Hwarang: The Beginning may have left me with a heap of laments about its lost potential and suspicion about the quality of pre-produced dramas, but being not quite ready to give up on my K-pop resolutions for the year, I’ve decided to press on and review another currently airing drama. Enter Strong Woman Do Bong-soon: from its holy trifecta cast of Park Bo-young, Hyungsik, and Ji-soo, to its zany setup of a petite girl born with super-human strength landing a job as a weirdo chaebol heir’s bodyguard, it looked like I was going to be in for a fun ride.

But the promise of fun wasn’t the only selling point: my curiosity was piqued by the gender-bending characterisation of the titular character, Do Bong-soon (played by Park Bo-young). JTBC has an impressive track record of dramas that take on social issues: bullying, suicide, and homosexuality in Seonam Girls High School, school corruption in Solomon’s Perjury, and adultery in This Week, My Wife Will Have an Affair, to cite some recent examples. Even dramas without an explicit social commentary agenda, like Age of Youth, are known for their solid content and strong character development.

Unfortunately, the first quarter of Strong Woman Do Bong-soon is off to a rocky start, producing mixed signals regarding its social stand. While there are faint hints at a running critique expressing the plight of women, the drama also includes a disturbing number of ableist scenes and throwaway lines rooted in insensitivity towards sexual assault and homophobic tendencies, all for comedic purposes. Even discounting the socio-cultural problems of its portrayals and humour, the drama falls short on plot pacing, and its leads suffer from uneven characterisation.

This review contains mild spoilers for Episodes 1-4. We kindly ask that readers use spoiler tags in the comments when discussing the episodes that have yet to be reviewed.

From the promotional material and teasers, it was already clear that Strong Woman Do Bong-soon would be a rom-com with a strong comic-book slant to its tone. This tone it certainly delivered in differing degrees, but mainly through farce, physical humour, and selected sound effects. The scenes involving Bong-soon beating up bullies rely especially on physical humour—think slow-motion facial contortions, teeth sent flying, blood sent splattering, and a lot of falling and wailing.

Whether you get a good laugh out of these scenes or find them over-the-top depends on your kind of humour. I like verbal and situational comedy better, so I found these extended sequences grating. I was more amused by instances like Ahn Min-hyuk (Hyungsik) snapping at the caller delivering a death threat in the middle of the night (“Do you have any idea what time it is, you jerk? I’d be more scared if I were actually awake!”); the peculiar aptness of Bong-soon’s address—Do Bong-soon of Dobong-dong, Dobong-gu; or Bong-soon squeaking “Don’t look down on dogs” when her crush In Guk-doo (Ji-soo) booms, “All men are dogs!”

JTBC Chief Producer Song Won-seob, speaking on the drama, whose ratings are approaching record-setting levels for the channel, suggested that its popularity lies partly in the unusual heroine. He noted that women frequently face threatening, often male, figures whom they are unable to fight back against. Bong-soon’s super-strength, then, serves a vicarious function for viewers to feel the satisfaction of villains being put in their place.

Despite being well-intentioned as well-deserved paybacks, the extended sequences of the construction lackeys were not as gratifying as, say, the two scenes of Bong-soon punishing the high school bullies that did not involve bloodshed. Can we really consider her an empowered on-screen surrogate if her actions, although directed at a deserving party, are a simple transplantation of the violence and strength associated with men and masculinity into a female body? Compared to when she uses her strength to cause injuries and bloodshed, Bong-soon’s punishments are less problematic and more satisfying when she uses her own methods, such as sending the high school bullies spinning at top speed on the playground’s merry-go-round.

The episodes that involve Bong-soon’s deliberate or accidental use of strength to injurious effects on others do address how damaging her strength can be, and at one point in Episode 3 she notes with concern that it’s getting harder to control her strength. But the show usually makes light of these incidents—think of Secretary Gong’s (Jeon Seok-ho) broken tailbone and the accompanying butt-bobbing scenes—and remains curiously reticent on the real danger that her lack of control can have for those around her.

