Weak Hero Class 1 (약한영웅) is a thrilling, yet sobering portrait of young students and the different struggles, difficulties and momentary joys they experience while growing up in a society that, too often, neglects and pushes them aside. It is strongest though as a character piece, telling the story of friendship and bonds that must survive under the weight of all that is happening around them.
Park Ji Hoon is Yeon Shi Eun, a first-year high school student who ranks at the top of his class. As he keeps to himself and focuses on his studies, he appears to be an easy target for class bullies. But he is able to use his intelligence to employ theories and principles from such subjects as psychology and physics in order to defend himself.
Though Shi Eun is initially isolated from the rest of his classmates, talented fighter Ahn Soo Ho (Choi Hyun Wook) comes to his rescue alongside transfer student Oh Beom Seok (Hong Kyung) when things get to be more than he can handle on his own. The three begin to form a friendship. However, things slowly spiral out of control as they get sucked into a cycle of violence both inside and outside of school.
Weak Hero Class 1‘s eight fast-paced episodes follow Shi Eun, Soo Ho and Beom Seok as that violence takes a toll on everything from their developing friendship to their own well-being.
At the core of the series is school violence and bullying. And in 2022, it is unfathomable how it continues to be so pervasive, especially in Korea. Weak Hero Class 1 delivers an unflinching look at a few potential examples that may very well be happening in the real world as we speak.
And perhaps what the series does best is to show the immeasurable toll such violence and abuse can take on one’s physical, emotional and mental health. Especially for teenagers who may be experiencing other types of abuse, hardship and struggles outside of the school walls as well.
School violence is certainly not a new theme for a K-drama. But Weak Hero Class 1 is able to take that familiar topic and present it in a way that focuses more on the characters, particularly the victims, and show the unfortunately lasting effects of such violence. We are able to see how school violence affects the characters in different, but equally profound ways.
Being able to see Shi Eun, Soo Ho and Beom Seok’s characters grow (or maybe devolve?) through the course of the series is particularly engaging. Whereas most series dealing with school violence may be limited in its depictions due to the content limitations of television, Weak Hero Class 1‘s streaming home allows for a more uncompromising deep dive into the emotional and mental health of the characters. Not to mention the bloodier scenes of violence (and revenge) that you wouldn’t see on a regular network television program. There is a rough and gritty visual direction that adds to the sometimes-dark turns in the story, while also being almost like a roadblock or wall to the moments of fleeting happiness and hope.
That unyielding approach to the subject matter helps elevate Weak Hero Class 1 in a way that adds a bit more realism to the proceedings. Though of course, there are plenty of instances where there is some cinematic flair to the storytelling. But the series is able to unquestionably show the pain and struggle young students endure. And all while the adults and peers around them are reluctant to reach out their hand or are even purposefully blind to what is happening right in front of them.
Again though, the series is at its most engaging as a character piece. Seeing how our three main characters, each distinct in their attitudes, personalities and principles, deal with the violent and emotional spiral they are pulled into is absolutely fascinating. Seeing how friendship, connections and bonds can mean so much, but also mean something different for each person is eye-opening.
And the talented cast is a big part of that.
Choi Hyun Wook’s biggest roles so far have been supporting characters in Racket Boys and Twenty-Five Twenty-One where he is the simple, kindhearted nice guy. The character Ahn Soo Ho might fit right alongside them as well. But Choi Hyun Wook adds an edge and charisma to the role that allows Soo Ho to be more than just a “friend to the main character,” but a fully-formed person on his own. And that kind of strong performance is definitely necessary here.
Hong Kyung has had many supporting roles in drama over the years with his award-winning performance in the film Innocence as his breakout role. And he certainly proves his talent here as Oh Beom Seok. Of all the characters, Beom Seok is the most complicated. And thus, Hong Kyung has perhaps the most difficult task in the series. Watching the layers of Beom Seok’s character slowly get peeled back is an effective way to build tension through the series. And Hong Kyung’s nuanced performance goes a long way to successfully make that happen.
Park Ji Hoon, meanwhile, delivers a powerful performance as Yeon Shi Eun. He proved his dramatic acting chops in last year’s excellent At a Distance, Spring is Green. And here on Weak Hero Class 1, he takes another step forward by also being able to deliver careful nuance. It is Yeon Shi Eun’s journey we are following from minute one to the final second of the series. And it is through his eyes that we feel and experience what not only he goes through, but what his new friends go through as well. Whether it is loneliness or empathy or the fleeting moments of happiness, Park Ji Hoon is able to effortlessly show the many, varied emotions Shi Eun experiences throughout the series. The viewer is living these events through him. And Park Ji Hoon immediately draws you in, making it difficult to look away from the screen even when things get as dark as can be for Shi Eun and the others.
The three actors share a great chemistry that they have no problem establishing even in the short amount of time we, the viewer, get to spend with them. In fact, their chemistry makes you wish we are able to spend a bit more time with them before the series takes its darker turns.
Their performances, along with those of the rest of the solid supporting cast (including another wonderful turn by the talented Shin Seung Ho), really do elevate the material. And their performances have no problem eliciting the necessary emotions for the demanding material.
As the series is based on a popular webtoon, there is very much a potential for more story to be told.
But for now, Weak Hero Class 1 is a captivating, yet sobering depiction of very real situations happening in the world today. It reaches its highest highs in telling the stories of these three young men and how those difficult real world situations affect them and their relationship. The series’ unflinching approach in its storytelling, excellent performances from the cast and its gritty, but polished style make Weak Hero Class 1 a must-watch.