Ah, what we have here are two friends from opposite sides of the track. You see, in this highly competitive elite school, Soo-ah is the number two student and Yeon-doo is the 196th. Usually, the highest and lowest-ranked students come to blows in the hallways. But Soo-ah gets it. She’s above this petty squabbling. Maybe there’s hope yet at peace across the aisle…
Until we learn that Soo-ah has only been using Yeon-doo, and the time has come to say “Goodbye, loser,” which is where our story begins. Cheer Up, also known as Sassy Go Go is a Korean drama from 2015, written by Yoon Soo-jung and directed by Lee Eun-jin. I absolutely fell in love with this show, due in no small part to the dynamic between these two characters, as performed masterfully by actress Chae Soo-bin and Apink lead vocalist Eunji (who happened to be the reason I started watching).
I needed that sort of guide, I think. Let’s say I’m hesitant when it comes to new things even as an adult, and I’ve had trouble with K-dramas in the past. It wasn’t until I went to Korea that I decided to get a little more serious with these shows. You know, sit down and focus and maybe don’t suffer too many expectations upfront. And so, I set my expectations like this: “I’d like to immerse myself in the language and culture as much as possible, and I am a fan of Eunji,” full stop.
And the first two episodes don’t disappoint. Eunji is wild from the very start, making faces, yelling at people — a very physical performance. But this is more or less what I expect. The exuberance, the saturated color and light, and the volume. Everyone is always shouting exactly how they feel and what they think. Totally fine. But I do notice something slightly off: I have no sense for the plot. Despite the title, I don’t see any cheerleading, and little did I know, I wouldn’t until episode five. Gradually, things start to fall into place as my ironic grimace begins to fade. This is how it goes: The principal commissions a cheerleading club — there you go — in order to illegally augment Soo-ah’s resume for college, as Soo-ah’s mother leads a cabal of parents with undue influence over the principal, despite the increase in investigations of scandals just like these all over the country. And how does the principal organize this club that nobody wants to join? Well, she needs Yeon-doo, an expert dancer, so she reaches out to number one student Kim Yeol to talk to her since Kim Yeol is in her pocket because she knows about his friend Ha-joon’s self-harm because Soo-ah found some evidence and… holy shit. Already a complicated network of alliances and blackmail.
Everyone has an agenda, and if you’re not pursuing it in the most cutthroat way, you will lose the game of thrones. Oh, excuse me. But this does call to mind that Scientific American piece which went around following the Game of Thrones finale. I was completely fine with a show that merely featured the Korean language and starred Eunji, but what I got was so much more, up to and including its sociological storytelling. This is the study of an institution, of characters forced to make choices under external, systemic forces. And mind you, it’s not for control of the realm, it’s to optimally graduate high school. That low-stakes, high-intensity is so… bashta. And it’s very telling, because immediately the show has to configure the terminology of its stakes. It’s not life and death, it’s social standing. It’s not the epic clash of good and evil but high school frenemies throwing basketballs at each other’s heads. Surprisingly, at least for me, it becomes difficult to tell the difference. In context, this is an epic clash of good and evil. So in transmuting these terms, but maintaining the electricity, ensuring each encounter is exciting and nerve-wracking, the show is building a world.
Cheer Up is a vibrant and unexpectedly moving TV series about finding your self and your society in the face of a dystopic institution. If it’s your first Korean drama like it essentially was mine, the theatrical performances and unsubtle storytelling may throw you at first. Stick with it. If it’s not your first Korean drama, the romance might not be up to spec. I’ll grant you that. But beyond whatever expectations we bring to a cultural export like this, good story is universal, and that was a lesson I learned here. So if you haven’t seen Cheer Up, I urge you to pause here and seek it out instead, because we’re headed into spoiler territory.
And one last thing: a content warning for the show and for the rest of this video, there are themes of suicide and if not outright sexual assault, then at least the discourse around it.
For me, it all begins with the principal. She’s caught between the parents who are bribing her and the investigators from the Ministry of Education. Given where her character arc goes, which is to say, nowhere, in retrospect, all of these snapshots into her inner conflict seem to better serve the world-building. This is taking a toll on her. Even for people at the top of the food chain, there are no winners.
It feels purposeful, and I think it stems from an instinct on the part of the creative team. I’m allowed to understand where she’s coming from, such that her only sin is cowardice. And granted, it is cowardice that turns the gears of any machine like this. So we contrast the principal with our principal character Yeon-doo, who suffers endless indignities in the first two episodes, ending up literally on the floor. It’s maybe a little much. While the show might not be interested in identifying flaws in its protagonist, developing a slight persecution complex, I think it’s for a good purpose. Hers is the story of what happens when a good kid is dropped into a bad school. A discussion I’d love to have is whether or not Yeon-doo was always good or if she becomes good as a result of her recent circumstances. Soo-ah seems to think it’s the latter, and that’s the more compelling option.
