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Biweekly Binge: Control the Distance- Cinema express

Biweekly Binge: Control the Distance

A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's Twenty-Five Twenty-One

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Published: 20th April 2022
Nam Joo-hyuk and Kim Tae-ri in Twenty-Five Twenty-One

In Twenty-Five Twenty-One (streaming on Netflix)—written by Kwon Do-eun and directed by Jung Ji-hyun—Min-chae stands in as the audience. She is Na Hee-do’s teenage daughter, fallen out of love with ballet and her mother in one shot, only to run away to her grandmother’s home. She stumbles upon her mother’s dairy entries and training logs (a fencing gold medallist), transporting us to late 90s and 00s infancy. Min-chae gasps at striking moments in her mother’s love story and feels cheated by cliff-hangers. Just like us. A romantic drama has no business having this many plot twists and cliffhangers but 2521 does, and is all the better for it. It’s the story of Na Hee-do (Kim Tae-ri) and Baek Yi-jin (Nam Joo-hyuk), their friendship and love, their companions in Ko Yu-rim (Bona), Ji-woong (Choi Hyun-wook) and Seung-wan (Lee Joo-myung). It has all the dramatics—a dash through the airport and a gold medal falling off a table in slow motion. But more.

The title is the respective ages at which Yi-jin and Hee-do reach a lasting summit in their relationship. But one might be remiss to think that that’s too early, and too young to have had life-changing experiences. The series is about the ephemerality of youth, it talks about process of growing up by slowing down the timelapse. It displays a casual disregard for anhedonic pursuits and underlines those happy memories that could be learning curves, a call to live in the moment and being selfish while at it. Multiple times in the series the characters behave in selfish ways and give themselves credit. Yu-rim tells Ji-woong that she needed to hear that her decision was the best while the whole country considers her public enemy. Hee-do and Yi-jin go their separate ways early on to either get pieces of life together, or to make dreams come true. As Hee-do puts it, it is indeed about how sometimes being selfish can be the considerate thing to do. The series begins with South Korea’s IMF crisis of 1997 and the economic and social privations intensely felt by our young to a fault coterie. The setting forms a bedrock to write characters beyond their age, feeling and experiencing situations they are far too tender to experience. 

Yi-jin is forced to rebuild his life with one foot into his twenties and a long line of creditors in his family’s wake. Hee-do is relatively unaffected, but it takes the toll on her mother with a career in news only for the fencing prodigy to fend for herself at eighteen.

The show locates its social footing with the added benefit of its time. The late 90s when technology was a few light years out of the pocket and yet within grasp makes the tribulations faced by characters moving. Suddenly, long distance—like a few hours’ drive from the city—is at the far end of a rainbow and measured in painful minutes and miles. A mobile phone is an expensive gift for parents of limited means and the caller ID is a feature that could have saved someone from embarrassment. A time when people wrote handwritten diaries and not blogs, when scraps of paper were exchanged in class and when breaking news about a sports star did not send the whole country if not the world into frenzy and they could still walk the streets in peace. It gives more time to focus on their hurting instead of what’s happening around them. This is the sort of background information that adds high stakes to Hee-do and Yi-jin’s friendship and eventual love story, their relationship built on tiny measures of kindness, a far bigger accomplishment compared to the ironic distance coupled with physical intimacy and existential dread today. It might be quaint, but real. When they say they root for each despite leaving things unsaid, it rings true. When they are consensual in choosing the kind of love to co-exist in, it rings true. When they feel real pain due to each other’s actions and yet back each other in ways few do, it rings true.

The arcs of Ji-woong and Yu-rim and the lonesome but dissident disposition of Seung-wan offer a welcome insight into appreciating the present. The first two are hopeful in love, the latter seldom sways from the larger picture. “I wish the things I worry about are as realistic as theirs”, she tells Yi-jin at one point. She is talking about worries such as helping a family survive or winning a gold medal in world championships. Her dreams are idealistic informing a long fight, not attainable in one lifetime. It’s a bond that holds the group together, a bond that is hyperaware of the lives they are leading while appreciating the lessons learned on the way. There were a lot of theories about the drama’s arc followed by polarizing reaction to its culmination. But nothing comes close to the little moments of joy that Twenty-Five Twenty-One was able to muster. Like how it managed to converge a girl and a woman within Hee-do—mostly thanks to Kim Tae-Ri’s performance and the writing—never infantilized by anyone around her. Or the momentary shot of Yu-rim and Hee-do rubbing Ye-ji’s head before their teammate’s final fencing match as she quits the sport which only makes you wonder—why is quitting not more romanticized in pop culture?

It’s a bond that holds the group together, a bond that is hyperaware of the lives they are leading while appreciating the lessons learned on the way. There were a lot of theories about the drama’s arc followed by polarizing reaction to its culmination. But nothing comes close to the little moments of joy that Twenty-Five Twenty-One was able to muster. Like how it managed to converge a girl and a woman within Hee-do—mostly thanks to Kim Tae-Ri’s performance and the writing—never infantilized by anyone around her. Or the momentary shot of Yu-rim and Hee-do rubbing Ye-ji’s head before their teammate’s final fencing match as she quits the sport which only makes you wonder—why is quitting not more romanticized in pop culture?

Together they embody Hee-do mantra—turning tragedy into comedy as a coping mechanism. It is hard not to be consumed and enthralled by the show’s mix of bleakness and cheer, of an immediate urge to appreciate days gone by. “Control the distance”, they are taught in fencing. Hee-do and Yi-jin are not star-crossed lovers, they are hardly tragic. They are two people who wanted love to last longer than themselves and instinctively knew that controlling the distance was the only way to achieve it.

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