If I were to describe ‘Itaewon Class’ as a feeling, it would be that of sipping warm coffee, surrounded by your closest friends on a stormy night at an unknown place. You do not know this place, you do not know when the storm will end but somehow you know that you are safe.
Still an amateur to the adult experience, ‘Itaewon Class’ is the show that made a lot of youngsters like me, feel understood and heard in this competitive capitalist world. The story of a group of social outcasts who come together to take down an exploitative business mogul, ‘Itaewon Class’ is a revenge epic, a love story and a social commentary all at once.
The first episode opens with a high school student at a counselling session. We see her talking about life, feeling burdensome, repetitive and how she wishes the world would end. Her arguments are valid and there is nothing the viewer or the therapist could come up with to convince her otherwise. A strong introduction to the series, ‘Itaewon Class’ instantly informs the viewer that there will be some hard to swallow pills, truth bombs and grey shades so tighten your seat belts!
The story then cuts to 15 years in the past and we are introduced to Park Saeroyi(Park Seo-joon), a socially inept high-school transfer who’s aloof and raised by his single dad Mr. Park(Son Hyun-joo). He doesn’t have a social life nor does he wish to have one, to him his Dad is everything he needs. Until, he meets Soo-ah(Kwon Nara), his classmate who eventually becomes his long-term crush *swoon*
Our protagonist with a peculiar buzz cut, awkward head rubs and fumbling words whenever around his crush, manages to win our hearts. So does his Dad, who is an extremely gentle and caring person loved by almost everyone he meets.
Everything is going well until things start escalating uncontrollably. Long story short, our protagonist lands himself in a fight with Jang Guen Won (Ahn Bo-hyun), son of Jang Dae-hee (Yoo Jae-myung), an unimaginably immoral villain, leading to his dad’s death and him serving in prison for two years, which lays the foundation for his revenge plan to take over Jang Dae-hee’s conglomerate spanning over the next 15 years.
In the following episodes, ‘Itaewon Class’ introduces its main themes; a sprawling revenge plan, a love triangle and a group of wholesome friends. While the central narrative of ‘Itaewon Class’ revolves around revenge the show is more than that. It is the story of an underdog who has big ambitions and little resources to achieve them. He’s an ordinary person with extraordinary optimism and determination. Park Saeroyi’s unflagging determination and desire to stand by his principles in a world so cruel, is the backbone of this story. The show is driven by both Park Seo-joon as the central character and the ensemble cast, who bring the show to life with their well-written character arcs and commendable acting skills.
‘Itaewon Class’ stands out from the rest of its contemporaries in multiple categories. Along with dazzling visuals and heart-wrenching dialogues, it explores themes other shows can only dream to touch.
What makes ‘Itaewon Class’ special is its characters; they are ingenious, twisted and also the sole reason why it neatly escapes the fact that it is a cliché story at its root. The one thing that connects all the lead characters is that they are all self-preserving, selfish and single-minded people. Across the black and white spectrum, there are few at the extreme ends and few hanging in the middle. Each character’s story sits comfortably in the central plot while simultaneously adding to their own journey towards finding themselves.
‘Itaewon Class’ embodies in its story, the exact message it delivers; the importance of people regardless of their stature, as it gives each character their own screen time, room for growth and mind-blowing complexities.
Strong Women Characters
An essential takeaway from ‘Itaewon Class’ as a viewer was its treatment of its female characters. From the two central but rival female leads to side characters like Loan Shark Gran, Yi-seo’s mother, Danbam’s chef Hyun-yi (Lee Joo Young) and Miss Kang (Kim Hye-eun); all of them are fiercely independent and intelligent. The amount of agency and intellect that has been given to these female characters, is rare and commendable for k-dramas, majority of which swing between either the passive subservient heroine or a straight up Do Bong Soon who beats men with her bare fists.
