The stigma attached to plastic surgery makes it touchy subject to address, even in a country like South Korea with the highest number of surgeries performed per capita. Thus, when a drama adaptation of the webcomic “My ID is Gangnam Beauty” was announced I was intrigued to see how the televised version would handle the comic’s portrayal of a protagonist so traumatized by being bullied for her appearance she undergoes plastic surgery that leaves her virtually unrecognizable. Having now both watched the drama in its entirety and read the webcomic alongside it, I can say the televised version delivers all the right notes the story needed to hit, but with more than a few altercations.
Korean Name: 내 아이디는 강남미인
Genre: Slice-of-Life, Romantic Comedy
Number of Episodes: 16 episodes
Episode Length: 60 minutes
Recommended For: Those looking for a romance and coming-of-age-story that address conflicts like self-love and body issues
NOT Recommended For: Fast-paced action and adventure thrill seekers
Im Soo Hyang as Kang Mi Rae
Cha Eun Woo as Do Kyung Seok
Jo Woo Ri as Hyun Soo Ah
Kwak Dong Yeon as Yeon Woo Young
After having been tormented and ostracized by her peers all her life for her unattractive appearance, Kang Mi Rae makes the decision to undergo extreme plastic surgery on her face before she begins her first year at university. Armed with a new face and ready for a fresh start, Mi Rae is determined to make friends and leave her traumatic past behind her as she begins her studies in the Chemistry department and pursues her career as a perfumer. However, the appearance of a former middle-school classmate Do Kyung Seok may jeopardize Mi Rae’s reputation, if the obviousness of her plastic surgery does not. But as Mi Rae learns more about Kyung Seok she realizes her is not the handsome, judgmental boy of her memory and may actually be her greatest ally against the two-faced friendships of her classmates, particularly resident “Chemistry Department Goddess” Hyun Soo Ah.
I’m coming into this review with the perspective of a reader of the webcomic. Or, at least, a reader of up to Chapter 72 of the webcomic, which is as far as I can find translated for the series and very near to the conclusion of the story. As such, comparisons are inevitable, especially because the drama version of Gangnam Beauty makes some rather noticeable changes. And while most actually work beautifully for the narrative, I do feel that a few actually diminish some aspects of it.
The story of Gangnam Beauty follows the general events of the webcomic closely, but expands on some of the more plot elements by introducing side characters and their respective conflicts. Mi Rae’s family plays a much larger role here, and for the most part I really enjoyed that. I like that the writers acknowledged how parents may struggle to see their own child feel pressured into plastic surgery, even after a lifetime of love and unconditional support. Watching Mi Rae mend her relationship with her father after her surgery felt like a natural and much-needed turn of events. It also forced her to come to terms with the permanence of her changed appearance, and acknowledge that a being considered beautiful wasn’t the be-all-end-all solution to her own internal struggles of self-worth.
There’s a great moment at the cultural festival where Mi Rae stands up for herself against a former middle-school classmate who shunned and mocked her in the past. It was a completely new scene for the drama version, and a welcome addition. In the webcomic, the cultural festival was used more as a facilitator for a chivalrous Kyung Seok to step in for Mi Rae during her shift and save her from the uncomfortable situation of serving in her skimpy waitress outfit. And while the drama version also uses the festival as a way for the couple to grow closer, it’s primarily an opportunity for Mi Rae to speak up for herself against harassment – and she certainly does. Mi Rae’s growth is fundamental to the progression of the story, and the difference in how passive she is from the drama’s beginning to its final episode is a testament to that.
Gangnam Beauty does a great job of balancing the more poignant message of self-love with the pure fluff that is Mi Rae and Kyung Seok’s love story . The phrase “heart-fluttering” is often thrown around by netizens in the context of K-Drama romance and usually makes me cirnge, but I’ll admit I was feeling some palpitations. Mi Rae and Kyung Seok’s developing relationship is just so lovely to watch play out, especially with their shared history as a driving force behind it. I love that the drama made a point, just like in the webcomic, to establish them as friends before it ever took a romantic turn. And it makes their eventual relationship as boyfriend and girlfriend so much more healthy and fulfilling to watch in the end.
However, it’s important to note that while this drama is primarily a romance, it is also a story of Mi Rae learning to navigate interpersonal relationships outside of her dynamic with Kyung Seok. Gangnam Beauty takes a dark look at a cultural obsession with personal appearance, and does it in a way that is so highly realistic in a university setting. People are shallow, and petty, and gossip behind each others’ backs at every moment. Mi Rae, so unfamiliar with having a large friend group, is continuously taken advantage of as she begins to understand who truly respects her as an individual. In this way, the drama is just as much about friendship and personal fulfillment as it is romance, and I adore that. It also passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, something that is all too often failed in K-Dramas. I do love me some good female representation where a woman’s purpose and identity is not solely revolving around her relationships with men.
