Initial thoughts: I like it.
I wasn’t sure I would, given the excessive buzz and weighty expectations, which always seemed to me to be overblown, although maybe that’s because I wasn’t part of the webtoon’s fervent fanbase. But given that it didn’t have multiple drama versions or anime seasons or a particularly long history (the webtoon began running in 2010), I didn’t quite understand the volume of media noise about this show, or how Cheese in the Trap had drawn as much attention and scrutiny as franchises like Boys Before Flowers or Nodame Cantabile.
Ultimately, though, I’m watching this show as a drama, so it needs to work as a drama. So far, I think it does. Casting feels spot-on, the characters are enjoyable, and the show gives the rom-com genre a few tweaks, coming up with a vibe that feels interesting and fresh.
SONG OF THE DAY
Epitone Project – “Lost and found center” [ Download ]
EPISODE 1: “The reason I decided to take leave from school…”
A drinking party is winding down at a college bar, and one partygoer in particular is pretty far gone, slumping at the table and thinking to herself, “I’m tired of it. So tired…”
Barely intelligible, she slurs to her friends, “I’m gonna take leave from school.” It comes out something more like “Imaleevskooo,” and her friends are more concerned with getting her home. They manage to get her to stand, but she whirls and points at an empty chair, demanding, “Where’d [he] go? Where?!”
Then she picks out a blurry face in the background—a tall student playing pool—and points at him… just before falling over in her chair and sprawling onto the ground. Thud.
The pool player hovers over her in concern, and the drunk girl slurs at him, “He’s here! It’s your fault! So fine.” The rest she just thinks to herself: “I’ll disappear from your eyes. Happy?” She glares accusingly, and he looks taken aback.
Fade to black. One year ago.
The girl is HONG SEOL (Kim Go-eun), and today she’s sober as she arrives at a beginning-of-term drinking party for her department (business administration), where she joins her friend BORA (Park Min-ji). Seol has taken the past year off from school to earn money, and Bora welcomes her back to the fold and introduces her to a male student she calls Underling (his name is EUN-TAEK, played by Nam Joo-hyuk).
A bossy sunbae tries to force a student to eat food soaked in soju, and when it’s refused, the guy singles out Seol instead. Cringing all the while, she attempts to eat it while Bossy Sunbae pours liquor into her mouth, but finally she has to spit the whole mess out—rice, lettuce, dribbly hot sauce—just as a tall, good-looking student arrives. Spew. Not the most auspicious meeting.
He’s YOO JUNG (Park Hae-jin), and he’s re-entering school as a third-year after fulfilling his two-year military service. Seol thinks Jung looks cold, but Bora admires his handsome perfection and predicts that the other girls will go out of their way flirting with him.
She’s right, and a girl presses Jung to take a refill, and in the process ends up with a pitcher of beer in her lap. He apologizes, but Seol narrows her eyes, thinking the spill looked deliberate—and catches the tiny smirk on his face that goes unnoticed by everyone else.
Then he looks up and their eyes meet. She wonders what his deal is.
A bit later, Seol runs into Bossy Sunbae in the stairwell just as he’s skimming cash from the students’ party fund. He hides it and she doesn’t say anything, as he assures another student that rich Jung will foot the bill for the next round, his voice booming through the stairwell. Seol rounds the corner and sees Jung standing there, having heard the whole thing, and her voiceover from the future notes, “I shouldn’t have run into him like that. That was the beginning.”
Later, at school, Bossy Sunbae—fine, his name is SANG-CHUL—comes charging up to Seol, accusing her of exposing his little embezzlement on the department message board. Funny how he’s the one puffed up in outrage about it. Seol has no idea what he’s talking about, but he insists it had to be her because she was the only one in that staircase.
Jung arrives in the hallway as she says there was someone else there too, and Jung steps in with friendly words to placate his buddy. After Sang-chul storms off, Jung tells Seol he understands why she had to report it.
Scoffing, Seol asks if he really thinks she did it, reminding him that he was there too. “It wasn’t me,” she says pointedly. “So who could it have been?”
The clingy girl at Jung’s side (the flirt from the party, JOO-YEON) gets huffy at the implication, saying that Jung was the one running around to calm the situation before it got taken to the police, and that he would hardly be fixing everything up front when he’d stabbed from the back. But Seol isn’t cowed, and asks again, “Was it really not you?”
Her voiceover sighs, “I shouldn’t have argued like that. At the time, I didn’t know that behind sunbae’s smile, a frightening double side was hiding.”
