K-Drama Report: Twenty-Five Twenty-One Part III — A Perfect Episode

On Episode 13

Just before starting episode 13, I wondered, “When’s the plot gonna start?” and on cue, it’s here that the story begins to come into focus. Or, if not “story,” at least the nexus of all the show’s elements, delivered by our most intriguing character, Coach Chan-mi. I think it’s a little bit funny how Twenty-Five Twenty-One posits that most ancient rivalry, between fencers and news reporters, but it does make sense especially when abstracted from the framing. Part of what weighs the drama of this episode is our knowledge of Baek Yi-jin’s struggle to regain his place in society. While bearing his mark of shame, he’s taken up odd jobs and eaten a lot of shit at the bottom rung. Though every authority figure in his life advises against a personal relationship with Na Hee-do, he can’t simply leave the newsroom because we know what starting over means. And suddenly, standing there in the snow outside Yi-jin’s house, the times have once again conspired against Hee-do.

She is, as in the beginning, a bright spot in a sea of darkness. This is the first time since the first episode that her optimism and the world have come into direct conflict, having been a figurative battle since. In her relationships with Go Yu-rim, her mother, and Yi-jin, she’s found ways to push against the malaise, on the worst sides of people that the recession encourages. This time, at the climax of episode 13, it seems for a despairing moment that the world has pushed back. It’s in the construction of this climax that Twenty-Five Twenty-One reveals its perfect episode.

The format of K-drama doesn’t lend itself to “perfect episodes” any more than American prestige television, so critics and even amateur critics like myself will feel clever for pointing one out. Twenty-Five Twenty-One is one long story, but I was reminded of the sixth episode of The Beauty Inside, which felt relatively self-contained and was so moving. Coincidentally, it also features the first kiss. Now, technically, episode 13 is not Hee-do and Yi-jin’s first kiss, but it may as well be, and is in a general sense, in the sense of genre and the decorum around its elements. It was big and larger than life, with Bibi’s “Very, Slowly” coming in at full volume, with the snow falling around them.

To build to this scene, the episode takes care to establish a language. In two instances, Yi-jin is walking home and Hee-do is waiting for him, leaning against the gate to the house, complaints locked and loaded. The third time, he stops and stares, but we don’t immediately see what he’s seeing. We want it to be her, but it isn’t. Not yet, anyway. In the previous instance, whose repetition was even called out by Yi-jin, he rejects her and we follow him inside to witness the inner turmoil. This next and final time, we stay with Hee-do, and we have a sense for what Yi-jin is up to because we saw it before. This repetition lends the episode its structural spine, but the storytelling in its B plots is just as satisfying.

Yu-rim and Ji-woong’s date is preempted by Seung-wan’s observation that the new couple has never held hands, and this becomes Ji-woong’s and our preoccupation through the night. The obstacle comes in the form of Yu-rim’s offer of gloves for the cold weather, and Bona twists the knife by really playing up Yu-rim’s innocence. It’s a fun approach to depicting a date, with the Seung-wan scene putting the proverbial bomb under the table. It’s an opportunity for both actors to stretch their talents, with Choi Hyun-wook in turns uncomfortable and suspicious and hesitant. This is almost his episode, as we open with a Ji-woong sequence that compounds our understanding of his character.

After seeing his mother off and setting up a prospective house party (she won’t be back till 1:00 a.m., folks, note that), his scheme is instead to drive her tiny car and pick up his friends. “A drinking party?” Yu-rim says excitedly, still proud of herself for being able to drink with her parents. No, “a driving party,” Ji-woong insists, in accordance with the Korean concept of concept. Everything has to be a something of something. His theoretical swagger pulling up to the girls is undercut by his misunderstanding of basic car functions, like window, and finally by his low speed on the freeway. In the midst of Hee-do, Yu-rim, and Seung-wan’s reminisces, the white-knuckled Ji-woong finally admits that he has to turn back. He’s too scared to continue.

The troubles don’t end there, as Ji-woong then can’t park in the spot where his mom left the car, first because someone’s taken it and then because parallel parking is beyond the means of a pre-licensed driver. The four sit around in confusion until Ji-woong convinces Hee-do to call his “hyung,” which Hee-do is hesitant about after being spurned by Yi-jin the first time. Eventually, the school band Jungle Prince walks by and everyone rallies to pick the car up and move it into place. Yu-rim instinctively backs up Hee-do’s idea here, who everyone can tell is off-balance. It’s a nice scene, perhaps an example like Yi-jin filling in for the Jungle Prince guitarist or Seung-wan standing up for Ji-woong at school of people working together to set things right, to complete things. The world may be ruined, but these people’s spirit hasn’t been crushed.

Ji-woong is at his most interesting around Yi-jin, and I think it’s where his character began to make sense to me. He’s introduced as a diva, a self-described “most handsome guy” in school, but he’s like a blend of Park Morgan’s cool with Seol Ji-hwan’s cuteness. Smooth but sensitive, haughty but insecure. He’s curious, always trying new things and taking action, just never in the context of a classroom. And when he sees Yi-jin’s body, all of that traditional masculinity implodes onto the borderline homosexuality at the edges of all tough guys. In this episode, he finally has the upper hand on his hyung, who had drunkenly called him instead to Hee-do to confess his feelings, but this thread doesn’t go anywhere, unfortunately.

