Korean Drama: What’s Up

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-zEhT-RU4RU&w=560&h=315]

The girl is Kim Tae Yi,  played by Kim Ji Won
The boy is Kim Byung Gun played by Jo Jung Suk, who was the wonderful Ernest-bot (officially known as Shi-Kyung) in King 2Hearts.

I don’t think you even need the story for this clip to give you goosebumps.  That is Jo Jung Suk’s real voice, and as far as I know, it’s also Kim Ji Won singing, and she’s a darling character here, in addition to being a singer who gives me chills up and down my spine.  Jo Jung Suk has never done less than amaze me in any performance I’ve seen him in.

What’s Up is a drama I didn’t really think I would enjoy at first, and in fact, after watching the first episode I didn’t watch anymore for several months.  For some reason, I picked it up again recently and I’m glad I did.  It’s now in my top ten favorites.  In fact, it’s one of the few dramas I’ve watched that I thought had too few episodes.

Like Dream High and Heart Strings (or You’ve Fallen for Me), which I also liked, this is a show centered around college students at a performing arts school- a college.   It’s a little darker than either of the other two, but not so dark that you’re left weeping over the hopelessness of life by the end.   The actors are really fantastic here.  The writing is fabulous, often sparkling and crackling with energy and wit.  It’s a coming of age, discover your dreams, come to terms with your past, reach for your future tale that goes beyond a romance, although there is romance. It has more to offer than a comedy, although there are many, many laugh out loud lines, as well as its share of tragedy and pathos.  You will laugh out loud, and unless you’re a turnip, you’ll probably at least get a rather large lump in your throat a few times.  I am watching this now with our macknae daughter. If you are interested in possible discussion points, scroll down to the end where I will share them episode by episode.  On my second run through something that really struck me is the relationship between each of these students and their parents, the tension between how their parents see them, and how they see themselves (not in an angsty, teen-age rebellion way, but in a ‘children are born persons,’ but not all these parents have realized it way).   One of the themes of the show is how that tension is resolved, how the students step into their birthright as persons in their own right, yet maintain, where it is at all possible, a loving, and still respectful relationship with those parents- even in the one or two instances where those parents do not truly love their children.  That’s part of what makes this a K-Drama. In an American show, the kids would just walk away from their annoying families without a second glance.

Like most Korean Dramas, I find the first one or two episodes a tad frustrating- it takes time to set things up and give us good introductions to our main characters (On the second run through I actually enjoyed this- there’s a lot of story telling packed in these short scenes).

Those main characters are (spoilers!  Scroll down past the character intros if you want to let the characters introduce themselves episode by episode):

Jae-Hun (Lim Ju-Hwan): Aimless,  currently without a strong moral compass, although he doesn’t want to hurt anybody, and he is extremely loyal to his friends.  His code of honor means when he picks a pocket he takes only cash from the wallet, and he always puts the wallets in the post, so they will be returned to their owners. When he joyrides, he always parks the car back where he found it, and he’s very careful while driving. He lives with his mom and picks up spending money basically gently pick pocketing drunks with his two best friends.  One night while fleeing the cops, he accidentally causes an accident, which serves as a wake up call, although he flees that scene, too.  He does return later to ask a storekeeper in the area what happened, and she tells him the victim is fine. Although he secretly knows that can’t be true, he decides to believe it as hard as he possibly can.  In fact, that man has died at the scene.  Jae-Hum needs to escape this sordid life altogether, and he manages to get into a performing arts college, and even though he can’t sing and he doesn’t know what a musical is, he’s a music major.  Is he going to get away with it, or is he going to get caught now that he’s finally starting to straighten up?  Or will he be stuck doing chores for the upper classmen forever because the boy cannot keep his sass under control?

