People might find it strange that, despite the fact that I’ve been following Korean culture for 20 years now, I’ve never watched a complete TV Drama series. There have been several reasons for this, but basically it boils down to lack of time, and the prohibitive cost of the DVD boxed sets. I made the monetary investment in respect of a couple of classic series – Sandglass and Winter Sonata – but never managed to find the hours in the day to watch them
With the arrival of Netflix, and presumably other streaming services with similar content, the cost objection falls away. Within the fixed monthly cost you have access to more TV drama boxed sets than you can possibly consume. And with the ready availability, the lure of instant gratification in a locked-down world in which you haven’t been out to a Korean cultural event for several weeks overcomes the fact that really you don’t have any more free time than you used to.
Thanks to Claire’s recent article on some of the K-dramas available on Netflix, I logged on for the first time in months, and was staggered at the back catalogue of well-known dramas from the past few years. Inspired by Claire’s recommendation I started simultaneously on Sky Castle and Crash Landing On You. The latter looked gentle enough, and I’ll definitely return to pick it up later, but it was the contemporary relevance of Sky Castle, together with its visuals and darkish storyline, that instantly hooked me.
The action takes place in a privileged gated community high up in the hills. Geographically it’s a castle in the sky: the individual buildings have a monumental, castle-like appearance and the views down the valley are appealing. Each time the residents approach the compound in their swanky foreign car (one of the families is a two Range Rover household) two flunkies haul open the portcullis-like gates and bow deferentially at the royalty driving in, before closing the gates behind them. Definitely no unauthorised riff-raff allowed within these lofty precincts.
But Sky Castle is also metaphorical. SKY is an acronym for Korea’s three most prestigious universities (Seoul National, Korea and Yonsei), and entry into one of those three is seen as a guarantee of future success. The education system and associated private academies are geared towards success in the university admissions process. Privelege breeds privilege; and members of the elite want to retain their advantages and repel unwanted intruders. Social mobility is reduced, societal advantages entrenched. Parents and grandparents push their children to excel at school so as to achieve the desired place at the most presitigious university, and spend eye-watering amounts of money in hiring private tutors who can guarantee entrance into the right university.
The size of the accommodation means that living in Sky Castle would be beyond the means of any of its inhabitants without some form of subsidy. For three of the families at the centre of this drama, living in Sky Castle is a perk that comes with being a surgeon at a nearby hospital. But even if the accommodation is paid for, the lifestyle led by many of the families is beyond the means of the sole breadwinner. All of the wives are stay-at-home mums, pushing their kids to educational success, but have wardrobes and hairdos that befit the Sky elite. Queen Bee among the mums is Han Seo-jin (Yeom Jung-ah), whose waspish, bright, but insufferably smug daughter Ye-seo (Kim Hye-yoon) seems to be destined for exam success.
As the first episode introduces us to the central characters in the drama, there is some joyous news. One of the lads in the Castle – the son of Dr Park – gets accepted into Seoul National university’s medical school. All the other mums immediately swing into action to discover the secret of the lad’s success: what studying methods, what extra-curricular activities and volunteering will make for the perfect resumé and guarantee the coveted place? It turns out that the answer is to hire Kim Joo-young, a frosty, black-clad androgynous “admissions coordinator” deliciously played by Kim Seo-hyung, whose emotionless, controlled character that sometimes allows herself a secret smile would be equally at home as the boss of a mafia family.
This being a Korean TV drama, some of the characters will have a past that they would rather was kept secret; and if two characters turn out to have an unexpected blood relationship with each other, well, maybe that’s par for the course. And, as with any drama set among the uber-rich, we enjoy the stylish interiors – though I have to say that the residences in Sky Castle, though opulent, feel bland and lifeless, like the anonymous interior of a seven star hotel, having none of the slick character of the Park family house in Parasite.
But the real relevance of Sky Castle is the way it plays off recent real-life stories and themes loosely related to Korean education and society – the huge pressure to succeed in exams, degree faking, and the stress and pressure that can lead to misery. Part of the dramatic tension lay in watching what happened when the children tried to rebel against the strict discipline imposed by their parents, and wondering whether the kids from poorer families or from more laid-back parenting backgrounds could succeed in a world seemingly dominated by money and controlling ambition.
The Cha family, the only one whose father is not a doctor, is particularly entertaining in this regard. Cha, played by Kim Byung-chul, is a law professor and former public prosecutor, and is the strictest disciplinarian among the parents. He leads the castle’s book club that studies the most impenetrable of western authors such as Nietzsche: ones that will look good on a student’s CV. His wife Seung-hye’s (Yoon Se-ah) trajectory towards supporting a more tolerant study regime and parenting style provides some light-hearted moments as the series matures.
In fact, there is a pleasing mix of characters. Apart from the Cha family, there is the central Kang family, whose father is over-ambitious for promotion at the hospital, and who leaves the parenting of his children to his wife Seo-jin. There is the somewhat spineless Woo family who provide many of the comic moments and whose father plays second fiddle to Dr Kang at the hospital. And then there is the newly arrived Hwang family, whose parenting style could not be more different from that of the Cha and Kang familiy. And just as their parenting style is different, Dr Hwang’s bedside manner at the hospital, focusing on the genuine care of the patient, contrasts sharply with Dr Kang’s, whose main objective is to maximise the number of surgical procedures taking place and hence boost hopsital revenues. The Hwang family are diametrically opposed to the other Castle families in many of their attitudes, and their arrival in the Castle in episode two is the impetus for much of the drama.
With a strong foundation of a good set of characters, the plot centres around the rivalries between the parents and children for success at school and in the hospital, and the search for the truths behind the tragedy that befell the Park family just after their son got into SNU Med School. Can the Kang family avoid a similar tragedy as they seek a similar sucess for their daughter Ye-seo, using similar methods?
The message that parents should give their kids a little more freedom and autonomy over their own educational path clearly struck a chord with the Korean audiences: the drama became “the most popular drama ever to be aired on a cable network“.
If I have one adverse comment, it concerns the ending. I never thought that I would yearn for an open, uncertain or unhappy end to a Korean movie or drama, but I found the resolution of the Sky Castle storyline just a little too sweet and sickly. I was totally gripped for 19 episodes. The 20th just seemed a little redundant.
Next, more of Crash Landing On You.