High School: Love On: Episode 1
What an intriguing little show. High School: Love On feels like a curious experiment for KBS, not just with its quirky genre bent but also format. Truth be told, I was expecting this show to be either a mess or to fall by the wayside entirely because for months, KBS kept changing its mind about where to schedule it—there was talk of it being a regular prime-time show, then a weekend daytime show, and finally settling on its current slot of Friday nights, one episode a week, for twenty episodes.
It’s odd, and I think the timeslot and marketing were handled poorly enough to consign the show to an underwatched run. And it looks like it may end up the little show that got ignored, though I do hope it doesn’t because I think it deserves a better fate. The drama is interesting and atmospheric and a little weird, in a good way. I went into it with no idea of what to expect, and came away quite pleasantly surprised. On top of a quirky supernatural premise, it has endearing characters and a seriously beautiful cinematography with a deft directorial touch that lingers on lovely little moments.
(I’m not planning to continue recapping this show because of the time conundrum, but I wanted to at least bring the show to your attention with the first episode recap. Because it’s worth a look!)
SONG OF THE DAY
Standing Egg – “Blue Sky” [ Download ]
EPISODE 1: Fate — Irresistible and Out of the Blue!
We open in the spring of 2016, at a university campus. A student—our hero—bumps into a girl in front of a building, and she drops her books at his feet. He returns most of them, but before he can hand her the last one, she’s off without a word.
Her face is kept purposely hidden from us—and from him—and there’s something rather urgent in the way he runs after her, trying to catch up. But he loses her around the bend.
He looks down at the book, titled A Hand to You (on the cover, a note has been handwritten in pen, “To Dummy”). He heaves a heavy sigh of disappointment.
A sudden downpour sends him running for cover, which is where a girl steps up next to him, her face hidden under an umbrella. He recognizes the gold key necklace she’s wearing and his fingers instinctively touch the silver necklace around his neck, in the shape of a lock.
“You…” he starts to say in surprise. But the girl with the hidden face walks off again.
He thinks, “In the time in my life when you were my every moment, we loved. And in this moment now, I hope that it’s you.”
Then we jump backward two years, to the spring of 2014.
We resume with our hero, named SHIN WOO-HYUN (played by Infinite member Nam Woo-hyun), an 18-year-old in his second year of high school. As he rides his scooter carrying a grocery delivery, another teenager steps directly into his path. With mere seconds to react, Woo-hyun skids madly, trying to stop.
Suddenly all motion sloooooows to crawl, then halts entirely. Time freezes for everyone—except for one girl perched on the roof of a building, who watches curiously. In a flash, she materializes by the boy about to be hit, tugs him back a few feet, then poofs out of the way. She doesn’t have a name yet but she’s the one described as an “angel” (played by Kim Sae-ron).
Time resumes and Woo-hyun tumbles off his scooter, a little bruised but not seriously harmed. The other guy barely even acknowledges his existence, much less says thank you. He is HWANG SUNG-YEOL (played by Infinite’s Lee Sung-yeol), a cold and indifferent sort, the diametric opposite of good-natured, well-liked Woo-hyun.
On his way to school in the morning, Woo-hyun comes across a man who collapses on the sidewalk and jumps into action, performing CPR. While a small crowd gathers around him, our angel materializes at the scene, her ever-present big book firmly in hand, and addresses the collapsed man: “Come out now.”
The man’s soul pops out of his body, and the angel confirms in her book that he’s the one slated to die today. The man gapes in confusion and wonders who she is, and she explains for us that she’s a guide for humans—angel is what she gets called in Korean, but in the West we’d generally say reaper.
Our reaper-angel leads away the man’s soul, unseen to the human world. So when Woo-hyun realizes he’s late and darts off at a run, he zooms right through her. The angel feels the force slam into her and thinks, “After meeting that human, very strange things began to happen.”
Woo-hyun’s CPR was caught on video and earns him admiration from girls at school, though he doesn’t get puffed up on the flattery. (He’s the type who’s so cool that he doesn’t care whether people think he’s cool, which frankly makes him cooler.)
