Itaewon Class is Capitalist Propaganda and I Love It

I have spent an inordinate amount of time with the Korean drama Itaewon Class because I’ve been using it to study Korean*, so I know it way better than anyone has any good excuse to.

What I find wild is that while it’s structured as a morality tale, it is actually basically propaganda for the system it purports to criticize. The basic premise is that a standup guy, who suffers tragedy and injustice, vows to take revenge on those who’ve abused their power by—wait for it—building the biggest and best food company in Korea.

The primacy of revenge is not the strange part, because it can be framed as a quest for justice. In the hero’s origin story, all his problems stem from the abuse of power by a Chebol family that owns Korea’s number one food conglomerate, Janga Group.

First, Park Seroyi is expelled from school when he tries to stand up to the bullying of the Jang family’s oldest son, Jang Geun-won, and Seroyi’s father, who works for Janga is fired. Then, his father dies when Geun-won accidentally hits him with his motorcycle and fails to call the hospital. When Seroyi finds out that Geun-won is at fault, but that Janga paid off an employee to take the blame, he assaults Geun-won, which earns him two years in prison.

In prison, Seroyi vows revenge/justice, and comes up with a 15-year plan to surpass Janga Group as the biggest food company in Korea.

The next chunk of the show/webtoon focuses on Seroyi’s growth from a plucky entrepreneur with a single pub to a wealthy and successful businessman while facing adversity from Janga Group. Of course, Seroyi does all this while being exceptionally focused, principled and non-judgmental, and alongside a team of outcasts to whom he gives a chance, and to whom he’ll owe his success.

If you focus on that part alone, the darkly capitalist throughline is less obvious, since it’s a fairly typical arc of overcoming adversity. But it eventually becomes hard to ignore that the underlying message is that Seroyi can only get justice through the same means that brought him down: power and money.

When Seroyi is in prison waiting for his sentence, Geun-won’s father—the Janga chairman and Seroyi’s real nemesis—offers him a way out. All he has to do is apologize to Geun-won, essentially acknowledging his place in the hierarchy. Seryoi angrily says it’s Geun-won who should be doing the apologizing. To which Chairman Jang responds:

“소신. 패기. 없는 것들이 자존심 지키자고 쓰는 단어. 이득이 없다면 고집이고 개기일 뿐.”

“Principles. Ambition. Those are words used by those who have nothing but their ego. If you gain nothing, that’s just stubbornness and foolishness.”

In other words, what good are principles and ambition without the power to act on them?

That message is a recurring one within Korean dramas: that those with power will use it as they please, and those without it should get some of their own if they want things to change. The point isn’t necessarily that a system where the powerful control justice, policy and pretty much everything for their own benefit, is good, but that it’s a fact of life—the natural order of things.

Itaewon Class heartily endorses that view. Seroyi can only win by joining the system that destroyed not only his family, but the Jang family too. One way you see this is that Seroyi’s actual success in getting justice, when Geun-won is taken to account for his crime, is treated almost as a side plot to his true crusade against Chairman Jang.

About halfway through the season, Seryoi’s love interest and sidekick, Jo Yi-so, records Geun-won confessing to killing Seryoi’s father. When the news comes out, Chairman Jang chooses to protect Janga Group over his son, and lets him take the fall.

In my mind, this should be the climax: Chairman Jang betrayed his own family, and is basically left alone in the world—his oldest son is in prison; he’s rejected his second illegitimate son; and his remaining allies are only there because of his money.

But no, Itaewon Class treats that victory as minor compared to Seroyi’s true plan to take Janga down. Seroyi wasn’t even trying to get Geun-won to pay for his crimes — it was Yi-so!

At the actual climax of the story, Geun-won has been re-arrested for attempted murder, and more importantly, Chairman Jang is about to lose control of his company because of his son’s misdeeds as well as allegations of fraud. There’s only one buyer willing to acquire Janga Group when it’s in such a mess. Who might that be? None other than Park Seroyi, now CEO of IC Group, the second best food conglomerate in Korea.

Oh how the tables have turned. The old and dying Chairman Jang kneels down before Seroyi, apologizes for everything he’s done, and begs him not to take his company. Seroyi responds that after hating the Jang father and son for so long, he truly has no more anger anymore.

“So you forgive me?” Chairman Jang asks hopefully.

“Do you take me for a pushover?” responds our supposed hero. “Do you think I’d be satisfied with an old man kneeling just before he dies?”

