To all the Flower Boys I’ve loved before
So, Meteor Garden ended its run a couple weeks ago and I’ve got flower boys on the brain. More specifically, the many, many flower boys who have populated the Hana Yori Dango/Boys Over Flowers universe over the years, which includes the 2005 Japanese drama series Hana Yori Dango (and its 2007 sequel), the 2009 K-drama Boys Over Flowers, and now this 2018 Chinese version of Meteor Garden, a remake of the 2001 Taiwanese drama of the same name. That’s a lot of Flower Fours, and a lot of beautiful people playing F4.
Initially I wasn’t intending to write about Meteor Garden (aside from a few scattered Twitter outbursts), but it sent me down memory lane back to the days of the Korean Boys Over Flowers, which were magical and frenzied and addictive. (It’s funny to think now about how much I deliberated over whether to translate the title “before” or “over”—how was I to know I’d end up on the wrong side of history on that one?) And that made me nostalgic for the fandom fervor of those days, which either didn’t care that the story was occasionally a hot mess or loved it more for it.
It also gives me an excuse to revisit previous iterations of the story—and who doesn’t love a thoughtful, in-depth, and totally-not-shallow examination of some of our favorite flower boys of dramaland? It’s not me being superficial; it’s for research and science! This is very important work, everyone. Necessary, even.
(Honestly, though: This may be a bit of a ramble. Sort of like a Thing vs. Thing, but with even less focus.)
Boys Over Flowers, 2009
It was a curious exercise to approach Meteor Garden through the lens of all the shows that have preceded it, to anticipate all the story turns and character arcs and still, inexplicably, find it just as shiny, heart-fluttery, and addictive as the others. Okay, not exactly as much as all the previous versions, because there are some things it does better and some things it doesn’t. In fact, I’d say that about each version—I’m not sure there’s any one series that is definitively “the best” one, but sometimes the fun is in the comparison.
Every time a new version of Hana Yori Dango rolls around, I find myself marveling at how this particular property always seems to come with an extra bit of magical fairy dust that makes it especially popular and inspires a heightened level of passion amongst the fandom. It’s not that every version has been brilliantly written or flawlessly executed or amazingly acted (sometimes the opposite), but it’s got this undeniable sparkle that has made each version an international sensation and has propelled multiple casts of unknowns into overnight stardom. I don’t necessarily understand it, but I feel it. I believe in it.
Meteor Garden, 2018
There are a lot of components that went into making each of the versions successful, but at the core it must be the story that resonates—there’s just something so appealing about watching a beautiful jerk humbled by his love of a girl, who takes none of his nonsense and puts him royally in his place. (And then falls in love with him.)
It’s got the trappings of a traditional Cinderella story, because he’s the famous chaebol heir and she’s the dirt-poor Candy who is only allowed into his rarefied circle due to special circumstances. But it’s Cinderella with a twist, because this girl (“the tough weed,” as her name generally translates) doesn’t want to exchange her rags for his riches; she forces him to find genuine ways to win her over, rather than buying her affections with no effort (as he would prefer).
But let’s break it down further…
Hana Yori Dango, 2005
We have two high school scenarios and one university. I have a preference for the high school settings, partly because I’m a sucker for high school stories but also because some of the power imbalances, relationship dynamics, and plot twists generally feel more relevant to high schoolers than college students. The bullying felt real, cruel, and inescapable in Hana Yori Dango and Boys Over Flowers, whereas it was a little toothless in Meteor Garden. (Of course, that could be because Meteor Garden in general was the most defanged version of the story, but we’ll get to that point later.) On the other hand, once the characters started talking about careers and marriage, that felt more real and imminent in Meteor Garden’s world, where Si is a senior about to graduate university, as opposed to Gu Jun-pyo being groomed to take over the corporation when he’s only just about to graduate from high school.
