An elderly man driving a bus of kindergarten children finds the road blocked by a construction vehicle. He asks the thug lurking nearby to move the vehicle and is beaten up for his troubles. A short young woman happens upon the scene and attempts to call the police but another thug threatens her and breaks her phone. She insists that he pay for a new phone. He begins to cuff her across the head. She smiles sweetly and punches him into the sky. Welcome to the deliciously sugary confection of Strong Girl Bong-soon [Him-ssen yeo-ja Do Bong-soon] (2017), 16 episodes of romantic comedy with lashings of superhero crime drama.
Do Bong-soon (Park Bo-young) is a 27-year-old woman who lives with her family and is struggling to find ongoing employment. She still yearns for her high school crush, In Guk-doo (Kim Ji-soo), a dedicated police lieutenant who is dating cellist Jo Hee-ji (Seol In-ah) and treats Bong-soon like a little sister, fussing over her well-being but showing no sign of reciprocating her feelings. Her twin brother Do Bong-ki (Ahn Woo-yeon) is a doctor. Her mother Hwang Jin-yi (Shim He-jin) was an Olympic weightlifter, but currently spends her life hanging out with her friends and harassing Bong-soon about her marriage and employment prospects. Her more easy-going father Do Chil-goo (Yoo Jae-myung) is an ex-Olympic wrestler who has found his vocation running a walnut bakery.
Bong-soon is also the youngest member of a matrilineal legacy of supernatural strength dating back to the Siege of Haengju (1593). The records of her ancestors’ exploits are documented in the Book of Capability, a living text passed down from mother to daughter so that each new generation can continue the tale of their family history. Each female descendant is gifted with their unusual strength from birth (which can make for an… interesting experience for the medical attendants), but if they ever use their powers selfishly or to harm innocents they will be stripped of their strength and revert to normal. Bong-soon’s mother was able to get away with applying her talents to her weightlifting career, presumably because it was in service to her country, but became cocky and lost her powers after she began to run a neighbourhood protection racket. As a result, Bong-soon has grown up wary of her abilities, using them only sparingly and in secret. Her efforts to hide her abilities have contributed to her patchy employment history. Having finally discovered a talent for designing computer games, her dream is to obtain a job with entertainment software giant Ainsoft and create a game based on herself.
Ahn Min-hyuk (Park Hyung-sik) is the 27-year-old CEO of Ainsoft, the youngest and most successful son of a corporate dynasty. His mother died when he was young and he was bullied by his older half-brothers while growing up. His father’s (Han Jung-kook) abuse of his position in society – maintaining connections with organised crime figure Baek Soo-tak (Im Won-hee) and exerting pressure on the police to make any legal problems disappear – has led Min-hyuk to distrust the police force and to strike out on his own, building up Ainsoft without any assistance from his family. As his father’s retirement looms, with the heir to the family business yet to be announced, a series of anonymous threatening phone calls escalates to stalking and physical threats aimed at forcing him to renounce any claim on his potential inheritance.
During his high school years, Min-hyuk was almost involved in a fatal bus crash. Careering out of control towards a mother and child at the edge of a bridge, the bus was mysteriously halted before tragedy could ensue. Ever since, Min-hyuk has been haunted by the memory of a girl in a pastel pink hoodie strolling casually away from the rear bumper of the bus in the immediate aftermath. Years later, stuck behind a bus of kindergarteners, he watches in gobsmacked awe as Bong-soon dispatches Soo-tak’s thugs. Suspecting that he’s found the girl who saved him, and more than a little smitten, he keeps quiet about her involvement when questioned by the police. Desperately wanting an excuse to get to know her, he sends his personal assistant Mr Gong (Jeon Seok-ho) to offer her a job as his personal bodyguard. Initially suspicious (and uninterested in being diverted from her chosen career path), once she learns that she would be working for Ainsoft she agrees to take the position on the proviso that she have the opportunity to join their software development team once his stalker has been exposed.
From this point on the character relationships become delightfully messy. Bong-soon is initially wary about spending so much time in proximity to Min-hyuk, but is reassured by the rumours that he’s gay. As a handsome eligible bachelor, Min-hyuk has allowed these rumours to persist in order to keep his life uncomplicated, but finds them to be increasingly inconvenient as Bong-soon remains oblivious to his growing interest. Bong-soon’s mother refuses to believe the rumours, immediately beginning to refer to Min-hyuk as her son-in-law and doing everything she can to push them together, constantly embarrassing Bong-soon by “giving her permission” to sleep with him at the first opportunity. Relying on observation rather than wishful thinking, Bong-soon’s best friend Na Kyung-shim (Park Bo-mi) becomes convinced of Min-hyuk’s true feelings. Bong-soon’s crush Guk-doo, on the other hand, is driven to distraction by the amount of time she’s spending with her boss, taking any excuse to barge in on them and beginning to behave more like a jealous rival than a protective big brother.
