08 April 2023

K Drama Review: Youth of May (2021) 4.9 || 4.8

We put off watching this one because we're not really into period and historical dramas. But after falling in love with Lee Do Hyun in The Glory, I know it was time to watch this show. And now, I deeply regret not watching it sooner. It's hauntingly beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. 


Youth of May, set in May 1980 during the Gwangju Uprising, tells the story of Hwang Hee Tae (Lee Do Hyun), a medical student, who finds himself back in Gwangju after staying in Seoul for his medical studies. He's on a mission to transfer a student activist (Kim In Seon of Lovestruck in the City, Start-Up, Record of Youth, and Crash Landing on You as Seok Chul) who is in coma after being injured during a protest in Seoul back to her hometown in Gwangju. As fate would have it, Hee Tae meets Kim Myung Hee (Go Min Si). He saw her first in the hospital where she worked then he formally met her when she pretended to be her friend Lee Soo Ryeon (Keum Sae Rok) who was supposed to go on a blind date with Hee Tae. Hee Tae was smitten with Myung Hee even after he found out that she was not really Soo Ryeon. Things get complicated, however, because Hee Tae's dad, Hwang Gi Nam (Oh Man Seok), who was the head of the Anti-Communist agency, was hell-bent on having Hee Tae marry Soo Ryeon for his political ambitions. Gi Nam did not want anyone to get in the way of his dreams, even if it meant killing his own family. The story takes us through how Hee Tae and Myung Hee fight for their love against all odds during one of the most tumultuous times in South Korea. 

Lee Do Hyun as Hwang Hee Tae

Although he was already amazing in The Glory (even in Hotel Del Luna and Prison Playbook), Lee Do Hyun managed to impress me even more with this drama. Oppa feels it's because he has more speaking lines here. 

But I guess it also helped that there were so many layers to Hee Tae that allowed Lee Do Hyun to really showcase his acting skills. I loved him during his smug moments like when Myung Hee's condescending colleagues were badmouthing her and he dumped water on them or when he confronted the activists who were bullying Soo Ryeon and told them they had to act friendly lest they be arrested by the guards following him. 

Yes, he can appear annoying but he can be helpful too like when he helped his stepmother (Shim Yi Young of Monthly Magazine Home, Love Alarm, Love Alarm 2) cover up for his half brother Jang Tae (Choi Seung Hoon of Strong Girl Bong Soon) who was attending track training camp without their father's permission. 

Then we have humble Hee Tae who also knows how to use his connections when needed like when he agreed to go on a blind date as long as his dad gave him money so he can have Seok Chul transferred to Gwangju. Or how he knows how to stand his ground like when he told Soo Ryeon that they should not cross the line and get married just to save themselves. 

My favorite would probably be cute, immature, and childish Hee Tae who insists on getting what he wants with Myung Hee.

Then we have Hee Tae's serious side. The one traumatized because he thought he didn't do enough to save Seok Chul, which prevents him from completing his studies, graduating, and practicing medicine. Despite that, he continues to take responsibility for her. 

Lee Do Hyun did really well in his dramatic scenes. Like when he saw his close friend and Seok Chul's boyfriend, Kyung Soo (Kwon Young Chan of Cleaning Up), in the frontline of the soldiers attacking Gwangju and who was on the verge of hurting Myung Hee. They didn't say anything but the look in their eyes and faces said so many things. Everything felt so heavy. 

Hee Tae's confrontation scenes with his dad were done so well too. You can definitely feel the power struggle between the two. 

And Hee Tae's most heartbreaking moment was probably that scene in the restaurant where he broke down while looking for Myung Hee. 

The older Hee Tae (Choi Won Young of Sky Castle) was really good too. Yes, he was only on one episode but he conveyed so much in the limited minutes he was on screen. I loved how he mentored the intern whose patient died by telling him we don't have control on who lives and who dies so we can only do our best. And that bittersweet moment when he realized that Myung Hee's remains were found. 

Hee Tae was a great character and it was really fortunate that he was played by great actors. 

Go Min Si as Kim Myung Hee

Now Go Min Si was really a revelation in this show. I didn't enjoy her that much in Love Alarm and Love Alarm 2, while her role was too limited in Jirisan. But she impressed me so much here. 

