I like Mary Stayed Out All Night. I like it very much indeed, though thus far I find it a rather cotton-candy affair. If I were to describe it, I would say it combines the charismatic leads and whimsical tone of Pasta with the over-the-top disregard for reality that characterized You’re Beautiful.
Before watching this, I was afraid that Mary would either have an uneven tone or be so over-the-top as to be frenetic and silly (the promo images were so utterly ridiculous, especially the wedding/graveyard ones – misplaced Tim Burton worship). Fortunately, however, most of those images were from a dream Mae Ri (the “Mary” of the title) has at the beginning of the drama, rather than an actual scene in the drama. And my faith in the lead actors, which held through all the awful, awful promo shots and posters, proved correct – Moon Geun Young and Jang Geun Seuk make this drama. Especially the former. I’ve caught parts of dramas Moon Geun Young has been it, but this is my first full exposure to her, and the girl irradiates the screen. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear she’d been doing comedy forever and that that was what she was best known for.
Mae Ri is a quirky, forthright girl with a deadbeat father, an upbeat personality, and a weakness for watching dramas. Her mother died when she was young (both parents being alive and kicking would break one of the kdrama conventions so that’s expected) and she’s grown up with only her father, an irresponsible good-for-nothing who’s always coming up with harebrained schemes and losing both his own and Mae Ri’s money. The past year has been particularly hard for them, with Mae Ri having to drop out of college due to lack of funds. The drama picks up at a point when she’s just had to sell all her furniture to help her dad pay back his debts, and he’s in and out of her life constantly on the run from debt collectors.
The opening scenes (once we got past the dream and down to reality) with Mae Ri settling down in her newly bare place, have been perhaps my favorite out of the first four episodes of the drama thus far. There’s a whimsicality, a peace to these scenes that is sometimes missing from the rest of the drama.
Mae Ri sits alone in her empty apartment and begins counting out loud to 10 – a motif that will recur several times – then opens her eyes on the count of 10, visibly cheered and rejuvenated. As the drama goes on we will see that this belief – count to 10 and everything will get better – is a prop she uses to help her get through the tough times in life.
(On a side note, am I crazy, or does her style and general look have an eerie resemblance to that of Eun-chae in I’m Sorry I Love You?)
The wide, innocent eyes, the big lips, the poufy, curly hair and warm, bright clothes…yup, twins. Both characters also project an image of vulnerability and fragility combined with an odd strength. But while I’m Sorry I Love You is about a sheltered middle-class girl who falls for a rough-and-tumble drifter/swindler, Mary is about a penniless college dropout who falls for an equally penniless indie rocker. Instead of being opposites, they’re the same. But I’ll get to how the romantic pairing works later.
Interestingly, Mae Ri is very similar to other drama heroines as far as her situation goes, but she doesn’t have it quite as bad them – Yoo Rin in My Girl and Zhi Xing in My Lucky Star spring immediately to mind – but both those heroines, also possessed of gambling, deadbeat fathers, had a rough, hardscrabble life on the streets, constantly moving, and had been toughened by it to the extent that they could and did rely on deception to survive. Mae Ri has it rough, there’s no doubt about that, but she’s had a life plagued more by general issues of poverty than by truly desperate circumstances – she was attending college just like any other girl until just recently.
This makes Mae Ri a slightly contradictory character sometimes, or maybe that’s just a flaw of the drama’s writing – I haven’t quite figured it out yet. For instance, she’s quickly adaptable and is able to adjust to circumstances, even/especially bad ones, rapidly, and is fairly competent in some ways – kills herself finding a part-time job, unashamedly makes her friends pay her for driving them around, and, in one of my very favorite scenes thus far, convinces the debt collectors that she’s just as much a victim of her father’s impecunity as they are and (almost) manages to send them away with some well-chosen angry words and tears when speaking of her father. Yet at the same time she can be very very innocent – she and her father carelessly let the swindlers see him right after the aforementioned scene, and when she herself later attempts a very minor swindle to get herself out of some trouble, she’s almost immediately caught due to a piece of incredible idiocy (who swindles someone and then settles down just outside to forge the document??).
This innocence can be endearing, however – at the beginning of the drama Mae Ri the directing and camera shots give to Mae Ri a quirky, oddball vibe, almost as if she’s an alien from another planet, as in this shot in which her head and wide, wondering eyes are framed by the antenna coming out of the red television.
