I don’t know when School 2013 crept up on me, but before I realized it: a twitch, a tear – moved, I was.
When I gave the show a go, I did it solely because I had the luxury of free time. It was the end of the term and winter break had just begun; why not? Over my traveling winter break, I caught up to it during my free time (and internet access availability). I was anchored to specific characters more than others, but never quite fell completely in love with it.
Yet here we are, the week it ended its run and I am … pondering. Reflecting back at a show that was small in its universe, arrived and departed quietly … and yet it resonated so strongly – sincere, heartfelt and most of all, real.
There’s no doubt that School 2013 isn’t perfect – there are things I could do without, for instance the Mean Girls (whom I started cursing like a sailor at whenever they appeared on my screen) and most especially, the snottiness and pretentiousness of the class as a whole; they’d tsk tsk tsk at Victim of The Week in the same token that they’d laud Hero of The Week – and often times these two weekly yay and nay are the same person. What gives, kids, what gives? You can’t be both friend and foe based on your convenience and at your advantage, that’s just not cool. There is also the questionable school ruling – can teachers quit as they please? – among others. However, truthfully these become minor quibbles when one looks back at School 2013.
School 2013‘s strength, in my opinion, lies in its raw sincerity, both in terms of storytelling and tone. It captures so winningly the growing pain years of high school and examines particular conflicts on a deeper level through its many characters but perhaps, my favorite fact is this: for every conflict presented, it provided no easy, concrete answers because such is life. When you weigh them against these characters whose struggles resonate to Real Life everyday persons though, it becomes more than just another drama, more than just another story needing to be told. These characters are representatives of underprivileged, struggling, aimless and even overachiever students so common the world over; mine, yours, anywhere.
My heart breaks the most, as it always does when it comes to education inequality, to characters like Lee Ji Hoon and Oh Jung Ho who want so much to receive an education and believe it to be the key to a better life, yet at the same time realizing that for them, reality isn’t always so kind. Here’s where School 2013 captured and gutted me the most: how do you, could you, solve these kids’ problems? Could you tell them, as you would the rest, to dream higher than they can imagine, to be limitless and free? Could you, is it fair and right, to be telling them to dream of a future similar to kids like Lee Min Ki and Song Ha Kyung? I don’t blame their circumstances nor do I believe they’ll necessarily forever be trapped in poverty and trouble, but I admit it’s very difficult to break out of that vicious cycle. For these kids, they’ve had to be dealt with reality much earlier than most their age; they’re given the short end of the stick in life and they know it, well aware – so what then? What next? How do you tell them to look for that sliver of light at the end of a hardship tunnel? Or it’s there, maybe, but how do you convince and guide them and make themselves believe they can overcome their inner demons and background, break that wall and push forward?
So many questions, no easy answers. So I love the ending and the open-ended closure-of-sorts the show gave for Oh Jung Ho, because very simply: there are no easy answers. One can hope, life will play its card and reveal itself over time.
I found myself contemplating the plenty above questions often during my encounter with the show, especially during its second-half run. Then there are kids like Go Nam Soon (played so, so fantastically by Lee Jong Suk who is such a strong, young actor) who gutted me too, for his aimlessness, his quiet resolute and indifference at even himself. Go Nam Soon on his own was a fantastic character study, I thought, but bringing forth his fractured friendship, guilt-ridden past really helped to flesh his character and bring him to life – like yes, a real person, someone you might or might not have come across at least once in your life. I was initially very bothered by his indifference but found myself over time, relying on exactly that from him.
Like yin and yang, these two really were one for the books. I must add that I thought for a character who spoke so minimally, Park Heung Soo was one hell of a character. The pathos that Kim Woo Bin breathed to his character through his portrayal – ah, he’s one to watch in future, I dare say. His quiet determination to finish school, his love/hate conflict with Nam Soon and when the friendship was finally more or less patched, I loved him for his assured reliance, looking out for the rest in his own ways.
The two of them though? My heart, it flutters and breaks, riding the waves of their emotional turmoil. One might wonder if they’re exaggerating in their response at the defining event of the past – I’d wondered that too, but could so easily justify their actions. For one, as teenagers that they are, very often emotional sentiments are felt in tenfold and for another, although the gesture may seem like an act which time will eventually heal, the conflict really lies in the fact that the deed took place, by who, for what reason and most crucially, what it means in terms of the future. So the healing process was necessary, the push/pull sentiment relatable but still, my favorite aspect remains the mending of the friendship.
