Korean culture has long been fascinated by beauty, so much so that it has, over time, become a world leader in beauty products and plastic surgery. Good looks are seen as a way to stand out from the crowd and those who do not have them, particularly women, can be made to feel inadequate.
A case in point is Im Ju-kyoung, the 18-year-old protagonist of the new tvN series True Beauty, adapted from a hugely popular webtoon of the same name by Yaongyi.
Ju-kyoung, played by young star Moon Ga-young, has an inferiority complex because of her looks. She is teased by her brother at home, and mercilessly bullied at school, where she is considered unspeakably ugly by her cruel classmates.
After a particularly mortifying episode, one night she finds herself on the roof of a tall building, peering over the edge. Lee Su-ho, played by Cha Eun-woo, mistakes her intentions and “saves” her from falling to her death.
Ju-kyoung falls into Su-ho’s arms (something that henceforth will accidentally happen about once an episode), but her glasses break so she cannot see him.
Dreaming of a fresh start, Ju-kyoung discovers make-up, but her first amateur attempt at applying it brings her even more ridicule at school, so she dives into video tutorials as she explores the world of make-up through a candy-coloured montage.
At the same time her father has just lost all the family’s savings, to his wife’s horror, but as it turns out, to Ju-kyoung’s gain, as they move to a new house and she gets to enrol in a new school with a brand new face.
Her new-found beauty is immediately noticed by everyone and she quickly makes friends. Also at the school is Su-ho, the most popular and handsome student (with straight As and a rich family to boot), but they do not recognise each other.
Outside school, Ju-kyoung can take off her make-up, slip into baggy clothes and indulge in her favourite hobbies, which include listening to metal music and reading horror comics.
Her home away from home is a cramped and cosy comic-book shop, but to her horror she bumps into Su-ho there, who does not seem to recognise her from school.
This being a teen romance, there does of course have to be another romantic interest, and his name is Han Seo-jun, played by Hwang In-yeop.
He is the devilishly handsome, devil-may-care bad boy of the school. He and Su-ho used to be close friends but a mysterious event in their past caused them to have a huge falling out. They try to stay out of each other’s way, until they both fall into Ju-kyoung’s orbit.
It’s hardly the most original premise, but with verve and energy to spare, True Beauty comes out of the gate strong, with a fully realised world teeming with teen rivalries, pubescent fears and in-the-moment obsessions.
The first two episodes are a candy-pop-powered breeze as the story zips along, with Ju-kyoung finding herself in new surroundings as a new person and facing one close call after the next as she tries to keep her real face a secret.
To be sure, True Beauty paints an exaggerated picture of its young protagonists, but it knows its audience well and seems tailor-made for young girls, who’ll find plenty to recognise in this world of K-beauty, karaoke and Korean snack foods.
The scenes in the comic-book store and their light gothic elements are a highlight, as is any scene featuring Ju-kyoung’s fiery older sister Hee-kyung (played by a terrific Im Se-mi). But it’s a shame that, after the first two episodes, the story starts to freeze up and spin its wheels.
Without the pleasing distraction of the narrative’s early momentum, viewers may find the time to think over some of the more problematic aspects of the series’ premise.
As the title suggests, the show aims to highlight true beauty, and after a few episodes one of the boys around her does finally say “you’re pretty even without make-up”, but with the rest of show seemingly championing beauty products and most characters constantly being dazzled or repulsed by people’s looks, it also sends some mixed messages to its intended audience.
Thankfully, Moon’s fizzy performance keeps the show going even in its more tired moments. But with all the story beats playing out exactly as expected so far, the show will need to conjure up a more original plot strand to help her carry the rest of the series. There’s only so much slow-motion tripping and falling into cute boys’ arms that a story can handle.
True Beauty is streaming on Viu.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.