Myung Hee has a sad and poor life, which is very evident in her emotions. But surprisingly, it was not depressing to watch her. Probably because she tries to rise above the adversities surrounding her. She has a loving relationship with almost everyone around her, especially her younger brother, Myung Soo (Jo Yi Hyun). She's mostly quiet and gentle but she can also be very feisty when needed. She never allows others to take advantage of her. 

One of Myung Hee's shining moments would have to be that painful confrontation scene she had with her dad (Kim Won Hae of Samjin Company English Class, Strong Girl Bong Soon, Monthly Magazine Home, Run On, Start-Up, Hotel Del Luna, Misaeng, and Reply 1994), where she told him she's been trying to live quietly and to not let anyone hear her, even her breathing, to keep her family safe. Their relationship was a very painful one especially after it was revealed that her dad was once accused of being a communist too. 

And who can forget Myung Hee's amazing transformation after she was threatened by Hee Tae's dad? Her dead eyes. Her very, very gloomy aura. As if her soul died when she realized all of her plans to study overseas were shattered. 

Then how she turned into a cleaning robot after Hee Tae left for Seoul with Soo Ryeon. And her heartbreaking conversation with her brother when she told him she was not leaving anymore. And her breakdown scene before the priest where she lamented that she's been living behind closed doors her entire life and how suffocating it has been. 

And the roller coaster of emotions she exhibited - how she almost went crazy when she thought her brother was hurt, then the relief after she heard he was safe, and how she passed out from extreme exhaustion. 

And of course there's that great breakdown scene when her father died. And that bittersweet scene where she convinced her brother to go ahead and run and that she'll follow him. So, so heavy. 

Go Min Si was probably the best actor in this show and I'm glad that I finally got to see how talented she is. 

Hee Tae and Myung Hee

I totally loved how the show built up this love story. First with the hilarious blind date where Hee Tae went through with all of Myung Hee's baits. I liked how the "mistaken identities" angle was not stretched and Hee Tae found out right away that Myung Hee was not Soo Ryeon. 

And how everything felt so sincere between the two of them from that point. How Hee Tae accepted  Myung Hee's background and how he also shared his painful past with her. I super loved how everything seemed peaceful when they were together despite the chaos surrounding them. 

And they were so good for each other. With Myung Hee encouraging Hee Tae, always telling him he'll be a good doctor. I loved that scene in the orphanage which showed us that while skill is important, a good heart matters too because that will push a doctor to try his hardest for his patients. 

Then we have their little break ups. Like when Myung Hee told Hee Tae to marry Soo Ryeon. And how Hee Tae broke down, saying he was tired of writing letters to someone who does not write him back. Then we have Myung Hee admitting to Hee Tae that she was not okay during his engagement party. Yes, they were crazy to run away together that night, knowing how ruthless Hee Tae's dad was. But I sort of get them. They were feeling rebellious after being repressed all these years and forced to do things against their will. It's just unfortunate that they didn't think about the repercussions of their actions, which was quite surprising knowing how Myung Hee has been arrested and tortured in the past and how Hee Tae knew how cruel his father can be. 

And of course, the most painful confrontation that happened after Myung Hee was abducted by Hee Tae's dad. It was so heartbreaking that despite what they said, you can totally feel that they just wanted each other to be happy - with Hee Tae asking his dad to let Myung Hee live her life and Myung Hee begging Hee Tae's dad to leave him alone. 

I was happy with their reunion. Although I was scared to see them hugging in a public place. But I guess love makes you brave and bold? 

I loved listening to their conversations because they were all so heartfelt. Like when they both said that life didn't seem to have any purpose before they met each other. They were wandering and floating aimlessly in the universe with no one listening to them. Then they found each other. 

I super loved their wedding prayers. With Hee Tae wishing to always shield Myung Hee from pain and difficulties. And with Myung Hee proclaiming that she is Hee Tae's family. 

And that note Myung Hee left, which Hee Tae got to read 41 years later. How it was so ominous for her to wish that in case something bad happens, may the one left behind never drown in sorrow. 

*sigh* Hee Tae and Myung Hee will definitely be one of my most favorite K drama couples. 

Keum Sae Rok as Lee Soo Ryeon

Keum Sae Rok was also a revelation. We enjoyed watching her in The Interest of Love (and The Last Princess). But admittedly, we only saw more of her cutesy side there. So it was a joy to see her play a character that had more depth. 

