Miss Korea is like that tagline for an old school Folger’s Coffee commercial – “Good until the last drop.” While I’m relieved not to be penning a recap for the final episode that requires mental gymnastics to make sense of what happened or an emotional explanation to take away feelings of disappointment, I don’t want to stack MK up against other dramas to emphasize how good it is in comparison. Miss Korea is a fantastic and well-written drama on its own merits. It is merely that much better when placed beside the sea of K-dramas that rely on cheap thrills and makjang lures to sustain a story. I’m so grateful and genuinely delighted to have encountered such a lovely drama that shared a discreet story of a small group of folks and never tried to pander to ratings or dumb down its narrative. On the surface Miss Korea is a beauty pageant story, the journey of a pretty girl to the prettiest girl in all of South Korea. But scratch below the surface and Miss Korea is the story about regular folks struggling in a particular difficult financial period in recent Korean history.
Whether it’s through intelligence or looks, by hard work or underhanded tactics, the quest to keep on living isn’t sugarcoated in easy solutions or made all that more fun with fanciful outcomes. It was a simple pleasure to watch nicely written characters work together for a common goal, and in this drama we have two goals for the price of one. Leading lady Oh Ji Young stepped out of her small elevator box and into the greater world outside while leading man Kim Hyung Joon took a tumble down from a fast rising start out of the gate and needed to start over again in his cosmetic business endeavor. Their second chance at love and in life was equal parts sweet and stirring, and ultimately ending with the promise of a future ahead that we won’t get to see but we feel comforted will surely be a long road together. I feel both satisfied and rewarded for recapping Miss Korea and hope this drama stands the test of time like I think it would and more drama fans have a chance to experience the magic down the road.
Episode 20 recap:
Team Vivi seals their new lip glosses as customers are finally scooping up the product after seeing Ji Young wearing it in her Dream Center CF. Ji Young signs autographs at the Bada booth while across her from Team Vivi sells their lip glosses.
After Ji Young goes on break, she stands in the floor above and looks down happily as the bustling crowd in front of the Vivi booth. Madam Ma comes by and chastises her for looking so happy at a competitor of Bada selling so well. She smiles and says that she’s happy, can’t she be happy for once. Madam Ma tells her to wait until she’s back in her own bed to be happy, she needs to be a professional now. Ji Young smiles and says she understands.
Hyung Joon smiles when he walks through the department store and sees Ji Young’s CF playing on the TVs overhead.
Hyung Joon goes home and sees Ji Young waiting for him by the stairs. She turns and sees him and immediately spreads her arms open for a hug. He hesitates but she tells him to come over so he rushes over to hug her back. She asks how well he sold today and hears he sold over 1000 units. He thanks her and she’s so happy for him. He asks her to wait until his company gets bigger and he can afford to sign her as the model for Vivi. Until then, she needs to endure with Bada and do as good job there. She understands and they smile at each other, happy that things are looking up finally.
Dr. Ko goes back to her own apartment and rings the doorbell and Teacher Jung opens. He tells her to come in and she walks in to see the TV turned on to the news about more and more companies going bankrupt. Teacher Jung is cooking and even using Dr. Ko’s pots that she’s never used before. He tells her to sit and eat and chastises her for not taking better care of herself when she lived her.
Dr. Ko watches as Teacher Jung expertly grabs a pot and asks how he knows how to cook? Teacher Jung laughs that he’s lived alone for so long. When he asks for the rice spatula and hears she doesn’t have one, he tsk tsks her. He plans to live here until she leaves for France and will cook for her until then as well. She smiles at how good the food looks and then takes a bit. Teacher Jung says his team sold 2000 units today and she is so happy to hear that.
Heung Sam and Kang Woo go to the hotel to look for Teacher Jung to bring him food but hear that he checked out. Heung Sam is worried since earlier today he asked Teacher Jung to eat with them tonight but he was reluctant so he worries that the man is sleeping at the train station.
Hyung Joon walks Ji Young back to home and tells her that Yoon tried to help her first when Kang Sik tried to sabotage her reign as Miss Korea by using her age eligibility. Ji Young asks why he is telling her? Hyung Joon doesn’t want to keep it inside like a thief and Ji Young thanks him. She points out that Yoon oppa isn’t just average handsome, he’s very handsome, and he likes her very much. How much does Hyung Joon oppa like her? He never really shows it so he needs to show it more going forward.
Madam Yang is doing Sun Young’s hair at the salon when Madam Ma walks over with Director Yoon to work on Soo Jung’s hair. She’s upset to see that Sun Young’s scalp is red and itchy and hears that it’s been like that since Soo Jung got her hair permed by Madam Yang. She flies into a rage knowing that Madam Yang took money from a hair perming company to start using their crappy products here. Madam Yang begs for another chance but Madam Ma kicks her out. Director Yoon drags her out along with Sun Young while Madam Yang whines that she didn’t know the products were so bad.
