Netflix's Itaewon Class: An Analytical Review of Misfits As Heroes
Updated: 4 days ago
SPOILER ALERT! I discuss themes and plot choices in detail. Please read if you don't mind extensive spoilers.
Itaewon Class is one of the top 2020 Korean series, which is adapted from a webtoon of the same name, both written by Jo Gwang Jin. Billed as a Netflix Original Series that was aired on Korean channel JTBC and Netflix is the international distributor for the show, it is an incredible production that provides a perfect blend of deep character growth, filmic scenes punctuated with pithy dialogue made richer with the actors’ interpretations, an inclusive cast of characters who go on a nuanced exploration of life themes around morality, revenge, love, ethics, ambitions, power, purpose and forgiveness.
The story revolves around Park Sae-Ro-Yi, a socially inept, deliberate young man who has been raised by a single father. In high school, Sae-Ro-Yi adheres to his strong code of ethics and is not swayed by an authoritarian system that demands him to compromise on his beliefs and principles. His goal is to become a police officer. On his first day of school in their new hometown of Pajin City, where his father works for Jang Dae-Hee, the Chairman of the largest chain of pubs in Korea run by Jangga Co., Sae-Ro-Yi gets into an altercation with Jang Geun Won, the Chairman’s elder son. Geun Won, a vicious bully who rides on his father’s importance, was terrorizing classmate Lee Ho Min when Sae-Ro-Yi is the only one who steps up to defend him and punches Geun Won.
This incident escalates quickly, and it becomes obvious that Jang Dae-Hee wields immense power with the school authorities, where he is an important benefactor. He demands Sae-Ro-Yi to get on his knees and apologize to Geun Won. Sae-Ro-Yi refuses on the principle that he did not do anything wrong, and this not only leads to his expulsion from the school but also for his father to lose his job at Jangga Co., after 20 years of loyal service. His father expresses his pride in Sae-Ro-Yi for living the way he taught him and for also showing him how Mr. Park himself had deviated from his principles. They decide to open their own small restaurant.
A few days later, on his way back from the market late at night, Mr. Park’s motorcycle is rear-ended by a drunk Geun Won and he dies at the scene. Jang Dae-Hee covers up his son’s crime, bribes the police to accept faulty evidence and has someone else confess to the crime. A devastated Sae-Ro-Yi learns the truth about the real killer from Oh Soo-Ah, his classmate and a girl his father provided guardianship to at a local orphanage. Leaving his father’s funeral service unfinished, Sae-Ro-Yi hunts down an injured Geun Won at the hospital. As he is about to kill Geun Won, the police (alerted by Oh Soo-Ah) stops and arrests Sae-Ro-Yi, who ends up in jail for 3 years for attempted murder.
Oh Soo-Ah, someone Sae-Ro-Yi falls for at first sight, accepts money for university from Jang Dae-Hee and embarks on a career path with Jangga Co. Crushed from his father’s wrongful death, Sae-Ro-Yi stays alive with his customary calm but rigid demeanor, driven by his sole aim to avenge the injustice and topple Jang Dae-Hee from his position of power. When he leaves prison early, Park Sae-Ro-Yi launches on his 15 year plan to execute his goal.
On his first night to visit Oh Soo-Ah in Itaewon, a bright and happening area in Seoul known for its cosmopolitan dining and nightlife, he falls in love with the area. He decides this is where he wishes to open a pub when he has amassed the fortune to do so. With limited job opportunities as an ex-convict, Sae-Ro-Yi works in deep sea fishing for 7 years before he comes back to realize his dream in Itaewon.
Cast of Characters
He recruits two colleagues to work with him at his new pub called DanBam (“Honey Night”). Seung-Kwon is an ex-inmate from prison and Hyun Yi the chef is a transgender woman. Through some serendipitous incidents, he further meets Jo Yi-Seo, a multi-talented high school girl with a genius IQ, who is also a social media star with clever insights into business fundamentals, marketing and promotion.
