Oh Monstar, how do you complete me? I can count the ways but really only one reason is enough for me to love you so much, with the rest like freebies thrown in for good measure. Mangas were my first love and an indelible medium which always speaks to me regardless of what stage I am in my life. Recently I marathoned through all the published volumes of Gakuen Alice (joining the hundreds of titles I’ve read in my manga-devouring existence) and while the leads in there are elementary school students and really much too young for me to connect with, the characters are well-developed and the school yard conflicts engrossing because it strikes a chord in anyone who has been through that social quagmire. Except for the superpowers, of course. Reading GA was like a refresher in the J-manga way of capturing school life. It explains so perfectly Monstar’s appeal, which is in construct and execution completely a J-manga high school music story. That’s it, really its so simple to recognize but took me four episodes before I was certain of it. It’s confined to the school yard and there is a sense of low key conflict and permeating melancholy. Mixed in are dashes of adolescent behavioral humor and lots of interpersonal conflicts. But nothing feels life and death, and instead dialed down to a thrumming sense of wonder.
The ending to episode 4 was so perfectly done, for once doing away with the dun-dun-dun moment of surprise or incipient conflict and instead has a bunch of friends and rivals just yukking it up and enjoying a genuine moment of pleasure in life after listening to wonderful music. How love is that? This episode kicks poor Seol Chan further into his Se Yi obsession as well as has Sun Woo announcing his existence in the race to win her heart. Poor Seol Chan hasn’t even figured out what he feels for Se Yi, and already his main rival has announced he’s “not holding back anymore” with her. No wonder poor Star Chan is freaking out and trying to undermine his nemesis before he even gets started. Se Yi’s mute-sheep-talk backstory with her dad’s death wasn’t a surprise but I loved how it was revealed without piling on the angst. The Poop Group (plus Sun Woo, who really ought to be part of it since he was also at the scene of the crime) is starting to get used to hanging out together under the guise of “practicing” and it’s with a patient heart that I wait with bated breath for them to not only rock the upcoming performance (and shove All for One where the sun don’t shine), but also to form that band which I know would be a perfect outlet and bonding experience for them.
Episode 4 recap:
Trench coat guy (name is Han Ji Woong thanks to dramawiki) is awakened from his car accident nightmare by the sound of pounding and opens his front door to find a bunch of high school kids staring at him.
Se Yi says hello but Seol Chan flips out when he sees where Se Yi has taken them. Ji Woong wants to close the door but at Se Yi’s pleading he lets them into his basement to stay until the thunder storm stops. He curtly warns then not to touch anything and lock up when they leave.
Seol Chan loudly snipes that Ji Woong must be hiding something since he’s so afraid of people looking through his things. After Ji Woong leaves, Seol Chan confronts Se Yi for bringing them here, revealing that this guy is the pervert flasher all the kids murmur about. Se Yi says he isn’t but Seol Chan has caught him following Se Yi three times now. Seol Chan says this place isn’t safe, especially since he can’t get a cell signal. Seol Chan walks out to make a call and Sun Woo follows.
Ji Woong goes upstairs to his room and listens to the CD with Se Yi’s dad’s song. Do Nam immediately starts to look through the covered stuff while Eun Ha wonders if Seol Chan is right?
Seol Chan makes a call and suggests they all move to his company rehearsal space. Sun Woo confronts him on always jumping to conclusions, what if he’s wrong this time? Sun Woo tells Seol Chan to properly apologize to Se Yi if he’s wrong, and Seol Chan will do it so long as Sun Woo apologizes to him if Seol Chan turns out to be right.
Se Yi barges into Ji Woong’s room to ask why he’s been following her around based on what Seol Chan saw? She realizes he’s listening to her dad’s song and goes to grab the CD. Ji Woong tussles with her to get it back.
Seol Chan returns to the basement and immediately notices Se Yi is missing. He books it to look for her, his worry all over his face. Sun Woo is a step behind.
Seol Chan and Sun Woo hear Se Yi yelling with Ji Woong and when they run into the room they see a very disturbing tableau of Ji Woong’s seemingly embracing Se Yi from behind.
Seol Chan drags him off Se Yi and punches him in the face. He pulls Se Yi behind him to safety and then lunges to attack Ji Woong again. Se Yi yells at Seol Chan for getting violent and goes to see if Ji Woong is fine. Seol Chan wants to attack again but Sun Woo stops him. Ji Woong gets the CD back from Se Yi’s hand and then orders everyone out.
Everyone moves down to the basement again and Sun Woo suggests they all start practicing first. Seol Chan is not in the mood and walks upstairs again.