The fencing team has its final competition as a team, before Hee-do and Yu-rim graduate, and possibly Coach Chan-mi as well? She sits down with Yi-jin to relay the exclusive that she’ll be back coaching the national team, which fazes him not at all, instead hoping to get a scoop on Hee-do. As we discover, this is only the latest exclusive from Chan-mi, and we learn via flashback exactly what happened between her and Hee-do’s mother Shin Jae-kyung. Years and different actors ago, Jae-kyung was the one in need of rescue, breaking down at the thought that she missed an interview with gold medalist Chan-mi, who then swoops in like a hero. Their friendship dynamic is a lot easier to understand when we see young Jae-kyung as a squirrely nerd and young Chan-mi a cool, impressive hero, and it stings to know what they both become.

We saw Chan-mi pull out some Terence Fletcher coaching in the previous episode, which added a wrinkle to how she navigates her relationships with Hee-do and Yu-rim. This is the same woman who was balladeering Hee-do at that fateful tournament once upon a time, now taking on an authoritative, even adversarial character to get fencer Ye-ji to stick with the job. I couldn’t really tell where they were going with Chan-mi, but her and Jae-kyung being an example of where Yi-jin and Hee-do can end up is compelling, especially if she finds peace with her old friend.

While fencing has taken a narrative backseat, Hee-do’s duel is sweeping and dramatic, with a great piece of instrumental music setting her up for those characteristic victory screams. Episode 13 issues a couple of correctives I may have needed, like providing a payoff to Ye-ji, that defecting fencer who occupied Hee-do and Yu-rim’s A story last week. As much as I enjoyed Hee-do and Yu-rim’s parental collaboration, I felt like both Ye-ji’s exit from fencing and Seung-wan’s exit from school were rare creative missteps, making for the series’ worst episode yet. Brief as it was, Ye-ji’s return as the team’s cheerleader was a nice addition to the swell of emotions for Hee-do’s final duel. And then of course, early in the episode, Hee-do complains that she misses when Yu-rim was cold and cruel to her, instead of constantly supportive and kind. It’s not a corrective exactly, but something I do agree with.

Twenty-Five Twenty-One spans at least four years, and has a memoir-like quality instilled by the frame narrative. In this way, to me it recalls Studio Ghibli movies that seem to be about nostalgia, like Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves, and especially When Marnie Was There. While the rivalry between Hee-do and Yu-rim was my personal favorite part of the show, I think it’s interesting how the conflict has been resolved and we’ve moved on. I suppose it’s a reflection of life, that no one event becomes the main focus, and this may well dovetail with potential themes of memory and how “nothing lasts forever,” as even young Hee-do mentions.

Episode 13 exhibits a mastery of tone from the beginning, when Hee-do stomps into her bedroom crying and it isn’t until the silly music kicks in that I can feel comfortable laughing. There’s a lot of back and forth between comedy and drama within individual scenes, especially with the subsequent steamed-bun date outside the convenience store. It’s so uncomfortable, so awkward, this forced meeting of two people who should not be together right now and who don’t even bite their food – until Yi-jin stuffs his face with his when he thinks Hee-do is going in for another kiss. Hee-do’s indignation in that moment is priceless.

Later, Yi-jin witnesses from a distance an evolution of Hee-do, who stands up for herself without any of that red-faced flailing. It’s no coincidence that the first episode has Hee-do dressed up in adult clothing and fooling nobody. By contrast, she’s now finally grown into those clothes, and the image is authentic this time: a Hee-do who’s emotionally mature but hasn’t lost her childlike spark. At least three times this episode, Hee-do lays it all on the table with Yi-jin, at once confused and dejected but firm in her belief that their love is correct. Her steady maturation over the course of the series lends these moments a significant weight, pushing the drama to where cathartic release is almost overwhelming.

For stray Search: WWW connections this episode, Ji-woong and Yu-rim end up at what looks like the same arcade where Bae Ta-mi met Park Morgan. In this case, it seems that Ji-woong is the only gamer between them. And then I have an open question, because I can’t find anything about this: Jungle Prince. When they say “Jungle Prince” I hear something like “Millim,” and Park Morgan’s music company is Millim Sound. When Bae Ta-mi first sees that name, there’s a kind of in-joke that goes over my head, so I take the leap by assuming Millim Sound is a reference to Jungle Prince, which is a high school tradition thing. For both shows, there might be something here about our connections to youth, and how we set benchmarks for growth, but it could also just be my inability to pick up on the Korean language.

Yu-rim and Hee-do’s friendship is only bolstered by Bona’s clear infatuation with Kim Tae-ri as witnessed in the behind-the-scenes material. She’s all over her, and it’s very cute.

For coverage of the finale, continue on to Part IV

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