Selfish Artistry of Twenty Five Twenty One
Feeling bereft from the way recently concluded KDrama Twenty Five Twenty One ended, I tweeted about it.
This has led to more than 600 quoted retweets, with most using unsavory language, cruel aspersions against my person, questioning my right to call it selfish artistry, and daring to be disrespectful to the writer. Oh, and God forbid, just because the show didn’t deliver my desired outcome, how come I am so entitled to call it selfish, whereas I am the one being selfish. One of my favorites that I often hear my teenage daughter trade with her peers when good articulation has failed her, “That’s a you problem”.
I chose not to engage with the comments and let this ride out to prove a point:
Human discourse is most disrespectful when trying to lecture others about being respectful. Quite the conundrum, but instructive, in this modern era of social media.
DECONSTRUCTING THE TWEET
We were deprived:
The tweet re-shares a short clip posted by Netflix Korea, capturing 3 of the handful of intimate moments between the lead pair of characters Na Hee Do (Kim Tae Ri) and Baek Yi JIn (Nam Joo Hyuk). A big driver for the success of Twenty Five Twenty One is the organic growth of the deep and layered connection between Na Hee Do and Baek Yi Jin. As per the blurb for the series, what starts as a meeting between strangers, leads to them eventually falling in love with each other by the time they are twenty five and twenty one.
They finally come together at the end of episode 13, and all three of these happy moments are squished into the first half of episode 15 before the show takes a sudden dark turn towards poorly explained emotions for why they eventually separate.
From episode 15, the dialogue is uncharacteristically choppy. Yi Jin’s choice to not share his career and life-changing decision with Hee Do does not match a doting boyfriend in a relationship for nearly two years. The real tragedy of 9/11 becomes another marker of ‘the times’ that breaks them apart, just as the tragedies of the IMF crisis brought them together 4 years prior. What took 13 episodes to build gets demolished after half an episode because episode 14 was an unusually long tribute to Yu Rim’s character and from the second half of episode 15, the story has moved onto their impending break up.
Social media engagement and the local ratings are both indicative of the emotional investment viewers were making in this love story. These few drops worth of intimate moments, capturing the depth of their happiness at being together, felt hardly enough.
This kind of happiness is what we live for in life. Most of us don’t find it in real life; so we look for it in the Arts:
In December 1976, Nobel Prize for Literature winner Saul Bellow paraphrases the words of Joseph Conrad from his preface in his book The Nigger Of The Narcissus, during Bellow’s Nobel lecture. He says,
“There he said that art was an attempt to render the highest justice to the visible universe: that it tried to find in that universe, in matter as well as in the facts of life, what was fundamental, enduring, essential.”
What better form of justice for humanity than being rewarded for our pursuits of happiness? Life is not kind to everyone and turning to books and stories as a means to find hope and joy is part of why the Arts flourish, especially during difficult times.
As of the time of writing the post, I had just made a 36 hour journey back to my home after placing my incredibly ill father on an air ambulance on its way to another corner of the world. He has had multiple strokes and the prognosis is not good. My heart is fractured beyond repair and in between hospital visits and life planning, I sought refuge in the world of Twenty Five Twenty One for the past few weeks. The beautiful connection between Hee Do and Yi Jin, two characters played so masterfully by their actors, brought hope and a sense of comfort during a time where my happiness is not mine to create.
For those who spent time lecturing me on how this is a ‘me’ problem, that I have to turn to kdramas for my happiness, need to understand that there are real people behind these accounts, with real stories and wounds of their own. Instead of assuming intellectual higher ground and having a knee jerk reaction with thinking that your understanding of the context of my post is deeper than mine, take time to reflect on what has been said. Those who follow me on my blog, reviews, articles, social media posts, know that I do not make vapid statements. Those who know me professionally as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley value my astute understanding of complex situations.
I dedicate my free time to writing in the entertainment space because I deeply revere the healing powers of the Arts. By focusing on the strength of human stories across cultures, we gain a deeper understanding of the human experience. By reflecting on the choices of well-constructed characters, we often reflect on our own. In addition, having social media platforms as a way to converge on discussions accentuates the immersive journey brought to life by cinema.
The human desire to turn to the Arts for a deeper connection to the universe is age-old and, even though form factors and mediums will keep morphing, the desire will never die. Just like faith in some invisible higher power of some form or another will also never die.
In a 2015 post on the National Endowment For The Arts site, the staff were asked “Why Do The Arts Matter?” and I liked this answer the best:
“The arts matter because creativity is an infinite and enduring resource, one to draw upon in both the most joyous and the most challenging of moments. The arts strengthen community bonds, create new means of connection and understanding, and offer a continuous, powerful, and resilient source of individual and collective identity.” – Sarah Burford
I am proud of my habit of turning to the Arts for happiness when real life is giving me a beating. It is far more glorious than being abusive to my body or to other social creatures.