Se Yi stays to talk with Ji Woong who reveals he knows her dad. They were friends long ago, which shocks Se Yi because she never knew her dad to have any friends. He claimed that she was his only friend. Se Yi starts to cry and realizes she never cried when her dad died even though she was so devastated.
Seol Chan has overheard this conversation and steps aside. Eun Ha finds Seol Chan and asks him as his fan for a favor. The fans all write Yaoi (male-male) fanfiction about their boy idols because that possibility is better for them than the thought of their oppa actually liking a girl, since it’s so remote. She asks him not to like a girl for real because then her idol oppa will become just a normal guy. Seol Chan says he is just a normal guy. Eun Ha begs him not to, because then she would have nothing to hold on to. Seol Chan promises not to ever date a girl. Eun Ha thanks him and then says that she also likes Se Yi because she’s a good girl.
Sun Woo comes up to get Seol Chan to rehearse and this time Seol Chan confronts Sun Woo’s change of attitude in hanging out with these outcasts, especially for a situation he’s not even involved in.
Sun Woo just comes right out and says he likes Se Yi so he’s going to help her whenever she needs it. Seol Chan’s mouth drops open and asks why Sun Woo likes her? Sun Woo asks why he needs a reason, he just does. Sun Woo reminds Seol Chan that he just promised Eun Ha to stay like an untouchable star in the sky and not fall down to Earth, i.e. he promised not to like a girl and stay a fantasy for his fans. D’oh.
Se Yi finishes crying and finds out that her dad gave the CD to Ji Woong, which means he must be an important friend since this song her dad only ever performed for her and her mom. She asks to be able to come visit again and Ji Woong doesn’t say no.
Se Yi goes back to rejoin her classmates and runs into Seol Chan, who is still digesting the fact that Sun Woo likes Se Yi. Se Yi tells Seol Chan to apologize to Ji Woong and then leaves him standing there.
Na Na arrives and Sun Woo goes out to get her. He’s happy she’s here since she can’t leave the others hanging high and dry. She’s got a cut on her hand and he asks what happened. Na Na says to think what everyone knows about her but Sun Woo doesn’t want to use innuendo and rather trust what he can see.
Se Yi goes down and explains the misunderstanding earlier, the ahjusshi is really her dad’s friend and she was the one who did something to upset him earlier. Sun Woo smirks and says it’s Seol Chan who needs to apologize and asks if his knees can take it, since Seol Chan earlier agreed to get on his knees if he was wrong about the guy.
Na Na joins the group and practice begins, with Ji Woong standing by the stairs listening to them. The group harmonizes with Se Yi singing first, joined by Kyu Dong and finally by Sun Woo. They managed to harmonize well, and Kyu Dong sneaks a hopeful look at Do Nam as he’s singing and Do Nam quickly averts his eyes. Those two, that’s some deep former friendship issues going on there.
Cut away to the music room and the six of them stand before Teacher Choi successfully performing the song. Sun Woo walks by and smiles to hear it. Teacher Choi is thrilled they are actually good. He loved the arrangement and Se Yi pipes up that it was Sun Woo’s idea.
Teacher Dokko gets told by the principal that the charity event will be attended by some high and mighty folks so they can’t put on some kids folksy performance with tambourines and what not. It has to be sleek and professional with actual instruments.
During class Seol Chan keeps his eye on Sun Woo and Se Yi, and then calls Sun Woo out for a mano-a-mano talk after class. He starts by asking about why Sun Woo was hanging around the music room listening to them perform but Sun Woo cuts him off and tells him to get to the real point. Seol Chan demands that Sun Woo fess up that he lied about liking Se Yi.
Sun Woo says no way, he really likes Se Yi. Seol Chan sputters and asks what Sun Woo plans to do about it then? Sun Woo says he’ll do what he wants and not hold himself back. Seol Chan is seriously about to burst a blood vessel but Sun Woo is cool and amused by it.
The Poop Group is called back by Teacher Choi and told to come up with a snazzier performance. He’s even summoned Sun Woo knowing that he was the idea behind the last arrangement. Some of the kids such as Eun Ha and Kyu Dong don’t know how to play an instrument so Seol Chan suggest they do a lip syncing performance that is all glamour.
He snaps his fingers and we’re in a lounge club setting with Se Yi as the sultry singer and Seol Chan on the keyboard. The rest of the group is behind white curtains all pretending to play an instrument.
Se Yi sings and walks around Seol Chan giving him come hither glances which he totally basks in.
The fantasy ends and Eun ha is the first to love the idea. Na Na pipes up that she doesn’t do lame ideas that that, they might as well all sing in the performance if some folks can’t play instruments.
Sun Woo’s idea then is for those who can play an instrument to do so while the others sing, and this fantasy bit is starting to be contagious because he snaps his fingers and we’re at a supper club setting.
