The 1980s are an era seldom depicted in Korean television, or even Korean film – and to little surprise. A turbulent and painful period in South Korea’s history and strife towards democracy, it’s easy for dramas set during this time period to be met with skepticism and controversy, as with JTBC’s upcoming television series Snowdrop. And for the few that already exist, like mega-hit Reply 1988, which only features glimpses of the tumultuous events of the 80s, it’s difficult to use them as a point of comparison. Taking on such a time period is nothing short of ambitious, but nevertheless, KBS2 attempts to make its strides in this mostly untouched setting with its latest Monday-Tuesday melodrama, Youth of May.
This review contains spoilers.
Youth of May follows the fateful love story between Hwang Hee-tae (Lee Do Hyun), a top-ranking medical student at Seoul National University, and Kim Myeong-hee (Go Min Si), a nurse who dreams of studying abroad in Germany, all amidst the ultimately devastating events of the Gwangju Uprising of May 1980. While the series’ first six episodes don’t yet address the Gwangju Uprising and its aftermath, nor how its main characters and several storylines connect to the impending events, the show’s creators do manage to convincingly transport viewers back to early 1980s Gwangju. They also draw audiences in with an addicting and busy albeit sometimes choppy set of storylines.
To set the stage for both the drama’s setting and likely ultimate tragedy, the first scene unexpectedly opens in present day Gwangju, focused on a man in a train station. The man watches the news while he waits for his train, discovering that an unidentified skeleton has been found at a construction site. The man sobs in reaction to the news, and the next scene instantly cuts to the drama’s expected 1980s setting with a protest in the streets, which the show’s presumed hero, Hee-tae, suddenly interrupts as he drives through the crowd in a loud, retro-looking car. The connection seems clear, although at the same time entirely ambiguous — is the man in the station Hee-tae? And who does the unidentified skeleton belong to? These are all questions that Youth of May poses right from this start and will (hopefully) eventually answer in the future.
While these first few moments of the drama already pose important questions that will remain lingering for episodes to come, they also preview its faltering points for the remainder of its first half — namely, a crowded narrative structure that often struggles under the sheer weight of its own heavy load of plot and character backstories. Throughout the first episode, the writers slowly but surely introduce the show’s main premise and remaining set of lead characters, as well as their accompanying but still mysterious histories.
Hee-tae, at first glance carefree and charismatic, must deal with the traumatic and critical injury of a friend of a friend named Jang Seok-cheol, leading him back home to Gwangju to arrange for her transfer to the local hospital. At the hospital, Hee-tae takes notice of the show’s female protagonist, Myeong-hee, a resilient and outspoken nurse who comes from a poor and troubled family.
Myeong-hee’s dream is to attend medical school in Germany, and early on in the first episode, she is accepted. However, she quickly realizes that she only has a month (until the end of May) to secure the funds she needs for her flight. Enter her best friend, Lee Soo-ryun (Keum Sae-rok), a leader within the student protest movement and the daughter of a wealthy businessman.
When Soo-ryun and her friends are arrested for printing protest flyers, her father, Lee Chang-geun (Uhm Hyo-sub), has no choice but to bail them out of jail. At the same time, Hee-tae is forced to beg his own father, Hwang Ki-nam (Oh Man-seok), an evidently corrupt anti-communist investigator, for the money he needs to transfer his critically injured friend to the hospital in Gwangju. Soo-ryun’s and Hee-tae’s fathers, who already know each other well, then see the perfect opportunity to join forces (primarily to aid their businesses) and force their children to pay them back for their respective deeds by demanding that they begin dating each other. However, Soo-ryun refuses to meet the son of an anti-communist investigator, and instead asks Myeong-hee to go on the date in her place. In return for ensuring that Hee-tae rejects her, Soo-ryun offers to Myeong-hee the money she needs to pay for her flight to Germany. Thus, the setup for the fateful romance between Hee-tae and Myeong-hee is established, and as expected, Hee-tae is anything but put off by Myeong-hee when they first officially meet.
Although at face value the premise of Youth of May looks almost no different from the typical fate-filled, romantic melodrama, the show’s writers instead manage to overcomplicate the story by throwing several additional plot lines at the wall that rarely stick, ultimately throwing off the show’s pacing and overall tone. For example, in episode two, Myeong-hee’s younger brother, Myeong-soo (Jo Yi-hyun), is suddenly inexplicably competing in a marathon race. He loses the race to the other boys, one of which is Hee-tae’s younger brother, because his shoes are old and not up to the standards of those of the rest of the kids. While the scene is primarily meant to illustrate the stark class differences in Korea in the 1980s and depict a heartwarming moment between Myeong-hee and her brother, the writers then leave the storyline untouched for much of the remainder of the episode, only sporadically revisiting it in following episodes to attempt to establish a rivalry between Myeong-hee’s and Hee-tae’s younger brothers. By the end of episode six, the boys have already set their differences aside, and it’s entirely unclear why such a storyline was ever introduced and carried out in the first place.
