Start-Up and Why K-Dramas Suck
… OR MAYBE THEY DON’T AND YOU ARE IN DENIAL, OR THEY DO AND YOU ARE IN DENIAL OF THAT, OR MAYBE YOU CAN JUST READ THIS AND MAKE UP YOUR MIND…
The writers of this article, one more than the other, have procrastinated, delayed, and crossed deadlines, walked over them, and curb-stomped over the editors’ patience to bring this piece of work to you. The authors (since it feels strange to mention the word “writer” twice) take full responsibility, but no accountability, for the outcome of this article. The information contained here is mostly from personal opinions, half-baked Googling, and mostly not-so-serious takes on certain aspects of the subject matter in hand. No animals were harmed in this act. However, humans, mostly overgrown children stimulated by the glitzy escapism provided by the Korean entertainment industry, are expected to get triggered by this. We mean no harm. We only mean to attract different views, discussions and cordial discourse. Who are we kidding? We’re agents of chaos. Bye!!!
CO-PROLOGUE, because equality:
M: On a fine day in New York City and a different time of day in Dhaka, since representation matters, a not-so-fine idea was conceived by a group of people to make me watch a K-Drama. I was aware of this sector of pop culture and maintained my distance from it due to a number of reasons. One of them being, and I still believe, that K-dramas are soap operas with prettier people.
S: Let us not start with a dismissive tone. Here, watch and learn;
PROLOGUE, because Masud shouldn’t do this:
There have been multiple discussion threads online about millions of K-Drama fans having intense discussions about their favourite shows. The fandom has risen, and so have the haters. But, what is lacking is a middle point, a bridge connecting two different points of view. Therefore, we got myself, Subyeta, an avid K-Drama fan consulting with the rest of The Interlude in order to pick a K-Drama for Masud, a hater, to put it mildly; his words, not mine.
And so it begins…
S: Since you come with an inherent sense of distaste, can I and the rest of the readers know what triggers your disapproval of K-Dramas?
M: It is hard to make sense of it all visually. We are thrown into a Candy Crush Saga-like world where everything is glossier than any Met Gala event in New York City. We see people of different classes, but they all glow equally. So you’re telling me, money and status differentiate, but skincare doesn’t? You mean there’s an underground movement going on called “Skincare for all?” Is there any skincare communism propaganda involved? Am I reading too much into it?
S: I meant about k-dramas and not the entire Hallyu industry but let’s get back to the point here.
M: Sure, there are stakes involved. There are glimpses of attempts in making characters interesting and intriguing. But, it is always distilled and distributed into the same convenient product so that the audience is left with a sense of relief. The story or storytelling doesn’t necessarily have to challenge the audience, but it shouldn’t take our intelligence for granted.
S: Don’t you think you are jumping to conclusions too quickly after watching one K-Drama?
M: And I don’t intend to watch another…
S: Let’s talk about Start-Up. Try to review it in three sentences or less.
M: Fun to watch. Episodes deserved to be much shorter. Should have prioritised start-up related struggles and not just brushed over them in 3 seconds.
S: In order to not lose our readers, let me just briefly explain the plot of the show-
M: No, let ME–
Start-Up is about a young woman Seo Dal-mi, who wants to become a successful entrepreneur like Steve Jobs and her love triangle between a man who is secretly her first love (Han Ji-pyeong) and another man who is pretending to be her first love (Nam Do-san).
Other prominent characters include Dal-mi’s estranged family members; Won In-jae, who has come back to South Korea along with their mother in order to launch her own business after figuring out her step-family’s evil intentions.
Dal-mi lives with her grandmother, Ms Choi, who runs a hot dog and is slowly losing her eyesight.
Nam Do-san’s close circle consists of his two best friends, Lee Chul-san and Kim Yong-san. The three of them have been struggling to launch their start-up due to a lack of funding.
There is also Jeong Sa-ha, a sharp-tongued lawyer with a heart of gold looking to find the right company to attach herself with.
Han Ji-pyeong happens to be an orphan who shares a close bond with Ms Choi, Dal-mi’s grandmother, ever since he was in school. They hatched up a plan to write letters to Dal-mi so that she could cope with her loneliness. As they carry on the secret, it grows into what forms the rest of the story.
S: While I live for passive aggression and spoilers, so much hate…
M: Okay, I’ll be more civilised then.
