I haven’t watched a good Taiwan drama all year and I despaired of this sad reality ever changing any time soon. King Flower was addicting in a trainwreck way though ultimately the great chemistry between the non-canon OTP that ended up becoming the OTP was a wild and weird watching adventure I gladly relished while it lasted. But good acting chemistry does not a good drama make, and these last three weeks finally convinced me to pick up my recapping pen again for a TW-drama that promises to remain as good as it’s been right out of the gate. SETTV premiered two dramas recently, the higher profile Sunday night drama Deja Vu was an immediate fail for me, whereas the quieter Friday night offering of In A Good Way (Chinese title: My Era of Independence) has been a hidden gem that has mushroomed into a bona fide domestic drama sensation among the younger viewers. Starring Lego Li, Kristen Jen, Jay Shih, Smile Wen, and Steven Sun, the entire cast is absolutely endearing right off the bat and so easy to watch. It helps that this drama is refreshing and the plot makes sense, adding a dash of nostalgia for those who attended college in the mid-90s and want to relive the experience in dramatic fashion.
The drama is set in the year 1995, but differs from the modern day-past period juxtaposition used in similar-themed K-dramas such as last year’s Answer Me 1997 and this year’s Answer Me 1994. There is no “who is the husband” nor is the story told in flashbacks. The story is narrated by leading lady Lin Jia En as she talks about her college life and that era of independence she spent with her best friends. It’s remarkably funny and uses the fantastic mando-pop catalogue of songs from the mid-90s well so I keep humming along to what are not oldies but still goodies when I’m watching. It’s safe to say that leading man Lego Lee (Lee Guo Yi) is the breakout star of this drama, playing a character written as almost too perfect but he plays him with such a down-to-earth feeling of sweetness and class. He’s so gorgeous in that boy next door way I just want to squish his character Liu Shan Feng (nickname Liu Chuan) and its crazy how fast and hard I’ve fallen for his being OTP with the fresh-faced and inexperienced Jia En. I love the low key vibe, the fun way it captures the atmosphere of a college campus and life, and this drama has already delivered some great positive messages that don’t come across as lecturing but instead as a logical learning lesson for kids just taking the first steps towards adulthood. I would call IAGW an unnoticed gem except it’s such a surging popular drama in Taiwan that it is hardly underrated at all. I hope the international audience takes notice of this unexpected treat and join me in watching along.
Episode 1 recap:
Childhood friends Lin Jia En (Kristen Ren) and Cheng Ren Wei (Jay Shih) grow up together in Pingdong, Taiwan. It’s the Southern most county on the island and the farthest from the capital city metropolis of Taipei. The year is 1995 and the two high school seniors discuss the results of the college entrance exams and the latest pop music. Jia En does well and is here to get Ren Wen to go home to see his test scores. Ren Wei shows off his new scooter which is a present from his parents for finishing the exam. They bicker comfortably as Ren Wei rides his scooter and takes Jia En home.
Ren Wei goes home and mom and dad start nagging him about his poor scores from college entrance exams. Ren Wei insists he’ll get in, and not only will he get in, he’ll get into a college in Taipei and off he goes to live his big city dreams. Dad scoffs and says the family pond fishing business is waiting for him to come back and inherit and there is nothing in Taipei to hang his future on. Plus he doesn’t think Ren Wei will get into a Taipei college, snarking if he does then Dad will go with him to be his pageboy during his college years. Ha! Jia En says his scores can get him into a public university at least. Turns out she lives with them after her parents went to Taipei to open a tea shop and asked their good friends, Ren Wei’s parents, to take care of her. Ren Wei’s parents adore her and not so subtly tells Ren Wei to just come back and marry Jia En when he’s done with college.
Jia En and Ren Wei are in school filling out the all-important college+major ranking sheet. College entrance exam results will be matched against each students ranking of college+major. Jia En clearly relies on Ren Wei for comfort and keeps sneaking peeks at his list. She asks if he is putting down all Taipei colleges and if he’s serious about going there. She decides it’s okay to go that far if he’s there to keep her company and decides to put down Taipei colleges as well which annoys Ren Wei that she keeps tagging along.
He tells her that college is about becoming more independent which she understands but thinks its so hard. When Jia En steps away to go to the bathroom, Ren Wei takes her ranking list and sees that she’s listed all the same colleges as him and intends to keep tagging along wherever he goes. He knows her test score is much higher than his schools so he erases her rankings and puts down better schools and better majors thinking it’s a waste for her to go to his level of colleges. Oh noes!
