K-Drama Report: Twenty-Five Twenty-One Part II

Covering up to episode nine
And be sure to check out the previous report, which covered the first two episodes

I have to stress that Twenty-Five Twenty-One is beautiful. Of course, there’s the delicate soundtrack (Bibi’s “Very, Slowly” being such a surprise coming off her appearance in Hyoyeon’s “Second”), and the story itself is people rebuilding themselves in the wake of economic recession, but I honestly, chiefly, mean the visuals. Where I’d expect any ‘90s-set period piece made 30 years later to desaturate, the colors of Twenty-Five Twenty-One are boosted. Grass is green, the gym is orange and red, the night sky is blue, and Na Hee-do actually gets orange and pink with emotions. I’ve already covered the camerawork, but there’s also the editing, like that small moment in episode nine where Coach Yang beckons Hee-do with a quick gesture and we punch in on it for just a second. It’s a super-confident production, and while that helps the big moments land, it’s also just a very pleasant watch.

Kim Tae-ri’s performance as Hee-do continues to amaze me. When Hee-do’s mother Jae-kyung catches Baek Yi-jin in her house and asks him if he’s the one who broke her statue, Hee-do is quick to say, “It’s okay, Mom, he compensated for it.” “With what?” And deadly serious, Hee-do goes, “Full House.” I laughed out loud at that. It’s in the small details, too, like after Hee-do has her embarrassing moment in the locker room reading Yu-rim’s Full House, the next time we see her, she’s just got this funny walk, hands in her pockets, head down, almost twirling. I have never seen an adult play a teenager more convincingly, or more entertainingly. That scene later where Yu-rim reveals she’s Hee-do’s pen pal, and bursts into tears before she’s even on camera, to me makes the case for coming-of-age K-dramas. I could never look at a high school again and be perfectly happy, but there is something compelling about people who haven’t fully matured emotionally dealing with betrayals and grief and romance for the first time.

However, it is that scene where my discomfort with the Go Yu-rim character climaxes, where she’s finally reduced to physical prostration before the protagonist. To recap, in the world of Twenty-Five Twenty-One, Yu-rim is a celebrity high school kid, having brought a gold medal home to Korea at the Asian Games. Protagonist Na Hee-do is her biggest fan, who spent every Saturday poking her head into the gym to spy on practice. Though her interest in fencing came from her father, it was seeing Yu-rim win gold on TV that incited the stalkery fandom and desire to become her rival. In their first interaction, Hee-do gives Yu-rim an umbrella in the rain, dropping it from the roof to maintain her anonymity. They later meet proper and Yu-rim tells Hee-do she’s a loser, buzz off. Hee-do is heartbroken.

We come to understand why Yu-rim feels this way, and we access enough of her headspace to give their first fencing duel real stakes. But as the story continues, their conflict becomes lopsided, with Hee-do constantly reaching her hand out only for Yu-rim to slap it away. The stolen gold medal? It reminds me a lot of the Eunji/Chae Soo-bin dynamic in Cheer Up, but Chae Soo-bin was playing an outright villain. It’s a bit messier in Twenty-Five Twenty-One, where these two characters are accidentally part of the same friend group, and their mutual dislike is taken as a norm by Yi-jin and Seung-wan. “Oh, they’re bickering again,” is the impression they seem to communicate, though behind closed doors, the girls have actually come to blows. The problem for me comes from Hee-do being so morally correct to where Yu-rim’s characterization might be running away from the writer Kwon Do-eun.

I didn’t know of Bona, the actress who plays Yu-rim, before Twenty-Five Twenty-One, just as I didn’t know Chae Soo-bin. But one the reasons I haven’t seen Confidential Assignment yet is because I know Yoona doesn’t play the lead female character, and these K-dramas aren’t always kind to their non-leads. Yoona, of course, won many awards for that role, and I’m sure she’s very funny in it, but there’s that strange attachment component to fandom, that I don’t want to see my favorites desecrated in any way. So much to say, if I had known about Bona, and liked her as much as a Yoona or an Irene, watching Yu-rim would be an uncomfortable experience. She’s just so wrong all the time, and the characters tell her she’s awful, and Hee-do’s always sticking up for her or feeling bad for her. I get that that’s the story, but I feel like there’s a way to do it that split sympathy is still reasonable. Hee-do is perfect and everyone loves her, and it begins to encroach on self-insert fantasy. Bae Ta-mi was compellingly imperfect, and she knew it, maintaining a constant philosophical dialogue with Scarlett to stay morally upright.

