I am late to the party with the K-Drama “Start-up” but in real life have lived and breathed the entrepreneurial eco-system for the last two decades, much of it in the epi-center of it all: Silicon Valley.
Still finding my way in the K-Drama industry, I started watching the show on a friend’s recommendation, without any bias towards the actors, none of whom I had seen before. It took me a few episodes to realize that Nam Joo Hyuk of the then currently running Twenty Five Twenty One is one of the leads. In addition, after I completed the show, which I loved, I came to learn that the show elicited immense social media engagement during its airing, as a divided fandom debated the merits of the love triangle and the worthiness of the two male leads. Reading through some of these debates has been amusing, and also reflective on how differently we perceive narratives based on the filters of our own experiences.
Without further ado, I want to delve into why I love the writer’s vision, choices for the dramatic conflicts, overlay it with some of the realities of the tech entrepreneurial world, and provide some commentary on disparate perceptions of the male characters.
Plot & Characters
Seo Dal-Mi is a young girl raised by her grandmother. Her mother divorced her father when he wanted to leave his dead-end job to pursue his entrepreneurial dream, and the two daughters decided which parent to stay with. Dal-Mi chooses to stay with her father and eventually, along with her grandmother who runs the Chyeong Myeong corndog stall, absorbs the shock of his untimely demise from a car accident. He was returning from having secured his first round of funding from Yoon Seon-Hak, a wealthy venture capitalist (VC).
Equally enamored by the creature comforts provided by her mother’s rich suitor, Seo (Won) In-Jae chooses to leave with the mother, and eventually adopts her stepfather’s surname. Mother daughter duo live a life of luxury, courtesy of a business tycoon with dubious morals, Won Doo-Jung.
While her father was still alive, to help Dal-Mi deal with the loneliness of losing both her mother and beloved sister, Halmeoni (her grandmother), asks a favor of Han Ji-Pyeong a brilliant, orphaned young man she had provided shelter to. She asks him to become Dal-Mi’s secret pen pal and pretend to be someone closer to her age. Instead of writing the letters in his own name, the two of them pick the name Nam Do-San, taken from a young boy who had appeared in the papers for being the youngest winner for the Math Olympiad.
The two never meet before Ji-Pyeong leaves town to build his career as an investor but, for those few months, Do-San becomes a dream for Dal-Mi to hold on to as she struggles through the difficulties of her life. So much so that, as an adult, she considers Nam Do-San to be her first love who has spoiled her for anyone else.
Fast forward 15 years. Dal-Mi (Bae Suzy) is a struggling barista in Seoul who continues to live with her grandmother. She is bit by the same entrepreneurial bug as her father. Dal-Mi has lofty dreams about starting a business and following in the footsteps of Steve Jobs. She is quick on her feet during crisis management and understands business fundamentals, but she cannot avail the kinds of opportunities that will get her on the elevator to the top floor.
Ji-Pyeong (Kim Seon Ho) is a high-flying, successful VC, working with Yoon Seon-Hak, the investor Dal-Mi’s father had met with. Inspired by her encounter with Dal-Mi’s father Seo Chyeong-Myeong, Seon-Hak’s firm underwrites Sandbox, a competitive start-up incubator that funds and enables entrepreneurs with winning ideas to pitch and hone their business models. It is quite possible that the series creator(s) fashioned Sandbox after MIT University’s Sandbox Innovation Program, which provides ‘Seed funding, mentorship, and tailored entrepreneurship education empowering student innovators’.
Among other things, Ji-Pyeong often serves as mentor to these upstart businesses that go through the Sandbox program. Having done very well for himself, he lives in a lavish apartment overlooking the Han river, not lacking in any material comforts, and is heeded as a demanding VC who knows how to push his team towards their best results.
In-Jae (Kang Han-Na) runs the food division at her step father’s company. Confronted with her sister at a seminar for start up companies where Ji-Pyeong is also a panelist, In-Jae taunts Dal-Mi about the choice to stay with their ‘loser’ father. To prove her wrong, Dal-Mi claims to be in a relationship with an entrepreneur and promises to introduce him at an upcoming networking event. Dal-Mi becomes frantic about finding Nam Do-San.
