KBS’ 2015 series Cheer Up! (발칙하게 고고/Sassy Go Go!) is as timely today as it was back when it first aired. The high school-set drama tackles issues that, unfortunately, continue to be pervasive in today’s society. But as the title suggests, the series depicts a story that aims to be hopeful and positive in the midst of the difficult pressures of everyday life.
Cheer Up! follows two groups of students at the elite Sevit High School who are forced together to form a cheerleading squad as part of an elaborate attempt to help pad some students’ college applications. One group of students is comprised of the top 5% of the school while the other is the bottom 5% who are part of the school’s outcast street dance club.
The clash of personalities and priorities bring to light the brazen discrimination against students deemed hopeless or lesser than compared to the school’s elites. That is in addition to students having to deal with school violence, bullying, pressure from family to top the class and faculty turning a blind eye as well as the unabashed corruption of school administrators and wealthy families.
The series actually starts out a little frantic. The first episode begins like a sort of loud, slapstick teen comedy. But Cheer Up! quickly settles into what it is really about. That is, an unflinching look at the pressures and pain that teens can go through thanks to less-than-model adults in their lives, whether parents or school officials.
Cheer Up is such an apt title for the series. Of course, the thread that runs through the series’ 12 episodes is the group of students getting thrust into cheerleading when none of them have any experience in the sport. But the title also, more importantly, refers to the students and even some adults’ mental health.
It is truly fascinating to see the series’ happy, bright exterior balanced with the quite heavy material as it deals with serious issues. And Cheer Up! does it well.
Life is not easy. And it is not always a happy or positive place. Sometimes outside factors are what influence a person’s mental and emotional state. Other times it’s something inexplicable inside each person. Regardless of the source, Cheer Up provides several examples of how one may be able to overcome such difficulties. And one of the biggest is not being afraid to reach out to someone for help.
At the heart of Cheer Up is Jung Eunji as Kang Yeon Doo. Though she is ranked 196th out of 200 in the school, Yeon Doo is happiest with her fellow dancers in the Real King dance club and her childhood friend Dong Jae (Cha Hakyeon). She is brave and strong-willed, even if that may put her at risk in a world that seems poised to try and bring people like her down.
But that strong will is what allows Yeon Doo to bring everyone together as they try to navigate high school and the cheerleading squad.
She clashes with Kim Yeol (Lee Won Geun), president of the elite Baek Ho club and the #1 ranked student at school. Though he may be arrogant and witty, he is not afraid of exposing the many scheming adults that infect the school with negativity every day.
That relationship, of course, develops into something much more. Including as part of a triangle with Yeol’s best friend Seo Ha Joon (Ji Soo).
But Cheer Up‘s most impactful and interesting stories surround the great Chae Soo Bin as Kwon Soo Ah as well as Ji Soo as Ha Joon.
Kwon Soo Ah, the #2 ranked student, is pressured by her mother every day to rise to the top. And that is all in an effort to get Soo Ah accepted into an American Ivy League university. That pressure and emotional manipulation takes a grave toll on Soo Ah, driving her to commit horrible acts to her former friend Yeon Doo and other classmates just to be able to please her overbearing mother. She struggles with that pressure every day, conflicted between wanting to be happy with her friends and needing to fulfill her mother’s demands.
Chae Soo Bin delivers the performance of the series. In this, one of her early roles in her career, she absolutely commands the material and is able to have the right amount of balance and nuance to give depth to Soo Ah. It culminates in what might be the series’ most stunning moment.
Ji Soo, also in one of his early roles, gets the next most impactful story. Ha Joon has to endure similar, though more violent pressure from his father. It is evident early in the series that Ha Joon has to endure his father’s physical abuse. The series’ most heartbreaking moment happens quite early when Ha Joon makes a devastating decision. Ji Soo is able to convey the complicated emotions in a way that immediately has you understanding and empathizing with Ha Joon. The way Ji Soo can balance his sort of tough, charismatic exterior with a sincere vulnerability has always been one of his strengths as an actor over the years. And that is definitely on display in Cheer Up!.
Both Chae Soo Bin and Ji Soo carry the series’ heaviest stories and deliver with great, though obviously heartbreaking and emotionally impactful results. And again, considering their bigger roles in then-future projects after Cheer Up!, it’s really exciting to see how great they were here already.
Jung Eun Ji and Lee Won Geun take care of the lighter moments in the series, leading a talented young and veteran cast through a familiar, but envelope-pushing narrative. Their chemistry is evident. And even while their romantic teen angst is center stage for them, they handle their own fair share of dramatic story well also.
For all its bright exterior, Cheer Up! unflinchingly depicts characters contemplating self-harm and suicide. And it is in those moments that the series becomes so important. Cheer Up! depicts these heavy moments in a careful way. They are emotional and impactful. The gravity of the situation and the emotions that lead up to those moments as well as the aftermath are presented in such a captivating and serious way.
We are able to see all aspects of such difficult situations. And it is a reminder that these are unfortunately very realistic and relatable situations for today’s youth. Especially in South Korea.
Going into the series, I expected a light, fun series about a group of high school misfits coming together to cheer. Quite unexpectedly, I instead got a multi-dimensional, fearless character-driven story about people, especially young students, learning how to face life’s difficulties.
Cheer Up! is a sincere look at how your happiness is decided by you. And how friendship, family and bonds can help you find that happiness and comfort. Timely and resonant, Cheer Up! is a must-watch.