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Record of Youth: Episodes 3-4 Review

The second week of Record of Youth continues to add layers to its already layered relationships. I’m surprised by just how much ground the show covers in two hours—meaning that a whole lot of change has happened since opening week (also whoops, we're behind, but we still haven't decided whether to run full cover on this show!). Hye-joon is at the centre of a motherload of decisions that will determine the direction not just his own immediate future, but that of the people most closely connected to him. And remember how that’s his gift, to connect with people? But at least we can see him well on the road to figuring out that he needs to change up some of those connections, so that he can step out of borrowed dreams, and into one that belongs to him alone. (There’s room for Grandpa, too!)   

Anisa: So the military haircut thing ended up being a fake-out! I fully expected a two-year time skip. Well played, show.

Saya: Because it’s still 2018 in-show, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop! But it does seem like they’ve put the will-he-won’t-he of military service to rest.

Anisa: I do like how our lead pair have this running sort-of joke now of convincing each other of things, which I think started with Jung-ha arguing against him buzzing his hair so early. It's one of the ways their friendship developed in these two episodes, and I found it a lovely way to express how they're getting to know each other, testing the boundaries of this new relationship and figuring out what it is.

Saya: Can I make a confession? 🙈 I’m sort of backing into the hedge Homer Simpson-style because I felt like there was something a little too...neat about the way the dialogue is paced. Like, they deliver their lines almost before the other person finishes, and that little overlap makes it come off more glib than I enjoy. It’s the space between each side that really allows the words to breathe and feel like a real product of the moment, rather than a premeditated one. So as much as the content of these conversations is delightful, I feel like this week, it was pushing it just a little too far in how it expressed. Paroma: Ditto that. I lost some of my giddiness at their ease around each other, cause their exchanges started getting borderline rude—the way you can only be with someone whose boundaries you already know. Anisa: Banter! But in seriousness, while I know what you mean, I actually didn't mind it this week, I think because I adjusted my expectations last week to this style of slightly too-much. It did initially make me go, "No one quite talks like that in real life," but now I'm enjoying it from the point of view of really delicious, chewy banter that is not only entertaining to listen to, but also tells us a lot about the characters. Even if it's completely unrealistic—which this drama totally is, let's be real, despite its slice-of-life aesthetic. We're not going for verisimilitude here, but emotion, as we discussed in our Little Yak.

Saya: I actually really love the dialogue largely because of its never-in-real-life quality, and I feel like it speaks to so much of a complicated person’s inner dialogue. That’s the essence of this writer’s method: to have characters wear their insides on their outsides, in conversations we wish we could have, and often should have. The delicious, unabashed frankness of it all is what makes it exciting. Throw away convention, throw away fear of censure—say what you really want to say. Anisa: Yes, exactly. This is what I really love about rom-coms especially, I think: when the main plot is the coming together of two people, their hearts and lives and daily routines, the drama and the enjoyment comes from the wish fulfilment and catharsis of hearing people express the thoughts in words that we wish we could in our relationships, or that we see as the ideal. Even when the hero and heroine get all twisted up in knots along their way to a happy ending, they are communicating with their full selves from the start, which is where the sparks, the humour, and eventually the genuine connection come from. (I think I just had an epiphany about why rom-coms are my favourite??!!) Saya: Yessss. And I think part of what makes that even better for you as a viewer in real life is that it helps you to untangle your own thoughts, decode your own feelings, and offers usable templates for how to manage all those intricate interactions with the important people in your life. But back to my naysaying for a second 😅 I think part of it also is that although the lead pair are great, Seo Hyun-jin (Temperature of Love) always brings some extra, inimitable magic all her own, that makes everything she says sparkle and glitter and kill me a little with its realness. ALSO I totally had forgotten this little facticle: that Park Bo-gum and Song Hye-gyo had turned down the lead roles in Temperature of Love. So Ha Myung-hee finally gets her man for Record of Youth!