The showrunners have a great deal of fun with the antagonistic relationship between Min-hyuk and Gok-doo, mining it for as much slash fiction potential as they can. Their aggressive posturing is constantly framed to emphasise their physical proximity. A confrontation in Bong-soon’s presence escalates hilariously as Min-hyuk plays up his reputation by coming on to Guk-doo in an attempt to throw him off, while Guk-doo plays up to the situation in an attempt to call his bluff, with neither one willing to back down. A later attempt to out-macho each other in a drinking competition while they argue about Bong-soon ends with them unconscious in each other’s arms on a pool table, leaving Bong-soon aghast and forced to carry them home.
The creators are also careful to keep a number of different plot threads of varying lengths running through the course of the series. Min-hyuk’s stalker plotline is disposed of before the series reaches its halfway point, allowing Bong-soon to begin her chosen career and introducing a new set of subplots. More and more of Baek Soo-tak’s thugs end up in the hospital courtesy of Bong-soon, forcing a definitive mass showdown, the result of which spins all of the characters off into another direction. A gang of obnoxious high school boys skipping school are taught a lesson by Bong-soon and become her devotedly OTT followers. Guk-doo’s neglect of his girlfriend leads her to start pursuing Bong-soon’s brother. Bong-soon’s mother becomes increasingly jealous of her husband’s friendly relationship with Guk-doo’s mother (Yoon Ye-hee), a famous author and frequent bakery customer. (After he turns up at work with a heavily bruised face, this particular subplot comes dangerously close to treating domestic abuse as a throwaway joke, but the writers eventually work their way back around to addressing this incident in a more satisfactory manner.)
Threaded in amongst the more lighthearted elements is a slowly building plot about a deranged misogynist with a Bluebeard fixation (Jang Mi-kwan) who is abducting women and imprisoning them in his personal dungeon. Coming out of nowhere as a jarring tonal shift near the end of the first episode, Gok-doo’s involvement with the kidnapping investigation allows him to retain a more active presence in the story and sets up a further conflict with Bong-soon, as he becomes desperate to protect her from the maniac while she remains determined to patrol the streets at night in order to protect the women of her neighbourhood. A thwarted assault on her best friend becomes a threat to the kidnapper’s masculinity, gradually transforming into a personal vendetta against Bong-soon and escalating the level of threat in the final quarter of the series.
Despite these darker elements, the overwhelming emphasis of the series is on the central romantic triangle between Bong-soon, Min-hyuk and Gok-doo. Although the power differential inherent in the employer-employee relationship is rife with problematic elements, the writers take care to emphasise Bong-soon’s self-determination. While Min-hyuk is more than capable of acting like an arrogant jerk, he puts in the effort to support Bong-soon’s personal growth when needed without attempting to make the important choices for her – Bong-soon retains full personal agency at all of the crucial decision points. By the last episode all of the more serious plot elements have been polished off, allowing the viewer to relax and enjoy the final 70 minutes as the remaining character threads are tied off in a leisurely fashion and Bong-soon explores her new life with her chosen suitor. (The more sentimentally inclined viewer may wish to have a box of tissues at the ready.) It’s a joyfully cathartic conclusion to a sweetly entertaining confection of nonsense in celebration of female empowerment.
Strong Girl Bong-soon was well-received by South Korean audiences, being nominated for Best Mini-series at the 12th Seoul International Drama Awards (SDA) and becoming one of their highest rated cable television dramas. The talented cast are skilled at both drama and comedy, vital in a show of this type. Park Bo-Young won two awards for her performance in the central role of Do Bong-soon – Outstanding Korean Actress at the 12th SDA and Best Actress at the 1st Seoul Awards. Park Hyung-sik, previously a member of boy band ZE:A (2010-14), won the Popularity Award at the 1st Seoul Awards for his performance as Ahn Min-hyuk. I’d like to add honourable mentions for Shim Hye-jin as Bong-soon’s domineering mother; Park Bo-mi as the heroine’s best friend Kyung-sim, a smaller (but very important) role which could easily have been overshadowed by some of the broader performances if she had been a lesser actress; and Choi Moo-in as Team Leader Yook, Guk-doo’s boss, a criminal investigator who takes more inspiration from his TV detective heroes than his more grounded (but also more corrupt) colleagues.