A good ‘ol, stress-free rom-com can always be a welcome breather from all the dark psychological thrillers and crime dramas that fill the airwaves. Which is one reason the 2020 KBS series Men Are Men (그놈이 그놈이다 /To All the Guys Who Loved Me) is such an enjoyable and entertaining ride. Hwang Jung Eum leads a charming cast in a series that takes familiar themes and situations and blends them together into a refreshing package.
At first, the series might appear to be like any other romantic-comedy. The set-up is certainly there. Hwang Jung Eum is aspiring webtoon artist-turned-webtoon producer Seo Hyun Joo. For a few reasons, Hyun Joo has decided to remain single. But two men will try to open the door to her locked heart. Webtoon artist Park Do Gyeom (Seo Ji Hoon) grew up with Hyun Joo’s family after the death of his parents, but has long had a crush on her. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical CEO Hwang Ji Woo (Yoon Hyun Min) is mysteriously very intrigued by Hyun Joo and tries to win her over as well by starting up a webtoon division in his company.
However things take a surprising turn when a secret about their pasts comes to light, giving their otherwise simple love triangle a whole other dimension.
A bit of a spoiler alert here, but I believe knowing this upcoming detail actually helps with better enjoying the series upfront.
It turns out our three leads share past lives together. Through the course of the series, we slowly watch the unfurling of those lives in three distinct time periods in Korean history: the Joseon Era, the Japanese occupation and the authoritarian government of the 1970s. The layers of the onion slowly get peeled back as parallels and revelations relate to the present-day.
But as much as the series takes on the idea of past lives and offers a twist on a concept that has been seen in several dramas in recent years, Men Are Men is at its strongest when it focuses on the idea of living in the moment. The series offers an unexpected discussion about concentrating on the feelings and emotions of today, rather than living too much in the past. And in this case, the distant past.
It’s not so much turning your back on, for example, your childhood or the consequential moments in your life. But more so about being able to listen to your heart and your mind in the present. Using the idea of past lives helps to illustrate that point. And as the relationships between Hyun Joo, Ji Woo and Do Gyeom grow and develop, we see that contrast and how each character responds to the challenges and hurdles their past and present bring.
Dealing with the idea of past lives or time travel can always be tricky. And any attempt at such a high concept idea requires a careful and thoughtful execution. Men Are Men might not be the most groundbreaking series. But it is easily accessible, even with its out of the ordinary concept.
The blending of a traditional Korean romantic comedy with the fantasy element works to keep things as simple as they can be. Even as things take a dramatic turn later on. Men Are Men eases into these many revelations and you never feel lost or confused by the twists and turns that pop up from time to time.
At the heart of the series are the characters. Regardless of the fantastical elements or darker turns, the main event remains the characters. The relationships, whether it’s the romance or the friendships or family or even co-workers, are the most engaging part of the series. And from the first moment of episode one to the very last moment of the finale, you will go on a journey of growth with many of the characters. It is particularly interesting to see some modern and not-so-conservative views on everything from love to friendships as well.
The cast is able to contribute a lot to make that possible. Hwang Jung Eum always delivers regardless of genre. Her charm always shines through and that quickly helps to endear her character. As Hyun Joo, she is able to present a bright, bubbly and assertive personality who still has the necessary vulnerability to keep her a grounded and relatable character.
Yoon Hyun Min is also a dependable leading man. And as Ji Woo, he has the nuance necessary to keep the character someone who is both relatable and mysterious at the same time while remaining likeable. Seo Ji Hoon is also great in what might be his most substantial role yet. It is one for which he won a KBS Drama Award for in 2020. And it’s a role that allows him to serve up a performance that demands he get bigger and better lead roles in the future.
Among the rest of the ensemble cast, it is important to shine a spotlight on veteran character actors Hwang Yong Hee and Seo Hyun Chul who are absolute scene stealers as Hyun Joo’s parents.
Overall, Men Are Men is a deceptively simple romantic comedy. On the surface, it may come across as an overly familiar set-up. The fantastical twist helps to add a bit of spice to the story. But the series’ strength is in its characters and the actors who bring them to life. Legitimately interesting relationships between all the characters are enough to keep you watching until the end. But coupled with the familiarity of good ol’ rom-com antics and the touch of fantasy, Men Are Men is an ultimately enjoyable and fun series.