Seol runs into Jung again at the coffee shop and tries to ignore him, though he doesn’t let her. Instead he talks to her in full nice mode and gives her the juice he just bought, saying she drinks too much coffee. She’s stunned speechless, wondering if the nice act was meant to prove a point to the clingy girl. I really enjoy how coming from him, an act of kindness is a cause for panic.
That was when lovestruck Joo-yeon started to torment her, Seol narrates.
Case in point: Joo-yeon tells her a class got moved to the afternoon, meaning she’s not there just minutes before its 10 a.m. start. She’s jolted awake by Bora’s frantic call and races to campus immediately, while her friends try to think of ways to stall the professor. Bora even asks Eun-taek to kidnap him temporarily, and her promise of a kiss on the cheek is enough to shake Eun-taek’s composure. He’s adorable.
They’re partially in luck because the professor got ill at the last minute, but the assistant professor still intends to take roll call. So Eun-taek takes it upon himself to create a diversion, approaching the lectern and grabbing the class roster before bolting out, sending the assistant professor chasing him through the halls.
Seol makes it to the building and races inside, at which point Eun-taek gives up the chase and turns on the aegyo with the professor (and amazingly isn’t punished for his stunt, beyond a few hearty whacks).
Safely in her seat, Seol notices Jung sitting a few rows ahead. She narrates, “After the beginning-of-term party, sunbae harassed me endlessly, using other people masterfully.”
She tries to avoid Jung at every opportunity, hurrying past the elevator one day while he waits, only to trip in the stairwell. He comes up to her and steps on her fallen papers, his face a cool mask as he tells her she should’ve been more careful.
Seol shrinks back and thinks, “I could feel it for certain then—a clear malice toward me. My school life turned into hell through one person, and that’s why I decided to take leave from school.”
Now we’re all caught up to our intro scene’s timeline, and resume the day following her drunken declaration. Bora tries to give Seol her savings to use for tuition, assuming she’s got more money troubles. Seol tries to say it isn’t about money, but just then, unexpected good news arrives: Seol has been granted a full scholarship for the term.
It’s a boon, but has her more puzzled than anything. She mulls it over and over, wondering how it could have happened. Furthermore, it doesn’t solve her initial problem: “How can I go to school with that person?”
The course selection period opens, sending the students scrambling to claim the classes they want. There’s one in particular that everyone’s eager to grab, because the professor is relatively easy—whereas the other professor teaching the same subject is known for being much harder.
Our trio all get into the class, and as they leave they run into Jung’s trio in the hall. Bossy sunbae Sang-chul calls for Seol to buy everyone meat, since she got her scholarship because of Jung—apparently the professor lost Jung’s report, so the scholarship he would have gotten went to Seol instead.
This news confuses Seol all over again: Jung was the reason she suffered all last year and nearly left school, but now Jung is the reason she can keep going?
She can’t shake the suspicious feeling, and nearly jumps when he comes up to her in the library. He’s all smiles today, saying nicely that he’s glad he got to see her again, and invites her to lunch.
She’s in such a hurry to get away that she makes an excuse and forgets to log out of the computer, displaying her class schedule. He takes note.
She’s unnerved by the encounter, even though her friends think he’s just making an effort to reach out to her because she’s always running away from him. Bora points out that Seol’s the only person in their whole department who doesn’t like Jung. On the other side of the library glass, Jung watches their conversation with a cryptic smile.
Seol, Bora, and Eun-taek are all present on the first day of Easy Professor’s class, as are a whole slew of hopefuls who didn’t get in. The professor is firm about sticking to the class list and commences with roll call, and curiously, Seol’s name isn’t on the roster.
When she checks with the department afterward, records show that she’d canceled the class selection herself. She obviously didn’t, so she and her friends suppose her account was hacked and wonder who would have done it.
The class is especially important to Seol because having to take the other professor’s course would likely drop her grades and negate her scholarship, and she’d have to take next semester off to work again. And then, Jung pops up in yet another one of her classes, calling it interesting that they’re in this one together too. Suuure, it’s coincidence, right? Some people call it interesting, other people call it stalking…
Seol recalls seeing him in the library around the time when she supposedly canceled her class selection, and starts to suspect him of being the culprit. He follows her out after class and asks her to dinner, which she hastily declines. He asks whether she has any idea who might have canceled her class, and Seol replies that she doesn’t, but intends to find him.
Jung goes to the department office to inquire into the case, and asks for a favor.
Seol appeals to the professor with her circumstances, but he’s not willing to make an exception to his rules. She can’t quite insist that she needs his class more than the alternate because the other professor is in the office, insisting that she’s really quite nice despite her hardass reputation, even if the students have named her Kang Witch.
Jung turns up at Seol’s cafe job, and she nervously processes the transaction, handing him his coffee and fruit shake. And when he gives the shake to her, the gesture fills her with dread rather than pleasure, making her wonder what he means by it.
