Extracurricular: Series review, part 1
Dark, slick, and twisty, Extracurricular is right up my alley. From the previews, I expected something provocative possibly with an entertaining heist, but I largely underestimated the intensity of the show. Similar to Kingdom, this series explores uncharted territory with controversial content and graphic images that are not easy sells to Korean TV broadcasters. Extracurricular takes advantage of the freedoms of this platform, offering a fresh take on youth angst and crime. It’s a world in which the youth don’t trust the words or actions of adults and take matters into their own hands, for better or for worse. Mostly worse.
At every crossroad, these characters take the wrong turn, and with each wrong turn, the way back on track becomes increasingly unattainable. It’s a similar feeling while watching this show: Each episode draws you in more and with every episode, it becomes harder not to just binge the full show. Once you reach a certain point, there’s no turning back.
Considering the intensity and plot of the show, this review is split into two parts. Part 1 covers roughly episodes 1-6, and part 2 will cover episodes 7-10. Please don’t spoil the reading (and viewing) experience for anyone in this review and save any discussions on the ending for the next post. There are plenty of juicy details to discuss in the first part anyway, so let’s get right to it.
Our main character, Oh Ji-soo (Kim Dong-hee), is a straight-A student with modest dreams of an ordinary life: graduating high school, attending college, and working a job that will pay the bills. But for Ji-soo, this dream has an expensive price tag, one that he can’t afford because he has no financial support. His parents abandoned him after Dad gambled away their family’s savings, so he’s left to his own devices to achieve this aspirational life of a typical high schooler. His own devices — intelligence and desperation — are reliable, and entrepreneurial Ji-soo manages to sustain himself with a profitable side business. The big catch: it’s an illicit sex trafficking business.
Classmate Bae Gyu-ri (Park Joo-hyun) sniffs out Ji-soo’s business and negotiates a cut of the profits after threatening to expose Ji-soo. Her motivations for involvement initially seem unclear because unlike Ji-soo, Gyu-ri comes from an affluent family. But we soon learn that her wealthy background comes with a different set of baggage. Gyu-ri despises her parents, who are more concerned with grooming her into the company heir and rarely treat her like an actual human. She appears disciplined in following the path that her parents so strictly laid out for her to inherit her mother’s talent agency, but she’s also highly disciplined in navigating her parents’ blind spots. Gyu-ri is sharp, unforgiving, and fearless. She’s the school’s “insider” and also Ji-soo’s crush.
Among the sex workers in Ji-soo’s business is Seo Min-hee (Jung Da-bin), another classmate and feisty bully of her class. Behind her cute and lovable appearance, Min-hee is a foul-mouthed vaping delinquent who harbors anxiety about her secret part-time job as a minor. She’s dating school bully Kwak Ki-tae (Nam Yoon-soo), and she pours her finances from her job to keep her boyfriend content in their relationship.
By day, Ji-soo is a meek high schooler, often an unsociable loner in his class, but by night, he juggles unimaginable after school extracurricular activities. With an app that he’s developed, Ji-soo manages requests for work and protection services from his network of sex workers. Over the year and half of work, Ji-soo has collected a list of customers, organized with labels (blacklist, frequency, etc.) mainly for the safety of the workers. When communicating with the workers, he goes by “Uncle” in the app and runs his protection services through Manager Lee Wang-chul (Choi Min-soo), who I’ll refer to as Mr. Lee.
All of the sex workers in Ji-soo’s network have customized “safety” bracelets that will send notifications for help. The sex workers tap the bracelet for help when faced with a nasty customer, Ji-soo notifies Mr. Lee of their client’s location, and the vile customer receives a severe beating (plus threats for money) from Mr. Lee.
Mr. Lee is the middleman and an obedient soldier to Ji-soo’s orders, and I doubt that he would be so loyal and obedient if he knew Ji-soo was a high schooler. That’s right — Mr. Lee has no idea who Ji-soo is. Through the app, Ji-soo masks his voice as the robotic “Uncle,” and though they never interact in person, they have a solid business partnership. An abrupt interruption forces a haitus from business, and Ji-soo is forced to consider new allies as he tries to continue on his path to financial freedom.
