This is what you call a drama with ‘pedigree’. It’s got the cast and the crew. The mighty Ha Myung-hee penned this tale, and so of course, its beats have us dancing. We had a lot of thoughts after the first week, but it took us a while to gather and analyze our feelings. We can’t promise a weekly review just yet, but we’re nearly done working on the write-up for episodes 3-4. So, you’ll definitely be getting one more (in case you wanted it). Let us know if Record of Youth is resonating with you as much as it is with us, and where you anticipate the story heading!
Paroma: A big reason for my watching this drama was Park Bo-gum playing a character who was already an experienced model, and someone who could therefore give us a jaded, “inside” look of the movie/fashion industries. I really didn’t want another stars-in-his-eyes, newbie story.
Anisa: I hadn’t thought of that before watching, but something that came home to me as we saw Hye-joon spend his day going from one part-time job to another, to the occasional gig, to his awful agency, and then home to face his out-of-patience family—we don’t get to see this story often. K-dramas often do the inside look at the entertainment industry, but usually they’re either rookies, as you said, or veterans past their prime. This reminds me of the stories of actors like Jung Woo (Trash Oppa from Reply 1994) who can labour for over a decade in obscurity, despite great talent, before they finally get that breakout role. The weariness of that has a different quality than the frustrated dreamer or the jaded has-been.
Saya: To jump right into a relevant scene—do you remember when he’s doing the catwalk rehearsal run and the director gives everyone else pointers, but when it comes to Hye-joon, he pauses a moment and tells him he did great. I thought that was such an interesting, loaded scene. On the one hand, you can take it at face value: he’s praised for a good job. But on the other, he’s been doing this a long time, and there’s an undercurrent of tension there, that that beat of silence really brings out. I feel like in that moment, we know everything about his spiritual fatigue, his being locked into this rut when he should have moved on. It’s not to his merit to be a veteran, is what I felt from this, though nobody can/will fault him for a job flawlessly done.
Paroma: Boy, I didn’t even think of what it said about his experience in that scene, but you’re right! He looked so unaffected by the praise—like, of course he’s good at this. How can he be anything else after years of doing it? It’s not even a compliment to him. I feel like, if this drama sticks to this level of emotional delivery, this will be the defining role of his early career. As someone on instagram said: “Wow, he sure can cry.”
Saya: I admit, after Encounter (Boyfriend), there was a part of me that was…not doubtful exactly, but though I enjoyed what I watched of that drama, it didn’t have that dangerous magnetism of, say, his characters from Moonlight Drawn By Clouds or I Remember You. And as I watched him unfolding his character here, I felt a moment of…again, not surprise exactly, but I remembered, oh he can act. Really act.
Anisa: There’s something electric about the way he can just turn it ON in a second. But you’re right, he was a lot more muted in Encounter.
Paroma: That could be because in Encounter, Park Bo-gum was in more of a supporting role. His own arc was less important than Song Hye-kyo’s.
Saya: Yeah, that could be it. His biggest role there was to be a dreamy, pretty pixie-boy. And he did it well, it just didn’t really ask as much of him, or even of us. He was easy to fall for 😅
Paroma: He was! And he was supposed to be the ideal ‘boyfriend’ for our embattled heroine, so that’s forgivable. But it’s so nice to see our baby get to stretch his wings here. I also love just how freely angry he’s allowed to be in his scenes with his family. His hurt and his complaints are obvious, but also very obviously not wholly revealed. You can tell that even as he’s shouting at his dad or pontificating older brother, he’s biting back a lot. It’s insanely well done.
Anisa: He really brings the dialogue—which is already so good, but could feel unwieldy in the mouth of a less talented actor—to glittering, nuanced, heart-wrenching life. He’s saying as much with his face and body as he is with his voice.
Saya: I think his superpower is expressing pain in so many different ways, but what’s really nice to see in this show is not the pain of a haunted, abandoned kid raised by a psychopath or the pain of a lonely crown prince, but the “everyday” kind of pain that comes with family and living alongside people you’re tied to by blood and genes and memories, but who can’t really know you, and let’s be honest, perhaps don’t really want to. Family isn’t about that. Family is about rubbing along as very different people who can’t throw each other away because of these strange, inexplicable bonds.
Paroma: Exactly! The very real pain all of us can feel even as we see it play out on the screen. That kind of writing really needs a deft hand.
Anisa: YES. As much as I’ve loved him in his larger-than-life roles, I’ve been waiting for him to play an everyman. Just a dude with a dream. (Even if his charisma makes him anything but ordinary.) And the script shines in that aspect.