The day of the college match results are out and Ren Wei gets into his first choice Cheng Dong University in Taipei majoring in business management. Jia En looks and looks but doesn’t see her name on any of the lists. She doesn’t get into any college, becoming one of the dreaded “not on the list” high school seniors. Ren Wei celebrates with his parents as Jia En looks crushed.
Jia En narrates as months later she and Ren Wei’s parents walk him to the train station as he heads up to Taipei for college – she found out years later that Ren Wei changed her ranking list to better schools and majors, but he didn’t know that 1995 was a year where the finance industry inexplicably grew red hot so finance was the hardest major to get into any college that year. That was how Jia En got high test scores but ended up not getting into any college. Ren Wei goes off to college and asks if his dad is going to follow through with the promise to be his pageboy in college? Dad says he’ll go if Ren Wei wants him hanging around and ruining his Taipei college life? Ren Wei tells him no need and hops on the train.
Jia En mopes all alone in their little town without Ren Wei around to keep her company. She decides to go live in Taipei with her parents while studying to retake the college entrance exam next year.
A montage of Ren Wei living the life of a busy college student. He runs out of the dorm room and leaves his pager on the desk on the day Jia En wants to go up. Jia En tries calling her parents in Taipei but no one answers. She pages Ren Wei but gets no response either.
She decides to be a bit more independent and takes a train to Taipei by herself. As she arrives she gets her purse stolen since she looks like such a clueless college bumpkin.
Jia En manages to get to her parents tea house around the Cheng Dong University (CDU) college campus and sees it closed as the owners are off traveling for three days. Jia En enters the CDU campus to look for Ren Wei and marvels at the busy college students milling around. She goes to find the posted dorm room assignments and sees that Ren Wei is in room 339. Jia En walks to the dorm and passes by a basketball game being watched by a big crowd chanting the name “Liu Chuan. Liu Chuan. Liu Chuan.”
She stops to watch and sees a guy in red shooting baskets. It’s Liu Chuan aka Liu Shan Feng (Lego Lee) and he finally misses a basket and the ball rolls out of the court and his little Pomeranian dog chases after it. Jia En greets the dog named Momo and picks up the ball. Liu Chuan runs over to get both back and there is a moment where they stare at each other.
Liu Chuan heads back to the court and all the girls swarm him, offering him drinks and towels and its clear he’s the big man on campus. His buddy Xie Qing Yo aka Ah Qing (Steven Sun) is upset at the loss of female attention and challenges Liu Chuan to another shoot-off. Jia En smiles at the typical campus stuff which is all new to her and then walks off to keep looking for Ren Wei.
Jia En arrives at Men’s Dorm #1 and enters to find the Dorm Lady Ma Li (Mary) who welcomes her warmly. Mary allows her up to room 339 to go wait for Ren Wei. Jia En walks through the dorm and marvels at college rooming life. Jia En enters the room after finding the door unlocked and puts her things down to wait.
Back at the basketball courts, Ren Wei walks by with his two dorky college roommates. There is Agricultural major Wang Jian Guo nicknamed Ah Di and also Pre-law major Chang Zi Xi nicknamed Zai Zai. The three guys marvel at the ladies swarming around campus big wigs Liu Chuan and Ah Qing. Ren Wei finds out that those two guys, along with a third guy named Liao Ri Qi, are called The Three Musketeers and all belong to the Foreign Languages major.
Ren Wei hilariously scoffs at that name and decides the three of them need a team nickname. The naming process leads them down a free association path of calling out anything that comes in threes or has the number three in its name – The Three Little Sky Kings, Three Bowl Chicken, Three Sided Sandwich, Three Treasures Rice, Triangle, Three Edge Briefs, The Three Blades, etc. Ren Wei decides to think outside Threes comes up with their name – CDU Men of Steel! As the Men of Steel head off to bask in their self-naming glory, a pretty girl on a bike passes by and Ren Wei is smitten at first sight. No wonder he’s so taken because he learns that she is Bai Xue Feng aka Bai Xue (Snow White), the prettiest girl on campus and the school flower.
Liu Chuan walks back to his dorm room number 339 to shower after playing basketball and he starts taking off his clothes before noticing Jia En sleeping on the sofa in the adjacent room. Momo wakes her up by licking her hand and then Jia En screams upon seeing nearly naked Liu Chuan. He hides behind the closet while she runs out with her eyes covered.