To kill our souls with ‘realistic’ outcomes is selfish artistry.
This section is particularly for those who pounced on my use of ‘selfish artistry’, whether or not they understood the term or my use of it.
In a 2012 article in the Washington Post on Michael Jackson and his contribution to black music, the writer says:
“It’s hard to imagine contemporary artists like Rihanna and Beyonce offering the equivalent to “We Are the World” with the sincerity that Michael’s charity work had. But that may not be a statement about them as much as it is about the difference between Michael’s baby boomer generation, which lived through the civil rights and Black Power movements, versus my generation, which seemingly has a much more self-centered and materialistic strand running through it. Selfish artistry permeates our contemporary cultural landscape because so many of us have taken our freedoms for granted and don’t feel a sense of obligation to live out a life of service.”
Artists ought to be selfish by nature, to have an authentic self-expression of their ideas. As freedom of expression improves, the courage to remain selfish in artistry also improves.
Writer Kwon Do-Eun had a vision. The message she wanted to impart is how the optimism of youth is just practice for how life will turn out. Nothing lasts forever but we hold on to the memories of the golden times as no one can take those away from us. It is a good message but perhaps not that profound for most people navigating the harsh realities of life, regardless of age.
Life is a vicious cycle of good and bad, and we are also living in another one of humanity defining times post-COVID. The human suffering has been brutal, with wars, failing economies, and social shifts as an aftermath of the pandemic and global politics. At these times of such acute need where overall emotional well-being has been suffering, whoever possesses the gifts to bring healing to burning souls ought to exercise them.
I made this point during 2020 – 2021 when I was covering the wildly popular Turkish dizi Sen Cal Kapimi through my weekly reviews. What I found insidious is that instead of rewarding the love they received from the audience, the production house held that audience captive and played with their emotions. A similar strain in Twenty Five Twenty One eventually annoyed me and took away the joy I derived from the earlier episodes.
From the time of its airing, it became obvious that the audience was responding well to the soulful connection shared by Hee Do and Yi Jin and how they complemented each other in temperament. How they gave strength to each other as they rose together in life against adversity. How they held each other’s hands across the distance and pulled each other up. The love they come to feel for each other grows so naturally and organically, it is hard not to root for their measured love story. By the time the show started its promotions for the premiere on February 12, the filming had been completed for about 10 episodes.
I have more experience with the Turkish entertainment industry and its peculiar dynamics, but as I keep learning about the K-Drama space, there are some similarities. Shows do not come on air fully completed. Most do not have locked scripts unless the ones made for Netflix have that requirement, which I cannot confirm. Working under the assumption that the remaining 6 episodes had some embedded flexibility in plot changes based on audience reaction to promotions and eventual airing, it was possible to tweak the trajectory of the love story at the end.
The production received unanticipated positive response and the early hints of Hee Do and Yi Jin not being together were crafted carefully such that there were plausible alternative outcomes. Given that filming wrapped on March 9th while popularity was high by episode 4 on February 20th, there was an opportunity for change.
In an interview after the show ended, Kim Tae Ri said “Honestly, the special relationship between the two of them was drawn out so beautifully, to the point where I wondered if anyone had a first love like that.”. In another interview, Tae Ri said, "I don't think I have anything to say (about the ending) because that was the writer's plan from the beginning." And then, “I also frowned a lot and said, 'Oh, why, (the ending) change it. Because I'm sad too.” Even the actor who interpreted the character and breathed life into the writer’s vision for Hee Do felt disappointed by the final direction of the plot.
Hence, if the message is how first loves are not always our forever love and life moves on, it is difficult to internalize the parting when the first love feels as complete as the one shared by Hee Do and Yi Jin. Does one ever fully move on from such a love? Just because you continue to breathe, does it mean you are living? And to add salt to the wounds, every other pair in the story gets a happy ending or the promise of one.
The PR strategies employed by the channel kept the outcome vague and the insertions of all allusions to not having a happy ever after always left a possibility for a joyful outcome. Such as the sound mixing of Baek Yi Jin’s interview of Hee Do in 2009 including a child’s voice saying ‘appa’ in Episode 14. Or as teenager Kim Min-Chae eagerly looks up the interview or how she runs after Yi Jin for hurting Hee Do in Episode 13, her actions could also be interpreted as Min Chae becoming mad at her clueless father. Otherwise, how sad that she is feeling enamored with the love Hee Do shares with the dashing Yi Jin, while there’s a faceless Mr. Kim floating around somewhere. Is this realism?