Park Tae-Yi (Kim Ji-Won)- An adorably frowzy, cute, touseled kitten of a girl-child who is also a freshman at the college.  I love this character, and I loved how well the actress portrayed her.    She has no sense of direction, sings like an angel, has regular conversations with her deceased father, and dresses from a thrift shop barrel. I want to put her in my pocket and take her home.   Her dad used to be a rock star way back in the day, but he’s been busy raising her in the country since she was about three years old, when her mom abandoned them.  Her father died the year before she came to the college. Unbeknownst to either of them, the accident which caused her father’s death is the one involving Jae-Hun.  So of course, these two fall in love.  There’s a fantastic scene where she air guitars and sings to mimic Led Zeppelin and Bon Jovi, wrapping up with an adorable version of Stupid Cupid, and she does an outstanding job with all of them.  She’s good.  Will she find true love? Will she be able to forgive Jae Hun if she learns his connection to her father’s death? Will she gain fame and fortune? Will she lose her bearings in that attempt?

Do-Sung (Kang Dae-Sung)- he becomes Jae Hun’s room-mate in school, and they are best buds, and also both of them love Tae-Yi, naturally.  It’s a K-drama after all, however, this so-called ‘love triangle’ is about the sweetest thing ever- there’s no jealousy and each of the boys tries to encourage the other as each has his own reasons for thinking the other can take better care of Park Tae-Yi .  Do Sung also has some secrets he needs to protect.  He used to perform as a popular internet singer under the name of Hades, and he always wore a mask to protect his identity- or rather, to keep the public from discovering his parentage.  He got caught by a reporter so he can’t be Hades anymore, so he’s enrolled at school as a music major because even if he can’t ever perform in public, he wants to be around people who love singing like he does.    Having had to live his childhood in hiding and with no parental affection, he is quiet, withdrawn, and starved for friendship- a perfect best buddy match for Jae-Hun who lives to be loyal to his friends and has a strong protective streak.

Big BangThe actor playing Do-sung is one of the five members of the Korean idol boy-band Big Bang, and I have a strange and no longer very secret fondness for Big Bang which embarrasses my youngest two children immensely, and a particular empathy for Dae-sung for personal reasons, so I especially enjoyed his casting.

Oh Doo-Ri, played by Lim Ji-Eun; She is Tae-Yi’s room-mate.  Her mother is the original stage mom, who has brought up Doo-Ri as though Doo-Ri is her personal baby doll.  Doo-Ri has come to college so she can stop playing that doll and do what she wants to do, which is not to sport long curls and frilly dresses and become famous. She wants to dress from a totally black pallette of second hand clothes, lop off her locks, and be a brash, brassy, brat whose acidic streak of sarcasm is a mile wide and liberally laced with salt and attitude.  She can’t be quite so mean as she would like, however, because she’s basically got a heart of gold, and I love the way she mother-hens her little room-mate even while insisting she won’t, repeatedly seeing to it that Tae-Yi gets rescued from her predicaments all while loudly claiming she is not getting involved unless she has a chance to stir up malicious trouble (and she never does get around to stirring up malicious trouble).

What's Up Jo Jung Suk audition

Kim Byung-Gun, played by Jo Jung Suk- youngest son of a wealthy family of doctors, professors, and lawyers, he’s afraid to tell them he wants to major in music, so they think he’s a computer science major.  They don’t mean to be cruel, but their success is intimidating, and they have little interest in his music- so he’s developed a complex where he cannot sing where anybody can hear him- not even on a recording.  He’s neurotic, odd, often socially out of sync, and a complete dear.  He knows he’s a fantastic singer, so he’s doubly frustrated by his horrible complex about singing, because it’s what he wants to do more than anything else in life.  Jo Jung Suk is an amazing actor, and his performance here is worth your time.

Kim Mi Kyung is Professor Yang-  (she plays Lady Choi in Faith)- a cranky, snooty, by the book professor who is a thorn in nearly everybody’s side.  I have liked her in everything I have seen her in.

Sun Woo-Young is her nemesis and polar opposite as a professor, and something of a nemesis- he shows up looking like a homeless person and he stashes his soju bottles all around the school because he’s a fairly pickled alcoholic who has been drinking his life away in the mountains for the last five years because of his own personal tragedy. He is played by the wonderful Oh Man-Seouk, who was in Vineyard Man and Wild Romance.