Anisa: I hadn't known that, but it makes me smile. And speaking of fangirling: I love that he figured out she's his fan so quickly! I always hate when there’s an extended lie or misunderstanding between leads, so although I was fine with the initial fib because it allowed for an actual friendship to start, I'm really glad he picked up on it so soon. Also because it was totally obvious haha. Saya: You know, the meta-commentary of this show is pretty great. It feels like it fulfils what was missing in Her Private Life—which I loved to death, but it did make a choice to lean harder into its romance than its fangirling premise. Anisa: You know, I was also thinking of HPL when I was watching these two episodes. That entire scene at the restaurant where she has a mini-meltdown over being able to show her fan giddiness to him was what I felt we were cheated out of with Deok-mi (Park Min-young). I feel like HPL’s entire run teased us with the potential reveal of her fangirling of Si-an without making good on it. Record of Youth just puts it front and centre, making it a core dynamic of their initial relationship. Saya: HPL also somewhat sidestepped that question by making her love interest this totally other (VERY GOOD) guy. This show really delivers on examining the real and meaningful problems of the object of your fangirling coming to life—real real-life—in front of you, to become an actual relationship, and then goes on to trying to figure out how that relationship is navigated. And right now, I love that it isn’t romance, though I have pinpointed the actual moment when the way Hye-joon looks at Jung-ha changed.

Anisa: Ooh, I wonder if we agree on that moment? I have one in my head too. For me it was when he kneels in front of her by the streetlight and tells her, echoing her earlier gesture and play on his name, "You're forgiven." Also, I DEEPLY appreciated Jung-ha's "I'm trying really hard not to develop feelings for him" confession to Hae-hyo, because I feel you, girl. Saya: Ooo almost! Mine is a slightly earlier moment—after she puts her hand on his head and does that puntastically solemn, almost religious forgiveness, she sits back down, and he...looks at her. That moment, you can see something quietly shift inside him, though I doubt he’s even aware of it at this point. And isn’t it interesting that there’s a...spiritual connection between them that feels so important? Like, it’s not always the words. They can understand each other’s feelings, and that’s a kind of magnet for them. The words are consequent to that. Anisa: Their connection really is beyond words. It's like your frosting metaphor for banter. Here we get both the frosting and a very delicious cake. But much as I'd love to talk about nothing else but Park Bo-gum and Park So-dam's fantastic acting and chemistry—which I really think was necessary for a script this complex and demanding—I want to talk about themes. Saya: Fangirling over them is therapeutic 😅 *steals Jung-ha’s lines*

Anisa: IT IS. And I know there was a lot of talk about Jang Ki-yong turning this role down, and I'm sure he would have done fine, but I really feel like Bogummy was born to play Hye-joon. Like the way that people turn away from his puppy eyes as though they are too powerful to look at head-on would have felt over the top with another actor, but PBG's nuclear charisma has me in complete sympathy with Min-jae when she has to look away so she won't fall under his spell. Saya: Did you notice how when he turned that look on her, she screamed, “Aahhh why are you looking at me with those melo eyes?” LOL but also what a perfect description. Netflix subtitles REALLY do not do this show justice in its small moments. “Melo eyes” is such a distinct, memorable expression that should never have been lost in translation. Anisa: I have endless complaints about how the Netflix subtitles strip out nuance and flavour (sometimes even meaning) from the dialogue, which is especially important in a drama like this. The banter is the thing. This is not a plot-heavy drama; the meat of the conflict and development for this story is in what people say to each other. So the sad subbing stings especially hard for this one.

Saya: Did you notice the first time Hye-joon called Jung-ha “Jung-ha-ya”? I DIED. And all the ways Jung-ha says “I like you” to Hye-joon, without saying it to him. And also: taking shelter from the rain under a sign that says “I like you”? Twice? YES. I LIKE YOU, TOO. Anisa: SO CUTE. I just smile with joy anytime they're on-screen together. Saya: But you know what really struck me this week was all the talk about “waemo” (looks). From our perspective, we’re in a culture that tells us not to over-value outer appearances, and that’s such a truth to me that I never thought about the discussion that these episodes brought. Firstly, the idea that there is value in looks, and secondly, that being beautiful and knowing it doesn’t mean you have to live ashamed of it in order to remain “good”. I feel like Hye-joon, who is obviously deeply idealised (beautiful AND modest AND humble!) still presents as a very authentic character, and clearly his struggles are as real and painful as “ordinary” people. I was so sad when he confessed to Jung-ha that he used to hate his looks.

Anisa: Yeah, especially given the dynamic at home between his dad and grandpa, it's clear how in many ways he's had to take on a burden that shouldn't have been his own due to the family baggage around good looks and celebrity dreams. Saya: We’re familiar with how society punishes the have-nots of the looks-lottery, but it’s interesting to be shown a flip-side where you have a whole industry devoted to commodifying people into their various parts, while also witnessing the inevitable effect that has on how the people around them treat them, whether that’s the fawning of fans, or the judgement—and jealousy—of your family members. It’s not the same kind of misery/punishment as the have-nots, but it certainly has its own bleak side.

