Going into tvN’s much-talked about Start Up (스타트업), I was fully aware of the hype and the passionate debate surrounding the series. Usually when a series garners this much attention, it’s easy to have certain expectations about it before ever watching a minute of it. Perhaps because of those expectations, I found myself being pleasantly surprised by what the series actually was. That is, a hopeful and relatable story about family, friends, following your dreams and working to make those dreams a reality.
Start Up begins by introducing us to a young Han Ji Pyeong (Nam Da Reum), an orphan who reluctantly accepts help from Choi Won Deok (Kim Hae Sook). A grandmother, Ms. Choi allows the 17-year-old Ji Pyeong to stay in the backroom of her corndog shop as he figures out how to navigate the real world after leaving the orphanage. Ms. Choi soon enlists Ji Pyeong’s help in befriending her granddaughter Seo Dal Mi (Heo Jung Eun) by becoming a pen pal. However, Ji Pyeong and Ms. Choi agree to have the letters be from a made-up version of child prodigy Nam Do San (Kim Kang Hoon) after seeing his story in the newspaper.
A series of emotional circumstances result in Ms. Choi and Ji Pyeong going their separate ways. Fast forward 15 years later, Dal Mi (Bae Suzy) is now a grown woman in her 20s. After the separation of her parents and her mother and older sister flying to the United States with a new father, Dal Mi is raised by her grandmother while also cherishing the letters from “Do San” who helped get her through the tumultuous years as a teen.
Tired of working part time jobs that are not allowing her to move up the ladder, Dal Mi decides to enter Sandbox, Korea’s Silicon Valley-like startup hub hoping to found her own company. It is here where she will run into a now grown Ji Pyeong (Kim Seon Ho) whom she doesn’t know is the real person behind the letters and her older sister Won In Jae (Kang Han Na) who leaves her stepfather’s conglomerate to start out on her own for the first time.
But Dal Mi also comes to meet the real Nam Do San (Nam Joo Hyuk), now a software engineer who runs his own company, Samsan Tech) with his two friends Chul San and Yong San (Yoo Su Bin and Kim Do Wan). He soon gets pulled into Ji Pyeong and Ms. Choi’s secret regarding the letters by agreeing to keep up the imagined character created 15 years ago. But Do San soon develops real feelings for Dal Mi as they work together to achieve their respective dreams and goals.
Meaningful and Impactful
It’s a pretty elaborate set-up that takes up the first few episodes. But that excellently laid foundation allows for the series to become an engaging and charming character-driven story. Start Up is surprisingly thoughtful as it depicts the struggles of not only young, aspiring adults, but also every day struggles of family and friends in a society that can be financially and emotionally harsh for most people.
At the heart of the series is the idea that there’s nothing wrong with dreaming big. Having a dream and setting goals for oneself is a positive thing. And putting in the hard work and effort to make those dreams a reality, even in the face of hardship and with the possibility of failure, is a worthwhile endeavor.
Hopes and dreams aren’t limited to young adults just entering the workforce. It is for people of all ages. Despite the harsh realities, there is nothing wrong with chasing a dream. And facing those harsh realities and moving forward allows one to grow. Not to mention being able to forge new relationships. Or strengthening and repairing old ones.
In chasing those dreams, one can find themselves and who they are. As well as finding that confidence that allows one to keep moving forward. There is no rush. Everyone has their own pace. Even with the fast moving and developing world around them. Facilitating that fast development is technology. One of Start Up‘s most interesting aspects is having technology as the backdrop for what is otherwise a very familiar story.
Start Up is a classic and quintessential romantic drama with equal focus on family, friends and career. Having those familiar themes with a modern technological and entrepreneurial twist not only keeps the series engaging, but adds to its overall refreshing appeal.
In highlighting technology, the series shows how prevalent it has become in our daily lives. But at the same time, real life connections with each other are still the most meaningful. That while technology has in many ways made life easier and can even be lifesaving, it must work hand-in-hand with the everyday relationships that are forged and strengthened in less-high tech ways.
