s no plot point that we don’t see coming way in advance. What makes Ma Boy work is in its very smallness — it’s like shojo manga (or soonjung manhwa), where the plots are everyday and slice-of-life with relatively minor, contained arcs. It’s a vibe we don’t often get in Korean dramas, where the conflicts are large, the tension heightened, the emotions played up for dramatic effect.
This is the inherent conflict, I think, in translating a manga/manhwa to the miniseries format, because you have to tell this small-scale story but drastically ramp up the drama of everything. I won’t say all adaptations fail at this, but it does make it more difficult for them to hit the right balance, because many dramas are then stuck with these minor beats that have to carry huge emotion. And often those two things don’t scale together just right. It’s why a drama like Playful Kiss really could have been a great adaptation, if it actually had a plot. (By which I mean an actual narrative per episode, instead of stuff just happening.)
All of this is to say that the abbreviated length and contained world of Ma Boy actually benefit the story it’s telling by keeping everything small and on the same level. (You don’t get cute hijinks leading right into attempted rape, for instance, which isn’t something you could say of Boys Before Flowers or To the Beautiful You.) Because Ma Boy is so low-key, it’s refreshing not to assume the dramatic worst of every setup. The fanboys’ plot is juvenile and harmless, and Tackle’s laxative plot equally so. It’s simple stuff, but this is a different level of storytelling.
On the flipside of that coin, it’s also why the show doesn’t really channel much true feeling. Which is fine, because I know the limitations of its format. So you do get a romance that you don’t quite believe in (it makes sense, but are we feeling it with the chemistry or the attraction? Not even close) and a low level of emotional engagement. Admittedly, if this were offered as a prime-time broadcast show for 20 episodes, for instance, I’d probably have a different reaction, because that structure comes with different expectations.
Maybe the reason I have affection for this show despite not feeling any romantic spark is because I’m still totally with Hyun-woo, who feels like a person rather than a stock “type.” Here’s proof of how much mileage a drama can get out of a single appealing character, isn’t it? There are others I like, like Geu-rim and Tae-joon, but Hyun-woo’s the only one I care about. And somehow that’s enough.
Plus, I really liked Geu-rim’s note that he didn’t seem to enjoy dancing all that much, because it struck a chord with him — maybe for the first time ever. He’s so desperate to succeed at this thing and he’s pursued it with such tunnel vision that it must have been ages since he stopped to consider the why of it all.
There’s only one more episode left to the show so we’ve got a limit to what we can explore with this setup, but more than a cute loveline, I’m hoping our boy finds what he’s looking for.