Yi-Seo has been raised by an indulgent, single mother who understands Yi-Seo’s brilliance but does not set disciplinary boundaries so that Yi-Seo can shine in whatever she chooses. As such, Yi-Seo goes through life feeling apathetic because there is no one who challenges her enough. Her sense of justice and disdain for social norms manifests in bratty behavior, and
one can admire her and get irritated by her in equal measures. Over the course of her memorable encounters with Sae-Ro-Yi, she becomes intrigued by him and sees him as the first adult who speaks with her at her level. His upstanding character, calm demeanor, and his desire to make something with the painful cards he has been dealt appeals to her greatly. Following her gut instinct about Sae-Ro-Yi, she forgoes the typical path of college-career-marriage without hesitation and joins his team as the manager of DanBam.
Yi-Seo’s good friend Jang Geun Soo, who has been in love with Yi-Seo for a long time and is Jang Dae-Hee’s younger son born out of wedlock, is trying to make a life for himself outside of his family’s influence. He joins the DanBam team as a part-time server.
Guinean Korean Toni, who is in Korea to look for his father, also joins the team as a server. Initially, everyone assumes he speaks English and will do well to serve the international clientele in Itaewon. His character serves as a plot mechanism to explore some diversity issues as he becomes an integral part of the team.
Lee Ho Min is the classmate Sae-Ro-Yi saves from bullying, an event that changes the trajectory for both their lives. Ho Min becomes a financial whiz and is one of Sae-Ro-Yi’s closest allies.
The rest of the narrative is a circuitous, but ultimately, triumphant journey of love, acceptance, persistence and ambition, pursued on the backs of philosophical questions about ethics and principles.
I provide this lengthy background to the plot and characters because it sets the foundation for the elements in the story that fascinated me, especially keeping in mind the readers who have not watched the series yet. The victory of good over evil is a common TV trope, but execution makes a world of difference. It is no mean feat to show character growth for all the players, some more than others, while each has a believable back story for their choices. Kudos to the writer for pulling together this universe of characters who make the outliers, the social misfits, appear as the desired mainstream.
Atypical Style of Storytelling
Unlike the eloquence of a novel, as an adaptation from a webtoon that frames many scenes as the artist drew them for the online comic, the storytelling in Itaewon Class is of a vignette style. Some scenes capture a particular insight into the character or the moment without it being chronologically smooth and yet leaves the viewer with a deeper impression of the underlying idea.
One of many instances of how the cinema frame mirrors the artist's vision in the comic
An example of the vignette style storytelling is the 15 year relationship between Sae-Ro-Yi and Oh Soo-Ah. It is seen through a handful of interactions but, during all this time, unrealistically they never have an intimate relationship. The deeper idea here centers around how we can fall in love with the idea of someone but can never fully commit due to inhibitions or incompatible innate desires/ life goals.
Even though Sae-Ro-Yi tells Soo-Ah fairly early on that he likes her and that she can define their relationship whenever and however she wants, Soo-Ah doesn’t take on that responsibility. She hides behind the necessity of being Jang Dae-Hee’s valued employee and repeatedly allows herself to be used against Sae-Ro-Yi.
Some might argue that she stays on so she could gather the evidence needed to bring down Jangga but she could have done that sooner. She does it only after Jang Dae-Hee articulates how lowly he thinks of her, combined with her final realization that Jang Dae-Hee is an unscrupulous monster who values Jangga over any human relationship he has. This is the company that she helped build and the one she used as a shield as she enabled Jang Dae-Hee to keep Sae-Ro-Yi under pressure during all the years he struggles to make DanBam a success. When it finally affects her own self-image, she takes the step towards bringing Jang Dae-Hee down.
Ironically, her move comes after Sae-Ro-Yi had already made the decision to let go of his revenge against a man he no longer considers a worthy adversary. Sae-Ro-Yi still takes advantage of the opportunity of a takeover when the stock price for Jangga falls, but it was no longer a driving force in his life.