Saya: And this is where I yell: HELLO THERE HA MYUNG-HEE, I HAVE MISSED YOUR WAY WITH WORDS. AND EMOTIONS. AND THE MESSY, UGLY-BEAUTIFUL WAY THEY COME TOGETHER. Okay, I’m done with the all-caps.
Paroma: Is it weird that I saw similarities with Temperature of Love before I realised she was the writer there too? There was something about the way Park Bo-gum and Park So-dam met and immediately started a natural back and forth that was very reminiscent of that drama. I haven’t seen dialogues written quite like that since.
Saya: Oh yes, I think there’s a very recognisable quality to her writing, even though I felt the show distinguished itself very quickly. It has the same bright palette, the same rapidfire wit and feeling in its dialogue, but the characters are a whole new basket of contradictions and complexities. I hate to make this comparison since I’ve gone badly off her, but (peak-) Amy Sherman Palladino (of Gilmore Girls) would be the closest anglophone equivalent, except where ASP fell badly out of touch, I think Ha Myung-hee remains painfully in tune with the strangeness of being a person, living with other people. Though that perhaps brings us to the one characterisation that I did wince at.
Paroma: You mean Charlie Jung of Homme Jung fame? (It’s the name of the man’s design brand and makes me laugh every time I think of it. Man Jung. Keepin’ it simple.)
Saya: I wonder if the Jung part was both a play on his name and the German word for young/youthful—I mean, mixing French and German in the same line is a little weird, but you know…double entendre is always welcome!
Paroma: Ooh, didn’t think of that. That actually makes the names quite apt for a men’s fashion brand! Youthful Man. And honestly, I quite liked Charlie Jung initially and quite dreaded the arc I could see forming from the moment I noted Lee Seung-joon clap soft eyes on Park Bo-gum as the younger man walked down the ramp.
Saya: I agree, I got that vibe from him pretty quickly.
Paroma: I was hoping it was going to be a cliched unrequited love sub-plot, and not the predatory gay mentor story it shaped up to be.
Saya: What I’m conflicted about is that that kind of predation is definitely rife in the business, and it’s interesting from a storytelling point of view to have a young man subjected to it rather than a young woman. But to represent his identity attached to predatory behaviour is a problem, unless you offset it by having other characters who occupy the same identities but aren’t, you know, bad.
Paroma: I don’t think there is a conflict. Of course men in positions of power take advantage of the vulnerable below them. And you can’t tell the story of fashion and film industries without showing this side of things. But it’s the ubiquitousness of male gay characters in drama who pine for the hero and either act predatory or pathetic that makes this depiction cheap instead of meaningful.
Anisa: As we always say, you have to look at the entire spectrum of representations before you can know if something is sending a stereotypical message. If a group is only ever depicted one way, that tells you something.
Saya: Is it bad that one of my first thoughts was, “well, regardless of sex, the flower of youth is intoxicating” when I was parsing Charlie’s behaviour to myself? XD
Paroma: Not at all. In a better ordered world, we could simply comment on how understandable Charlie’s infatuation was (and despicable his methods), without having to spend time on explaining why weighted representation of one type of trope does real harm. In a better ordered world, dramas would have a full range of identity representation, and one individual’s weakness or villainy wouldn’t tar the whole group. But ah well—I fear I’ll have to wait for a different drama to show me Charlie’s side of things—where a successful designer falls for a proud young model, gets rejected, and becomes pathetic and manipulative in order to win his affections. If the drama decides to show me more of Charlie’s perspective and investigates his character beyond that one episode, I will take all my complaints back. Cause then he would not be defined by just his sexuality, but by the full scope of his human failings. Also, I love Lee Seung-joon and want him to get his own drama.
Saya: I would be interested to see how he fell for him, too, actually. Because I feel like there’s also a natural question there (I mean, if we’re talking about the flower of youth and all 😅) about whether he fell for his beauty or whether there’s a deeper relationship that involves some kind of mutual feeling.
Paroma: I would absolutely be up for a drama that explores sexuality vs. attraction of a muse who feels like your own creation. But I think we may have to wait a while to get anything that nuanced in this genre from dramaland.
Anisa: Yeah, this is not that story.
Saya: …speaking of deep love, can we talk about the boys now? I luff them, halp.
Paroma: Yes, please, let’s! The trio have been really nicely set up. I love how their history is always apparent in every scene together.
Anisa: And I feel like I’ll probably say this about everything in this drama, but their friendship has such layers.
Saya: You know, Paroma, when you said after the first episode that there was something there under the surface, that Hye-joon felt about Hae-hyo, I was a bit surprised because I didn’t read it that way at all. But then the second episode rolled around and you were right!