SERIES REVIEW, EPISODES 1-6
Each main character has a different relationship with money, but it’s all tied to a sense of freedom — freedom to dream, freedom from expectations, and freedom from self-doubt.
The first three episodes focus on Ji-soo’s plight, criminal activity, and the first major obstacle he faces in his business. As we get to know Ji-soo, we start to understand his drive for money. Ji-soo is desperate for money in a literal and practical sense. He needs the money to survive and fulfill his own ambitions and expectations in life. He’s even calculated the exact amount (90,000,000 won) he needs to achieve this dream. At first glance, his reaction to deprivation and hardship seem puzzling. What is so important about being a “typical student” that warrants this illegal business?
The show answers this question by intentionally exposing the high school environment and the extreme societal pressures to keep up with your peers. In this setting, the desperation is palpable and relatable. The constant fear of falling behind and the consequential indignance about the opportunity disparities seem to justify Ji-soo’s last resort. Ji-soo’s measures to reconcile those class and opportunity disparities are drastic for the sake of drama, but the motivation behind those measures is grounded in real social pressures.
Gyu-ri’s drive to achieve financial freedom originates from her deep contempt for her parents, whose expectations are the bane of Gyu-ri’s sanity. Her animosity toward her parents is expressed explicitly and graphically in the introduction to the second episode, in which Gyu-ri kills off her parents in her mind. With bloodshot eyes, Gyu-ri imagines shooting bullets from her mouth right at her parents’ foreheads and then consuming the delicious breakfast foods that she’s restricted from eating to maintain her figure.
When Gyu-ri breaks from her reverie, she continues her performance as a dutiful and intelligent daughter. The intelligence piece of her performance isn’t just a part of the “good daughter” role — she’s actually really smart. But “intelligence” isn’t the right word. It’s more like a shrewdness that she carries. She’s incredibly sharp and calculating, and these dangerous characteristics get her into trouble.
The impetus for all the action is always Gyu-ri, but as her role transforms throughout the show, the why and how of this instigation also changes.
At first, Gyu-ri is Ji-soo’s crush. Gyu-ri is the opposite of Ji-soo in many ways: cheerful, sociable, and an insider. When Ji-soo’s homeroom teacher tries to look out for Ji-soo and forces him to join his Social Issues Research Club, Ji-soo is endearingly awkward with the only other member of the club, Gyu-ri. Homeroom teacher Cho Jin-woo (Park Hyuk-kwon) solicits feedback from Gyu-ri and Ji-soo on a sexual behavior survey, and Ji-soo’s response to one question about minor sex workers reveals his compassion. Instead of debating the responsible parties to resolve the case (the school and/or the police), Ji-soo sympathizes with the exposed student, who would be ostracized by peers. It’s undeniable that Ji-soo is exploiting the sex workers for his business, but he still carries a sense of moral obligation to protect them.
When presented with the opportunity to work on a survey with Gyu-ri over the weekend, Ji-soo shuts down his business for the day to go on his first date. Study date, but to Ji-soo, it’s a Big Deal. He goes to a café for the first time, orders an espresso (which is so bitter for the café novice that he spits it right out), and cries after opening up to Gyu-ri about his parents. This is the beginning of Gyu-ri’s curiosity about Ji-soo.
While Ji-soo is distracted from his job, Min-hee riskily works without her insurance company standing by. Someone stole the very expensive phone case she had prepared as a 100 day anniversary gift for Ki-tae, so she’s working extra to earn enough to not disappoint her boyfriend. Disregarding the blacklist label on this customer, Min-hee engages in business and suffers the consequences. This blacklisted customer baited her to get revenge on Mr. Lee, who beat him to a pulp on a previous occasion for his vile hair-cutting fetish. With Mr. Lee out of commission and Min-hee in danger, Ji-soo ditches Gyu-ri and comes up with a creative solution that involves the police.
The police show up at the motel in response to Ji-soo’s report, and that’s enough for the vile customer to flee. Ji-soo misdirects the police to the wrong room, giving Min-hee enough time to escape. But now, the police have footage of Min-hee, and Officer Lee Hae-gyeong (Kim Yeo-jin), formerly under the violent crimes unit and now a school police offier, is determined to find her.
