In a time when the world is raving over Squid Game, I would like to bring your attention to a lesser known Korean series titled Extracurricular, a Netflix original series that was released in 2020 starring Kim Dong-hee, Park Ju-hyun, Nam Yoon-su, and Jung Da-bin in lead roles.
Abandoned by his parents, Oh Ji-soo, a straight-A school student, runs a security system for sex workers through his mobile phone to earn money for his college tuition. When Bae Gyu-ri, his classmate, steals his "work" phone, she jeopardizes everything he had been working for – his only shot at living a normal life – getting into a reputed college, a well-paying job, and building a family of his own.
A high school student working with sex workers might not seem to be a very realistic premise. But once you buy into this premise, the series takes off wonderfully.
Oh Ji-soo, for a minor being involved in illegal activities, is anything but bold or charismatic. With his woebegone eyes, he appears to be a weak and cowardly nerd. But as the faceless "Uncle" organizing sexual rendezvous and calling shots through his phone, he seems imposing and powerful.
Bae Gyu-ri makes an interesting female lead; she is cold, unfeeling, and manipulative on the outside but she is also someone who has her own horde of demons troubling her. Being the daughter of elite parents, she is fated and expected to follow in their footsteps. She finds her meticulously planned life stifling and desperately seeks an escape.
And when these two characters belonging to utterly different realities collide, the story really takes off. And somewhere along the way, they start to care deeply for each other that they even find themselves risking their lives for each other on multiple occasions. The affection, however, is unsaid and unexplored. I particularly liked the reversal of roles with Gyu-ri being the rational cool-headed character to the often helpless and erratic Ji-soo.
The dream sequences in the series were fascinating as they effectively represent Ji-soo's mental dilemmas. Why, they even call for a Freudian-style analysis! Ji-soo's pet hermit crab can be seen as an extension of himself: When things get out of hand, like his pet crustacean, he prefers to hide under a blanket and shut off the outside world. When something happens to his pet, it inevitably foreshadows his own fate. Another recurring symbol is the interior of a kaleidoscope tube, the meaning of which remains unclear, perhaps it alludes to the multiple sides the story has or the double lives of the main characters.
The lead actors were incredible as troubled adolescents navigating life in the face of dire circumstances. In hindsight, the main characters aren't bad people, they don't deliberately mean harm to anyone else, except for Kwak Ki-tae, the school bully. Additionally, I was pleasantly surprised to find the characters of Mr. Lee and Min-hee modelled on the iconic Leon-Matilda duo from the film Leon the Professional. Kudos for that throwback!
Extracurricular can be seen as a commentary on the harsh reality of teenage delinquency; the double lives school students lead to survive in a society divided by money – be it selling stolen goods, working as a gopher for a club owner, or engaging in prostitution. One might praise this series for its depiction of social realities or for its plot and character development or both. I will leave that assessment to you.
I also found the Korean title of the series "Human Class" meaningful as the series brings to light that despite everything that separates one's life from another, be it status, money or gender; one category, or class unites everyone – that of being human.
Extracurricular is essentially about the extraordinary lengths one might go to achieve one's dreams. The soundtrack of the series effectively mirrors the growing sense of chaos depicted. The title track is particularly impressive and will stay with you even after you have completed the series.
Some stories linger longer in our minds when they are open-ended and Extracurricular fits that bill. This series hasn't been renewed for another season; thank God for that and I hope it stays that way.