———————————————-END SPOILERS————————————————–

There are other characters too- and even the small parts here are fully fleshed (with the possible exception of the twins, but they are so cute and funny that I don’t care, and maybe the twins are just that way because like some twins, they are an entity unto themselves, with their own world more real to them than everybody else).  They each add something special to the show, and they all did a great job.

Caveats: I really don’t have any substantive issues with the show, except that it needed two more episodes.  A couple of the most important issues to me were wrapped up too quickly, and I did not get enough of Do-Sung’s story, or Tae-Yi’s, either for that matter-  but I think that’s a testament to the strength of the writing and the acting.  I wanted more.  There are some bowdlerized ‘f words’ in episode 2 in the subtitles (you know what they are saying, but they don’t spell the word out on dramafever).

There is a ghost in a red track suit, although it was never completely clear to me if he really was a ghost or not.  He made for a fantastic character and a special part of the show.

I was kind of amused by the way that on a college campus almost  every time one character went looking for another, he or she would simply step outside and there the sought out party would be, promptly on time. I realize it would be a silly waste of time to show a longer search, and it wasn’t a major distraction, just a mild amusement.

There’s some language in the subbing- there nearly always is.

I’d let my teens watch it.  Much younger than that and they won’t really get it anyway, and if you have kids who are sensitive about death, you won’t want them to watch it.

Read the recaps at Drama Beans

P.S. Under caveats: When our main character auditions he gets a little squicky, but then clears up any confusion.  I don’t want to give it away, because I thought it was very cleverly done, but it’s  a little startling, too.

You have to watch through the end of the closing credits.  Each episode features a little vignette showing somebody’s back story or additional information.  It’s a really nice feature.

P.S. I’d love an English translation of the song Park Tae Yi is singing here:

Possible discussion points:


Character reveals are often like pieces of a puzzle put together over time.  It might be interesting to make a notebook with a page for each character, and after each episode write down the clues and puzzle pieces you have picked up that add up to tell you something about that character.  How does the way you view that character change over the series?  How does the character him or her self change over the series?

I have some questions.  I will share my answers in pale yellow text so as not to give anything away.  Highlight to read.

Episode One:  

Where does this begin? What event do you suppose all the people you see are going to?  Why do you think so?

Things to notice: How are the actors dressed? What are their expressions? What is the last location shown? What sorts of things typically happen there?  What’s the feel of the music?

what's up jae jun and friendsWhat can we learn about Jae-Hun’s character and circumstances from this episode?

He’s a quick thinker (his audition, the various escapes, including the final scene in the credits showing him making creative use of a bottle of ketchup and a nearby police car)

He’s a loyal friend- he doesn’t abandon his male buddy- twice!- even when he should in order to save his own skin and he wasn’t the one involved. His first thought is to make sure their female friend is safe from the thugs chasing them.  

He’s a thief.

He has no father in his life.

He’s not completely without a conscience- the loyalty he shows to his friends, the fact that he did return to the scene and ask what happened to the man in the accident. 

what's up do sung on phone What are some of the puzzle pieces we have for Do-Sung, his mother, and their relationship?

Do Sung- Gifted singer, wants to perform badly, but is obviously nervous, insecure, and almost pathologically shy and withdrawn.  Remembers his mother leaving him, telling him he has to stay hidden in order for her to live.  Can only contact his mother on certain days. Is afraid of her finding out about his performing.  chooses the name Hades, ruler of the underworld, as his performance pseudonymn. 

His mother: tells the 5 y.o. Do Sung he must stay hidden to keep his mother safe. Does not answer when he asks her if she is coming back and when.  Reads only the political and financial pages of the newspaper, only sings the National Anthem and childrens’ songs, apparently has the power to block publication of the pictures of Do Sung’s face.

The other characters?

I don’t have a lot to say about them from this episode, but there are actually a couple of small puzzle pieces for most of them even in the first episode, esp. Tae Yi and Doo-Ri and their relationship with their respective parents.