I liked the Hana Yori Dango explanation for Tsukushi being at the elite school, which showed Tsukushi’s whole family scraping by with a meager living to afford the expense. It lands a little harder when Doumyouji callously ruins the special lunch her mother lovingly packs while the rest of the family eats plain rice and pretends it’s more delicious this way. In the Boys Over Flowers setup, Jan-di gets admitted to his school as a PR move to smooth over his family’s corporate image. She feels like an intruder in his world, so social friction is there from the start, which intensifies once they meet and start butting heads. It therefore felt like a missed opportunity in Meteor Garden, where they just happen to go to the same university and that’s that.
Boys Over Flowers
There’s something specific about this kind of hero that really grips me—and by “hero” I mean the lead male character, not anything noble or righteous or great. Because if there’s anything Doumyoji/Gu Jun-pyo/Daoming Si is not, it’s noble. At his best, he’s barely even a noble idiot.
But it’s his jerkiness—that infuriating swagger and that arrogant smirk that you want to slap off his face—that makes for such a compelling reversal when he then falls for the girl. I don’t love him because he’s domineering and caveman-like in his courtship and that’s somehow romantic; I love him because when he’s awful, it’s the love story that forces him to become a better man, and I find that romantic. This whole setup stokes a really primal and bloodthirsty urge within me, and the worse he is to her, the more gleeful I become in anticipating his comeuppance. I have had to confront the fact that this makes me a vindictive viewer with a tendency toward schadenfreude, but there are some truths we just have to accept about ourselves.
Hana Yori Dango
It can’t be a coincidence that dramaland trends have shifted to favor this kind of Alpha (anti-)hero; they’ve turned away from the perfect shiny Prince Charmings of yore (the kind who swept in to save poor Cinderella, as in classic romances like Star in My Heart and All About Eve) and embraced the rude jerks with heart of gold buried waaaaaay down underneath their haughty, cold, intimidating exteriors, who will only melt their icy shells for the love of one (usually poor, usually plucky) woman. (See: Full House, My Name Is Kim Sam-soon, Secret Garden, Goong, Master’s Sun, Best Love, Cheese in the Trap, You’re Beautiful, Heirs, Pasta.)
Doumyouji may have made the most progress going from antagonist to love interest, but he was violent and wild in a way that made me uneasy, even though he softened eventually. When he ordered punks to “teach Tsukushi a lesson,” I genuinely feared that she might actually end up raped, which was a lot darker than I was expecting. Gu Jun-pyo is the less extreme version; he has the character’s overbearing tendencies but comes across as less of a loose cannon; he’s sometimes an ass, but I didn’t feel he was dangerous. He enjoyed picking on Jan-di in the way that schoolboys pick on girls they like for attention, but at least he didn’t actively seem to enjoy tormenting innocent folks like Doumyouji did.
Boys Over Flowers
Ultimately I prefer the Daoming Si characterization, because Meteor Garden made an effort to explain his backstory to show that his rebellion had a reason. And even when he’s being jerky to Shancai, we see that he often doesn’t mean to go far as he does, as when he immediately regrets throwing her lunch in her face but has too much pride to apologize. There’s a point where he explicitly tells Shancai he won’t push to do anything without her consent—he uses the word consent! Now isn’t that an evolved version of the character. I was shocked that he said it, and then felt uncomfortable for finding that so shocking, because shouldn’t we be expecting more from our heroes in this day and age? If I have a complaint, it’s that I wish the drama had actually kept more of his edge, because the series was just so nice all around that it lacked stakes.
Of course, that’s all about the character, and it’s hard to consider the character without also taking into account the acting component. I did love the lovable dunce traits Matsumoto Jun brought to his Doumyouji, and when juxtaposed with his early violent outbursts, it made me see him as a case of arrested development—someone who never learned how to deal with extreme emotions properly. I found his occasional dimness endearing, so I was actually disappointed when Lee Min-ho’s version was made to be this perfect genius, because I wanted some kind of visible flaw to humanize him.
