“Good luck. You’ll need it.”
Slice of life may be humdrum, but when done right, it could be the most realistic and relatable drama ever. That’s the case with Age of Youth.
Such quality was built through straightforward storytelling, grounded characters, and ordinary events. Some may think it’s too prosaic, but for me that’s a strength instead — it shines in its simplicity. Some say they watch dramas to escape reality, and while that’s also my sentiment, the lifelike nature of Age of Youth was what pulled me in — i could identify with the people and the situations they’re in.
Not gonna lie; when dramas are too true to life, it could be too painful to watch. But the opposite is true as well; when dramas are too over the top, it could also be hard to watch — when i cannot connect with the characters, when i have to suspend my disbelief too much. I would therefore choose the former over the latter any day. That explains my tendency to being so engrossed in slice-of-life series like Misaeng, Juhan Shuttai!, and now this.
If Misaeng was dubbed “The Salaryman’s Bible”, Age of Youth could very well be the college student version of that, particularly since the opening hour follows Yoo Eun-jae (Park Hye-soo) as she timidly navigates her way in a new environment — new school, new share house, new people… or so i thought. Subsequent episodes reveal that it’s more about Belle Époque’s housemates than campus life, although they all go to the same university. The five girls have different personalities and lives that Belle Époque is not only their meeting point but also the thing they have in common.
Aforementioned, this series presents realistic stories that you can easily picture it happen for real. Likewise, the characters are so true to life you can relate to or must’ve known someone like them in real life: there’s the quiet soft-spoken type (Eun-jae), the socialite fashionable kind (Kang Yi-na, played by Ryu Hwa-young), the girly gossipy one (Jung Ye-eun, by Han Seung-yeon), the life of the party (Song Ji-won, by Park Eun-bin), and the one busy part-timing (Yoon Jin-myung, by Han Ye-ri). It also portrays diverse styles of romance — the cute, the sweet, the on-again/off-again, the unrequited, the friendzoned — that there’s bound to be something that catches your eye and fits your cup of tea. Dramaland could give me fantasy, fairytale, or whirlwind romance, but in the end, it’s the simple, everyday romance that tugs at my heartstrings the most.
Although populated by relatable people, struggles, and circumstances, that doesn’t mean the plot isn’t dramatized. The girls’ backstories, for one, are pretty far-fetched. The last two episodes are too dramatic for my liking, that the drama ended on a lower note than it started on. However, i like that each of the five has comparable screen time, significance, shining moments, and growth. One of them may be the focus of a given episode, but i never felt that the powers that be favored a certain character. I initially thought Eun-jae was probably the ‘lead’, but i was wrong. All five are the leads, as if it’s an anthology.
That said, i can’t help thinking that Ji-won got the short end of the stick. She’s introduced last and we didn’t get to know her backstory or deepest secrets. Her only worry is when and how she’s gonna have a boyfriend; her only fear is that her one big fat lie troubles her housemates — the show’s only spooky element that essentially forces the inhabitants to face their own ghosts. In the latter half, she experiences ringing ears in often enough occasions for us to question what it is and what causes it, but it’s left unexplained. In an episode’s epilogue interview, she calls out to “Hyo-jin” after being momentarily distracted, but that’s never addressed either. The shortened episodes arguably is the culprit (it’s supposed to be a 16-episode show, and the last nonexistent four would’ve been on Ji-won *groan*), but if that’s the case, they should either work it in somehow or obliterate it altogether. Teasing and then not following it up isn’t a move i can let pass. *still bitter*
Naturally, there are characters i love more than the others. Personality-wise, Ji-won is my favorite, and Park Eun-bin is effortless here, though Jin-myung resonates with me the most. Han Ye-ri’s performance might be muted yet evocative; she kept making me cry. In terms of growth, i liked Yi-na’s best though i identified myself with Eun-jae’s apprehensive beginning closely. It goes without saying that i favored drama-queen Ye-eun the least, but she too has her own circumstances and more going on under her bubbly chatty façade.
In fact, this notion has been established since the first episode, right after Eun-jae’s moment of realization’s musing, which then recapitulated by Ji-won in episode 8: there’s always a reason behind everything — why people behave a certain way, why they do what they do, why they became who they are, and why we thus cannot and should not judge a book only by its cover. Cuz if we are, and seen through Eun-jae’s eyes, then Jin-myung is cold and nitpicky when she’s independent and practical, albeit reserved; Yi-na is selfish when she’s the mama bear, albeit bold; Ye-eun is manipulative and mean when she’s devoted, albeit moody.
I appreciated that the misunderstanding was straightened out quickly, and the girls went from strangers sharing a living space to reliable friends to lean on who swept me along in a short yet momentous phase of their personal, social, and professional journey and made me laugh, cry, giggle, frustrated, and cringe in secondhand embarrassment alongside them for 12 episodes.
Too bad Age of Youth didn’t perform that well in terms of ratings, which was rather unexpected given the amount of online gushing around it, which then made me give it a go. Underdog/workplace/romance drama is possibly more universally attractive to audience at large than youth drama. But then we all know that ratings do not necessarily reflect quality, so it shouldn’t be used to gauge how good or bad a drama is. There are times i found hidden gems in low rated titles, so i hardly pay attention to the numbers.
And Age of Youth is a great drama despite the ratings. Because while a lot of series would be much better with shorter episode count, Age of Youth could actually benefit from having more episodes.
(Yup. I’m totally in the camp which believes the ending was too open to give proper satisfying closures to some issues, though it didn’t negate the fact that it is one of the best dramas i’ve watched this year.)
Director: Lee Tae-gon
Production: JTBC, 2016
Cast: Han Ye-ri, Park Eun-bin, Ryu Hwa-young, Han Seung-yeon, Park Hye-soo, Yoon Park, Son Seung-won, Yoon Jong-hoon, Ji Il-joo, Shin Hyun-soo
Genre: Slice of life, Friendship, Youth romance drama, Mystery, K-drama (12 Episodes)