The Great Debate
The most buzzed about aspect of the series, of course, is the romance angle. And while it has ignited fierce debate among many viewers of the series, it isn’t even the most engaging or most impactful plot thread across the 16 episodes. If you go into Start Up only focused on the romantic angle, then you might find yourself missing other major points the series is trying to get across.
At the same time, the romance angle is by no means a hindrance or lacking in a substantial way. As a character-driven story, the romance dynamics are very much part of the characters’ growth and development. And it plays out in a way that feels natural without feeling predictable.
Going into the series, I wondered what all the fuss was about. I regularly stumbled upon some fierce, heated social media battles over which leading man to support. I even stumbled upon several conspiracy theories written almost essay-long about the series’ writing choices. The level of passion that has gone into debate over the series is fascinating in and of itself. In a way.
Regardless of who you might have been rooting for, there is no question that the three actors shared a strong chemistry. And that helped make the entire story, not just the romance angle, be that much more effective.
Start Up features a strong cast. Right from the very first minutes of the series, the performances by the experienced cast help to further solidify the complete package.
Veteran actress Kim Hae Sook delivers every time she is on screen whether on television or film. And she does so effortlessly here. As grandma Choi Won Deok, she provides the heart of the series in a way that is very substantial and not just relegated to some random emotional moment here and there. Ms. Choi is essentially the catalyst for the entire series. It is her sincere wish that leads to the uncommon situation that Dal Mi, Ji Pyeong and Do San find themselves in. But as the series progresses, Kim Hae Sook gets regular opportunities to deliver with many times emotional, other times funny moments that are some of the series’ most memorable and meaningful.
Kim Do Wan and Yoo Su Bin as Do San’s friends and partners Yong San and Chul San are the perfect duo to compliment Nam Joo Hyuk as Do San. Stephanie Lee completes the team as the feisty Jung Sa Ha.
Kang Ha Na has perhaps the most difficult job in needing to balance Won In Jae being a cutthroat antagonist while still leaving room for any possible redemption. Especially with In Jae’s complicated history with regards to her relationship with Dal Mi. Won In Jae delivers, though her character does sort of fade into the background in the last few episodes.
Despite several substantial roles the last few years, Kim Seon Ho has become the breakout star of the series as Han Ji Pyeong. Ji Pyeong is an interesting character. A cold, sometimes brash and unfiltered exterior, but also a very successful, self-made man. Kim Seon Ho is able to also walk that tightrope between being a negative antagonist and the typical second lead you may want to root for. The almost tsundere personality gives Kim Seon Ho plenty of opportunities to successfully deliver a wide range of emotions. And it’s not hard to see why so many people have fallen for him as an actor and in the character as well.
It’s also important to point out the excellent performance from Nam Da Reum as the young Ji Pyeong. His scenes in the beginning of the series, especially with Kim Hae Sook, lay the groundwork for Kim Seon Ho’s performance. The character of Ji Pyeong is firmly established thanks to Nam Da Reum. And having that strong performance as the basis for everything the adult Ji Pyeong does allows for the character to always remain that viable option as a leading man.
Undoubtedly, Bae Suzy and Nam Joo Hyuk lead the cast as Dal Mi and Do San. Bae Suzy has truly come a long way as an actress. She has developed a strength in being able to deftly balance the lighter and dramatic moments in her performances. And here on Start Up, she delivers that nuanced performance that gets you to trust and believe in her as the always hopeful and strong Dal Mi.
Likewise, Nam Joo Hyuk continues his growth and string of excellent recent performances with Do San. He has shown his versatility before and does so again here. He brings a maturity to the role that matches well with the humble Do San who experiences perhaps the series’ biggest growth and development. Do San is a quiet, reserved, but intelligent young man who must learn how to be more confident and not be afraid of opening up to other people. There are several moments during the series where he gets an opportunity to flex his dramatic acting chops and he delivers every time.
At times Start Up feels like a nice, slowburn drama. Other times, it plays like a mainstream romcom. Both sides come together in what is a seamless mix of coming of age, slice of life and a little soapy goodness. It is by no means a perfect series. But Start Up has been a pleasant surprise and it ends up being possibly one of the most satisfying, inspiring series of the year.