By Woojin Lim and Gloria Lin
Itaewon Class (2020) is a popular webtoon-turned-drama that follows the life of thick-headed idealist and high school dropout Park Sae-ro-yi (Park Seo-joon) as he conquers his rocky past and strives to launch his own street bar-restaurant, DanBam (English translation: “Sweet Night”), in Itaewon, one of South Korea’s most international neighborhoods.
To achieve his high ambitions, Sae-ro-yi perseveres through years of personal loss and struggle. Undeterred by social pressures and countless setbacks, Sae-ro-yi establishes his own business and builds trust in a motley crew of friends and coworkers: genius sociopath and SNS influencer Jo Yi-seo (Kim Da-mi), gangster-turned-server Choi Seung-kwon (Ryu Kyung-soo), transgender chef Ma Hyun-yi (Lee Joo-young), Guinean-Korean part-timer Kim To-ni (Chris Lyon), and love interest and businesswoman Oh Soo-ah (Kwon Nara). With their aid, Sae-ro-yi goes head-to-head with Jangga, Korea’s top restaurant chain led by Sae-ro-yi’s archenemies Chairman Jang (Yoo Jae-myung) and Jang Geun-won (Ahn Bo-hyun).
Central to Itaewon Class is Sae-ro-yi’s steadfast principle: “Business is People.” Sae-ro-yi’s kindness towards his coworker friends pays dividends when their talents become deus ex machina to the many obstacles hurled by Jangga, which embodies the austere antithesis that “Business is Business.” Another persistent theme in the drama is familial relationships: Sae-ro-yi’s raison d’etre is to avenge his late father (Son Hyun-joo) whose ill-fated vehicle accident was covered up by Jangga, and to protect his acquired “family” of coworkers.
Despite a deep personal grudge against Jangga and the company’s of underhanded tactics, Sae-ro-yi stubbornly adheres to his moral compass. The result is a tour de force David versus Goliath showdown in the ebullient Itaewon tourism district: a cliche plotline rescued by an intriguing setting, colorful characters, and plenty of heart.
But what Itaewon Class has in vision it lacks in suspense. Despite its all-star ensemble cast, the show lacks cliffhanger endings and unpredictable plot twists that leave viewers hungry for the next episode. The show has moments of romance, thrill, and comedy, but it fails to deliver exceptionally in any category. Though Itaewon Class is best characterized as a competition drama, the competition was hardly convincing.
Yet the drama nurses camaraderie and love as soft as tofu soup: Sae-ro-yi’s pub DanBam makes the audience empathize with its unconventional crew of lovable employees. In addition to the main storyline, each character in Itaewon Class is rounded through unique subplots that address compelling social issues such as prejudice and discrimination towards minority groups, and the boorish scions of the chaebol (Korean for conglomerate). Complete with vibrant visuals and a catchy soundtrack featuring numbers by BTS’s V (“Sweet Night“) and Gaho (“Start Over“), Itaewon Class is a poignant tale of embracing one’s identity and staying true to one’s values.
Itaewon Class is currently available for streaming worldwide on Netflix.