“Where in the pyramid do you want to be? The bottom or the top?”
The Korean education system is known to be the best in the world, having topped the world rankings since 2014. However, it is also one of the toughest. In 2016, the BBC aired a documentary where Welsh students experienced just how tough it is. One instance showed South Korean students completing a Welsh GCSE Maths paper in 15 minutes, with the teacher revealing it was “primary school” stuff for them. It goes to show; the South Korean education system forces students to push themselves to be the best. But is that necessarily a good thing? That’s what JTBC’s record-breaking drama, SKY Castle, explores.
The drama follows the lives of four women who live luxurious lives in the SKY Castle neighbourhood. Their only goals are to make their husbands successful and to get their children into the best universities.
As an unexpected death causes ripples in the neighbourhood, one mother, Han Seo Jin (Yum Jung Ah), prepares to do everything she needs to ensure her daughter, Han Ye Seo (Kim Hye Yoon), gets into Seoul National University Medical School. But what she doesn’t know is that everything means absolutely everything.
The drama begins by portraying the extravagant lifestyles of the SKY Castle neighbourhood – the families of Han Seo Jin, Jin Jin Hee (Oh Na Ra), No Seung Hye (Yoon Se Ah), and Lee Myung Joo (Kim Jung Nan). However, everything goes downhill from there. The capitalist lifestyles each lead bring them their own troubles, and when a new family, mothered by step-mother Lee Soo Im (Lee Tae Ran), move in, the troubles only continue.
As a satirical black comedy, the drama covers topics that would seem ‘taboo’ to the Korean audience, such as depression, suicide, and obsessive parents. However, what truly makes this drama a success is, as well as its focus on greed, the fact that it focuses on five families. Yes, a parent will want their child to do well. Yes, they may go to extreme extents like the families of No Seung Hye and Han Seo Jin. But each family has different methods to reach the top of the pyramid.
Behind the record-breaking drama is writer Yoo Hyun Mi, whose most notable work is 2012’s Bridal Mask. Writing a satirical, black comedy seems to require much thought and planning, but it appears Yoo Hyung Mi writes it with ease. The writing is powerful, and the metaphor of a pyramid is something that sticks even months after its ending. Combined with director Jo Hyun Tak’s visual aesthetic, it is no wonder that the drama was extended for four more episodes.
Neither her nor the director, Joo Hyun Tak, would have predicted the drama’s success, especially when the drama started off with a rating of 1.7%.
“When we were first preparing for production, there were lots of concerns that the drama wouldn’t appeal to single people or DINK [double income no kids]families, since it was about students on the verge of entering university and their parents. But the story isn’t about getting into university, it’s about the greed and ambition that comes from that setting, so I think viewers were able to relate to it pretty well.”
However, the ratings quickly increased to over 13% by the twelfth episode and became the highest viewer rating for a JTBC drama. By the end of the drama, the highest rating set was around 25% – almost double the twelfth episode.
There are too many actors in the cast to discuss in one review. Each actor seemed to pay attention to the little details of their roles, and as a result, their hard work paid off.
The child actors, particularly Kim Hye Yoon and Kang Chan Hee (SF9’s Chani), were more memorable than the parents. Both have had roles in seemingly popular dramas, whether you remember them or not: Kim Hye Yoon has been in I Can Hear Your Voice, My Love from the Star, and even a minor role in Goblin; and Kang Chan Hee has been in Signal and To the Beautiful You.
If you, like me, were terrified of Kang Ye Seo, then Kim Hye Yoon portrayed her character perfectly. She is evidently the ‘spoilt brat’ of the family, the one who can never do anything wrong despite following her mother’s footsteps in greed. Her behaviour became the motivational point of the drama, as what she wanted, she got. If something became an obstacle, that became the focus of the episode.
As for Kang Chan Hee, his portrayal of Hwang Woo Joo is one that viewers cannot help but love. Unlike Kang Yeh Seo, Chan Hee’s character, Woo Joo is ‘pure’ in mind compared to the other SKY Castle residents. As well as this, his character is mature and cheerful, having no problem with Lee Soo Im as a step-mother. It is also important to note that Chan Hee was only 18 when cast for the drama, and an active member of SF9. Thus, for him to portray a young character with a high level of maturity and gain every viewer’s sympathy in the last five episodes, it goes to show that his acting is highly commendable.
However, the true star of the drama is Kim Seo Hyung’s portrayal of college admissions coordinator, Kim Joo Young. Her character is pivotal in the drama – she sways the actions of various characters throughout the drama – and it must have been difficult to prepare for the role. In fact, Kim Seo Hyung struggled to fully immerse herself in the character. She wanted to quit in the beginning and even tried asking the director for the ending so that she could fully understand her character arc. Neither worked out, and Kim Seo Hyung became the key to making the drama as successful as it was.
JTBC’s SKY Castle is a record-breaking drama for a reason. It is dark, comical, and terrifyingly thought-provoking. It will, if you haven’t already, make you question the country’s educational system and appreciate the one you currently have. When K-dramas leave you with a message to take away and something to improve on, then you know it was a worthwhile watch.