Paroma: You mean that mix of resentment and affection for the friend who has every advantage he lacks?
Saya: Yes! I took Hye-joon’s account of himself at face value there: he denied that there was something, and I figured, even if there was, it was never allowed to surface or to breathe itself into life. Because if it did, they couldn’t have the friendship they do. So I think…I think he told himself a lie he convinced himself to believe, and genuinely did, until that point where he finally lets himself feel his feelings.
Anisa: It’s more of an undercurrent in episode 1, but it hit me quite strongly when they were walking at night and Hye-joon confesses that he’ll enlist if he doesn’t get that movie role. When Hae-hyo insists that their friendship won’t change because they’ve always had different backgrounds (easy to say when you’re the one with the upper hand), Hye-joon replies that if it does, it’ll be because they’ve lost their innocence. It’s clear that he’s getting close to no longer being able to maintain the pretence, even/especially to himself, that their dynamic is equal and their chances are fair.
Paroma: I really love that line he treads with Hae-hyo. Hye-joon knows that Hae-hyo would not like to be told that he has everything he does because his mom handed him his wins, so he goes along with the pretense that they’re competing on equal grounds. But then that ending happens, when that one role he was hanging all his hopes on goes to Hae-hyo and he finds out it wasn’t even because of their acting skills. Oof, what a blow.
Saya: But what an idiot idea to tell him bad news when he’s happy, Jin-woo! And Hae-hyo going along with it! These two rock-heads. 😂😂😂
Paroma: I don’t know if it’s rock-headedness or the writer deliberately showing us how insensitive friends at this age can be. They are willing to make some concessions to your unhappiness, but it would better not spoil the party. Ye lords.
Saya: Oh, that’s actually a pretty deep interpretation, even if that wasn’t the writer’s intention. I didn’t think of it that way at all! It makes me think of something Dhonielle Clayton (an author) just said recently, that the naysayers of YA are always adults—complaining about 15-year-olds making decisions…like a 15-year-old. I feel like I just did that, whoops! But do you think Hye-joon knows the extent to which Hae-hyo’s mom boosts his career? I felt like he didn’t. I thought it was more a general and generic understanding that wealth = influence.
Paroma: No, probably not. But when you watch your friend get everything you wanted with suspicious ease, your instinct makes connections that you don’t necessarily have hard evidence for.
Anisa: Yeah. It’s not as if it’s unusual for rich parents to smooth their children’s paths in every way they can—and I’m pretty sure Hye-joon knows exactly what kind of person Hae-hyo’s mom is, after twenty years knowing her.
Saya: You know what I really, really loved, though? The way these boys just embraced Jung-ha like she was always one of them. And I haven’t ever particularly cared for Park So-dam (don’t egg me, people!), but I find her pretty great here. Even though I’m doubtful about those ginger locks.
Anisa: Ugh yes that yellow-gold is so unflattering on the poor girl! I agree, the way they became friends is one of those moments of vulnerability that immediately tells them a lot about each other. Hye-joon witnesses how Jung-ha tries to avoid her sunbae’s abuse, but ends up being publicly humiliated anyway; Jung-ha is impressed by him coming to find and comfort her on the strength of the empathy created by that one interaction. They can recognize that basic honesty (and underdog status) in each other immediately.
Paroma: I think the writer gave us an in-world explanation for this too. At one point Hye-joon tells Jung-ha that people are attracted to (in the context of being fans) people who’re like themselves. And Hye-joon feels an immediate kinship with Jung-ha, who (unbeknownst to him) is his fan. So, it makes sense that with his endorsement, she would seamlessly be part of the group.
Saya: That’s another way I hadn’t thought of! Put that way, it’s a great commentary on the nature of fanhood. Like, not all parasocial relationships are equal? The one where you feel someone is a kindred spirit is what I always call “unrequited friendship”. It’s not the worshipful quality that you associate with “traditional” fan-celebrity relationships, but something that feels more like you could be friends in real life. Like perhaps in some way they already know you, and you know them. Though I would add that that feeling can also be deceptive. After all, can we really know people from a distance, through a camera lens or from some highly curated words? That’s also why I loved that great little line Jung-ha delivers—to herself! “Get a grip, Sa Hye-joon is real now.” And isn’t it great that Real Sa hye-joon lives up to idealised, fantasy Sa Hye-joon? No—he outdoes him.
Paroma: He does! He’s kinder and sweeter and smarter. It’s very obvious in the way Jung-ha looks at him. Like, how is this guy better than I’d thought?
