Itaewon Class

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Park Seo-joon in 'Itaewon Class.'
Park Seo-joon in 'Itaewon Class.'
Screengrab: YouTube/Netflix


Itaewon Class




4/5 stars


In a colourful Seoul neighbourhood, an ex-con and his friends fight a mighty foe to make their ambitious dreams for a street bar a reality.


My foray into the world of K-dramas has consisted mostly of romantic comedies (What's Wrong with Secretary Kim) and romantic dramas (Crash Landing on You). After seeing all the buzz online about Itaewon Class, I took my first step into the drama genre.

I wasn't disappointed because there are so many layers to this story, set in the world of Korea's competitive food industry. The backbone of the story is a revenge plot, but the heart of it is family, justice and overcoming life's endless obstacles.

The story centres on Park Saeroyi (Park Seo-joon), who ends up in jail after the death of his father. He promises to avenge his father's death, to rise to the top of the food industry and to overthrow the leading food company in South Korea, Jangga Group, owned by his enemy Jang Dae-hee (Yoo Jae-myung).

There are three different timelines in the series. It starts in 2005, which gives the backstory of how Saeroyi ended up in prison, we then meet him again seven years later when he opens up his bar DanBam in Itaewon (a vibrant district known for its nightlife) and end up in 2020 for the last leg of the show.

The first few episodes lay the groundwork. We get to know the players, and on the surface, it's tough to read who will win between Saeroyi and Dae-hee. From Episode 8, the pace picks up and there are delicious twists and turns as the cat-and-mouse game between the two intensify.

Right off the bat I was rooting for Saeroyi; as a character it's very easy to admire him, his beliefs and principles, his determination to make not only his business succeed, but also how he helps others around him with his "people first" motto, and his resilience despite every setback. It is such a fine line with a character who is driven by revenge; there's always the fear that the character will cross over to the dark side. The writers created a balanced character. 

While Saeroyi is the central character, the ensemble cast of flawed, but likeable, characters is the heart of the story. Oh Soo-ah (Kwon Nara) is Saeroyi's friend and first love. She grew up in an orphanage and became close to Saeroyi's father and now works for Jangga Group. I struggled with this character; it was hard for me to understand her motivations. In the end; she turns it around.

Jo Yi-seo (Kim Da-mi) a social media celebrity who becomes the manager at DanBam has been diagnosed as a sociopath. She shows the most growth throughout the series; from being cold, she slowly reveals her heart, not only to Saeroyi but to the rest of the DanBam crew.

There is Choi Seung-kwon (Ryu Kyung-soo), who Saeroyi met in prison. When he sees what Saeroyi has achieved since he was released from jail, he leaves the gang life and decides to work for him at DanBam.

Ma Hyeon-yi (Lee Joo-young) is the chef at the bar, a transgender woman who became friends with Saeroyi when they were working together at a factory. Jang Geun-soo (Kim Dong-hee) is the second son of chairman Jang; he was born out of wedlock and Kim To-ni (Chris Lyon) a black man in search of his Korean father.

Throughout the series, each character has defining moments which are used as a vehicle to show their growth.

The story explores a number of themes, such as corruption, transphobia and racial discrimination. I particularly liked how the show tackled the latter subjects - it didn't preach it, it addressed it with care and in meaningful ways.

When it comes to the acting, Park Seo-joon and Kim Da-mi deliver memorable performances.

I've seen Seo-joon in swoon-worthy romantic lead roles (What's Wrong with Secretary Kim, She Was Pretty), but in this role, he shows off his acting chops. He inhabits the character wholly, from his nervous habit of rubbing his hair, to the ones filled with raw emotion, he is mesmerising to watch and carries the show well.

For her role in Itaewon Class Kim Da-mi won the Best New Actress award at this year's Baeksang Arts Awards (South Korea's most prestigious awards show). Need I say more? There's been a lot of talk about her character Yi-seo online, and while I struggled with her character in the beginning, I grew to like her because of Da-mi's portrayal of the complex character.

Another must mention is Yoo Jae-myung as the villain Jang Dae-hee. His character is a cautionary tale of how absolute power corrupts and destroys everything around you. I felt sorry for this character. Driven by his greed for power, he is left with nothing in the end.

Itaewon Class is a great piece of work and its endearing characters and underdog story will keep you thoroughly entertained during its 16-episode run.


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