Gyu-ri’s first instigation of action as Ji-soo’s crush is the only time the instigation is unintentional, as she quickly picks up on the clues that Ji-soo’s part-time job is lucrative. Gyu-ri seems to have a keen radar for money. Remember Min-hee’s stolen expensive phone case? Gyu-ri stole that and sold it online, so it’s not above her to steal Ji-soo’s business phone to sniff out his illicit business. While Ji-soo tries to track down his phone, another help request comes through on the app from Min-hee, who experiences a panic attack on another job — likely a result of the traumatic encounter with the fetish bastard. Fortunately, Mr. Lee is nearby to respond.
Min-hee’s panic attack handicaps her from engaging in more work, but she’s not the only one who experiences intense anxiety. Both Ji-soo and Gyu-ri endure their own anxieties, and we see this manifest throughout the series. Ji-soo’s panic comes all at once like a huge crashing wave, and he cowardly retreats like his pet hermit crab, barely able to function because he’s consumed by his guilt. Gyu-ri’s anxiety is well-contained and simmers beneath her composure, and the only real indication of her brewing stress is her habit of picking at her nails. These expressions of stress emerge when our characters feel that their lives are out of their control, a common and relatable sentiment in adolescence.
Min-hee’s relationship with Mr. Lee (who she calls “old man”) is the most functional and genuine relationship in the whole series. Mr. Lee reminds me of Won Bin from The Man from Nowhere with a subtle fatherly touch, and with scene stealer Choi Min-soo in the role, I could see this relationship being featured in a full spin-off series. Mr. Lee cares for Min-hee beyond just for her safety in work, and he projects a fatherly protectiveness that is both warm and distant. He knows that she’s broaching dangerous territory by continuing to work through her anxiety, and he hesitates to let her continue to risk her mental health.
We learn more about Min-hee’s background through Mr. Lee, who did some research. After Min-hee’s parents divorced, she was left under the care of her aunt and uncle. They’re well-off and can provide for Min-hee, but she insists on making her own money. For Min-hee, money gives her control over her worth.
From the way she showers Ki-tae with gifts and money, she clearly equates love with money, and that false connection becomes a point of contention in their relationship. Ki-tae thinks it’s obvious and fair that he likes her for material contributions, but for Min-hee, that completely disregards everything she’s worked towards. Ki-tae fails to see the money as something beyond the material conveniences, essentially Min-hee’s sincere feelings for him.
Once Gyu-ri pieces together Ji-soo’s business, she finds delight in taunting him. Gyu-ri shows up at Ji-soo’s apartment to check in, and from his bathroom, she calls Ji-soo with the stolen Uncle phone. Both Ji-soo and Gyu-ri talk quietly on the phone, wary of getting caught by each other. Ji-soo is afraid that he’ll be exposed to his crush while Gyu-ri is careful not to spoil her fun. It’s a brilliant and comical scene of dramatic irony for Ji-soo.
Upon realizing the dire consequences for Ji-soo, Gyu-ri gives up on stealing the money, but Ji-soo’s dad steals it instead. Dad only seeks out Ji-soo when he runs out of money or needs something, and he swiftly bikes away with a plastic bag of rolled up cash and Gyu-ri on his tail. Witnessing the end of this chase, Ji-soo experiences two major betrayals. With Dad, it’s an expected loss and betrayal, and Dad shows no remorse when he makes eye contact with Ji-soo before disappearing. But with Gyu-ri, the betrayal hits differently.
Ji-soo tracks down his Uncle phone to Gyu-ri and realizes that she’s been scamming him. The betrayal hits hard, and Ji-soo tears up in mortification. The weight of the betrayal also hits Gyu-ri, and she’s determined to make up for the losses. While keeping the Uncle phone hostage, Gyu-ri tries to get involved in Ji-soo’s business by helping him track down Dad and proposing new clients. Tracking down Dad ends up being futile because he’s already squandered all of Ji-soo’s money on a cryptocurrency scam. The immense anger that engulfs Ji-soo drives him to consider killing his father, but he ultimately can’t bring himself to hurt his careless dad. He’s back to square one.
