Review: Itaewon Class

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Co-posted at Still Just Alison

TV Series – 16 episodes

I really didn’t want to love this so much. I didn’t even want to watch it. Let me explain…

It started with a song. I’d never liked Park Seo-jun, but a friend recommended the series, so I finally watched the ad. And man, that song is powerful – in about 30 seconds it had me half-convinced I wanted to start a bar and take over the world.

So I started watching. The effect is like swimming on a beach with a rip tide – it looks calm on the surface, but before you know it, you’ve been dragged into deep water and you can’t get free.

If you put the story into words, it sounds pretty trite: schoolboy stands up against rich bully and his even worse father, drama ensues, boy spends next 15 years enacting a special kind of vengeance. Yah, yah, yah, yawn. But I’m not writing the script, or acting it. And the people who did so, did it brilliantly. The series is based on a webtoon by Jo Gwang Jin, who also wrote the script (as well as the lyrics for the song Diamond in the OST).

It’s not that there’s wild action, blockbuster special effects, car chases, thrills and spills, or even, as promised by Rocky Horror Picture Show, “lotsa larfs and sex”. But what there is, includes a great script, great acting, and a great soundtrack. And the highlights, gentle reader, loathe though I am to admit it, definitely include Park Seo-jun.

DanBam bar staff, from left: Lee Joo-young as Ma Hyun-yi, Chris Lyon as Kim Tony, Park Seo-jun as Park Saeroyi, Kim Dong-hee as Jang Geun-soo, Kim Da-mi as Jo Yi-so, Ryu Kyung-soo as Choi Seung-kwon

His character, Park Saeroyi, is self-contained and uncommunicative almost to the point of being on the spectrum, but with a set of principles that would shame most superheroes. An almost impossible character to portray, and it’s true that it does take a while to warm to Saeroyi, but Park Seo-jun does a magnificent job of conveying the nuance. Saeroyi is not a man you’d feel comfortable having a beer with, and definitely not someone you’d go to karaoke with, but he’s absolutely someone you’d want on your side.

Kim Da-mi as Jo Yi-seo, on the other hand, is clearly a sociopath, and holds the cold-blooded fascination that such people sometimes do. Kim makes her character sparkle, imbuing Yi-seo with an intelligent, sharp-edged brilliance that makes you want to creep closer and edge away at the same time.

Other characters, from regular support to minor, are all good. I particularly love two of the other bar staff, Ma Hyun-yi and Choi Seung-kwon, played by Lee Joo-young and Ryu Kyung-soo respectively – their wary sparring and developing friendship is brilliantly portrayed. And my favourite omnipresent actor, Lee Joon-hyuk, shows up for a cameo as a chef in a cooking show.

Of course, you can’t sustain a series just with good characters, right? So it’s lucky that Itaewon Class also has a script that, like Scherehezade, lures you along from episode to episode. And the story sometimes slaps you in the face to get your attention – there were times when I found myself staring slack-jawed at the screen, unable to believe that what had just happened, had really happened.

So, great script, great acting, great soundtrack. And I watched the whole thing because of one damn song. Music – it really is a gateway drug.

Both OST songs mentioned can be found on my blog here.

Alison blogs at Still Just Alison, where she writes about Korean drama, movies, music, and, very occasionally, things that aren’t Korean. But only occasionally.

10 bottles of soju out of 10.
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