Birth of a Beauty: Episodes 1-2
SBS is taking a lighter, funnier approach to its weekend programs right now, with the newly premiered rom-com Birth of a Beauty joining the ridiculously goofball Modern Farmer on Saturdays and Sundays. When this drama was first announced, I wondered how they’d take this makeover premise and make it fresh, since I felt like no matter how it played out, I would kinda know what was going to happen. Don’t get me wrong, I like makeover and underdog and comic revenge stories; I just wasn’t sure how Birth of a Beauty would set itself apart.
So I was pleasantly surprised when the first two episodes managed to keep me guessing—the fun is in execution of this familiar story, with fun twists to keep us on our toes and counter expectation. The clippy pace and the constant bag of tricks work to the show’s benefit, as well as a great lead pairing with a solid sense of comic timing. Joo Sang-wook being cocky and dorky, bickering with Han Ye-seul as a sweet doormat with killer looks? It works.
Fyi: I won’t be continuing recaps for this show, although I wish I had the time to cover it. But it was a fun enough first week that I wanted to at least give you guys an introduction.
SONG OF THE DAY
Sweet Sorrow – “Beautiful” [ Download ]
It’s a grand entrance for a gorgeous woman, whom we’ll come to know as SA-RA (Han Ye-seul), who walks down a street and turns heads left and right with her stunning appearance. Everywhere she goes she attracts admiring glances and drops jaws; she explains that she’s an actress who’s just come back to Korea after working in the U.S. This makes sense to everyone who sees her, and she gets the royal treatment.
She gets her fortune told by a face reader, who is awed by the interesting combination of fates she holds in her hands (er, face): Not only is she an uncommon beauty, she also has the fortune of a military general and might even save the nation. That is, if she steers clear of her two pitfalls: the need to get involved in matters, and bad guys.
Sa-ra starts to clue into the uneasy feeling that she’s being followed, and this is how we get our introduction to HAN TAE-HEE (Joo Sang-wook, whose combination of dorky and heo-dang antics I have really missed, and love to see back in action here). She catches him peeping in on her while she’s in a lingerie shop and freaks out, in the process tapping into some latent self-defense instincts to take him down. He’s hauled off by officers, and Sa-ra sighs in relief.
It’s safe to say that anyone watching the show probably knows that Tae-hee’s going to be more than a mere stalker, and it makes us wonder why Sa-ra wouldn’t know him in this situation. But this is an example of one of the premiere’s strengths, in that it plays on our expectations and keeps us guessing. We know the gist of the story, but it’s the how that piques our interest.
Sa-ra catches a glimpse of an extreme-makeover television program titled Change, and gets hooked to the story of one woman in the running to be gifted with a full makeover. Her name is SA GEUM-RAN (Ha Jae-sook) and she’s a good-hearted woman with frankly a lot of assholes in her life, though she endures with a smiling face to hide the tears.
From here, the episode flips back and forth between Geum-ran’s story (which takes place in the recent past) and Sa-ra’s reactions to the woman she feels a strong pull toward. She watches with sympathy as Geum-ran gets disdained—and worse, pitied—for her bulk, which makes accidents like tripping in public or falling into a tub of fish doubly humiliating when nobody helps.
At home, it’s even worse. Geum-ran has married into a well-to-do family, but her husband has spent the past seven years in the States for his business. Her place in the household is more of a maid than daughter-in-law, with snobs for a mother- and sisters-in-law, who think nothing of saying in front of her face, “We should stop eating, we don’t want to end up like her.” The senile grandmother that Geum-ran cares for is a source of comfort, but the only one.
The sisters-in-law snicker behind Geum-ran’s back when she films a hello video to her busy husband, who hasn’t been able to take her calls lately. It’s because they know something she’s about to find out, which is that her handsome husband is lying cheater—and not only is he completely unrepentant about having an affair, he has even introduced the girlfriend to his family. Who all love her more than Geum-ran.
Sa-ra’s completely absorbed in the show, and beside herself when Geum-ran loses the extreme makeover opportunity to the other contender. She’s so moved that she decides she has to help her, but when she calls the TV station to ask about her, she hears that Geum-ran withdrew from the process.
Meanwhile, Past Geum-ran discovers her husband’s infidelity when she hears he’s back in Seoul and goes to his hotel room. That’s where she sees him (named LEE KANG-JOON, played by Jung Kyeo-woon) cozying up with his girlfriend on the side, the sophisticated broadcast announcer GYO CHAE-YEON (Wang Ji-hye, playing yet another in a streak of adulterous Other Women).