Soo-Ah takes pleasure in knowing that Sae-Ro-Yi likes her and is working towards making her quit her job. She also takes the time to secure her own investments without revealing her feelings for him. While he is still in prison, she says to him she likes to date rich guys. At another time, when Sae-Ro-Yi expresses his sorrow for not being able to care for his
employees as he would like, she scoffs that no one is beholden to a company these days and anyone can leave if they wish, but she herself refuses to leave the comforts Jangga Co. affords her. She advises Yi-Seo that one shouldn’t try to change Sae-Ro-Yi because that is who he is but, to lessen her own sense of conflict, she asks him to abandon his fight against Jangga and settle down with her instead.
Through these vignettes, one can surmise how much Sae-Ro-Yi and Oh Soo-Ah grew apart as they matured into adults, and why their chaste relationship never progressed further. Neither met the other’s real needs and, as a result, when Sae-Ro-Yi finally confesses his true feelings for Yi-Seo, he has no hesitation, regrets or a sense of conflict about letting go of Soo-Ah's hands.
To narrate the example above, I have stitched together many disparate vignettes throughout the story and it wasn't as comprehensible on my first watch. In this form of storytelling, it is easy to miss the impact of a short scene or dialogue and how it ties together with future ones. Which makes it all the more important to watch this in a mindful manner, as we experience the production in its entirety that includes the well-placed dialogue, complementary cinematography, expressive actors who speak through their silence, lighting and spaces.
There are a few other examples of running themes, such as the outcome in children as a result of parenting choices. We are shown Mr. Park and Jang Dae-Hee as fathers, Yi-Seo and Soo-Ah’s mothers, Toni’s grandmother and the policeman as a father, who continues to live with the guilt of a faulty investigation that lets Geun Won walk free. From nourishment to abandonment to being too protective to too demanding, the parental choices cover a spectrum and we see how their children get shaped as adults.
Contrasts as Plot Mechanisms
Jang Dae-Hee sees a spark of something in Sae-Ro-Yi that immediately threatens him, and from their first encounter Jang Dae-Hee takes inordinate pleasure in trying to break Sae-Ro-Yi. He is rightfully irked because what Sae-Ro-Yi lacks in immediate material wealth as a threat, he more than makes up in his inner strength and moral compass. The two men, both driven by their life’s goals and ambitions, take contrasting paths to success, and equally contrasting paths to how they define their value.
One with no scruples thinks his value is equal to Jangga Co.. While the other with integrity beyond reproach says “I want to live a life where I don’t have to be penalized for sticking to my principles” and that “You have no right to determine my value”. As these two men both meet each other time and again, their disparate personalities intelligently showcase how the good eventually triumphs over the evil no matter how many times it gets knocked down along the way.
A similar contrasting thread is built between Yi-Seo and Soo-Ah. Even though years her junior, Soo-Ah takes an immediate aversion to Yi-Seo from their first meeting and she takes every opportunity to tell Yi-Seo that she cannot have Sae-Ro-Yi because he likes Soo-Ah. Their personalities are also shown as the contrast between self-deterministic, unapologetic passion with big dreams versus ambivalent, passive aggressive mediocrity with a myopic view of the world.
Yi-Seo is bold about her desires, straightforward and honest, resolute in her convictions and willing to take risks for her love. Her desire is to understand and be the balm for Sae-Ro-Yi’s wounds, to protect him and hold his hand while taking on life’s challenges. A girl with intense emotions, her empathy and compassion for Sae-Ro-Yi and his loneliness takes shape in her heart as a deep love that fills the emptiness of her life. She has complete trust in Sae-Ro-Yi and is willing to place a bet on his life. She is willing to take on his burdens so that he can have a less painful life.
