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(Yonhap Feature) TV drama ends amid lingering popularity, controversy

All Headlines 09:00 March 31, 2009

(ATTN: photos available)
By Shin Hae-in

SEOUL, March 31 (Yonhap) -- Some loved it, some despised it. But no one will deny KBS TV drama "Boys over Flowers" became an unprecedented phenomenon in South Korea's television industry.

Since its first episode aired on Jan. 5, the series found itself at the center of a storm of rumors and controversy: one of its actresses committed suicide, all four main actors were injured in car accidents while rushing through a tight schedule and the show received several warnings from the media watchdog for excessive product placement and vulgar depiction of teenagers. To top it off, the series was repeatedly and harshly criticized for its "unrealistic and silly" plot.

But fans stuck with the 25-part series, which recorded an average 30 percent viewer rating at home and was sold to 11 Asian countries including Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines.

"We could do better if we were to make the drama all over again," said Bae Jong-byung, the drama's planning director, in a recent interview. "But we are quite satisfied with what we achieved the first time. We managed to create a brand new type of drama."

"Boys…" is based on a 37-volume Japanese "manga" series which was serialized in a bi-weekly magazine there from 1992 through 2003. Receiving a top manga award in 1996, the hit comic series has already been adapted into TV dramas in Japan and Taiwan.

The story centers on a working-class girl and four scions of wealthy families who call themselves the "Flower Four (F4)." While struggling to survive in an elite school of rich students, the young girl finds herself falling in love with the group's curly haired leader, who undergoes a transformation sparked by the relationship.

Despite a weak plot and flawed story line, fans say the Korean version still presented the "greatest eye pleasure" among the three adaptations thanks mostly to the show's four main actors.

"I loved the comic books back in middle school and was delighted that the TV characters matched my imagination perfectly," said 27-year-old office worker Lee Ja-young. "Despite all its shortcomings, the Korean version has the best looking actors and I was happy just at the sight of them."

Including Lee Min-ho, who starred as the F4 leader, the four actors were relatively new faces before becoming major stars within a few weeks of the drama's first episode.

"Our main focus was to cast the most handsome, cutest and freshest F4, and keep them that way throughout the show," said director Bae. "Everything else came after that."

Fans idolized members of the F4 like pop groups on stage and appeared ready to forgive their awkward acting and the show's weak plot that went from strange to stranger as the series wore on.

"The drama could never have earned so much popularity if F4 had been any less attractive," said Nam Sung-eh, 30. "Women want to look at pretty actors and fantasize about them: just as men do about actresses."

The show's popularity also managed to attract fans from across generations, with mothers and daughters able to share in the joy of seeing their favorite F4 member on screen.

"They were adorable," says Lim Mi-young, whose daughter attends middle school. "It felt strange but pleasant to watch the series with my daughter and discuss who was the cutest among the four."

The show's portrayal of high school students has been another source of controversy. Manipulative youngsters who use compromising photos taken in hotel beds to blackmail one another or drive cars and go clubbing, with classes unattended for days during extended holidays to exotic islands is not reflective of the typical South Korean teen, critics say.

There were also a number of unexplained plot twists between episodes, with characters appearing and disappearing seemingly at random.

Fans of the show dismiss the criticisms and defend the show's tendency to depart from the reality of everyday life. "Fiction is, after all" they say, "fiction."

"I hated it," one blogger posted on a local Web portal. "It seems to me that producers of this drama have no idea how to create a plausible plot and characters. I was disgusted looking at teenagers making out in the middle of the day, driving cars and drinking."

"Who says drama has to be realistic?" refuted another. "I actually loved the drama so much more for its silliness. It helped me escape from the reality and forget my problems for a while. The last thing I want is a head-scratcher of a drama."

The weak story was largely a product of the drama's tight shooting schedule, producers said.

"With the actors and actresses becoming so popular and busy, we had a hard time mapping out schedules that work for everyone," the drama's main producer Jun Ki-sang said. "While the plot might not have been dense enough, we did our best to create visually impressive scenes. Being a fantasy, I think audiences were ready to overlook some of the logical flaws as long as they liked what they were seeing."

As the drama's popularity surged, everything F4 members ate, held and wore became hot items. Sales of the main character Jun-pyo's (Lee Min-ho) favorite snack doubled while his curly top has now become the latest fashion trend.

Companies poured in money to secure placements for their products in the series, while members of the F4 became the "most wanted" among advertising models.

"My teenage sister demanded that my parents buy her a mobile phone the F4 carry around in the series although she already has a decent phone," said college student Lee Yun-ha. " I would have probably done the same if I had liked the show half as much as she did, seeing as it was virtually everywhere in the show."

With critics slamming the drama's producers as "gold diggers," the Korea Communications Standards Commission issued a warning against the show for its excessive product placement, or PPL, a widely-known advertisement method among local television producers.

The show's producers shot back.

"At first, we had a hard time finding firms and broadcasters willing to fund the production costs, especially because the show lacked big name actors," director Bae said. "With each episode costing nearly 300 million won (US$220,000) to make, we had no other means but to rely on advertising fees."

"With the Japanese and Taiwanese versions already a hit throughout Asia, we needed more money to create flashier and more sensational scenes," he added. "This was why we did overseas filming despite the tight budget and schedule."

Despite its obvious frailty, "Boys…" proved big name actors, playwrights and directors are no longer essential in creating a hit series, signaling new hope for a local TV industry struggling with tightening budgets and a limited number of stars.

But thorough preparation will be essential for the second and third generation of such dramas, experts say.

"I regret the fact we did not have more time to spend on the scenario and the overall story," producer Jun said. "Everything was new to us as it was to viewers and we panicked. We hope we can manage to create something of a better quality next time."

Dubbing the drama "an unexpected jackpot," media critic Kang Myung-suk said producers should learn to be more patient in creating high-quality products.

"'Boys...' could pull it off because it was the first of its kind, but viewers may not be so easily fooled next time," he said. "Instead of focusing on short-term profits, producers should really think about spending more time, money and effort in creating something better."


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