Itaewon Class stuns international audiences with a powerful message of acceptance

The beautiful adaptation of the popular webtoon reveals Korean society’s changing attitudes

Netflix's Itaewon Class is re-imagining what a Korean drama can be. Courtesy of Netflix

By: Yelin Gemma Lee, Peak Associate

Itaewon Class, a Netflix show based on a webtoon by Jo Kwang Jin, has been steadily gaining popularity since the release of its pilot episode on January 31. I was intrigued to find that friends who have never seen a Korean drama before, as well as people like myself who are typically not a fan of them, were equally absorbed and obsessed with Itaewon Class. I believe the main reason for its success is due to the heart clenching story full of compassion and grit. 

The story follows Se-ro-yi Park, a determined character who refuses to take the easy way out of any situation if it means compromising his core values and beliefs. As a result of this, he becomes subject to many ill circumstances and unjust treatment, eventually becoming a target of a powerful family who runs the most successful pub franchise in the country. The story continues as Se-ro-yi is released from jail and begins his revenge-driven plan: opening up a pub in the vibrant city of Itaewon even with the label of ‘ex-convict’ tagged on his back. He goes on to slowly employ and put together a loyal team of societal misfits he connects with along the way, and together they work towards making his ambitious dreams for the pub a reality. 

Se-ro-yi is a protagonist that you can’t help but respect and root for from beginning to end, and a character that inspires and moves the hearts of people who are discriminated against by society. The characters that join Se-ro-yi’s side include a transgender chef aspiring to be the best in Korea, a retired gang member, a talented sociopath, a Black-Korean character searching for his estranged Korean father, and even the harmless second son of his nemesis. The show’s intolerance for discrimination is made clear through Se-ro-yi’s compassion shown in deeply moving scenes with each of the characters. 

Credit for the quality of the story goes to Jin who quite rarely also wrote the script for the show. As a non-binary, queer South Korean, I never thought I’d see the day when I would be able to watch a Korean drama like this. Not only is it well done, but it’s popularity amongst the citizens of South Korea shows that South Korea is slowly but surely changing, and that the younger generation are starting to demand more equity in representation. I personally felt proud and deeply moved by this show.  

Itaewon Class not only boasts an incredible story, but is pure excellence as a whole. The cast is phenomenal and I was especially impressed with Park Seo-Joon who played the protagonist perfectly, even with its many challengingly emotional and tense scenes. The action shots were engaging, especially contrasted against the everyday scenes showing the vibrancy of Itaewon, and the soundtrack is brilliant. 

The show as a whole is a remarkable masterpiece that should be celebrated not only within the genre of Korean dramas or foreign/subbed shows, but in the realm of shows in general. It holds everything that you could want from watching a show: complex, lovable, flawed characters with compelling personal stories, raw emotion-packed acting, and beautiful cinematography and directing. Above all, this is the first time a show carrying a progressive message has been not only widely accepted and praised in South Korea, but in many other countries around the world as well. Itaewon Class is beautiful, powerful, hopeful, and I’ve never seen anything like it before — it’s an absolute must watch for anyone.