Saeroyi (played by Park Seo-jun), the idealistic protagonist in this Korean drama, painted me a picture of Utopia. The ideal world and the moral values which were instilled in him by his picture-perfect father drives his purpose in life. His idealism achieved success in a political business world.
Saeroyi, the Idealistic Lead
At a young age, Saeroyi was faced with a circumstance that challenged his beliefs and idealism. During the first day of class in his new high school, he immediately had a striking encounter that would change his life forever. After punching a bully, he got expelled from school. The bully turned out to be the son of Jang Dae-Hee, who also was his father’s boss. The only condition that would put everything in place was for Saeroyi to apologize and kneel to the classmate he punched, but he resisted.
Days after, the same bully and classmate ended up killing his father due to a hit and run accident. Since the classmate came from an influential family, Saeroyi ended up going to jail instead. These all happened because Saeroyi refused to bow to them.
With a dead father and a criminal record at hand, Saeroyi was set to revenge on Jang Dae Hee and show him that good always triumphs over evil. Saeroyi was on a 10-year plan to establish a business that he and his father almost started. He was set to make his pub (DanBam) and corporation (Itaewon Class, IC Co.), and compete with Jangga Co, Jang Dae Hee’s company, the number one food corporation in South Korea.
Despite experiencing rough roads along the way, Saeroyi was victorious in the end. All of Jang Dae Hee’s misdeeds were exposed. In the last episode, Dae Hee ended up kneeling in front of Saeroyi. DanBam Pub and Itaewon Class Co. (IC Co.) already owned a large percentage of Jangga Co.
Itaewon Class’ Societal Significance
In my opinion, Itaewon Class is one of the best Korean dramas ever made. It showcases social issues that are very significant today.
Everyone working in DanBam Pub, including Saeroyi, were outcasts. Saeroyi and Seung-Kwon are ex-convicts, Hyun-Yi is a transgender person (up until now, S. Korea’s society is not very open to transgender people; they even let a cis woman play the role instead of a trans woman), and Tony was Melanesian (from New Guinea). Society rejects or outcasts, are almost always willing to fight for their rights. I commend the writers for bringing these characters to life.
Enter Yi-Seo, played by Kim Da Mi, DanBam’s self-appointed manager, who is a popular blogger with superb skills and a high IQ. She is the main propeller of the business’ growth. On Episode 1, Yi-Seo is seen talking to her psychiatrist, which makes her imperfect too. She is also known to be a sociopath.
However, after the last half of the drama, her character was almost faultless and was even subject to a mild psychological abuse by Saeroyi (if you think harder about their boss-manager relationship, there was an air of a master-slave dynamic). That was brought to closure, however, as Saeroyi ended up truly loving her. Thus, it’s a fairytale ending for Yi-Seo.
If you liked the film Parasite, you would also like this drama–at least during the first half
I basked in the drama. I would clap my hands by means of deep admiration for the writer. It was orgasmic. It reminded me of the Oscar-winning film, Parasite. The evil triumphs, the status quo, and the rules of power are unchanged, as it mostly is in reality.
An article on Parasite focused on the drowning status quo of South Korea: the middle-class becoming poorer and poorer. Sure, it is alarming. Parasite was a depiction of reality, but it forgets that there are still some people, few they may seem, that climb up the ladder successfully. Itaewon Class gives hope to people, rather than putting them in despair. I believe that someone’s connections, skills, and work ethic can make anyone build her or his empire.
Saeroyi and Soo-ah, an Impossible Love
One of the most exciting elements of the drama is the relationship between Saeroyi and his first love, Soo-ah. Saeroyi ended up choosing the one who stuck with him until the end, Yi Seo. As an idealistic viewer, I was contented with it. Yi Seo deserves it. However, I yearn for more love stories like that of Saeroyi and Soo-ah’s, like a Romeo and Juliet thing. But instead of their love forbidden because of family, it will be a love banned because of having different principles in life.
Both characters are each other’s first love, but Soo-ah chose to be on the side of the more powerful (Jangga Co.). Soo-ah had several chances of choosing Saeroyi, or perhaps Mr. Park, Saeroyi’s late father, whom she is indebted to, but she always chose Jang Dae-Hee.
Surprisingly, however, Saeroyi understands Soo-ah’s choices. That means that Saeroyi knows that he is somewhat foolish, and he cannot blame anyone for not going with him or for going against him. For him, Soo-ah is not betraying him, but she was only committed to her job and her life. Saeroyi is aware that even if he is confident that he is going to attain all of his goals, all of it is risky. Hence, he never pressured Soo-ah into choosing him.
Each of us can relate to both Saeroyi and Soo-ah. Or perhaps it’s us VS. Soo ah, or us VS. Saeroyi, in reality. There were times that I would be mad at Saeroyi for being so stubborn, but mostly, I was disappointed at Soo-ah for being disloyal and distrusting of Saeroyi’s capabilities. In a fight between David and Goliath, given a chance to bet on one, who would you choose?
A KDrama Born Out of Utopia
In the drama, Saeroyi’s corporation, Itaewon Class (IC Co.), became number one. If it’s by pure idealism of Saeroyi that drove this, then they live in Utopia. Saeroyi cannot control every business person he rejects, or he doesn’t agree with, but since we are in a Korean drama Utopia, everything was achieved. Maybe Good Capitalism was alive, and Saeroyi made IC Co. the number one food company and pub in Korea by being a good exemplar.
Years after, when IC Co. was already a huge empire, Saeroyi might have already learned the tricks in the trade. It will be possible that Saeroyi or perhaps one of his co-directors will forget where they are from or leave behind empathy. It will only be a matter of time.
However, I remember one of IC Co.’s leading investors, the old rich woman, Soon-Rye. Soon-Rye might have committed her crimes, but she was still in the lookout for idealists or someone who can change the world, like Saeroyi. Her character made me realize that in reality, there are many instances where the good has won against evil. We just forget about it.
If we think that evil is king right now, then we have been looking in the wrong places. What goes around, comes around. Those malevolent people or politicians, I believe, will just fall to their knees.
But still, it is a KDrama Disguised as an Arthouse Film
Itaewon Class is a Korean drama. It reiterates why dramas are made in Utopia, or why superhero movies are distractions, or perhaps an escape from reality. In movies or tv shows, we can be superheroes defending the world from villains. In Itaewon Class, we are rooting for Saeroyi, despising Soo-ah for not supporting the love of her life. But in reality, like Mr. Kim (Jang Dae Hee’s assistant), we are mere “salarymen,” trying to feed ourselves.
Yes, Itaewon ended up being a typical Korean drama, but I consider it as an arthouse camouflage because it made me think. The characters, the dynamics, and the situations (at least during the first half) are commendable. Webtoon writer Jo Gwang Jin blamed himself for “being lacking,” after several netizens have expressed distaste of the drama’s second half, but in my opinion, Gwang Jin has to be applauded still. Some huge company might pressure him on the drama’s ending, and that’s him being mere “a salaryman.” That is his choice.🙂