K-drama Melancholia: Lim Soo-jung, Lee Do-hyun play teacher and student in forbidden high-school romance

Sweet Home

Two years after Search: WWW, Lim Soo-jung returns to the small screen alongside Sweet Home’s Lee Do-hyun in maths-themed high school romantic drama Melancholia. A teacher and her brilliant student grapple with conniving and power-hungry students, parents and educators, as well as the dangerous emotions that bubble up between them.

The setting is Asung High School, a private institution rife with corruption which seeks to elevate its status further by incorporating an advanced calculus programme and taking part in the International Math Olympiad.

To help achieve this, the school hires the talented and committed maths teacher Ji Yoon-su (Lim) to lead the calculus class.

Yoon-su favours critical thinking and is not interested in helping students to memorise formulas to pass tests, but rather to approach problems by thinking outside the box. She hopes to instil a sense of wonder in her students for mathematics by highlighting its importance in art and natural beauty.

Melancholia begins with a flash forward, taking place four months after Yoon-su’s hiring, during a ritzy event where No Jung-a (Jin Kyung), who runs the school as an heir of the Asung Foundation, preaches to well-to-do parents about the value of status for their children’s education.

“Luck plays a bigger role than chance,” she insists, adding that they live in “a world where luck outperforms hard work”.

Yoon-su barges in on the event and challenges Jung-a’s assertion, before she’s taken away by police to be investigated for her improper relationship with student Baek Seung-yoo (Lee Do-hyun).

Jumping back to the beginning of term, we meet Seung-yoo for the first time outside a railway station, where he sees a woman knocked over by a scooter and is quick to memorise the licence plate number as he comes to the woman’s aid.

In a classic romantic set-up, he then takes the same train as Yoon-su, who is sending a maths problem to a messaging group which happens to include Yoon-su. The problem reads: if a bear travels south 1 kilometre, east 1 kilometre and north 1 kilometre and winds up in the same place, what colour is the bear?

The answer is fairly obvious, but only Seung-yoo gets the answer, impressing Yoon-su. The pair, who have never met, cross each other in the train unknowingly, and accidentally pick up each other’s bag, teeing up another meeting later on.

Sweet Home

Woo Da-vi in a still from Melancholia.

Yoon-su poses another brain-scratcher to her prospective calculus students at Asung. This problem, involving a genuinely complex theorem, stumps the students, but the answer – which is that there is no answer, illustrating Yoon-su’s teaching style – is anonymously posted to the board outside her classroom.

Though Sung Ye-rin (Woo Da-vi), the driven daughter of a politician, initially takes credit, Yoon-su soon discovers that it was actually Seung-yoo who solved the equation and she tries to get him to take part in her class and the International Mathematical Olympiad.

Seung-yoo, who was admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a 10-year-old but became an introvert and changed his name following a mysterious incident, slowly comes out of his shell around Yoon-su, but doing so draws the ire of fellow students from powerful families – Seung-yoo comes from a modest home.

Sweet Home

Choi Dae-hoon (left) and Lim Soo-jung in a still from Melancholia.

Yoon-su and Seung-yoo begin to spend a lot of time together, effusing over the beauty of maths and visiting art exhibitions. They even take a trip to Jeju Island to look at some art and architecture.

Most of the secondary characters are drawn in a negative light, including the students, who are all aligned against Seung-yoo and the sycophantic teachers who kowtow to their bigwig parents.

Her fellow educators are guilty of favouritism, but so too is Yoon-su, even if her goals are different. She seems to spend all her time with Seung-yoo, attracted by his genius but making no effort to impart her knowledge to, or foster the intellect of, other students.

Sweet Home

Jin Kyung in a still from Melancholia.

Her singular focus on Seung-yoo also goes against what appear to be her teaching principles. She is against the favouritism shown by teachers to students with connected parents and frequently locks horns with Jung-a about her open-minded curriculum, which includes presenting theorems to students that can’t be proven.

That brings us to the main narrative drive of the show, as a shared interest in maths isn’t all that emerges from the repeated meetings between teacher and student, sometimes against romantic backdrops. It’s extraordinary how oblivious Yoon-su is to the image the pair project to others around them.

Yoon-su is engaged to Ryu Sung-jae (Choi Dae-hoon), a government figure with ties to the education sector whose work encompasses the International Mathematical Olympiad. He’s from a rich family and, given his dry relationship with Yoon-su, we can expect that before long their views on work and education will conspire to drive them further apart, if Yoon-su’s burgeoning relationship with Seung-yoo doesn’t do it first.

Sweet Home

Lim Soo-jung (left) and Lee Do-hyun in a still from Melancholia.

Melancholia has a soothing vibe that quickly draws you in, but with its contradictory themes and abundance of lazy coincidences, that early charm soon evaporates. Looking ahead, there are so few variables that it’s hard to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Melancholia is streaming on iQiyi and Viu in selected territories.

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