In contrast, Soo-Ah is so intent on protecting her own interests that she cannot convincingly decide whether she is willing to risk her dreams for Sae-Ro-Yi or not. Her choices to be Jang Dae-Hee’s weapon, her offer for Sae-Ro-Yi to forget his pain and choose her, her resolute denial of opening her arms to Sae-Ro-Yi, are all rooted in a self-absorbed kind of love. And, over time, the brazen Yi-Seo triumphs over the ambivalent Soo-Ah as Sae-Ro-Yi awakens to the depth of what Yi-Seo has come to mean to him.
Love Over Revenge
Since his incarceration, which he attributes to a moment of blind anger that had him attack Geun-Won, Sae-Ro-Yi has become accustomed to repressing his feelings and reducing them to actions he can implement that gets him closer to his goal of revenge.
When Sae-Ro-Yi rejects Yi-Seo’s first heartfelt confession of love, he does not say “I can never love you” but instead says “Do not like me”. Perhaps a part of himself does not feel worthy of a bright star like Yi-Seo, who is a decade younger and full of potential. He has been impressed by her from the time he met her, sees in her a kindred spirit who is driven by lofty goals and a sense of integrity, instinctively trusts her as he shares his life story with her and does not turn away all the ways she has become an integral part of DanBam. He admires the ways she takes on her fights, bringing Geun-Won to his knees at the risk of great physical harm to herself, and has respected the ways she accepts her flaws while trying to overcome them.
His respect for her grows even more with her mature handling of the rejection. She comes back to DanBam and continues to work as hard as ever for its success but tells him he has no right to tell her how to feel.
She gives him the choice to fire her if having feelings for him is a reason for dismissal, but he cannot do so. On the surface it may seem that it is because he needs her for his success but, in truth, it is because he could not envision a life without her in it. She had become his best friend, his confidante, someone who understood him, could maintain philosophical explorations with him, stood next to him through thick or thin, did not shy away from challenging him, and proved herself beyond reproach. She does this not only as a professional woman but also as someone who could bring a sense of camaraderie into the team while she consciously adopts many of Sae-Ro-Yi’s own life values.
Over the years that they build their company into a formidable corporation, he fully trusts in her abilities and is often bemused by her impish behavior as she freely expresses her feelings for him despite his half-hearted resistance. She has grown up in front of him and the ill-mannered, straight-forward young genius has been replaced by a charming, beautiful, seasoned executive who is viciously protective of her people. She is the only person who seems able to elicit a genuine smile from Sae-Ro-Yi, sometimes in spite of himself.
Sae-Ro-Yi continues to deny his feelings for her until Yi-Seo collapses from being overworked. He surprises himself with how worried he is and feels further upset when he overhears Yi-Seo tell Hyun Yi that she needs to continue working so hard to retain the right to tell him she loves him. She creates opportunities for him to ask her to leave because of her feelings and the longer he doesn’t, the more her hope grows that someday he will see her differently. For now, she believes that he puts up with it because he needs her for the company.
Coming on the heels of other mini realizations where he begins to appreciate how much Yi-Seo has valued him over time without being demanding, when Sae-Ro-Yi discovers a note of apology high schooler Yi-Seo wrote addressed to him after inadvertently getting his pub suspended, he finally acknowledges his feelings. Why now and why does the drawing tip him over the edge?
My interpretation of this key cinematic clue is that he saw how much of his inner self, the one who seeks his bitter nights to be sweet, the young Yi-Seo saw from the first moment she met him. A man whose smile is capable of reaching his eyes despite all the sorrows he carries in his heart. And he realizes how much Yi-Seo has done over time to bring that smile to his face. At that moment, when asked whether he is in love with anyone, he finally accepts that what he had felt for Yi-Seo all along is a deep love that he did not have language to articulate.
With his newfound realization, Sae-Ro-Yi rushes towards Yi-Seo and becomes willing to overcome all his own objections to their union – work, age gap, Geun-Soo’s crush on Yi-Seo. It is particularly important that he makes this decision before he realizes she has been kidnapped because it shows that he loved her even without the threat of losing her for good. When he does realize that she has been kidnapped as collateral damage in his feud with Geun Won, he is willing to put his life on the line to save her. When he thinks he may be at the end of the road, he deeply regrets not taking her hand four years ago and missing out on a life with her.
