Adapted from the Naver webtoon Yakhanyoungwoong (Weak Hero) written by Seo Pae-seu and illustrated by Kim Jin-seok, the eight-episode series explores the conditions that perpetuate bullying in schools and society as a whole. Screened at the 2022 Busan International Film Festival on October 7, 2022, the Wavve original action-drama stars Park Ji-hoon (Flower Crew: Joseon Marriage Agency), Hong Kyung (D.P.), and Choi Hyun-wook (Twenty-Five Twenty-One).
K-drama Poster from HanCinema
Ace high school student Yeon Si-eun (Park Ji-hoon) usually just keeps to himself until an incident gets him entangled with the class bully and a transferee named Oh Beom-seok (Hong Kyung). He eventually becomes friends with Beom-seok and another classmate, An Soo-ho (Choi Hyun-wook), who happens to be trained in mixed martial arts. Together, they use the means at their disposal—analytics, money, or fighting skill—in order to survive the rampant violence in school and in their community.
The normal route of a weak brainy protagonist is to be wronged, to train in martial arts, and to triumph over social injustice in the end. Deviating from such a route, Shi-eun shuns the gym and focuses on self-preservation, using nearby objects, high school lessons, and his analytical skills to outwit the bullies. MacGyvering his way out of a sticky situation, he suddenly makes us believe how one newbie could beat three or more experienced fighters. Of course, he doesn’t win all the time, and when he loses, he ends up in a hospital. Park Ji-hoon sheds his cute image from Flower Crew: Joseon Marriage Agency to inhabit the gloomy, numb persona of Shi-eun, a child mostly left on his own by his parents. He then makes it satisfying to see his face break into a quick but huge smile for the first time in another hospital scene because of his new buddy Ahn Soo-ho.
Choi Hyun-wook turns up his Twenty-Five Twenty-One cool and charm as the hardworking Soo-ho with believable and beautiful fight scenes unusual in youth series. These scenes are intensified by emo and angsty music characteristic of shonen anime (Japanese animated show traditionally for young men, i.e. action-packed). Nowhere near a sidekick, his character starts off as a reluctant hero and continues to be on equal footing with Shi-eun.
Reuniting after their successful stint at D.P., Shin Seung-ho swaps his regal Alchemy of Souls robes for a Jeon Seok-dae street gang outfit while Hong Kyung wipes off his Lovers of the Red Sky smugness to embody a meek Beom-seok. Both carry their characters well, shining in the first and second arcs, respectively. Some fans can’t help but compare this drama with D.P. because of the bullying theme, the absence of romance, a male-dominated cast, and its three common actors (a third D.P. actor appears at the end).
Photo from HanCinema
In a departure from similarly themed TV series, the k-drama delves not only into the lasting impact of school bullying but also the contrasting societal conditions that encourage it: wealth/poverty (both as a result of capitalism), overprotective/apathetic adults, peer pressure/loneliness, among others. It unmasks all the players that perpetuate, reinforce, get trapped in, or escape from the cycle of violence: the entitled bully who sees nothing wrong with bullying, the victim who is made to believe in dominance, and the bystander who relies on others to help the victims.
That’s why the series is closer to All of Us Are Dead—just remove the romance and the useful adults and replace the plague with school violence. Told from the the high schoolers’ perspective, both stories peel away the layers of the problem, only to reveal deeply-rooted evil and despair.
The series has two arcs with vastly different endings and characters, split into half by the scene where Beom-seok's eyeglasses are punched off his face. But both arcs make up the prequel to the webtoon, while the last scene in the last episode sets up the events both in the webtoon and season 2 of the k-drama.
Trigger warning: violence, physical/psychological abuse