Twenty-Five Twenty-One Paints Bittersweet Portrait of Youth

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Graphic by Laura Renfroe; images courtesy Netflix

Charming Netflix series Twenty-Five Twenty-One offers a picturesque narrative of adolescent growth in tumultuous times as it navigates love, change, and sacrifice.

By Laura Renfroe, Pelahatchie High School

Sipping citrus-flavored popsicle drinks on humid nights. Finally obtaining that one collectible sticker in the pastry package you have always wanted. Racing to the local book rental store after school for the next volume of your favorite romance comic.

Moments such as these feel as if they will never end, polaroid-captured memories of pink-brushed seaside sunsets and glistening summertime watermelons. In the South Korean drama Twenty-Five Twenty-One, the adolescence experience is showcased in tender imagery as a group of friends sit cross-legged under the descending sun, shouting into the ocean’s expanse, “The summer belongs to us!”

If you enjoy slice-of-life shows such as Hometown Cha Cha Cha and Our Beloved Summer, which will leave you simultaneously dewy-eyed and inspired, Twenty-Five Twenty-One will exceed expectations and garner the potential to easily become a favorite.

Twenty-Five Twenty-One details in ‘90s-reminiscent vignettes the poignant coming-of-age story of Na Hee-do and Baek Yi-Jin, both victims of lost dreams due to the 1997 Asian IMF (International Monetary Fund) economic crisis. In an era where countless companies crumbled under bankruptcy, many young people worried about their futures under the instability of the nation’s volatile economy. 

This show highlights the influence of unfortunate times on individual experience and how circumstances can simultaneously grant opportunities or steal them away. Twenty-Five Twenty-One relates a heart-warming story of budding romance undertoned by the upheaval of changing times, making it a show immensely relevant to our youth today. 

Portrayed in a charming performance by Kim Tae-ri (best recognized for her role in The Handmaiden), protagonist Na Hee-do is a boisterous and spirited 18-year-old student athlete whose dream of rivaling her idol, Olympian Ko Yu-rim (WJSN’s Bona), is threatened as her school’s fencing program disbands due to funding shortages.

In her typical appearance, Hee-do appears memorably on screen in choppily-cut bangs and red sweatpants under her uniform skirt. She stands firm in her morals as a fencer and a friend but battles against crippling parental disapproval and media criticism.

Baek Yi-jin is played by swoon-worthy actor Nam Joo-hyuk, best known for his outstanding roles in Start Up, Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-Joo, and Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo

Yi-jin, a wealthy first-born turned college dropout, takes up any part-time job he can secure to help support his family, leading him to a life full of unpredictability.

Yi-jin meets Hee-do as a part-time newsboy and becomes instantly amused by the reckless teen’s strong-headed dedication to helping him lead a positive perspective. Though he tries to draw a line between the two of them due to the exhausting daily barrage of job difficulties he faces, he cannot help but fall for her infectious vitality.

Director Jung Ji-hyun takes what could be another monotonous romance trope and sculpts Na Hee-do and Baek Yi-jin into an endearing and multidimensional relationship, surely setting a standard for K-dramas to come.

Viewers witness the complete cycle of characterization growth, from Yi-jin handing out the news to presenting it on live television and from Hee-do wistfully watching Yu-rim practice from afar to saluting her at a final match.

Despite engaging fans with a refreshing story of clumsy love and growing pains with consistency in previous airings, the final episode was criticized for being both lackluster and anticlimactic. The main couple, after a bittersweet breakup, carry on with their individual careers, leaving the viewer muddled as to whether they will ever end up together again. 

Some argue that the open-ended nature was thoroughly disappointing for a marketed romance series, while others claim that the conclusion was meant to portray how the only thing stable in our world is instability itself. As times change, people change, and relationships change.  

Despite the qualms of the final episode, Twenty-Five Twenty-One’s storyline (of a teenager’s bumbling step into twenty-hood) is incredibly authentic and worth watching for the nuanced, relatable struggles of its characters and the nostalgic aesthetics that saturate each scene.

“I’ve decided I will only keep the good memories from this drama: friendship, love, sportsmanship, youth, overcoming of hardships, bravery, self-love, moments that last forever in our memories.. I could go on. Easily one of my favorite dramas,” Marta (@themartac) tweeted about the show.

Coupled with dynamic characterization and aesthetics, the show’s soundtrack delivers moody accompaniment to sentimental scenes with some of the industry’s most emotive vocal talents including NCT’s Tae-il and TWICE’s Ji-hyo, to name a few. The retrospective tracking furthers the formulation of the show, giving viewers a new appreciation for Twenty-Five Twenty-One as an ode to youth.

Above all, it is perhaps the relevance of this Korean show that makes it so emotionally stirring. 

Twenty-Five Twenty-One addresses questions many of us have faced growing up, such as how do we cope with the guilt of pursuing a dream our parents don’t support? What do we do with our hopes and dreams when our perception of kindness in the world is suddenly fractured? Although the times may have opened opportunities for us, does that outweigh the memories we sacrificed?

While teens today may not be able to relate to specific issues of the 1990s, the feelings of belonging and helplessness the characters face transcend generations and make this such an important and fulfilling show. 

In our contemporary COVID-19 and war-racked world where it feels as though the times have stripped away a part of our youth and identity, Twenty-Five Twenty-One illustrates the value of dreams and reminds us to never give up on happiness.

This story was originally published on Hatchie Headlines on April 26, 2022.