Class gets interrupted by the sudden arrival of a haughty mother, who asks for Woo-hyun and then slaps him full in the face. Her daughter Jin-young is mortified as her mother accuses Woo-hyun of toying with her daughter’s emotions and luring her away from her studies; Jin-young has been cutting academy classes to follow him around, and Mom is not having her future ruined because of a boy.
Jin-young runs off in humiliation, but Woo-hyun is remarkably collected and doesn’t give an inch even as Mom insults his humble roots. Mom storms out, and the teacher pulls Woo-hyun out of class for a talk. On the way, however, Woo-hyun notices something upstairs and pauses.
Our angel lounges in an electronics store, swooning over the drama playing on the wall (it’s Wonderful Season, in a bit of KBS cross-promotion), invisible to the human shoppers. A reaper sunbae materializes in the store next to her and asks why she likes dramas so much, when they all tell the same story over and over.
But our angel says that watching dramas gives her an idea of what human emotions feel like: “What pain is, what joy is, what it feels like to love, why people love despite knowing they’ll separate, or why they live despite knowing they’ll die.”
Her reaper sunbae tells her flatly to stop being so interested in human life and just do her work. She waves him off, engrossed in Lee Seo-jin and Kim Hee-sun’s big romantic moment, and is greatly chagrined when she gets called away by her big book o’ death. It signals her to her next death call, and the name listed is Jin-young, the high school student.
Jin-young stands at the edge of the school’s rooftop, which is where Woo-hyun finds her contemplating the jump. To her surprise, he jumps on the ledge and suggests that they jump together; it’s an effective use of reverse psychology, since we can see that she isn’t quite ready to do it.
Then out of nowhere, the sky goes dark and lightning flashes. The angel looks at her book, which has started going haywire—now instead of the page featuring Jin-young’s death, her name flickers back and forth with Woo-hyun’s. The angel shakes the malfunctioning book and loses her grasp on it, sending it sailing down toward the ground.
She reappears in a flash on a car’s hood to catch the book. Up on the roof, Woo-hyun seizes the moment to shove Jin-young toward safety—but in the process loses his own balance.
Woo-hyun falls over the ledge and goes hurtling toward the ground, heading straight for the angel. Instinctively she reacts and throws up a protective barrier, which holds Woo-hyun’s body up in the air, hovering above her body.
Then that force field blazes out, and the death book disappears.
Both Woo-hyun and the angel are knocked out cold and end up in the hospital. He’s amazed to find himself uninjured, while she’s completely confused when he starts talking to her—how can he see her? Then she realizes that her body actually has corporeal form now and screams as she feels her face and arms.
But then she’s hit with an even more alarming thought: her book. Where did it go? She frantically looks around for her “Black Notebook” and slumps when she realizes it’s gone.
Woo-hyun asks for the angel’s name and address, which she can’t provide. She does point up at the sky and tell him that’s where she came from, but predictably, he doesn’t believe her, instead assuming that the accident addled her. It’s not a completely strange assumption given the angel’s odd behavior, like how she screams to feel her heart beating, and presses her ear to his chest to see if his does too. “Have I really become a human?” she asks him.
The angel brightens to see her sunbae nearby, ushering away the soul of a dead man, and fills him in on her situation. To Woo-hyun’s confused human eyes, it looks like she’s conversing with thin air, furthering his assumption that she’s suffering from the accident. She asks her sunbae to find a way for her to return to normal and says, indicating Woo-hyun, “In any case, I think the answer lies with this guy.”
Woo-hyun takes her to the police station to sort out her situation. Pressed for a name, the angel casts looks around the room and spots some magazines lying around, which provide her with a mishmash of a name: Bi Yi-seul. But since Bi Yi-seul doesn’t sound like a real name, the officer decides that the only way it makes sense is if she means Lee Seul-bi instead, and the angel just agrees like that’s totally what she meant. It’s so cute.