Even despite the betrayal, Geum-ran meets with Chae-yeon to ask her to step aside. Chae-yeon is initially quite polite, apologizing for the hurt she caused and expressing her regrets contritely, but she must have expected the wronged wife to simply back away. So when Geum-ran continues to sob and beg, Chae-yeon’s words get blunt: Kang-joon may have been ordinary when they married and it’s true that Geum-ran supported him through his career, but he is now far out of her league. She asks plainly, “Do you never look in the mirror?”
I don’t konw if it’s better or worse that the cheating husband seems kind of like a nice guy—I mean, yes, he’s a lying jackass for cheating, but fundamentally he doesn’t seem mean-spirited. But when Geum-ran asks Kang-joon for another chance so she can treat him even better, he merely returns his wedding ring and says that their marriage is over, and that he just wants to love.
Adding insult to injury are her terrible in-laws, who practically gloat at Geum-ran for being so naive to think her husband ought to be faithful to her looking like that. Senile Grandma sweetly offers to make her look nice, but paints her face in a grotesque parody of beauty.
Watching this all is a distraught Sa-ra, who thus jumps at the chance when she gets a mysterious note telling her where she can go to find out about Geum-ran. She meets Geum-ran’s friend, who is outraged at her friend’s shabby treatment and shares the truth, which brings yet more terrible news: Geum-ran committed suicide, and today is her 49th day memorial. (The 49th day is observed as the day when a departed soul moves on to the afterlife.) Her in-laws didn’t even bother to observe rites for her.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Geum-ran saw Chae-yeon being welcomed to the family behind her back, and Geum-ran couldn’t bear to return to that house. But she had nowhere to go, and ended up driving her car into the sea.
As Sa-ra leaves Geum-ran’s memorial, she’s knocked out by her stalker-man, aka our hero, Tae-hee. (Joo Sang-wook really does get some surprise beats of silly comedy, which is great.)
Sa-ra wakes up in Tae-hee’s car as he’s listening to a news report about serial killers who kidnap and murder women, and takes the first opportunity to run out. He chases her in exasperation as they run down the beach, but ends up getting his ass handed to him when Sa-ra’s dormant judo skills pop back up and send him sprawling. She only relents when he bellows at her, “You’re Sa Geum-ran!”
She’s understandably skeptical, but Tae-hee explains that she’s missed her meds and is suffering a spell of delusion—a side effect of all the anesthesia from her head-to-toe plastic surgery. (HAHA.) He’s been chasing her to give her the pills, only she’s so locked in her fantasy of being an actress that she didn’t recognize him and took him for a killer.
It’s from Tae-hee that Sa-ra gets the rest of the story, showing us how Geum-ran’s drive off a cliff wasn’t intentional, but accidental. She mustered all her strength to pull herself out—she was so wronged she couldn’t bear to die—and when she’d returned to the city, everyone already believed her dead. So Geum-ran watched as her husband and in-laws dutifully attended her funeral and shed exactly zero tears.
So she appeared at the good doctor’s doorstep, having tracked him down as the surgeon who works on all the Change show’s participants. She’d begged him to help her become beautiful and exact her revenge on the people who did her wrong, whom she couldn’t bear to let go unscathed while she’d supposedly died. Tae-hee reluctantly agreed, thus beginning her transformation, down to even a vocal cord operation that changed her voice. And the spiffy apartment she’d assumed was hers is actually his, which she’s been living in ever since.
With her head back on straight, Sa-ra/Geum-ran apologizes to Tae-hee, who now insists on a contract outlining their agreement. To his shock, Sa-ra bites down on her thumb and stamps the thing down in her own blood, ready to do everything he tells her to do.
However, Sa-ra doesn’t actually have a plan for revenge other than “I look pretty, so it should be easy now,” and Tae-hee has to impress upon her the necessity of working a carefully thought-out strategy. He tells her very gravely how very little her husband cared for her, how she doesn’t even register on his radar as anything worth a thought, and pumps her up to go after her mission properly. She can’t just look like a new person; she has to become one. He challenges her to leave behind Geum-ran completely, and after witnessing her husband being cozy with his girlfriend, she musters up the resolve to do just that.
Now that they’re on the same page about their goals, Tae-hee becomes something of an all-around life coach for Sa-ra as he directs her workouts and shapes her (sometimes literally) into an irresistible woman. She doesn’t lose her love of food (or her herculean strength), but she follows his directions faithfully, as best she can (with sometimes amusing results).
Their vague plan to get revenge is given a swift kick in the pants when the announcement is made public of wedding plans for the cheating couple. With three weeks till the wedding, this both speeds up their deadline and gives them a specific goal to shoot for: stop the wedding.
Tae-hee has a curiously strong interest in helping Sa-ra ruin the wedding, and things make more sense when Sa-ra finds out that he has a past with Chae-yeon. He’s touchy about it and refuses to talk, but we can see that they go back to childhood and he’s clearly not over her.
