Successful at last: Park Seo Joon plays the admirably principled Park Saeroyi in 'Itaewon Class.' Photograph from JTBC
Culture Movies

From Itaewon Class’ Park Saeroyi: 10 lessons on being a leader, and being a man

Stand up for the little people—and other principles from an extraordinary hero television hasn’t seen in a very long time. By ANDREW PAREDES
| Mar 28 2020

He may not have Hyun Bin’s bone structure. And he doesn’t carry his stature with the same mature swagger as the much older Gong Yoo. (He is 6’1” to Gong’s 6 feet flat.) In fact, he spends all 16 episodes of Itaewon Class in a bowl cut.

But there is a quiet, intense self-possession in Park Seo Joon that makes him perfect to play one-of-a-kind hero Park Saeroyi in a K-drama as singular as Itaewon Class. If you wanted to be reductive, you might say that Itaewon Class is Glee crossed with The Count of Monte Cristo, set in the world of Korean restaurant chains. 

Saeroyi stands up to the spoiled son (Ahn Bo Hyun) of a powerful restaurant magnate (Yoo Jae Myung), which gets him expelled from school. The son then turns around and kills Saeroyi’s father (Son Hyeon Ju) in a fit of drunk driving, and Saeroyi beats him up again. Saeroyi is sent to prison for assault, which gives him time to plot the downfall of the rich family that destroyed his life. On the path to executing his plan, he gathers a ragtag group of people in his employ, a band of underdogs united by his unswerving goal.

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The biggest achievement of Itaewon Class—named after the Seoul district known for its pubs and restaurants—is spinning engrossing drama out of the moves and countermoves of business. Just when you think Saeroyi is down for the count, it turns out he’s either plotted his actions ten moves in advance, or made peace with setbacks as long as they don’t force him to contradict his own moral codes. Along the way, the K-drama manages to shine a light on larger social issues like racial discrimination and ignorance on transgender issues, running them through the prism of Saeroyi’s steadfast—his adversary often calls it stubborn—worldview.

Now that Itaewon Class has unveiled its finale, what lessons can we learn from the preternaturally calm Park Saeroyi on being a leader and a man? Here are 10 we were able to glean:

 

Stand up for the little people. 

Even though defending a helpless classmate from Geun Won’s bullying is what started Saeroyi’s troubles in the first place, the lesson he took away from it does not seem to be Mind your own business. His instinctive response is to use his privilege to speak up for those who cannot do so for themselves. While this courage does your character good, it also often reaps benefits in loyalty and unexpected favors, as the series soon shows you. If there’s one thing Itaewon Class reminds you time and time again, it’s that people never forget.

Saeroyi and Geun Won in the fight that started it all. 

Keep your emotions in check. 

This is a lesson Saeroyi did indeed take to heart. While coming to the aid of the defenseless is something he does not seem to regret, he has learned that temper will get you nowhere. This is also another way of saying, Never let them see you bleed. That’s why no matter how much goading he gets from his enemies, Saeroyi’s calmness throws them for a loop. He will only strike when the time is right.

When you do strike, always remember that “A fight is all about the first punch.” Your first move determines the type and severity of the battle you will engage in, so plan your strategy accordingly. If your tactics are underhanded, it won’t do to telegraph your first salvo. Don’t throw the first punch until you have the muscle to carry you through all the way to the throwdown.

 

Invest in people. 

Much to the chagrin of the bratty vlogger (Kim Da Mi) that Saeroyi hires to be his first pub’s manager, Saeroyi refuses to let go of the workers he first hired, no matter how many blunders they commit or how their resignation might make his life easier. That’s because Saeroyi’s tribulations have made him an excellent judge of character, and he realizes that you need constant shining and polishing to get a diamond in the rough to its fullest gleam.

Also, investing in people means empowering them to disagree with you or offering their own point of view. A great leader may know that final decisions will rest upon him, but they shouldn’t stop him from seeking input. Which is why Yi Seo—that bratty vlogger we just mentioned—got to keep her job no matter how much she mouths off to him.

This is a point worth remembering: Invest in your people to the degree that your competitor will want to pirate them—as Saeroyi’s nemesis Chairman Jang tries to do—and support them to the degree that they will always want to stay.

Saeroyi and his team of outcasts.

Be honest. 

Don’t sugarcoat the problem, lay it out as it is. People don’t appreciate being lied to. (This goes out especially to you, Koko Pimentel!) That’s one of the myriad reasons why Yi Seo is so attracted to Saeroyi: Smacking her down for her bullshit is a roundabout sign of respect.

 

Be an inspiration to others. 

Saeroyi’s longtime love Soo Ah (Nara)—who happens to be a top-level executive in Chairman Jang’s behemoth of a restaurant chain—calls him a “shining beacon”. It’s as good a descriptor as any for why Saeroyi inspires such fierce loyalty: His integrity is a sturdy touchstone to them; he is someone they can look to for guidance and support no matter how dark and confusing times may get. They know that the Boss may have to make hard decisions that will affect all of them, but those decisions will never change who he is at his core.

 

Be self-aware. 

You don’t have to second-guess yourself all the time, just be conscious of when you’re becoming a jerk or—even worse—what you vowed to fight against. At their penultimate showdown, when it seemed all was lost, Saeroyi still managed to fire a parting shot at Chairman Jang: He regretted all the years he wasted being consumed by revenge, because all that time spent plotting turned him into a replica of his archrival.

Make space for life’s unpredictability. 

In the finale, Yi Seo has a flashback where she tells Saeroyi that life can be such a chore. Saeroyi takes this opportunity to drop some wisdom on her: After a long day of work, he takes a run around Itaewon, and then he gets up the next morning and does it all over again. And then he makes a subtle reference to the daily grind of prison life, by saying that if he hadn’t persisted with the routine, he wouldn’t have met the inmate who would eventually become his head waiter. Many of us lead lives of everyday humdrum—the trick is to realize that every day always brings something new. So be open and plan accordingly.

Saeroyi with Yi-seo.

Dream big. 

Why settle for going to the moon halfway, when you can opt to stick the landing? Or in Saeroyi’s case, why stop at owning one pub when you can put up a chain to make your adversary shake in his boots? It may take double the time to get there, but the rewards will be twice as sweet.

 

Oh, and chicks dig scars. 

Watch for a sweet moment between Saeroyi and Yi Seo during episode 7 to see what I mean.

 

Photographs from JTBC