Did I have a problem with Baek Yi Jin and Hee Do not ending up together or that the story didn't follow a prescriptive narrative? No. I have a problem with how it is executed to fulfill the writer’s selfish artistry in this story. Their happy times are shown minimally and their break up is abrupt as though Hee Do didn’t know from the beginning what Yi Jin’s profession is and where and how he needs to work. Yi Jin’s sudden change from a loving boyfriend planning an anniversary getaway to someone who doesn’t even discuss a life changing decision with the love of his life is also unrealistic. Hee Do and Yi Jin abruptly stops growing together, which begins to question the foundations of their union in the first place. As such, the depth of their earlier interactions now seems empty because neither obviously understood the other at all, nor truly empathized with their needs.
It is at this junction that I felt the production house/writer maximized audience engagement through the development of their love story, got the ratings and ad dollars they wanted, and then toppled the foundations of the story in one fell swoop. In the future, Yi Jin continues to look up to Hee Do’s draconian mother and they continue to work together as though there is no shared personal history.
In a convenient time jump, there is no journey to experience in how they cope with their loss of each other. There is no sight of the infamous Mr. Kim who manages to make a home with the impulsive Hee Do. There is no sense of real closure for the potential of this beautiful relationship we invested in for 8 weeks. The fact that years later both Hee Do and Yi Jin have moved on in life is small solace and hardly profound.
As a writer, my first preference is to appreciate the writing of a series and how the plots and characters come together. In an earlier post, I appreciated those elements for Twenty Five Twenty One, but that appreciation is now frozen in time. As the series unfolded, I came to have less admiration for the writing process employed per what I articulated above.
At the end of the series, my biggest gift is the incredible interpretations of Hee Do and Yi Jin, brought to life by Kim Tae Ri and Nam Joo Hyuk respectively. They made the most of what was given, particularly in the last two episodes where much had to be conveyed through their acting to compensate for the holes in the writing. If I ever rewatch the series, it will be to rewatch their sparkling performances.
Life goes on even when we don’t want it to and we all learn to cope. Such is the resilience that is embedded in us. And it is this same resilience that allows me to ignore the toxicity that erupted from my studied comment about the production. For the hundreds of comments lecturing me on disrespecting the writer, I did anything but.
'Selfish artistry' is a nod to her desire to stick to what she envisioned. My judgement comes in how the audience frenzy was corralled for maximum financial impact for the show. The characters we fell for are not only credited to the writer. Tremendous work from Kim Tae Ri and Nam Joo Hyuk went into their interpretations and portrayal. Cinematography, music and direction accentuated the viewing experience. I would argue the actors tip the scale in the audience love for the characters. The writer even turned down Tae Ri’s request for a change, because she cared more about her vision than the emotions the audience would experience after being invested in the lead pair for so long.
While I respect her integrity, I have higher aspirations for artistes like Kwon Do-Eun. In the difficult times we live in, when talented writers such as Do Eun have the gift of telling such a beautiful story, being generous with that gift to uplift and leave people feeling in love could be selfish artistry for the greater good.
When the audience further gifts the production house with unconditional love, treasure that gift and reward it instead of using it in self-serving ways. This is something I have advocated for since the beginning of the pandemic and I will continue to do so. With great power comes great responsibility. When you have the power to grip the emotions of millions, use it well.
This is the depth of what went through my mind when I made the post on twitter. The post blew out of proportion and I muted it a long time ago when I realized people don’t have a sense of perspective when throwing mud at an unknown name in the virtual space. I have been publishing reviews for 4 years, with a number of them linked on IMDb. I have built a movie blog in the Turkish entertainment space that was ranked #2 in a recent poll, second only to their film site funded by the Turkish Ministry of Culture. I have interviewed actors, directors, screenwriters and writers, and have much appreciation for their craft and genius.
For those of you who questioned what right I had to criticize the writer, as an educated consumer of her product I have every right to question her process. Just as those questioning my posts had a right to question it. The crux lies in how it is done.
As an accomplished woman comfortable in my own skin, I didn’t take any of the nastiness personally. I had exercised my own selfish artistry in crafting the tweet. I suspect Kwon Do-Eun feels the same about the criticism that comes her way. What is disappointing is the viciousness with which the netizens attacked the tweet. It made me heartbroken for young women who are just finding their way in the world and express themselves in unconventional ways, only to be attacked for being non-conforming.
Without knowing who you are going after, it is important to be cognizant that your understanding may be flawed and that you can always choose kindness in how you engage.
Exercise your own selfish artistry for the greater good.
(c) mh musings
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