“I’m betting we will not finish this series unscathed” – I wrote this on my First Impression notes about Twenty-Five, Twenty-One not knowing that it was a premonition of some sort of how this series would turn out. At that time, there were a lot of routes available for the plot to go. One of them, of course, was the ending we got.
But before we walked down that tunnel-of-doom ending, we got a very promising beginning. A somewhat hopeful one that deluded us from the very obvious possibility that the characters we love would make decisions that would break our hearts into million little pieces.
At the start of the series, we met the main characters of Twenty-Five, Twenty-One during their “Point As” in their lives. The showrunners used a global crisis (the IMF) as the backdrop to introduce these bunch of young-bloods who are trying to wade through the times despite uncertainties and doubts. They also used a framed narrative where we watched the story unfold through the eyes of Kim Min-chae (Choi Myung-bin), the daughter of our main heroine Na Hee-do. There were parallels between the present and past timelines like both Hee-do and Min-chae were experiencing growing pain while the world itself is in pain (a financial crisis in the 90s and the health crisis in the present timeline). And I’m pointing this out because as it turned out, the present Hee-do was letting Min-chae read her diaries. After all, she knew that her story might help her daughter reignite the fire in her chosen passion. Present Hee-do knows how her past was filled with passionate memories of friendship and love. She’s a calm and rational adult but the eighteen-year-old Hee-do was very different.
Hee-do has an energetic and chaotic personality that even though she was experiencing a slump in her fencing career, her perseverance to reach her life goal remained intact. That’s why when the said times presented an opportunity to her, Hee-do was ready to grab it. She’s a risk-taker but some of her decisions were seen as reckless by adults around her – her mom included. Coach Yang Chan-mi (Kim Hye-eun) became her mother of some sort, giving her bits of fencing advice that she could apply to her life as well but it’s still different from having a hands-on parent. Her relationship with her mom, Shin Jae-kyung (Seo Jae-hee), and her upbringing contributed a lot to how she looked at things and her eventual decisions in the future. Hee-do and Jae-kyung really have different personalities and her recklessness was just one of the things they couldn’t agree on. But being reckless isn’t really a bad thing. They showed just that in Hee-do’s growth as a fencer. From attacking her opponents recklessly to being tactical with her moves, Hee-do was able to tame her passionate heart into a flame controllable enough that she wouldn’t get burned in the end. Her journey wasn’t easy but she was one tenacious character.
And this character was perfectly played by actress Kim Tae-ri. I was really amazed at how she transformed into this young character with such natural animated gestures and loudness; traits that were different from her previous roles. She was very convincing as Hee-do that I would sometimes forget she’s actually older than Nam Joo-hyuk in real life. She acted and breathed like how an eighteen-year-old would. As her character gets older, she also shed, little by little, the youthful naiveté of Hee-do and wore expressions that of someone who learned her lessons. I like how she portrayed those changes and still maintains how passionate Hee-do could be about everything.
And Hee-do’s passion was really contagious that even the jaded Baek Yi-jin (Nam Joo-hyuk) couldn’t help but be in awe of her. Unlike Hee-do, the times they were in took away everything from Yi-jin. He was living to survive and nothing else. But as he spent time with Hee-do, he learned that he could still steal some happy moments for himself albeit, temporarily. If Hee-do’s character arc is dreamy, Yi-jin’s journey is grounded in reality. Becoming a reporter was never in Yi-jin’s plan but since it was what he currently does, he learned to love it anyway. He didn’t become as recklessly passionate as Hee-do but he did what he could do to be the best in his newfound path. It’s like what they say about life, it’s either you do what you love (Hee-do and fencing) or love what you do (Yi-jin and newscast).
Nam Joo-hyuk showed the contrast between his character and Tae-ri’s by adding nuances to his portrayal. The subtleness in Yi-jin’s actions amplifies how troubled his character was as compared to the optimism in Hee-do’s actions. And can I just add that he definitely mastered the art of giving the “look of love” to his acting partner. The sparks are there even if the romantic tone in most of their scenes is intentionally being subdued. I was really enjoying the slow-burn pace of their relationship. And I was being patient with them so when they finally got together, the wait was really worth it. But then I noticed something on their individual arcs that made me eventually realized that this was a romance that wouldn’t end in the way I wanted it to.
Looking back, I realized that Hee-do and Yi-jin were really walking on two different paths from the start. Their paths met but it was bound to separate at some point again. It was, I think, because they were individually growing at the same time but never really together. They inspired each other to be the best and they became each other’s strength in their lowest of moments. But as both of their paths grew wider, so as the distance between them. And as they realized it at that bus stop scene in the finale, there’s a limit on their connection, and accepting it was the best choice at that moment. Their love wasn’t reaching the other anymore. Their paths were going on different trajectories and they couldn’t hold to each other any longer. Unless, of course, one of them gave in and changed his/her life’s trajectory for the other. But as I’ve said, Hee-do and Yi-jin both love what they do at that moment (and yes, even Yi-jin whose job forced him to tell the most tragic of stories and even “betray” his friends).
I think that was the reason why it didn’t work for them like how it worked for Ko Yu-rim (Bona/Kim Ji-yeon) and Moon Ji-woong (Choi Hyun-wook). Compared to Hee-do and Yi-jin, Ji-woong was very much willing to wait and give in to Yu-rim at any moment. I’m not saying this way of love is better than the other. I brought it up because the dynamic between the lovelines was similar and different at the same time. It’s like two tales about first loves – one survived the test of time while the other becomes a cautionary tale about regrets and should-have-beens.