As new business, Gyu-ri suggests her judo team guy friends, who have experience entertaining rich noonas for money. Ji-soo points out the flaw in Gyu-ri’s new business plan: The judo guys don’t need protection from his business. As fit large males, they can more easily fend for themselves if confronted with a tough customer. This is an interesting point and indicative of how Ji-soo views his business. He frames it as a protection service — not a sex trafficking business — and gets upset when Gyu-ri calls him a pimp. Although he is a sex trafficker, he chooses to engage with more vulnerable clients, those who need protection. He’s trying to justify his business by distinguishing himself from the “real” bad guys, whom we meet later.
Gyu-ri’s interest in Ji-soo’s business isn’t just about the money. On multiple occasions, Gyu-ri’s sympathy for Ji-soo drives her decisions. It bars her from taking things too far out of Ji-soo’s comfort zone but also prompts her to go to great lengths to protect him. Case in point: She saves him from Ki-tae’s bullying by claiming that Ji-soo is her boyfriend. Even to the school bully, she’s untouchable because she’s got the right connections. Nobody wants to be an enemy of the judo team.
Gyu-ri learns through a veiled conversation with Min-hee that Ji-soo has halted his business, and that offers her another route to cajole Ji-soo: money. With a combination of cajoling and goading, Gyu-ri offers Ji-soo cash to pay Mr. Lee and continue business, with the catch that she joins as a business partner. Ji-soo rejects the money, humiliated and upset by Gyu-ri’s easy approach to life. He’s bothered by how different they are and how belittling her offer is.
Ji-soo comments on this difference in a conversation with homeroom teacher Cho Jin-woo, who disagrees and actually finds them quite similar in that they both bear their burdens and endure without asking for help. Teacher Cho is probably the only safe and trustworthy adult for our delinquents. He’s got their backs; he cares about their wellbeing and their safety; and he’s patiently observant. More importantly, he isn’t intimidated by the pressures of authority figures like the school dean or police officers.
Teacher Cho notes another key similarity between the two in his files — both highly intelligent but lacking emotion. This becomes apparent when they officially start their business partnership, which Ji-soo initiates after bombing his midterm. Between the manual labor jobs he worked to make enough money to pay Mr. Lee, this straight-A student barely had time to study. He explodes in an angry stream of curses in class after realizing his failing grade and immediately seals the deal with Gyu-ri. He can’t handle the derision and potential failure of achieving his dream.
In his angry outburst, Ji-soo punched a bully (part of Ki-tae’s posse) who teased him for his failing grade. As Gyu-ri’s “boyfriend,” Ji-soo is socially protected from an outright beating, so the bully resorts to petty ways to get back at Ji-soo, starting with glue on his chair and ramping up to a dildo in his backpack. With the violating sex toy planted, Ki-tae prompts a search of students’ belongings by presenting cigarette butts to the school dean as something he found in the bathroom. This kid just knows how to get his way.
Gyu-ri’s friends warn her about the impending search, and she immediately looks to Ji-soo. She knows that he’s been carrying around his business funds and bank books, paranoid about another theft. She tries to get his attention, but Ji-soo fails to take her frantic warnings seriously until the school dean arrives. Desperate to preserve his secret, Ji-soo stands up and objects to the search, citing individual civil rights. Teacher Cho supports Ji-soo’s objection, but the dean tries the force the search anyway. Ji-soo’s business pouch nearly falls out of his backpack, but he’s saved by the bell — the fire alarm bell that Gyu-ri pulls.
When confronted by the dean about her behavior, Gyu-ri puts on show about the pressures she faces to be perfect and sobs uncontrollably. But Teacher Cho knows better and once they’re alone, he tells her to cut out the method acting. He asks for the real reason, and Gyu-ri’s chilling response seems real. She admits that she can’t stand that she breathes without any effort. This is the first time we see Gyu-ri really vulnerable, and this lucid moment leads into the car conversation Gyu-ri has with her mother.