Soo Ryeon was a conflicted character. She was an activist. But when her family's business was on the line, she yielded. I personally found it surprising that she agreed to get married to save her family. It felt like that was the opposite of everything that she was fighting for. Based on her personality, I expected her to defy her family regardless of the consequences. But I guess she's not as hardcore as she projects to be. And what made matters worse was how she knew Myung Hee and Hee Tae liked each other, yet she still got in the way. She hurt too many people just to save herself. And I hated it even more when I learned that Myung Hee already took the fall for her back in high school. 

But I can't hate her completely, knowing that she was also suffering with how she was interfering with Hee Tae and Myung Hee's relationship. I'm just happy that she was able to iron things out with Myung Hee before she left for Seoul. And how she finally let Hee Tae go and helped him realize that Myung Hee went away because she didn't want Hee Tae to be hurt. 

Lee Sang Yi as Lee Soo Chan

I was so used to seeing Lee Sang Yi as a cheerful guy in Crash Course in Romance and Hometown Cha Cha Cha (and Prison Playbook). And he was still cheerful during the first part of the show. So it was shocking (and pleasantly surprising) to see him transform into a mad guy when he confronted Hee Tae about his affair with Myung Hee. I totally felt his anger and pain. 

Then he transformed into a guilty guy who wanted to do right by Myung Hee after realizing that his family made her go through so much. It was heartbreaking to see him breakdown before Myung Hee, begging her to let him help her to assuage his guilt. 

And that realization that the outside world was a crazy one and he can't just be happy in his own bubble. Such solid acting from him when he was arrested and he begged Hee Tae's dad to release everyone too. 

I love how this show made everyone shine, with well-written and developed characters like Soo Chan. 

Hee Tae and Myung Hee's Brothers

Although they started out on the wrong foot (literally, with them fighting over fake shoes), I loved how Jang Tae and Myung Soo formed a solid friendship eventually. While Jang Tae initially judged Myung Soo for being poor (saying he smelled like a beggar), I'm glad he was able to go beyond that. And how he turned out to be a true friend not just to Myung Soo but to his sister as well. 

I really enjoyed seeing them together with their siblings eating together and going to the theme park. It was like a little reminder that people still tried their best to share happy moments despite the crazy time they lived in. And how that trip paved the way for Jang Tae and Hee Tae to finally become closer. 

Hee Tae and Myung Hee's Fathers

I loved the dads acting too. 

Myung Hee's dad was a very sad character. He was misunderstood most of the time. His daughter hated him because she felt he was holding her back from pursuing her dreams. That's why it was so painful to hear him say towards the end that he was actually just shielding her from the strong wind that might hurt and sweep her away. And that he was finally letting her fly on her own, knowing she was strong and she can face anything that came her way. With the variety of roles I've seen Kim Won Hae play, I can say that he's really, really good. 

Oh Man Seok is one nasty guy. I hated him in Crash Landing on You. But he was even more annoying here as Hee Tae's dad. I hated how he was two-faced - pretending to be decent, wanting to marry into a rich family, but he was actually a butcher who threatened, blackmailed, and even killed those who opposed him. I'm so used to seeing him play bad guys that I wonder if he can ever cross over to good guy characters. 


With the way the show started, it can't be helped that some parts of the story felt confusing. Like who was Seok Chul? Was she an important character? There were a bit of slow moments too. 

Also, if you're watching this without any idea about what happened in Gwangju in 1980, you might have a hard time understanding what the protests were for and what the protesters were fighting for. I was fortunate to have watched some Gwangju films and to have Oppa who loves history so I had a background on what transpired during those times. 

Some locations like the bus stop and the cinema area looked and felt too much like a set. It didn't look natural. But I can let that go since it might have been difficult to recreate something from the past. And the show did a pretty good job in giving me the '80s vibe in its other aspects (hair, clothing, etc.). 

Apart from those little stuff, I loved everything else about the show. It did a great job in integrating Hee Tae and Myung Hee's love story into history. They were woven so well together that you won't even notice where one started and ended. History still felt like the centerpiece of the story and it was not exploited as a mere decoration to the love story. And the story lines all felt so realistic. You can actually imagine these things happening back then. 

The "cheating" issue was a touchy topic for me. I do not condone cheating, especially with how Hee Tae and Myung Hee were flaunting it. I get that they were rebelling and the reactions of the people around them were expected. But I sympathized with them because they were thrust into that situation through no fault of their own. Soo Ryeon forced Myung Hee to go to that blind date. And when the two fell in love, they pushed them to the edge by telling Soo Ryeon and Hee Tae's parents about it. Didn't they realize how dangerous Hee Tae's dad was and what he was capable of doing? If we must blame anyone, I'd say they all had their faults that contributed to how things ended. My main culprit was Soo Ryeon, although Oppa blames Soo Chan as the one who triggered everything. 

