Updated: Dec 2, 2021
An ill-fated tale of forbidden love set in the city of Gwangju during the politically charged month of May 1980, "Youth of May" can take your emotions on a roller coaster over a weekend.
Youth of May takes us back to the city of Gwangju during the politically charged month of May 1980, when a student-led uprising against the military regime at the time led to the killing of thousands of citizens.
But before all that happens, we're first introduced to medical student Hwang Hee-tae (Lee Do-hyun), who goes home to Gwangju to help transfer a patient wounded from student protests in Seoul. The son of a high-ranking government officer and a top student at the prestigious Seoul National University, his failure to treat the wounded patient forces him to defer his graduation.
In Gwangju, he meets nurse Kim Myeong-hee (Go Min-si), who is practically her family's breadwinner. She has one month left, until the end of May 1980, before she has to leave for Germany to study medicine on a scholarship. In exchange for airfare funds, she agrees to go on three dates with Hee-tae in place of her friend, Lee Soo-ryeon (Keum Sae-rok), who comes from a wealthy family but actively protests against the government.
Without intending to spoil anyone, I have to first establish that this k-drama — set against one of the most brutal events in South Korea’s history — is a tragic tale of young love. Expectations can spell the difference between an enjoyable and a disappointing viewing experience, and so I feel it is necessary to immediately dissuade anyone of the silly notion that this story could end in happy-ever-after.
But is that a reason to skip it? Not really. The Titanic still became one of the highest grossing films in history even though we knew there was no way both Jack and Rose would survive the tragedy. In fact, it would have been disappointing if producers allowed both of them to survive despite so much death and suffering around them. Science also says we do get a boost of oxytocin — the love hormone — when we feel empathy for the characters we watch, and well-told tragedies are extremely effective in giving us all the feels.
On that point, Youth of May succeeds. Powered heavily by the strength of Lee Do-hyun’s charm, this story of forbidden love has enough of the requisite heart-fluttering moments to suck you in and make you root for both Hwang Hee-tae and Kim Myeong-hee, as they find ways to overcome the forces intent on keeping them apart. Those who watched Lee Do-hyun and Go Min-si play siblings in Sweet Home might initially cringe when they start flirting, but there is enough chemistry between the two to sell this romance.
The strength of this romantic build-up in the first half then serves to heighten the anticipation for the inevitable tragedy you know is coming on the other side of the long-awaited kiss.
When it comes to actually telling the story of the Gwangju Uprising and the students who were at the forefront of the fight, though, Youth of May falters a bit. The second female lead, Lee Soo-ryeon, was the highest-profile activist in the story and had a very promising character profile as the daughter of a businessman who needed to suck up to the government. But instead of representing the fiery youth of Gwangju at the time, she makes questionable decisions for the sake of story development that did not always feel consistent with her characterization.
Despite this, Youth of May is still a worthwhile binge for a weekend full of oxytocin and tears. If it inspires you to watch more shows about the Gwangju Uprising, check out our list of titles here.
STREAM: If you’re in the mood to both fall in love and get your heart shredded to pieces within the span of 12 episodes.
SKIP: If you’re not into tragedies, or if you’re looking for a history lesson on the Gwangju Uprising.