Title: Age of Youth
Country of Origin: South Korea
Written by: Park Yeon Seon
Number of episodes: 12
Starring: Han Ye-Ri, Han Seung-yeon, Park Eun-bin, Ryu Hwa-young, Park Hye-Soo
Age of Youth is a drama that reminded me of one of those montages where a little child is running across a dandelion field in the late afternoon and the sun is casting this hazy sheen over the video while indie acoustics is playing in the background. It just makes you feel inspired and warm and content on the inside. AoY just has these lovely moments of friendship and unconditional support woven throughout that were so heartwarming and hopeful. Couple that with immersive acting, a brilliant indie rock and pop soundtrack*, and a story that defies stereotypes and you have a gem among kdramas and a serious contender for my favorite TV show of 2016.
Over a mere length of 12 episodes, it follows the lives of five 20 something year old girls who live in the Belle Epoque together.
I felt like this drama truly gives life to the term, “slice of life”, because the viewer is only following these girls for a short period of time (a year?) and not all the storylines are wrapped up neatly in the end. You get the sense that you are peeking in at only one part of their lives and it feels as though they’ve had a life before the drama started and they will have a life after the drama has ended and that speaks to how rich and nuanced these characters. This is true despite the fact that these girls’s families are rarely mentioned–a rarity in a kdrama. There are only hints sprinkled throughout about their families and it’s all that’s needed to glimpse their character and interpret the rest for yourself.
I didn’t get a sense of all of these girls until maybe I had watched the first three episodes but once I did, I came to adore them as though they were my dearest friends. There is Kang Yi Na, who sleeps with wealthy men for money and is haunted by a mysterious past; Jung Ye-Eun who is your traditional girly-girl who is loving and loyal to her boyfriend, Yoon Jin Myung who works two part time jobs in order to pay for school, Song Ji-Won who is the brash and flirty mediator of the group, and Yoo Eun-Jae who is shy and reserved and newcomer to the group.
I was so impressed with how much the drama was able to follow each girl in her own story with an almost equal amount of screentime for each; some of their stories had a bit of a mystery element to them as it was slowly revealed what their past is. There’s also a hint of the supernatural (one of the roommates supposedly sees ghosts) and although it is jarring it does tie the girls’ stories together. I was as equally impressed by the way that the emotional topics explored were done in an exceptionally unexpected and interconnected way. I have to give part of that credit to these actresses because they didn’t just play these characters; they became the characters. They wore their vulnerability so openly that you can’t help but feel for them. I loved all their storylines but my favorites would have to be Yoon’s and Kang’s. Yoon is an example of how realistic this drama is and how much better off it is because of that.
Because of her 2 part time jobs and her dedication to her studies, she rarely spends time with the other girls and the drama actually shows that! She is reserved and no nonsense but finds herself enduring things like abusive bosses and missed buses as just another obstacle to face. She believes her suffering will become rewards in the end. Kang is more of your carpe diem character. She is resourceful and blunt and would probably have been characterized as the “bitch” in any lesser drama and given a cliche and disrespectful story arc but she doesn’t let anyone judge her for the way she lives her life or her sexuality and the drama has a lovely development arc for her that doesn’t sacrifice who she is as a character.
Although each girl has a journey to find her own agency, a lot of their storylines parallel each other. Each episode follows a theme of sorts and each episode ends with interviews from the characters regarding the events of the episode so we get to see more of their inner thoughts. There are jealousies and petty fights as seen with Jung and her constant jealousy over Yi Na’s beauty. In any other kdrama, I feel as though these girls would have been pitted against each other as enemies but AoY is so much smarter than that and sees that you don’t have to only have a one-sided view of someone because that’s just not human and that doesn’t have to change the fact that they will both support each other in the end. This mixed bag of emotions just makes them more relatable and dynamic.
AoY explores a number of different topics: poverty, familial duty, envy, friendship, abusive relationships and, of course romantic love. I love my love stories. I truly do but I loved the fact that romantic love came second in this drama. I love that these girls’ aspirations are not just an added bonus for getting the guy or just something that’s conveniently solved for them because they suffered and were “good girls”. Like oh the rich guy who I just ended up with just paid for my bakery startup or whatever. These dreams had weight to them because these girls had to achieve them and there was an uncertainty about their dreams that felt honest and genuine to their age. Although AoY is at heart a lighthearted drama, it delves into its more serious and nuanced drama head on and although sometimes it felt offputting, it never loses its tone, consistency of the characters or their friendships with each other.
This year seems to be the revival year for Korean dramas for me. I’ve lavishly praised Descendants of the Sun and Signal but this one just spoke to me. It spoke to me in the ways I remember college and all the uncertainties and hope that came with and is still with me in my 20’s. It is unabashedly centered on female stories and their friendships and unabashedly unafraid of showing the slow details of daily life living with roommates. And of course, its nuanced and realistic in depth exploration of difficult topics makes it stand out as one of the best.