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‘Twenty Five Twenty One’ is the happy show we need now more than ever

As someone who regularly reviews Korean dramas, I try to make a point of waiting until after the drama’s complete before making a fully-formed opinion of them. This choice is made largely in part because sometimes I just don’t know how I really feel about a show until it’s done airing—because as too many of us know, a show can start off incredibly strong, only to disappoint us miserably at its conclusion. (“Game of Thrones,” anyone?).  But “Twenty Five Twenty One” is a Korean drama that I have absolutely no qualms about reviewing and recommending, even though it’s only six episodes in its 16 episode run time. 


The reason for this rushed recommendation is simply that “Twenty Five Twenty One” is the brightest show that I’ve seen in a long time. Following the lives of young fencer Na Hee Do (Kim Tae Ri) and hardworking eldest son Baek Yi Jin (Nam Joo Hyuk), this show is relentless in its depiction of optimism in the face of hardship. Both of these characters have basically had some element of their youth taken away from them by the 1998 Korean financial crisis, most often referred to as “IMF.” Hee Do, an 18-year-old high school student, only has dreams of becoming a national fencing champion and when this financial crisis disassembles her fencing team, she tries all she can to keep pursuing her dream. Meanwhile, Yi Jin, a 22-year-old former student, works multiple part-time jobs in order to support himself after his family went bankrupt. While both are still so very young, they’re trying to make the most of their lives in these turbulent times. Hee Do does so with a bright smile and a fierce passion that’s only slightly tempered by the naivete of her youth; Yi Jin does so with mature nods and apologies to those who his bankrupt family might have dragged into the fray. By chance, the two stumble upon each other and find ways to cheer the other on. 


The constant enthusiasm and genuine desire for each character to see the other succeed is what makes me want to recommend this show immediately. Hee Do’s brightness is infectious, not just to Yi Jin, but also to the viewers themselves. This isn’t to say that she’s completely stupid or that she hasn’t suffered—in her own ways, Hee Do has suffered on her own. Her dad passed away when she was younger, she has a strained relationship with her mother and she’s not very academically inclined. Fencing is quite literally the only thing she has left for herself and even though she fails time and time again, she gets back up. As she mentions in one episode, Hee Do makes a point to change all the sadder moments of her life into a comedy—because “laughing makes it easier to forget; you have to forget to move on.” 


To someone like Yi Jin, who has lost his family and his youth to the financial crisis, Hee Do’s words are very much a healing balm. As only a 22-year-old, Yi Jin has plenty of time to have a fresh start, but fresh starts don’t exactly feel possible when the whole country seems to have lost its head. And yet, despite all that, Yi Jin seems to regain some hope too—and in return, he helps Hee Do when she’s feeling more vulnerable. Because he’s lost so much, Yi Jin sees the bright optimism in Hee Do and rather than discourage it, he pushes her forward. He tells her to “take your time and climb, and take whatever you want,” and for that moment, Yi Jin’s words aren’t just encouraging to Hee Do—they encourage the viewers, too. 


These bright scenes don’t just end with Hee Do and Yi Jin. Other lovable characters include Hee Do’s rival, the high school student fencing prodigy Ko Yoo Rim (Bona) who, because of her own impoverished background, treats fencing like a life-or-death situation. Although the two are rivals now, it’ll only be a matter of time before they truly become friends—especially since it seems that, unbeknownst to them, they’d actually competed with one another as children. (And every Korean drama fan knows that if two characters had crossed paths with one another as children, they are absolutely fated to become close companions later in the future.) Other lovable characters include Moon Ji Ung (Choi Hyun Wook), Hee Do and Yoo Rim’s classmate who cheers both girls on with a genuineness that will make even the grumpiest of grumps crack a smile. And, of course, I can’t forget Coach Yang (Kim Hye Eun) who mentors Hee Do with equal parts rigor and deceptive easygoingness. Even though we’re only a quarter way through the show, I already know she’s joining the ranks of my favorite teacher-like characters—and honestly, I think we all need Coach Yang to get our heads on straight. With a cast of even incredibly bright, incredibly honest minor characters like these, “Twenty Five Twenty One” is never without a dull moment. They too join the ranks in making the show feel like the spot of brightness in an otherwise dreary time. 


So I encourage you to go visit them every Saturday and Sunday on Netflix. Go on—the kids of “Twenty Five Twenty One” probably cannot wait to welcome you into their hardships and, in turn, their hope for the future. 

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