K-Drama Report: Twenty-Five Twenty-One Part IV – Endgame

On the finale

As part of my tortured logic with “perfect episodes,” there can’t be more than one per show! There has to be a best episode, right? Maybe you can imagine, then, me biting my nails after making the declaration for episode 13, because episodes 14 and 15 were eliciting a more powerful emotional response. However, episode 15 especially showcases why structure is important in that make-believe conversation, because when Twenty-Five Twenty-One moves into the endgame, its units of story divide as sequences and then scenes. For me, the climax of Na Hee-do and Go Yu-rim’s story was the series’ emotional peak. We already knew the outcome, that Hee-do defeats her ultimate rival, so it’s doubly impressive that the match was so thrilling and the conclusion so cathartic. Striking right to the heart of the show’s themes, the duel also ropes in journalism, expressing how both athletes have matured. They’ve developed a trust that transcends direct communication. Instead of the victory screams that have punctuated the tournament, Hee-do pulls off her mask to reveal silent tears and Yu-rim does the same. I broke. This is a show that took its time, and didn’t mine breakups or sudden tragedies for repetitive drama. When the big hit came, it landed. And then I recovered, checked the runtime: it’s only half over. From there, the episode veers into unexpected territory, forfeiting its whole for the next phase of story — and it’s a doozy.

Despite the marketing itself telling us that the title refers to the ages when the two leads fall in love — at 25 and 21 — episode 15 reveals that perhaps it’s the year their story ended. It’s 2001, and in September, something happens that tends to disrupt stories about journalism, as it had for the reporters in Spotlight’s third act. Of course, Spotlight is based on a true story, and Twenty-Five Twenty-One is a fictional tale from another country. This is surely not the first non-American depiction of 9/11, but boy, does it ever stir chemicals in the American brain. For me, those chemicals coalesced as a strange question: “Can they do that?” The immediate counter, of course, is that these Korean filmmakers had already sensitively dramatized their own part of the Asian financial crisis, and Korean filmmakers elsewhere have time and again recreated the Gwangju Massacre, Japanese occupation, and the Korean War. Still, for all the crimes of Hollywood, recreating other nation’s tragedies is not generally among them. But is that even true? I can hardly say – I’m not Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Iraqi, and the list goes on.

So I’m not gonna judge whether or not it was a “respectful depiction,” and instead say that I never wanted to ask these questions. For me, Korean drama is an escape, and I think that’s part of the design. With such aesthetic lensing on food and city lights and beautiful people, K-dramas are practically tourism ads, and it doesn’t help that they’re produced with the fervor of fast food. Every once in a while, though, talent emerges with either ideas beyond the form or a sense for how to bend the form into compelling shape. The writer Kwon Do-eun will always be special to me for being the first name I can attribute to that talent, offering me the anticipation, enjoyment, and catharsis of Twenty-Five Twenty-One after the similar joys of Search: WWW. Kwon isn’t content to tell easy stories, and you can feel the labor that requires when she throws herself into these complex worlds of professional minds and intricate morality. Clearly, her depiction of the IMF crisis was not for my simple escapism, but there is a distinction between how both international tragedies function in the story.

At its heart, Twenty-Five Twenty-One is about how people live through hard times. In the beginning, it’s Hee-do’s silly resolve in earning a place at Taeyang High, and in the end, it’s Yu-rim’s far graver choice to renounce her nationality and save her family. The world deals its hand against these characters, and they adapt and change in response. Primarily, it’s the IMF Crisis, which threatens Hee-do’s dream and devastates Baek Yi-jin’s rich family, setting the story events and character change in motion. 9/11 serves to separate Hee-do and Baek Yi-jin after they’ve beaten the odds and declared their love. Not only does it physically relocate Yi-jin, who moves to New York to cover it, his experience interviewing survivors pushes him past the point where he can fully let Hee-do in. The problem here is that 9/11 isn’t resolved in the same way as the IMF Crisis, which “ended” in 2001. There is no growth to be won out of it, and there shouldn’t be. At that point, it could’ve been anything, and Twenty-Five Twenty-One was good enough that it didn’t need to adapt a second historical event as the mechanism for character development.