Pregnant pause.

“I,” says Seryoi, “am a businessman.”

Cue the victory music. That’s where the story really ends, the rest just wraps up some loose ends for the other characters, and caps it all with a happy ending for Seroyi and Yi-so.

Everything that’s happened, all the pain and injustice, the sacrificing of Geun-won who is really just a product of the Chebol system, the years of his and Yi-so’s youth given to building an empire, all of it climaxes in the moment when he can buy his rival’s company? when he’s proved his mettle as a businessman?

It’s such an absurd and rather heartfelt endorsement of Korean-flavored capitalism.

I will take into account that the show highlights that Seroyi believes that business is all about people. And that its message might be that Seroyi is a good Chebol, because he cares about his staff, and he knows that his success is not due to his own work alone. But honestly, that doesn’t really undermine the deep-seated support of structural capitalism, only that there is a slightly kinder way to administer it.

What’s funny is that because it’s a Korean drama, everything carries such enormous emotional weight, scaffolded by unself-consciously blatant symbolism. I can still watch the scene between Seroyi and Chairman Jang at the prison, and feel all the feels for and from Seroyi; or the final scene where he remembers his father’s words about the alcohol tasting sweet, and like Yi-so, all I want is for our hero’s night to be sweet.

Like, it works. Which makes it even more absurd.

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*How I’ve been using Itaewon Class to study Korean:

I watched the show in March, then once I knew the story, read the webtoon over the next nine months, as my Korean got progressively better. Some chapters I skimmed, others I studied intensively.

Recently, I found an amazing set of lessons from YouTuber KSTYLEYO who goes through about 10 short clips from the show, and goes through the text and explains each and every word/phrase. I have a playlist of the lessons, and the clips that they’re based on, a spreadsheet with all the info here, and a flashcard set here.

A few notes: Netflix unfortunately does not offer Korean subtitles, and I haven’t been able to find them elsewhere. And the webtoon is no longer free on Daum, and non-Koreans can’t access the paid version, but you can get the whole thing (with watermarks and flashy ads) here.

I watched 60 hours of Korean dramas in June

I mean that’s the tweet.

I went through my Netflix and Viki history yesterday and counted 60 episodes of Korean dramas that I watched or rewatched in June. It’s not an exact number, because neither platform tells how long you spent on the episode but it balances out.

I watched the entire Kill Me Heal Me (because Park Seo-Joon) on Viki, started watching Memories of the Alhambra (because Hyun Bin) on Netflix, and rewatched most of Stranger, the very first Korean show I ever watched and it absolutely holds up.

I guess I should excuse the ungodly amount of TV I watched on the pandemic, or the fact that that I kind-of self-quarantined for 14 days last month, and/or that I’m studying Korean?

But also, who cares? I’m still al little confused by people who talk about kdramas like they’re all the same thing? I don’t know if they have the concept of prestige TV in Korea, but it seems pretty obvious that there’s a huge range in the genre and quality of Korean shows, and thanks to Netflix and Viki, there’s this insane wealth available to everyone outside Korea.

That being said, the two main shows I watched this month, Kill Me Hill Me and Healer, are as far as I can tell pretty in line with the most basic k-drama tropes.

Both are essentially a romance between a stoic-loner-type man with a tragic backstory, and a spunky/manic-pixie-woman with her own tragic backstory. Amazingly, in both, the two leads knew each other when they were young but don’t remember it (because apparently people can’t remember things before like 8 in Korea?), and in both the woman doesn’t know her true identity. They also both feature evil CEOs, chaebol intrigue, and packs of besuited security guards/gangsters, as is par for the course.

As far as the sexism goes, at least in Healer, the woman’s arc is of parallel importance to the guy’s, whereas in Kill Me Heal Me, she literally exists only to help heal the male lead. Not only that, but he basically tricks her into being his personal maid who’s on call for 24/7, and when she tries pretty rationally to claim that that’s insane, he says well you signed the contract, and also I need you.

Still, the Korean take on the manic-pixie-romantic-heroine (or did the Americans take it from Korea?) is pretty wild. In both Healer and Kill Me, the women are professionals in their late-ish twenties — a psychiatrist and a journalist — with plenty going on in their own lives, and generally try to resist the leading man’s advances at the beginning. They also tend to talk a lot, break rules in very benign ways, embarrass themselves, and dress in normie clothes, to distinguish them from the villain girls/second love interests who are always way better dressed. (Is there an equivalent of being self-deprecating when it’s not about the self?)

