Netflix’s global expansion has brought streaming to the world. But even more impressive than its scale, is how it has brought local content to international viewers. Think of the success of Spanish-language Money Heist or the once popular Japanese reality show Terrace House. Then there are Korean dramas, which were already huge in Asia, but have been gaining popularity since Netflix acquired a bunch of classics over the last couple of years. Their latest hit, Start-Up, is a great example of a new wave of South Korean TV shows, and the perfect escapist gateway for those who just miss a good rom-com.
The show centers around Seo Dal-mi, played by K-pop idol-turned-actress Bae Suzy, who is an optimistic twenty-something who dreams of becoming a successful CEO. She eventually joins Sandbox, a utopian tech startup incubator in Seoul, where she tries to successfully pitch a business and confront her estranged sister, all while slowly realizing that she’s in one very confusing love triangle. Of course we, the audience, are not confused at all. We just eagerly await our heroine’s realization as the show unravels, often to the synth pop beats of K-pop group Red Velvet.
At this point, I must warn that there are spoilers ahead.
Start-Up dedicates its pilot to setting up this love story. As a middle-schooler, Dal-mi receives a note from a secret admirer named Nam Do-san. They exchange letters, sharing their problems, hopes, and dreams. Over time, Dal-mi falls for Do-san, not knowing that her grandmother had actually asked troubled orphan Han Ji-pyeong to write the letters and become her friend. He signed them as Do-san, a national math prodigy, who had no idea what was going on. After a series of fortuitous events, they all meet as adults in the second episode, kicking-off a plot that has both men falling for Dal-mi.
A love triangle! Mistaken identity! Harmless catfishing! Based on plot alone, the show is pretty standard for a K-drama (at least the romantic kind). That’s why it makes for a good introduction. It ticks off all the boxes — from surprise skinship scenes, to unbelievably stunning cityscapes — and leans into melodrama. But it also flips the genre’s tropes on their heads, making the show feel familiar yet fresh.
Watch the first episode and it will all make sense.
It opens with a time-lapse of the Seoul skyline color-graded with the pinks and blues that filter the entire series. Most of the story unfolds in Sandbox, a fictional startup incubator but located in Seoul’s lush Nodeul Island. The dreamy vibe continues as each character is introduced, first in the present, then in the past.
Dal-mi is kind, intelligent, and determined. She’s bubbly like other K-drama leads (you know from her Pinterest-y room) but also practical and can think on her feet. Two men are fighting over her — another trope — but she’s no manic pixie dream girl. Her older sister Won In-jae (Kang Han-na), also finds herself in Sandbox, and she’s equally ambitious but simultaneously fierce and exacting. We see this contrast in their conversations as kids, and in the shade they throw each other as adults.
The show could have easily made In-jae a two-dimensional villain — she makes some problematic decisions throughout — but instead, the sisters act as each other’s foils and become rare representations of two types of female bosses. Different but both valid. One scene later in the series has Dal-mi accusing In-jae of unfairly using her connections to secure an investor for her startup, an effective monologue that will have you rooting for her, the underdog. But this was followed by a rebuttal from her sister, who revealed that she got ahead not because of her privilege, but because she worked hard.
Then there’s the love triangle, which has launched heated debates online and sent hearts aflutter around the world. And yet Start-Up flips this trope too.
On one side is Do-san, who is billed as the show’s lead but is no Casanova. Unlike your typical K-drama love interest, he’s awkward, unsuccessful, bad at business, and nice to a fault. But he’s also refreshingly trusting and unassuming, and supports Dal-mi, who he quickly falls for after being asked to take credit for the pen pal letters. Oh, and he knits. Of course, it helps that he’s played by actor Nam Joo-hyuk, most known for his role as the charming and playful lead of the 2016 hit Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo.
On the other side is Ji-pyeong, who is a supporting character in name only. Those who go in cold, never having seen a poster for the show or watched any K-dramas in the past, could easily be fooled into believing that Ji-pyeong was the end game. After all, it was Ji-pyeong who wrote those letters to Dal-mi when they were kids. He was there for her when she needed someone the most and now, years later and without Dal-mi even knowing it, he’s the one who found the real Do-san to continue the charade and spare her feelings. He’s rich and aloof but he eventually warms up. In other words, he’s the classic male lead — and the fan favorite, turning actor Kim Seon-ho into the show’s breakout star.
Either of these two guys could make for a good romantic lead, but putting them in one show turns what would have been a straightforward story into something more exciting. Now mid-way through its 16-episode run, there’s still no clear answer to the question on everyone’s minds: Who will Dal-mi end up with?
Will it be a classic ending with Do-san, or is he a red herring and Ji-pyeong is actually our guy? (It’s happened before).
Online, people are passionately making the case for their pick. “Ji-pyeong is her first love,” one side says. “But hasn’t she already fallen for the real Do-san?” asks the other. It’s the kind of harmless debate that makes for a good water cooler conversation, even though those have become virtual. The show drops two episodes on Netflix every weekend, so it’s also a welcome change in the age of endless binge-watching. You can catch it, dissect every detail with friends and dig up clues from Reddit throughout the week, then do it all over again.
A lot can happen in the last six episodes and we have yet to see if the show can sustain its strong start. But the weekly anticipation is positively thrilling, and that’s more than you can say for most things to come out of 2020.
Start-Up airs in South Korea on tvN every Saturday and Sunday at 9 p.m. (KST) and is available for streaming worldwide on Netflix.