Level Up: Episode 1
This fun, breezy premiere promises a satisfying if somewhat conventional rom-com. We meet the heroine during what’s likely the worst day of her professional life, while the hero is at his peak, but perhaps stagnating in success. They stumble through a series of misunderstandings as the world pushes them into each other’s paths, with humor and hijinks along the way.
Note: This is just a first episode recap.
People go about their day, working and living. A man narrates in voiceover that failure is far more likely than success, which remains just a dream for most people. We see a suited figure with a briefcase ascend onto the roof of a building: it’s AHN DANTE (Sung Hoon), who ends with the declaration, “The road to success is unexpectedly simple: just start over, until it works.”
He looks over to a screen on the building next to him conveniently glorifying him as a resurrector of companies; he’s a general manager at Yoosung CRC, which specializes in restructuring. He mentally tells the world not to worry–he, Dante, is 100% sure to be born again.
At the offices of video game company Joybuster, employees are whispering about strange rumors, which soon prove true as their CEO announces that the company is going bankrupt. They will be accepting voluntary resignations. From the back of the room, a woman asks what CEO JO TAE-GU (Ryu Seung-soo) will do, to which he replies that today is his last day.
“You’re really irresponsible,” replies SHIN YEON-HWA (Han Bo-reum). CEO Jo assures them that the new management will take care of things, but Yeon-hwa accuses him of taking a big check and selling them down the river, asking him if he feels good now. Her colleagues try to shush her, but she emotionally reminds CEO Jo that he’d promised to work to the end together even if they ended up starving. CEO Jo replies sarcastically that he feels so great, he could die.
Though she’s dejected, Yeon-hwa volunteers to go to Busan to clean up their booth for an event, spearheaded by her, that they’ll no longer be holding. On her way out, CEO Jo stops her and says he’s sorry things turned out this way, but business decisions can’t be made so emotionally. She replies that she’s just a staff member who follows orders, so there’s no need to explain.
Dante walks into his office building with an army of staff and congratulates them for a job well done… which all down to his excellent leadership, of course. Their smiles turn to frowns, until he tells them to go on a vacation. But they’re devastated again when they realize it’s just the weekend, chasing him to the elevator to no avail. The rest of the employees beg Manager PARK GIL-WOO (Danny Ahn) to ask Dante for more time, but he dismisses them, and loudly curses his boss… who hears it all when the elevator doors reopen. Dante grabs his briefcase from Manager Park, pushes him out of the elevator, and tells him to take the stairs.
Dante meets with the other general managers, who have one order of business on their minds–who’s going to take charge of Joybuster. No one seems to want it, and Dante realizes they’ve decided to dump it on him. Displeased, he blames the others for poor management and refuses to take it on, which gravely offends them. Quickly reading the room, Dante apologizes and makes a smooth exit, throwing Manager Park under the bus as he leaves.
Dante announces to a disgruntled Manager Park that they’re heading to Joybuster–if he can’t refuse directly, they should go fact-find. Manager Park declares that he’s absolutely going on vacation… only to tag along anyway.
Manager Park reads about the company on the way, but when he tells Dante that it’s a game development company, he suddenly pulls over. “You should have told me!” he cries dramatically, although he doesn’t explain what the problem is, and they’re soon on their way again. (Dante forbids Manager Park to open the window, and offers him canned fresh air instead, taking a few large breaths of it himself.)
Meanwhile, Yeon-hwa is on the subway when a man suddenly recognizes her, although he doesn’t identify himself, asking her weirdly personal questions and invading her space. He keeps asking her if she’s going to eat on the company tab, and realizing that he’s a Joybuster shareholder, she tells him to take his issues up with the company. But when she tries to move away, he grabs her arm. When she says she’ll call the police, he threatens to put her and her coworkers in jail for fraud.
She tells him to go ahead, and walks away from him, when he starts taking pictures of her. He mockingly tells her to come erase them, and says he doesn’t want to live nowadays because of her company. Should they jump in the Han River together? She sighs bitterly and leaves.
Dante tours Joybuster with CEO Jo, who shows him their swimming pool, and tells him about the unusually generous benefits his employees enjoy. They move to the luxurious restaurant, where Manager Park marvels that the employees won’t be able to adjust to a new workplace given these benefits (in Korean, literally “honey-licking period”), which causes a few of them to angrily get up and leave. The CEO informs Manager Park that the expression is taboo in the restaurant.
To explain, he shows them a documentary made about Joybuster when it was still the #1 most desired workplace: We see CEO Jo proudly showing off the restaurant. Yeon-hwa passes by with a big plate of breakfast, and he tells her to work twice as hard if she’s eating twice as much. She promises to double her sales. It ends with a close-up of her licking the honey from a delicious-looking waffle.
CEO Jo confesses sadly that he went overboard with that scripted scenario, and the video ended up hurting Yeon-hwa. Since the doc aired, profits and stock value have been dropping continuously, and stockholders have started seeking her out and harassing her (which explains Yeon-hwa’s encounter on the subway).
