Twenty-Five Twenty-One Review

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[Contains Spoilers]

Twenty-Five Twenty-One, a coming-of-age romantic Korean drama, delivered a comedic-yet-touching storyline about aspirations, developing relationships, and maturing as a person. It has received much praise and has already developed a bustling fan base since its debut on February 12 on Netflix, originally from tvN network in South Korea. The drama centers around Na Hee-Do (Kim Tae-Ri), a young, aspiring fencer who begins her journey towards playing professionally; Baek Yi-Jin (Nam Joo-Hyuk), an ambitious rookie reporter and the eldest son of a formerly wealthy family who acts as a close friend and later on a love interest to Hee-Do; and the struggles these individual characters face in adapting to their ever-changing lives. The show integrates realistic acting, character development, and emotional scenes, delivering a memorable and compelling show overall.

The drama itself is the backstory of Hee-Do and is told through her daughter, Kim Min-Chae (Choi Myung-Bin) as she reads her mother’s diaries from the past. It begins when Min-Chae, after quitting ballet, discovers Hee-Do’s diaries at her grandmother’s house from when her mother was younger. The audience is then taken into a flashback into the late ‘90s, the story revolving around young Na Hee-Do’s journey as an aspiring fencing prodigy trying to find her way to success after her fencing team had disbanded due to the IMF Crisis in South Korea, a period when previously wealthy conglomerates that controlled much of the country’s thriving economy were forced into bankruptcy due to overborrowing and poor management. Hee-Do’s story of grit and youth inspires the audience and encourages Min-Chae to find her own passion for ballet.

When they first meet in the K-drama, Hee-Do has a heated fencing rivalry with Ko Yu-Rim (Bona). However, the two eventually become close friends, and Hee-Do goes on to develop friendships with others such as Ji Seung-wan (Lee Joo-myung), the down-to-earth class president, and popular student Moon Ji-Woong (Choi Hyun-Wook). These high school friends form a close-knit friend group along with Baek Yi-Jin, already an adult. Both witty and comical, the friend group never fails to deliver playful get-together scenes or amusing banter. The acting from each character never feels forced; rather, it is naturally produced and brings the characters to life.

The scenes of hardship might strike particularly hard for viewers. When Yi-Jin swore to never be happy again after a group of distraught creditors arrive and express their sorrows of losing money from the time Yi-Jin’s family went bankrupt, it is impactful and powerfully heart-wrenching for the audience. Scenes such as these convey recurring themes of hardship that help create a distinctly piercing drama, afflicted with both the warm feelings of youth and bittersweet maturation.

The show’s quality is further enhanced by the individual arcs of its characters. For example, although Ko Yu-Rim is initially disliked for being rude towards Hee-Do, a fellow fencer, her character develops through a series of suspenseful conflicts between her and Hee-Do, eventually prompting her to apologize to her. Yu-Rim becomes a fan favorite when she becomes a compassionate friend rather than a bitter rival fencer. 

Baek Yi-Jin, a clumsy character well-liked for being considerate and respectful, is a unique character such that he doesn’t follow a typical K-drama head-strong male stereotype who knows what he wants to do in life or has a stable career. In truth, the only thing he holds constant is gravity. Despite not being daring enough to act on his goals at first, he is inspired by Hee-Do’s perseverance and consequently chases his own dreams of being a news reporter and reuniting with his dispersed family. Each character’s individual story is a story of perseverance, and the audience is able to learn something from each character’s stories—to have passion and vision like Hee-Do in her fencing practicing scenes, or to stand up for what is right like Ji Seung-Wan did when she chose to be expelled in protest of a teacher hitting Moon Ji-Woong.

Although popular for its both comical and touching scenes, Twenty-Five Twenty-One leaves audiences aching with its dramatic break-up between Na Hee-Do and Baek Yi-Jin when they have an argument, fueled by years spent in a long-distance relationship with Yi-Jin reporting from New York during the 9/11 crisis and Hee-Do busy with fencing at various competitions. The break-up seemed unreasonable because the relationship shattered without the theme of maturation reaching a complete circle: both characters met at low points in their lives, matured together, yet their break-up was justified by tragic events, misunderstandings, and trauma. It was an ending that was too contrasting to the light, warm vibes from earlier points in their relationship and leaves many previously hinted-at resolutions from fans without any hope of ever coming to fruition.

A well-written rom-com, coming-of-age drama doesn’t need to be excessively unrealistic to convey its message and amuse the audience. Twenty-Five Twenty-One delivers a balance of comic relief, touching moments, and close relationships that is believable to viewers and conveys a message that while nothing lasts forever, the journey in maturing is what makes life worthwhile. Although its ending was unsatisfactory to many, the drama is nevertheless unique, entertaining, and memorable.

Artwork by Annie Park and Andy Chen