Given that the central analogy is between the IMF Crisis and the COVID pandemic, I’m not even sure how 9/11 fits thematically. Of course, 9/11 might be less educational than triggering, as was part of the intent with bringing the IMF Crisis to a new generation, and on top of that, there’s been 20 years of post-9/11 culture. We’ve had dozens of terrible 9/11 movies in America, with all the bizarre Bush-era politics and Hollywood’s sheer inability to say anything interesting or even hinged, opting instead to put Robert Pattinson in the North Tower or maybe a time-traveling Brian and Stewie. Everyone’s gonna have complicated and exhausted thoughts and feelings, but what unites all of them is a strong desire to keep them buried. Anything else could’ve kept Hee-do and Yi-jin apart in the final hours, so now I have to do some of those mental gymnastics to ensure my trust in their climactic scene. “I don’t want to blame it all on 9/11,” Tobias Funke says, like, 15 years ago, and I’m also chafing against the thought that Twenty-Five Twenty-One will be “that weird 9/11 K-drama.” However, it’s what came next that was actually the back-breaker for many viewers: the endgame.

In the days leading up to Twenty-Five Twenty-One’s finale, I was juggling at least three things, possibly at the expense of everything else in my life: following the fan anticipation and noting how many viewers were calling this show a masterpiece and one of the best dramas ever, noting also that a happy ending was very important, and struggling to remember the ending of Search: WWW. The K-drama that made me fall in love with the genre was Cheer Up, and that show ends in the middle. It doesn’t feel on purpose, either, and I can’t yet explain why I think that’s okay. I mean, I can deal; I’ve never recommended Cheer Up to anyone outside the context of this blog. While more complete and easier to recommend, Search: WWW pivots around the apparently traditional hallmark, so to speak, that the leads will end up together. To my memory, the three couples end in a good place: Scarlett needs only bide her time, Song Ga-kyeong has some hope, and Bae Ta-mi’s is maybe the most ambiguous?

My experience with Korean drama also contrasts with whatever tabs I keep on American television, where I’ve noticed people are getting tired of the “I choose myself” ending. They want romance, but I think what they really want is balance. Yes, we all say we’d like the best ending as accorded by the story, but how many things have I watched and enjoyed despite knowing they “weren’t good”? Plus, TV shows are notorious for ending poorly — like any long form: movie trilogies, RPG video games — so you might as well just give the people what they want and forgo whatever artisanal Jenga framework of theme and idea you were crafting. If Baek Yi-jin and Hee-do got together in the end, would we really be happy? And pardon; let me rephrase that: would I be happy? Anymore than with Rebecca Bunch or Fleabag or Bae Ta-mi? The answer in every case is no. And while I admit I’m not a romantic person, I should note that Scarlett and Seol Ji-hwan’s successful romance is one of my favorite things in television as a whole.

Violent Scarlett and sensitive Ji-hwan are right for each other. Bae Ta-mi and Park Morgan are irreconcilable. Ta-mi is like a whirlwind, of scowls and vengeance, and she has dreams that cannot contain marriage. Park Morgan is an adopted Korean-Australian, and Ta-mi’s inability to commit begins to feel like the abandonment planted in his heart from a young age. Though they love each other, they have to learn to say goodbye, and it’s bittersweet for them as characters and tragic for me as a viewer. It was moving, even while it purposely wasn’t cathartic. I don’t know what the reaction to Search: WWW’s finale was when it aired, but that show didn’t have the same level of anticipation leading into its ending. Twenty-Five Twenty-One had indulged in American-style tricks, like mystery and will-they-won’t-they.

It was literally the best buzzworthy drama, but I don’t think I can recommend this to anyone unless I want to take some revenge on them! How perfect it would have been just if they made a proper ending. Feeling sad.