While my coolness towards the physical humour parts can be said to boil down to a matter of preference, there are plenty of moments in which the humour springs insidiously from damaging stereotypes and ideas. It’s fine for a show’s humour to fall flat on some viewers, but it’s unacceptable for the humour to be created at the expense of certain social groups. Through loud, exaggerated portrayals of the henchmen as blathering, drooling, crippled, foolish figures, the show is both disparaging towards people with disabilities—those who are unable to control the way they move, talk, or excrete—and downplaying how menacing these characters are, as crooks who would beat up an elderly man or physically threaten a young girl.

Equally, or perhaps more disturbingly, the drama is inclined towards using homosexuality and throwaway lines underpinned by homophobic tendencies for comic effect. Stereotypes about gay people are referenced without a sense of irony. Evaluating how Min-hyuk is “handsome, dresses well, and has no interest in women”, Bong-soon’s friend, Na Gyeong-shim (Park Bo-mi), who is an otherwise likeable character, concludes that the rumours that he is gay must be true. Bong-soon agrees, huffing, “How can a guy like shopping?”

The drama also plays into the construction of the gay male as lusting for sex and therefore inclined towards sexually predatory behaviour, evident in Min-hyuk being quick to make remarks on Guk-doo’s butt or dragging a finger across his chest in order to scare Guk-doo out of his house and tick off Bong-soon. Bong-soon’s nightmare of a cross-dressing Min-hyuk grabbing Guk-doo’s butt plays into this as well, and is also tinged with transphobia. Again, all these details are played up for a comic effect.

Note: The next two paragraphs contain slight references to sexual assault.

The most troubling remarks come from one of the intended main sources of comic relief: Bong-soon’s overbearing mother, Hwang Jin-yi (Shim Hye-jin). Here is the conversation in which she finds out that Bong-soon and Min-hyuk didn’t do anything other than really sleeping the night that Bong-soon stays over:

BS: Mum, he’s not interested in girls.
JY: Before we got Soon-shim, I used to hate dogs. People change.
BS: How can you compare people to dogs?

Bong-soon acts as a counter-balancing voice of reason, but the intended comic effect of the scene is apparent as Jin-yi gets the last word, snapping, “She should just force it. What a waste of all that power.” Such a scene betrays despairing insensitivity towards gay persons. It perpetrates the mistaken view that sexuality, rather than being biologically linked, is a kind of lifestyle or taste that can be changed, a view that Bong-soon’s reply does not redress. To add insult to injury, there is a constant punning on 게이 (gei, the Korean word for gays) and 개 (gae, the Korean word for dogs).

Further, Jin-yi’s closing remark tries to make a joke based on sexual assault, and is doubly disturbing considering she does believe Min-hyuk is gay—she doesn’t care or respect the fact that he is simply not attracted to girls, or that even if he were, he has every right to not be subject to physical intimacy without his consent. This isn’t the only instance the drama glosses over the real threat of sexual assault: when the supposed stalker whom Bong-soon and Min-hyuk are tracking down wails that his motorcycle was stolen, Bong-soon turns extremely sympathetic and apologetic, treating him as a completely wronged and innocent man, when just a while ago he spoke and behaved in a manner that suggested he was close to assaulting her.

I’m not arguing that the show has to represent the experiences of homosexual persons just because it has a possibly gay or bisexual character. But the rumours about Min-hyuk’s sexuality could have been used as a plot device without making gay men the butt of jokes. It’s cruel and dehumanising to invoke and reinforce prejudiced stereotypes and to trivialise the struggles that such prejudiced views bring to the gay community, all for entertainment purposes. The drama has shown itself to be perfectly capable of humour that doesn’t rely on such insensitive portrayals.

Thus, the drama’s attempts to portray the plight of women sit uneasily with these careless details. There are hints of critiques levelled at the prejudice directed towards women: one of the construction mafia men, Kim Gwang-bok (Kim Won-hae), is patronising towards Bong-soon, scoffing that girls only take pictures of food, and asks derisively, “How can a little girl like you think she can take me on?”. Even more benevolent characters like Secretary Gong share a similarly belittling attitude towards Bong-soon.

Further, the looming crime plot chooses to name the kidnapped victims and give them distinct identities, instead of having them serve as anonymous figures. It doesn’t shy away from showing the terror of the female victims as they are pursued by a male criminal; the police inspect photos closing-up on the second victim, Kim Ji-won’s lacerations; and Voldemort 2.0 is revealed to like his “brides” skinny, a chilling dramatisation of beauty standards imposed on women.

