Another day, another noona romance! And what better than a bit of Gong Yoo bad boy cuteness to compliment some foxy adorableness? And just in time for his return to dramas, too. I don’t even understand what’s happening in the poster above (Is she going to beat him over the head with that bat? Did they just murder the other students because they found out about their wildly inappropriate classroom romance? Did that dude just poop his pants?) but it perfectly captures the atmosphere of the series–breezily fun and exuberant.
This show actually reminds me a lot of the first season of the jdorama Gokusen. They both have a physically gifted, optimistic woman teacher who defends her misfit students, and a troubled student who loves her. At least, I think they do. Most of what I remember from Gokusen 1 is Matsujun’s fabulously layered and highlighted hair.
Na Bo Ri , Storytelling /Education, & Park Tae In
Na Bo Ri, played by Gong Hyo Jin, is cheerful and full of and full of hope; it’s almost as if she runs on it. She was kicked out of high school six years ago, and ever since then she’s been working towards one goal: triumphantly returning so that she may stand beside Ji Hyun Woo, her old art teacher, whom she’s had a crush on the entire time. She has a group of friends she’s known since her high school days, and one who she’s roommates with. They all tease one another about their former lives as teenaged delinquents, but Bo Ri gets the most flak because she hasn’t been able to get a teaching position–at least, that’s what they think. The truth is that Bo Ri has been turning down teaching positions because there is really only one place she wants to teach. It’s a small detail that we get in the first episode, but I think it’s essential to her character, and to the character of the show. Bo Ri is like a trickster character. The classic tricksters are Coyote and Brer Rabbit and Anansi, figures considered fools by their peers, but who outwit those with more power than them so that they can get what they want. Tricksters are catalysts, they initiate change, they mess things up and create whole worlds in their wake.
Now, Bo Ri doesn’t go around lying and tricking people into doing things for her. But if Bo Ri is not exactly a trickster, then the show itself is. It follows the conventions of Dramatic (naturalistic, traditional) theater–it moves chronologically, there is narrative progression, with is character growth, conflict, and resolution. But it’s true intentions lie in the ways in breaks these conventions. For example, in episode 4 we have a scene where Bo Ri and her friends come to save Tae In from a gang who is trying to recruit him. They stride in, the camera filming them from below so that they seem larger than life, a classic Western theme playing. They’re backlit and in slow motion worthy of Jon Woo (or Boys Over Flowers), their hair flowing in nature-defying wind. And they proceed to kick ass. But after the episode ends Bo Ri So tells us that that scene was a result of the students’ excited imaginations. We are shown what really happened, which was them scrambling in like a bunch of neighborhood ajhummas and cowering over Tae In until the police came. It leaves us, the audience, to wonder, who is telling this story? Is it Bo Ri, who’s voice comes up in times of reflection, or is it the students, who were the ones to begin the story in the first place? After all, Bo Ri herself has a pretty wild imagination, envisioning herself as a superhero-cum-teacher who can anticipate all the tricks her rowdy students might play on her. It makes me think of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator who argued for a kind of education where students were more than just receptacles of information, but were active participants who taught themselves and taught the teacher as much as he taught them. I think this is important, considering that we’ve already seen that one of the teachers is corrupt and that Bo Ri wants to be more than just any older educator. It also reflects the dual nature of the show, how it veers from quiet moments of sadness to almost cartoonish moments of hilarity.
Park Tae In (Gong Yoo), meanwhile, is the classic abused, misunderstood, bratty teenager who’s really just a puppy who needs love. And also happens to look like a really, really hot 25-year-old man. Tae In actually does play tricks on people. He finds ways to slip from the grasps of the bodyguards who always surround him; when his father locks his up in a psychiatric ward, he breaks free, setting off a fire alarm and dancing in the water from the sprinklers; when Bo Ri refuses to leave him alone, he gets her drunk and takes her to a hotel where he leaves a note, leaving her to think that she spent the night with him. This last trick, though, gets him in real trouble, because it affects people other than himself. His response to the way it impacts Bo Ri’s life is the catalyst that starts his transformation from arrogant brat to love-sick puppy.
Irreverence & Genre
If I were to describe this drama in one word it would be irreverent. (It’s a word that could be used to describe trickster characters, too.) Honestly, it’s the only way for a romcom about a high school teacher-student romance to work. The only other way to go would be full on drama, a la Green Chair or Majo no Jouken.