Once outside, she realizes Momo followed her out so knocks on the door to return the dog. She asks Liu Chuan if a student named Cheng Ren Wei lives here since he lives in room 339 and she saw it posted on the dorm assignments list. Liu Chuan is certain no such student lives here and takes back Momo and closes the door. Jia En knocks again to go and get her luggage from inside before leaving. Jia En walks out of the dorm and goes to wait outside on the park bench. We see Ren Wei hanging with his roommates at a comic book store all night.
Later that night it starts to rain and Liu Chuan peeks out his window and notices Jia En hiding under the dorm awning from the rain. He goes down and hands her an umbrella and finds out she still can’t find her friend Ren Wei. Liu Chuan figures out Jia En’s mistake which is that Ren Wei lives in room 309 in Men’s Dorm #2 whereas she’s at Men’s Dorm #1. He finds out she got her wallet stolen off the train and her parents are also out of town. Liu Chuan decides she can’t stay outside all night and sneaks her into the dorm.
Liu Chuan takes her back to his room and hands her toiletries to sneak her into the men’s shower now that’s already so late. Jia En has to dive under the bed to hide when roommate Qing Yo comes back with some buddies to spray paint his hair pink to because he lost the basketball shoot out with Liu Chuan.
Mary comes by checking all the room after hearing a report that a girl was seen sneaking in here. It’s verboten to sneak girlfriends into the Men’s Dorm under her watch! Liu Chuan manages to divert them and sneak Jia En out to the men’s showers.
He takes her inside to shower while he stands guard outside. He tells her to hurry up because Mary is doing checks. Jia En is getting dressed when Mary walks in wanting to check the showers so Liu Chuan has to take his shirt off and hop into the shower Jia En is using. She’s dressed but they press up against each other with her very close to the now shirtless Liu Chuan.
Mary checks the stalls and asks why Liu Chuan hasn’t turned the water on. He turns the water on and Jia En yelps which draws Mary’s attention. Liu Chuan smoothly lies that Momo has been sad lately so he’s learning to yelp in a high pitched way to communicate better with him. LOL.
Mary leaves and Liu Chuan hurries Jia En back to his room. He passes by Qing Yo who saw a girl enter their room and gives Liu Chuan the room for the night with a wink wink nudge nudge. As Jia En goes to put her things back into her luggage, she doesn’t notice that Liu Chuan’s necklace falls into her bag.
That night Liu Chuan and Jia En spend listening to music without talking because he can sense her discomfort so turns on the music to lighten the mood. Turns out they both love Wu Bai and his modern Taiwanese rock.
Liu Chuan wakes up the next morning and Jia En has already left, leaving him a note thanking him for last night. He realizes his necklace is missing and is pretty frantic so it must be of some importance. He goes running outside to search for Jia En.
Ren Wei and his two roomies finally held back to campus after a night spent reading comic books. Jia En runs into Ren Wei who wonders what she is doing here? She explains that she came to study for her exam but got her wallet stolen, couldn’t reach him, and her parents happen to be out of town. Ren Wei asks where she stayed last night and Jia En lies that she slept in the dorm common area. She asks why Ren Wei didn’t return her page and he lies that his pager broke, but then her parents page him right then but Jia En is so trusting that she believes his story that his pager just got fixed.
Ren Wei and Jia En go make a call to her parents at the telephone booth just as the sweaty Liu Chuan finally spots her after running around the campus.
Thoughts of Mine:
I love how this drama isn’t selling any love triangles, nor does it use the campus setting as just an excuse for the kids to be college students but don’t actually do anything remote college-related. So far the themes of going off to college and exploring a new world is wonderfully rendered through the eyes of Ren Wei and Jia En. Even better is that they resemble comfortable siblings and even though its clear Jia En likes Ren Wei more than he likes her, it’s not overwrought and she doesn’t live and die by is attention. Which makes the OTP of Jia En and Liu Chuan all that more exciting, because I can bask in their adorableness without worrying much about third party angst. Jia En took me a bit to warm up to since her character starts off so simple and unassuming, melting into the background and needing a bit of real world practicality knocked into her. I see that happening soon and Liu Chuan seems like such a lottery ticket falling into her lap. What are the odds that she barges into the room of the most popular guy on campus, sees him shirtless twice, and gets to spend the night on his sofa listening to music with him. That’s the part where this drama total fanservices me by throwing in the improbably first meeting between them, and then letting it sort of take its course as the drama progresses.
Click here to watch In A Good Way.