With his curly hair and surly expressions, Lee Min-ho became an international obsession after Boys Over Flowers — a show that makes him cringe, so I have admitted. It was the show that established him in the mold as the rich brattish boy, who is reformed after falling in love with a feisty girl of moderate means. Just a few years later, he starred in the enormously successful The Heirs, where he played a rich man again with a sob story, who falls in love with a girl of simple means, and has to fight with his snobbish family for acceptance. There are just a few variations — instead of a conniving mother, there’s a stone-cold father. There’s a former best friend-turned rival here as well and they both shove around the girl between themselves while they battle out their animal instincts.
Lee Min-ho has now portrayed the role of a bratty rich kid with power to such conviction, that it almost seems difficult to see him as anything else. He’s usually the ‘bad boy’ that you’re forced to root for (not so much in Pachinko), and the writers hope that he wins you over with his smarmy charm. But truly all you can wonder is… why is he always such a toxic lover and a bully in his most successful shows of him?
So, it was a bit of a pleasant surprise to watch him in the Legend Of The Blue Sea, which was the most un-Lee Min-ho romance that he has starred in.
Running between two different timelines, Legend Of The Blue Sea is a fantastical love story that feels like it was written during a long spell of delirium. And yet, its absolute outlandishness adds to its charm. You can either love or hate it—there’s no in-between. It’s the tale of a mermaid falling in love with a man, with a twist of reincarnation. The man in question, played by Lee Min-ho is a con-man, who can hypnotise people and even craft scenarios in their head—and that’s when you stop asking questions. He’s a hypnotist who falls in love with a mermaid who gets human legs when she walks on land. See, told you, it sounds batty. But then this comes from the writer of My Love From Another Star, where a 400-year-old alien, who wants to return to his home planet, falls in love with a woman (played by Jun Ji-hyun again).
In all its delightful absurdity, The Legend Of The Blue Sea feels like a relaxing sea-breeze that evolves into a slight gale towards the end of the show. The romance between Lee Min-ho and Jun Ji-hyun is quirky and hilarious, almost like a languid breeze, and doesn’t get the sugary, saccharine treatment. Yet, when it comes to being serious and emotional, the show knows how to pull at the heartstrings, especially the moments between the lead couple that take place underwater. Lee Min-ho leaves aside the brattish college student avatar, and sinks into the role of con-man, finding new ways to survive while battling past traumas. He shows off his sense of humor from him —that we’ve only seen a glimpse of in his previous shows—- and that matches Jun Ji-hyun’s maddening antics from her as she plays a mermaid who struggles to adjust to the world of humans. While the trope of reincarnated lovers always seems a little trite and far-fetched, the show slowly finds a way to let the story grow on you. The story isn’t without normal K-drama tropes of course. In this case, the mermaid has the ability to wipe out memories, which she does at the cost of much heartbreak.
Amnesia tropes are a favorite in K-dramas. However, this series handles it in a deeply emotional manner that makes you forget its clichéd aspect. In one of the climactic scenes, Lee Min-ho asks her to promise that before she returns to the sea, she wo n’t erase her memories of her. To save from the pain of a lifelong wait, she kisses him. While that’s romantic with soothing instrumentals in the background, it’s also heart-breaking at the same time, as she slowly erases her memories of her. Yet, true K-drama love always finds a way, regardless of whether you’re a mermaid or not.
Legend Of The Blue Sea was Lee Min-ho’s comeback to television after over three years in 2016, and became one of the highest-rated shows. It was definitely one of his best, non-problematic and swoon-worthy romances of his. He was effortlessly natural and smooth in the show, almost relatable at points (minus the hypnotics part of it). He deserves to be in shows of varying genres and break out of the mold that has been set for him, because there’s a lot to his acting skills that we’ve only seen glimpses of. In the controversial The King: Eternal Monarch, a maddeningly inexplicable sci-fi romantic thriller, he once again went back to being someone in power, this time a king, no less, though a lot less toxic, and the consuming romance with Kim Go -eun saved the show. However, he returned to toxicity in the recent show, Pachinko—but thankfully, we weren’t expected to cheer him on.
Lee Min-ho is one of the stars that spear-headed the Hallyu wave—hopefully, he gets to experience more in the future and show different aspects of his acting. Maybe try him out in a crime thriller next time?