I’m going to file teacher-student noona romances under a genre all it’s own, because it brings up narrative considerations that other noona romances don’t. The questions don’t lie in whether Tae In will be able to financially support Bo Ri or if he’s too immature for her. Instead I found myself considering the fact that the narrative was making Jem Ma, Tae In’s peer and Bo Ri’s student, Bo Ri’s main romantic rival. Bo Ri doesn’t see herself as this girl’s rival. As of episode 4 she doesn’t even see Tae In in this light, but Jem Ma certainly does. I have no problem with Bo Ri and Tae In dating, but I am uncomfortable with Jem Ma being a villain in this story. My discomfort comes more from her characterization than from her age. Bo Ri is older and officially has more power than her, but Jem Ma is more than capable of defending herself. My issue is that Jem Ma is just as lost and damaged a person as Tae In, and I’m hoping that in making her a romantic rival the narrative doesn’t dismiss these things about her.
I want Na Bo Ri to find a way to mentor both Tae In and Jem Ma. They both have empty family lives, both wield their power in school to compensate for their total lack of power anywhere else. And while Jem Ma’s actions are despicable and inexcusable, (she takes photos of Bo Ri at the hotel and publishes them online so that her reputation will be ruined and she’ll be fired), she is still Bo Ri’s student. And I gotta say I love her and Tae In causing trouble together. The scene where they both start screaming their heads off so Tae In can escape from the hospital is hilarious. Why can’t Bo Ri be a superhero and these two are her sidekicks?
And then we have the other issues the teacher-student noona romance brings up. It’s kind of creepy to hear Hyun Woo talk about how he wasn’t able to get Bo Ri out of his mind for six years. Notice that so far the romance is developing from Tae In’s side, not Bo Ri’s. Tae In’s crush is cute, but Hyun Woo’s infatuation is worrisome, especially if we take into account that because of it he is using his power for Bo Ri’s benefit–getting her the job, giving Tae In a place to stay, etc. Why does he try to help Tae In now? Why not before?
For all this show’s zany escapism, it has an undercurrent of violence, and not the cartoon action-adventure kind.
Tae In’s family is characterized by his father’s violence. When we first meet Tae In’s stepmother it’s clear that they have a strained relationship. Informed by cliche’s of evil stepmothers and terrorized stepkids, I at first thought she was a villain in the story. After all, she leaves Bo Ri in jail and states that Tae In is not her “real son.” But then something happened in episode 4 that made me re-think this. The day after Jem Ma has posted the pictures of Bo Ri online, a female student takes Tae In aside and looks him over. She asks him where all his bruises are, if his father hasn’t beaten him up over the pictures and the alleged indiscretion. So corporal punishment (and the pretty severe kind, if his classmates can see the lingering effects of it on his person) is a norm in the relationship between him and his father. It’s then that I realized the problem isn’t the stepmother at all. Sure, Tae In, as a small child grieving his mother’s suicide, initially rejected her, but the reason he keeps on spurning her is because if his father. His father is this domineering male figure, always commanding people around, always yelling and glaring. He lords himself s much over his son as he does over his wife, and so Tae In’s relationship with his stepmother isn’t defined by them two, but by his father, whose will she is constantly trying to appease. Th true villain here is the father, whose job as a doctor mostly consists of striding down hospital hallways surrounded by white-coated minions with a look on his face as if he’s just swallowed a turd. I mean, the man wants to institutionalize his son, despite the fact that Tae In is in no way psychologically ill.
Jem Ma, meanwhile, has an absent mother and non-existent (at least as-yet-to-be-mentioned) father. There is this furious resentment towards and condemnation of parental control and disregard and outright mistreatment in this show. It extends to the teachers, too. The adults these students are surrounded by and are in the care of cannot be trusted.
It’s weird the way violence is used in this drama. The father’s violence towards Tae In and his wife is bad, but Bo Ri’s violence toward the students, a violence that is used against bullies who are themselves violent, is good.