The day gets worse, because her fellow cafe employee doesn’t show up and makes her late for her class on the first day with Kang Witch. The professor is crystal clear about her stringent rules, and pointedly marks Seol’s tardiness.
On the upside, Seol’s classmate approaches her afterward to offer her helpful information: She was at the library that day, and saw Jung lingering around the computer after Seol had left.
Seo’s more convinced than ever than Jung must have done it, but Bora and Eun-taek caution her not to accuse too readily, especially when she already accused him once for something that didn’t pan out. She decides to look at CCTV footage from that day, and starts to head off just as Jung finds her there.
He asks point-blank whether she suspects him, and suggests that they go together to look at the security footage. He tells her to meet him later and offers her a can of coffee that she’s unsettled to accept.
Jung calls Joo-yeon to cancel on meeting their friends, and curiously, he stays out of view while watching them the whole time as he tells them he’s meeting Seol to find the culprit.
And yet, Jung goes directly to the security office without her, leaving Seol waiting for a while before she decides to go without him. Bora concocts a sob story involving a dead father and a lost wallet to convince the guard to let them see the footage, which succeeds in getting them access to the archives.
The friends scan the library videos to locate the conversation between Seol and Jung from that day. Seol realizes with a shock that she hadn’t logged out of her computer, and sees Jung moving closer to the computer after she leaves it. But to her surprise, he leaves after a moment, without touching anything. The security guard cuts their session short before they can see what happened next—which is how they miss seeing the arrival of sunbae Sang-chul on the scene.
Ah, but Jung has figured things out for himself and confronts Sang-chul that night, asking why he did it. Turns out he’d called his friends earlier to tip off Sang-chul that he was going to look at CCTV footage, and when he got to the security room early, he’d been unsurprised to find Sang-chul arriving as well.
Caught, Sang-chul apologizes and begs Jung to keep this between them, swearing that he hadn’t premeditated anything. He’d just come to the computer and found it logged on to somebody’s account, and seen the class he needed so badly—he’d failed under Kang Witch once already, and if he fails again, he’s in danger of not graduating or getting a job. He was desperate, he swears.
Jung points out that he should be saying all this to Seol, and I find it equal parts exasperating and amusing that even now, Sang-chul feels like he’s the victim—he’d canceled Seol’s class intending to take the spot, only to find that somebody else swooped in and claimed it. Which is how he ended up stuck with Kang Witch again. Ha. Karma.
Only now does Jung admit that the camera angles weren’t that clear, and nobody can actually see what Sang-chul had done on the computer. A look of fear crosses Sang-chul’s face as he realizes, “Were you toying with me?” Like this is the first time he’s seeing Jung’s scary side, perhaps.
Jung replies chillingly, “Of course not. I didn’t know you would spill everything like this.”
Seol walks home wondering who the culprit could be if not Jung, and as chance would have it, she runs right into him. He asks if she still thinks he’s the one, and she asks why he hadn’t said it wasn’t. He asks, “Would you have believed me?”
Point made. She admits to herself, “No. I wouldn’t have believed you. Why you gave up your scholarship, why you’re taking the same class as me. There are so many things I want to ask you, but I don’t have confidence I’ll believe your answers yet.”
So today, she just bows and apologizes for misunderstanding. He asks her out to dinner, but she blurts out a hasty refusal and runs off. Hm, does he actually look disappointed?
That night, Seol sighs that class selection period has ended, and she never found out the truth. But she’s decided to think that there was somebody in more desperate a situation than herself.
It isn’t too far from the truth, depending on how far your sympathies stretch. We join Sang-chul in his tiny rented room, eating a simple dinner with canned tuna. He takes a call from his mother and lies that he’s eating expensive food, and that he’s got a few job offers but is thinking them over. Aw. I actually feel sorry for him.
Elsewhere in Seoul, a rumpled-looking young man—BAEK IN-HO (Seo Kang-joon)—sits outside a building, waiting for somebody. A fancy car pulls up and a spoiled-looking woman steps out, indifferent to her angry date who appears to be taking their breakup with a distinct lack of grace. He calls her gold-digger and do-nothing, but she hardly bats an eyelash, though In-ho steps in to challenge the rude date.
The woman’s name is BAEK IN-HA (Lee Sung-kyung) so she must be his sister, although the guy assumes she’s dating around and drives off in a huff. The siblings trade barbs and seem to be quite used to an antagonistic relationship.
They head inside In-ha’s apartment, which she airily says was given to her by the chairman so she could be self-sufficient. In-ho retorts that independence requires that she do it herself, which makes him the smarter of the pair. In-ha has quit school, content to get by on other men’s money, which In-ho finds pathetic.
