Review: “Twenty-Five Twenty-One” Captures the Bittersweet Brilliance of Youthful Romance in the 2000s

In the midst of fledgling dreams and fleeting hope, the fates of an aspiring fencer and hard working young man converge during a memorable chance encounter. When they meet again years later at ages 21 and 25, the world has changed—and so have they—but love blooms between them nonetheless. Airing from February 12 to April 3, the K-Drama “Twenty-Five Twenty-One” has stolen many hearts of watchers, as the drama had its unique twists and turns throughout its 16 episodes. As a highschooler, protagonist Na Hee Do (Kim Tae Ri) is a dedicated fencer; only, when her dreams of going professional are dashed by the shutdown of her school fencing club, she must find an alternative way to claim her place on South Korea’s National Fencing Team. Meanwhile, Back Yi Jin (Nam Joo Hyuk) is searching to rebuild his life after his family went bankrupt in the 1997 IMF crisis; as Yi Jin struggles to find stability while balancing several part time jobs and swimming in debt, he begins to find solace in the company of the lively Hee Do. Caution: spoilers ahead.

With the plot of “Twenty-Five Twenty-One” hinging on the key coming-of-age themes the characterization of both Hee Do, Yi Jin, and the other people involved in their lives stay authentic to the hardships of reality. This approach to storytelling is very specifically different from many other K-dramas that conjure up happy fantasies in order to satisfy their audiences. For instance, the majority of romance K-dramas depict the main characters somehow getting together regardless of how toxic or unrealistic the relationship is, as it is how the drama gets more viewers. While “Twenty-Five Twenty-One” does give the audience the relationship that they wanted, it still subverts the romance trope by depicting a reasonable progression of events and sending the Hee Do and Yi Jin on their separate ways in the season finale. It was certainly heartbreaking to watch the couple call it quits, especially with both actors’ touching portrayal of their characters, but the show’s display of an ephemeral connection made their relationship feel all the more valuable.

In addition to the accurate depiction of Hee Do and Yi Jin’s romance, the drama also does a great job on creating a believable timeline and allowing the audience to further immerse themselves in the story. They achieve this effect by staying as true to the timely aesthetics, events, and circumstances as possible, featuring many occurrences that audiences could see a representation of their struggles in. For one, the IMF crisis in 1997 that caused many companies in South Korea to go bankrupt heavily affected both of the main characters in a relatable way. Hee Do lost the opportunity to enhance her extracurriculars when her school started to limit its budget. On the other hand, Yi Jin’s entire family found themselves in dire need of money, leading him to take on heavy monetary responsibilities and provide for more than just himself as a young adult. Additionally, the drama also makes the unique incorporation of Covid-19 in its portrayal of 2021, where everyone is masked and living the life in a pandemic. Instead acting as a medium of escapism, the show directly confronts common problems of our society and creates a tangible connection between its world and ours. As a result, many of the characters are easier for viewers to empathize with and project onto, and thus increases the audience’s emotional investment in the plot—a clever craft move that made the narrative feel more nuanced as a result.

With a reasonable and relatable plot progression, “Twenty-Five Twenty-One” deserves a score of 5/5; it skillfully captures the timeless essence of youth, falling in love, and learning to grow up with a beautifully nostalgic and longing atmosphere. But what made this show unique was its emphasis on the audience experience: even down to the minute details, this drama was dedicated to creating a space where audiences could see themselves in the characters’ happiness, sadness, love, anger, growing pains, and more. Despite the occasional confusing interaction here and there, this show not only wonderfully immersed the audience in its world, but also brought its characters to life and to our reality.