K-drama review: Love and business are keys to ‘Start Up’ success

Bae Suzy and Nam Joo-hyuk in ‘Start Up.’ Handout

Seo Dal-mi (Heo Jung-eun) and her elder sister In-jae (Lee Re) parted ways in their early teens when their parents divorced. Dal-mi stayed with their father (Kim Joo-hun) who quit his job and struggled to start his own web-based business. In-jae went with their mother (Song Seon-mi) who married a rich man and migrated abroad.

Fifteen years later, Dal-mi (Bae Suzy) was an ambitious young woman who longed to own her own business despite being university dropout and earning below minimum wage. In-jae, now using her step-father’s surname Won, was the CEO of her own cosmetics company. One day, the two sisters meet again in a seminar at the Sandbox, a company owned by Yoon Seon-hak (Seo Yi-sook) who supported promising start-ups by young entrepreneurs.

As a young girl, Dal-mi did not take her parents’ divorce too well. So her grandmother, corn-dog store owner Choi Won-deok (Kim Hae-sook), asked Han Ji-pyeong (Nam Da-reum), a poor, homeless, but very intelligent teenage boy who she allowed to stay in her home, to pretend to be Math Olympiad champion Nam Do-san (Kim Kang-hoon) and become penpals with Dal-mi, a friendship which lasted for a whole year.

Fifteen years later, Ji-pyeong was a millionaire hotshot CEO of his own investment firm called SH Venture Capital. Meanwhile, the real Do-san (Nam Joo-hyuk) was a brilliant AI developer who founded his own company Samsan Tech with his friends Lee Chul-san (Yoo Su-bin) and Kim Yong-san (Kim Do-wan), but could not get it off the ground business-wise. This was much to the chagrin on Do-san’s frustrated parents (Kim Won-hae and Kim Hee-jung).

When I first saw the title of this K-drama, it sounded dry, and did not really did not attract my attention. However, by the second week, when the fourth episode had been aired, there had been significant positive word of mouth about it already on social media, which tempted me to give it a try. By that time, I just watched the finale of another K-drama, and was looking for an currently ongoing series to follow, and this one quickly got me hooked from Episode 1.

Of all the six K-drama series I had finished so far, this was probably the Episode 1 with the most emotional highlights right off the bat. Don’t be surprised if you will be tearing up in at least three scenes before this pilot ends. It certainly made sure we came back for the second episode and get thoroughly hooked into its story and lovable characters.

Aside from the cute romantic triangle story, there were very interesting subject matters at its core — cutting-edge image recognition technology (and its applications for the visually impaired or self-driving cars), and management of businesses in development.

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There are scenes of slapstick comedy, mostly care of Yoo Su-bin (as Do-san’s excitable friend) and Kim Won-hae (as Do-san’s exasperated father), when they would throw tantrums, chase people around or have drunken rants. However, it was those subtler and more symbolic comic moments that made this series quite funny.

These delightful moments were best seen in the turning point Episode 7, when the love triangle long brewing among the three lead characters became more clearly defined — a situation that got full-blown by Episode 8, sparking fans to pick their own “ships”, and climaxed in an awesome cliffhanger in Episode 9.

Practically any moment with Kim Hae-sook’s precious Mrs. Choi can make you teary-eyed from Episode 1 all the way to Episode 16. She was the dramatic heart of the whole series as it was her character who bound all the characters together with a such rich arc. I had seen her before in the 2012 crime action film “The Thieves” (now also on Netflix) where her portrayal of senior con-woman Chewing Gum won her awards. I will not be surprised when Kim will also be cited as Best Supporting Actress for her role here come awards season.

By Episode 12, I had a feeling this could have been a good ending. It was not happy, but everyone had learned their lesson, sacrificed for love and moved on. However, by Episode 13, things went fast-forward by three years and so did the fortunes of all the characters. Episode 14 may have started off pretty rough for everyone, but the intense rivalry between the two male leads persisted. By Episode 15, Dal-mi appeared to have already made her choice, a decision which I am sure was met by dismay for supporters of the other contender. The finale reconnected friends and families as expected from light dramas like this.

In its 16 episodes, we learned about angel investors, hackathons, key men, burn rates, aqhiring, elevator speeches, and minimum viable products. We ogled over their flashy Mercedes cars, foldable Samsung smartphones and Desker tabletops.

Ultimately, this engaging series made us care about the three main characters enough to make our own decisions as to how we want their love story to end. Whether this series ended the way we wanted it or not, we know that their inspiring story of ambition and scaling up had entertained us well every weekend over the past two months.

This review was originally published in the author’s blog, “Fred Said.”

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