Anisa: Jung-ha's observation about Hye-joon's dad was maybe a little too blunt, but it was also pretty spot-on. There probably is an element of resentment that his son had something given to him that he will never have access to, something with high social value that he's felt the brunt of people's tongues for not having himself, through no fault of his own. And that's exacerbated by how he's seen his own father, in his mind, throw away all his own advantages. It doesn't make how he treats Hye-joon okay, but it makes a lot of sense—and it tells us how smart Jung-ha is about people. Saya: I’m still not okay with Dad. I was shook that his favouritism of his older son actually pre-dated Hye-joon’s modelling career. Why do parents do this? Is it so hard to love your children equally? Or at least, love them all, instead of favouring one and punishing the other? Dude only has two, come on! (But wasn’t it interesting to get a glimpse of his brother at work? He’s not exactly the quiet salaryman, is he, lol.) Anisa: Let's talk about class, because I find the way these two families are set against each other very interesting. Jung-ha's family circumstances are a little more vague, although we know she doesn't come from wealth and is basically on her own, so she operates as an independent unit. But both Hye-joon and Hae-hyo are deeply rooted in their families, and those two households have been totally intertwined for many years, in a way that almost reminds me of the ill-fated cross-class relationships of sageuk. (Perhaps an implicit reference to "Hell Joseon".)

Saya: There’s so much class-tension between so many characters, but I felt it most in that little clash Jin-woo has with Hae-hyo, when Hae-hyo quotes his mom and tells him that quitting is the easy way out. This whole episode was full of POWERFUL truth-bombs. And Jin-woo’s gritted-teeth reply is absolutely blistering in how true it is: “That only applies to guys like you. I quit after I went through thousands of moments that made me want to quit.” Anisa: Oof, yes! I was both cringing in discomfort and silently cheering for Jin-woo in that moment. Saya: I really, really needed Hae-hyo to be confronted with all his unacknowledged privilege. I know he means well, but sometimes in meaning well, he hurts his friends more than if he’d left well alone. It’s also why I am glad that Hye-joon has finally realised that he needs to peel away from his friend so that he can grow. They can’t both flourish in the same pot. Especially when he’s begun to be treated like an outsider in his own spaces, as if he’s hanging on Hae-hyo’s coattails, while Hae-hyo effortlessly harvests successes that aren’t entirely his own work.

Anisa: I'm actually so glad that Hae-hyo is both a genuinely nice person, and completely, obnoxiously entitled, because we so rarely see that complexity in rich characters. Either they're misunderstood and have a heart of gold despite being spoiled beyond belief since birth, or wealth automatically makes someone into a two-dimensional villain with no redeeming qualities. In my experience, plenty of rich people are trying to be good, but have these gigantic honking blinders on that makes them unable to understand or empathise with people who have less than them—and the ways their behaviour harms others. Saya: Hae-hyo’s mom, Yi-young (Shin Ae-ra), continues to be fascinating. I can’t decide exactly what’s going on between her and her husband, but “nevermind understanding me, it’s enough if you love me” is another great line. But as with everything she says, the words say one thing while her tone says another, so I don’t know what this means. Is her husband withholding his love from her? He doesn’t seem to be rejecting her either, though. Either way, there’s some kind of warmth missing here that she’s dealing with by making her kids her little avatars, as one of them so disturbingly put it.

Anisa: What I found really interesting this week was the weirdly symbiotic but super unhealthy relationship between her and Hye-joon's mom, Ae-sook. It was pretty heartbreaking to find out that Hye-joon grew up wearing Hae-hyo's actual hand-me-downs and having to swallow his pride for the sake of his mother being able to work in a job that she finds fulfilling. He said he was okay with it, but I can't imagine that he really is—he's the kind of person that internalises his own negative feelings so that others won't feel uncomfortable, and it must really sting that even after all these years, even as grown-ups and working people, he's still getting Hae-hyo's sloppy seconds, and Ae-sook still has to work in that house to make ends meet. I'm so glad he told Hae-hyo not to add him on to his gigs anymore—that photoshoot scene was painful. Saya: I kept expecting Ae-sook to come out with that pride we’ve learned to expect as a virtue of dignified poverty...and it never did, until eventually I had to reassess my own assumptions about it and her. I actually find it really refreshing that she isn’t embarrassed or ashamed, but can just accept favours without it being an assault on her self-respect.

