K-drama review: 'Record of Youth' takes us behind the glamour of Korean showbiz

Fred Hawson

Posted at Oct 29 2020 11:55 AM

Park Bo-gum stars in the series "Record of Youth." Handout

So far, I had only completed five K-drama series. The first four had been high-profile and popular titles, all having a heavy underlying topic behind the drama and comedy, be it North Korea, serial murder, inter-dimensional intrigue o mental illness. In contrast, this fifth K-drama I just finished was considerably more restrained and lower key, tackling a much lighter, less sensational topic -- the world of modeling and acting. 

The central character of "Record of Youth" is Sa Hye-jun (Park Bo-gum). He gained moderate success as a model, but was not able to translate this into a an acting career, so he had to take on several other menial jobs to get by. He had two very good friends -- Won Hae-hyo (Byeon Woo-seok), a fellow model-actor who came from a rich family with an aggressively supportive mother Kim Yi-young (Shin Ae-ra); and Kim Jin-u (Kwon Soo-hyun), a struggling photographer's assistant who was secretly dating Hae-hyo's law student sister Hae-na (Jo Yoo-jung). 

Hye-jun came from a working class family -- his father Young-nam (Park Soo-young) was a carpenter, while his mother Ae-suk (Ha Hee-ra) was a housekeeper in Hye-hyo's house. His elder brother Gyeong-jun (Lee Jae-won) was the favored son, a university graduate and a banker. Hye-jun shared a bedroom with their grandfather Min-gi (Han Jin-hee), a man blessed with good looks but no fortune to speak of. On Hye-jun's encouragement, Min-gi would later enroll in a modeling school for senior citizens.

Ahn Jeong-ha (Park So-dam) was working as a make-up artist when she first met Hye-jun (for whom she was a big fan) and Hae-hyo (who was her first celebrity assignment). After several encounters, she eventually became Hye-jun's girlfriend, but still maintained a close friendship with Hae-hyo at the same time. She had a stormy relationship with her mother, and felt closer to her father, a talented artist who could not support his family when she was young. She was an independent thinker when it came to decisions about her career path. 

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Hye-jun was the first and only client of Lee Min-jae (Shin Dong-mi), the neophyte CEO of Jjampong Management Agency. The ruthless Lee Tae-su (Lee Chang-hoon) was Hye-jun's bitter former manager, and was now the manager of the ill-mannered star Park Do-ha (Kim Gun-woo), who was insecure of Hye-jun. Kim Su-man (Bae Yoon-kyung) was a cutthroat gossip columnist who brought up Hye-jun's skeletons, like his past relationship with gay fashion designer Charlie Jung (Lee Seung-joon). Jung Ji-a (Seol In-ah) was Hye-jun's ex-girlfriend who later became his lawyer. 

I first saw Park Bo-gum as genius Go champion Choi-taek in "Reply 1988" (2015), and he had certainly polished up a lot since then. Park So-dam caught international attention by being in the cast of Oscar Best Picture "Parasite" as the crafty daughter Ki-jung (alias Jessica). Their acting style, as well as everyone else's in this series, was very understated. There was no shouting or hysterics at all. Dramatic highlights consisted only of quiet, subdued crying scenes at most, and nothing more. But that was why this series felt so real and relatable.

The series brought us behind the sheen of the Korean showbiz, away from all the glamour and glitz, beauty salons and Pilates sessions, fan adulation and awards nights. It tackled topics like professional rivalries, loss of privacy, negative effects on family and personal relationships, timing of mandatory military service, buying followers on Instagram, etc. It dealt about how tabloid reporters come up with scandal stories, how social media can become toxic for celebrities, and how managers work for damage control. 

This series also devoted significant time to tackle family issues about sacrifice and gratitude, grudges and forgiveness between generations. There was a special focus on father-son relationships which was not always an easy topic to present in dramas. The love story was in there of course, but it never felt like the main focus. The main point was more about the process of individual growth and attainment of personal happiness for all the characters. 

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."