In 2020, the Ministry of Justice in Korea pushed through legislation that raised the minimum age for consent to sexual activity from 13 to 16. This is different from the minimum age of 19 (international age, and not Korean age), when an individual is no longer considered a minor and can enter into legally binding contracts without parental consent. In Korean age, if one is turning 20 in international age in the same year, they are also considered to have graduated from being a minor.
In Korea, if anyone is caught having sexual intercourse with anyone below 16, there is no close age exemption which allows someone below the minimum age to have consensual sex with an older partner who is relatively close in age. This is also known as the Romeo and Juliet law. As an example, in Texas the Romeo and Juliet law exempts teenagers and young adults who engage in sexual relations with teens under the age of consent from being classified as sex offenders.
In a recent heated debate about the artistic choices taken in Twenty-Five Twenty-One, several of these legal guidelines have been confused with sentiments erupting around a twenty three year old ‘adult’ confessing his love for a 19 year old ‘minor’ still in school uniform.
As an international viewer with strong opinions about gendered politics and prejudices, I wanted to understand this deeper, in the context of the narrative that is unfolding in this highly popular series.
In the aftermath of the 1997-1998 IMF financial crisis in South Korea, 22 year old Yi Jin, the elder son of a bankrupt chaebol family, meets fencing prodigy 18 year old Hee Do while he is trying to rebuild a life for himself after having to drop out of college. His refuge in the mandatory military program also comes to an end when the government decides that he should be exempted from military training as his family needs him more than his country during these times of economic hardships.
His family’s financial difficulties further result in a sham divorce for his parents, so that the mother is spared persecution for the husband’s debts. The younger son is sent off to live with an aunt, the mother goes to live with her brother and the father moves to another small village. Baek Yi-Jin is suddenly left to fend for himself without any adult oversight.
He becomes caught in no man’s land. His prior friends and peers steer clear of him because of his changed status and in a struggling economy he cannot find a job worthy of his qualifications. His father is now termed a financial criminal and some of his creditors come to Baek Yi-Jin’s door, demanding compensation. He promises to never be happy in his life as his penance.
While he is grappling with this unwanted and harsh predicament, he gets to know Hee Do, a spirited and driven young girl who dreams of being a top fencer but has had flagging performance for the last few years. When the fencing program at her home school gets cancelled, she goes to extraordinary lengths to get transferred to Tae Yang High School, where the fencing team is led by a revered coach and includes the first Olympic gold medalist from Korea.
Hee Do’s struggle to overcome her formidable obstacles helps Yi Jin see a parallel with his own life, and he begins to draw inspiration from her indomitable and positive energy. In turn, she begins to find strength in his faith in her success and his philosophical words of encouragement about reaching for her goals. During some months of separation, Hee Do makes it into the national fencing team and Yi Jin also comes out of his slump and successfully takes advantage of a program that allows high school graduates to apply to be a journalist. Now 23 and 19, they are back to living in the same town and remain a source of support to each other.
Without a sense of belonging anywhere, as an alumnus of Tae Yang High School, Yi Jin begins to gravitate towards this group of high school students with whom he shares prior and present connections. Hee Do has quickly become his spot of light and humor for the day, Olympic fencer Go Yu Rim’s family is connected to his for many years, Seung Wan is his landlady’s daughter as well as a fellow member of the broadcasting club and Ji Woong is her childhood best friend. A group of people who look up to him for various reasons, they become his newly adopted family.
He is protective of them and they revere the natural confidence he exudes despite the hardships in his life. It is a kind of respect that is atypical for him as he is often ridiculed and humiliated at work for his status as a failed ‘young master’ who is nothing more than a high school graduate.
Within this backdrop is the start of a meaningful bond between Yi JIn and Hee Do. Not only have they become a source of strength for each other, but Hee Do has also started to become aware of Yi Jin as something more than a platonic friend. In the last two episodes, as she is trying to make sense of her feelings, Yi Jin doesn’t make any suggestive remarks and waits to understand her.
When she asks him about his feelings, he confesses that he’s in love with who she is. She has been a beacon for him to follow that led him to a good place in his life. She says that she didn’t think her feelings for him were as big but he is neither offended nor demanding. To him it isn’t about what she feels for him but to help ease her mind that his love for her was rooted in him knowing that feeling loved made her feel secure and stronger.
