One of this year’s most exciting dramas, Start-Up starring Nam Joo-hyuk, Bae Suzy, Kim Seon-ho, and Kang Han-na concluded this month. The show focused on a group of entrepreneurs trying to make it big in Sandbox – South Korea’s equivalent of Silicon Valley. Going in, I thought the show would focus solely on the themes of creativity, innovation, and the startup culture in Korea. However, the show chose to keep its focus on the relationships and friendships our protagonists built on their journey to success and became a heartwarming winter hit.
Start-Up begins with the story of two kids—Seo Dal-mi and Han Ji-pyeong—whose lives are torn apart by financial struggles. As they become pen-pals and comfort each other, the common thread between them is Dal-mi’s grandmother (Kim Hae-sook), who is a parental figure in Ji-pyeong’s life as well, except Dal-mi and Ji-pyeong never really meet. Years later, when Ji-pyeong (Kim Seon-ho) is a successful investor in startups and Dal-mi (Bae Suzy) is a struggling entrepreneur, they meet again, but with a lot of complications.
This friendship between Dal-mi and Ji-pyeong becomes the foundation for the entry of Nam Do-san (Nam Joo-hyuk) in the story—a math whiz whose name Ji-pyeong saw in the paper and took on as his pseudonym while writing to Dal-mi. An interesting case of mistaken identities takes place, which is both hilarious initially, and heartbreaking when the truth comes to light. A solid love triangle commences between Dal-mi, Ji-pyeong, and the real Do-san, who is pretending to be the person who wrote to Dal-mi.
Perhaps the biggest strength of Start-Up is that it packs a well-balanced dose of humor, heartbreak, warmth, and journeys of self-reflection in a compact little show. It is not the best writing I’ve ever seen, but it sure was highly enjoyable because of the characters and the dynamics. The humor in the show was fresh and millennial. Do-san and Ji-pyeong’s territorial mini-wars to impress Dal-mi injected some hilarious sequences into the plot. In that way, Nam Joo-hyuk’s comic chemistry with Kim Seon-ho was as impressive as his romantic one with Suzy.
The relationship between Do-san and Dal-mi, though not without rocky patches, thoroughly warmed my heart. It is possibly one of the cutest relationship dynamics I have seen in K-dramas. There were all the usual big moments like the hand-holding, the jealousy, the big kiss on the roof, but what stood out was their unconditional support for each other’s dreams. When we begin the show, Dal-mi is trying to compete with her older sister and Do-san has no ambition, but together, they help each other realize their value and self-esteem.
The breakout star of the show is undoubtedly Han Ji-pyeong aka Kim Seon-ho. Based strictly on the writing, Han Ji-pyeong had the potential to be that annoying second lead who is a thorn in the way of the lead couple’s path to happiness. That is why I think it speaks to the sensitivity and sincerity with which Kim Seon-ho portrayed Ji-pyeong that the character rose to become even more popular than the sought-after lead pairing of Nam Joo-hyuk and Suzy. Han Ji-pyeong has forever etched himself in the history books of K-dramaland as the second lead who gave everyone the most acute case of SLS (second lead syndrome).
Post the first time-skip, we suddenly go from Ji-pyeong struggling to make ends meet to him being a rich, successful investor. After giving him such a thorough backstory, the show could have given us a glimpse into his journey to success, how he overcame complete loneliness and financial constraints to get where he is. Instead, all his struggles seem to begin and end with Dal-mi, and that, I felt, was kind of one-dimensional.
A lot of people have joked about it, but as the second lead, Ji-pyeong’s leading lady seemed less like Suzy and more like halmeoni (halmeoni). Ji-pyeong’s seemingly unending sense of gratitude to her, his loneliness, his inability to open up to others when it came to either friendship or relationships made him one of the most interesting and tortured characters of the show. This is why I feel that limiting adult Dal-mi and Ji-pyeong’s relationship to a love triangle was a major missed opportunity. Why the angst had to be so long drawn-put and why could we not see a mature close friendship is beyond me. It’s also especially tragic because all Ji-pyeong seemed to yearn for was belonging – and the show could have given this to him in a solid friendship with Dal-mi.
I’ve never been the biggest fan of Suzy, but she surpassed all my expectations by giving the strongest performance of her acting career so far. From the emotionally fraught scenes to the funny ones, she gave the character of Seo Dal-mi her all and embodied her hopes and heartbreaks fully. Kang Han-na, on the other hand, was criminally underutilized in the show. She was one of the most interesting characters of the show along with Ji-pyeong, but her screen time was limited. I admired her pride and integrity through it all, though.
Another area that the show did a fine job of exploring was Do-san’s imposter syndrome. Nam Joo-hyuk imbued the character with a delicious mix of genius and cluelessness. It was unbelievable to see a genius like Do-san grapple with debilitating self-worth issues, both in his professional life and personal. His journey from living a life and being completely devoid of ambition to slowly finding and trusting himself was incredibly gratifying.
The heart of the show, however, was Kim Hae-sook as Seo Dal-mi’s halmeoni. She served as a guiding light and a resting place for our bumbling youngsters, touching everyone’s lives in her own way – be it Ji-pyeong, Dal-mi, In-jae (Kang Han-na), and even Do-san, for serving as his muse. Even Dal-mi’s mother wasn’t untouched by halmeoni‘s big heart. In the end, underneath all the brouhaha about the humor and the startup culture, the relationships of the show emerged as its strengths – from the connection between Dal-mi and Do-san as well as Ji-pyeong and halmeoni, to SamSan Tech’s bond complimented beautifully by Yoo Su-bin, Kim Do-wan, and Stephanie Lee.
I liked that despite major names like Nam Joo-hyuk and Suzy, there was no main star of the show. It told everyone’s story bit by bit, and gave every supporting character a chance to shine. Although I do think Kang Han-na and Kim Do-wan could have been written better, especially Kim Do-wan, whose backstory about his brother, despite being a major revelation, fell quite flat and seemed forced. The cameos in the show – Kim Joo-hun, Park Bo-young, and Yeo Jin-goo – were excellent and unforgettable and served to elevate the episodes.
Post the time-skip, the focus of the show shifts from innocent dreams to the growth of our protagonists. Despite sailing new heights in their careers, they realize that nothing is more magical than moving beyond monetary gains and working with people who believe in the same things as yourself. For Samsan Tech, this was the vision to help others and make the world a better place. Even Han Ji-pyeong, our tough-talking investor who believed in judging startups on the value they create, seems to have changed his mind by the show’s end.
Overall, my only complaints from the show were the lack of closure we got for Ji-pyeong’s arc, although I doubt Kim Seon-ho is complaining, considering the burst of popularity this character has brought him. I would also have appreciated more Kang Han-na, and a tad bit more focus on the actual startup culture in South Korea. Instead, the business side of the show was often compromised in favor of developing the warmth and the angst. For the most part, however, the show felt like halmeoni‘s warm hug in the middle of winter and I’m glad I decided to watch it.