When I Was the Most Beautiful: Episodes 1-2 (Review)
In its opening week, MBC’s new romance-melo, When I Was the Most Beautiful, lays some solid groundwork for the story of a heroine caught between two suitors/brothers — in other words, the love triangle to end all love triangles. The drama’s premiere is thoughtful, slow-paced, and quite cinematic. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a drama that’s just so pretty to watch. And hey, if it’s going to be a heart-wrenching ride, at least it will be a pretty one.
Note: This is an opening week review only.
EPISODES 1-2 REVIEW
Our drama opens in 2013, where we meet SEO HWAN (Ji-soo), a high school student riding his bike to school. It’s lush and lovely around him and you can feel the moisture in the air. Just then, it begins to rain. He stops to put on a poncho and then continues on his way. As he’s getting close to the school, something catches his eye: there’s a girl walking along in the rain ahead of him, using a giant leaf as an umbrella. Most of the kids are amused, but something about it transfixes Hwan. He’s so taken with watching her that he falls off his bike (but it doesn’t look like he feels a thing).
It’s such a great drama opening — beautifully shot, and so dreamy that it sticks to you like honey. But this scene is about more than Hwan’s immediate response to our heroine, though. It also works as the first bit of characterization. The woman with the leaf umbrella — who turns out to be his new student teacher, OH YE-JI (Im Soo-hyang) — is practical, a bit detached, and doesn’t expect life to hand her an umbrella, so to speak. What we learn about Hwan from this scene is also interesting — and to me, that’s his sensitivity to detail and to beauty. Others got a chuckle at her leaf umbrella, but he was captivated by the entire scene, before he even saw her face.
Art, and a sensitivity to beauty, is a big part of this drama so far, and it adds a real richness to the story. We learn early on that Hwan’s father is a famous potter, and their house just drips with warmth and this earthiness that you want to reach out of your screen and grab onto. Not only is the house full of art, but his father’s gallery and studio are always alive with creativity. There’s some kind of unspoken quality to the scenes that take place at their house and studio — in fact, I haven’t seen a setting as affecting as this one in a while (it reminds me of the reverent treatment of the historic house and art in On the Way to the Airport).
The setting is strong, but so are the characters — Hwan’s father (Choi Jong-hwan) is lovely and kind, even with the hints we get of the scars in their family. These glimmers of family tragedy and drama (a rock-climbing accident that caused permanent injury to the father’s leg, the fact that the mother lives in Seoul separate from them) add to the setup we’re getting, and it’s just the right amount of information for an opening week.
Seo Hwan and Ye-ji’s paths cross quite soon. The fact that at this point in the story Hwan is still a student is very much apparent — but at the same time, Hwan has a maturity that sets him apart from his classmates. In their early scenes together, Hwan and Ye-ji feel more like kindred spirits than anything else. It’s also an interesting bit of a reversal that we see Hwan take Ye-ji under his wing. Whether they accidentally cross paths in Seoul, or if she needs a secret protector to save her threatened job, Hwan turns up like the little gentleman that he is.
Ye-ji also gets to know his family quite soon — when she needs a kiln in which to complete her pottery project, Hwan offers his father’s studio to her. She had no idea who his father actually was until she meets him at the house, and the level of fangirling coming from her is absolutely adorable — I love how aptly this drama shows the connection that’s formed between all of them. When Hwan sees how much she respects his father, it’s just another reason to crush harder on her (but how can you blame him, when the father he adores is admired by the girl that’s caught his eye).
The drama’s opening week setup is based on strong contrasts, and it’s especially true when we look at Ye-ji’s story. The contrast of family circumstances (warm family versus torturous orphandom) and of setting (peaceful countryside versus cold city), frame our heroine’s conflicts quite well. That she’s a bit traumatized is an understatement, and we see snippets of the violence from her childhood (and also Kim Mi-kyung!), but the scars are in her present-day, too.
Ye-ji’s aunt, who raised her, is a complete villainess, bent on keeping Ye-ji as miserable as she is. It’s very much the “dramatic set-up,” but it’s also surprisingly compelling — and I would argue that that’s because of Im Soo-hyang and her great performance so far. I feel for her every step of the way (the hurt, the hate, the desire for comfort, the swoons), but it’s never overdone. And thank goodness for that, because this drama literally relies on its audience understanding her appeal — and how she is able to fascinate two very different brothers.