Woo-hyun is relieved that the amnesia girl is getting back her memory and takes that as his cue to leave. Except when he tries to go, “Seul-bi” grabs his arm and gives him her biggest sad-puppy eyes. Don’t leave me!
Before he can make his exit, in storms Bitchy Mom with the schoolteacher in tow, announcing that she’s here to file suit against Woo-hyun for bullying and driving her daughter to attempted suicide. Good lord, this woman is a piece of work. She’s even strong-armed the teacher into collecting supposed records of Woo-hyun’s violence at school, likely faked given the way the teacher can’t meet Woo-hyun’s eye.
It’s Seul-bi who pipes up in indignation, telling the “Bad Ajumma” that Woo-hyun actually saved her daughter and that she was a witness. One hilarious side effect of her reaper past is that Seul-bi talks to everybody in banmal, and the effect is duly disconcerting to the humans.
Woo-hyun doesn’t want the extra headache, though, and deposits Seul-bi outside with instructions to stay out of this. She’s about to work herself into an indignant monologue when an idea strikes her.
On the upside, the lead officer seems to understand what’s going on and is on Woo-hyun’s side, indicating that he believes the teacher submitted a false report. On the downside, as a solution to the potential lawsuit, now Woo-hyun will have to be transferred to a new school.
Bad Ajumma flips out when she gets to her expensive car and finds it completely defaced with things like “Liar!” “You’ll be in trouble!” and “You’re ugly.” Hahaha. It’s so childish, but so fitting for the pint-sized angel.
With nowhere else to take her, Woo-hyun brings a paint-smeared Seul-bi to grandma’s ddukkobkki restaurant, where she has to study how someone eats before trying it out herself. Her immediate reaction is disgust at the spiciness, and when asked how old she is, she muses, “I’ve never bothered counting.” Grandma tells her to stay as long as she needs to, calling her Woo-hyun’s rescuer.
Woo-hyun’s father sends him a birthday present from the States, so I guess he’s not an orphan. But it seems like his relationship with his parents is strained; his annual birthday shoes don’t ever fit him and there’s an uncomfortable silence when Seul-bi asks about his mother. He just gives the shoes to Seul-bi, who accepts cheerfully.
When he gets up to go to bed, Seul-bi follows with her pillow, intending to sleep with him because “that’s how it happens in the dramas.” He calls it a dangerous line of thinking and asks what happens in the next scene, and Seul-bi thinks for a moment: “It gets dark.” Haha.
As Woo-hyun settles in to sleep, we see that he wears the gold key necklace from the opening scene, which had been worn by the mysterious girl. Perhaps it has to do with his mother, as he says aloud, “I wonder where Mom is living.”
Seul-bi ventures down to the restaurant and samples the drinks in the case. (Her reactions are adorable.) So she’s there to see Woo-hyun stepping outside to meet with Jin-young, who has called him out to apologize for her mother’s actions. He suggests they not see each other again to avoid further trouble, but lovesick Jin-young wells up with tears and promises to make things right. She grabs him in a back-hug and proposes that if he dates her, she’ll make sure to stop her mother no matter what. The intentions are good, but why does it feel so much like extortion?
But the scene twists in a comedic direction when Woo-hyun spots Seul-bi lurking nearby. She pretends she wasn’t eavesdropping and starts doing some random exercises, so Woo-hyun watches her curiously, only paying half-attention to Jin-young’s dramatic appeal. Then he motions Seul-bi closer and uses her as his excuse to extricate himself from this Jin-young drama, calling her his girlfriend.
They walk off together (aw, Seul-bi’s wearing the shoes he gave her), and when he starts to explain about the girlfriend lie, she tells him it’s okay, she’s seen this in lots of dramas before. I love that our little death angel is a drama addict.
Seul-bi asks if transferring schools is bad thing, and guesses from his reaction that it is. He says that it’s not bad, it’s just that it takes away your memories, “and there are some memories I’d like to erase.”
