Sunday, December 6, 2020

Netflix: Review of START-UP: Confronting CEO Challenges

December 6, 2020 

Seo Dal-mi (Heo Jung-eun) and her elder sister In-jae (Lee Re) parted ways in their early teens when their parents divorced. Dal-mi stayed with their father (Kim Joo-hun) who quit his job and struggled to start his own web-based business. In-jae went with their mother (Song Seon-mi) who married a rich man and migrated abroad. 

Fifteen years later, Dal-mi (Bae Suzy) was an ambitious young woman who longed to own her own business despite being university dropout and earning below minimum wage. In-jae, now using her step-father's surname Won, was the CEO of her own cosmetics company. One day, the two sisters meet again in a seminar at the Sandbox, a company owned by Ms. Yoon Seon-hak (Seo Yi-sook) who supported promising start-ups by young entrepreneurs.

As a young girl, Dal-mi did not take her parents' divorce too well. So her grandmother, corn-dog store owner Choi Won-deok (Kim Hae-sook) asked Han Ji-pyeong (Nam Da-reum), a poor, homeless, but very intelligent teenage boy who she allowed to stay in her home, to pretend to be Math Olympiad champion Nam Do-san (Kim Kang-hoon) and become penpals with Dal-mi, a friendship which lasted for a whole year. 

Fifteen years later, Ji-pyeong was a millionaire hotshot CEO of his own investment firm called SH Venture Capital. Meanwhile, the real Do-san (Nam Joo-hyuk) was a brilliant AI developer who founded his own company Samsan Tech with his friends Lee Chul-san (Yoo Su-bin) and Kim Yong-san (Kim Do-wan), but could not get it off the ground business-wise. This was much to the chagrin on Do-san's frustrated parents (Kim Won-hae and Kim Hee-jung).

When I first saw the title of this K-drama, it sounded dry, and did not really did not attract my attention. However, by the second week, when the fourth episode had been aired, there had been significant positive word of mouth about it already on social media, which tempted me to give it a try. By that time, I just watched the finale of another K-drama, and was looking for an currently ongoing series to follow, and this one quickly got me hooked from Episode 1.

Of all the six K-drama series I had finished so far, this was probably the Episode 1 with the most emotional highlights right off the bat. Don't be surprised if you will be tearing up in at least than three scenes before this pilot ends. It certainly made sure we came back for the second episode and get thoroughly hooked into its story and lovable characters. Aside from the cute romantic triangle story, there were very interesting subject matters at its core -- cutting-edge image recognition technology (and its applications for the visually impaired or self-driving cars), and management of businesses in development.

There are scenes of slapstick comedy, mostly care of Yoo Su-bin (as Do-san's excitable friend) and Kim Won-hae (as Do-san's exasperated father), when they would throw tantrums, chase people around or have drunken rants. However, it was those subtler and more symbolic comic moments that made this series quite funny. These delightful moments were best seen in the turning point Episode 7, when the love triangle long brewing among the three lead characters became more clearly defined -- a situation that got full-blown by Episode 8, sparking fans to pick their own "ships", and climaxed in an awesome cliffhanger in Episode 9.

Practically any moment with Kim Hae-sook's precious Mrs. Choi can make you teary-eyed from Episode 1 all the way to Episode 16. She was the dramatic heart of the whole series as it was her character who bound all the characters together with a such rich arc. I had seen her before in the 2012 crime action film "The Thieves" (now also on Netflix) where her portrayal of senior con-woman Chewing Gum won her awards. I will not be surprised when Kim will also be cited as Best Supporting Actress for her role here come awards season.

By Episode 12, I had a feeling this could have been a good ending. It was not happy, but everyone had learned their lesson, sacrificed for love and moved on. However, by Episode 13, things went fast-forward by three years and so did the fortunes of all the characters. Episode 14 may have started off pretty rough for everyone, but  the intense rivalry between the two male leads persisted. By Episode 15, Dal-mi appeared to have already made her choice, a decision which I am sure was met by dismay for supporters of the other contender. The finale reconnected friends and families as expected from light dramas like this.

In its 16 episodes, we learned about angel investors, hackathons, key men, burn rates, aqhiring, elevator speeches, and minimum viable products. We ogled over their flashy Mercedes cars, foldable Samsung smartphones and Desker tabletops. Ultimately, this engaging series made us care about the three main characters enough to make our own decisions as to how we want their love story to end. Whether this series ended the way we wanted it or not, we know that their inspiring story of ambition and scaling up had entertained us well every weekend over the past two months. 


  1. Hi! What can you say about the character development? Which story arc did you think suited the main leads the best? Do you think that the writers of the drama meant for Ji Pyeong to have a character change by the end of the drama? Also, what do you think about the lack of depth for In Jae's character?

    1. Hi. Thanks for your comment. I think the only character who had major development was Nam Do-san, who progressed from a shy dorky nerd to a confident tech developer.

      While I was disappointed that Ji-pyeong was still forced to work with Dal-mi and Do-san at the end, I am glad they did not make him do something bad to justify Dal-mi's final choice.

      As for In-jae, I thought it was good that they did not force her to have a love interest herself. She was a competent and independent business woman on her own. I guess that was all the writers intended for her character.

    2. I think his development is a given because he needed to "glow up" to be on the same level as Ji Pyeong. As their mentor, I'm glad Ji Pyeong still got a chance to work with them.

      Also, it's great to highlight that Ji Pyeong, who used to look down and ridicule Samsam Tech, worked with them in the end. That's the major development for me.

      IMO, it's disappointing that In Jae was limited in the development of her character. Considering that she's part of the 4 main leads, I truly expected that the drama made more use of her character. Chul San and Saha got even more screen time than In Jae did

  2. Also, the drama had a lot of memorable quotes. Care to share your favorite lines from the drama? Which character did you identify with the most? What can you say about the popularity of Team Do San and Team Ji Pyeong?

    1. Although I may not have his looks, cars and wardrobe, I identified with Ji-pyeong in that I sometimes feel like an idiot in being too "good-boy" for my own good. I felt that when he confessed that with Mrs. Choi.

      As for the rivalry, it was certainly a good way to keep the interest of the audiences to the end, but they built up the character of Ji-pyeong so well that his fans have very passionate reactions about his fate.

  3. tbh, I was looking forward to your own reflection of the drama, what lessons did you get out of it? What scenes stood out the most for you? What lines hit home for you?

    I would have loved those kinds of insights for a kdrama review. Basically, you listed down the titles of all episodes pertaining to startup business terms but I didn't feel that you appreciated the drama. It's a wonderful drama, the fans enjoyed it. It was well-discussed on social media, but in the review you didn't capture its strengths.

    It's a disservice for true kdrama fans to pick up on this "review" and find it bland at best. And you even admit to watching only 6 kdramas. I hope you can show a bit more respect to this genre and give it more effort to do a proper review next time.

    I hope in your next reviews, there would be more than just a rundown of what happened in the drama. If that's all you can offer in a "review", I think it would be better to say that you summarized the drama instead. :)

    1. Thank you for this feedback. I am still learning about Kdrama as I honestly disclosed. I do have to confess that I am trying writing a spoiler-free review for people who may not be beginner Kdrama fans like myself, so that I cannot write about vital plot points, like the conclusion. This is only my third Kdrama, and I admit I have a lot to learn about this genre, no disrespect meant. I will try better to be more reflective in my next Kdrama review. Your comments are certainly very much appreciated.