Arts tv review

‘Itaewon Class’ is a Sweet Night of youth, friendship, and reaching for stars

Netflix K-drama fills viewers’ hearts like soft tofu soup

Rating: ★★★★✩
Itaewon Class
Directed by Kim Sung-yoon
Based on Itaewon Class (Webtoon) by Jo Gwang-jin
Starring Park Seo-joon, Kim Da-mi, Yoo Jae-myung, and Kwon Nara
Available on Netflix

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 pursue his lofty ambitions, Sae-ro-yi perseveres through years of personal loss and struggle. Undeterred by social pressure 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 against 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 a kind of deus ex machina for the many obstacles hurled by Jangga, which embodies the austere antithesis that “Business is Business.” Another pervasive theme in the drama is familial relationships: Sae-ro-yi’s raison d’être 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 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 heart it lacks in suspense. Missing are the 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 is hardly convincing.

Yet, more than once, viewers may find themselves truly invested in Sae-ro-yi's pub, cheering on Danbam’s unconventional crew of loveable, multifaceted employees. In addition to the main storyline, each character in Itaewon Class is well-developed through unique subplots that address compelling social issues such as discrimination toward minorities 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 about embracing one’s identity and staying true to one’s values. It’s a chance to vicariously experience the lively nightlife and delicious food of Itaewon while practicing social distancing. What more could you ask for in quarantine?