On the other hand, Lee Min-ho did become 90 percent of the reason for my obsession with Boys Over Flowers when it aired, showcasing him as this fresh face brimming with all this potential talent, which gave him a golden sheen that lasted for years afterward. It felt like we were all discovering a star together, and that was exciting. Dylan Wang has that same rookie appeal, and combined with the softening of the character’s edges, he gave his Si a sweeter side. More immature and childish, perhaps, but also endearing. (It’s ironic that Meteor Garden has the oldest characters and yet feels the most juvenile of all the versions.) And although I’ve heard a lot of complaints about his voice dubbing, I’ve consciously avoided looking up his real voice, because what you never know can’t disappoint you!
Tsukushi, Jan-di, Shancai
In a nutshell: Tsukushi > Shancai >>>>>> Jan-di
Each version is pretty good about imbuing our heroine with “tough weed” characteristics that make her gratifyingly immune to the power of the hero’s money and reputation, and thus immune to what he considers his charm, which is just so much fun to watch. I love that early scene when Doumyouji/Jun-pyo/Si arrogantly offers to “allow” her date him, and is so stunned when she’s not at all interested. As though it’s strange to be appalled, rather than impressed, to be kidnapped and given a makeover you neither need nor want. Dude had a lot to learn!
Both the Japanese and Chinese dramas seem to have found the right intersection of actor and character—Tsukushi has the edge for being badass and assertive throughout, whereas I felt Shancai was often lost and helpless in a way that got frustrating. Still, I’d take her any day over Jan-di, who should have been a great character but was marred by some really questionable acting choices by Gu Hye-sun, who often embarrassed me while watching the show because she was so over-the-top as to be hokey. Maybe it’s because she was older than the guys and was trying too hard to play young, or maybe Gu Hye-sun just makes strange acting choices (see Blood—as an example, not for fun!).
Meteor Garden won me over by making me believe that its F4 were actually friends who liked each other, rather than merely rich kids who grew up and decided to be friends because nobody else was rich enough to be worthy of admitting into the inner circle. The F4 in Hana Yori Dango felt the most distant to me, whereas we at least got to see Boys Over Flowers’ foursome doing things together—you know, normal everyday friend things like yachting, horseback riding, racecar driving, rifle shooting, and the like.
That said, Meteor Garden kinda took the F4 deal a little too seriously, with everyone reacting to a falling-out by wondering if this meant “the end of F4” and needing to find someone to “fill the spot in F4.” I mean, it’s questionable that you’ve named your friendship to begin with; let’s not overstate your importance here!
Still, Hana Yori Dango gets a point for casting two F4 members who could act, rather than just our main guy. It seems that the second lead Rui/Ji-hoo/Lei character tends to be cast more for looks than for talent, so it was refreshing to have Oguri Shun (Hana Yori Dango) giving me a second lead to actually root for and relate to. Kim Hyun-joong (Boys Over Flowers) may have looked like the most perfectly ripped-from-the-manga version of the romantic best friend, but he was so wooden that I could never feel the sting of the second lead ship—it was OTP all the way. And while Darren Chen (Meteor Garden) made up for a lot by being squishily adorable, I found his Lei to be opaque and inconsistent, and never believed he felt anything for Shancai… or any emotions at all, actually. (So pretty. So blank!)
Hana Yori Dango
The F4 Side Quests
DID ANYONE CARE ABOUT THEM, EVER, AT ALL?
Okay, as side characters I liked them all, I appreciated that the other F4 members were nice to our heroine when our hero was being a jackass, I thought they were all very nice to look at and generally wished for their future happiness.
I just didn’t need to see that happen, in such detail, over so many episodes. Meizuo, Caina, Ximen, Xiaoyou, Qinghe, I’m looking at you. I seem to recall reacting better in the past (Kim Bum and Kim So-eun were a cute side couple), but Meteor Garden is fresh in my memory and there were too many episodes with too many characters I didn’t care about that I was antsy to power through.
Hana Yori Dango (20 episodes) > Boys Over Flowers (25 episodes) >>>>> Meteor Garden (49 episodes). It’s just math.
Oh, that hair. It’s so odd, but I do love it.