Se Yi sings while Sun Woo plays the upright bass (not a cello, that’s a sitting down instrument) and they do a rather bluesy performance. Teacher Choi likes this idea as well but Seol Chan doesn’t because Sun Woo stuck him in the chorus. LOL. The group is asked to vote and the two choices have an even number of votes with Do Nam as the deciding vote, but he refuses both ideas and wants to stick with the original arrangement.
The Poop Group are walking when Eun Ha confronts Do Nam about refusing either idea, wondering why he’s so adverse to pretending to play an instrument or sing? Do Nam gets angry and then storms off. Eun Ha suggests just cutting him out of the performance.
The three All for One douches walk by and the first year student gets in a few jabs about their group consisting of misfits and losers and gangsters. Jae Rok snarks that its going to hurt Seol Chan’s image to be seen constantly with this group. Joon Hee, ever the diplomat, thanks Seol Chan for handling the charity event performance on behalf of All for One which can’t do it. Gag me. Jae Rok snarks that the performance will be a kids show what with tambourines and what not.
All for One walks away sniggering when Se Yi yells at them that they will make the school proud with their performance. Because they have Yoon Seol Chan, who is a star and a star needs to only show up to succeed.
Seol Chan is flabbergasted that Se Yi remembered what he said to her earlier when he asked her to duet and he said he was a star and explained to her what as star is. She looked clueless then but clearly heard what he said.
Se Yi goes on to say that all Seol Chan needs to do is greet everyone and hand out autographs and their performance will be a success. He’s a pro at it and everyone must’ve seen prodigy Seol Chan’s performance at the music evaluation, right? The freshman girl is about to snipe back and when Na Na warns her to stop. Joon Hee smiles and says that he looks forward to their performance then.
Seol Chan stares at Se Yi and his heart starts to race and flutter hearing her just speaking up and complimenting him. But when he opens his mouth he takes the hard ass approach and asks Se Yi when he agreed to greet people and give out autographs. Eun Ha thanks Se Yi for saying what they all wanted to say.
Seol Chan demands to know why Se Yi stepped up and Se Yi explains that she didn’t like seeing them put Seol Chan down. They discuss where to practice and Na Na tells them to text her when they decide. Se Yi suggests Seol Chan’s company studio but it’s a no-go because reporters could find out.
Na Na leaves the school and is whisked away in a black car by a guy in a suit, and Se Yi witnesses this incident and remembers Eun Ha claiming that Na Na has a very scary backstory.
The freshman girl is pissed that Se Yi stood up to them and says she needs to be cut down to size. Joon Hee points out that for a tiny little thing she’s quite feisty. Sun Woo walks past and Joon Hee asks why he’s been missing their rehearsals often lately. Sun Woo doesn’t feel like practicing these days and leaves.
Seol Chan gets picked up by Manager Hong and brings up a hypothetical question – if a guy likes a girl and says he won’t hold back anymore, what does that mean? Manager Hong says it means he’s going to kiss the girl. Seol Chan sputters that Manager Hong is such a dirty pervert, there are other things that can be done that are restrained.
Seol Chan suddenly goes wide-eyed when he sees Sun Woo’s car ahead stopping to pick up Se Yi. He freaks out remembering Sun Woo saying he won’t hold himself back any longer. He makes Manager Hong cut off that car, then gets out and barges his way into Sun Woo’s car and squeezes poor Se Yi in the middle.
During the car ride Seol Chan talks to Sun Woo to finish their earlier conversation, all using the pronoun “her” and staring at the back of Se Yi’s head but not using her name. He asks if Sun Woo told the girl he likes her, and whether he’s sincere about it. How does he knows his feelings in such a short time, and if his feelings were real why hasn’t he confessed to her yet? Poor Sun Woo sits there saying nothing.
Se Yi makes the driver pull over and thanks Sun Woo for the ride but this is her destination. Seol Chan gets out with her claiming he doesn’t want to be alone in the car with Sun Woo. Riiiiight. Se Yi yells at him for talking about Sun Woo’s private life so openly and making it awkward. Seol Chan snipes that if she likes Sun Woo she should go be his partner instead of sitting with Seol Chan.
Se Yi asks him how he would feel if his personal feelings were dragged out in the open for everyone to see. She calls him an immature kid and leaves. Seol Chan chases after her and they arrive at Ji Woong’s place. He huffs that this place isn’t safe and says he will go with her. The door opens and Se Yi makes Seol Chan apologize to Ji Woong.
Ji Woong is covering the instruments in the basement back up and Se Yi asks how he knew her father. She is happy to hear that they were in a high school band together. She asks if he also knows her mother then?