While Sae-Ro-Yi is in a coma, he has an otherworldly experience with his father, the man who has been the driving force behind Sae-Ro-Yi’s life’s sorrows and ambitions. He missed his father so deeply that it reflects in his every glance as he shares a meal with his father in his dream. At the end of the evening, as they come to a bridge that his father hopes they will cross together, where pain doesn't exist on the other side, Sae-Ro-Yi wishes his father a peaceful trip and says that he has a date. He says that his nights are no longer as painful and that he would like to live so that he can embrace his yearning heart. In a gorgeous scene in composition, dialogue and performance, Sae-Ro-Yi finally lets go of the burdens of his past so that he can embrace a possible future with Yi-Seo.
When Jang Dae-Hee demands that Sae-Ro-Yi kneels in front of him in order to obtain Yi-Seo’s location, it makes Sae-Ro-Yi confront an action he had resolutely refused to succumb to from the day he hit Geun-Won in high school. And, with his mind on Yi-Seo, Sae-Ro-Yi takes the ultimate step towards healing by choosing love over revenge. Until then, he had maintained that without the completion of his revenge he would never be happy, an excuse he used to turn down Soo-Ah’s offer to build a life with her. But, symbolically, in a scene that is pure poetic perfection, as he kneels down in front of Jang Dae-Hee, he lets go of his vengeance without any hesitation if it means he can save Yi-Seo.
Sometimes, the worst blow to an enemy is indifference to the friction while one pursues their happiness and that is what Sae-ro-yi does as he consciously chooses love over revenge. His confession to Yi-seo as they are being pursued by Geun-won is heartfelt and much more powerful than what I have seen in countless romance stories.
Coming from a man who harbors an ocean of emotions in his soul but hardly speaks of them, who is intentional about every step he takes, who has denied himself love for so long, the words “my mind and heart are filled with you” captures the depth of his love more eloquently than a Shakespearean sonnet. In that instance, he doesn't know if he will have the chance to live his love with Yi-Seo but he wants for her to know how much and how overwhelmingly he loves her. Kudos to actor Park Seo-Jun for this particular moment and all the nuanced little smiles, glances and postures he incorporates into his character throughout the series to depict how his feelings for Yi-Seo evolves over time.
Towards the end, after Sae-Ro-Yi finally kisses her, purportedly his first in his life (he's 34 by this time!), he cradles her affectionately and holds her as though she is now a part of him. He says, "Happiness...is the warmth I share with you". Thus, the journey of a young man comes to a new high; one that started with love (of his father), and ended with love. A life that started with a swig of soju that tasted sweet, and ended on the same.
For anyone who thinks the writer ever intended Sae-Ro-Yi to end up with Soo-Ah and later changed his mind should study the cinematic clues from the beginning. Yi-Seo and Sae-Ro-Yi share many parallels in their life’s trajectories and personalities. Starting from calling out bullies, to standing up to authoritarian figures, to both being called ‘socially inept’, Yi-Seo and Sae-Ro-Yi are two peas in a pod. Layered on top are their iconic encounters, including their partnership at DanBam where both claim they make the decision to team up out of gut instinct.
When Soo-Ah goes against Sae-Ro-Yi, his reactions are mild. When she offers to help with his pub, he prattles off the kind of knowledge he expects she will bring to him, her employment at Jangga notwithstanding. In contrast, he sees in Yi-Seo a brilliance that he trusts completely, and welcomes her methods that turn the game for DanBam. When Yi-Seo goes against him in wanting to fire Geun-Soo to help salvage the pub, he goes off the deep end, feeling betrayed that she does not understand him. He pushes Yi-Seo out of her comfort zone, challenging her as she challenges him.