Yeon-doo loses everything: her dance club, her best friend, her hopes for the future, honestly. When she has nothing left to lose, that’s when she has to adapt in order to overcome this system governed by cowardice. So what does she do? She rebels by thinking creatively, and inspiring others to help her. Part of what attracts Kim Yeol to her cause, clandestinely at first, is her shameless independence. He’s been secreting away an independent spirit, but hers is on full display because she’s out of options. Kim Yeol still has a lot to lose, but in Yeon-doo, obviously, he sees a lot to gain.
What primarily motivates Yeon-doo is the reclamation of her dance club, but so often she is pulled in directions because of her inherent kindness. And the dance club, while something she individually enjoys, is notably a communal activity. Even when she’s fighting for herself, she’s also fighting for others. This kindness, the independence, the empathy, and the interest in teamwork, these are what help her ascend from the bottom of the power structure to the very top of a society she accidentally built. I am a sucker for shows where the enemies become friends, especially as they tend to reward multiple viewings. It’s just such a contrast to see where Yeon-doo is in the beginning and where she is by the middle. But anyway, these qualities are not encouraged by the system, or rewarded. In fact, they are punished.
This show understands that a student’s development doesn’t only occur in the classroom, but in the halls, in the cafeteria, and at home, especially as all these spaces are so diffuse with one another. Parents show up at school to make their children’s lives harder, and not just by embarrassing them. When the administration, when the curricula seek to govern the students’ development without taking these other spaces into account, or even denying their validity as what happens in The Wire, the rigidity of these kids’ socialization turns them into system-compatible machines.
This is, to me, such a valuable critique of education broadly. The idea has purchase no matter where you are because it abstracts the student from the system. It’s saying these two things are separate, but not everybody’s ready to hear that, and for good reason. So while this is a universal lesson, I learned it’s something with acute relevance to Koreans, and did so in a rather ironic way.
In November 2019, which is when I was watching the show, it was reported that Eunji got some backlash for saying college entrance exams aren’t everything. “Could you have said that if you weren’t famous?” “You’re a celebrity. Do you think this counts as advice?” “It may not be everything in life, but that doesn’t mean it’s nothing either.” When the time comes, they stop air traffic so students can concentrate better. For Korean society, there is a lot riding on these exams. For students, it’s pretty much their entire future. As Crystal Tai writes in the South China Morning Post, “many white-collar roles in industries such as civil service, design, journalism — and even much sought-after entry-level positions at the nation’s chaebol such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai — all require passing extensive examinations, earning certificates and other qualifications.”
And yet, according to a professor of sociology interviewed for this article, these exams are welcomed as a measurement of one’s abilities, as “Koreans value unity and thus feel more comfortable when everyone is judged on the same basis where there is little room for debate and subjectivity.” Now, those of us who came up in a more lax educational pipeline might take exception to this — I certainly do — but if it works for South Korea, then what’s the problem? After all, “Two-thirds of South Koreans aged between 25 and 34 have college degrees, the highest proportion among the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries,” which include Japan, Norway, and Denmark. Well, the problem is that these machines we create are miserable, and that should account for a lot more than it does, across the board, even for our pipelines. This is where Soo-ah comes in, the model of perfect student as designed by this system and one of my all-time favorite villains.
When Soo-ah betrays Yeon-doo in the first episode, I got extremely excited, because I knew that every encounter to come would be explosive. And if not explosive, at least brimming with tension and pent-up anger and confusion and guilt. Chae-soo Bin won a newcomer award in 2015 for Cheer Up and House of Bluebird, and I imagine it’s got to be tough playing the character you love to hate. Especially when playing opposite a flawless character. And I think what compels me the most about the performance and the character is that while Soo-ah is the villain, she absolutely hates being the villain. She will tell somebody off or belittle someone, and we’ll linger on her face and see how this role she’s playing is killing her inside. Just like everyone else, Soo-ah is under immense pressure. And because she’s both venomous and remorseful, she’s completely unpredictable, but never illogical.
The conflict between Yeon-doo and Soo-ah escalates to life-threatening violence, but throughout, Yeon-doo is constantly wondering how to bring Soo-ah back into the fold. No matter how much she’s pushed, she simply cannot give up on people. Over the course of the story, she’s witnessed how a community protects its members from the system and has even sacrificed herself to save others. Although the school only views its students as numbers from one to 200, Yeon-doo has the antithetical ability to empathize with fellow individuals.