Reddit

I didn’t want to write this fourth and final K-Drama Report for Twenty-Five Twenty-One as a riposte against the negativity I saw online. I may bristle against forum posts like the above example, just one of dozens, but is it any different than my own presumption of escapism? I can’t dismiss these reactions because they were real, and the filmmakers ought to consider them, even if they ultimately play no factor in the next show — hopefully Kwon Do-eun and Jung Ji-hyun’s third collaboration in 2025. And then, I can’t deny my own vulnerability to these tricks. The finale was greatly preoccupied by last-minute teasing, with the diary changing hands and all the near-misses and fated reunions. Undoubtedly, the question of “Will Hee-do and Yi-jin end up together?” hung over their final scene, in the tunnel. Some of the more concerning criticism I saw was technical, and I agree that the ending sequence didn’t entirely withstand the collapse of its multiple timelines, jumping forward and backward and into figurative territory. The cinematic language hadn’t been fully established that I could immediately read that tunnel scene. Instead, I had to adjust and realize that it wasn’t in the past but probably in Hee-do’s imagination.

It was something familiar to a lot of us, I imagine, where we’re revising a “scene” from our past we wish we’d done differently. In this case, the dialogue is real, but its time-shifted nature nevertheless leaves our characters helpless to alter the paths of their lives. Consistent with the show’s emotional logic, they’re trapped in the futures they made for themselves, apart from one another, and despite it becoming the show’s unofficial meme, we never learn who Min-chae’s father is. We also didn’t get to see Gong Yoo as an adult Yi-jin, which was the true twist. I guess he doesn’t want to be “the Netflix cameo guy.” A slice of the show’s fanbase didn’t get what they wanted, but it would be worth asking regardless: What’s the point of Twenty-Five Twenty-One if not endgame? In other words, what was the point of Hee-do and Yi-jin’s relationship if they didn’t get together in the end? This is where the show’s other line comes in: “Nothing lasts forever.” That was a heart-stopping reveal at the end of the beach episode – the beach episode, for God’s sake – when adult Hee-do claims not to remember that summer. As we learn in the finale, it’s true. I think that this line of thought cuts both ways, though. We don’t always remember the good times, but we don’t always remember the bad times, either. Bittersweet, but necessary.

In the four years before he turned 25, Baek Yi-jin met his first love, and she helped him commit to his purpose as a news reporter. He successfully reunited his family and regained himself. The tragedy then is that this commitment is what ultimately drove them apart. They cleared the first hurdle of building a relationship as two people in opposing professional roles, but the fatal blow came with something deeper. Hee-do deserves to be with someone who doesn’t replicate the hurtful relationship dynamic she had with her mother. This is the same sensitivity that Kwon Do-eun demonstrated with Park Morgan. In the end, they both look back on that time fondly instead of miserably, because they had each other and they had their friends. They survived because of those relationships, because of what they did to maintain and evolve them, and that made their first love overflow with meaning that transcended time and space and certainly the semiotics of a Barro search box.

Yes, the show is frustrating, and maybe universally. Some people will be let down by the ending, some people will be annoyed by the inclusion of 9/11. The hard part is that both of those things are what we bring to the show, and are not the show itself — for the most part. Aside from minor technical difficulties, the central romance needed to fail, and 9/11 is just as open for storytellers as any world event, especially in 2022. Is it possible to fully separate yourself from a work of art you’re trying to appreciate? Maybe sometimes, maybe no. I know that given time, the narrative of a reaction to something is gradually sanded down into a soundbyte, and so, if I could make one final prediction for Twenty-Five Twenty-One, I’ll remember it as an evolutionary step for Kwon Do-eun, with tremendous performances and confident, beautiful direction. It pushed some buttons, that’s for sure. However, a day after the finale I listened back to the soundtrack, and the opening notes of “Very, Slowly” transported me instantly to Hee-do’s rainbow, just as “When I See You on TV” and “Milky Way Between Us” can still make me cry. I’ll always remember the image of Hee-do and Yi-jin running against the field of stars, with the actual song “Twenty-Five Twenty-One” soaring. Like with hardship, there is more to life than romance, and looking back on our own lives, we could find that the combination of both gives the latter a greater purpose than even the happy ending.


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