Part of why I’m writing this second K-Drama Report is to express my surprise and disappointment with how quickly the pen pal thread was resolved. Twenty-Five Twenty-One has been a great writing lesson, applying at least one principle I learned watching Squid Game, which I can only think of as “twisting the knife.” In the latter case, a lot of character had to be built up in a compressed time, and actively, but when the big dramatic climaxes came, they were overwhelming. It’s as if the writer asked, “How can I twist this knife?” What do I need to have established beforehand for the maximum possible effect? In the case of a betrayal, make sure that we care about the trust being broken. In Twenty-Five Twenty-One, it’s less elegant but still effective, that before Hee-do and Yu-rim’s first duel, we flash back to their actual first duel, as children, which Hee-do’s clearly forgotten and Yu-rim lost because she was “Afraid. Afraid of Na Hee-do.” I was anticipating another moment like that when Hee-do sees Yi-jin with the yellow rose and assumes he’s been her pen pal all along. At episode eight’s cliffhanger, she tells him, “I have to have you.”

In the next episode, an agonizing week later for everyone current, Yi-jin does his best to assess the situation, and finally tells Hee-do that he isn’t her pen pal. Hee-do’s obviously disappointed, but also embarrassed for saying “I have to have you,” and the show chose to follow that track rather than what might’ve been more dramatic. Hee-do raises the point that Yi-jin is only denying he’s her pen pal because he’s disappointed to discover it’s her, and while he also denies that, it’s probably an impossible thing to fully believe. If I was Hee-do, I’d always consider the possibility that when all the cards were laid on the table, Yi-jin really couldn’t bring himself to commit, instead making up a transparent excuse to escape the awkward situation. Look at the evidence presented, especially from Hee-do’s perspective. He was there with the rose – he is the pen pal, but he was hoping it would be someone else. At that point, his love confession at the end of the episode could’ve rounded off an arc. Regardless, I was still blown away by it, and noted to myself how K-dramas are so predictable and yet so shocking. Like, “I can’t believe he said ‘I love you.’” Really? But I couldn’t believe it.

I’ve also been curious to see how Yu-rim was going to be won over by Hee-do, assuming it would be a process, but their conflict is resolved seemingly entirely. Even when Yu-rim watches her own mom hug and comfort Hee-do (you see what I mean?), that didn’t stir any old resentment. I understand that Yu-rim connected to her pen pal deeply, and so to learn that it was Hee-do all along, she did all the calculus in her head (and had more time to think about it than Hee-do), arriving at “Of course, she is my friend.” Still, I was expecting at least a momentary struggle with the cognitive dissonance that Yu-rim’s pen pal was this person she’s spent more of her life hating, and given the amount of flashbacks the show regularly traffics in, I’m surprised Yu-rim didn’t review all the times Hee-do acted sensitively toward her, in keeping with the pen pal persona. But maybe she did? She certainly feels guilty about everything. I don’t know. Given that Search: WWW was all about female friendships, I’m worried that this one might feel less earned, or that even in earning the friendship, it’s less interesting than when they were antagonistic.

I guess I have mixed feelings, because the show spent eight feature-length episodes on this simmering tension between frenemies, and now that it’s resolved I’m definitely gonna miss it, and I just hope that their friendship is equally compelling. That’s the brass ring – how do you make the relationship just as interesting as the courtship and obviate the will-they-won’t-they altogether? In the case of Hee-do and Yu-rim, there’s still a lot there, between Hee-do’s lingering fandom, Yu-rim’s feelings about hope and poverty, and the fact that they’re still technically rivals. There’s a lot they can do for each other, and when episode nine was veering toward a recreation of their bout at the Asian Games for a documentary, I was again saying “No, no, no, no, no, no” out loud, just as when I learned that Bae Ta-mi was headed into a love triangle. I literally didn’t want any psychological harm to come to these fictional people. So after episode nine and headed into episode ten tonight, I’m at a point where all conflict can stop. I’m good. I don’t know if I can take anymore. Based on the preview, which I watch every time because I need as much of this show as possible, it looks like episode ten is the beach episode teased in the opening credits. If anime is any indication, I don’t have anything to worry about. But I’m deeply worried nonetheless.

It seems like the show is moving fast, where there’s been a declaration of love before a first kiss. To my mind, the first kiss is a big, usually episode six event, but that wasn’t the case with Search: WWW. The main couple slept together in the first episode, and reverse-engineered a romance from that. The secondary couple’s male component isn’t introduced into the story until episode six. Of course, their first kiss is maybe the best I’ve ever seen, in the lost and found closet. It’s just that I feel the icy hand of the finale creeping, now that we’ve crossed the halfway point, and I’m gonna be an inconsolable wreck when this show is over. I won’t have this colorful world and these characters again. But I’m also looking forward to getting wrecked. Unless the finale is a big disappointment, Twenty-Five Twenty-One is an obvious frontrunner for our QNA Year in Review for me. To expect that anything else will come along and affect me more would be greedy.

Check out the third report, covering episode 13

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