Anisa: You can see her struggling to figure out how to input this new information into her Sa Hye-joon Fangirl Database, because a friendship with the real guy is obviously something she’d never dreamed of. But then at the same time there is that giddy feeling of unreality, like her comment that she feels like she’s talking to a doll. That cracked me up.
Saya: I actually wasn’t entirely sure what that line meant! For some reason, a person being compared to a doll carries a negative mental connotation for me, so thanks for clearing that up. 😅
Paroma: But what I liked the most about Jung-ha’s personality here is that she isn’t intimidated by anyone. She’s quiet and respectful, but her resolve is steely. You can see that having made certain decisions about her life, she’ll keep her head down for a bit, but nothing will make her give up her goal. It’s really inspiring. Especially when it’s clear that she gave up a stable career to pursue her dream as a make-up artist. And this is a woman who is determined to have a stable, steady life.
Saya: I laughed out loud at the name-pun, hahaha! And even better was when she threw that little barb at Hae-hyo and his name when he laughed at hers! That’s the stuff I live for. I totally agree on your take about her personality, and it’s another thing I relate to a lot—that’s something you’re always doing, isn’t it, the older you get? Making choices that result in either less stability or more. I am really loving being given a risk-averse heroine who is still every inch the heroine. She makes a choice for stability that isn’t passive and/or accidental, but actually a goal, and even a risk—we learned she gave up an arguably more stable big-company job to pursue her greater goal. And that’s another aspect of Ha Myung-hee’s writing that never fails to get me. Her work makes me feel known and listened to in a way no other K-drama writer does.
Anisa: YES, to seeing and rooting for a stable heroine onscreen! Who knows what she wants and makes calculated, practical decisions about what she’s willing to give up, and what she’s not. Who has lived enough life be able to judge the risks and sacrifices inherent in every choice with clear eyes. And since Jung-ha is only 26, I’m very interested to know what made her like this so early. We already have a hint in her reference to having been homeless in the past.
Saya: Jin-joo saem, though. UGH. Reminded me a little of Seo Hyun-jin’s head-writer boss, though nasty in her own special way.
Paroma: Oh agreed. But also… these insecure bosses never feel caricaturish. ‘cause most of us have met people like this. They aren’t villains exactly. They may be very nice people in their personal lives, but in the workplace, they see conspiracy where none exists, and act out their worst, petty impulses on those they’re meant to mentor and guide.
Saya: They’re complicated like real people…yet I don’t want to know some of them at all? I love that Jin-joo gets rightfully put down. I mean, some people are just toxic and the best you can do is look it in the eye and say “no thanks.” They don’t need more story! (I’m very grateful we’ve moved on from the 2000s’ mean second leads! Go away and never come back!)
Anisa: I don’t know if she’s a nice person on her off-time, but she definitely doesn’t feel like those two-dimensional second female leads of yore. Jealousy can make people act in the ugliest ways, and I’ve seen enough of it in real life to find it extremely realistic here…and it’s also a clever way to both highlight Jung-ha’s talent and show us a bit of the uphill climb it’s been to start a second career.
Paroma: But you know which scene I loved the most in Jung-ha’s workplace? When Hae-hyo’s mom insists that Jung-ha cut her hair ‘cause the usual stylist is late, even though Jung-ha is clearly uncomfortable, and then deliberately puts the stylist down when she arrives, absolutely ensuring that the woman’s wrath would fall on Jung-ha. The level of obliviousness and entitlement this showed was insane. (And also why I love this writer!)
Saya: Oh man, yeah, I wanted to talk about Hae-hyo’s mom!!
Paroma: That woman is such a treat, seriously. Heh. I hate her for being so elitist and selfish, and then I’m laughing and feeling bad for her because her son doesn’t like acknowledging her efforts. She’s like this little gnome. Quietly tending the garden of his career, and then Hae-hyo gets to come out and be happy that the view is always so pretty. (I’m a serious Anti- where Hae-hyo is concerned.)
Anisa: Hahaha you’re not alone! The reckless entitlement of this mother-son pair are really glaring when viewed alongside Hye-joon’s family.
Saya: A gnome!! That is the most delightful imagery! Seriously, there’s something inexplicably lovable about the woman, which is at odds with what she actually does and the actual words she says versus the tone. Is she the iron fist in a velvet glove? I’m not sure, but I adore her on-screen as much as I am afraid of her. Actress Shin Ae-ra is really killing it.
Paroma: Isn’t she? And her dynamic with Hye-joon’s omma is so dynamic too! The drama tells us that Hye-joon’s mom had left her employ at some point and then Hae-hyo’s mom wooed her back to work as her housekeeper. And now she treats her with this careful mix of imperiousness and placatory gestures. Their inner monologue while they face off is hilarious.
