“Adults never accept it if we say we don’t have a dream,” Kim Min-chae (played by Choi Myung-bin) tells her grandma. Hours earlier, the teenager quit ballet in the middle of a competition and ran away from home to spend summer with her elderly relative. “Do we have to have one?”
It’s a conundrum that young people often face as they try and figure out who they are and what they want their life to be; the pressure to have certain ambitions and a life plan mapped out ahead of you. But, as Min-chae discovers as she explores her mum’s childhood bedroom, knowing what you want to do can be just as scary as not having a clue.
As she settles into life at her grandma’s, Min-chae finds old items of her mother’s – a flip phone, cassette player and a handwritten diary – all of which confound her. “She wrote all this by hand?” She marvels as she flips through the neatly inscribed pages of the diary. The tales and experiences captured in that book become the focal point of Twenty Five Twenty One, sending us back into the nostalgic world of the ’90s and the endearing, inspirational story of Min-chae’s mum, Na Hee-do (a phenomenal performance from Kim Tae-ri).
An aspiring fencer, Hee-do spends her days at school practicing her chosen sport hard and her weekends trying to catch a glimpse of young Korean Olympian Ko Yu-rim (WJSN’s Bona) practicing at a nearby school. Her passion for fencing is palpable but, as the effects of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis take hold in Korea, her school scraps its team, leaving her scrambling to form increasingly wild plans to keep hold of her dreams. Her mother questions why she bothers, advising her to not “cling onto something you’re not good at”. Hee-do’s fire can’t be extinguished that easily, though, and she puts herself through the wringer trying to stay alight.
Along the way, she meets Baek Yi-jin (Nam Joo-hyuk), a 22-year-old who’s new in town and trying to rebuild his life after his family lost everything to the financial crisis. Four years older than Hee-do and with the task of getting his family back on their feet at hand, he keeps the reckless teen at arm’s distance, but can’t pretend he’s immune to her infectious spirit for long.
Twenty Five Twenty One subtly examines different types of loss and sacrifice as it continues, but never holds one up as more worthy or devastating than the other. Instead, it looks at each in its own context – from Yu-rim losing her fencing sponsor to Yi-jin losing his stability and status – and softly considers the impact on each individual.
It takes a similarly even-handed approach to the way it presents each character. Hee-do might be a wild schoolgirl who’s throwing a tantrum in the middle of the street one minute, but in the next she can be sharing wisened outlooks on life and methods to help cope with the tragedies large and small we face every day.
Yi-jin might be the older, seemingly more mature figure in their friendship, but he often gets put in his place by Hee-do and shown new perspectives by her. She comes up with the idea to grab moments of happiness whenever they’re together and that optimistic outlook, combined with her unshakable dedication to achieving her fencing goals, kindle sparks of romantic feeling between the pair.
There are few negatives to Twenty Five Twenty One, but it does often feel like the show is trying to cram too much into each installment. Perhaps that’s the point – after all, adolescence can feel like an endless barrage of emotion and upheaval – but it can feel like a bit much at times. Minor gripes aside, though, the series is a nostalgic dive into the memories of youth and the value of dreams; a sweet drama that keeps you rooting for its leads and itching to read the rest of Hee-do’s diary long after each episode ends.
‘Twenty Five Twenty One’ is available to stream on Netflix.