I do my best to avoid spoilers or even reviews of Korean dramas I’ve put on my list so as not to affect my viewing experience. It also allows me to enjoy and form my opinion of it on my own. I wasn’t able to do that with the 2018 JTBC series My ID is Gangnam Beauty. I stumbled on many negative reviews and comments about the series that it might be one reason I put off watching it for a while.
But now that I’ve finished the 16 episodes, I must say I completely disagree with the initial comments I had read. And it reminded me about being careful to have loud opinions inform the way I go into a series myself. I also wondered why I hadn’t watched the series sooner.
My ID is Gangnam Beauty ended up being a sincere and thoughtful discussion on body image, self-esteem, confidence, harassment and mental health. It also presents a fascinating and empathetic view of plastic surgery, smashing many preconceptions one might have about the practice. And all in a delightful and easy to watch rom-com/light drama package.
The series focuses on Kang Mi Rae (Im Soo Hyang), a long-bullied and ostracized young woman who undergoes dramatic plastic surgery before her first year in college. Hoping to change people’s opinions of her and start off with a clean slate, the timid Mi Rae soon learns that a beautiful face may not be the answer to all her struggles.
She meets and slowly befriends the handsome, but anti-social campus crush Do Kyung Seok (Cha Eunwoo) who actually attended high school with her for a time.
Together, Mi Rae and Kyung Seok help each other learn how to overcome their insecurities by being more open and having more confidence in themselves. They have a lot of growing up to do and they are able to do it together. And this is of course all while they fall in love.
But as effective as the romantic angle is for the series, it is pleasantly surprising that it is able to touch on contemporary social issues in a meaningful way. Unlike certain recent overrated Korean dramas who claim to do just that.
The central premise hinges on Mi Rae’s decision (made with her mother, but to the initial disapproval of her father) to undergo plastic surgery. While there are certain negative connotations to plastic surgery, the series does a good job of laying out the reasons Mi Rae makes the decision to go through with it. And we are told Mi Rae gets very substantial work done.
Though we never actually see how she looks pre-surgery, it really doesn’t even matter. Regardless of how she actually looked, the main point is she was bullied and ostracized growing up because of it. Having to experience such things every day at school, Mi Rae is understandably weary of and overly conscious of what others think about her. And that is even after she has gotten surgery.
She is certainly beautiful now, but many people who see her seem to recognize that she has undergone plastic surgery. And that gives them license to think less of her or to put her down, even if just in loud whispers from the side.
Mi Rae’s experience growing up has left her with a lack of self-confidence which she slowly, but surely learns how to gain.
Through Mi Rae’s experiences, pre- and post-surgery, we are also given very stark and very real examples of today’s society. Whether it is sexual harassment masked as jokes or people suffering from a feeling of inferiority, the series shows how cruel the world can be and how cruel people can be to each other. And even without them knowing it.
The series goes on to tackle issues of mental health and body image too in ways that are not overdramatized, but grounded in an unfortunate reality.
My ID is Gangnam Beauty threads the needle by being able to balance the lighter, romantic side of the series with considerably deeper and more serious issues that are not normally seen in Korean drama.
In my unfortunate scanning of reviews and comments before watching the series, a common criticism was directed toward our two leads. Watching the series, I saw none of what people had been talking about.
In fact, Im Soo Hyang and Cha Eunwoo did a particularly great job in bringing their characters to life.
Mi Rae is a timid and vulnerable young woman who had gone through a lot and is only now able to find her strength and self-confidence. Im Soo Hyang does a great job expressing that struggle. She has a happy family and a great best friend (Min Do Hee as Oh Hyun Jung), but when around other people, especially those she might not know, she cannot help but feel like she is being judged. And that has made her judge other people as well. After all, that’s how she spent every day of her life before her surgery. And even now after getting surgery, she can still hear the derision from people who walk by.
Im Soo Hyang takes us along for the journey as Mi Rae finds her way forward and away from the painful past. She learns from her own mistakes which in turn helps her understand how to be proactive with her life.
Cha Eunwoo, meanwhile, was criticized for what people called a “stiff” performance. But anyone watching the series would know Kyung Seok is supposed to be stiff. He is a cold, anti-social person who doesn’t care to socialize with others. Juggling his own painful past, Kyung Seok is a little bit tsundere as he has a positive heart of gold deep down under his frosty, but handsome exterior.
As the series progresses, Kyung Seok also learns to loosen up and open himself up to other people. Most especially to Mi Rae, of course. His family troubles is a subplot that helps give his character even more depth. But it also allows you to see where his characer is coming from. And how he is able to come out of his shell over the course of the series. Cha Eunwoo is able to convey that very well, especially as he goes from silent and broody to smiley and romantic by series end.
Ultimately, My ID is Gangnam Beauty is a surprisingly progressive series for Korea considering how things like mental health and bullying can get swept under the rug many times. Uncomfortable, but important issues like that are rarely discussed in a thoughtful and direct way in Korean media. So for that alone, the series breaks some surprising ground.
My ID is Gangnam Beauty does not get preachy or condescending. On the contrary, the series shows that it is different for everyone. What may be difficult for one person may be okay for another. And vice versa. There is no one-size fits all solution. The series shows that it is important to try and understand people and be empathetic. But also make sure not to overly coddle someone or be lenient when you see something you know is not right. Be able to reach out to someone in an honest and sincere way.
My ID is Gangnam Beauty is a sweet and cute romantic comedy at its core, but the effort it makes in provoking discussion about important social issues of today really makes the series a surprising, but enjoyable and meaningful watch.