Saya: She’s elitist, she’s classist, she’s thoughtless and has no problem using people…but then there’s those little self-aware moments where you think, oh, she’s not so awful after all. Like when she tries to compensate Hye-joon’s mom for her overtime. But she had no compunction forcing her to stay! Gah!
Anisa: I always want to pump my fist at Hye-joon’s mom’s lines, whether she says them aloud or to herself. The amount of fortitude she must have to return to that house and swallow her pride every day is something else. It’s so enjoyable when she shuts Hae-hyo’s mom up properly. Ha Hee-ra and Shin Ae-ra have great comedic chemistry together.
Paroma: Hae-hyo’s mom is one of those characters who are worth redeeming a little by the end cause you just want to like them. And another such character is Hye-joon’s dad. (His older brother is utterly irredeemable.) He’s such a glum man, but you can see that his entire, dour worldview was formed by the years he struggled to support his family and pay off his father’s debts. All he wants is for his children to have bright, secure futures, and his younger son simply refuses to tread the safer path. And so all his anger towards his charming, irresponsible father finds an outlet in his ill-timed rebukes to Hye-joon, which creates further distance between them.
Saya: I have to say I’m a lot less forgiving of his dad, though I appreciate him as a character. But what really struck me in these opening episodes is his real contempt towards Hye-joon. Hye-joon is a discerning, emotionally literate young man. If his dad had been insincere in his criticism, he would have picked it up and seen through it, but the reason it cuts him so is precisely because it’s deeply sincere. It might be worry and concern at the source, and I don’t doubt the worry is pure, but when he meets Hye-joon, it comes out as pure, distilled contempt and that is a terrible thing to feed your child. How could that not break him?
Anisa: Yeah, the way in which Dad just completely dismisses Hye-joon’s ability to make his own decisions and yet simultaneously keeps telling him to grow up is deeply dysfunctional.
Saya: And the constant belittling he has to endure at home from both father and brother—and while his mom doesn’t really support them, she also doesn’t really support him. Outside of Grandpa, the whole family is varyingly complicit in his breaking.
However! I don’t think hyung is irredeemable per se, though I’m not sure there’s room for an arc for him in this show (so he probably will remain unredeemed!). He is smug and callous because he’s more loved, and because he’s more loved, he thinks he’s better than Hye-joon. And because he thinks he’s better, it makes him sanctimonious and more smug. Can you imagine what their lifelong dynamic must have been? Sure, hyung is academically successful…but Hye-joon is beautiful. That’s a powerful difference between them that I am absolutely certain he harbours jealousy and insecurity over. Because having what you have is never enough, is it, even if what you have is pretty much everything? You also want what you don’t have and can’t forgive your little brother for having that one thing you don’t.
Anisa: I have to say, the dynamic of Hye-joon’s household is so well done. By this point, they’re all circling in the ruts that they’ve been traveling for the last few years, just making them deeper. You get a feeling of exhaustion underlying these conversations between Dad and Mom, Dad and Hye-joon, Hye-joon and Grandpa, Grandpa and Dad… like they’ve been having these same arguments over and over with the same results. We’re coming into the story right when all this reaches a boiling point, and the explosion of all that tension is masterfully depicted in that climactic argument in episode 2. The door literally falling down was a little on the nose, but it was also cathartic after that very intense scene.
Saya: It definitely broke the tension! 😂
Anisa: By the way, Saya, the only completed drama of Ha Myung-hee’s I’d seen before this was One Warm Word, which is a full-on intense melodrama, so not a comparable genre (it broke me, but I loved it). But now that I know what you appreciate about her in a more slice-of-life drama, my recommendation of My Unfamiliar Family is even stronger! The style of dialogue may be slightly different, but MUF has similarly deep, moving, and funny insights into family, relationship and character dynamics.
Paroma: Will also add that Father is Strange would also slide right into your heart and gobble it up.
Saya: 😂😂😂 I felt in my bones that this rec was coming, haha! I feel like when I know the pain is coming, it’s harder to press play. Don’t tell me there is pain! 😭 But yes, I’ve been sold from the start, now I just need more time and less sleep. Or is that more sleep?
Anisa: What I can tell you is that MUF left me with a deep and long-lasting feeling of happiness, and an immense love for all its characters. Even the “bad” ones.
…Pretty sure there’s pain coming in Record of Youth though. I’ll let you hold my hand. 😉
Saya: Yes please, thank you, can you also hold my heart 😭😭😭