Anisa: And her feelings about the job are clearly complex. That scene where Ae-sook walks home and talks to herself really hit hard, where she reflected that she was hoping that over time their circumstances would change and their hard work would pay off, but it's like they're running in place. And her tearful wish that she could see her mother again, after ruefully admitting that she's becoming more like her as she ages. I definitely cried, because we never get over wanting our moms when we're having a rough day. No matter what age we reach. Saya: 😢 Can we also give a surrogate-mom award to Min-jae Noona please, I LOVE HER SO MUCH. Also I am captivated by her “strange day in oslo” hoodie. She has the best hoodies.

Anisa: As a hoodie addict, I 100% concur. Min-jae Noona is THE BEST. I love her mixture of nurturing squishiness and matter-of-fact bluntness, with the occasional dash of pure recklessness. Amazing and perfect. Saya: And don’t forget the truth-bombs. She was dropping them left and right and it was magnificent. “Unless you’re born into wealth, you’ll live poor most of your life” was a hard one, though. Anisa: Min-jae is exactly the manager he needs, because he does pull back from his full potential because of his unwillingness to look arrogant. His humility is a good quality, but she's right that in some ways it's hamstringing his ambition. Thankfully, he's finally understood that refusing to compete against Hae-hyo is not evidence of his virtue, but a disservice to his talents and dreams.

Saya: She also really brings to the fore the difficult realities of late enlistment and how it can kill your career momentum. Even though we know how it works, it’s so fascinating to see this from “behind the scenes”, especially with the real-world knowledge that baby Bo-gum has actually gone off to army. Anisa: I am so glad he left us with this project before he went! Especially because it's a fully pre-produced, pre-coronavirus drama full of crowds and socialising and heightened normality. My soul needs that right now. Saya: Oh and what Min-jae said about chaebols being minor characters in films and major characters in dramas was so funny! It put me in mind of some of Park Bo-gum’s earliest roles, too—where he’d be this minor but important character and often ended up (or indeed, started up, lol) dead.

Anisa: I loved that line! And it's so true although I've never really thought about it. I wonder if it has to do with mostly male screenwriters in Korean film vs. mostly female ones in K-drama, and the stereotypical male fantasy of being able to rise from nothing into greatness vs. the stereotypical female fantasy of marrying rich and the freedom that can give you from societal oppression. Saya: I’m not quite sure how to phrase this, but the drama’s “messaging” is really on point. It takes all of its problems and setups and talks to them, spitting in their eye if necessary. Like I loved that Ae-sook took her husband to task on the crappy way he shows his love to Hye-joon, and then revolts. Go mom!

Anisa: Totally agree. I was cheering for her in that moment! Finally Hye-joon has someone with power in the house openly advocating for him. You could see the shift happen in Ae-sook's eyes when she was like, I've had enough. And I loved how that argument was both incredibly tense and completely hilarious. Let's just say I've witnessed some arguments like that between couples who have been married for decades and it was extremely on point. Saya: There’s an event I never want to be there for 😂 Before we finish, can I say that I REALLY don’t want Hae-hyo to fall for Jung-ha! And I don’t want him to compete with Hye-joon in love and hope/expect to win! Anisa: HARD AGREE. I can see that he's doing that "Everyone else thinks I'm better than Hye-joon, so you should too" thing, but it better not turn into anything, because the two boys have a far more interesting conflict going on already.

Saya: And I need Jin-joo Saem to get some comeuppance asap, she’s such a viper. Though maybe she already is getting a bit. And thank you Min-jae for that great line about the person complaining the loudest about being a victim is usually not. (That’s what I mean about the “messaging”—all these casually slipped in call-outs to various aspects of toxic culture.) Anisa: Min-jae being her usual blunt and awesome self! Jealousy is a powerful drug, and it's as miserable for the one feeling it as it is for those they lash out at. Though I also need her to get taken down, preferably in public. The way she prefers to humiliate others. Saya: I trust Writer-nim to deliver this in exactly the way we want it, but better. Anisa: I really loved how Episode 4 ended, with Hye-joon's eloquent rejection of the gold spoon/dirt spoon metaphor: "Today, I realised why I desperately wanted to be an actor. To an actor, a spoon is just a tool for eating food." It was a mic drop moment, and it feels like the end of this particular arc in 2018. I can't wait to see where the story goes next.

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