Yoon gets a call from Ji Young and she asks him if he still smokes?
Kang Sik is at the Bada booth and smiles when customers come to buy the Vivi cream that JI Young wore. When asked if they want her lipstick as well, they decline and then head over to the Vivi booth to buy the lip gloss. Kang Sik notices this as the Vivi team happily sells their lip gloss to the customers.
Kang Sik walks over and says Vivi is selling well and Hyung Joon thanks him for his help. He reveals that other stores also want to carry their lip gloss and eventually they will sell their own Vivi cream as well. He tells Kang Sik not to be so ruthless, they can survive together and survive for an long time and everyone can be happy. Kang Sik glares at him but says nothing and walks away.
Heung Sam is at the store with Teacher Jung and Dr. Ko and he’s worried about where Teacher Jung spent the night since he checked out of the hotel. Dr. Ko tries to gesture for Teacher Jung not to say anything but he flat out reveals that he slept at Dr. Ko’s place last night. He heads out to the OEM factory while Heung Sam’s head drops. Dr. Ko sits down across from Heung Sam and he asks if she would let him stay at her place if he had nowhere to go? She says no? He asks why not, is it because he’s not man enough? Dr. Ko says it’s because Heung Sam doesn’t know how to cook. Teacher Jung is so different than Dr. Ko, so eating his meals feels very different and nice for her.
Yoon comes to the store and looks around. Ji Young opens the window and asks the customer what brand of smokes he wants? He asks if Miss Korea is selling cigarettes now and she says after she leaves work she’s still the granddaughter and daughter of shop owners. He buys the same brand he bought from her when they were in high school, but this time asks her for correct change. She asks why he’s not telling her to keep the change for them to go on a date? He laughs that dating and money are different.
They sit down outside and she apologizes for not looking at him clearly, and thanks him for caring about her even when she’s not looking at him. Yoon just wanted to protect his first love just like Hyung Joon does as well. She tells him to not do it anymore since she doesn’t want to see him not succeed at something. Yoon says there are a lot of things that don’t go well for him, and the more one wants the more things don’t go well. He asks what she wants to do afterwards and she still doesn’t know. She wants to do her job well for now and spend more time thinking about it.
She worked hard to get here and wants to experience it fully. After her term is done, people will forget about her. Then her heart can calm down and she can think about what she wants to do next. He agrees but reminds her not to pick a future where she works hard to earn money to make the person she loves happy, she needs to pick what she loves to do. That way the person next to her can be happy as well. Yoon gets up to leave and he tells her that she’s the reason he’ll be lonely for a bit of time, but it’ll just be for this bit of time. They smile and say goodbye.
Madam Yang is crying and eating all alone about making a small mistake and getting no slack from Madam Ma despite how long they’ve worked together. She eats the delicious meat and keeps crying. She whines that she could have married a rich man but instead was lured to be a beauty stylist by Madam Ma. She gets called back by Madam Ma and then starts acting all cute to try and beg forgiveness. Madam Ma has forgiven her but warns her not to do this again. She asks if Madam Yang has repaid all the debt she owed and sees through Madam Yang’s lie that she did. Madam Ma tells her that she will charge interest and Madam Yang thanks her profusely.
Madam Ma is very protective of Madam Yang who is too trusting and can’t run her own salon which is why she stopped her from opening her own place. Madam Yang cries that she never knew this and thanks Madam Ma. She tells Madam Yang to learn well and learn everything this time if she wants to leave again and open her own place, and if she does then she can’t fail again. Madam Yang knows that Madam Ma is lonely as well, she does so well but she’s still all alone in the end. So Madam Yang will make the money she lent her worth it, she’ll stay beside Madam Ma and keep her company for a long time.
Yoon drives home and looks at the pack of cigarettes on his dash and breaks into a wide beaming smile.
Ji Young comes home to find the men watching the news about the fast rising inflation in food prices going on right now. Everyone looks worried and she walks outside where it’s snowing. She reaches out her hand to catch the snowflakes and then flashes back.
Back in high school, Ji Young accompanied Hyung Joon to the photo studio to take pictures for his college application. He asks her to sit down and take a picture with him and she asks why? He says just because and then reveals they don’t have a picture together. She asks if he wants a picture of her and he just wants one of them together. In ten years, twenty years, will they be taking pictures like this? She asks if he plans to be with her forever then? But she’s heard that first loves always break up. The photographer is ready so they hold hands and snap the picture. Hyung Joon asks the photographer if he can have something written on the picture when he picks it up? He looks at Ji Young and she asks what he wants to write? Hyung Joon writes a note down with the date and pulls Ji Young out.