The women in ‘Itaewon Class’ are nothing like your typical female leads. Yes, they are tied to our hero but by their own will. They are incredibly flawed, grey and powerful. Yi-seo (Kim Da-mi) is introduced as a multi-talented social media star who eventually talks herself into becoming Danbam’s manager and Saeroyi’s right hand. She’s a “sociopath” according to her teachers and friends, as she has no sense of right and wrong nor does she have any capacity to empathise.
This is because Yi-seo has grown under incredible pressure from her mother who wants her to succeed no matter what, a way for her to compensate for her average life. Soo-ah (Kwon Nara) on the other hand, isn’t very different from Yi-seo. She is ambitious and “likes only rich people.” She too loves Sae-royi except she isn’t as sacrificing as Yi-seo. “I am the most precious thing to myself,” is Soo-ah’s ideology and she would choose herself over our hero a hundred times, even if it means supporting his enemy.
Is that twisted? Yes. Can you hate her for that? Absolutely not!
A Diverse Cast With Real Stories
Among many hit things ‘Itaewon Class’ nails the diversity element, an unexpected gift from a k-drama. Set in Itaewon, a place rapidly being gentrified by foreigners, Itaewon Class’s global appeal sets it apart from everyone else. The Danbam crew is made up of a trans woman, a biracial server, an ex-convict, a high-school dropout and a “sociopath”; all of them not so welcomed in the Korean society.
The show explores LGBTQ+ stigma, racism, discrimination, power politics, abusive parenting and more of Korean society’s untouchable institutions and traditions head on. When Yi-seo complains about Hyun-yi’s (Lee Joo-young) identity driving customer’s away Saeroyi firmly tells her that the only person to leave will be one who has a problem with Hyun-yi being a trans woman *cheers*.
In another incident when Tony(Chris Lyon), a biracial character is refused entry in a club, Saeroyi spray paints the club’s gate with “You racists are a shame to Korea” without telling anyone, as he returns in his XXL sweatshirt stained in spray paint and an adorably oblivious face. Park Saeroyi believes that business is all about people and takes everyone’s responsibility. He’s the shoulder Hyun-yi leans on after being outed as trans and the one Yi-seo blindly bets her life upon. While Jang Dae-hee on the other hand believes that business is all about profit and employees are like dogs that can be tamed into loyalty.
“Don’t you dare think you can determine my worth”
This is a recurring theme in ‘Itaewon Class‘. When in prison Saeroyi gets into a fight with fellow prisoner Seung Kwo(Ryu Kyung-soo), who tells him that his life is over because he will be an ex-convict throughout his life thus ruining his chances to find a job. However Saeroyi tells him that nothing can stop him and he’ll do everything in life, even if it means starting small. “My life has just started, I will do everything I want”
Saeroyi’s unwavering faith in himself and irritatingly patient demeanour even when the cards are stacked against him is what convinces Seung-Kwo to join Saeroyi in his business, and the rest of the misfits as Saeroyi makes them believe that it is who we become that matters, the now and here and not who we were born as or what we were in the past.
Throughout its run of 16 episodes, the show scratches the surface of Korean society, bringing horrid realities like bullying, sexism, corruption, abuse of power to light while presenting the alternative of finding your own family and creating your own destiny through honest choices as a way to survive in this unequal world. Saeroyi’s motto had never been revenge, in one of the scenes he says,
“I want my words and acts to have power so no one can mess with me and my people. I don’t want to be swayed by anyone or any injustice. I want to live a life where I make my own decisions and I don’t have to pay for my principles.”
‘Itaewon Class‘ is a show of changing times portraying struggles of youngsters, carrying the burden of institutions build by generations before them that are corrupted, malicious and exclusionary. It is the story of these disapproved people finding success and happiness through their own hard work. With its incredible soundtrack magnifying every emotion expressed, Park Seo-Joon’s unmatched acting skills and an engaging rags-to-riches plot, ‘Itaewon Class‘ is a breath of fresh air. So, if you are a confused adult trying to make sense of the world around you, watch ‘Itaewon Class’ (not without some tissues), get inspired and appreciate Park Seo-joon’s chestnut look!