K-Drama Report: Twenty-Five Twenty-One

By traditional logic, Twenty-Five Twenty-One has a lot to live up to. Its writer/director team is Kwon Do-eun and Jung Ji-hyun, whose previous collaboration was 2019’s Search: WWW, which blew me away. This, of course, is K-drama, where I’ve had to rethink all the rules of everything. In this case, what drew me to Search: WWW was the actress Lee Da-hee and the promise – fulfilled – of her badass character. I came for Scarlett and stayed for the simmering romance and the slowly-unfolding tragedy. This is like the difference between being a fan of a movie franchise and being a fan of a director. If Production IG were to announce a new Ghost in the Shell the same day that Mamoru Oshii announced a new movie, I know which one I’d watch first. Sure, the Oshii movie might be better (guy’s so experimental it’s kind of a toss-up), but Ghost in the Shell has Scarlett, so to speak. So to speak. So when the makers of Search: WWW roll out a new K-drama, I can reasonably predict the same level of simmering romance and slowly-unfolding tragedy. Being that it’s about a high school girl who wants to be a real good fencer, it doesn’t speak to me the same way as the imagery of Lee Da-hee stomping on people or sliding over a car hood.

As a result, maybe, it’s taken me this long to get around to it. The plan was to follow up Love and Leashes with the first episode, which premiered the next day on February 12, but I waited more than a week. As of this writing, I’m two episodes in, so this has to be a record for K-Drama Reports. The hurdle has been cleared, and already, Twenty-One Twenty-Five is paying out dramatic catharsis far sooner than Search: WWW. Being one-eighth into the show, it’s premature to make sweeping declarations, but so far, this is a very, very good series. And while I have to cleave it from Search: WWW in terms of aesthetic expectations, a big part of my appreciation is its technical improvement.

One of the literally eye-catching aspects of Search: WWW is the camera, which settled at cheeky, voyeuristic angles and bounced all over the 180 line. For some viewers, this required adjustment or was even a turn-off, but no one can deny the visual splendor. The falling cherry blossoms gracing every street corner, the gleaming geometric architecture, and of course, the considerable canvas of the actors in extreme close-up. Twenty-Five Twenty One seems to be an evolution of Jung Ji-hyun’s eye, blocking the players far more naturalistically (the lasting image of Search: WWW is Bae Ta-mi and Park Morgan in conversation, standing 12 feet apart) and composing every scene with far more restraint. This allows the moments of heart-stopping imagery to feel like the consequence of the story rather than a logic puzzle in the cinematographer’s playbook. For example, toward the end of episode two, the male lead Back Yi-jin takes the protagonist Na Hee-do by the hand and they run off into a low-angle shot against a night sky of stars. This is the emotional climax of a very cute scene where Hee-do tries to cheer up Yi-jin with her dorky personal escape, turning a drinking fountain into a mini-Bellagio by messing with the faucets. We’ve just flashed back through Yi-jin’s sad backstory, so we’re seeing how much this small act is affecting him with the smile threatening to break across his face.

The incredible coincidence of characters in a small world remains, apparently a hallmark of Kwon Do-eun’s storytelling. In Twenty-Five Twenty-One, however, it has something of a thematic foundation, with a majority of the action so far taking place in 1998, after an economic recession upturned so many people’s lives. In particular, Yi-jin returns to his hometown after his chaebol family goes bankrupt, where relationships old and new mix in the school halls he left behind. This is a small town where characters keep secrets like time bombs, and there’s an overwhelming weight in the collective psyche – dreams, shame, guilt, regret. Where the world of Search: WWW was relatively unspecific, I definitely appreciate being set in a concrete time and place in South Korea’s history. There’s an aching sadness here, and every character is touched by it. While they might distract themselves, it’s never forgotten, and that’s what makes Na Hee-do the perfect protagonist.

For perhaps our last and most important compare/contrast, we’ve also advanced the wild age gaps of Search: WWW into age remixes. In the 1998 setting, Na Hee-do is 17 and Yi-jin is 22, which is a little uncomfortable, of course. But does it help to know that the actors are 30 and 27 respectively? Yes, 30-year-old Kim Tae-ri is playing a high schooler, and since I don’t know what a Korean baby-face looks like, I’ll call this a more severe case than Dear Evan Hansen. No CGI, but one ridiculous wig. I don’t know why the producers went with Kim Tae-ri for this role, other than the obvious, that she’s Kim Tae-ri. I haven’t seen The Handmaiden in a while, so I’ve been bowled over by her turn here. Hee-do is effectively an anime character, the spastic girl often accompanied by action lines, and she’s always yelling her excitement and arriving at places too soon, backtracking awkwardly out of frame. Just watching her physically navigate the world is fascinating in itself, whether she’s skipping or poking her googly eyes everywhere. She lives in the world she’s made, one full of expectations that are constantly shattered. Her mother doesn’t support her dream of fencing (she was a child prodigy but never advanced past that point) and her idol rival tells her to get lost as soon as she makes sweaty-handed contact. Through it all, through this world in economic freefall, she’s smiling through tears, the incandescent beacon in a sea of misery.

My one question with Search: WWW was its politics, culminating in a Randian screed against regulation. “The Internet belongs to the people!” which means it belongs to the chaebol, and that’s why I have to focus on what it all means symbolically for the characters as part of their journey. I’m writing from the perspective of an American viewer, who’s witnessed breathless news coverage of rich billionaires launching big metal dicks into space while the world slides toward climate catastrophe. 2019’s Search: WWW also anticipated today’s endlessly silly crypto boom, our resident multidimensional scam which is also hastening our slide toward climate catastrophe. Maybe it’s different in Korea, but I’d welcome government oversight on corporate faffery. In Twenty-Five Twenty One, that sad backstory for Yi-jin is a riches-to-rags that asks us, for at least one moment, to sympathize with a rich family and then in another moment creates something of an antagonist of a non-rich guy whose life was ruined by Yi-jin’s family. I’m anticipating this depiction of socioeconomic inequality will be comparable window dressing and not a full discussion with some sort of weird moral at the end. But do I dare ask more? It was the one arguable flaw with Search: WWW, and we seem to be on an upward trajectory here.

Especially as the other flaw with Search: WWW was the pacing. Maybe I’ve internalized K-drama pacing by now, which isn’t the two-to-three-minute scenes of American television (and I suppose anime, since I never noticed this with anything there), but Twenty-Five Twenty One is humming along, with very little repeated exposition or circuitous character beats. True enough, Hee-do often stresses how her dream is “to be Yu-rim’s rival!” but there hasn’t been a single lengthy philosophical exchange on the ethics of technology or anything that might’ve further discouraged viewers from Search: WWW.

With a few more episodes to catch up before I’m current with the broadcast — episodes appearing on Netflix every Saturday and Sunday I believe — I’m feeling very positive. It’s an awkward, almost nonexistent story premise which I can’t synthesize into a pitch, so the key draw is the talent both behind the scenes for fans of Kwon Do-eun’s previous masterpiece, and before the camera, as Tae-ri is a massive star after Mr. Sunshine, and Nam Joo-hyuk is well-known from Weightlifting Fairy and Start-Up. There may not be something as acutely appealing as Scarlett here, so I don’t expect 2022’s new-and-improved model to unseat Search: WWW in my heart, but I can expect that Hee-do, who’s been cracking me up, will soon break my heart with equal and opposite power.

Check out the second report, covering up to episode 9

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