Hyung Joon comes home and sees Ji Young waiting for him. She smiles and says she’s been waiting for him since that date ten years ago when they took the picture. He looks confused and she asks if he doesn’t remember? Even when she reminds him she doesn’t remember and then she brings up the picture and he remembers. She asks if he still has the picture and he racks his brains. She reveals she ripped her up because she was so angry after he went off to college and always complained she didn’t study hard.
Ji Young huffs into the house while Hyung Joon calls his mom.
The Queen Beauty Salon girls are all dressed in bathing suits and will be measured every day from now on. Everyone is confused and asks why? Madam Ma says the world pageants are thinking of switching to bikinis and everyone freaks out since their special methods of emphasizing their figures can’t be used anymore. Madam Ma tells them all to keep training and watching their figures.
The Vivi team finishes selling to another customer when Dr. Ko brings up the May Cosmetics Fair and wants to start developing a new product. The guys realize she’s not going to France anymore if she’s getting ready to develop a new product and she confirms it.
Hyung Joon’s mom arrives at the store and Hyung Joon brings her inside. Mom asks where Ji Young is and that is when Ji Young comes home and immediately greets her respectfully. Mom is here to drag Hyung Joon out to a matseon but he asks if she’s gone crazy? Ji Young grabs Hyung Joon and says “this man is my man!” Ahahaha, I love her!!! Mom says the son is hers and asks Hyung Joon if he belongs to Ji Young? Hyung Joon says yes, he is Oh Ji Young’s man and then grabs his mom to calm her down.
Everyone sits down to dinner and Mom tells Ji Young not to be interested in her Hyung Joon. Grandpa reminds Ji Young’s dad that they need to rent out the room that Hyung Joon is currently staying in. Hyung Joon’s mom brings up how her son graduated from Seoul University and isn’t just suitable for any woman. Uncle says it doesn’t matter since his company almost went bankrupt and he’s squatting at their house. Ji Young says her oppa is selling lots of cosmetics now and is fairly raking on the dough. Grandpa brings up their Ji Young being Miss Korea Jin. Mom points out a line of women wanting to date her son. Oppa diffuses everything by telling everyone to eat.
Ji Young and Hyung Joon walk outside after dinner and he sighs at the mess upstairs. Ji Young is happy and tells him to say it again, who does he belong to? Hyung Joon says her, he belongs to her, okay? Ji Young smiles because her heart almost stopped because she never expected him to say that in front of his mom. She’s so happy and then he asks if she belongs to him? Ji Young says no, she belongs to herself, and oppa belongs to her, everything belongs to to her. Hyung Joon says that after May, she doesn’t belong to the public and will belong just to him. He goes inside and Ji Young keeps saying “mine, all mine.”
Hyung Joon and his mom are going to sleep and he asks if Ji Young really can’t do? Mom concedes that Ji Young is good in the kitchen but wants Hyung Joon to say again who he belongs to? Hyung Joon refuses to say it so Mom smacks him for raising him all these years and him being no good now. Hyung Joon asks if she brought it and she did bring his photo album. Hyung Joon opens the album and finds the picture he took with Ji Young and the inscription reads “I will always be by your side, 11-5-1987.” He smiles to see this picture again.
Teacher Jung heads to Gimpo Airport to send off Dr. Ko but can’t find her there. He wanders around then heads to a pawn shop to buy back Dr. Ko’s pawned necklace.
The Oh men are working around the shop when a customer comes in asking to buy a pack of cigarettes. Grandpa is upset the guy bought groceries at the supermarket and is coming here just for cigarettes. The customer leaves without buying it and the family discusses how they just can’t compete with the 24 hour supermarkets anymore.
Teacher Jung goes to the Vivi store and hands Dr. Ko the necklace he bought back since that was a gift from her mom. Heung Sam reveals that Dr. Ko isn’t going abroad anymore to study. Teacher Jung pulls her aside and asks why she didn’t tell him? Dr. Ko felt embarrassed since she said she was leaving and didn’t go. Heung Sam and Kang Woo scoot over and announce she’s not leaving because of them.
Teacher Jung asks if she didn’t leave because of him. Dr. Ko says she wants to date Teacher Jung because she likes him. That is why she didn’t leave. Teacher Jung leans in to kiss her and poor Heung Sam and Kang Woo collapses. Kang Woo drags Heung Sam out and both of them squat outside while Teacher Jung puts the necklace on Dr. Ko. Kang Woo says they simply can’t compete with such manly ardor.
The Oh men decide to grow their own bean sprouts that are pesticide free and organic since they can’t compete on price with the supermarkets. They decide to make fresh homemade tofu to sell since people love it, and then start humming a song to the bean sprouts and telling it that it’s beautiful because a news program said it would make plants grow better.