But then they just kind of fall into the romantic arc, and nothing else matters? They cry a lot, and pine for their man, and usually save him a few times, often by being brave and standing up to other men, all in the name of love. Although to be fair, that happens to the men too. Because these are romantic dramas obviously.

I’ll save my review of Stranger for another time because I really like that show, and it’s absolutely nothing like these.

To round off the 60 hours, I also started some sappier dramas like Guardian and Revolutionary Love but gave up after one or two episodes, and rewatched scenes from Itaewon Class and Crash Landing on You, though that was actually because I’m studying Korean.

Quarantine queue

I know I should be watching Normal People, or Killing Eve, or finally watching Fleabag, which everyone swears I’ll love. (The last person who told me that, I was too lazy/scared to tell him that I actually had watched the first episode, or maybe two or maybe half, and I just could not watch another show about a starving-artist-Brooklynite follow the same stylized reality that I actually lived, and make entertainment of it.) I understand those shows are good, and when I watch them I’ll enjoy them, and I’ll enjoy being part of the discourse that happens about them on the internets. 

But I can’t because I’m too busy watching Hwarang, which is an absolutely bonkers Korean drama about warrior poets, and love triangles, and kings and queens in ancient Korea wearing robes and usurping thrones, and of course evil misters and plagues and beheadings and forbidden loves. I started watching it because the lead is Park Seo-Joon, who is the lead in Itaewon Class, a Korean drama that’s available on Netflix and therefore somewhat crossed the divide into somewhat mainstream zeitgeist, and is actually good as far as Korean dramas go, as in I would not be deadly embarrassed to recommend it to other people as opposed to Hwarang, which is basically terrible and a ton of fun to watch. (And deserves a whole other discussion on why it’s good, and not just dumb good, or maybe yes, and I’m just dumb?)

Thanks to Park Seo-Joon, I have learned that Korean actors are supper accessible on YouTube. He has his own channel which is just him doing things like eating food in the Philippines and getting haircuts and being extremely aware of how good looking he is. The videos are badly edited, the audio is terrible, and the intro is a montage of him looking sexy with just the word “attractive” overplayed at some point, which apparently he (or his team) doesn’t realize doesn’t actually have the same ring in English, or any ring at all. Plus, there’s a ton of behind the scenes content and interviews where he plays Jenga with his co-stars, and continues to be extremely aware of how charing he is, and it’s extremely confusing/fun to stumble on a whole other culture of celebrity and entertainment, and a great way to spend the pandemic while ostensibly learning Korean. 

How to resist the algorithms (for free)

1. (obfuscation)

2. behave extra human

3. i.e. unpredictable

4. follow 5 accounts on twitter that you have no interest in, and maybe found out that you do

5. follow @breitbart for as long as you can stomach it

6. share your netflix account with a teenage boy (if you’re not a teenage boy)

7. listen to a new release on Spotify from an artist you’ve never heard of

8. use random.org to pick from a list of ‘100 best albums’ — and stick to it

9. set your home on Google Maps to Myvatn, Iceland

10. go for a 30 minute walk without your phone

11. go to a bookstore (but not Amazon’s algorithmically curated one)

12. or library

13. ask an old person to for their favorite artist

14. or a young person

15. have cool friends (or make some)

16. for a more drastic measure, send your phone to Myvatn, Iceland

Ordinary Americans

This is ostensibly a review of the biography of Hitler by Volker Ullrich, but is actually a fragment of a year’s worth of jumbled thoughts on the 2016 election.

I’ve been questioning this idea, the core of which I still can’t articulate, but essentially asks this: if the Germans didn’t know the future, can we cast moral judgement on their decision in the early thirties to vote for Hitler, and in 1933, before the worst of the fear regime made resistance deadly, to worship him?

Why that’s important is because, the narrative has been distilled (and now that I read the book I know is fairly inaccurate) into: the Germans felt sad and the economy sucked, and so were eager for a savior to make them great again. Similarly, in country after country, election after election, people feel downtrodden, forgotten, disenfranchised, and not represented, plus the economy almost always sucks, and if it doesn’t suck for everyone, it sucks for a lot of people, and so they vote for whomever promises them salvation: Obama gave them hope, Trump promised them greatness.