Ye-ji is a compelling balance of hurt, ire, sweetness, and fragility — so it’s not hard to see why she catches the eye of the sensitive Hwan, with his caregiver’s heart. The more he learns about her life, the more he wants to protect her, and he’s full steam ahead into Precious Puppy Mode.
Of course, it’s not as simple as the connection between these two characters. There is also the third side of our triangle in the shape of Hwan’s big brother SEO JIN (Ha Suk-jin). When we meet him he’s just returned home after his military service, and his presence in the house shakes things up. You can feel that he’s deeply loved by his father and little brother (that play fight and smacker on the cheek!). But at the same time, while Hwan and his father are quite alike and live in harmony, Jin is very different from them. If Hwan is the gentle artist, Jin is the hot-headed daredevil. His only passion is car racing, even though both of his parents keep trying to lure him away from such a dangerous career.
At first, when we were getting to know Jin, all I felt was the contrast between him and his brother. The scene where he returns to the house and embraces his father felt so much like the tale of The Prodigal Son. But the more we get to know Jin (and most of that is thanks to his fascination with Ye-ji), the more I realized his similarities to Hwan and his father. In some ways, he’s the more tragic character in our “household of men” (as Hwan calls it), because he’s still haunted by the rock climbing accident from his childhood, and what it forced him to do.
When Jin makes his interest in Ye-ji known, it’s of a completely different flavor than Hwan. Hwan paints lampshades for her, takes her to harvest snails when she’s upset, and lends her his raincoat. Jin, on the other hand, delivers a bottle of liquor (and a cheeky grin) when she can’t sleep, and takes her on a midnight ride to the ocean instead of to the abuse that awaits her at her aunt’s house. Both brothers respond with very different actions, but they both react from the same emotion: to protect her.
Again, the drama has to ride a delicate balance of making Ye-ji need protecting, but also not making her a two-dimensional waif. The sparks we see in her — whether it’s terror or fight or hope — make all of these protecting heroes make sense, and at the end of Episode 2, our drama is ready to bring on the swoons.
For me, the best (i.e., the most rip-your-heart-out) love triangles are where the triangle really works. Where your heart understands both sides, and feels the tear between the two. So far, that’s what we’re getting set up for in When I Was the Most Beautiful. I love both brothers, I love both brothers with her, and I’m mentally preparing myself for the agony that lies ahead (don’t spoil me, I know nothing beyond these two episodes!).
While I can’t argue that the drama isn’t a little slow, it also has a certain power to it, whether it’s the way it captures the details of the setting so strongly, or how it carries off highly dramatic moments that seem like they should be clumsy.
For instance, after Ye-ji’s ride to the beach with Jin, they sit in front of a campfire. The moon is brilliant, and for some reason I’m as moved as they are by the CGI moonlight on the water. Suddenly, Jin jumps to his feet, flicks off his shirt, and walks into the water for a midnight swim. He then challenges Ye-ji to join him. She can’t swim, of course, but who cares about that — it’s the way they walk towards each other in the water that’s positively electric.
Why isn’t this scene ridiculous? It should be ridiculous. But I’m somehow captivated by the magic of the moment, the same as they are. And in the same way, I’m captivated by this story. It’s classic melodrama, yes, but it’s melodrama done well (right, Show?!). I’m lost in the beauty and poetic moments, but I can also hear the foreshadowing and sense the heartbreaks that are yet to come.
All in all, for me this was a really fabulous premiere week — if poetic melodramas are your thing (I never met one I didn’t like). While technically our episodes were set-up and backstory, it never once felt like it, which is a rarity. Our story promises to move into the present day, but we’ve no lack of conflict and character set-ups to take with us when we go.
It’s interesting that outside of Ye-ji, most of other female characters are antagonists or antagonistic (how very melo): the boys’ cold and estranged mother, Jin’s chaebol ex-girlfriend, and Ye-ji’s vindictive aunt, bad enough to be a witch out of a fairy tale. Which, I suppose, leaves us with a Cinderella-type princess — and not one, but two, Prince Charmings. There will be swoons, tears, and probably buckets of tragedy before we’re through, but if you’re game, I think it will be a worthy ride.