The Vivi team are deciding how to split up their tasks and Teacher Jung insists that he can keep driving trucks and making deliveries. He gets into the truck and Dr. Ko runs in with him to go with him to deliver the products to Busan. She refuses to get off the truck and go back to the store to work, smiling happily to go on a delivery with her boyfriend.
Madam Ma is with Ji Young and Director Yoon pulls into a gas station. A young girl comes out to service their car and Madam Ma notices her and quickly makes everyone get out. They stand outside their car and Madam Ma sizes her up as a perfect potential candidate for Miss Korea 1997. When the girl comes back out, Madam Ma asks the girl to take off her coat but the girl refuses and says she doesn’t do that. Madam Ma likes her sass and introduces herself as Madam Ma of Queen Beauty Salon. The girl recognizes Ji Young as Miss Korea and Madam Ma asks her if she’s graduated from high school and how old she is? Ji Young smiles at her and tells her to take off her cap.
Teacher Jung and Dr. Ko drive to Busan and along the way they listen to music. She tries to feed him a kimbap but he refuses to take it and she asks why he’s in such a bad mood. She wants to switch drivers since it’s a long drive but he pulls over and tells her to go do what a researcher does and not tag along to do work suited for him because it makes him feel bad. Dr. Ko understands and asks if he wants her to get off the truck now? Teacher Jung says to wait until they get to Busan and they smile and keep on driving.
Hyung Joon brings Ji Young back to the same photography studio and asks to take a picture. Ji Young sits down and the photographer snaps a picture of her first. Hyung Joon says this picture is meant for Miss Universe so it has to be great. He assures them it will look great. Hyung Joon asks for another picture and sits down next to Ji Young. He promises her that in ten years they will take another picture. She turns in shock and asks if he’s proposing to her? Does he want to marry her? He keeps saying this is just taking a picture so there is no pressure. She laughs that they can’t bring the kids. He says it’s just a picture! The photographer says cheese and the two of then hold hands and smile for the camera.
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The voiceover in the ending credits is an announcer speaking:
Today was really long and so unpredictable. It rained in morning and snowed at night, like it was fooling everyone. One needed an umbrella in the morning and was making snowmen at night as it snowed heavily. So did it rain today or snow today? In your day, did it rain today or snow today? A weatherman once said – if you draw a snowman, then you are someone who’s heart is easily melted; if you draw an umbrella then you are someone hoping to be with a loved one under the same umbrella. We, are lonely people, aren’t we?
The final scene is Hyung Joon and Ji Young holding hands in high school while taking the picture and then ten years later holding hands again taking the picture.
Thoughts of Mine:
What do I love the most about Miss Korea? I think it’s the sincerity of it’s storytelling heart. Yes, this drama was beautifully and creatively filmed with a tinge of throwback flavor reflecting its setting in the late 90’s. It was also acted with across-the-board excellence with an ensemble cast that never jostled for attention so the result was a melding together of effort. But it remains the rarity to find a drama written with consistent thoughtfulness and nary a shred of gotcha shocks. I was swept into this world and never looked back. Ji Young is one of the best female leads in drama land, courageous and spunky without being coy. She fights for what she wants and doesn’t hesitate to say what she thinks. Her determination to win Miss Korea and hold onto her second chance at love with Hyung Joon was awesome to behold. I wanted to be her own personal cheerleading squad and genuinely felt like I was rooting as if my own kid was competing for the crown. Hyung Joon took a bit longer for me to really get a feel for his character, but his intelligence coupled with a realistic stubborn insecurity turned out to be totally endearing and nicely complementary to Ji Young.
This was a drama OTP not built on soul stirring romance or epic love obstacles, instead it shared a low key relationship that was funny and heartwarming without being maudlin. All the supporting characters were also lovingly rendered so that each had a distinct personality and purpose and fit into the story seamlessly. I don’t mind the ending feeling merely like we had the book taken away from us when there are still pages left to read. The drama ended in a way that matched the tone of this story, that life keeps on going and people keep on toiling. One success is not enough to rest laurels on, one failure cannot be the end of the road. I appreciated that Ji Young was still thinking about her future when the drama ended, that she said thanks Yoon for the bits he did for her, and she faced her love and life with all the sincerity she is capable of and is rewarded with a happy ending. It was reassuring to see Team Vivi back on their feet at the end, Teacher Jung and Dr. Ko together, and Hyung Joon facing off Kang Sik and telling the man to just end this personal agenda to take down Vivi. This drama delivered a journey that had all the thrills and spills needed to keep a viewers attention and in the end wrapped it all up with not a bow but a pause. We’re done with Miss Korea but it feels like the characters in the story will keep on going forth in their lives and perhaps will always find a way to survive because they have friends and family around. Thanks for the awesome ride, Miss Korea.
Click here to watch Miss Korea.