Start-Up is a modern-day Disney romance about the ruthless world of entrepreneurship. Sounds problematic? Walk with me a little more. The emotional scenes go on for too long. It’s like watching a TikTok video of kids dancing right after seeing a video of Syrian kids crying after their homes were burned down by drones. How would you value an emotional scene if it doesn’t even sit with you long enough? They literally lead you to desensitisation; this word makes my tongue twist!
S: Moving on. Not all shows are perfect, obviously; even shows that have been on repeat since the 90s have flaws, so walk me through what you find so unacceptable?
M: Alright, let me share my biggest pet peeve with this series. It had the potential to be so much more. A show about the cutthroat world of entrepreneurship. It could have depicted success and failure; topics like relationship-building in business and in life, whether or not forming a business with close friends or family members is profitable in the long run, how relationships change when money is involved, how much does your upbringing drive your professional decision-making, the bitterness and/or reservations that come with living a difficult childhood, imposter syndrome and how to get out of it, something to actually learn about in terms of business events and networking instead of having flash-card like visuals defining each business term like “Burn Rate” and “Demo Day”- something that is a Google search away. It’s called “Start-Up”, not “10-minute School” or “Khan Academy”!
I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself, but it completely disregards the intelligence of its audience.
S: Okay, so I think you did raise certain complaints I myself had.
While I do believe that being street smart is important, and I was rooting for Dal-mi as well, as a critique (and a person who has lived in the real world), the entire show portrays a very, veryyyyy rare scenario where everything just works out. Most of the time, it’s actually normal for start-ups to end up like Yong-san’s brother’s company. Maybe not to such an extent, but disbanded, yeah.
One of the weirdest traits of Dal-mi’s was the constant inferiority with In-jae throughout the first half, but suddenly everything just gets better in the second half. I understand that blood is thicker than water, and sisterhood is like that, but I cannot fathom how a girl who lost everyone she had when she was a kid can grow up to not have any bitterness towards those who abandoned her. Zero commitment issues, zero trust issues whatsoever?
M: What really got to me is that the characters have no variations of difficulties while setting up their business. It is overly simplified. In-jae’s team is always ahead of Dal-mi’s team. Dal-mi always ends up losing but somehow hangs on to the race. There is no logical evidence for the audience to support Dal-mi’s competence as a potential CEO. Most of her success always tends to be the by-product of Do-san’s technical genius and Han’s insight.
S: I cannot disagree with any of that. The show seemed to settle for less from a thematic standpoint. There are various storylines that I found myself drawn towards that eventually got turned off when they switched back to the love triangle and immature humour that doesn’t serve a purpose apart from distraction.
There are characters with glaring flaws, and the reason why I admire Nam Do-san so much is for how real and raw his character was. Cheating to victory in the Maths Olympiad and the snowball effect it had on his mental health. That win was not just his but his parents’ as well. It shaped their attitude and heightened their expectations of him. Expectations that Do-san knew he didn’t deserve. Living in the constant fear of never being good enough, he finally met someone who had faith in him. He wanted to be the best version of himself for her, hope. Dal-mi gave him hope and belief in himself that he never had. He did lie and, in ways, betrayed her, but he wanted nothing more than to cherish that one person who alleviated his impostor syndrome.
On the other hand, Ji-pyeong himself was a complex character, living in the shadows of his desires and relentless envy of having what Do-san had. The seemingly perfect life with friends, family and a lover. However, he failed to understand that his ‘feelings’ foc were nothing more than second-hand gratitude for Halmeoni and a platonic protectiveness stemming from all those memories they shared. They were each others’ comfort for a long time until they weren’t. As for romance, maybe it was a fleeting emotion because if she were his first love, he would’ve sought her out.
M: Does that mean you have joined the dark side, Subaru?
S: That is not my name nor my intention. Regardless, I dare you to bring up something that you are totally fine with on this show.
M: The dynamics between Han Ji-pyeong and Ms Choi were the highlight of the show. Her best scenes are with him. She seems to have more chemistry with the team leader, who was once a disillusioned orphan. There is not one scene I would like to alter between them. It’s just that, and I think it’s a narrative flaw, is when the scenes tend to reach their peak emotional requirement, the writers try to milk it by stretching the dialogues while the characters are vulnerable. We need to let the emotions settle in. The scenes lose subtlety in terms of emotional impact. Otherwise, this was the aspect of the show that I have no qualms against.
S: Same. Ji-pyeong’s best and most vulnerable moments were with Halmeoni because he was the only person he had in his life. The only person he could count on. Now, let’s talk about the main theme of the show?
