In one of the better shorthands I’ve ever seen to delineate the modern day, “Twenty Five Twenty One” opens with an omnipresent mask wearing covid-screening ahead of a dance competition. We see an entrant decide not to bother upon concluding that she can’t possibly win. Flashback to 1998 and the IMF austerity days. Hee-do (played by Kim Tae-ri) is a passionate high school fencer whose program has just collapsed- and is willing to do whatever it takes to continue her sport.
Fun fact about the name Hee-do- it can be interpreted as white sword, though so far no one has mentioned how her name is spelled in Chinese. It’s a neat detail that compliments the character’s personality nicely. Hee-do is a noble girl who painstakingly renders the ruined pages of the eleventh issue of the original “Full House” comic book. Hee-do also goes out of her way to attack a boy threatening a girl, despite Hee-do herself having nothing more than an umbrella.
Yet Hee-do is also white in the sense that she’s terribly naive. In typical high school teenager logic, Hee-do attempts to get herself expelled from school to try and join a different one that still has a fencing program. Hee-do’s appeals to the stern guidance of Coach Yang (played by Kim Hye-eun) are fantastically goofy and ineffective. Hee-do is an easy character to root for in spite of all this, because her passion is undeniable and even inspiring.
What really makes “Twenty Five Twenty One” Sparkle is the drama’s unapologetic sense of optimism- despite the opening framing device noting that even if Hee-do wins the battle, South Korea lost the war. In the South Korea of today, ambition doesn’t come from the inside. It comes from a desire to impress other people. For all the hardship and frustration, Hee-do fights for her dreams. Hee-do’s story is a very idealistic one, and she gets away with that by being too young to fully go cynical.
“Twenty Five Twenty One” is also helped along by some fairly exceptional direction on the part of director Jung Ji-hyun. The bleak, empty spaces Hee-do constantly runs across emphasizing how South Korea is a land in the grips of depression. Yet Kim Tae-ri positively glows at every possible opportunity, radiating sincere and powerful comic energy whether she’s trying to skewer an apple or mumble out a coherent response amidst anguished, muffled sobbing.
Review by William Schwartz
“Twenty Five Twenty One” is directed by Jung Ji-hyunwritten by Kwon Do-eunand features Kim Tae-ri, Nam Joo-hyuk, Bona, Choi Hyun-wook, Lee Joo-myung, Seo Jae-hee. Broadcasting information in Korea: 02/12/2022~Now airing, Sat, Sun 21:10 on tvN.
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema’s travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea’s public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via email@example.com. He also has a substack at williamschwartz.substack.com where he discusses the South Korean film industry in broader terms and takes suggestions for future movies to review.
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