However, these details are not placed within a larger, clearly established framework of feminist sensibilities, unlike, for instance, the Buffalo Bill plot in The Silence of the Lambs. As a result of its internal inconsistencies regarding gender and other social issues, the directorial choice to linger for so long on the dungeon scenes edges towards visceral, exploitative horror.

Thus far, I have chosen to focus on the socio-cultural implications of Strong Woman’s humour, because it is an important problem that needs to be addressed in light of the drama gaining traction; it worries me that viewers are not only able to overlook these problematic portrayals, but in fact may be enjoying them. However, it would be remiss of me to not also evaluate the other aspects of the drama as a whole.

The crime plot came as a surprise, though not an entirely unwelcome one—it introduces interesting tension to the rom-com, and ups the stakes for our main characters. However, there is a tonal mismatch, and the crime thriller plot is often shelved for (not a whole lot of) other action, leaving me anxious about what the kidnapped women are suffering through off-screen. The crime thriller plot and the ongoing plot with Min-hyuk, Bong-soon, and the man who wants to kill Min-hyuk needs faster development to be woven together more tightly; I’m not even sure how the Baek Tak Party lackeys’ revenge on Bong-soon is going to fit into the equation.

The plot lingers too much on the bickering between Min-hyuk and Bong-soon, which is sometimes fun to watch—both leads hit the delivery out of the ballpark—but mostly feels forced. Their sniping at each other did not arise organically; it felt a lot like the show was force-feeding the viewer a comic hate-at-first-sight dynamic so that the eventual changes in their attitudes would be cute and sweet. It’s a real waste of Park Bo-young’s acting chops to have her frowning and pouting (I’ll admit that Ah-ro in Hwarang: The Beginning heightened my aversion towards this particular expression) or rolling her eyes excessively half the time.

Bong-soon’s interactions with Guk-doo are similarly one-note, consisting mostly of her simpering up to him, then pouting and sulking after she perceives herself being slighted or brushed off. Since they’ve been friends since elementary school, I was hoping that there would be more depth to their relationship than a one-sided infatuation.

I would really like the plot to shift more focus onto Bong-soon. She’s our titular heroine, and yet her character setup doesn’t provide a lot of moments for us to empathise with her. I appreciate the fact that she has her share of weaknesses—she’s easily lured by money, she isn’t the brightest bulb in the box, she has a hot temper—but the episodes so far provide little to make her likeable in the face of her shortcomings. In contrast, we learn so much more about the oddball Min-hyuk: his family background, his convictions, memories that are painful (being locked in a closet) and precious (his mother’s breakfasts) to him.

We’ve glimpsed what Bong-soon’s friends and family are like to her—her relationship with her dad (Yoo Jae myung, aka Pa-oh the bodyguard whose cuteness tops even Bong-soon) and her younger twin brother Bong-gi (Ahn Woo-yeon) is adorable. But how is she as a friend, a daughter and sister, as a girl, as a youth? We know that her dream is to create her own game for Ainsoft, but what are her goals for her current job? Superhuman strength isn’t enough for her to be a good bodyguard; she needs sharp observation and technique. And I would love to see more of how her love for gaming shapes her personality and perspective, like the scene in which she mentally scans Min-hyuk’s family members for potential threats.

Thankfully, Bong-soon’s character development seems to be picking up, albeit slightly late; in Episode 4, we learn more about her—that she cries when watching superhero films, which tells us something about how she feels towards her own superpowers, and that she can tear up a dance floor (figuratively, although I guess also literally). It’s part of who she really is, as opposed to the mould of femininity she tries to force herself into to appeal to Guk-doo. And it’s precisely these peculiarities about her that attract Min-hyuk, which is what I like and look forward to most about their relationship.

In my next review of Episodes 5-8 coming in a fortnight, I’ll take a closer look at the characters and their dynamics. In the meantime, sound off in the comments—what did you think of the first four episodes? Which characters do you like or dislike? Is the story making good use of its excellent cast?

(Images via JTBC. Naver Entertainment.)