Seul-bi sighs that it’s all very confusing and humans are too complicated. He remarks, “You talk like you’re not a human.” Then when they pause to look up that the sky, Seul-bi wonders when she’ll get to go back—if she’ll get to go back. She waves her hands at the sky and yells, “Look, I’m over here!” Woo-hyun chimes in, saying, “I’m here too!”
The reaper sunbae drops by to tell Seul-bi that she’ll have to remain human until he can find a solution. It’s a scary thought to consider that she might get stuck in her human life and eventually die, and she pleads with him to find a way.
Reaper Sunbae is dispassionate and no-nonsense, and has none of Seul-bi’s whimsy. So when she practices picking up beans with chopsticks and says that human food is pretty good, he moves the beans with his supernatural powers and reminds her sternly that she’s not human. That deflates her spirits a bit and she apologizes to him, though she isn’t quite sure what she’s apologizing for.
When Reaper Sunbae gets up to leave, Woo-hyun walks into the room and she blurts, “You have to avoid that guy!” She means that the reaper should avoid Woo-hyun (since she had that run-in with him), but Woo-hyun looks around in confusion. He wonders if she’s still ill from the accident, and she asks what it means to be ill.
Woo-hyun gets an order and heads out to make the delivery. It turns out to be the home of Sung-yeol, our surly teenager, who also happens to be the son of the friendly police officer. His dislike for his stepmother is blatant and unapologetic, and he ignores her attempts to be motherly (hence the food order rather than eating her dinner). For what it’s worth Stepmom seems a little snippy herself, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt for trying, whereas Sung-yeol just glares and calls her phony.
Ah, well it’s not for no reason, because he calls out Stepmom for being a homewrecker and snaps that she has no place teaching him about proper behavior. Sung-yeol is convinced that his parents would never have split up if not for her, but judging from her reaction I’m guessing Sung-yeol probably doesn’t have the full story.
Jin-young’s Bitchy Mom isn’t through meddling, and applies more pressure to force Woo-hyun to transfer schools. She presents Grandma with a bill for an enormous sum in car repairs and threatens to get Woo-hyun expelled and Seul-bi tossed in jail.
Woo-hyun fumes powerlessly, but today it’s Grandma who stands up to Bitchy Mom and thunders that she’ll pay the damn money so Woo-hyun can stay at his school, threatening to expel Bitchy Mom from her life if she messes with them any more. Aw yeah, go Grandma!
Woo-hyun pulls Seul-bi aside angrily to confirm whether she vandalized the car. She admits it, saying that she wanted to help him, but he retorts that she’s in no position to be helping anyone. “I don’t know you anymore,” he says. “Get lost.”
He tries to storm off, but she calls him back pleadingly, saying that he’s the one person in the world that she knows. He says that nothing’s gone right since he met her and orders her not to follow, then runs off angrily.
Seul-bi walks along aimlessly, and we see Reaper Sunbae walking along a parallel strip of sidewalk, watching from a distance. Aw, is he in love with her? There’s certainly a repressed emotion of some sort emanating from him, that’s for sure. But his Black Notebook signals a job for him and he has to go off to attend to another death.
Seul-bi wanders into a bookstore and must get an idea, because she starts looking through bookshelves with some urgency. She doesn’t find what she’s looking for and is careless with the books, dropping them on the ground as she discards them, which attracts the notice of another browser—Sung-yeol.
Woo-hyun sees Seul-bi’s tattered dress at home (the one she was originally wearing as reaper) and tosses it into the trash. He fumes for a while in his room, then goes out for a broody motorcycle ride through the city.
Seul-bi’s hunt for her Black Notebook takes her out to the trash pile, and she bemoans herself for not listening to Reaper Sunbae’s advice not to trust humans. As she’s searching, she finds a discarded stuffed animal and hugs it sympathetically, since they’re in the same boat.
It starts to rain, and she ducks for cover outside a convenience store. Inside the window, she sees a boy eating a bowl of ramyun and looks at it hungrily. The boy—Sung-yeol again—notices her interest but ignores it, and she sends increasingly pathetic looks his way. When he leaves, she hunches down dejectedly and says, “So this is what betrayal feels like.”