Several other seemingly random and untimely scenes and storylines are thrown into the mix between the primary, at first lighthearted narrative between Hee-tae, Myeong-hee, Soo-ryun, as well as Soo-ryun’s brother, Soo-chan (Lee Sang-yi). This includes Hee-tae’s so far mostly unexplained interest in music, sudden intense flashback scenes to Hee-tae attempting to save Jang Seok-cheol, and ominous scenes involving Hee-tae’s father carrying out his antagonistic duties as an anti-communist investigator. Although these flashbacks and side stories eventually begin to fall into their respective places within the show’s greater storyline by episode four, they are often left unaddressed for a full episode or even two, and are usually introduced on the heels of a scene completely opposing in tone and mood. Perhaps this is a tactic for foreshadowing the inevitable pain and tragedy that is bound to occur in the show’s second half, but for now, it leaves the series feeling overall disjointed and rough around the edges.
Another misstep that leaves Youth of May struggling to find its footing throughout much of the duration of its first half is its all-over-the-place editing tactics, which also contribute to its unevenness in tone, mood, and pacing. Throughout its first six episodes, Youth of May teeters between serious period drama and cliche romance drama. While the show’s creators attempt to escape trope-y romance drama pitfalls like corny, affectionate confessions from the male lead to his female counterpart by writing in Myeong-hee calling out the cheesiness of Hee-tae’s lines into the script itself, they instead fall right back right into their own melodramatic traps with an over-usage of slow motion editing on top of scenes that hardly even require it.
As an example, it makes complete sense that the show’s creators chose to add slow motion effects to the initial scenes where Hee-tae and Myeong-hee coincidentally cross paths before they officially meet for the first time — this successfully builds up the suspense for their first formal meeting and emphasizes to viewers that that their relationship will be the result of a series of coincidental and fateful moments. However, after Hee-tae and Myeong-hee’s relationship is solidified by the end of the first episode, the show continues to lean into these casual, fortuitous encounters a little too heavily via its editing choices. For example, in episode six when Myeong-hee is at the suit shop with Soo-chan to help him find an outfit for Soo-ryun’s engagement party, she turns around only to unexpectedly find Hee-tae walking out of the store’s dressing room — in slow motion. These out of pocket editing moments err more on the side of silly when they’re more obviously meant to be serious, leaving Youth of May with a mostly incoherent feel for its first few episodes.
The drama finds a steadier, more cohesive editing style by episode four, which is also when the originally separated plot lines and backstories become more clearly interconnected with one another. While there are still plenty of unnecessary slow-mo scenes between Hee-tae and Myeong-hee to endure, the tone of the show grows to be more uniform as the balance between dark and light scenes becomes more consistent and to be expected. This ultimately helps fuel the constant tension and clear foreshadowing for the still unknown tragedy that is surely to take place during the second half of the show.
Despite Youth of May‘s slow start and wobbly setup, it still has the addicting qualities of any typical romance drama. The love triangle between Hee-tae, Myeong-hee, and Soo-chan is particularly enticing and actually falls neatly and naturally into the drama’s overall narrative despite its other fragmented pieces. Soo-chan’s presence so far within this complicated web of feelings isn’t just a stale ploy to induce yet another case of second lead syndrome — it pushes the main narrative of the drama forward consistently and evenly, and sometimes in refreshingly unexpected directions.
On top of that, although Lee Do Hyun and Go Min Si most recently played siblings in the apocalyptic Netflix series Sweet Home, their chemistry still feels palpable from Youth of May‘s very start, at times even outshining the cliche editing moments that risk overshadowing their romance altogether. Lee Do Hyun’s and Go Min Si’s strongest moments together as Hee-tae and Myeong-hee come in the form of nervous glances, longing gazes, and subtle smiles or frowns that heighten the intensity and believability of their feelings toward one another.
So far, Youth of May‘s strengths lie in its strong cast and acting, which often serve as a backbone of sorts for its writers to bounce experimental storylines off of without the show crumbling under their weight completely. Although the first half of the drama was a slow setup for the events the will soon unfold, that’s not to discount its growing number of fast-paced, intense, and borderline grim moments either. With each of these growingly mysterious and intense scenes added together, culminating in Myeong-hee’s sudden kidnapping at the hands of Hee-tae’s father at the end of episode six, the first half of the show has robustly, although at times messily, presented a large collection of loose ends that have yet to be tied up by its end. As the balance of the characters’ fates lies in how the Gwangju Uprising intersects with their storylines, it’s no secret that the only way for these incomplete storylines to see themselves through is through the looming tragedy that undoubtedly awaits.
(Korea Times. Images via KBS)