With an Indonesian version, a Japanese version, a South Korean version, various dubbed versions, sequels and remakes, “Meteor Garden” has evidently captured hearts all over Asia. First released in Taiwan in 2001, the series centers around Dong Shancai, a poor girl who stands her ground at Ming De University, where the rich, elitist boys—known collectively as F4—rule the halls. Her strength and non-compliance are exactly what make F4’s short-tempered leader, Daoming Si, begin to like her. This unlikely romance has since become a well-loved story, so perhaps it’s time to look at some deeper implications that may have gotten lost in the fanfare.
Knowing my affinity towards romantic comedies, my freshman year roommate showed me the trailer for the 2018 remake of “Meteor Garden”starring Shen Yue and Dylan Wang.
My first reaction was: “That boy’s cute!” I was referring to Dylan’s character—the boy with the earrings, spiky hair, brooding expression, and cocky smirk.
“That’s Daoming Si,” my roommate responded. “He’s got a bad personality.”
Well, at that point in my life, I’d been spoon-fed the notion that bad boys are just softies deep down with a troubled past. So, I poured myself a cup of tea, bundled up in a blanket, and logged onto Netflix. I must’ve looked really silly, getting all cozied up to get my heartstrings pulled and emotions played, naively believing that these preparations alone were enough to brace me for the first episode.
Si and Shancai undoubtedly get off on the wrong foot. Evident even in the trailer, that part didn’t come as a shock, but by the end, I knew that this show would exceed my expectations as a rom com veteran. Shancai calls attention to Si’s imperious attitude, spilling perceptive truths about him that he refuses to confront. In response, he smacks a box of noodles and rice at her face. The music momentarily cuts to white noise as slow-motion shots of the assault play out from different angles. Visibly uneasy but unwilling to apologize, Si chooses instead to blame his victim: “You deserved it,” he adds. “You insulted me first.”
Aside from explicitly hurtful acts, Si’s introduction to the audience consists primarily of boundary violations and predatory behavior. In many of the previous rom coms I’d seen, the bad boy trope was merely an attitude; this show takes the old phrase “Actions speak louder than words” to new heights. Looking back, I wonder if the intrigue desensitized me somewhat to the dehumanization. This behavior surely wouldn’t pass in my daily life, but it certainly made for a good show.
We do eventually get to see Si’s redeeming moments—and they are big ones at that. During a group trip to Canada, two deceitful girls play upon Shancai’s kindness to trick her into braving a snow storm. When Si learns of this, he wastes no time at all to find her. He takes her to a shelter, wraps her in his coat, burns firewood, and makes her tea, but when the situation seems too dire, he resorts to body heat to keep her warm—a scene that likely incited cheeky reactions from fans.
Later, gang members kidnap Shancai, aiming to get back at Si for the way he treated them in the past. Shancai earnestly hopes that Si won’t come to her rescue, but he does, and he takes a beating that lands him in the hospital. As plot devices, these scenes go beyond merely showing the caring and compassionate side of Si; he is portrayed as a savior. The problem with these grand gestures, however, is that they minimize the toxic behaviors that occur more commonly for his character.
When Shancai reflects on why Si means so much to her, these sacrificial moments come to mind. Many viewers are compelled to view him just as endearingly, especially as his backstory starts to unfold. Si lost his father at a young age, and his mother is a ruthless business mogul who hardly shows any affection for her kids. He may be an angry boy with major communication issues, but he’s passionate about the one he loves. The more time we spend with Daoming Si, the more we want him to succeed in his pursuit of happiness.
But, in reality, one’s happiness shouldn’t rest entirely on another person.
That’s why I think it’s important to appreciate the added layers by some of the secondary characters. Huaze Lei, for instance, is the quiet, violin playing member of F4. Just as rich but not quite as elitist as the other boys, Lei is a friend to both Si and Shancai. Whenever conflict arises between the two—who go through multiple breakups throughout the series—Lei steps in with ambiguous displays of kindness rather than direct interventions. One of my favorite examples of this is when Si’s mother, Daoming Feng, essentially runs Shancai out of town so as to keep her poor background away from their rich family. After letting him sulk for a few days, Lei invites Si to spend time at the park with F4. Set against cheerful music and a dreamy bokeh effect, a cute montage ensues of the boys flying kites and playing with bubbles.
Shortly thereafter, Lei takes the initiative in bringing Shancai back to her old apartment. In doing so, Shancai is back in town, reunited with all her friends, and once again in close proximity to Si. Though this doesn’t entirely fix the couple’s problems, it does open the door to possible reconciliation.
I think it’s important to watch “Meteor Garden” with a discerning eye. Go into it knowing that unrealistic portrayals of love will be presented. Enjoy the show. Then step away from it, knowing that the same conventions don’t apply in real life: There definitely won’t be any dramatic flashbacks, cute montages or playful soundtracks. There hopefully won’t be consistent toxic behaviors that can easily be counteracted with life-or-death sacrifices. But in real life, we will foster connections with others. So pay attention to the supporting characters; they often embody strong examples of friendship that we can apply to reality.
Written by Anne Lizette Sta. Maria
Illustrated by Vivi Hashiguchi
Edited by Jaime Mah