It is this confession that has unleashed a plethora of debates and complaints by the knetz i.e. the Korean Netizen. Here are some quotes and excerpts from an article on www.koreaboo.com
““Um, is a 23-year-old man hanging out with high school kids and confessing romantic feelings to a 19-year-old girl considered normal now? IRL, if a minor starts to catch feelings for an adult, the adult should know to walk away. Why is the show titled Twenty Five Twenty One if for ten episodes they’re going to be 23-19? It should’ve been called Twenty Three Nineteen instead. It isn’t called that because the producers know it’s weird.”
Many complained that Hee Do should have at least become an adult first before they had mutual feelings for each other. They called Yi Jin a “creep” for mingling with kids instead of people his own age.”
In the context of the story as I described above, the times set in the late 90s when the legal minimum age for sexual consent was 13, the average age gap between married couples in Korea being between 1 – 4 years, coupled with the fact that Yi Jin has done nothing beyond confessing his feelings, has made no sexual overtures or ask Hee Do to change in how she engages with him, and just watches out for her, this level of rage seems to be thoughtless controversy fueled by the tabloids.
In addition, the average four year age gap between married couples mean that at some point the pair was 19 and 23 years old. While the law governs sexual conduct, there is no law that governs when one can fall in love. It is not criminal to be in love at 19 and 23.
In fact, a careful study of the story reveals a narrative that is mindful of the local rules. Hee Do is already 19 and we don’t know when her birthday is. She may be very close to the minimum age requirement to be considered a consenting adult. It is a story that is intentionally sensitive around inappropriate feelings for a minor. It shows suitable rules of engagement between two people caught between the fine lines between a minor and an adult. Here are some examples.
Yi Jin drags Hee Do out of a dangerous situation at a club where she can get arrested for being a minor. When he brings her out against her wishes, he says, “Do you know why the law protects minors? Because your imaginations are limited.”
When Hee Do questions Yi Jin if he is dating Yu Rim, he says “high schoolers should date other high schoolers. Grown-ups should date other grown-ups.”
At the end of episode 2, when Yi Jin is at his lowest after being assaulted by a creditor, Hee Do tells him that since he gave the promise to never be happy, they can pursue happiness together in secret. Her wisdom belies her age.
After a particularly hard day of rejections, Hee Do comes skipping in and finds a drunk and dejected Yi Jin sitting on the steps of his front gate. He smiles for the first time that day when he sees her and says “you put a smile on my face”. During the conversation, and during another later encounter, Hee Do teaches him about the importance of turning tragedies into comedies so that one can move on. The tables are turned again between the ‘adult’ and the ‘minor’. Life lessons and wisdom are not always a function of age.
Later, when Yi Jin surprises her during her late night practice before the tryouts, Hee Do says, “Come inside. I can’t stand how we’re here like a scene from Romeo & Juliet.” I cannot help but think that this is a reference to the close age exemption/ Romeo & Juliet law I described in my opening paragraphs.
After their mock game, Hee Do continues her practice and talks about her dreams of making the team, but how she isn’t disappointed if dreams don’t come true because she’s used to losing and failing. The discipline of her training has given her an unusual perspective for someone her age. This mental fortitude is the pillar for Yi Jin, and he says “that’s why I miss you when I feel mentally weak.”
This open willingness by both to admit their flaws and vulnerabilities without being judged is what bonds them together. Yi Jin is not a dirty older man who is eyeing a minor for his sexual pleasure, which is where the social discomfort lies when considering a relationship between an adult and a minor.
Life circumstances separate Hee Do and Yi Jin for months, but their faith in each other isn’t shaken. She trusts that he disappeared to lessen the difficulties in his life, and he watches with pride as Hee Do makes her dreams come true. They find ways of reaching each other, but there is nothing sinister in how they seek comfort from the other.
Yi Jin comes back into Hee Do’s life, now as a reporter. They don’t demand any explanations from each other for the prolonged absence, and Yi Jin steps in during Hee Do’s moment of need, getting her to her finals on time. She says, “thank you for today.” To which he says, “Thank you for the entire time we were apart.” This exchange is one of the most meaningful of their exchanges. He acknowledges the strength he vicariously drew from her successes and they both understand how hard the other worked to reach where they are today.
