I finally convinced my boyfriend to watch Korean dramas with me. Our first one was Crash Landing on You and our most recent one is Itaewon Class! I knew very little about Itaewon Class going into it, other than the title and hearing that it was popular.
Itaewon Class is a love letter to Itaewon in all its diverse, cosmopolitan glory, wrapped in a classic tale of underdogs seeking revenge. The show is perhaps best known for its diverse ensemble cast and progressive messaging, which really sets it apart from other revenge plots.
Park Saeroyi (Park Seo-joon) stars as an ex-convict who declares himself enemies with the Jang family, the chaebol family behind Jangga Corporation, the top restaurant company in South Korea. He’s determined to build his pub, DanBam (or “Honey Night”), into a top company and take down Jang Dae-hee (Yoo Jae-myung), the CEO of Jangga. Meanwhile, Jang Dae-hee’s goal is to make Saeroyi kneel before him.
Itaewon Class starts off slow. There are several episodes that set up Saeroyi’s backstory that I suppose are important to illustrating the depth of the enmity between Saeroyi and the Jang family, but feel so slow. I did have a good chuckle at the rock in the first episode, which was shaped quite a lot like the Parasite rock and I feel like it must have been a reference? (Park Seo-joon had a cameo in Parasite.)
But once we get to Saeroyi being released from jail, things pick up quite a lot and the show ends up spanning about fifteen years in total across the sixteen episodes. Saeroyi is an underdog whose defining characteristics are his stubbornness, his convictions, and his refusal to relinquish his principles. At times, it can be frustrating, because it’s always the high road or no road for him, but it’s also heartwarming to see him and the DanBam crew find success by staying true to who they are.
Saeroyi is a true believer in growing and developing from within. His staff are a band of misfits who have been rejected from standard society, but he takes them in, regardless of their background or ability, and puts his trust in them that if they work hard, they will succeed. And they do.
It’s these subplots involving the DanBam staff that differentiate Itaewon Class from other revenge stories. Each of their stories touch on controversial topics of how society treats those whom they deem as not “belonging”: ex-convicts, members of the LGBTQ+ community, so-called “mixed blood” Koreans.
Although Saeroyi is the hero of Itaewon Class, he only achieves success by depending on and recognizing the women around him. The fact that women wield a lot of the power and money in Itaewon Class is refreshing to see in drama-land, where female characters are often reduced to one-dimensional tropes. The character who shines the most is Jo Yi-seo (Kim Da-mi), a brilliant young influencer who forsakes college to pursue love and success: she helps Saeroyi with his business because she has a crush on him. She is badass from the start: a little wild, no-nonsense, self-professed to be possibly sociopathic, but also incredibly independent, capable, and just fun to see on screen. She’s a type of character you rarely see as a protagonist. She’s far from perfect and can be unapologetically close-minded, but also knows when to acknowledge that she is wrong (though she’ll never actually admit it.)
Itaewon Class is not perfect. It takes itself seriously, perhaps a little too seriously, loves its scenes with long, drawn-out stares and tense music, and I definitely found myself laughing at very serious moments that were not meant to be funny. But Itaewon Class also feels very 2020. There are plenty of cliche, expected moments, but it also subverts the usual tropes and forges out in a fresh, progressive direction with the story it tells.
Warning: There may be some spoilers below!
There are the obvious progressive moments, such as featuring a transgender character in Ma Hyun-yi (Lee Joo-young) and a black, half-Korean character in Kim Toni (Chris Lyon) and addressing how Korean society shuns both. But there are also subtler subversions.
For example, if you ignore cast lists, like I did, it’s not obvious that Oh Soo-ah actually ends up being the second lead. Jo Yi-seo very much has the second lead setup: she’s young, seems like an annoyingly persistent dongsaeng-type puppy crush character, and Saeroyi seems so unchanging, most of all with his crush on Soo-ah. Yet Yi-seo ends up getting the guy, perhaps because she, like Saeroyi, only says things that will become true. Drama-land loves characters like Saeroyi who love from afar and with never-ending consistency. Sometimes they get the girl and sometimes they’re second leads. But how often do these characters end up deciding, “Hey, I loved you for fifteen years and I love not changing, but now I realize that you don’t actually appreciate me and I actually appreciate someone who unconditionally loves me”?
To be fair, I don’t think there needed to be a love story in Itaewon Class. I didn’t really care whether Saeroyi ended up with Soo-ah or Yi-seo or neither. The greatest entertainment value from the romance was Soo-ah and Yi-seo butting heads. They are both so similar, but simply present themselves in different ways. Soo-ah is much more restrained while Yi-seo has no filter, and that explains why they have so many confrontations. But the fact that Saeroyi did end up with Yi-seo was nice in that it went against what I expected.
Most of the Jangga-related storylines were either cliche or simply baffling. For example, Jang Geun-soo. That poor boy. He seemed so nice and then… I don’t know, he started acting so bizarrely. I fault character writing for that. He never had very clear convictions or motivations. At first I thought he just wanted a family, and then halfway through he decided he wanted to give this power-hungry thing a try? At least Jang Geun-won was predictably messed up.
But the the best (or worst, depending on your perspective) part of the Jang family was Jang Dae-hee, as it should be. A revenge plot needs a good villain, and Jang Dae-hee was a great antagonist who experienced a great trajectory through the course of the drama. As much as Itaewon Class is about Saeroyi’s rise, it is also about Jang Dae-hee’s undoing. Jang Dae-hee’s story is a great parable of the dangers of pride and losing one’s way. It’s immensely obvious to everyone except for him that he is the sole person responsible for the downfall of his family, his company, and himself. Ultimately, any revenge story is just as much about watching a villain fall as it is about watching a hero rise, and it’s so satisfying to watch Jang Dae-hee’s obstinate blindness to his own flaws and his slow unraveling as he drives everyone around him away and watches his world go up in flames.