Genre:family, drama, school
Jo Kang-ja was once legendary for being the toughest, most feared troublemaker at her Busan high school. When she gets pregnant in her late teens, she drops out of school and tries to become a responsible mother to her daughter, Oh Ah-ran. Fast-forward to the present, and Kang-ja is now in her thirties and Ah-ran is a teenager. The two have a contentious relationship, with Ah-ran ashamed of her quick-tempered, foul-mouthed, sashimi knife-wielding mother for the latter’s unrefined ajumma manners.
When Ah-ran befriends the class outcast, it makes her the target of the school bullies who make her life hell; yet she’s too proud to tell her mother what’s happening. When Kang-ja finds out that her daughter is getting bullied, she decides to take matters into her own hands. Unbeknownst to Ah-ran, she enrolls in her daughter’s high school as an undercover student with the false name “Jo Bang-wool” to teach those bullies a lesson. But, she learns that there are bigger, darker problems within the educational system, and Kang-ja makes it her mission to put a stop to the school violence, with the help of Ah-ran and naive, idealistic homeroom teacher Park No-ah.
This may very well be one of my favourite dramas of the year. It has such an amazing story, smoothly transitioning between characters that feel real and multidimensional. Even side characters have their own story defining their reactions and we get to see this in action. Just wow – plot points that make perfect sense and are yet unpredictable, turning this into one addictive watch. I loved both the old and young cast because they both delivered an amazing performance. I could hardly wait for the next episode and the cliff-hangers were just killing me.
The drama managed to inject the right amount of angst and light-heartedness, even comedy into its plot. I’d still class it as a dark drama even though trailers promised a more fun-oriented storyline. Don’t be deceived – this drama delves into dark waters of child abuse and teenage pregnancy, bullying, domestic abuse, corruption and the prison system. The light comedic tones were like a fresh breath of air after you spent an agonising amount submerged in angst. I cried during this drama – yes, fat, loud tears because I just couldn’t hold them back anymore. Of course this happened in the later episodes but I suspect many were affected similarly before. It was catharsis and when did this happen lately? I can’t recommend this drama more. WATCH IT.
The story has three main characters with Jo Kang-ja, our feisty mother, being the lead. She has a very strong stance on what is right and not and she’s not afraid of doing everything for her daughter. They may not understand each other at the start of the drama but steadily they start to communicate better and form a genuine relationship others can only dream about. Kang-ja is an amazing character with a very warm heart behind her loud and sometimes shocking way of enforcing rules. She listens to people because people often did not listen to her – she takes time to research the terrain, so to speak. I loved her tight friendship with Gong-joo (it sounds the same as princes in Korean, a running gag in the drama), the local gang boss with the most well-behaved thugs you’ve ever seen. She’s just delightful as the decoy mother for Kang-ja. I believe that Kang-ja needed a strong person in her life who’d always have her back and this friendship healed something in her when she was dealing with the darkest moments in her life. Goong-jo is a very unique person but so comfortable in her skin you can only admire her.
In fact, this drama gives us quite a few amazing female characters and I’d say the division of good or bad characters is pretty equal along the gender lines. And even then we are dealing with so many shades of grey (damn that filthy trash of a book for ruining this phrase for me) that you can’t just lump characters into neat categories. Their interactions become very complex and change with the fallout of other character’s moves. There are alliances drawn and redrawn, betrayed and upheld…personal agendas come into play and miscommunication does its fair number on the people. Clue in the media and the corporate powers behind them and you’ve got one potent mix to fight against or use to your advantage in the quest for truth and justice.
Kang-ja’s daughter herself is no slouch in the stubborn and outspoken department. You just see it where she gets it and she’s glorious. I may not have agreed with Ah-ran’s decision to keep quiet about the problems she faces with her poor friend Yi-kyung but I do get why she didn’t go to the adults – often enough it was their problems the children had to deal with. The girls are super tight and you feel Ah-ran’s heartbreak when Yi-kyun is murdered. Things spiral out of control then and as a viewer you are suddenly confronted with the fact this drama is not pulling punches. The scene of Yi-kyung’s death – horrendous. It is a catalyst breaking open the vow of silence for Ah-ran.
The third major player of the drama is the naive and idealistic teacher Park No-ah. He starts out as the weakest of all characters and only slowly he is transformed by Kang-ja and other students into what he is supposed to be – a role model and a guardian. He has little experience relating to students and their problems and his naive outlook only hampers him. He does try though and the way he zeroes in on Kang-ja and her disregard for rules because he perceives it to be symptomatic of bigger issues shows he has a good head on his shoulders. He turns into one of the most stalwart supporters of her crusade on the corrupt, criminal, and abusive system. I grew to like him but he wasn’t anywhere near my favourite for a long time.
As for the nemeses Kang-ja has to deal with; we got creepy gangster Ahn Dong-chil whom she has a violent past with and who plays his own long game throughout the drama. You must keep an eye on him at all times especially since he’s one of the tentacles of Chairman Hong, the head of the foundation running the school with the bullying and corruption problem. He gets the cake for being the character with the least amount of empathy. Ugh, I can’t even start on his crimes. Seriously, there are other reprehensible characters but he was the one I hated with a passion.
Ahn Dong-chil controls the head bully at school – the puppy-eyed orphan Go Bok-dong who has no other choice but follow corporate orders even though the whole business disgusts him. Bok-dong became the viewers’ favourite because you can’t ignore his conflict, his pathos. He has a big heart and a good set of morals that he has to disregard in order to survive under Ahn Dong-chil so he finds other people to protect in his private life. He zeroes in on the ‘student’ Kang-ja and the ensuing friendship between them is just heart-melting. The way he verbally lambasts Kang-ja’s husband for touching a female high-school student shows you just how clearly he perceives the wrongs in society. He is overly sensitive to possible abuse because he himself is a victim and a perpetrator of it. Gong-joo just melts around him and he secretly enjoys being mothered by her; he doesn’t like it when Kang-ja does it since he has a crush on her. Kang-ja certainly knows how to keep her cover. 😀
The one character I was immediately wary of is the shark-like teacher Do Jung-woo, the illegitimate son of the Minister of Education. He knows how to say the right things and even Kang-ja is deceived by him for a time. When we see him for who he truly is though…well he may as well be one of the most disturbing characters you’ve ever seen because he is human enough that he engages our sympathy and yet he does so many ugly things. He’s layered so tightly that you just can’t get a feel for what drives him for quite some time. Ahn Dong-chil is more outwardly evil but he has hard limits, whereas Do Jung-woo is prepared to do absolutely anything to reach his goal. You see the train-wreck that propels him towards darker and darker actions; his tactical brilliance and determination, and the odds he has to play against because his father is just a step above and ahead of him.
So the drama starts with small fish polluting the school pool – bullies – and graduates to corporate, even political elites taking advantage of school financing to line their pockets. It shows how bullies graduate to even bigger bullies with greater damage – they go from intimidation of an individual to the intimidation of entire groups, even societies. Kang-ja knows this and is prepared to stand up, showing others the way of fighting for their rights.