Real life Nam Do-San (Nam Joo-Hyuk) is a struggling tech entrepreneur who is the mastermind behind the innovative, award-winning artificial intelligence (AI) technology his company develops for image recognition. He is the quintessential geek with a binary sense of reasoning and tone deaf to social cues, more out of his asynchronous coping mechanisms than out of malice. He is the math prodigy that entered college as a young teenager but left because he didn’t want to be the standout nor establish his dominance. He works with his two best friends, is very comfortable in their company, and has bootstrapped Samsan Tech with financial support from his middle-class father.
Do-San cowers under his domineering, braggart father but doggedly pursues his dream. What he lacks in business vision (and hence profitability), he more than makes up in his desire to forge ahead with innovations that will fundamentally change how people do things.
Seeing Dal-Mi at the seminar prompts Ji-Pyeong to find Halmeoni again, whose kindness gave him his start in his adult life. Halmeoni makes a desperate plea to Ji-Pyeong to help find Do-San so that Dal-Mi can take him to the networking event as her partner, where she will see her mother for the first time since their parting. Indebted to Halmeoni beyond what he can ever repay, Ji-Pyeong is able to track Nam Do-San down and have him read the letters he had received from Dal-Mi years ago. He asks Do-San to just help for the evening in lieu of a large sum of money but Do-San’s friends insist on an investment in their company instead. The men part ways without being able to strike a deal.
Later in the evening, moved by having seen Dal-Mi from a distance earlier that day and having read her words in the letters, Do-San sets out to meet her any way, to help her in her moment of crisis. As it turns out, Ji-Pyeong had also been willing to step in because he had developed a special bond with his secret pen pal Dal-Mi during their months of exchange.
This is the preamble to the series summary that says, “The series revolves around a woman who has dreams of becoming an entrepreneur like Steve Jobs, and her love triangle between a man who is secretly her first love and another man who is pretending to be her first love.”
Who will Seo Dal Mi fall in love with as the main characters converge around an exciting time at Sandbox, and live through the trials and tribulations of building a business while wading through the opportunities, half-truths and blatant lies that surround them? How will they grow as individuals and as a team?
There are far too many worthy details that could be discussed, but I will focus on ones that have a broader implication on our social rules of engagement.
Team DoSan Vs. Team Ji Pyeong
I am dumb-founded to have come across this series of pictures that show how a popular Indonesian chain of restaurants had different locations divided into the two teams as the series drew to a finale.
Fans remained at the edge of their seats, wondering who will Dal-Mi eventually be with? As fans debated the merits of the characters, the mud slinging reached epic proportions. This kind of unruly behavior may remain as a mark of the times, when the pandemic era brought new social media users in droves, with many ready to unleash their frustrations through their addictive watching and vicarious lives lived through on-screen characters.
Remnants of the social media furor over Team Do San vs Team Ji Pyeong (or Team Good Boy) still persist today. Copious amounts of essays, analyses and debates are available online, with plenty of media coverage on the divided fandoms as well. Somewhere along the way, the lines blurred between the characters and the actors, and some of the arguments are nothing short of mean-spirited.
I learnt the wisdom of this riddle as a teenager:
Applying this here, rooting for one character’s success doesn’t have to come at the expense of the other character’s misery. So many of the arguments cite one as being evil or worthless or lacking in character growth while the other is perfection. The reality lies in two well written characters, both of whom go through much needed growth in their lives and follow the arc they are meant to. It is less about who is the higher billed actor and more about the drama world pushing the boundaries of audience expectations.
As Dal-Mi’s life and love story unfolds, her choices reflect her maturity and appreciation for what matters to her. I am not Team Do-San or Team Ji-Pyeong; I am Team Dal-Mi. Many of the debates I read through misses the real question. In a predominantly female audience, the question should be less about ‘which male deserves her’ and more about ‘which male fulfills her’. A product of our social conditioning, women have a tendency to see the relationship dynamics through a male-centric lens.
Dal-Mi is not an inanimate trophy for the men. She is an enterprising woman of her own, with her own agency and self-determination, who gets to choose her life partner. She never regrets her choices. Both men love her in their ways and cherish her, but with all the information and the truth available at her disposal, she still picks Nam Do- San. As she eventually answers his repeated question of ‘Why do you like me?”, her simple words are far more powerful than it may seem, “because it’s you.”
