The tvN drama series Twenty-Five Twenty-One (스물다섯 스물하나) is a wonderfully nostalgic slice of life and coming of age portrait of a group of friends with the ever-changing world as its backdrop. The history that is being made around them is almost a character in and of itself as the characters navigate the tumultuous time that is the dawn of the 21st century and the always tumultuous time between adolescence and adulthood.
At the center of the portrait are high school fencing prodigy Na Hee Do (Kim Tae Ri) and 22-year-old Baek Yi Jin (Nam Joo Hyuk). We first meet them as they are both affected by the Asian Financial Crisis. Hee Do’s high school disbands her fencing team due to budget cuts while Yi Jin must rebuild his life alone after his chaebol family went bankrupt and are now separated.
The series begins in the present day as Na Hee Do’s daughter Min Chae finds her mother’s diaries. And through them, is able to relive Hee Do’s story at the turn of the century.
Hee Do and Yi Jin’s paths cross as they work to make their dreams a reality in spite of the hurdles that they face. Hee Do transfers to a high school where she joins their fencing team and meets her idol, star fencer Ko Yu Rim (Bona). Hee Do also becomes friends with the handsome and popular Moon Ji Woong (Choi Hyun Wook) and his best friend, class president Ji Seung Wan (Lee Joo Myung) who also happens to be the daughter of Yi Jin’s landlady.
Together, the five of them slowly become friends while overcoming their own respective struggles. Hee Do aims to make the national team while Yi Jin hopes to reunite his family. And their relationship, naturally, grows deeper toward something more than just friends.
Twenty Five Twenty One is very much a slice of life account of these characters’ lives. A slice that certainly comes together to form a big chunk as they make their way through the end of the 20th century and into the 21st. The world around them is changing fast. And the series does a captivating job at depicting how that world changes and affects these characters.
Whether it is their own small world around them, or the world at large; the experiences, connections and relationships made because of and affected by that unpredictable world help to shape who they eventually become.
That includes how people are able to form bonds and relationships. Or how families and friends are affected by things that might be out of their control. And this is while each of us have our own hopes and dreams that may seem impossible to achieve. Especially when all the hurdles and roadblocks appear out of nowhere.
Learning how to navigate these challenges are always a part of growing up. This tumultuous time between adolescence and adulthood is already difficult on its own. What more when the world throws the unexpected at you.
Twenty Five Twenty One shows how each of these characters are able to respond to these familiar challenges in their own unique and equally engaging ways.
Most especially when it comes to Hee Do and Yi Jin’s relationship. The interesting dynamic between them is partly due to them being a few years old apart and at relatively different stages in their lives. That dynamic slowly becomes a driver for their story, especially as they are able to find that they might have more in common than they initially realize.
Nevertheless, their relationship and the relationships and friendships that they forge over the years help define who they are and who they will become.
The story moves at a steady, but brisk pace. Its dreamlike and nostalgic aura helps to set the tone. There is an endearing relatability that allows you to connect with each of the characters, even if you may or may not have experienced these times or moments yourself.
The excellent cast definitely helps to solidify the series’ pitch perfect execution.
Nam Joo Hyuk has built up a diverse filmography where he has been able to show off his skills in both heavy drama and romantic comedy. He uses that experience to deliver a carefully nuanced performance here as Yi Jin. Having to balance between the sweet, youthful feelings of young romance with the struggle to be an independent adult in an unforgiving world, Nam Joo Hyuk easily makes Yi Jin a relatable, realistic and endearing character.
Speaking of youthful, 31-year-old Kim Tae Ri effortlessly brings high school student Na Hee Do to life. It’s important to note her real age as even though this is not the first time 20 or 30 year old actors are playing high school characters, it is unique in that Kim Tae Ri only plays the high school version of Hee Do. Usually, older actors will play both the young and older versions of their character in series that feature two different time periods. But the fact that Kim Tae Ri plays the younger Hee Do and does it so well is a major accomplishment.
Kim Tae Ri is of course a talented actress that’s proven herself in some major roles in her career. But as Hee Do, she effortlessly portrays the energetic and complicated life of a teenage girl slowly becoming a young woman who is still a bit immature and lacks the exposure to the adult world. Especially during this tumultuous time in Korea and the world at the turn of the century, Kim Tae Ri helps to depict that combination of naivety and the desire to grow up, while also taking care in making all the other aspects of her backstory land safely and effectively. A really great performance.
It’s also important to note the performance of the award-winning musical actress Kim So Hyun who plays the adult Hee Do. She too is able to deliver a nuanced performance that balances the contrast between the young and adult version of the character while still making the character her own as well. A captivating and supporting look at how everyone learns and grows throughout their life based on their experiences and the world around them. Perfectly in line with the overall theme of the series.
Bona, Choi Hyun Wook and Lee Joo Myoung each also get their chance to shine as their characters Ko Yu Rim, Moon Ji Woong and Ji Seung Wan all have their own stories while also helping to complete the endearing and charming group of friends.
Seo Jae Hee as Hee Do’s mother Shin Jae Kyung (in both past and present) and Choi Myung Bin as Hee Do’s daughter Min Chae also help to bridge the two time periods in a way that always feel natural and seamless. And Kim Hye Eun, always the scene stealer, is so great as tough, but caring fencing coach Yang Chan Mi.
Overall, Twenty Five Twenty One focuses on the memories of the important and defining moments of one’s life. There are ups and downs, happy and sad moments. But each one helps to make you who you are and where you ultimately go in life. The series delivers that relatable and down to earth message in the most effective way, thanks to engaging writing, captivating direction and a talented and charming cast.