How does Jae-Hun describe the musical scene he witnessed?

He says several things about it, but the one that struck me is when he says it was like an emergency exit.

what's up jae jun and oma eating


Cultural Notes:

What are some differences between this family meal and yours?

What does Jae-Hun call his mother? What does Do Sung call his mother?   Does this communicate anything in particular?

There’s a brief scene with two school girls- what are some differences you could observe between those two school girls and two American high school students?

You could also look at each of the auditions to see what the auditions tell us about those characters- not just the way they auditions, but also their choices of audition material.  Here are the lyrics to the song sung by DoSung, for example.  What, if anything, do you think this choice of song might have to do with his circumstances?

Episode Two: Continued character analysis- note the circumstances (where we are given them) of each of the freshman students when they find out if they were accepted or not.  Who do they tell first?  How is their news accepted? What does this tell us about the characters and their families?  Something to think about- in television, every scene costs hundreds of dollars (if not more) to create. They don’t include scenes just for the fun of it- there has to be a reason.  So pay attention to these short, short scenes and think about what it is the writers, directors, and producers wanted to communicate.   Note, for instance, the contrast between Do-Ri’s first person shooter game she plays, and her mother’s image for her as we saw in the previous episode. Who shares the news of Do-Ri’s entrance to the school? Her, or her mother?

what's up daesung in mask for lunaticWatch to the end- past the previews and into the closing credits for the soundtrack song Lunatic. In case you missed it, here it is on youtube.

Who do you think Do Song is singing this to?

My answer: I think it’s his mother.

What does this song tell about his relationship with this person?    What is the significance of the mask?

Cultural notes: American culture, in general, places a high value on independence and individuality.  Asian cultures, including Korean, place a much stronger value on working together as a group or team.  There are at least two different threads in this episode that illustrate that.  What are they, and what do they tell us about the value of group identity?

Korean culture is also strongly centered on an age hierarchy, which is why nobody in the frosh class stands up to the bullying upperclassman, and why Jae-Hyun’s character says what he says to the bullying, hazing head of the upper classmen, and why that upperclassman is so nonplussed by it.

Jae Hyun refers to his military service- all Korean males must serve in the military for about 2 years (I think a little less if they choose the Marines), with some exceptions for health or if they are not full citizens (some parents send their sons to the US for this reason, if I understand correctly).  But is he telling the truth?

Episode Three: Add Professor Sunwoo Young to the character sketch list.  Look closely at the clues, at least one of which is merely a visual as the camera pans by his surroundings.  The director also uses some interesting scenes and juxtapositions to demonstrate that this teacher is not your typical teach, that he goes, er, against the flow.  What are some of the ways the director uses film to show this?

Lots of discussion here on what everybody wants out of their time at school, and what it means to be famous.

And we really get a great glimpse of Byeong Gun’s marvelous secret, though we still don’t know exactly why he cannot seem to let anybody see this side of him.

Episode Four:

Continue to keep track of the characters and what we can learn about them, and their relationships with their respective parents.  In this episode in particular we learn more about just who Do-Sung’s mother is, Jae-hun’s conflicted feelings of responsibility, guilt, and resentment toward his single mom, and there are some small peeks at Do-Ri and Jo Jun Suk as well.  What, for instance, is Do-ri’s response when Tae Yi tells Pickpocket Girl that Do Ri is actually really sweet once you get to know her? It’s only a split second scene, but in that split second the director and actors have communicated several things about each of those two characters and their relationship.  You should add the guard ajusshi and the male professor to your list this week, as well as Gun Chae Yung (the actress who has gone back to school).  What do we learn about each of these characters that we didn’t know before.  Things that seemingly have little significance can tell us a lot- for instance, the professor doesn’t even know his student’s names- on purpose. What does that tell us about him?  The guard seemed a bit gruff and cold at first, but there have been several incidents that tell us more about him and show a deeper layer to his character.

Do-Ri talks to Jae-Hun’s old friend (not a girlfriend, a friend who happens to be a girl) about one of the problems of being a good liar.  How does Do Ri know this?

