Start-ups: Bae Suzy, Kim Seon-ho and Nam Joo-hyuk’s wholesome but bittersweet take on love

When it comes to Valentine’s Day choices, Start-Up might seem very unusual. Departing from hand-holding, fluttering eyelids, confessions of love and shy kisses, the show recounts in exquisite detail the romances between budding entrepreneurs without ever deviating from its original premise – l stressful experience of launching a start-up.

Initially, Start-Up, starring Bae Suzy, Kim Seon-ho, and Nam Joo Hyuk, seems like it might scratch the surface of entrepreneurial ventures, then dive deep into a twisted love triangle, deviating from its title. Or at least, that was my impression, reading the synopsis which seemed to suggest a cute and enjoyable watch, detailing the love story between entrepreneurs, when starting their business.

I wasn’t entirely wrong. Still, for those only vaguely familiar with how start-ups work, the show pulls you in from the get-go. It absorbs viewers into the fictional “Sandbox”, which is Korea’s version of Silicon Valley, and gives the adrenaline rush while demonstrating the hustle and bustle of this life. Every character is beautifully sketched in great detail, right down to the sidekicks who played co-workers and the arrogant company seniors who stared at the newbies.

Love, letters and start-ups

Meet Dal-Mi (Bae Suzy), a girl who dreams of becoming the next “Steve Jobs”. Life hasn’t been particularly rosy, as her parents separated when she was young, with her mother leaving with her older sister In-Jae (Kang Han-Na). Her life had crumbled for one spring as her father died during that time – and she was left with only pieces. In a desperate attempt to bring some joy into her granddaughter’s life, her grandmother finds a young boy to write her letters as a mysterious friend. These letters give Dal-Mi a new purpose in life, and she no longer feels so lost and alone. The mysterious friend grows up to become Kim Seon-ho’s Han Ji-Pyeong, a tough businessman who still holds the candle for her. Still, he doesn’t want to reveal himself to her and thus claims that the shy and awkward Nam Do San (Nam Joo-Hyuk) wrote the letters. Dal-Mi, who is torn between creating her new startup and trying to outdo her seemingly frosty sister, once again finds solace in Nam Do San, who becomes an essential part of her startup. Of course, the truth unfolds in a rather agonizing and heartbreaking way, and the main characters have to come to terms with the choices they’ve made. Personal trials and tribulations take place outside of the office, as they have other battles to fight at work, including investors who threaten to tear their team apart, and in fact do. After a lot of pain and heartbreak, everything finally works out.

Severe second lead syndrome

The show is so compact and follows the age-old motto ‘less is more’. Bae Suzy communicates her frustrations and exhaustion in brief exchanges, and yet her eyes betray her emotions. Her character’s trajectory is also shown – from naïve in her entrepreneurial skills, to decision-making, to finally letting go of idealistic notions and figuring out what she’s up to. The show makes it clear that she is the protagonist. You won’t always agree with her. In fact, sometimes you’ll want to shake it too. Kim Seon-ho, as Han Ji-Pyeong, is heartbreaking, and we have severe “second lead” syndrome with him in Start-Up. You wish Dal-Mi had learned sooner that he wrote those letters, and they could have had that perfect ending. He’s not as tough as he looks – he breaks from the inside and we see him regret the choice he made – and yet his feelings don’t stop him from criticizing Dal-Mi when she makes absurd decisions. Even though he would like to punch Nam Do-San in the face, he won’t and won’t hesitate to give it a mean blunt.

Their friendship and bond despite the nasty revelations is a joy to watch, but it feels tasteless, only because you wanted something more from them.

Rooting for the first track too

It’s absurd, but it’s true. Although there was endless debate among Hallyu fans that Dal-Mi and Han Ji-Pyeong deserved to be together, I was not unhappy that Dal-Mi found happiness with Nam Do. San, ironically. Strange as it may seem, the mastery of the show was that it rooted you for both leads, even though you knew one of them would get your heart broken. Do San isn’t entirely perfect, he’s plagued by low self-esteem and the belief that he was only born to code. For him, Dal-Mi is a breath of fresh air, and with it, his shyness ebbs, not much, but just enough that they exchange understanding glances during work. He cherishes his path of “leading without a map” because it’s something he’s never encountered before, as the unknown has always been anxiety-provoking for him. It comes at a cruel price later, and takes a 3-year time gap and an unexpected reunion for him to overcome old jealousy and insecurities to finally understand what he means to Dal-Mi. In a rather melancholy way, he asks her: “What do you like about me? For him, it’s a legitimate question – he didn’t write those letters to her as a child, nor does he have the panache and courage like Han. In his eyes, he has nothing to give her. Her response soothes her, saying, “I love you for you.” The demons within him cease to rage and are subdued. Perhaps the creators thought their love story was more realistic than following the old trope of childhood sweethearts. In my opinion, it worked.

Start-Up’s gentle exploration of love without ever delving into excessive rhetoric and deep explanation is what makes this show so wholesome. He perfectly balanced the grueling professional lives, as well as the messy heartbreaks that lead people to make impulsive career decisions. And while you’re engrossed in the tangled and messy love lives, you can also learn a lot about start-ups and what it takes to be an entrepreneur. It is for those who prefer a rather restricted dose of porridge.

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