Biweekly Binge: Itaewon Class - Dogged idealism in a classroom
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week it is Itaewon Class, streaming on Netflix
One of the often-referenced scenes from The Wire is the one where Wallace, Poot and D'Angelo are talking about Chicken McNuggets. Wallace and Poot are wondering about the ocean of wealth the inventor is probably swimming in thanks to the dish. D'Angelo, knowing better, would have none of it. He lays it down straight; Ronald McDonald is not writing checks to that cook, who probably still cuts a sorry figure earning regular wage. This moment plays out for real in the Korean drama Itaewon Class, streaming on Netflix. Almost offhand, Park Sae-ro-yi (Park Seo-joon with a stronger presence than in What's Wrong with Secretary Kim but with another traumatic past) learns that his rival food company Jangga was rescued and reinforced by a sauce invented by his father, who not only never got his due but was forced to resign from his position thanks to the nascent idealism of Sae-ro-yi. His father's subsequent death is what motivates him to bring the Jangga empire down.
Itaewon Class started and concluded before the seriousness of the Covid pandemic kicked in at the end of March. The pandemic has, more than anything else in recent times, shown the after-effects of neoliberalism. There was a vast void between those who could survive brutal lockdowns, have access to affordable healthcare, and get through their lives by staying home, and those who couldn't. The abuse and lack of power leads to some violent ends in Itaewon Class. At the heart of it, or at least till about halfway in, the focus is on the have-nots and marginalised.
Sae-ro-yi and his business partner Seung-kwon are ex-cons, and it is Sae-ro-yi's refusal to accept his fate as a lifelong member of that class that inspires Seung-kwon to join forces with his prison mate. DanBam, the modest pub that Sae-ro-yi starts has a trans woman as a head chef — Hyeon-yi (played by actress Lee Joo-young). Sae-ro-yi's character is written all through as a dogged idealist and optimist. His rival's motto that the strong preys on the weak is constantly running in his mind, that his idea of existence, sustenance and success is defined by levelling the playing field for all. Early in the series, his childhood friend, first love and employee of Jangga, Soo-ah (Kwon Nara) asks him, with the aftertaste of sarcasm, does it feel good to perform a good deed and feel nice about oneself. Soo-ah is sometimes defined by the cynicism of her orphanage nurturing, living off philanthropic altruism of empires, but Sae-ro-yi's idealism is shaped by loss and experience, something he was forced to learn, distilled into him by his father.
The gentrified Itaewon setting helps flesh out this melting pot. A part of Seoul that's home to expats, foreigners and international businesses (a restaurant facade screams "Feel the real Vietnam"), it is perfect for Sae-ro-yi to establish an institution that's truly liberal and democratic, his values going against, say, Gangnam, for instance.
The series has its weaknesses: there is a forcefulness in making the Sae-ro-yi and Yi-seo (Kim Da-mi) - the company's young manager - romance work and her character, beliefs and ideals are always at odds with DanBam’s mission statement. Itaewon also helps the drama tackle multiple subjects without reducing them to stereotypes. Hyeon-yi is more than her gender, she is the star chef and rises to be one of the founding directors of the company and has her own arc. A hilarious encounter ensues when Kim To-ni (Chris Lyon) meets the group and they hire him as a waiter assuming he can speak English owing to the colour of his skin. Biracial, he is from Guinea with a Korean father and speaks fluent French and Korean. The show not only places focus on those who need representation but also pushes its own main characters to learn on the job and become better individuals. One of the interesting running gags is the dynamic between Seung-kwon and Hyeon-yi, the former uncomfortable and still coming to terms with the latter's gender after years of personal and professional relationship.
Make no mistake, Sae-ro-yi is no socialist. He is another capitalist in the making but he values people above all else and that is a character trait that the show relentlessly stays with throughout. The class war genre is thriving in Korean TV and cinema, and Itaewon Class is a commendable iteration in the segment. Not only did it regale us with hard facts and drama in the first quarter of 2020 when there used to be a semblance of normalcy, it also came in the wake of the Parasite fever. A curious case of irony that Park Seo-joon played Min-hyuk in Bong Joon-ho's Oscar winner, the wealthy friend of Ki-woo who gifts the family the mysterious rock and recommends his friend as an English tutor to the Park family.