And for Soo-ah, everything falls apart. She becomes increasingly terrified at her own capacity for violence, and it figures into her very physicality. She starts walking like a zombie, poking her hands together, as if expecting retribution around every corner. She decides she’s had enough, and not just enough with villainy, but enough with life. She has spent her entire high school, maybe her whole childhood, being this person who’d sacrifice happiness and friends just to get ahead. Yeon-doo’s friend Dong-jae, who despite not initially knowing who Soo-ah was, gets an almost immediate sense for what’s going on with her. And after a night out together where Soo-ah breaks all of her rules and lets herself have fun, she reflects back on a life that now seems like a wasted opportunity. And then she says something that absolutely broke my heart.
“Don’t believe the adults’ lies of sacrificing our happiness today to become happy tomorrow. Don’t forget the truth that you have to be happy today so you can be happy tomorrow.”
And no, I mean it, I was literally clutching my heart and saying, “My heart.” And it got me thinking about how storytelling functions. Because taken out of context, what she says is little more than a platitude. If I saw that on a bumper sticker, I wouldn’t be clutching my heart and saying “My heart,” or so I tell you now, but it’s arriving at the end of an arc that’s involved me emotionally for nine and a half episodes. The show prepared me to receive that idea in the most meaningful way, and that to me is the power of storytelling.
Roger Ebert described the medium of film as “a machine that generates empathy,” and one of the ways I’ve seen storytelling cultivate empathy in its audience for a character is by providing that character’s context. For a somewhat contentious example, we have the scene in Fruitvale Station where Oscar Grant pours his weed into the ocean. It was argued that because this didn’t happen in real life, it was created to manipulate us into feeling empathy, and people got mad because they know it works. In the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, we come to understand why a woman makes certain decisions we’d otherwise consider to be “crazy.” And Soo-ah is a lot. She’s done some pretty bad things. It takes a complex read of a person to understand them because people are complex. Can she be forgiven? Your mileage may vary, but that question does preempt “do we understand her?”
These are the questions the characters themselves ask, as they begin interrogating their own feelings toward Soo-ah, which were sometimes uncomfortably violent. But we understand all of it. This is afterall, the system that pits students against each other. It is anti-society, that by ordering people within a hierarchy, they become divided. This is why it’s so important for Yeon-doo to keep Soo-ah close at heart always, not because otherwise she’ll be just like her, but because she risks replicating the system. And because she and Dong-jae radiate kindness and understanding, Soo-ah can both work toward redemption and come to this powerful revelation.
And what does this powerful revelation mean? That in order to become a society, you first have to become an individual. You have to think for yourself, not just bend to the demands of the powerful people around you. The world-building is the work of Yeon-doo, that she has brought all these people together and their unity was hard-won. And by the time we get to the cheerleading competition, we’ve seen how winning the day isn’t just about literally winning, it’s about how you get there, how you perform. They did so by standing up to the system, standing up for the people they care about. Because when you get close to people, you unlock new motivations in yourself. This is the emotional backbone to the process of individuation. Again and again, this idea is emphasized, becoming the leitmotif upon the peaks of these character arcs.
To once again speak to my expectations, I figured this show took place in a high school because that’s just a tradition in television. That’s where romance happens and where curmudgeonly teachers actually do care. And while that’s probably the reason why this show takes place in a high school, I was surprised by its interest in education itself.
We see videos and social media being used to pull Soo-ah back into the community, though these tools were exactly what started all the trouble. It’s the old wisdom that technology is neutral until intervened upon by human nature. And this principle applies to school as well. To my mind, school is society’s most important institution — it is where minds are created. That is tremendous and frightening power, so it’s understandable why administrations might want to take an essentially hands-off approach and rely on dehumanized systems to achieve traditionally defined success. Ironically, that’s when the tool becomes a weapon. And ironically again, school also physically brings people together, and groups of people might be able to solve the puzzle anyway, even when the pieces are thrown at them with disdain.
Cheer Up is a deeply human show despite its messiness. I mean, you know. There’s that storyline in the middle which maybe requires the judgment of better men than I, or perhaps not men at all. It bothers me a lot, personally, but that’s in large part because the show as a whole means so much to me. That said, I think the show manages to contextualize what happens better than I’d be able to, and if you can compartmentalize the problematic aspects of stories, I think the rest of it is so rewarding.
Really, I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to K-drama. As I was watching it, I kept thinking to myself: “Is this what all K-dramas are like?” I actually got self-conscious, because if that were the case, maybe I haven’t been watching the right things. I watched another one and it broke me of the spell, but I know now that this foreign format, this peculiar style, with all its volume issues, has the potential to break my heart and put it back together. So if you have any recommendations, believe me, I have my Viki login at the ready. Just leave a comment down below.
In 2011, students formed an organization to protest Korea’s college entrance exams, called the Hidden Bag for Change by Rejecting College Entrance Examinations. As one of the protestors said in, again, November of 2019, “the current system that encourages cliques, and divides losers from winners has got to change.” With characters like Yeon-doo and Soo-ah, I feel like we can begin to understand just what this kid’s talking about.