Ji Woong asks what happened to her dad and Se Yi reveals that they were in a car accident together. He died and she woke up in the hospital with no memory of what happened. She lost her speech due to the shock and was sent to her uncle’s sheep farm in New Zealand. She really did speak only to sheep but it was in her mind because she couldn’t speak for real at all. But now she’s grateful to get her speech back.
Seol Chan is wandering around and finds a piano in the courtyard. He hears Se Yi’s conversation and realizes the ordeal she went through. He is upset at himself for the things he said to her in the car about her dad’s song. He wishes she told him because now he just feels like an asshole. It’s nighttime when Se Yi comes out and receives a text from Seol Chan saying he already left. The two teachers are still looking for a rehearsal place for the kids.
Sun Woo is at home and remembering Seol Chan asking why he didn’t confess if he was sincere about the girl. Sun Woo says out loud that it hurts to get rejected.
Seol Chan goes home and his mom has friends over and he greets them politely and then goes to his room. He gets a text from Se Yi asking if they can rehearse at his place. He asks his mom and she’s shocked since he’s never brought friends over before. He apologizes for imposing and says no need, but she looks sad he took it back.
The boys are playing basketball in gym class and Sun Woo and Seol Chan discuss their earlier conversation as they dribble against each other. Seol Chan says he’s worried but not about Sun Woo, he’s worried about his very gullible partner since Sun Woo is the very model of a betrayer. Sun Woo makes a hard steal and knocks Seol Chan down.
The Poop Group gather to discuss where to practice that is far from prying eyes for Seol Chan’s sake, all they need is a place with a piano. Kyu Dong remembers there being a piano at the ahjusshi’s place. The kids barge into Ji Woong’s place and Seol Chan promises to follow all his rules that he laid out that night. Ji Woong says the piano is out of tune but Seol Chan says he can tune it.
Sun Woo is walking home and stops to listen to a street performer who is very happy to be singing, reminding Sun Woo of the joy of music rather than the rigor of being the best. He calls Se Yi to come out since he wants to ditch his music class. Se Yi suggests he come over to Ji Woong’s since they are practicing.
Seol Chan yells at the phone at Sun Woo not to come. Se Yi then says Sun Woo is sure to come now, because Seol Chan told him not to come.
Sun Woo arrives and remarks that this place is nice during the day. Seol Chan snarks that all the plants are dead but he brought the dead piano back to life. Sun Woo plays a few bars and says two of the keys are still off tune. Seol Chan thinks Sun Woo is bragging and Sun Woo says he was faster along but he switched to the cello midway.
Sun Woo reveals that he and Seol Chan took piano lessons together as kids, but he hit a ceiling so switched instruments but Seol Chan kept going on the piano. He asks Seol Chan to play like they used to. Seol Chan huffs and acts like no such thing ever happened. Sun Woo says his fingers still remembers so did Seol Chan forget. Seol Chan is goaded into sitting down and playing.
The two of them sit side-by-side and start to play in perfect harmony. Sun Woo reveals that this arrangement was created by Seol Chan for a two person play.
Se Yi, Eun Ha, and Kyu Dong all stand there smiling and soaking up the music. Even Na Na standing in the back stares transfixed.
The musical notes from the piano float up and turn the dead trees and flowers back to life and we’re whisked back in time to when little Seol Chan and Sun Woo were happily playing together.
When the song ends, everyone claps even Na Na. The kids are amazed and Na Na tells them curtly to shut up but everyone laughs at her as they all stand around soaking up the happy mood.
Thoughts of Mine:
What makes Monstar so enjoyable is that I’m never pulled out of the narrative by any strange behavioral oddities. Each character is distinctive but by and large act like high school students with limited emotionally experience and lots of self-perceived angst. It’s not that everyone doesn’t have issues, but really in the grander scheme of things their issues aren’t all that bad (except for maybe Na Na, but we’ll have to wait and see). But as the kids bicker and bumble their way through every day, we see that there are a lot of bottled up emotions that heighten every experience. So Seol Chan has one indelible run-in with Se Yi that turns into what might be the biggest crush in his short and star-prepped life, and Se Yi returns to Seoul and immediately goes from formerly mute sheep girl into the center of a growing maelstrom of class conflict. It’s a testament to a great ensemble cast that I’m interested in everyone’s story and every scene gets my full attention regardless of which character is in it. The directing remains lovely in a whimsical way, and the music is truly exquisite and presented and sung with lots of heart. I know I’m in deep when right after an episode ends I immediately want to re-watch it again. And again. And again. That’s what Monstar has managed to do in four short episodes with an unknown cast and a very flimsy premise.