Following the massive success of SKY Castle three years ago, high society dramas have been all the rage in Korea, and this year, our TV schedules have been full of them. Both The Road: The Tragedy of One and the final season of The Penthouse have just wound to a close, and here to fill the void they’ve left behind is tvN’s new drama High Class.
Playing a very similar role to the one she performed in the Academy Award-winning movie Parasite, Cho Yeo-jeong leads this drama as Song Yeo-wool, a well-off and well-meaning but somewhat naive mother who dotes on her only son, Yi-chan (Jang Sun-yool). She enrols him in a prestigious school on Jeju Island following the death of her husband.
Yeo-wool has taken a sabbatical from her job as a lawyer at a top firm, as she wants to get closer to her son, who has been having trouble at school in Seoul. She also wants to escape from suspicious eyes and talk, as she was briefly considered to be a suspect in her husband’s death although it was ultimately ruled as a suicide.
She receives a mysterious invitation to enrol Yi-chan in the HSC International School in Jeju, though they both still need to pass a rigorous selection process. It is during a series of gatherings and interviews at the school that she meets Nam Ji-sun (Kim Ji-soo) and Cha Do-young (Gong Hyun-joo), the high society mothers of other prospective students.
Ji-sun is the queen bee of the island aristocracy. She has exacting standards and has her eye on everything, and anything she doesn’t like is just a phone call away from being removed from her sight. Do-young, a vain has-been star with a predilection for Instagram poses, obediently hangs by Ji-sun’s side.
Though Yeo-wool seems to be able to afford the U$100,000 (S$135,000) annual tuition fee and has just moved into a fancy island villa bequeathed to her by her late husband, it is made clear that she isn’t at the same level as the other mothers in the school. Yi-chan gets into the school, however, forcing Do-young’s son onto the waiting list.
Ji-sun pulls strings to ensure Do-young’s progeny is admitted to HSC, but both take a strong dislike to Yeo-wool, an outsider they look down on but who has a sway over the school they don’t understand. Yeo-wool also doesn’t understand where this influence comes from.
She also doesn’t understand why she and her son are being targeted by someone. During the enrolment process Yi-chan is locked in a locker and threatening messages pop up in windows or in beautiful flower bouquets.
Thus Yeo-wool and Yi-chan’s idyllic Jeju life isn’t off to a great start, until Yeo-wool is befriended by Hwang Na-yoon (Park Se-jin), another mother at the school whose daughter Jae-in (Park So-yi) hits it off with Yi-chan.
Yeo-wool also finds another potential ally in the young stud Danny Oh (Ha Jun), a surfer she bumps into several times until he suddenly appears as Yi-chan’s new gym teacher at the school, and ends up leading a very contentious ice hockey team.
Beyond offering a look at the lives of the rich, this cycle of high society dramas, which also includes Mine and Love (ft. Marriage and Divorce) , share a few other points in common, as they are generally led by women and focus on parents playing dirty to give their children advantages in their education.
In High Class, the husbands are especially absent. Yeo-wool is a widow, Do-young has a secret open marriage with her husband, and Ji-sun’s partner barely figures in the story.
If we’ve already seen the rich tiger moms and women’s solidarity themes a few times recently, what does make High Class stand out is its Jeju location. The volcanic island, with its windy beaches, black rock and unique architecture, is a welcome change from the high-rises of Seoul.
Characters in the show often talk about the island’s notoriously fickle weather, which has been known to switch from calm and sunny to dark and stormy a couple of times a day. This temperamental climate adds a suitably unstable mood to the show.
Beyond the appealing location, High Class has presented itself clearly in its first four episodes, with a smooth storyline and good performances. Narratively it has so far been a bit lacking, though there’s certainly time for that to change.
There are secrets between the characters waiting to be unearthed, although several have already been easy to suss out, particularly as the show has stuck to a fairly conventional path.
Teacher Danny Oh, who is billed as one of the leads, has had a very limited presence so far, so look to him to drive some of the show’s mysteries and conflicts as the story unfolds over the coming weeks.
High Class is streaming on Viu.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.