Gu Jun-pyo wins by a mile for me, because while that hair was unusual, at least it was on Lee Min-ho’s face, and he magically made it work (enough to make it a legitimate trend in Korea as soon as the drama aired. Granted, Korea follows some strange trends, so this may or may not carry any weight with you). According to Lee, the production apparently tried four or five different perms to get it right, and I’ll argue that that effort paid off. On the other hand, Matsumoto Jun’s perm was the one that seemed most slapped together, and not my favorite look.
Dylan Wang’s “pineapple head” was admittedly interesting, and I appreciate the effort to honor the spirit of the hair with a different take… but unlike the other two, who were explicitly said to have been born with curly hair that wouldn’t straighten (a carry-over from the original character), Si’s hair seemed to be a style he adopted, which makes it a choice. Minus twenty points.
Hana Yori Dango
But at the end of the day, no matter what we decide about which show had the scariest mother (Boys Over Flowers) or the feistiest sister (Meteor Garden) or the most effective love triangle (Hana Yori Dango), what sticks with me about this drama franchise—and all dramas, really—is how it made me feel at the time, and what I feel when I think back to the experience.
Hana Yori Dango is the version that has always felt to me like the most cohesive and succinct version of the story, not lingering on filler plots and moving briskly. And despite the dated feel of the series now, at the time I recall being so impressed with the production quality—it was well shot, well acted, lovely to look at, well scored. The complete package, if a little distant emotionally.
Boys Over Flowers
Meteor Garden has the benefit of being the newest version, with tons of money poured into the production—it’s glossy, shiny fun. However, its main flaw for me is that it’s so light and the stakes so low that nothing sticks—anytime something dramatic happens, the conflict is undercut or defused right away, which makes it easy to watch but lessens the binge factor. For instance, one of the subplots involving a backstabbing friend gets downgraded to a misunderstanding in Meteor Garden; characters who were malicious and cruel in other versions turn into mild annoyances.
So when Meteor Garden tests our OTP and pulls them apart, it doesn’t carry the emotional weight I want it to have, because I always knew they were going to resolve the issue within a few episodes. No time to get too angsty, and no reason to attach too emotionally.
Which is why, no matter how I parse the show into its disparate parts, I have to go with Boys Over Flowers as the one that has my heart, because it always felt like its main goal was to suck me into the emotions of the characters. It didn’t matter that the plot was often insane or absurd (kidnappings, blackmail, bullying, interloping fiancees, literal competitions to win affections) because I always felt like I understood what the characters were feeling, and being on that rollercoaster of emotions with them produced an addictive series of highs and lows.
It’s why I always come back to K-dramas, because it will always be a K-drama’s intent to make you feel something. Sometimes exasperation, sometimes anger, sometimes overwhelming giddiness—but always something that helps forge a connection to the content. Say what you will about K-dramas—they’re formulaic, they’re rushed, they’re recycled—I have to appreciate that they understand how to draw out moments to elicit feelings. It was fascinating to watch Meteor Garden handle a moment I was expecting to fall madly in love with, only to fall flat because it was edited too quickly, or because the tension wasn’t built up fully. When Si gets amnesia that makes him forget only Shancai, I wanted him to recover it in a big dramatic moment that would prove symbolically just how much he loved her—like in Boys Over Flowers, where Jan-di puts herself at risk because she has so much faith in Jun-pyo’s love, despite his amnesia. And then Si turned out to be faking the moment for a laugh, and I was so disappointed I nearly threw something. Don’t take away my emotional gratification so cheaply like that! Admittedly, sometimes a K-drama can overdo it in the opposite direction by being manipulative in the way it pulls our heartstrings, but my heart goes with it every time!
I’m still a bit amazed at the lasting power of Boys Over Flowers so many years later, particularly considering how messy and scattered it can sometimes feel and how many flaws it contained. But then I recall how giddy it made me feel at the time, and how much fun was had within the fandom, and how it struck a chord with so many people, and it doesn’t surprise me at all. That’s the power of a great conflict, a great romantic comeuppance, and a great set of flower boys to make the whole experience just a bit more beautiful.
Boys Over Flowers
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Tags: Boys Before Flowers