Note the guard’s comments to Jae-Hun about bait- what is he trying to help Jae-Hun understand?  Who is he trying to help, to teach?  Soo-Bin (the reclusive musician) also adds his own warning.   How does Jae Hun resolve the situation and take responsibility?

Note the symbolism of the stairs that Jae-Hun is climbing, his fall, and his response to falling.  It is a little heavy handed, but I found it touching.  Think about what Do-ri tells his friend about the hard time he is having in school and his consistent responses to those hard times.

Small cultural notes:  What does Jae-Hun’s mother make for him, and why?  It’s an interesting contrast to note that the two students who pick it up have never had a mother to make food for them.

How do you gesture ‘come here’ to somebody in Korea?

Again, there is a greater emphasis in Korean on group identity and connection than on individuality. What are some examples in this episode?

The age hierarchy- we learn here that Jae Hun lied about Korean military service (and thus, his age)- this is really significant to the social structure at the school and the way other students are to relate to him.  But another element of the age hierarchy is that the older and the sunbaes (seniors) are expected to teach and mentor the younger- Guard Ajusshi and Soo Bin are not being busybodies or just interfering when they try to talk to Jae Hun about his attitude and treatment of the upperclassmen.


Episode Five: 

Professor Sun Young looks more and more interesting, doesn’t he?  Why so specific about how long it has been since he stopped singing (five years and four months)?  What is he guilty about?  Think about these little hints and reveals about his past on the stage, and they kind of put his comments to Jae Hun about what kind of people become actors in a whole new light.

In the talk Jae Hun has with his professor at the beginning of the episode and in the note his ‘friend who is a girl but not  a girlfriend’ gives him, there are some nuggets about finishing what you start.  His not a girlfriend says:

Whether it’s a game or real life, what matters is who finishes what they’ve started. I’m going to start a new life too, whatever it may be! 

This is a little different from what Jae Hun says his philosophy is at the beginning of the episode.  How?  Which one is right? Any indications of change in either of their lives? What are they?


Episode 7:  Caveat in this episode:  Some nasty rumors get started here about one of the Professors and a student, baed entirely on conjecture, speculation, and jumping to conclusions, as well as a touch of salacious gossip and that gossip is unsavory.  I watched it with my 17 y.o. and I would watch it with my 15 y.o. son and use it as a discussion point for being careful both not to put oneself in that position, and not to jump to conclusions about others.

What do Sun Woo’s interactions with the junior professor he brings in to teach music tell us about him?  What else do learn about Professor Sun Woo?

He’s not above blackmailing his friends, but he also must have been somebody to have this much of a hold over his famous and successful friends.  His alcoholism is very severe.  He’s bitter about love. He’s still looking for somebody’s ‘jokah’ (I *think* this word for child of your sibling is not gender specific like niece or nephew).  Somebody he loved died before his eyes in a horrible car accident while running to meet him.

Why do you think Jae Hun has never sung before?  I have no right answer for this, it’s just interesting to think about, especially in connection with the impact his first musical had on him, and the fact that it affected him so profoundly that he saw it as an emergency exit.

What more do we learn about Park Tae Yi?

Abandoned by her mother when she was 3.  She was raised by her father.  They were very close.  She carries his picture around with her a lot. Her father has been dead almost a year.

Kim Bung Gyun reveals more about who he is and what he yearns for here.  

Eun Chae-Young is a character I haven’t talked about much because she irritates me so much.  There are some little notes about her character here, though, that are a good example of how the writers and director of a show will use small moments to show something about the character.

What does Doo-Ri mean when she says “I didn’t say it because I was drunk, I got drunk because I couldn’t say it unless I was drunk?”  What else do we learn about Doo-Ri?

How rumors get started…

Do-sung’s exchange with his uncle just broke my heart- Describe it.

his uncle scoffs at the idea that Do-Song has made a friend, telling him there’s no such thing as friends, they are people beside you for a while until you abandon them to move on.  Do-song then points out, “I didn’t even have one of those until now.”  Also, the uncle pleads with Do-song to help his mother out just this one time, but I’m pretty sure that’s what Do-Song has been doing his entire life.