M: The L-word.
S: Wow, that grunt was LOUD.
M: It is morally questionable if I’m being totally honest. Seo Dal-mi was in the dark about her pen pal for some 15 years. Then, another guy is hired to take over the identity and makes her fall in love with him. And then, to add more sugar to the diabetic’s tea, she ends up having to do the business with him.
Let me break it down again for our increasing discomfort; a lonely young teenager is tricked by her grandmother and another teenager into a friendship that lasts for over 15 years. Then that secret friend finds another stranger under the same name and sets him up with her. This amount of deception is outrageous and is shown to be way too acceptable under the guise of “but his intentions were never wrong.” In that sense, most robbers just want to live a comfortable life!
S: That is an outrageous but interesting analogy…
M: There are way too many flaws along the way. I agree with what you said about Dal-mi and In-jae’s dynamic. All that, combined with the fact that Dal-mi is just awkward around her estranged mother, who left her and her father for money, is outrageous. There is no one scene where she expresses her discontent, insecurity or even hatred towards them for leaving her by herself, as she struggled with her father’s death and her ailing grandmother. I would have kicked my brother in the nuts if he had abandoned me for 15 years without leaving a trace.
S: One of the most emphasised aspects of the show was relationships. Would you like to share your thoughts on Samsan?
M: I would not get on the business side of it. Instead, I would like to dive into the relationships and the people surrounding our main characters. The writers tried their best to show Nam Do-san’s friends to be one person divided into two. Just when we were getting into a little dramatic territory with Kim’s personal agenda and Lee’s reservations about their company’s shareholding tactics, the drama is immediately cut off with some goofy music and some lacklustre acting.
S: Okay, yes, this. Yong-san had a dark secret, but half of the time, it didn’t seem like it. Like the writers just wanted to add some dimension to the character but never followed through with it properly. They wanted to make a plot twist with the acquihire so that they could add that cliche, heart-wrenching and completely unnecessary break between the leads. His dynamic with Han and the underlying tragedy doesn’t hit as hard as they should have.
The time is lost, but opinions shall be found again and again whenever there is a need or lack thereof. For it is the age of the internet and freedom of speech. A bit too much freedom at times, where stupidity and insolence coincide together to suppress logical reasoning into the black hole of “If it doesn’t affect me, it doesn’t matter.”
S: Closing statement? And, can we expect you to try another K-Drama?
M: As I have already gone around the details quite a bit, I will give a simplified take of what I have been saying. The editing and cinematography are top-notch. Despite my various nit-picking about the atmosphere looking too superficial, I have come to accept that this show and K-dramas, in general, serve a different purpose visually. This is a fact that I will respect no matter what.
I would also like to point out the importance of sound in the visual medium. In light of various narrative flaws, the voice modulation of actors combined with the background score never feels unnecessary. Say, for example, Han is pouring his heart out to our favourite grandmother; the music just seamlessly flows through the scene without interrupting the heartfelt nature of the events unfolding before us.
Overall, it may be said that, even though I reached the peak of my patience numerous times while navigating the world of K-Dramas, I had a good time. It was harmless, for the most part, given that my brain had taken a toll as I fought against my default sceptic wiring in order to write this piece with you. And for this, I am truly grateful for the experience.
As for the other question, HELL NO!
S: Okay, so I liked how we could agree on certain points (read: all), but I would just like to add that regardless of all the flaws, Start-Up is a show that is worth investing in emotionally and holds a firm ground in terms of plot, at least until the first half. So I would like to urge anyone who hasn’t watched it to do so for a light watch packed with killer visuals.
M: Also, what was the creators’ intention of keeping Han Ji-pyeong in the frame while Dal-mi was having intimate conversations with Nam Do-san and/or her grandmother? That is beyond creepy! He just lurks around like an owl on land, and nobody notices him? Is he what you call an “emotional cuck”?!
S: That will be all.
M: My friend Istihad says K-dramas are the Korean equivalent of Star Jalsha serials.
S: …Thank you for your time.
Nothing is certain apart from a few things; the “fixed rate” signs around Bashundhara City being utterly useless, the new daylight savings in the United States, and the writers’ opinions at the end of this rather self-hating piece of literary undertaking. However, there is always light at the end of the tunnel; at least, that is what helped those boys and their coach escape the cave in Thailand. Following that pattern of misplaced optimism, we have heard rumours that Masud has added Twenty Five, Twenty One to his watchlist.
Never say never…