Mom invites Ji-soo into the car after seeing the two walking out of school together. Gyu-ri’s laughter in teasing Ji-soo about the sex toy they discovered in his backpack quickly vanishes at the sight of her mother’s car. Gyu-ri maintains a stoic expression as Mom asks Ji-soo’s if they’ve had sex. There’s no beating around the bush with Mom. Offended by the call from the school, Mom claims that she’s never pressured Gyu-ri and connects her behavior to a past rebellion. This “rebellion” is a euphemism for Gyu-ri’s suicide attempt, and Gyu-ri isn’t shy about sharing the details in front of Ji-soo. She claims that she wanted to die and cut herself twice because she didn’t know the exact location of the vein.
This new information softens Ji-soo’s view of Gyu-ri, but Gyu-ri isn’t visibly affected and continues with business as usual. Now an official business partner with a cut of the profits, Gyu-ri gets to work. She identifies a desperate idol trainee at Mom’s talent agency as a new worker and modernizes the business systems by providing an iPad and user guide to Mr. Lee. To make sure idol trainee Lee Tae-rim has a positive first experience with sex work, Ji-soo sets up a reliable customer for his first job and assures hesitant Tae-rim that they won’t force him to take the job. This is curiously thoughtful of Ji-soo, and Gyu-ri gets excited when Tae-rim accepts the job. Gyu-ri decides to stay over at Ji-soo’s place after the confrontation with her mother, and Ji-soo worries that Mom will misunderstand their relationship. He gets all flustered when Gyu-ri mentions sex, which is ironic because Ji-soo literally runs a business based on sex. The duality in Ji-soo is amusing.
Though it seems like business as usual, the two face a few hiccups. During the hiatus when Ji-soo was gathering enough funds to pay Mr. Lee, the ring leader of Ji-soo’s network finds another broker and leaves with the network. In the ring leader’s search, we’re introduced to the owner of Banana Karaoke and her partner, rumored gangster Ryu Dae-yeol. According to rumors, the karaoke business turns into a brothel by night.
The second hiccup: Min-hee. During a school visit, Officer Lee recognizes Min-hee’s backpack from the motel surveillance video footage and sets up a counseling session with her. Ji-soo and Gyu-ri serendipitously interrupt the session in the counseling room, which also happens to be the Social Issues Research Club room. They each attempt to extinguish this fire differently. Gyu-ri is savvier in her approach and makes an official complaint about Officer Lee while Ji-soo clumsily interrupts the counselling session a second time to defend Min-hee. Intimidated by the presented evidence and the police officer, Min-hee was shaking and nearly at the breaking point when Ji-soo barged into the room, citing individual rights and privacy, this time to fend off the police.
Gyu-ri insists that they need to cut Min-hee from the business because she’s too risky as a minor. As she takes over the termination conversation, Gyu-ri is direct almost to the point of insensitivity. She invalidates all of Min-hee’s arguments and ultimately puts the blame on Min-hee for their severed business relationship. Mr. Lee follows orders to wipe Min-hee’s phone and take away the safety bracelet, and though he looks pained by Min-hee’s resistance to this harsh severance, Mr. Lee knows this is for the best.
Word gets out about Ji-soo defending Min-hee, so of course, Ki-tae hunts Ji-soo down for a beating. Ji-soo refuses to spill the truth about Min-hee, and he’s keeping his mouth shut out of self-interest, though it appears that he’s being protective of Min-hee. This scene portrays Gyu-ri’s observations of Ji-soo — that he thinks he’s a pup when he’s actually a wolf, and behind the bold façade, he’s actually a coward. Both Min-hee and Gyu-ri come to Ji-soo’s rescue, but Gyu-ri’s quick instincts and brains are what save Ji-soo and Min-hee. She lies to Ki-tae that the police sought out Min-hee for stealing Swarovski jewelry, and Min-hee goes along with that lie.
Min-hee takes advantage of Ji-soo’s fluency in rights and drags him along to confront Mr. Lee. Ji-soo freezes up at the sight of Mr. Lee (who doesn’t know Ji-soo… or does he?) and can’t squeak out a word because he’s distracted by Mr. Lee calling him. Idol trainee Lee Tae-rim also shows up at the surveillance spot looking shaken, but Mr. Lee subtly dismisses him.