We don’t know much about Tae-hee’s past, which is played purposely vaguely, partly for suspense reasons and partly for comedy. I laughed out loud when he admits he’s not a real doctor (casting all of Episode 1 into an entirely different light) until he clarifies that his brother was the Change doctor, and he just orchestrated the surgery instead of performing them. Later he also admits that the apartment they’re living in isn’t his but his brother’s, necessitating a hasty flight in the night. So generally speaking we’re in the dark as to what he does or who he is, though an offhand comment about him being a chaebol seems like it might be true. (Sa-ra just laughs in his face, thinking it absurd.)
The chaebol hint explains a few things, from the amount of free time he seems to have on his hands to the way he can afford to help Sa-ra with these expensive plans—and I don’t mean just the surgeries. For instance, they decide to make their first approach to the target at a charity function hosted by Kang-joon’s company (he’s president of a broadcast station), where Sa-ra can dazzle him with her looks and pique his interest.
When mere attempts at flirting (and clumsily, at that) aren’t enough, they have to resort to Plan B, which requires them to buy something at the charity auction to secure Kang-joon’s attention. A hundred million won is hardly anything the average person has lying around, but somehow Tae-hee just waves it off as a necessary expense.
Ultimately the charity function ends with less progress made than they’d like since Chae-yeon’s on hand to whisk Kang-joon away. Kang-joon doesn’t seem to have a roving eye, and he seems quite in love with Chae-yeon, so Sa-ra’s looks enough aren’t enough to attract his attention.
So Tae-hee concocts a second encounter to put Sa-ra in Kang-joon’s path sans the fiancee, and off they go to bump into him while fishing. (Tae-hee dons a series of disguises in each of these missions that makes him look increasingly like a homeless person. It’s pretty great.)
Kang-joon politely helps Sa-ra cast a line, but it isn’t until she slips up and lets her inner Geum-ran out that he takes notice of her beyond that. For instance, she recognizes his bracelet as belonging to his grandmother, whom she’d taken care of for the past seven years. Hearing that Grandma recently died, Sa-ra wells up with tears—and when she accidentally sends the bracelet flying into the water, she dashes into the lake without thinking and dives in to retrieve it.
Tae-hee watches in chagrin, trying to telepathically instruct her to stop flailing and adhere to her feminine goddess image, but to his surprise the effect isn’t negative. These surprising and conflicting sides of Sa-ra make Kang-joon wonder who she is, as he can’t make sense of her. He does find one thing in common with them all, though, which is warmth. And that warmth intrigues him enough that he asks to meet her again. Success!
Sa-ra and Tae-hee are thrilled to have gotten exactly what they wanted, and Tae-hee sees their goal in sight. All they have to do now is catch him red-handed in the act of two-timing his fiancee (with Sa-ra) and exposing his cheating past, ruining his reputation and bringing disgrace on his head. That wedding will be as good as toast.
They celebrate to themselves, but this has two unintended side effects: (1) Tae-hee starts to feel a surprise attraction to Sa-ra (I know, that’s quick!), and (2) Sa-ra starts to think she might not want revenge after all (I know, that’s quick too) (not a complaint). Ever a softy at heart, Sa-ra thinks of the way Kang-joon looked at her at the lake (…because you’re pretty) and decides she wants to win him back, rather than destroy him. She insists that she’d sworn to love one man forever, and could swear he still thinks of her (as Geum-ran). She even wants to be accepted back into his (hateful) family as daughter-in-law, and decides that she’d like to marry him again.
Tae-hee is understandably aghast, but since ultimately the end result is the same for him, he goes along with the revised plan, Operation: Marry Kang-joon. Tae-hee secures them a new house in the same neighborhood as Kang-joon’s family (again, nice to be a chaebol), giving her easy access to the in-laws as she introduces herself as the new neighbor.
Thus they manufacture a fresh new round of run-ins with Kang-joon’s family members, winning them over one by one. (This is depressingly easy to do, as everyone is happy to give the friendly gorgeous girl the benefit of the doubt and the best treatment.)
And wouldn’t you know it, with the multiple encounters with Sa-ra fresh on his mind and his family newly in love with her, Kang-joon finds himself starting to ignore the fiancée. One night he calls Sa-ra and asks to meet outside, just as Chae-yeon arrives to witness their suspiciously friendly encounter. Her intuition sets off warning bells, while her fiancé grins dopily at the new girl, not knowing it’s his wife. Serves you all right.
I went into Birth of a Beauty expecting something that’d be light and fizzy, and if we got lucky, funny and good-natured on top of that. I wasn’t expecting a whole lot more since the story seemed pretty obvious, so color me surprised that the drama’s execution elevates the story a notch by making it a little screwball and quirky, without losing its emotional center.