I think Mi Rae appears deceptively weak as character, and understand why some may find her personality aggravating to watch. But I think her lack of confidence and awkwardness is perfectly in line with the circumstances of her childhood. A “new face” can only do so much to dull the trauma of years of bullying and discrimination by her classmates, and Mi Rae learning to love herself in spite of this was genuinely one of the best parts of the story. She is arguably the character that undergoes the most growth as the series progresses as she learns to stand up for herself and stop placing so much value in a person’s worth based on their appearance. I did find her webcomic version to be a bit more vibrant of a character, given how she was borderline spastic instead of just awkward, but both versions served a healthy dose of respectable female lead.
Kyung Seok, our male lead, is also more vacant in the drama when compared to his webcomic version. Onscreen, he isn’t as outwardly aggressive or intimidating and is at times even a bit goofy with how childish he acts. Kyung Seok didn’t lose his blunt manner of speaking however, or his perceptiveness about the two-faced nature of So Ah. And as a character he stays true to his webcomic version’s disregard for superficial beauty and appreciation for honesty. It sounds a bit cheesy in writing, but I absolutely won’t fault a character for pushing such an important ideology. I am a strong advocate for the existence of more people like Kyung Seok in this world, in either of his characterizations. Only with maybe a little less violence.
The character of Kyung Seok’s mother has also been softened considerably in the drama version of Gangnam Beauty. She’s notably more maternal to both her son and daughter after she reconciles with them. And while her unfortunate backstory remains unchanged, her onscreen version is portrayed as an almost idealized version of the character. In the webcomic, Kyung Seok’s mother admits she chose her own dreams of being an entrepreneur and desire to escape a toxic marriage over her own children’s need for a mother. And she makes it clear that as much as she feels sorry to her son for leaving, this is decision she felt she needed to make. Kyung Seok’s mother in the drama seems to suffer much more from her guilty conscience. She also spends more time in the drama being a nurturing mother figure after she reunites with her children, rather than her “Wear protection, kids!” counterpart in the webcomic.
The biggest change in the lead cast of the drama takes the form of Yeon Woo Young. In the webcomic, he is a charismatic but superficial upperclassman of the biology department who only takes an interest in Mi Rae due to her appearance. Wooyoung’s drama version counterpart is her lab TA in the chemistry department and a very classic example of the Good Guy™ boy-next-door archetype. He’s a little too good to be true, and while I think he was likeable, there was really no comparison between his dynamic with Mi Rae and her chemistry with Kyung Seok. I do like how Wooyoung gracefully accepted rejection, and took on more of mentor or big brother role for the couple when they finally begin dating. Overall, he’s more charming than his webcomic counterpart, but not quite interesting enough to really root for.
On the other hand, So Ah is not a sympathetic character by any means. Some may even call her insufferable. But she is an intriguing one. So Ah wasn’t cut from the mold of a catty mean girl cliché, and the frightening amount of apathy behind her good girl facade made her into such a fascinating character to watch. It was equally as fun to witness other characters, Kyung Seok and Yoo Eun especially, call her out for being a fraud.
If there’s one thing I can truly complain about So Ah’s character it’s that, while she does undergo a change of heart, she never really comes to accept the idea of herself without her conventionally beautiful face. In the final episode, after having what she believes to be acid thrown onto her face, she falls into hysterics to the point of nearly killing herself and is only able to be consoled when Mi Rae shows her face is completely untouched. I think it would have been more impact, though perhaps less realistic, if she were to accept the potential of facial disfigurement and learn to grow apart from her “goddess” persona. Cutting her hair at the end of the drama didn’t cut it for me.
Oh, and the backstory behind her obsession with her appearance was twisted noticeably in the drama version, and not in a particularly flattering way. When So Ah’s middle-school classmate returns to school after receiving double-eyelid surgery and is now given more attention from the boys in their class a result, So Ah becomes upset. In the drama, So Ah’s distress comes from the fact that this classmate proceeds to date the boy she likes – which was evidence to So Ah that men would choose artificial beauty over natural beauty like her own. In the webcomic, however, it wasn’t the fact that her classmate “stole” So Ah’s crush from her that made So Ah resent people who get plastic surgery. It was the simple idea that So Ah no longer was the undisputed “most beautiful” girl in their class – and the resulting identity crisis that threw her into. This makes So Ah into a much more complex, if narcissistic, character than the drama version which paints her a simple “scorned girl in love” trope. I’m not sure if the writers didn’t know how to flesh out this concept in the amount of runtime allotted to them or they just thought it would be easier for the audience to accept and understand if they made boy troubles the root of So Ah’s trauma. But it left me with a bad taste in my mouth regardless.
One other major difference between Gangnam Beauty’s drama and webcomic versions is the addition of Oh Hyung Jung – who is Mi Rae’s childhood friend and roommate at university. Oh Hyung Jung’s existence doesn’t fundamentally change Mi Rae’s character, but it admittedly makes her more pitiable in the webcomic. There is a major distinction between having no friends and one friend. And while that single additional may seem a fairly minimal plot point, it shows that at least one of Mi Rae’s classmates could see past surface level appearances to befriend her.
