A good leader makes a world of difference. The writer of Itaewon Class took the concept of leadership and transformed it into a riveting drama packed with gut-wrenching loss, camaraderie, and the incredible power that emerges from within when you put absolute trust in yourself to make things happen.
Park Sae Ro Yi is a refreshing change. Sporting a 2020-version of the much dreaded bowl-cut of 90s Asian teens, Sae Ro Yi is not dandy, not smart, not witty, and not conventionally charming. He is not exceptionally skilled at anything, nor is he born out of privilege and raised with a golden spoon, completely defying the age-old conventions behind what makes an attractive male lead in the Korean drama world. But we love him, why? Because he embodies the humanity that we want to see in ourselves.
Sae Ro Yi, who deeply knows the value of a human life, has incredible grit and perseverance, knows how to take responsibility for his actions, reaches out for help to make up for his shortcomings, and holds his integrity so tight you would think it was his oxygen. Rather than being a character we lust after, Sae Ro Yi is a character we want to be.
This is not to say Park Seo Joon wasn’t a beautiful, brilliant choice to play Sae Ro Yi. Park Seo Joon has had a steady career in film and television and I’ve liked him a fair bit in other roles. But as Sae Ro Yi, to say he shined would be a grand understatement. My heart cried with his, leapt with his, and grew warm with his. I sobbed when he almost killed Jang Geun Won in the rain, I sat on the edge for every success, and I smiled watching him realize that love and happiness are simple, attainable. While Park Seo Joon has received his fair share of awards, I want him to be showered with them for his killer performance (and to make up for the fact that he didn’t get to join in on the Oscars fun).
Another convention this drama broke free of is that dreadful first-love trope that dramas like Doctor Stranger will die before they throw it out the door. Jo Yi Seo, like Park Sae Ro Yi, is as far from a stereotypical female lead as you can get. Laden with sociopathic tendencies and sporting a terrible dip dye hairstyle, the drama had me fooled they would bring back first-love Oh Soo Ah as the winning heroine in the last two episodes. But thankfully, I was not disappointed. As Yi Seo said, Soo Ah had not cared about anybody but herself and only wanted to play the victim until the last episode. In my eyes, even had Sae Ro Yi not realize he was in love with Yi Seo, he deserved far better than Soo Ah.
While romantic love was a mystery to Sae Ro Yi, he played the strength in numbers game exceptionally well. Through his leadership, he propelled his teammates from being on society’s margins into society’s upper middle class. Ma Hyun Yi, a factory worker who is transgender. Choi Seung Kwon, a gangster. Kim Toni, a foreign migrant from Africa. Sae Ro Yi never saw himself as being above his teammates and trusted them to rise up to the occasion. He gave them the opportunity to learn. Just like Master Kim in Romantic Dr. Kim, Sae Ro Yi believed that people could achieve anything if they are trusted to do so. He dished out patience and understanding as if they were loose change — a stark contrast to the untrusting and conniving ways of antagonist Jang Dae Hee — and results followed. While protagonists in other dramas accomplished their goals by pure wit and intellect, Sae Ro Yi entrusted his dreams into the hands of others and they made it come true together.
More than ever, now it is a great time to revisit the importance of effective leadership and the power of a strong collective spirit. Itaewon Class is a brilliant example of the great things that can happen when you believe in yourself and others to transform the world. Alone, we can dream, but together, we will make it happen.