I loved how the show was honest. It didn't mislead us into believing that we'll get a happy ending. As early as the third episode, you'll already get the ominous feeling about how things will end for Myung Hee and Hee Tae and how Hee Tae's dad will contribute greatly to their sufferings. 

Going back to the history stuff, I loved how the drama attempted to show the social inequalities prevalent back then. Although the activists were fighting for the same things, some of them were still more fortunate than others. Like Soo Ryeon got out of jail ahead of her comrades because she's from a rich family with connections. And how the other activists doubted her despite everything she's done for them. And how poor ones like Myung Hee are made to take the fall for the richer ones. 

I liked how the drama showed us how diverse the activists were - rich kids, ordinary ones, kids of government officials, etc. 

It was interesting to note that some of the stuff we see in present day society already existed back then. Like how parents use their kids to advance their interests by marrying them off to rich and/or powerful families. 

The build up to the May 18, 1980 uprising was nicely done. I could feel the tension all over. 

Everything was so tragic. I had to look away when torture scenes were shown. But I loved how the people of Gwangju banded together. Like the local police man allowing the arrested citizens to go. With grown ups vouching for the kids being arrested. How the hospital turned off lights to make it appear that they were not in operation but they continued to accept patients. And how the main leads made the uprising bigger than themselves and their personal interests - Soo Chan helping out his fellow prisoners, his family using their resources to help the movement, and Hee Tae agreeing to stay until the worst was over despite the danger he and Myung Hee faced. 

The May 18 chaos was so realistic. It was not over the top. The show didn't milk it for the drama. And the scenes didn't feel contrived at all. Like the doctor taking the ambulance to retrieve patients. Myung Hee and Hee Tae's siblings getting trapped in the protests. Hee Tae seeing his friend now in the military but who was afraid to shoot others. And Hee Tae's brother seeing his dad hurting others. They all felt so real - and that made them more painful to watch. 

It was sad to see people left to fend for themselves. I loved that real talk Hee Tae and Myung Hee had about hypocrisy - about being fine with others getting hurt as long as your loved ones are safe. And how Hee Tae acknowledged that there was nothing wrong with that because that's human nature. In the first place, people should not even have to choose about who to save first. 

I liked how the drama showed us how this tragedy was brought about by the selfish interests of a few people who destroyed so many lives and families - Hee Tae's family, Myung Hee's family, Soo Ryeon's family, Kyung Soo and Seok Chul, Hye Gun (Lee Gyu Sung of Prison Playbook), and of course, Hee Tae and Myung Hee. 

As the show came to an end, Oppa noticed little loopholes in the story. How can Hee Tae's dad go to the church to save Jang Tae without any of the rebels/protesters noticing and hurting him? Why didn't the soldiers attack the church despite knowing the protesters were there? And why did Hee Tae and Myung Hee separate when they were looking for Myung Soo???? Would things have ended differently if they didn't?

Personally, I was curious about what happened to Hee Tae's dad. The director explained that he felt it was unnecessary because people might not be comfortable seeing him after all the atrocities he committed. But I would have found it more satisfying to see him pay dearly for his crimes. Losing his family was not enough. 

I loved how Jang Tae heroically rescued Myung Hee from the spy who was about to shoot her. (Although I wonder if he lived super near the church that he got there so fast). This was a big deal for me because at least Myung Hee didn't have to die in the hands of Hee Tae's dad. 

Hee Tae was so lucky to have been saved by a soldier from Gwangju (Kim Eun Soo), who turned out to be the brother of his tutee and Myung Hee's landlady (Park Se Hyun of Big Mouth and Record of Youth). My only consolation is that he didn't see Myung Hee die. 

And while the show ended tragically, I was still glad that Hee Tae got his closure, no matter how late it was. I was secretly hoping for a funeral scene where all survivors would come together. But that might have been too dramatic for the show. All I can say is that I totally felt Hee Tae's pain from waiting after all these years. That sadness still haunts me days after I've finished watching the drama. I still want to cry every time I remember their terrible fate. And that's how impactful the show was. 

Oppa says...4.9.

Noona says...4.8.