The Geek vs. An Archetypal Romantic Hero
Nam Do-San is an atypical romantic hero but someone who represents a growing cadre of suitors as technology pushes the edges of commercial success stories across the globe. The stereotypical high school ‘nerds’ with no hope of romantic success have been upgraded and redefined by the likes of tech founders such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and so many more. All of them transformed their technical geniuses into phenomenal successes, making them eligible catches for anyone. Yet, they are far removed from the better understood, suave, intense, brooding romantic heroes who hide a sensitive soul underneath a prickly façade e.g. Ji-Pyeong.
From the time they meet, the adult Do-San tries to be himself to the extent possible within the web of lies spun by a combination of Ji-Pyeong, Halmeoni, Do-San and his friends, all conspiring to establish that he is the same Nam Do-San from the letters. Apart from the pretense of him being that person who wrote her the letters 15 years ago, Do-San tries to distance himself from that persona, presents his ideas and ambitions authentically, and openly expresses his growing admiration for Dal-Mi. He eventually also discards Ji-Pyeong’s expensive clothes, watches and cars, quite clear from the beginning that there is a difference between charity and investment.
On their first night out, geeky Do-San says how much he’d changed in the fifteen years and delves into detailed explanations of his work in artificial intelligence. The subject matter couldn’t be further from the kinds of topics Dal-Mi and Ji-Pyeong covered in their letters, which were more mundane details of regular life and philosophical discussions. Dal-Mi is taken by Do-San’s courage at owning his business and impressed by his intelligence in the depth of technology he is building. She sees his genius and it appeals to her.
In Episode 14, when she travels long distances to find Do-San in the woods, she tells him how she had found their first encounter ‘cool’. She even names her self-driving car project Tarzan after that memory. Even though she greatly values the mentorship provided by Ji-Pyeong, she acknowledges at the end of Episode 11 that she fell in love with the Do-San of today and has moved on from the Do-San in the letters.
For all the hopeful fans who thought Ji-Pyeong is the male lead and the writers changed their minds mid-way, missed many of the cues provided throughout the series, including the air time spent on Do-San’s self-actualization in relation to the various relationships he has with his parents, Dal-Mi, his friends, cousin and investors. Dal-Mi starts her liaison with the adult Do-San with a bias because of her history with the letters, but all the qualities in Do-San that she gravitates towards are uniquely his.
She is enamored with his brilliance; his calm and logical approach to life; his sense of principle and justice as he stands up to Won Doo Jung for her sake or chooses to tell the truth about their technical choices on Demo day, both at great potential detriment to himself; she appreciates his kindness and compassion in envisioning NoonGil, an app he develops to help patients like Halmeoni who have limited to no vision; she is taken by his loyalty to his friends; his authentic desire to do the right thing and present himself as he is, especially after she discovers the truth; the ways he steps in to help her fly; his humility about his natural gifts; his lack of fascination with materialistic comforts, and so much more.
Even as a successful millionaire, he retains a child-like innocence and stays in his childhood room. His joy and ambitions remain parked on pushing the frontiers of technology with his given gifts. He encourages her to dream and assures her he will build what she envisions. He helps her gain confidence in herself and tells her she fully deserves to be the CEO, willing to be the wind beneath her wings. He steps away when she makes him believe she no longer wants him and stays away when he believes Ji-Pyeong is now in a relationship with her. Despite this latter knowledge and believing that he can never have her, he still takes a stake in her company because he understands how desperate she is to have his talent on her team.
With his idiosyncratic and unusual ways, Do-San is a romantic hero of the modern, technology driven era.
Ji-Pyeong, as the first male lead character introduced in the story by order of appearance, neatly fits the profile of the traditional romantic hero. A brooding man with a fractured past, who has worked against all odds for his polished success, who harbors a soft heart underneath his tough exterior, who genuinely cares about the girl, and also fulfills the common trope of being her first love from their younger days. Dal-Mi doesn’t know that a lot of the details in her letters were co-written by Ji-Pyeong and Halmeoni, who provided the advantage of knowing what Dal-Mi would resonate with. She also doesn’t know that many of the details aside from Do-San’s name were often manufactured, such as his desire to play Go-Stop, which was taken from a television segment playing while he wrote that letter.
