WHERE TO WATCH:
WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
In a time when dreams seem out of reach, a teen fencer pursues big ambitions and meets a hardworking young man who seeks to rebuild his life.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
For some of us, we recall our high school and early adult years with fondness. It's a time when we were carefree and had friendships and first loves that we thought would last forever. In essence, this is what Twenty-Five Twenty-One is about, a charming bittersweet relatable drama that will tug at the heartstrings.
The series is set in two timelines, 2021 and 1998 and centres on Na Hee-do. We first meet 40-year-old Hee-do (Kim So-hyun) when she accompanies her 15-year-old daughter, Min-chae (Choi Myung-bin), to a ballet competition. But Min-chae gets cold feet, decides to quit ballet and 'runs away' to her grandmother's house, where she comes across her mom's high school diaries.
Here, we get to meet the 18-year-old fencing obsessed high schooler Hee-do (Kim Taeri). The dairies span from 1998 to 2001 and follow Hee-do as she goes from losing fencing bouts to a three-time gold medal Korean national athlete.
Along her journey, she meets Baek Ye-jin (Nam Joo-hyuk), Ko Yu-rim (Bona), Moon Ji-woong (Choi Hyun-wook) and Ji Seung-wan (Lee Joo-myung). Each supporting character has their own story.
Ye-jin's family goes bankrupt during the IMF crisis, which forces him to drop out of the university and be unable to complete his engineering degree. He finds part-time jobs for survival and ultimately applies for a broadcast journalism programme for high school graduates. Ye-jin and Hee-do meet by chance on a day when he is delivering newspapers, and the pair develop a close friendship which later blossoms into a romance.
Yu-rim is a gifted fencer who is the youngest athlete to win a gold medal; she comes from a poor family who struggles to make ends meet and support her expensive sport. Hee-do admires Yu-rim, and when the fencing programme gets cut at her school due to the financial crisis, she transfers to Yu-rim's high school. Hee-do hopes to become friends with Yu-rim, but the pair instead become enemies and rivals.
Lastly, we have Ji-woong and Ji Seung-wan; the pair have been friends since nappy days. Ji Seung-wan is the class president and top student at school, and Ji-woong, although not academically gifted, is the popular boy at school thanks to his self-proclaimed handsome looks. Hee-do forms a friendship with the pair by chance, Ji Seung-wan takes her around on her first day of school, and Ji-woong, who has a crush on Yu-rim, befriends Hee-do in hopes of getting closer to Yu-rim.
Writer Kwon Do-eun who also penned one of my other favourite drama Search: WWW weaves a compelling story with multiple threads. While the inspirational sports theme is the overarching story, it also tackles various relevant themes from Covid-19 to the IMF financial crisis, corporal punishment in schools, the plight of athletes, and 9/11 from the perspectives of the Korean communities.
Standouts for me were how fickle countries are to their sports stars, how they don't get enough support and when they change their nationality due to their financial positions, they are entirely cast out. Another must mention is the 9/11 attacks storyline; we've always seen it from the American perspective. For the first time, we were given a lens into how foreign nationals in the US were affected.
With the show straddling the two timelines, it was cool to see all the 90s throwbacks from cassettes to flip phones without caller ID to the advent of blogging and online shopping. I chuckled in one scene where Ye-jin's editor told him he couldn't report the news via a cellphone; oh, how times have changed.
When it comes to the acting, Kim Tae-ri (Space Sweepers) carries the show well. Hee-do is an easy character to fall in love with and root for. As we get into Hee-do's story, you learn that she grew up a loner due to circumstances, and because of it, she possesses maturity and self-awareness well beyond her years. She makes friends quickly, is supportive and fiercely loyal, she stands up for others and herself and never gives up on her fencing dream. On the flip side, she also possesses the naivety of an 18-year-old, acts silly and even gets excited about collecting stickers. Kim, who is 31 years old, brought great nuance to her portrayal of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood. It's no surprise that Kim was nominated for her role at the Baeksang Awards (South Korea's biggest TV, film and TV awards).
Another stand out performance is Nam Joo-hyuk, I have watched him before in other dramas, but this is by far one of his best performances; he shows great range, particularly in the emotional scenes. With the character being a reporter, I could relate to many of his struggles, mainly regarding his job. The rest of the supporting cast each got their moment to shine, and I appreciated that each character had an arc.
As for the love story, it was spoilt very early on in the series, so I wasn't surprised at the outcome, although it turns out many viewers were. Kim and Nam had great chemistry as the OTP (one true pairing); they were just a joy to watch as friends and then as a couple. This series gives very important lessons about being in a supportive, loving relationship and knowing when to let go when a relationship is no longer as fulfilling as it once was. After watching this series, the friends to lovers trope has become my least favourite!
I loved a lot about this show, but I couldn't give it full marks because it didn't resolve some important plotlines and left many unanswered questions. I also wish there was perhaps a snippet of whether the group is still in contact now that they are in their 40s. As a viewer, it was just hard to believe that they didn't stay friends as they grew older after forming such a strong bond.
The series was a huge pop culture hit, with many K-pop idols such as BTS' Jung-kook posting about the show while it aired in South Korea. It has also become one of the highest-rated dramas in cable history and has bagged three nominations at this year's Baeksang Awards. The series also sparked an increased interest in fencing in the Philippines.
Twenty-Five Twenty-One is a nostalgic ride through youth – chasing dreams and the highs and lows of first love. It's beautifully acted with a solid plot that will make you laugh and cry.