She means Woo-hyun, since she saved his life and he abandoned her, and she blurts “Jerk!” just as Sung-yeol leaves the store. She clarifies that she isn’t talking about him, but totally isn’t above sidling close and taking cover under his umbrella, to his puzzlement.
He moves the umbrella to one side, then the other, watching as Seul-bi dances underneath to stay under its shelter. This is adorable.
Finally he pulls her away and walks off, and she bellows, “You’re just like Shin Woo-hyun!”
At that, he returns and silently shoves the umbrella at her, then walks away. Immediately happy again, she thanks him and cancels her comparison. Under the cover of the umbrella, Seul-bi looks up in wonder and experiences rain.
Seul-bi walks on, not knowing where to go. “Will I just live like this and die?” she worries. She wonders how she might be able to return to her old life, and then looks out at the passing cars with a serious look on her face. “I want to go back,” she says. Oh no, you’re not thinking what I’m thinking you’re thinking, are you?
She decides, “I will go back” and steps into the street, in the path of an oncoming truck. It honks at her and flashes its lights in warning, but she stands there firmly, holding back her mounting fear.
Plot-wise, High School: Love On isn’t wholly new—it borrows bits from lots of other stories and feels like a mix of Dead Like Me (quirky reapers) and My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho (heroine just wants to be human) and The Little Mermaid (heroine stranded outside her world). But I like the way it works these elements together, and the actual story is much more fresh (in my opinion) as a stranded-reaper plot than the “high school angel” description we’d been given earlier.
By and large, what gets me most about this show is the feel of it. Yes, the story has my interest, and ultimately without a good story a drama will sink regardless of atmosphere, so I’d never disregard that entirely. But the direction is so crisp and eye-catching and interesting that what we get is a very visually striking end product. It’s difficult to capture inchoate concepts like marvel, but the direction manages to do that, as with Seul-bi’s wonder at the rain. We’re able to see things from her point of view as the foreign non-human soul among us, seeing the world with her slightly off-kilter perspective. I love the deadpan comedic beats as she wonders completely straight-faced about very ordinary human things and Woo-hyun is left wondering if she’s serious or brain-damaged.
This kind of drama wouldn’t work without the right kind of lead, and Kim Sae-ron is just charming here. She certainly looks very young (she’s only 14), but the supernatural bent has a way of making that work with the character—for all we know, she’s been a reaper-guide for centuries. Her childlike appearance (and childlike wonder) can be at odds with that, and in fact I do hope the drama plays it up more, making her more of an anachronous old soul.
Woo-hyun and Sung-yeol are still in the development process, but I feel optimistic about their characters and performances. When you cast two idols from the same group in one drama to play rivals, you certainly run the risk of turning people off with the assumption that this is a vanity project of some sort. So it’s a relief that for now, I’m seeing these boys as the characters without bumping on that “Oh he acts like an idol acts” hang-up. Woo-hyun is definitely set up to be the more likable one, but I hope that Sung-yeol is developed well and steps it up as an interesting counterbalance. ‘Cause frankly I’ve had enough of the straight-up arrogant jerk types; I want more depth.
One particular highlight for me is in the drama’s opening sequence that’s set two years into the future—it’s a short snippet, but it hints at so much, and manages to wring a lot of poignancy out of a situation that isn’t even fully set up in the drama yet. That is to say, we see that Woo-hyun and Seul-bi have separated for some reason, and that he’s intent on finding her, and that something happened between now and then to (1) make them fall in love, and (2) interfere with that love. It’s succinct and powerful all the same, because we get the conflict in a nutshell and now can observe the 2014 proceedings with that extra layer of pathos. Quite a nice touch.
I’m sad that KBS scheduled this drama the way it did, because I find myself both wanting more than one episode a week and wary of following a show for twenty weeks. It’s one thing when you get your drama in a concentrated dose of crack, but when you draw it out for so many months like that, you run the risk of killing your own momentum. It’s why I can’t commit to recapping the show, but hopefully it’ll pick up a following and earn some love.