I don’t pretend to know how Trump won or why people voted for him (I suspect it’s less a mystery than it seems) but I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s critique that the “economic anxiety” narrative is bullshit. Not necessarily because the real reason people voted for Trump was racism — I’ll let Coates argue that point. It’s bullshit because that’s what they said in 1968 and in 1972 and in every single election since the glory days of the fifties, which were an anomaly. (And white people means default people, who can’t explain life’s difficulties as a factor of structural intent to make life difficult.)

So back to Germans and the early thirties and Trump voters: even if it were true, even if times were hard and jobs were scarce and the ladder to the middle class was essentially rung-less, how much does that excuse?

Can the German who wildly and throatfully exclaimed his or her admiration and support for Hitler in 1931, when he was already the party of the ethnic German, and of hate and violence — though not to the degree he would be later — but did it out of a desperate hope for a better tomorrow, be held accountable? After a decade of national indignity and personal sorrow, can we blame the German citizen for falling for a carefully curated message of a future rectified by way of a return to the past, by an image of restored German sovereignty and power, by fear of an enemy just as carefully curated and held up for righteous indignation? After all, he may not have wanted the Jews dead or an Aryan-only state; he certainly didn’t want a world war and a dictatorship, but he was experiencing economic anxiety, and when along came a firebrand rebel who was equally man-of-the-people and savior who promised change, how could he refuse?

I do believe that thirties-era Hitler was far worse than Trump. And so I do believe that forgiving Trump’s sins in the name of a vague promised land is probably a more forgivable offense, but that may be because I know what happens next.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t change the essential question: when people vote out of their own concern, and are driven only by a sense of grievance, are they morally to blame? or perhaps they are not to blame, but there is a more noble idea of citizenhood which we may have, or never did, believe in — and what is that? we vote for the greater good? for the greater good of who, our neighbors? the entire country? at the expense of whom?

And a second, but crucial question: if I had been there, if I was a me in 2016 but with a different sense of geography and history and a different set of social and media inputs, what would I have done? And since I have no way to know, what right do I have to wave the moral banner and dismiss half the nation as racist bigots? But if I do not renounce them, then am I perpetuating moral ambiguity that is merely a luxury of not being the one to suffer the fallout of my pretty mental games?

(Okay, that’s like 8 questions, but who’s counting?)

Austerlitz

In Sebald’s book “Austerlitz” it isn’t until you’re more than halfway through that you find out what you probably knew a lot earlier, that Austerlitz left as a child during WWII, that whatever life he’d had before the war was gone, in reality, and in memory too.

Only after unlayering the years of his childhood, and then his years as a student, and then a professor, and then a loner wandering through London and talking with strangers on trips to Brussels, do both we the readers and Austerlitz himself go back to find his past.

It’s then when he’s talking with Vera in Prague, Vera being his nanny as a child and a friend of his parent, that she tells him everything he had repressed.

Vera tells Austerlitz what his father Maximilian told her about his trips to Germany in the 1930s, about the “positive horror” it filled him with, watching the country become ready for greatness. It’s hard to excerpt this part, because the effect of the way Sebald writes is its buildup, over pages, and the sentences that don’t end but that you can trace through the pages. Here’s how he begins a description of a Hitler rally in Nuremberg:

Hours before his arrival, the entire population of Nuremberg and indeed people from much further afield, crowds flocking in not just from Franconia and Bavaria but from the most remote parts of the country, Holstein and Pomerania, Silesia and the Black Forest, stood shoulder to shoulder all agog with excitement along the predetermined route, until at last, heralded by roars of acclamation, the motorcade of heavy Mercedes limousines came gliding at walking pace down the narrow alley which parted the sea of radiant uplifted faces and the arms outstretched in yearning. Maximilian had told her, said Vera, that in the middle of this crowd, which had merged into a single living organism racked by strange, convulsive contractions, he had felt like a foreign body about to be crushed and then excreted.

What emerges from these pages is not that Maximilian saw it coming, but that he knew what he was witnessing. But Maximilian didn’t need to know the future—he didn’t need to know the camps and the gas and the dead children and the death marches—to know that these crowds and their need for Hitler’s promises; their worship of them, was its own evil. And all because, in Maximilian’s words to Vera, repeated to Austerlitz who then tells them to the narrator and the narrator to us, he recalls Hitler’s speeches coming through the wireless, “drumming into the Germans the notion that the promise of their own greatness was about to be fulfilled.”

And their wild, hungry, bottomless acceptance of it.

Maybe you don’t need 1939 to be held accountable for 1933.