Traumatized may be a better word to describe the look on Tae-rim’s face after his experience with Banana Karaoke gangster Ryu Dae-yeol, who discovered his girlfriend’s infidelity by snooping on her phone. Dae-yeol tied up Tae-rim in the motel room covered in plastic and was ready to kill him until he realized that Tae-rim wasn’t directly messaging his girlfriend. This is a huge jump from Tae-rim’s first experience with transactional sex work, which was largely positive thanks to Ji-soo’s thoughtful consideration. Dae-yeol tracks down Mr. Lee, who immediately picks up that he’s being followed and warns Min-hee and Ji-soo to leave. Min-hee insists on following anyway but quickly retreats with Ji-soo when she realizes the gang surrounding Mr. Lee.
Though outnumbered, Mr. Lee expertly fights the gang. His tough and ruthless skills hint at his past, which the show gives a stingy glance at when Mr. Lee set up his bank books on top of photos of his army buds. As the fight continues, Mr. Lee loses steam and suffers a few tough blows from Dae-yeol’s right hand guy. He’s further handicapped by an injection, and he barely walks away in his drugged state when Dae-yeol attacks him from behind with an axe. A freaking axe!! This gangster is insane.
Mr. Lee is basically in zombie form as he limps away in his bloody state. He manages to escape with Min-hee thanks to Ji-soo blocking the gate, but that leaves Ji-soo behind as the sacrifice to the gangsters. Dae-yeol recognizes the dog sticker on Ji-soo’s Uncle phone and send a message through his girlfriend’s phone to verify Ji-soo as the culprit. The Uncle phone lights up at the message notification, and Dae-yeol sneers at his successful hunt.
This series is tightly orchestrated with a looming element of suspense, and the ending of episode 6 truly left me agape. I needed a moment to absorb what actually happened and to reset my expectations about this story about juvenile criminals. These relatively innocent youngsters are about to enter the real adult world of crime, and this was our first taste of what lies ahead.
Though I just characterized these two as “relatively innocent,” they are by no means naïve. They share a cynicism about life that feels isolating yet complementary. The early partnership between Ji-soo and Gyu-ri is a treat because we get to see them develop a bond that pulls them out of their loneliness. They still veil their real emotions behind sharp criticisms and arguments, but they’re the most honest with each other. Although their relationship is full of bickering and contention, they have great chemistry as polar opposites and also as two kindred souls. Both Gyu-ri and Ji-soo exhibit sociopathic tendencies, just performed differently. While Gyu-ri is an outgoing and sociable sociopath, Ji-soo is more aloof. When these two isolated sociopaths meet, their chemistry is crackling as they feed off of each other’s sinister nature. Between the angel and devil on their shoulders, they’re both the devil to each other, and I can’t wait to see more of this dangerous chemistry.
While these two emerge out of their lonely worlds, Mr. Lee actively stays mysterious and distant. Mr. Lee is a curious character — highly dependent on Ji-soo as his business partner and very loyal to Ji-soo, even when presented the opportunity to conduct business on his own. He acutely aware of what he’s capable of, and he seems unwilling to break old habits and live a new life. He almost lives with blinders on, though he seems to make an exception for Min-hee. Given the research he did on Min-hee, I would imagine he could also track down Ji-soo. Does he already know who Ji-soo is? Or does it really matter?
In addition to a gripping plot and swift directing, the cast sells this story. These up and coming actors all scored their roles through auditions, and they nailed their roles. The acting is superb, and I think this series is a big moment of growth for them as actors. In interviews, Kim Dong-hee has mentioned how he was fascinated by his own acting because he didn’t recognize himself. That’s the kind of growth I love. Park Joo-hyun was highlighted as a newbie to look out for this year, and I think she’s delivering on those expectations. Although A Piece of Your Mind was unfortunately cut short, her appearance was significant enough for me to compare the two characters, and let me tell you, they are completely different. But even without that point of reference, I know that this girl got range. Gyu-ri is the most dynamic of the characters in this series, and Park Joo-hyun clearly knows how to flex all the muscles in her acting range. If you can believe it, the story and acting only gets more dynamic from here. Get ready.