Setting aside the fact that he was considered almost an adult at the time and Dal-Mi was only a young teenager, through those months of exchange, Ji-Pyeong built an undeniable connection with the granddaughter of his beloved Ms. Choi. There is comfort in that connection, and he begins to feel something for the first time when he meets her as an adult, especially at a time he is acutely aware of the emptiness and loneliness of his life. For Dal-Mi, apart from being reminded of an aura that she should recognize, she doesn’t have the same wonder in her eyes when she looks at him, neither before nor after she discovers the truth.
Ji-Pyeong represents the kind of mature security many of us are conditioned to seek from our life partners from the time we are young. He often reassures Dal-Mi that he will be plan B if she fails. However, he also represents the safe and better understood choice who may not always be the kind to excite a young girl’s heart. Dal-Mi says at the end of Episode 7, “…If I had to choose one, I’d pick the Do-San of 15 years ago because he is my first love…” “The Do-San I know now…he’s like a different person at times. That makes me a little sad but for some reason, those odd moments here and there excite me and make my heart flutter.”
In short, the true entrepreneur, geeky Do-San, who has the smarts to create the underlying assets that then investors like Ji-Pyeong and managers like Dal-Mi can sell or monetize, excites Dal-Mi. The brilliance of a creator, the nerd with a kind soul, is admirable to someone like Dal-Mi because their strengths complement each other. Dal-Mi, with her knack for management, can someday become a Ji-Pyeong, but she can never become a Do-San. That ability to look up to her partner for the rest of time, being able to reach new heights together, is what awakens her heart about Do-San. And, in contrast to Ji-Pyeong who assures security if she fails, Do-San asks her to dream her success and he will help build it. It is this subtle, but important, difference that sways Dal-Mi the most.
Atypical Characters & Their Growth
For those who argue that Nam Do-San had no growth throughout the story, may have had limited experience with talented and gifted youth as they are defined in the West. Many of these kids are exceptionally brilliant in certain aspects but struggle with social adequacy and emotional coping mechanisms due to their asynchronous learning skills. As such, towards the beginning, coupled with his imposter syndrome bred over the years as he always felt like a fraud for the win at the Math Olympiad, we see Nam Do-San as someone who gets emotionally overwhelmed when he feels he has made a mistake. He cries like a child who cannot express the depth of his feelings when he experiences cognitive dissonance with his sense of fairness. He feels the emotions to his core but cannot translate them into words or actions.
Do-San, overwhelmed with emotion
He also latches on to simple, singular ideas, and builds a universe around them. He may not know about a breadth of things but, of the limited things he knows about, few can surpass his knowledge. Which is why his life’s work becomes in artificial intelligence and its many variants; his life’s passion becomes Dal-Mi, whom he cannot outgrow even when he fully believes she is unattainable.
The shock of Dal-Mi leaving him changes him.
After his three years in San Francisco, we learn anecdotally that he never mentions Dal-Mi during that time and throws himself into work at the Silicon Valley VC firm that hired him away. He now has more confidence in his gait and carries himself with more finesse. His ideas about being an entrepreneur are more refined. He tells Dal Mi, “I have changed. I am much stronger now.” This is not an empty statement. He is not only technically stronger, but he is now a seasoned executive who will not let his personal biases cloud his judgement.
Similarly, Ji-Pyeong also goes through necessary growth after reconnecting with the Seo family. He begins to realize how empty his lavish and abrasive life is without a loving family. The adult Dal-Mi and her spirited ways remind him of the girl who provided him companionship at a time he was also very lonely. He acknowledges his desire for her and thinks this is what he wants. He is by now accustomed to getting his way. However, in time he learns that one cannot command the heart with the mind. It didn’t matter how much distance had grown between Dal-Mi and Do-San, or how much Ji-Pyeong showed his support for her, she still loved Do-San. Her world revolved around finding her way back to Do-San, which is why she swallows her pride and starts working for In-Jae.
Ji-Pyeong’s parting words to Dal-Mi captures his growth when he states how he didn’t seek her out in 15 years after having read all her letters, but how Do-San went to her the very first day. With that, not only does he honor her love for Do-San, he also acknowledges and accepts why she loved Do-San. His gracious defeat, coupled with his courage to come to Do-San as an investor, is tremendous growth for Ji-Pyeong. His heart is now open to new relationships without fear and he no longer needs to keep himself ensconced within the comfort zone consisting of Ms. Choi and Dal-Mi. Even though it is not necessary to show this, but I can envision this new Ji-Pyeong being able to go out and build meaningful relationships with women and eventually find a life-long partner who fulfills him. In the end frame, he seems happier and more complete.
