I had my doubts when F4 Thailand: Boys Over Flowers
was announced. As much of an all-time favorite Hana Yori Dango
may be, many aspects of Kamio Yoko's classic shojo manga story, which began serialization in the early 90s, don't hold up great without rose-tinted glasses. When I tuned into F4 Thailand
, it was more out of the usual curiosity about how this latest cast and version would hold up against past adaptations. I didn't expect it would turn out to be one of the best Boys Over Flowers
GMMTV churns out glossy youth romance dramas, so the studio is in comfortable territory with F4 Thailand. The story is the same old one that we know too well. Poor but lionhearted schoolgirl Gorya (Tu Tontawan) attends an elite high school that is dominated by the rich and handsome squad known as F4 – Thyme (Bright Vachirawit), Ren (Dew Jirawat), Kavin (Win Metawin) and MJ (Nani Hirunkit). Ren (Hanazawa Rui) is the quiet and sensitive one, Kavin (Nishikado Sojiro) is the blue-blooded playboy with a heart of gold, MJ (Mimasaka Akira) is the mood-making glue of the group, and Thyme (Domyoji Tsukasa) is the immature, short-tempered leader of F4 who gives out the infamous red card to those who get on his bad side. The red card is seen as an open call for everyone to bully the target and force them out of the school. After stepping up to defend a friend from Thyme, Gorya receives a red card and becomes the victim of merciless bullying. She puts an end to the madness by literally kicking some sense into Thyme, who then falls hard for her.
While past adaptations have tended to soften the bullying and Domyoji's belligerent behavior with a more comical tone, F4 Thailand elevates the violence and hostility. In this otherwise brightly colored world, there's an alarmingly dark corner that looks more like it belongs in The Gifted or Blacklist: an abandoned arena on campus where victims are dragged to a pool of water and beaten up before a cheering audience. As overblown as this may be, F4 Thailand is the first adaptation to really emphasize the severity of F4's bullying actions as well as Thyme's character arc and redemption process. The drama also attempts to explain why students participate in the bullying, showing the red card as something that starts with F4 but balloons beyond them.
The ups and downs of Gorya and Thyme's romantic relationship are naturally the main storyline, and Tu and Bright ably deliver the cute, the comedy and the angst. Tu is especially impressive in her acting debut; she will be a name to watch for years to come. However, what stands out the most about F4 Thailand is not the romance but the friendship. Out of all the adaptations, this series best brings out the camaraderie of the main protagonists. F4 and Gorya form an unexpectedly heartwarming squad of high school friends who have each other's backs even when they're fighting. Besides Dew being a warm and reliable presence in her life, Gorya also has a strong friendship with Kavin and MJ, and her bestie Kaning (Prim Chanikan) basically becomes a part of the crew as well.
At 16 episodes, F4 Thailand doesn't drag at all, efficiently hitting a multitude of conflicts and turning points at brisk pace. The speed means the audience doesn't have to spend much time dwelling on the more ridiculous story elements. At the same time, the drama knows to linger on the moments and conversations that matter. I may have started watching F4 Thailand with tempered expectations, but I came out of it impressed by the strong production values, the growth and development of the characters, and the updated choices in tone and themes within that same familiar story.
Everyone has their own favorite Boys of Flowers adaptation. For me, first place will always be the original Meteor Garden for nostalgic reasons, but F4 Thailand is now firmly in second place.