Cultural note: It’s a small thing, and maybe you’ve noticed it before, but in Korean when you point to yourself, you point to your face or chin, or nose.  In Western culture we point to our chest.


Be especially sure to watch for the final clip (after the previews) here to see where Professor Yang hunted down Profesor Young Sun Woo at the Chancellor’s request to convince him to come back to the school.  How is Sun Woo living?


Possible answers above in a pale yellow script. Highlight to read.


You might also enjoy:

Dramas I’ve completed, recommend, and reviewed: see here.

Things to know when watching a K-drama

More Things To Know

What is it I like about K-Dramas?

You might be watching a K-Drama if….

Where to get your fix: Sites where you can find subtitled K-dramas (and dramas from other countries, as well. I’ve watched a handful of J-dramas (Japanese) and TW (Taiwanese) dramas, but I vastly prefer the K-dramas, even though I know more Japanese – I got an A in my Japanese 101 class back in the day, when we actually lived in Japan and once I even knew both hiragana and katakana- but still K-dramas interest me vastly more).

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  1. Karen in SC
    Posted January 2, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I can’t keep up with your recommendations! We’re in the middle of Stars Falling from the Sky now, and we’re loving it.

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted January 2, 2013 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

      I had watched several of these before I started doing weekly recommendations, so I have quite a headstart. Glad you’re enjoying Stars Falling from the Sky. Those kids are so cute!

      • tiracino
        Posted July 16, 2013 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

        Really daebak!!!!

  2. Posted January 2, 2013 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    OK – you’ve got me interested- how do
    I find these to watch them myself???

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted January 2, 2013 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

      Hulu.com has a lot. Dramafever, crunchyroll, and viki.com are other free and legal sites with lots of Korean dramas. You should be able to find any of the dramas I’ve reviewed on one of those sites.

  3. teachergirl
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    I tend to prefer comedies more than melos/tragedy, so I haven’t watched What’s Up? but you’ve made it sound interesting enough that I’m intrigued. Maybe I pick it up in my spare time…which…hmmm…I don’t seem to have much of these days. I’m bad when I watch dramas because if I like it, I want to finish the whole thing and not wait. That’s fine if it’s still airing and I have to wait for new episodes, but if it’s completed…

    I’m curious about your fondness for Big Bang. Is it just because of Dae Sung, or are there other reasons?

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted January 11, 2013 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

      You ask a good question, and it’s one that puzzles me a little as well.
      Mainly, I think, Big Bang amuses me. I kind of like the fantastical. I can’t quite put my finger on the specific similarities, but they also kind of remind me of some kids from my old neighborhood when I was a rebellious teen, so maybe a bit of nostalgia? Bad Boy is probably my favorite, and I even enjoy the MV for that one.
      I don’t like their Music Videos when they include the scantily clad girls, but I do like their voices.

      I’m not really fond of the melos, either, and I think What’s Up did a good job of mixing in plenty of comedy and leaving off with a message of hope and joy rather than a mere puddle of despairing tears.

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted January 11, 2013 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

      Oh, I forgot to include this in the post, but I’ll add it in a minute- you have to watch through the end of the closing credits. Each episode features a little vignette showing somebody’s back story or additional information. It’s a really nice feature.

  4. tiracino
    Posted July 16, 2013 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    I like dae sung oppa because in this drama cute to her
    You are the best fighting

  5. Photogirl
    Posted June 20, 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    O.k. now I’m thinking of watching this again, I agreed with almost all of your favorite top tens. Especially Shut Up flower Boy Band and was wondering what drew you to rate this one so high. I too started and never got past the first episode, so after reading your review am going to restart. Your reviews are also making me rethink continuing King2Heart. Acting was great, story was great, but too “heavy” at that time to finish. Also appreciate your perspective, coming from someone who knows what “Fame” is and whose also putting things through the filters you are is refreshing. Thanks for your updates and glad to have found this link for help in the future!

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