The safe and comfortable choice isn’t always the best choice for any of us. Ji-Pyeong didn’t pine for Dal-Mi for 15 years and got left out in the cold. Dal-Mi became the catalyst for him to truly love himself enough to let the light into his heart.
Relativity of Pain
I saw a number of comments on this topic and they touched a chord. Many argued how Ji-Pyeong deserved more because he was already an orphan and had to struggle so much in life, whereas Do-San came from a loving family and can find happiness elsewhere. This is not fair to either. Ji-Pyeong shouldn’t receive love out of pity and Do-San shouldn’t be deprived of love because his bucket is full from elsewhere. Neither of them selected their circumstances.
Even though Do-San had parents, he lived under the constant burden of feeling that he wasn’t good enough to fulfill his father’s expectations. He didn’t intend to cheat at the Math Olympiad but that one happenstance hint helps him cross the finish line with flying colors. Out of the guilt, he sabotages his life’s other opportunities that he earned on his own merit such as dropping out of college. This lack of self-esteem, constant sense of fear and guilt about the parents, not knowing if he truly has a safe place to go back to, can also be painful.
Often the difficulties arising from experiences like Do-San’s lead to many silent deaths, where children choose to take their own lives rather than live with the pain of being a constant disappointment. One of the most memorable portrayals of this kind of a parent-child dynamic is the character of Neil Perry in what is now a classic movie, Dead Poet’s Society (1989). It is excruciating that Neil found it better to tragically end his life because he felt he couldn’t pursue his life’s passions due to his regimented father’s strict edicts.
When I am given insight into others’ life stories, I choose not to be the arbiter of the depth of someone else’s sorrows. It is difficult for us to be equitable on a good day. All we can do is try our best to see all sides with a fair view and take the opportunities to enrich our own sense of reasoning. I applaud the writer Park Hye-Ryeon for sensitively showing both sides of the coin. A man who grows up without parental love and one who grows up with a complicated kind of parental love. One’s hardships do not negate the other’s experiences. One with a seemingly more difficult history shouldn’t be given a free pass to anything, especially if it means short-changing someone else who has an equal claim to a given prize, be it in love, recognition or accolades.
With the rise and fall of financial and spiritual fortunes of several of the characters, the writer’s choices are nuanced in portraying the relative wins and losses in the lives of every main character. It is not flawless writing, but the story has enough of a backbone to keep us entertained.
Roots of Kindness
There are two characters in the show who stand out as being the ones who put events in motion with their kindness. Halmeoni and Nam Do-San. Halmeoni takes in Ji-Pyeong without expecting anything in return. She then has the magnanimity to take in Dal-Mi’s mother as well. Both of her actions brought good things in the lives of those she loved and helped her get back the family she had lost.
Do-San sets out to help Dal-Mi without expecting anything in return. He starts NoonGil with Halmeoni in mind, after he comes to understand and appreciate how much good in the world had been unleashed from her acts of kindness. He comes to believe that his deep knowledge about AI is meant to create a difference in the world through what he can build for NoonGil. He fights to preserve NoonGil so that the service can help people like Halmeoni and is eventually able to get it sold to a philanthropic foundation on his own merit.
Every other character in the show go through their machinations brought about as a result of these pure acts of kindness and entire new worlds get created from them. It is heart-warming to watch the power of paying it forward.
Both Nam Joo-Hyuk and Kim Seon-Ho did a great job with their roles, each providing a refined interpretation of their vastly different characters. It is unfortunate that so much time and energy got spent in vilifying one or the other during the airing; their hard work deserved better. Bae Suzy started very strong with a credible connection to the personality of the young Dal-Mi, but as the series wore on, her character becomes a little dull and more single-dimensional than I like. Women like her don’t usually wane over time. They continue to keep fighting with gusto, especially when they gain more confidence in their abilities.
There are many other themes that deserve a deeper look in the series but those can remain for private discussions with friends who enjoyed the show just as much as I did. Given my own life story of marrying a geeky inventor, raising gifted children, and breathing the realities of Silicon Valley, Start-Up will remain an uplifting, comfort drama for me for a long time to come. Brightly colored with a soothing but stirring musical score, the series is a great study of human behavior and the power of choices.
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