She says he’s more pathetic, goofing off for the past five years, and supposes that he’s back to take more money from the chairman. That sparks his temper and In-ho warns her to watch her mouth, looking like he regrets attempting this sibling reunion.
In-ho halts his exit when In-ha asks pointedly, “Have you seen Jung yet? He’s changed a lot.” She offers to call him, and although Jung rejects the call, she fakes her half of the conversation, then tells her brother that Jung wants to see him—a notion In-ho scoffs at.
In-ha says, “Even if you go, you should see his face before you do. Isn’t that the only way you’ll leave with a clear heart?”
In-ha sends Jung a text telling him In-ho’s back and suggests meeting up “like old times.” Jung deletes the messages.
Seol decides she’ll make the best of her class assignment and sits in on the next lecture, but to everyone’s surprise, Jung arrives during roll call, saying he swapped classes since this one seemed more interesting. He takes the seat next to Seol and gives her a friendly wave, while she sinks into her seat in agitation, wailing internally, “What is this guy’s deal?!”
I did read bits and pieces of the webtoon to give me a general idea of the storyline, but am mostly coming into the show with a clean slate. From what I can tell, the casting feels pretty much perfect, and whatever concerns there were about Kim Go-eun not fitting the vibe of Hong Seol seem to me to have been assuaged. I’d much rather have an actress capable of nuance and neuroticism than someone picked by fans for her looks, because Kim Go-eun nails this character’s anxious-yet-plucky vibe.
Admittedly, Park Hae-jin is way too old to play a third-year college student, even one who’s been to army and back, but I do appreciate the way he gives Yoo Jung an effective air of mystery about him. It’s all too easy to put an actor into a “cold, unreadable” role and have the interpretation come out as a brick wall—you’re not supposed to be able to read him, so he gives you very little. But Park Hae-jin gives you a lot—one moment sweet, one moment chilly—and the inscrutability comes from our inability to know what his true feelings are, not from his inability to emote them.
I found myself really enjoying the quirky tone of Cheese, where everybody’s living in this light campus drama and Seol is in a Hitchcock thriller, which is probably something we must credit to a strong directorial hand. (Perhaps this’ll be the project to finally get PD Lee Yoon-jung to stop being thought of as “the Coffee Prince director” and establish her more as an all-around director.) For the first 45 minutes, I was totally there in Seol’s head with her, finding Jung so obviously creepy and dark that I was amazed nobody else in her world could see it. Was everyone so easily fooled by a pretty face and a well-timed pleasantry?
I loved how that gave us a nice reversal on the standard courtship depiction, where a handsome, persistent suitor is nothing but swoony and romantic, and the girl just hasn’t seen his charms yet. (I’m thinking Boys Before Flowers, Secret Garden, Heirs, and so many more.) In this case, the girl finds the guy’s constant hovering unsettling and creepy—he’s not just a misunderstood nice guy, but rather stalker-like, even. When she wonders what he means by giving her a fruit smoothie, I was just as skeptical, thinking surely there must be an ulterior motive. He couldn’t just… like her, right?
But then we see a tiny glimpse of an alternate explanation, and suddenly it starts feeling like Seol is the paranoid one. I definitely don’t mean to suggest she is paranoid—the direction is very clear in making us suspect him—but I like this unreliable narrator aspect to the story. We can’t quite trust her judgment, but she admits at the end that she can’t quite trust it either. And because we’ve seen those hints of Jung being more than purely nice, we’d be remiss in giving him the free pass right away, too.
In fact, I find myself hoping that the show doesn’t clear up the shadows around him right away, because I find a lot about the ambiguity to be enjoyable. Seol talks about Jung making a whole year of her life untenable, to the extent where she’d drop out to get away from him, and I like that I don’t know whether to take her at her word or not—was she reading too much into his actions, or is there really a subversive side to Jung that only she sees?
I’m looking forward to seeing the story unravel from here—and I have to ask very very emphatically, if you’ve read the webtoon, PLEASE NO SPOILERS! If you post spoilers, you’ll get deleted, and you’ll probably ruin my day. Don’t do that, please!
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- Campus drama Cheese in the Trap completes cast
- Cheese in the Trap casts Nam Joo-hyuk, delays broadcast
- Cheese in the Trap finally has a heroine in Kim Go-eun
- Suzy bows out of Cheese in the Trap
- Suzy up to headline tvN’s Cheese in the Trap
- Anticipated webtoon adaptation Cheese in the Trap goes to tvN
- Park Hae-jin signs on for webtoon-adapted drama Cheese in the Trap