On the surface, “You’re Beautiful” looks like just another light-hearted romantic comedy. Underneath the fluff of teen music idols, pop culture, and budding romantic relationships, however, there are deep emotional and psychological explorations as well as a host of studies in various cultures, from faith culture to pop culture, artist culture to commercial culture, and English to Korean culture.
“You’re Beautiful” introduces us to a young girl named Gemma (Go Mi Nyu) who is studying to become a nun. She grew up in the orphanage with her brother, Go Mi Nam, and has known nothing of the outside world. Her brother left to pursue a music career, but Gemma is soon to travel to Rome to begin her training.
When her brother’s manager visits her at the convent and begs her to stand in for her brother (recovering from botched double eyelid surgery in the States), Gemma is resistant. She has her life planned out. She doesn’t want anything to do with the glittery world of entertainment. However, her manager tells her what Go Mi Nam really wants: he thinks that if he can become famous as a singer, he will be able to locate his mother. Gemma understands this need to connect with family but still can’t bear the idea of giving up her life plans.
In a supportive and wise conversation with a fellow nun, Gemma is urged to go out and see the world, to explore other options before she decides her future permanently. What follows is a strangely Shakespearean exploration of music, pop and fan culture, media, family dynamics, and love.
While watching, I kept comparing it to Twelfth Night. There are twins, the female disguised as male for her own protection. She washes ashore in an unfamiliar world (in this case, the world of the music industry) and must play her part without getting caught or suffer the consequences. The love story grows out of this and provides some hilarious as well as deeply emotional moments.
Watching the difference between the religious (Caltholic) culture and pop culture as Gemma/Go Mi Nyu deals with having to live in both worlds was fascinating. The contrast of her simple upbringing to the lavish dorm house where she must live with the other bandmates begins to take a toll on her. She isn’t used to the late night parties, long hours in the recording studio, or being on stage. She is overwhelmed by the fan culture, who hate her intensely at first. Rising from being an unknown to a star puts a lot of weight on her and she struggles to control her emotions while she also works through searching for her mother.
There’s even different cultures interacting with each other. The drummer of the band, Jeremy (played by Lee Hong Ki who in real life is a member of the band FT Island), was raised in England. He has an English name, his manners are different (he’s much more affectionate with girls than Hwang Tae Kyung and Kang Shin Woo would ever be), and he named his dog after an American celebrity. He’s much more light-hearted than the dour and snarly Hwang Tae Kyung and the serious but sweet Kang Shin Woo. He’s the best friend everyone wants, but he has a harder time fitting in than the other band members because of this culture clash.
There’s also a difference between the artist culture and commercialism of the music industry. One of the bandmates, Hwang Tae Kyung (played by Jang Geun Suk), uses his musical talent to process through his emotions. Although he treats Gemma roughly, he isn’t a stock jerk character. He had a painful childhood that continues to affect him. His songs reflect his pain and his longing for a relationship with his own mother, another musician. He’s the lead singer of ANJell, though, and they all must toe the line by showing up for work with a smile, going on photo shoots, promoting albums, meeting fans, and performing at an alarming pace. These young people are being thrust into the public consciousness and are expected to keep up appearances, even while their dynamic changes as their feelings about Gemma are exposed.
As Gemma’s secret becomes more widely known throughout the series, other people start weighing in on her abilities, looks, and emotions. Korea’s “National Fairy” (what we would call a media darling) has her heart set on Tae Kyung, who knows her to be a fake. She pretends to her fans that she’s sweet and kind but she’s really a snobbish, mean-spirited brat who lives on her looks. She is confounded that anyone could pass her over for Gemma, who is cute but not a standard beauty. National Fairy retreats to blackmail to get what she wants, forcing Gemma and the boys to jump to her every wish.
National Fairy and the boys of ANJell provide a look inside celebrity culture. While National Fairy, Tae Kyung, and Shin Woo seem bored by all the hubbub, Jeremy embraces it wholeheartedly. He loves the fans and interacting with them. But they all are consistently forced to either hide away to get any privacy, or are publicly displayed like so many mannequins. Gemma discovers that there’s more to being a star than a smile and a wave. There’s a responsibility involved, to the fans, the manager, the band…not only does Gemma have to perform for the fans on stage, she has to perform in real life. Every single action she takes is public. She’s talked about online, the fan clubs for the band either hate or love her, and she can’t show how she feels to anyone for fear of being discovered.
While Gemma’s situation is somewhat unique, this public and private celebrity culture is a way of life for the famous. Your private life is never private; all your dirty laundry is aired without a care for your own feelings on the matter, and people will twist anything you say to make you look intelligent or foolish. As a celebrity you are inspected and then if you manage to capture peoples’ devotion you risk at every moment losing the public’s interest and becoming a washed-up version of the image you projected.
The pressure one feels to conform to society’s ideas about them is overwhelming. Especially if, like Gemma, you aren’t the beauty people feel you need to be, or people don’t think you’re as talented as you should be, or that you should or shouldn’t be dating the person you love. Gemma has to deal with all of this on top of waiting for her brother to come back and take her place. What happens when she has to give up the spotlight and leave the celebrity life? Returning to a quiet country house would be another culture shock on top of not being able to spend time with the famous boy she’s now in love with.
The relationships are also mesmerizing to watch. After a few k-dramas, I’ve come to expect that the main characters who are portrayed as jerks at first are often hiding childhood trauma, and their relationships to the main female characters help them to grow and process through these situations. Hwang Tae Kyung was essentially abandoned by his mother and constantly berates himself for wanting to be recognized by her. In a confrontation that left me in tears, he is left to ponder the worthlessness he feels when his mother tells him the truth about her feelings for him.
I really like that although k-dramas are idealistic about relationships, it’s a positive idealism that proves refreshing. Instead of having the main couple be incompatible in personality or have them separated by intangible means, these couples face physical hurdles (most often scheming older female relatives, society, etc.) and the consequences of their past actions. Working through these complex issues, however, they help each other become better people, and by the end, we see the difference and it’s a good one.
“You’re Beautiful” is more than a fluffy romantic comedy. I found it adorable, intriguing, heartbreaking, and, ultimately, beautiful. Life is messy, complicated, and oftentimes sad, but the relationships you have with your friends and loved ones make it worthwhile. Growing into yourself and realizing that the world is open to you is a wonderful gift not given to everyone.
I’d highly recommend this drama as a starting place if you’re interested in the world of k-drama. You can find it on Viki.com.Image Credits: Seoul Broadcasting System