Apart from a desire to cheer the other’s successes, there is no hidden agenda in how the relationship unfolds.
After Hee Do’s controversial win, the first person she acknowledges is Yi Jin. Throughout the episode, we come to realize the parallel role Yi Jin has played in Hee Do’s life as her father had done before his untimely passing. Her father was a source of encouragement and support, and through his calm steadiness, Yi Jin has come to symbolize the same.
After the debacle at the press conference, he helps her to do the right thing by the federation, works tirelessly to clear her name, and in the process gets a taste of what being a real reporter can mean. Once again, Hee Do inadvertently becomes the guiding light for him to reach his next important station in life.
Episode 8 – 9:
Yi Jin doesn’t change his demeanor towards Hee Do, but it is Hee Do who begins to realize that Yi Jin is more than just a friend for her. This is her first time feeling something like this and she struggles to find the words and means that will make Yi Jin see her as more than a kid. He’s fond of her, protective of her, but has never made any suggestive remarks about a possible relationship.
The focus of the story has been Hee Do’s awakening to herself and her desires as a young girl curious about love and life. With a sanitized, stoic household dynamic with her mother and little in way of a social life, her focus has been fencing and reading. As she discovers other emotions with new friends coming into her life, the process of her self-discovery is a beautiful depiction of feminine growth. Yi Jin’s quiet support and care is something she has come to rely on but he doesn’t offer it with any expectations in return other than her being a part of his life.
It is only in this journey of Hee Do’s self-discovery that he confesses his feelings. He didn’t need a rainbow to describe what he felt, and what he felt was not an imposition nor an obligation for her to reciprocate his feelings. He just wanted for her to feel loved.
Hee Do’s honesty about not feeling sure about her love for him, and them both accepting this as a comfortable status quo is the message to be taken from this. Not how a 23 year old went after a 19 year old, but how the inevitability of feelings between this 23 and 19 year old could be treated with respect while the minor takes her time to make up her mind. How a virile 23 year old can focus on building a meaningful connection with the object of his affection as opposed to becoming a sex-crazed buffoon who doesn’t know how to protect her innocence.
With the relationships among the other three protagonists evolving in parallel, the five come together on their first trip together and we get more insight into their pasts. Yi Jin is the ‘adult’ among them only separated by a handful of years, but miles of experiences and hardships make him stand apart even more. He maintains a distance from them, appropriately playing his role as the chaperone during the filming of the documentary. His wistful expressions as he watches them frolicking in the water and the sand is a reminder that with unexpected turns in life, you can find yourself on a road unknown but don’t let that destroy the path you take.
Just as we see Hee Do maturing into a self-aware young woman, we see Yi Jin find his confidence and resolve to push past the difficulties.
The lack of sexual innuendos, physicality and no major change in their relationship dynamic as a result of his confession, is a conscious choice by the makers to show how a relationship between an ‘adult’ and ‘minor’ can evolve respectfully without it being a depraved connection, and how over the years it can get redefined without violating any laws of nature or those of the land. Kudos to the nuanced performances by Kim Tae-Ri and Nam Joo-Hyuk, in portraying the many layers of the characters as they grow through life together.
As I read some of the irresponsible discourse on the web, both against the characters and the actors playing them, I come away disappointed once again. Say something when you have something meaningful to say. Without the full context of the story or without understanding the full layers of the artistic choices taken by the writers and cast, to blow something out of proportion in this manner is disrespectful to one’s own intelligence. It almost makes some of the vociferous critique seem like street stragglers joining a procession and joining the chant, without knowing the cause or its foundation.
I often lament the negligence of the media and I liked that Twenty Five Twenty One uses the debacle during the Asian Games in Episode 7 to call attention to the responsibility the media has in presenting the truth versus sensationalizing the news for ratings and ad dollars. On this debate about an ‘inappropriate’ relationship being depicted by the series, I found multiple articles posting about the debate but none that provided a meaningful background, either for the local or the international audience. I will hope that given the influence the web platform has in shaping public opinion, popular outlets will take a more accountable approach in becoming a credible source of news.
Our chaotic world is in dire need of these minority reports and I am grateful for the thoughtful commentary Twenty Five Twenty One has provoked.
(c) mh musings
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