I’m a firm believer that things, good or bad, don’t come round in the same shape and form twice; they lost a damn good friendship, that’s for sure. Changed by what took place and the interim period when life went on without each other in their respective lives, they’ve both metamorphosed and grown into different persons but here’s where it’s great and where I thought School 2013 did a fantastic job in conveying: not all those who wander are lost. The fundamentals of a good friendship too, don’t ebb away despite the tide of time and conflict and for lifelong friends like Nam Soon and Heung Soo … it’s heartrending just being an audience, witnessing their friendship’s ups and downs.
If I am to pick a favorite character though, I admit that it would be none other than… Kang Se Chan. Yup, Teacher Kang played by Daniel Choi whom has holy moly, come such a long way since his days of being that crazy second (third?) lead in Worlds Within. When I watched this show, I sometimes found myself shaking my head in amazement at the disparity; until now it has yet to really click that they’re played by the same actor. Teacher Kang was infuriating in the beginning, no doubt, but that’s exactly what’s great about him: his character trajectory and evolution was most satisfying and moving to watch because seeing him tap into his inner kind teacher side gave me glimpses of a teacher who cared and one who knew when and why to intervene, but to also not sugar coat. Though he was too blunt and killjoy, I personally love his approach: damn straight. His contribution to mending the fractured friendship between Nam Soon and Heung Soon remained one of my favorite and most memorable moments of the show.
On the other hand, if I were to sum up Jang Nara‘s character, In Jae, using just a word, I think it’d be: endearing. I agree that her supposed conflict fizzled unceremoniously and the resolution much too simplistic given the dramatic buildup but the writer(s) really did some memorable thought-provoking scenes through her character, the sort of person who simply can’t help but care too much. As a teacher, it’s a trait that is also her crutch but her unflinching belief and insistence to care anyway and go out of her way to ensure that the kids are not astray – props to her and a hug too for another long day. To every teacher who’s like her out there, I swear I am speaking the truth when I say that for many successful persons there are out there, they are where they are because there is that one, or two if you’re lucky, teacher in their middle, junior or high school who believed in them and supported them as In Jae did with the Class 2-2 students. I can vouch for this personally.
In a nutshell, School 2013 is an easy watch … and yet not. It lingers and asks real questions from the viewers. Some are those reflected in one’s own teenage years while the rest are those that one looks back with a tinge of regret or melancholy for a time that has passed or for the present outcome, but remembers that despite whatever took place or not during that period – that period, it was gold.
School 2013 is not a drama which lets the visuals tell the story – the drama’s not quite a looker, I admit myself, since the quality is very ordinary – but instead, one which lets the writing takes center stage and boy, what a great move that had been. Plus, I think the director really understood the conflicts trying to be portrayed; there’s a certain deft and confidence in the directing which even I noticed, surprisingly and really this elevated the storytelling with so much more depth.
I know a lot of people tuned in to the show for the bromance and though I admit myself that it gave me warm fuzzies and also tears; for instance, that scene where they poured their heart out over ramen and then shrugged it off so nonchalantly like the boys they are – ugh, gutted. But more than that, I really hope viewers of School 2013 remember it for the conflicts and slice-of-life stories it attempted to tell and convey, representative of so many similar Real Life stories of struggles and education inequality experienced by real people. There is no doubt that the main actors of School 2013 were mostly spot-on in the casting, really elevating their characters on an emotionally-relatable level but above all, here’s a show which I remember and suspect will do so for a long time for its endearing, relatable and realistic characters. There were plenty yes, but they were all distinct.
If the show is a person, I suspect he is someone with his heart on his sleeve; raw sincerity, moving, and resonates. School 2013 will leave your heart full – sometimes brimming over small leaps of achievement, other time clutching it in sheer defeat to reality – but most of all lingers with rhetorical life-questions, long after its exit.
I will leave you with this beautiful poem narrated by In Jae in episode 10 – thanks as usual, to the ladies at Dramabeans:
“Where is the flower that blooms without shaking?
Any of the beautiful flowers of this world
all bloom while being shaken
They shake on stems that grow upright
Where is the love that goes without shaking?
Where is the flower that blooms without being soaked?
Any of the shining flowers of this world
bloom as they are soaked
Soaked by wind and rain, petals bloom warmly
Where is the life that goes without being soaked?”
– Flowers That Bloom When Shaken, Do Jong-hwan
Final Verdict: 9.5/10.