This article contains spoilers.
Over its first few episodes, Korean drama High Class neatly set up its characters and story against the idyllic backdrop of Jeju Island, but it felt like it was missing something. That something turned out to be an element of surprise, and with only a few weeks left, we’re still waiting.
With its education-obsessed and secretive rich mothers backstabbing each other in slick locales, the show is modelled to emulate the success of prior hits such as SKY Castle, The Penthouse and Mine. Rather than build on those successes, High Class has merely mimicked these earlier shows, but without the cool class of SKY Castle, the theatrical melodrama of The Penthouse or the compelling solidarity of Mine.
What’s more, surface similarities with the Academy Award-winning film Parasite – they both star Cho Yeo-jeong as a well-off and slightly ditzy mother living in a stylish home – prove to be no mere coincidence.
Song Yeo-wool (Cho) sought to escape the pain of her husband’s death and the suggestion that she might have killed him by moving to Jeju with her son Yi-chan (Jang Sun-yool), where she enrolled him at the prestigious HSC International School.
Facing off with other mothers at the school, who felt she didn’t belong, Yeo-wool’s sojourn on the island was off to a rocky start, until she was befriended by fellow mother Hwang Na-yoon (Park Se-jin). Na-yoon came on a bit strong and it wasn’t a surprise when she secretly slipped into one of Yeo-wool’s dresses in her house at the end of episode four.
The image called to mind a similar scene in Mine, when a nanny put on one of her client’s dresses. The similarities don’t stop there as, just like the nanny from Mine, Na-yoon is revealed to have had a secret relationship with the husband of the owner of the dress.
Not only was Na-yoon in a relationship with Yeo-wool’s husband, she was married to him in Hong Kong and they had a child together – her daughter Jae-in (Park So-yi). Na-yoon has only got close to Yeo-wool for revenge, though aside from ominous notes scrawled on windows and secretly voting her off a school committee, her vengeance hasn’t been particularly well defined.
A suspicious Yeo-wool is finally able to unlock her husband’s phone by using Jae-in’s birthday and discovers happy portraits of him and his second family. The usually calm Yeo-wool finally cracks, trashing a painting in Na-yoon’s gallery.
Park Se-jin as Hwang Na-yoon in a still from High Class.
Shortly thereafter, during a school recital, Yeo-wool is called to the office of Chairman Doh (Woo Hyun-joo), but the power in the building cuts out and by the time she reaches the office, she finds Chairman Doh dead.
The death is ruled a heart attack, but foul play is soon suspected and Yeo-wool is once again looked to as the prime suspect in a murder. In a bewildering interrogation scene, a detective says that someone has testified against her, at which point Na-yoon enters the room and testifies to Yeo-wool – not the detective.
In this same room, with a detective listening, she then exclaims that she’s essentially kidnapped Yi-chan.
Handsome gym teacher Danny Oh (Ha Jun), who didn’t figure much in the early episodes, turns out to be a spy for Chairman Doh who tapped Yeo-wool’s phone and spends long scenes broodily standing beside a switchboard as he listens in on her conversations.
In other scenes he’s clearly able to move around as he eavesdrops on her, but I suppose that’s a less ominous image.
Following the chairman’s death, Danny has no work to do, so he decides to leave Jeju. Learning this, Yeo-wool goes to sit on a beach and, in a montage accompanied by wistfully romantic music, thinks back over all the times they met – before she discovered that he was a creepy paid stalker – and there was little hint of a spark between them.
However, since Danny is a main character, he doesn’t board his flight.
Strange things begin to happen in and around Yeo-wool’s house and soon High Class serves us its biggest non-surprise yet: Yeo-wool’s husband, An Ji-yong (Kim Nam-hee), is alive!
Ha Jun as Danny Oh in a still from High Class.
Unable to pay back the US$500 million he swindled out of investors, including Nam Ji-sun (Kim Ji-soo) – a character who has become increasingly irrelevant with each passing episode – Ji-yong faked his own death and has been living in a secret underground bunker in Yeo-wool’s house (a bald-faced swiping of one of Korean cinema’s biggest twists).
Logic-defying narratives aren’t necessarily a problem for Korean dramas – The Penthouse seldom made a lick of sense – but High Class’ refusal to come up with any of its own ideas dooms it to being a pale imitator of its better predecessors.
Awkwardly pawing in several directions, it never finds its own rhythm. Yet rather than being outright bad, the show has merely been competent and aggressively bland.
Jang Sun-yool as Yi-chan in a still from High Class.
High Class is streaming on Viu.Internet Explorer Channel Network