That emotional center is, of course, the character of Geum-ran, who is played with a lovely groundedness by Ha Jae-sook, which is critical. I want to feel sorry for Geum-ran, but not frustrated with her for being too pitiful. She has to walk the fine line between being wronged (which spurs our sympathies) and being a sad sack who lets people walk over her (which gets frustrating really quickly). What’s key is the sweetness of her nature that believes the positive rather than the negative, or at least makes a concerted effort to accept things in the most positive light.
But it’s not just the “before” version who needs to stir our sympathies, since that goodwill has to carry through to our present-day heroine as well. I give Han Ye-seul due credit for retaining Geum-ran’s kind nature in Sa-ra, because while I’m still getting used to the part where they’re the same person, I can follow the emotional throughlines from Geum-ran to Sa-ra. And when Sa-ra reacts to hurt, the show does a credible job of connecting her pain to Geum-ran, both through technical tools (like dissolves and cuts overlapping the two ladies) and through the acting (I really like Han Ye-seul in this).
It’s both endearing and believable to have Sa-ra fully appreciate how good she looks now without being vain about it; it’s almost like she’s seeing Sa-ra through an outsider’s eyes, and giddy at the idea of this being her. That sweetness of spirit was a crucial trait in Kim Ah-joong’s character in 200 Pound Beauty, and it’s why I feel invested in Sa-ra here. Without that, or played with the slightest trace of vanity, I’d be done with the show from Day 1.
It’s also that trait that I expect will carry her through everything she’s about to go through, despite the directive that she has to leave Geum-ran behind her. And I’m intrigued at the idea that it’s her personality that may win her her husband’s heart. I’m curious to know how they married in the first place even if he used to be quite ordinary, because Kang-joon seems to regard Geum-ran with polite pity, without any indication of once having loved her. Was he motivated by guilt because she supported him through his early career-building days? Did her appearance turn him off so much that he never saw her for her heart, or was it just that he forgot what he once saw in her? Did he ever love her or was she completely fooled?
Sa-ra’s new appearance levels the playing field in a way for Geum-ran to shine—even if, ironically, nobody sees Geum-ran anymore. I wonder if that causes problematic rhetorical arguments down the line for what that says about beauty and value in society, and I suspect that if I pursued this line of thinking down further I’d end up with a big ol’ headache. But it’s worth thinking about anyway (in little bites, maybe), because what makes Sa-ra special is her warmth and goodness, and those aren’t new things. Her appearance rendered them invisible to most of the world, just as her beauty now exaggerates their virtues.
In any case, I like this idea that Geum-ran will win over Kang-joon as herself, even though I understand that you can’t expect anybody to fully divorce a person’s identity from their looks; it’s too much a part of being human. Is a person exactly the same in one body as she is in another? Well, that’s an unanswerable (and perhaps futile) question to ask, but I think it’s naive to suppose that we’re unaffected by our exteriors, if only because our exteriors affect how others treat us, and that affects how we feel in turn.
Heavier (hur hur) questions of beauty and identity aside, this drama is feel-good and funny, with a touch of wacky, and these first two episodes zipped right by. The leads have a very cute odd-couple chemistry, with Sa-ra’s agreeableness playing off of Tae-hee’s sharper temper and quicker wits (admittedly Sa-ra is a little dim, but in an endearing way). I was surprised to have his attraction spark so soon, but it’s certainly not a bad thing to get the romantic juices flowing asap. That’s one of the show’s strengths, in keeping things moving quickly so that things happen before we have a chance to expect them. That makes all the difference, because it doesn’t even give us a moment to think “I know how this goes” because it’s already gone off in a different direction. The show as a whole probably falls within fairly predictable lines, but there are unpredictable moments sprinkled in that add energy to the proceedings.
Furthermore, with Sly and Single Again and now Birth of a Beauty, I’ve decided that I only ever want to see Joo Sang-wook in goofy rom-coms, where he shakes off the serious mien and chiseled-and-perfect type of professionals he’s played before, in favor of embracing his inner dork. I love that Tae-hee thinks he’s this smooth operator genius tactician, while the reality is more like he’s half a charming strategist and half a total sham. Kind of like your quintessential Owen Wilson character—I cracked up to hear that he wasn’t a doctor, and then again when they get kicked out of the apartment, and now expect that every episode will have a hilarious new revelation about his background. In fact, I will be actively disappointed if that doesn’t happen. Can we have a whole parade of hysterical secrets? Pretty please? Even just little ones will do?
- Revenge spurs romance in Birth of a Beauty
- Han Ye-seul struts as a sexy ajumma for Birth of a Beauty
- Han Ye-seul, Joo Sang-wook confirm Birth of a Beauty
- SBS’s Birth of a Beauty courts Han Ye-seul, Jung Kyeo-woon
- Joo Sang-wook courted for Birth of a Beauty
- Han Ye-seul courted for a return to dramaland