This innocence can also be confusing and annoying when it manifests in other ways however. For a girl who seemed so pushy and sure of herself in the first episode, Mae Ri certainly lets herself be pushed around by everyone else in episodes 3-4, not least by her father. That relationship is one which I find infuriating; we’ve seen many renditions of the saint-like, loving daughter who sticks with the bastard/leechlike parent through thick and thin, but Mae Ri, at least initially (and refreshingly) is not portrayed in that way – she gets in tons of loud, brash fights with her father and in the first episode tells him off continually. In the first episode the balance of power seemed to be with her, and while she was still clearly putting up with a man who was destroying her life, at least she wasn’t doing it blindly or submissively. Yet later, she appears to be so afraid of her father that she concocts a false marriage to resist him, and is only briefly angry when he illegally marries her off to a complete stranger. I would understand this better if I could see some sort of conflict within her about her relationship with her father, but all of her emotions are so transient, and her actions ultimately, simply submissive. We had some random mutterings about how grateful she was to him for raising her, but it’s clear that any debt she owes to him for that has been long negated by the burden he’s been on her life in recent years.
On the whole, I have mixed feelings about Mae Ri – I loved her initially, but doubts about her spunk, common sense, and sheer intelligence (I’m accustomed to questioning the first two with kdrama heroines but not so much the third) have occasionally crept in on me in episodes 3-4. Moon Geun Young makes her incredibly endearing, but I wish her character made more sense, and I think part of the reason I’m struggling with what feels like inconsistencies in her character is that we’ve had so little of her backstory thus far. Most kdramas go too far to the opposite extreme and waste precious episodes or entire segments on long and ultimately dull childhood flashbacks, but in this case, not only have there been zero flashbacks of any kind thus far, but we also know very few facst about Mae Ri. What did her mother die of? How did Mae Ri get that scar on her forehead? Most importantly, what drives her? What drives her to want to go to college, to be generally kind to people, to stick with her father no matter what? There’s surprisingly little internality with Mae Ri after the first episode, and her personality is not quite strong and defined enough to make me content that I know her without that backstory and emotional development.
About the pairing of Moo Kyul (Jang Geun Seuk) and Mae Ri, however, I have no doubts at all. Their first meeting? As the screen freezes and operatic music plays overhead? I cracked up.
Jang Geun Seuk and Moon Geun Young have insane chemistry from pretty much their first second onscreen, and what I love love about the pairing of these characters is that it’s a pairing we’ve seen seldom if ever before. Moo Kyul and Mae Ri are both oddball, heedless, cheery street urchins, essentially, and it is hilarious seeing them interact, fight with each other like cats, and develop an odd, off-kilter rapport and growing affection. This is the first drama I’ve seen in a very very long time where the main couple quickly grow to like each other, spend time together, and tease each other like old friends or an old married couple.
I adore them, and not least because they’re just so cute together. He quickly starts calling her a puppy, and she calls him a street cat when he intends to sleep on the street, and after that they develop a thing where they bark and meow at each other, respectively (I know. It’s disgustingly cute, a little too much so. That’s ok. These two are so amazing I don’t care).
And they are similar, in many ways – I don’t feel, oddly enough, that they’re drawn together out of need or loneliness. Both are so highly accustomed to their way of life that they seem reasonably happy in it – especially Moo Kyul – but rather they are fundamentally so much the same kind of people, they think the same way, that they would have been drawn together even if they weren’t in similar situations. Both penniless, generous people with irresponsible parents.
Moo Kyul is an interesting figure, in that he’s not at all the icy, tormented rich-guy hero so quintessential to 99% of drama plots, nor is he the anti-hero-with-a-heart-of-gold (gangster/swindler who reforms) who makes up the other 1%.
He’s an indie musician who’s probably the closest thing to a hippie and a hobo that we’ll see in a Kdrama, who has dozens of groupies, has had hundreds of girlfriends, but who is obviously a kind person who doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Like Mae Ri, he’s obviously been battered around by life, but instead of it making him bitter or cold, he’s possessed instead of a careless but obvious kindliness that makes him very much not an anti-hero. He’s not even really the plaboy rendition of the kdrama hero, because he doesn’t actively pursue women or seem to overly care about them – music is his passion and if girls happen to come along with that, all well and good, but he doesn’t need it. Talented enough to be offered several record deals, he turns them all down because they want only him and not his band, toward which he possesses a fierce loyalty.
What Moo Kyul and Mae Ri both want, whether they realize it or not (and mostly not) is stability and the kind of loyalty they were never offered by their parents or family – they want a home, and they’re already, instinctively and in small ways, starting to find it in each other.
Neither is too attached as yet – both I think give care easily but don’t start caring deeply without great incentive, for fear of getting hurt. Yet in their small domesticities as the “marriage” forces them together, they’re drawing closer…
Mary is certainly flawed. All the side characters, especially both the parents, are by turns wildly uninteresting and deeply infuriating, which is a major weakness – the drama only really holds together when Mae Ri and Moo Kyul are onscreen together, and even that is so much because of the sheer charm and chemistry of Jang Geun Seuk and Moon Geun Young. The plot is paper-thin and often ridiculous (expected from a drama based on a manwha). Yet it’s a warm, fun, funny, romantic comedy, and most of all has a delicious offbeat approach to the main characters and the central romance, and an intimate, indie vibe. I am enjoying it very, very much.