Youth of May (오월의 청춘) is essential viewing. This stunning KBS drama series is a profoundly character-driven look at one of the darkest periods in Korea’s history. Set in the days leading up to and during the deadly Gwangju Uprising fight for democracy in May 1980, Youth of May tells the story of people whose lives are forever changed by this turbulent time. It is a stark reminder (or introduction to some) of this moment in history, but also a moving and poignant story of love, family and friendship that you won’t soon forget.
Youth of May centers on top medical student Hwang Hee Tae (Lee Do Hyun) who returns home to Gwangju hoping to facilitate the hospital transfer of a friend who lies in a coma in Seoul. It is in Gwangju where he meets nurse Kim Myung Hee (Go Min Si), first by chance. But thanks to an initially harmless plan in which she attends a blind date in place of her best friend Lee Soo Ryeon (Keum Sae Rok), Myung Hee and Hee Tae end up falling in love.
Both Hee Tae and Myung Hee are at different points in their lives. Hee Tae is almost ready to graduate, but he’s first hoping to join the University Song Contest. Myung Hee has been working as a nurse for three years, but is hoping to study abroad in just a month’s time.
Youth of May begins like a nostalgic, slice of life in this provincial city. Meanwhile, student-led protests against the increasingly oppressive authoritarian martial law government are growing across the country. And beneath the surface of the quiet spring days in Gwangju is a powder keg waiting to explode.
The series does an excellent job introducing us to the main characters and establishing their relationships. Doing so allows the escalation of events approaching the uprising feel all the more urgent and threatening. It is always interesting to see how one seminal event affects a wide range of people. The different perspectives before, during and after such historic events offer the chance for compelling and important stories to be told.
Youth of May does just that. And quite effortlessly. It puts a face, so to speak, to the people who lived and loved during this tumultuous and dark time. The stories of these characters, though fictional, are just some examples of the countless stories that exist for the many people from this time. And it is those relatable stories of these characters that bring their lives closer to home and make the shocking events of this time all the more visceral and affecting
The Gwangju Uprising is now considered a major turning point in Korea’s path toward democracy. When even after 41 years, South Korea is still working to acknowledge the tragic events of these nine days in May 1980, a series like Youth of May is an emotional and powerful depiction. The stark contrast of warm scenes of young love, familial bonds and close friendships with the haunting scenes of brutality, violence and suffering really bring this piece of history to vivid life. Particularly for younger generations or non-Koreans who may not be keenly aware of the events in 1980 Gwangju.
One of the key pieces that make the series so powerful is the excellent direction. The visuals and aura of the series place you squarely in 1980 Korea. That sense of poignant nostalgia set the stage for the harsh reality that would come. Another key piece is its excellent, ensemble cast. Both experienced vets and talented newcomers deliver pitch perfect and affecting performances.
Keum Sae Rok is strong as Soo Ryeon where she must balance youthful enthusiasm with a hardened personality as one of the young leaders of the Gwangju movement. Lee Sang Yi as her brother Soo Chan offers the perspective of the initially passive bystander. Lee Sang Yi is able to make Soo Chan’s growth be one of the series’ most jarring and difficult moments that truly illustrate the violent brutality of the period.
Experienced vets and character actors Kim Won Hae, Oh Man Seok and Eom Hyo Seop as our main characters’ fathers also offer piercing performances of three different perspectives of older men who have seen and experienced much of Korea’s tumultuous 20th century battles.
Young actors Choi Seung Hoon and Jo Yi Hyun as Hee Tae and Myung Hee’s younger brothers, respectively, are absolute breakouts. Portraying the effect and perspective of the innocent youth, they bring to life some of the series’ most breathtakingly emotional moments.
Special mention is also deserved for Kwon Young Chan as Kim Kyung Soo who struggles with his duties as a soldier and his own personal convictions. Kim Eun Soo, Park Se Hyun, Shim Yi Young, Lee Kyu Sung and Joo Bo Young who help to fill this world that feels so distant, yet so close as well.
And of course, Lee Do Hyun and Go Min Si. The two young actors have had breakout roles in the last year. But as Hee Tae and Myung Hee, the two essentially solidify their position as two of the strongest young leads today. Their chemistry is undeniable. And that chemistry, along with their individual strengths, bring it all together. They must express an incredibly wide range of emotions through the course of the series. From pure bliss to the most devastating of tragedies, it’s not an easy task for the two actors. As two young people in love trying to navigate this unprecedented and tumultuous time, they effortlessly deliver with every scene.
For a series such as this, it is important that our lead actors can immediately connect to the audience. Otherwise, the series will feel hollow and half-hearted. In Youth of May, it is the former. Lee Do Hyun and Go Min Si quickly charm and endear their characters to the audience. And, along with the rest of the cast, bring May 1980 vividly into 2021.
It is a major accomplishment to be able to bring the events of 41 years ago to life in a way that can be easily relatable and affecting. But at the same time, the series shows that even if that is the case, none of us will ever know the true experience of living in that time.
Thankfully, a series like Youth of May and the many other films, television series and even music videos can at the very least keep these difficult, but important moments in our minds today and in the years to come. Allowing the chance for respect and reflection is a wonderful result from a series such as this.
It’s difficult to put into words how profound an experience it is to watch Youth of May. At its core, it is a character-driven romantic and family drama set amidst the backdrop of one of the darkest, yet one of the most consequential periods in Korea’s history. An emotionally affecting and stark reminder of this history, but also a relatable and humble portrait of the lives rocked by that moment. Easily one of 2021’s best series so far and essential viewing from a purely human perspective.