Anatomy of a Scene
In episode 4, when Tae In goes home to apologize, his father immediately grabs a golf club–a golf club–to beat him up with. His home is an unsafe place. It is his stepmother who intervenes. Tae In is scared, his eyes are wide and earnest and flit back and forth as they fill with tears, he fidgets while on his knees, and his voice shakes as he apologizes and gives in to every demand his father has ever made: he’ll move back in, he’ll go to school, he’ll stay out of trouble–he even swears on his mother’s grave and calls his stepmother “new mom.” And when he gets up to follow his father into his study alone, his stepmother stops him and tells him not to go, that he’ll be killed. The threat in this family is the father, not her. She’s genuinely concerned about him. And she’s right, his father does beat him up, and badly, too. He gets a black eye and a cut above the other with blood pouring from it. (And I noticed that he’s wearing a cross in this scene; it dangles from his neck as he collapses on the ground. That’s some pretty heavy Christian iconography; it’s like he’s Christ, turning the other cheek–especially considering he’s apologizing not for what he actually did do which was spike Bo Ri’s drink and take her to the hotel, but for the pictures, which was Jem Ma’s doing. Also interesting because Bo Ri is a Buddhist and her father is a Buddhist monk. Mmmm, anyone know anything about Buddhism? I’m embarrassingly ignorant about it. Leave something in the comments for me!) It is his stepmother who rushes in to care for him as he passes out. His injuries are so bad he has to be brought to the hospital, and again, she’s the one who stays with him there. Furthermore, she’s the who describes their relationship perfectly: “Usually this boy pretends so well. But in actuality he really fears his dad. When he sees [him] his face turns pale.”
“One should understand loneliness from the beginning.” – Na Bo Ri, Episode 4
Loneliness is another dark theme in the show. It’s full of characters who are lonely, who are cut off from the rest of the world, and end up reaching out to other people in destructive ways. There’s an exploration of how cruel isolation can be, how it can warp a person to the point that even being acknowledged for being an asshole is preferable to it.
Even though all three of them are surrounded by friends, Tae In, Bo Ri, and Jem Ma are all profoundly alone. Tae In’s mother committed suicide when he was very young, leaving him behind with an emotionally distant, physically abusive, psychologically manipulative father, and a new stepmother. Bo Ri has been in love with an unattainable man for the past six years. Unattainable because he was her teacher, but also because she thought herself unworthy of him. You can see it in the way she idolizes him, turning him into more of a god to be awed with than a human being to love. When he sees her in handcuffs at the police station you can see the shame on Bo Ri’s face. Is there an emotion worse than shame? Bo Ri tells Tae In that a person can be forgiven for accidentally killing someone, but not for knowingly humiliating someone. What emotion is there closer to humiliation than shame? I can already see that theirs is a romance that could never work, because putting someone on such a pedestal immediately dehumanizes them, and it’s inevitable that they’ll fall. And then we have Jem Ma, who has gone from school to school in different countries so that now she cannot speak Korean well, whose mother only sees her when she flies in for a fashion show, and who is so desperate for love that she’s willing to wait and cling onto a boy who repeatedly tells her he has no interest in her. She wants so badly to be wanted by Tae In, to be wanted the way she wants him, the way her mother doesn’t seem to want her.
Their loneliness is compounded by their waiting. Bo Ri and Jem Ma for the men they’re in love with, and Tae In for his mother. His is a perpetual waiting, because she is dead and can never come back. Loneliness was the reason she committed suicide, and even now, even in her death, she remains lonely. The one solution she thought of to deliver her from it only plunged her deeper into it. She had “no friends, no relatives” Tae In tells us, and she has none who come to visit her now.
The real solution to loneliness, then, is not to cling to someone else, like Jem Ma, or commit suicide, or act out, like Tae In, but to find community. You can’t fight loneliness with just one other person, romantic an idea as that is. It’s like the kid from About A Boy says at the end of that movie, “All I meant was I don’t think couples are the future.You need more than that. You need backup. The way I saw it, Will and I both had backup now. It’s like that thing he told me Jon Bon Jovi said: ‘No man is an island.’”
Biscuit Teacher Star Candy is about creating community, about coming together and undoing the rents wrought by family violence, teacher ignorance, and general adult incompetence. That’s what Bo Ri does, and I think it’s one of the ways in which she’s like a trickster character, fostering change. What Bo Ri creates in her short time at the school is a kind of family. She creates it everywhere she goes. She builds alliances. She gives her students her phone number for emergencies and tells them “It’s not just for emergencies. If the boys want to go on a date with me, it’s ok to make the call.” So long after leaving school she’s still close with her old group of friends, and now she has students who call her when they need help. When Tae In tells her about his mother’s loneliness, she promises to visit her and to bring her friends to visit her, too. Her students are so excited for her return they actually peek out the door to await her arrival and jump over their desks to get to their seats when she walks in. The bullies she punished to defend another student are her biggest fanboys.