The 2020 MBC drama series When I Was the Most Beautiful (내가 가장 예뻤을때) is a quintessential romantic melodrama that is powered by an excellent cast, a tightly-written intricate story and an emotional depth rarely seen on television dramas. It has unexpectedly become one of my favorite dramas of the year. And Lim Soo Hyang, Ji Soo and Ha Seok Jin deliver exceptional, must-watch/must-experience performances.
We first meet Oh Ye Ji (Lim Soo Hyang) at the same time as Seo Hwan (Ji Soo); on the way to her first day as a student-teacher in a rural high school. It is love at first sight for Seo Hwan, but he’s a student at the school. Though that’s the least of Hwan’s worries as his older brother Seo Jin (Ha Seok Jin) also falls for Ye Ji at first sight.
As Ye Ji tries to sort out her conflicting feelings for the two brothers, she becomes a pupil of their father (Choi Jong Hwan) who is a famous ceramic artist. Ye Ji dreams of becoming one herself. And this only pulls them all together even more.
The developing love triangle may be the initial hook in the series’ first few episodes. But When I Was the Most Beautiful quickly delves into the lives and relationships of our three leads and the broad cast of characters that fill their world. Dealing with themes such as (but not limited to) family, tragedy, forgiveness, healing and loneliness, the series does an almost masterful job juggling them all while never taking the focus away from the characters.
The series is able to build what is actually a very intricate web of characters that fill the world the story is able to draw upon. Every character that is introduced in the series has a role to play in the grander narrative. And in pretty substantial ways too.
When I Was the Most Beautiful touches upon the many curveballs that life may throw at you. And through our large cast of characters, especially our leads in Ye Ji, Hwan and Jin, the series illustrates the varied and valid response any person may have to those unexpected and many times painful and difficult situations. The depth given to the characters and their stories give the series a strong foundation.
It’s important to point out that our characters are all flawed. Just like real life, no one is perfect. No one makes the right decisions 100% of the time. That realistic depiction of everyday life helps the series be as relatable and affecting as it can be. There are consequences, there are joys. It is not always a fairy tale ending. Nor is it all doom and gloom either.
The series is able to evoke a sense of hope amidst moments that can seem hopeless. And this balanced character-driven story allows the viewer to feel those emotions (positive and negative) in a way that I have not seen nor experienced in most of the Korean dramas I’ve caught up with this year. You would be hard pressed to find many other series where its supporting cast of characters are all fully-developed and fully-defined characters that are integral to the story. And our three main characters definitely enjoy a depth and foundation you sadly don’t get many times in other series as well.
I did mention the series is a quintessential romantic melodrama. And it definitely is, in the best way possible. There are plenty of soapy elements in the story. But the series manages to take familiar themes and situations and give them refreshingly powerful twists. The way the series is able to illustrate how every person and experience you encounter in life can be meaningful and necessary to your growth. It is a powerful message and it is dramatically and engagingly portrayed here.
When I Was the Most Beautiful is most surprising in its discussion of love. Whether it is the love of a family member, the love of a romantic partner or just love directed toward someone you care about; the series delivers what ends up being an unexpectedly satisfying depiction of all kinds of love.
It is hard to enumerate the series’ high points without spoiling the intricate story. But trust me when I say there are many. The series is a fascinating balance of being fast-paced while also being a slow burn. There is never a dull moment on the series. Every scene, every episode contributes to the overarching plot and narrative. At the same time, the series is able to include quieter moments. The story gets time to breathe. Things are happening left and right, but you never get lost and you always get the time to process and absorb what is happening on screen.
The series’ stunning cinematography and careful, purposeful directing also help to truly make the entire experience one to enjoy.
But the biggest part (and strongest aspect) of the series’ overall success is its excellent cast.
A melodrama may not be for everyone. But very few people, if any, would be able to deny the stunning performances from Lim Soo Hyang, Ji Soo and Ha Seok Jin. The large ensemble cast including experienced vets Park Ji Young and Choi Jong Hwan (as the brothers’ separated parents) and the always dependable Kim Mi Kyung (as Ye Ji’s mother) provide the strongest support to the lead actors I may have ever seen on a Korean drama.
But if there is one thing that should convince you to give this series a chance, it is Lim Soo Hyang, Ji Soo and Ha Seok Jin.
Their stunning performances are just so captivating and emotionally affecting. Effortless and natural, the three of them act the hell out of the already solid material. They elevate what needs to be elevated. They excel in the plentiful opportunities to shine.
Ye Ji is a young woman who has been forced to grow up independent, especially when she must live with an aunt who treats her very poorly. While her past weighs heavily on her, she encounters her first semblance of a real family when she meets Hwan, Jin and their father. Lim Soo Hyang does so well in her scenes as Ye Ji where she must balance putting on a strong front even though she struggles with conflicting emotions.
Jin comes across as a cold player at first. But soon we learn about the emotional demons he fights with inside. Ha Seok Jin again proves why he is one of the best leading men in the business. As Jin, he is tasked with a varied and difficult set of emotions and circumstances. But he delivers effortlessly. It is hard to imagine any other actor in the role.
Hwan is kind and selfless. Growing up helping to care for his father almost on his own, he encounters the first opportunity to be happy for himself. And that opportunity runs into a painful wall. Ji Soo delivers what might be the best performance of his career so far. A mature role that allows him to truly shine and show how much he has grown as an actor. Some of the most emotional moments in the series are carried by his sincere, yet powerful performance. A truly career performance from him.
You are immediately drawn into the characters’ pains and struggles. You want to root for their success and happiness. You cry right along with them when things take an emotional turn. You relish in the delicious torture that comes with the anticipation of what happens next.
All this is possible because Lim Soo Hyang, Ji Soo and Ha Seok Jin are just that good, and then some. There aren’t enough superlatives to express how truly breathtaking their performances are in this series.
I almost made the mistake of listening to comments about the series online. Thankfully, I did not. Because I would have missed out on what may just be one of my favorite dramas of 2020.
When I Was the Most Beautiful takes on heavy, realistic human emotions. The well-written, fast-paced plot engages a large cast of fully developed characters. Things move at a brisk pace, but you are never left lost or behind. The emotional roller coaster is one you don’t mind finding yourself on. You will laugh, you will cry (a lot). You will get frustrated and you will cheer. But you will definitely feel the emotional connection.
With an excellent cast to top it all off, When I Was the Most Beautiful is indeed a beautiful, bittersweet, but meaningful journey well worth your time.