Romantic elements aside, what I really enjoyed about this series is how it presented the different life stories of its characters. The scenes are nostalgic and very cinematic on sequences they wanted to highlight (such as Hee-do’s important fencing matches). The dialogues were written in a way that hit you right in the core because of their truthfulness. At the same time, the characters would utter words that would give you comfort and assurance that all will be well in the end. And aside from Hee-do and Yi-jin, this series also introduced us to other characters we cried with and cheered for.
Firstly, there was Ko Yu-rim. Yu-rim was hated by some because her actions were misunderstood. She might be a gold medalist fencer but we oftentimes forget that she’s also just an eighteen-year-old girl like Hee-do. So she was really bound to make mistakes like how she unintentionally painted Hee-do in a bad light after the latter won the gold medal. Her money/poverty plight had been an overused scenario in other series but the difference with Yu-rim is that she’s really honest about it. In one of her scenes, she straightforwardly said that she’s fencing because of money – and that’s the case for some people in real life too. They do what they do to earn a living because not everyone is privileged enough to have a financial safety net and just pursue their dreams without any worries. But Yu-rim wasn’t really a villain in this story and I’m glad she got a good redemption arc; one that ended with a beautiful friendship with Hee-do and a romantic relationship with Ji-woong. She is someone who inspires people like how she inspires Ji-woong to be the best in whatever he chose to do and how she is Hee-do’s life goal. Hee-do’s dream of becoming Yu-rim’s rival actually contradicts what other series tell us about competing with oneself. Instead, Hee-do and Yu-rim showed a healthy competition could really motivate a person to do her best.
Such motivation is what Ji Seung-wan (Lee Ju-myoung) was looking for. She was essentially “bored” with her current life. That’s why she thinks it is fun hanging out with someone like Ji-woong and eventually with Hee-do, Yu-rim, and her sunbae Yi-jin. With them, she could worry about something that she could be in control of. Seung-wan is an idealist but the problematic world could be too much for a young girl to handle. Her eventual breakdown was my favorite subplot in this series. Among her friends, Seung-wan was the most certain about her life path and has enough skillset (intelligence and attitude) to do what she wanted. But instead of easily passing the college test and just going to the path that everyone expect her to go, Seung-wan chose to make a detour. She’d rather take the longer route to her dreams than give up her beliefs and stances. But I wonder though why she ended up in the entertainment department of a broadcasting station and not in the news like Yi-jin. It wasn’t exactly explained nor explored like how some things were left hanging in the last episode. And this part was what I’m a bit disappointed about more than the lack of “romantic endgames”.
There were some things introduced in the plot that didn’t really have a resolution by the end of the series. There were scenes shown that we never got an explanation for, mostly in the present timeline. We didn’t see why in one of the scenes Hee-do’s mother was lying in bed and Hee-do was assuring her they will survive it. Was the health scare due to old age or did her mother contract an illness? It was never expounded. And another question left unanswered was WHO IS KIM MIN-CHAE’S DAD? I tried to justify their decision not to show this part because I’m aware that the present timeline is more about Min-chae getting back her passion for ballet again through her mom’s story. BUT STILL. We could have got a name or a brief story. Actually, at some point in this series, I thought the writer was trying to replicate Reply series’ husband-guessing game, which is a bit frustrating because I didn’t sign up for that. But anyway, I feel like I’m in the minority who really didn’t expect a full-blown happy ending for this series. I was treating this more of a coming-of-age / slice-of-life drama than a romance series so somehow, I didn’t really hold onto getting a happily-ever-after. But I totally understand why people who do want an “endgame” for Hee-do and Yi-jin felt so disappointed with the ending.
Believe me, I also like the dynamic of these two characters and those two ending up happily together would have made this series twice as good. They could have been one of the best slow-burn romances out there but alas, they weren’t really meant for each other in the writer’s mind. We could blame the writer all we want but at the end of the day were just mere audience listening to a story she wanted to tell.
And I think, this is the story she wanted to convey – everything in life passes, be it bad moments or good ones. And that there were always moments that would forever haunt us. Because there were words we should have said at that time but we didn’t. There were things we should have chosen but we didn’t. Just like the old Hee-do, we go on with our lives with those kinds of regrets in our hearts. Twenty-Five, Twenty-One are about the moments when Hee-do, Yi-jin, and the rest of their friends lived passionately; moments that were brief but memorable; moments that they could never ever get back even if they badly wanted to.
-This is why I have this “silly” advocacy of putting the right genre labels on K-drama. If we use the “romance” tag as if it was a book then we would have known from the start what to expect. But for now, I’m tagging this series (and other dramas with no HEA) as a non-romance series in case my fellow book-readers-Kdrama-enthusiasts are looking for romance-certified K-dramas.
– The dialogues are superb and no one should deny that even if they hate the ending to the core. And I’ll still look forward to the next series of Kwon Do-eun writernim.
-That Barro search engine at the end!!! I miss Search WWW.
-Kim Hui-seong’s reincarnation is Min-chae’s dad. That’s the only headcanon I’ll accept.
-The ending of 2521 gave me the same “feels” when I read the ending of Rainbow Rowell’s YA novel, Eleanor & Park.