The Netflix Korean drama Extracurricular (인간수업/Human Class) is a breathtaking and heartbreaking crime thriller that frames familiar contemporary social issues in a gritty, yet twistedly fun haze.
Oh Jisoo (Kim Dong Hee) is a high school student living alone in Seoul who just so happens to be a successful small business owner. That small business just so happens to be a prostitution ring in which he uses social messaging apps and a disguised voice to connect clients with their potential companions for the night as well as maintain contact with one Mr. Lee (Choi Min Soo) who shuttles the young women around and serves as bodyguard when needed.
Jisoo has no qualms about his business. He simply hopes to earn enough money to get himself into a good college and live a normal adult life with a good job. He rejects the idea that he is a pimp and maintains he’s merely providing a safe and secure environment for the consenting adults to meet and hook up.
But his efficient and successful operation begins to spiral out of control when his classmate (and crush), heiress Bae Gyuri (Park Joo Hyun) discovers his secret and begins blackmailing him.
Jisoo is a good student, but has no friends, a deadbeat dad and has regularly been bullied. His quiet and timid nature at school is a clear contrast to the shielded “Uncle” persona he maintains as boss to Mr. Lee and the group of the ladies who provide services to clients.
Gyuri, meanwhile, may be the daughter of rich CEOs. But her life is anything but perfect. Completely planned out for her, yes. But is she happy? Not really. Which is why her stumbling upon Jisoo’s business seems to give her life an exciting change of pace.
Without the illegal prostitution angle, this may be the start of a typical Korean romcom. But truth be told, this is anything but a cute love story. Perhaps, a love story taking place in the shadowy world of illegal prostitution. But the series takes this very simple premise and runs with it and several different directions.
In many ways, Extracurricular is a typical high school/teen angst drama. The series touches on bullying and mental health in teenagers, as well as familial and societal pressures. Some of that pressure also stems from the class divide, another familiar theme.
What makes Extracurricular different, other than a heavier dose of violence than a typical network drama, is that it does not shy away from being blunt about the struggles of everyday young people.
Extracurricular balances its plot and its characters well, allowing characters to grow and develop while consistently furthering the overall story. The character dictate how the story progresses and not the other way around.
There are moral dilemmas aplenty. And you can expect to ponder over them while suddenly finding yourself on the edge of your seat during one of the exciting fight scenes or chuckling at an amusing one-liner or hugging your couch pillow when things get too tense and emotional.
You will most certainly feel a wide range of emotions from sadness to love to frustration to anger to excitement.
And those emotions help fuel what can be an incredibly enlightening view today’s youth and crime.
There are clear arcs in this 10-episode (first season of?) Extracurricular. But as each episode builds tension left and right, each episode also effectively peels back another layer from each of our characters.
And those successive revelations keep the series thoroughly engaging for every minute.
Bringing those characters to life is a perfect cast.
Park Joo Hyun asserts herself as Gyuri, especially as we learn more and more about her homelife and learn more about what kind of a person she can truly be. As the series’ leading lady, she more than carries her own weight and then some. Even when Gyuri’s personality and decisions rile up some not so happy emotions, Park Joo Hyun has a certain magnetic charisma that draws you back in. (Only to get hurt by Gyuri once again, but I won’t spoil any more.)
Jisoo’s youngest employee (and classmate) Minhee can definitely get very frustrating during the series. Jung Da Bin does well in giving Minhee some depth when we finally get to know her beyond simply being a prostitute. Nam Yoon Soo as her boyfriend and Jisoo’s bully Kitae gives off a strong presence that pays off as the series progresses.
Park Hyuk Kwon is definitely a scene stealer as teacher Jo Jinwoo and a welcome, calming presence when everything else begins unraveling.
On the flipside, Choi Min Soo is a quiet, yet commanding presence as Mr. Lee. A force to be reckoned with as bodyguard and life saver, but wise and compassionate as well.
Undoubtedly, Kim Dong Hee is the star of Extracurricular. He, as Jisoo, is the heart and soul of the series. After widely praised supporting roles in two huge dramas (Sky Castle and Itaewon Class), Kim Dong Hee steps out into the spotlight where he delivers an emotionally affecting performance that has you questioning your own morals.
You can easily understand and empathize with Jisoo’s simple dreams. He’s a quiet teenager just wanting to have a normal life. And he found a way to make that dream become a reality. It’s up to the viewer to pass judgment on Jisoo’s choice, but everything is going well for him until his world gets rocked by Gyuri.
As Jisoo’s world begins to come crashing down around him, Kim Dong Hee’s strength and talent as an actor shines brighter and brighter. No doubt he has a big career ahead of him and Extracurricular is just the showcase for him.
The writing allows for you to relate to Jisoo in spite of how right or wrong his business and the actions he takes later on are. But it is Kim Dong Hee who is able to make that final sale (no pun intended) to truly draw you in and maybe even get you on his side.
Jisoo’s world wasn’t so great to begin with. But the emotions that Kim Dong Hee is able to bring to the surface as Jisoo’s world collapses faster and faster is breathtaking to watch.
It might be strange to say, but there is a sort of cathartic experience in watching Extracurricular. Especially during the climactic final episodes.
That is a very odd feeling to have for a series dealing with sex trafficking, teenage bullying and mental health. Not to mention the gory action scenes that are certainly violent, but not necessarily gruesome. (Though that would depend on your personal limits.)
The series begins with Jisoo in a place that is relatively comfortable for him, but certainly morally questionable for everyone else. That begins spiraling out of control after just one moment and every twist and turn after that is rooted from very common and every day struggles of young people and even the public at large.
There’s a little bit of a humbling nature to the series. Humbling in its dark portrait of reality. And a provoking call to be more aware about ourselves and others.
The series presents you all you need to know, in thrilling and fun fashion, to allow you to judge if you like. But ultimately, Extracurricular is a balanced character-driven story that welcomes a peek into these characters’ lives and leaves you with a lot to think about in the end.