CEO Jo shows them the shareholders’ message boards, where the image of Yeon-hwa literally licking company honey has provided a target for them. Dante observes that she’s become an easy enemy to focus their ire. As they watch, Yeon-hwa’s assailant from the subway posts his photos of her, saying she’s on her way to Busan.
Dante shakes his head, but quickly gets to the point–he gives CEO Jo the documents to sign in order to secure his resignation and the handover to Yoosung. CEO Jo begs them to save the company, but Dante refuses to make any promises. CEO Jo signs.
Manager Park notices a poster for Pig War, Joybuster’s hugely popular game from back in the day. Dante calls it a one-hit-wonder jinx, despite CEO Jo’s protests that they put a lot of work into the sequel, but they had bad luck. Dante says that it’s the CEO’s job to counter those unforeseen circumstances–if he’s unable to do that, it’s right for him to leave now.
Shaken from her encounter on the subway, Yeon-hwa buys a mask when she gets to Seoul Station. As soon as she puts it on, she starts getting threatening calls from shareholders, accusing her of going on vacation with their money and saying they’re going to follow her to Busan. Yeon-hwa is taken aback that they have her number already–it hasn’t been long since she changed it. Okay, this is frightening.
Dante delivers the annual report to his company’s chairman. The chairman tells him that his next assignment is Joybuster, another in a long line of bankrupt ventures that only Dante can revive. Dante agrees he can save Joybuster, but he refuses, because he hates games. He suggests another bankrupt corporation of similar value, and announces that he’s going on vacation.
Once he’s gone, Manager Park comes to sit next the chairman, asking for money to go on a vacation. “I made you so much money, Dad!” Omo. The chairman replies that Dante was the one who earned it, but Manager Park protests that Dante is nothing without him–he can even get Dante to take on Joybuster. Dad gives him 20 million won, but then Manager Park laughs and says Dante doesn’t listen to anyone, and runs off with the money.
Yeon-hwa settles into her seat in the train uneasily, wondering if those men would really follow her to Busan, when Dante arrives to take the seat next to her. He pulls out a report on the company he wanted to work on next, only to flip the page and it’s actually a report on Joybuster, courtesy of Manager Park, who knows Dante will read whatever’s put in front of him.
“Joybuster?” Dante says out loud. “I’ll kill [him].” Yeon-hwa, startled, starts to cough. He turns to her and asks her not to spread her cold, thankfully not recognizing her through the mask. But Yeon-hwa, terrified, suspects he’s one of the shareholders who just called her. She sits in misery, unable to eat her lunch.
Yeon-hwa moans in hunger, and Dante asks if she’s all right. She asks how far he’s planning to go, and to her despair, he replies, “All the way.” So she she sneaks to the compartment doorway to eat her lunch, and then finds an empty seat in another row and falls asleep. Dante ignores a call from his father and naps as well.
When they arrive in Busan, Dante’s dad calls again, and this time he picks up. Dad reminds him that Dante’s mother’s memorial is next week, but Dante says he doesn’t want his stepmother to do it; he’ll have it at his own place. Dad promises to come by and bring his little brother, but Dante tells him not to bring someone else’s child–in fact, he needn’t bother to come at all.
Meanwhile, Yeon-hwa calls her friend Mi-ja to tell her that a shareholder has followed her to Busan spouting death threats, but Mi-ja tells her to stop imagining things. Yeon-hwa gets down to the demoralizing task of cleaning up her booth, which is being taken over by a large conglomerate.
As the men take Joybuster’s things down, contractor KWAK HAN-CHUL (Baro) breaks a model of the company logo, upsetting Yeon-hwa. He’s apologetic, but she tells him to forget about it.
Dante’s former colleague, BAE YA-CHAE (Kang Byul) picks Dante up from the station, and although he keeps it businesslike, their conversation hints at a more personal history. She takes him to the same complex where Yeon-hwa’s booth is; while Ya-chae is busy with work, Dante sees the Joybuster name and approaches.
Yeon-hwa spots him, and desperately tries to hide. Ya-chae finds Dante and calls his name, and he raises his hand in greeting, but Yeon-hwa interprets this as violent intent and throws the damaged sign at him and runs off screaming. Han-chul asks a baffled Dante if he’s wronged her in some way. HA.
Han-chul finds Yeon-hwa hiding and brings her back, and they finish up. The person who’s taking over the booth is a friend, and he tells her to stay strong. Han-chul also watches her walk off dispiritedly, his gaze sympathetic. He follows her out and gives her the sign he broke, repaired to the best of his ability.
Holding the broken sign (which he’s adorably put band-aids on), all of Yeon-hwa’s pent-up emotion comes to the surface, and she bursts into sobs. Once she calms down, she explains to Han-chul that seeing the broken logo makes it feel real that the company is ruined as well. He tells her that just as he fixed the sign, the company will soon be on its feet again.