One character, however, that was consistently great in both versions of Gangnam Beauty was Yoo Eun. Despite being a first year in the chemistry department, Yoo Eun’s sense of justice leads her to chastise her department seniors for their lecherous and lowkey misogynistic mindset evident in the way they nitpick the appearance and attitude of all their female classmates. Eun refuses to take their nonsense, and has a combination of backbone and honesty that a lot of the other characters in this story lacked. Eun is also one of the few people to see through So Ah’s “good girl” charade and yet still cares for her as a friend remains one of the few people to stick by her side and try and help her when the department turns against her. Everyone needs an Eun in their lives, and this story was all the better for including a character like her.
I’m not sure of a tactful way to approach Im Soo Hyang being cast as a girl whose face is the obvious product of plastic surgery, but I honestly think she was a perfect fit. And I mean that in the very best way possible. She’s one of the most veteran members of the cast, and it shows in the quality of her performance. She has a way with nuanced body language and facial expressions, especially in her awkward ticks that suited Mi Rae’s timidness and lack of confidence. I’ll admit I hadn’t seen much of her work before Gangnam Beauty, but she impressed me in her ability to portray Mi Rae’s gradual transition from a weak girl desperate to fade into the background to the bolder woman she became by the end of the drama. Regardless of whether the Soo Hyang actually has had plastic surgery, everything about her performance was spot on and she deserves props for it.
Astro’s Cha Eunwoo takes on his first major role in a drama series as the male lead, Do Kyungseok, and I have to say I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, he is painfully good-looking and has a natural charisma that I think anyone playing his character definitely needed. But I did find his acting to be somewhat wooden at times, and not quite because of Kyung Seok’s charmingly blunt and deadpan characterization.
I think someone like Park Seo Joon is a good foil for Eunwoo in that I don’t find Park Seo Joon to be outstandingly attractive as far as appearances go, but his performance and delivery make him so compelling watch in every role. Eunwoo, on the other hand, is engaging to watch because his face is so fascinating. But I couldn’t help but feel his performance lacked a certain spark at times. Admittedly, it’s hard to judge his ability to convey an emotional range when his character just wasn’t particularly emotive by nature. I think I would like to see him in a role that demands a little more spunk from him, like a teenager in the Reply franchise. With a little more practice I do believe he could shape into a fairly respectable actor, idol or not.
Moving on to our supporting leads – I love Kwak Dong Yeon so much, and have been rooting for him since he completely stole the show in Love in the Moonlight last year. In a cast of rookie actors, he definitely stood out as one of the most natural and was able to give an engaging performance despite playing a rather uninteresting character.
So Ah’s actress, Jo Woo Ri, didn’t wow me for most of the drama but delivered a really great performance in the finale where she was finally able to show some emotion beyond outside her “docile pretty girl” persona. I did find So Ah to be more aggravating in the drama version due to Woo Ri’s portrayal (rather than borderline frightening as in the webcomic) but both sides of her character were fun to see played out. Overall, I wasn’t swept off my feet by Woo Ri but she did a nice job showcasing a complex character that had to wear a bland smile for most of the drama’s runtime.
I’ve found K-Drama OSTs to be pretty lackluster lately, and we certainly haven’t seen any blockbuster OST hits along the likes of Goblin and DOTS this year. But I actually really enjoyed Gangnam Beauty‘s assortment of tracks and did find quite to a few to be memorable, though in part due to the almost annoying repetitiveness for some songs. My personal favorite of the bunch was the track “Something in Your Eyes” by George and Gang Haein. It marked the soundtrack to some of the cutest moments between Kyung Seok and Mi Rae. The dreamlike, whimsical flow of this song and the lightness of Haein’s voice combined to create a tune that was young love in a nutshell. This is a song I find myself coming back to and listening to even after finishing the drama, and expect to continue doing so in the future.
I honestly appreciate how Mi Rae’s “before” face was never directly shown in the drama. All shots of her childhood before surgery were framed in a way that made her appearance ambiguous, which meant we as the audience never got a clear picture of what was so “ugly” about her facial features before surgery. This was important in not ostracizing any members of the audience who may see similarities between their own features and Mi Rae’s, and ultimately left more up to the imagination of the viewer. The webcomic version gave a very clear visual of what Mi Rae looked like before surgery and I can’t help but feel this must have been disheartening readers who saw themselves in her.
Other than these expertly framed flashback shots, nothing else about the cinematography stood out to me in either a particularly good or bad way. I can only point out one moment in an admittedly cheesy confession sequence where Kyung Seok and Mi Rae stare at each other for an uncomfortably long number of shots without speaking that had me laughing a bit. But overall the gratuitous use of slow-mo and multi-angle shots of the same event that so many K-Dramas are guilty of was kept to a minimum. And I respect that.
Altogether, "My ID is Gangnam Beauty" may be one of my favorite K-Dramas to release in recent years, and certainly of the few I found myself eagerly waiting for new episodes each week. It's not a perfectly faithful adaptation of its webcomic source material, but the changes it makes are mostly justified and the overall message of finding value beneath surface-level appearances still rings true. Never too serious or too flippant, this drama delivers equal parts romance and good ol' self-love, and I love that.