She thanks him, and says she feels better after crying it out. He asks about the man she was hiding from earlier, and she tells him the whole story. Hearing that Yeon-hwa has decided to stay in Busan for a few days to attend a coding seminar, Han-chul suggests that she board at his mother’s guesthouse.
Meanwhile, Ya-chae takes Dante on the day out he’s asked her to plan, which he hilariously treats the same as he would a regulated work schedule–although for Ya-chae this is clearly something closer to a date.
Han-chul’s mother’s place is warm and welcoming, and Yeon-hwa is having a great time until his mom brings them rice cakes with honey for dipping. She hesitates, but then goes for it, opening up her mouth big to catch the dripping honey…right as Ya-chae and Dante arrive at the guesthouse.
Dante squints at her, and recalls her in the exact same pose from the documentary. “The honey-licking employee?” he asks.
She drops her rice cake and screams.
I wasn’t sure what to expect given that this is an MBN drama with relatively green leads and an unknown director and writer, but I was excited to see Sung Hoon in a rom-com because I really enjoyed his storyline with Shin Hye-sun in Five Children, the drama that really launched both their careers. (I also direly needed to erase my memories of him in the abomination that is I Picked Up a Celebrity in the Street.) This first episode was a funny, breezy introduction to all our main players that gives us enough background to see how they’ll be crossing paths (with great force, apparently), and enough pathos to invest us in the conflict heading towards our leads in the next episode.
Sung Hoon is perfect as this deadpan, workaholic prodigy for whom even a vacation must be scheduled to the minute. His delivery may be a little stiff, but it’s perfect for the character, and the contrast between his robotic tone and his off-the-wall facial expressions make him far less boring than the run-of-the-mill cold CEO. He’s so good at playing the absurd genius with an earnestness that makes him truly hilarious. The little character details, like his over-the-top fastidiousness with the window and the canned air, and his petty revenge-taking on Manager Park, give his cliched M&A shark character a bit of extra flavor. Sung Hoon also has the charisma (not to mention the piercing gaze and the cheekbones) to carry off the portrayal of someone as blithely uncaring of others’ comfort and unashamedly self-applauding as Dante. I’m not rooting for him to get the girl yet, but he’s highly entertaining to watch.
This is my first time seeing Han Bo-reum in anything, but I really like her so far. Yeon-hwa is clearly capable and tough, but just as obviously, years of harassment and bad business have taken their toll on her. CEO Jo, who caused all of this, is played as sympathetic, but his guilt isn’t enough to get him off the hook–I’m enraged on her behalf that he knows what kind of abuse she’s been taking, and for how long, and yet hasn’t taken measures to protect her from the shareholders’ stalking and threats. And why is her friend so blasé about what has clearly been an ongoing campaign of harassment? I’m glad that Han-chul seems to worry about Yeon-hwa’s safety, because he seems like the kind of protective puppy that Yeon-hwa could really use in her life right now. (I can feel the second-lead syndrome approaching like a freight train already.)
The honey-licking incident initially struck me as a far-fetched (and weirdly suggestive) plot point, but then memes have been made of more ridiculous things. It’s certainly no stretch to imagine that a group of men in the gaming industry would decide to target and doxx a female game developer that they’ve decided is the root cause of their problems. I’m looking forward to seeing how Dante will play into all this once he allows himself to be convinced to take on Joybuster, since he already knows about the harassment. The way Dante pointed out that Yeon-hwa is an easy target for their blame makes me wonder if his as-yet-unexplained antipathy toward video games is rooted in something similar. Whether that will make him more or less sympathetic toward her is hard to tell; as we’ve seen, he’s not exactly a kind boss, and he has no problem throwing Manager Park under the bus to suit his own ends (although knowing that Manager Park is the chairman’s son does put that in a different light).
The lead couple’s “meet-cute” is really a series of episodes of mistaken identity, which is not the freshest setup for a rom-com, but a reliably enjoyable one. Yeon-hwa’s awkward misunderstanding that Dante is out to kill her had me dying of both second-hand embarrassment and laughter. The way she ran off screaming after throwing that sign at Dante was gold. I do cringe at the thought of how she’ll feel once she finds out he’s her new boss, and I don’t love that we’re starting out with a heroine beaten down from every angle, but she’s clearly not the type to cower or run away from tough situations. I’m looking forward to seeing her get back on her feet and take Dante down a few pegs. It’s obvious that his long run of success has given him a big head and a feeling of invulnerability that causes him to lack of compassion for other people. He needs a hard reality check from someone who actually doesn’t do everything he tells them to–although his codependent dynamic with the hapless Manager Park is hilarious.
I want to watch Dante and Yeon-hwa put their smart heads together to try to revive Joybuster, because there’s nothing I love more than a rom-com where both partners are sharp as tacks and excellent at their work. They seem like a good match for each other intellectually; hopefully that means we’ll get lots of delicious banter before the romance starts in earnest. In the meantime, Han-chul is already sending Yeon-hwa soft looks, and Baro does sweet, one-sided love so well–noonas better prepare our hearts.