“Melancholia” ended a few weeks ago, wrapping up a run that was quiet and without much fanfare despite it starring the magnetic Lee Do Hyun and effervescent Im Soo Jung. The drama attracted somewhat low ratings, even if the acting was acknowledged as brilliant, because of the controversial subject matter: specifically, a teacher-student romance.
However, the execution of this premise was without any hint of “forbidden love.” At its heart, “Melancholia” is about a math teacher, Ji Yoon Soo (Im Soo Jung), who loves her job and comes from a family of mathematicians. She’s hired by the highly prestigious Asung High School, headed by the Machiavellian Noh Jung Ah (Jin Kyung), as a means of boosting the math competition scores of the wealthy, privileged (often nasty) students who attend it. Yoon Soo’s creative, out-of-the-box, and accessible style of teaching often puts her at odds with Jung Ah, who just wants Yoon Soo to give students all the answers to questions and create easy tests so they all pass. Sticking to her guns, Yoon Soo continues to challenge her students and is surprised and delighted when she happens across an anonymous student who solves a difficult problem she posed on a notice board.
Her hunt for him leads her to Baek Seung Yoo (Lee Do Hyun), a former math prodigy who now refuses to do anything with it. Yoon Soo is determined to see that this boy genius’s talent is recognized, going against the edicts of Jung Ah and all the school kids’ bigwig parents who want their children to succeed at any cost. A terrible scandal is manufactured and broadcasted all over the high school which results in Yoon Soo being forced to leave in disgrace. Years later, a successful Seung Yoo finds Yoon Soo again, only she’s nothing like she used to be. She hates anything to do with math and seems to have given up on herself and her life. Can these two souls heal each other and confront the architects of the scandal that ruined their lives years ago?
At 16 episodes, “Melancholia” is a breezy show to watch over a cup of hot chocolate on a cold week. If this isn’t enough to convince you to watch the show, read on for more reasons!
Note: This is a spoiler-free review!
1. The color palette and OST
There’s something so relaxing about “Melancholia” despite its often heartbreaking subject matter. The drama is shot in soft pastels, with natural greens, whites, pale yellows, and pinks being the foreground during the portion of the show taking place in 2017. Post-time jump, the show favors muted blue-grays demonstrating the titular melancholia and the loss of the characters’ optimism. Regardless of the time period, there’s this aura of gentleness permeating the entire show that’s comforting and makes for a refreshing watch. The OST complements this mood as seen in Jemma’s “All I Need” below.
2. A realistic look at the “boy genius” trope
We’ve seen boy geniuses a plenty in K-dramas, from medical professionals in “Dr. Romantic” to “A Beautiful Mind” to people with near perfect recall in “Find Me In Your Memory” or supernatural powers in “Memorist.” However, “Melancholia” takes a different approach. Baek Seung Yoo’s genius is portrayed as a burden to him in a manner that realistically evokes pity. His parents see him as a cash cow so they can thumb their noses in the view of the richer parents. Seung Yoo is their ticket to a wealthier lifestyle, and they don’t let him forget it for one second. They send him off to prestigious schools that exploit him to the bone and are furious when he comes home a mental wreck because of it.
We met Seung Yoo as someone who has grown to fear his passion for math. Despite seeing the world in numbers and angles, he refuses to show his true self to anyone anymore because they all want something from him. Yoon Soo is the only one who encourages him to do it because he wants to, so that deep-seated talent in him can flourish. It’s no wonder then that he grows a slight crush on the only person who seems to see the world the way he does.
3. Lee Do Hyun’s amazing portrayal of Baek Seung Yoo
A lesser actor might have turned Baek Seung Yoo into a puppy-dog caricature of a high school student, but in Lee Do Hyun’s masterful hands, Seung Yoo becomes an academic in a student’s body, someone whose brain is far more advanced than his years but who is still an 18-year-old with respect to emotional maturity. He’s a level-headed teen but still a teen. The drama makes it clear that Seung Yoo isn’t old for his age just because he’s incredibly smart. His ability to calculate has nothing to do with his developmental maturity. We sees flashes of the man Seung Yoo will grow to become: gentle, protective, and confident. But Lee Do Hyun stops there in the 2017 timeline and fleshes out Seung Yoo as a man in 2021. It’s quite brilliantly done.
4. Im Soo Jung’s excellent depiction of Yoon Soo’s past and present
However, Seung Yoo’s portrayal would sink flat if his scene partner wasn’t bringing anything to the table, and Im Soo Jung definitely brought her A-game. As 2017’s Yoon Soo, she’s nothing but professional, doing her best to coax this shattered child back into the world he actually loves. She’s firm with him about the extent of his talent and where it can take him while showing him just how broad math is as a field and how much the modern world thrives on it, without anyone knowing. There’s this incredible warmth she radiates, and it’s easy to see why affection-starved Seung Yoo would gravitate toward her. We also get to see that version of Yoon Soo slowly crumble as the scandal hits and her life is ruined. The joy she had in life slowly fades away. She’s still the same person but with all the color leeched from her. Nevertheless, Yoon Soo is a still a fighter. Im Soo Jung always manages to imbue her characters with an inner core of steel, and it really comes through.
5. The meeting of minds between Seung Yoo and Yoon Soo
Now to address the elephant in the room. Is this romance ever okay? That’s a question of personal preference. However, the show takes care to demonstrate that there were no reciprocal feelings between Seung Yoo and Yoon Soo while the two were student and teacher. Seung Yoo had a crush on Yoon Soo, certainly, but it wasn’t one she was aware of, and the relationship didn’t turn inappropriate. If anything, this was more a meeting of minds with both of them being excited to find someone who could see the world the way they did. There was nothing romantic about it. In fact, if Seung Yoo had been a high school girl, this would have been considered more of a mentorship story. A contrasting drama that comes to mind is “Doctors,” where the male teacher openly had a thing for his female high school student and even dramatically chased after her. He might have acted on it if circumstances hadn’t gotten in the way, which would have been inappropriate.
But in “Melancholia,” even in 2021, any romantic feelings between the two take a long time to get going. Seung Yoo never forgot the woman who shaped his life and had hers ruined, but Yoon Soo is understandably very wary of getting close to him. They’ve traded places in life, with her being closed off now and him being the one trying to coax her back into the field she used to love. Still, Yoon Soo has a life to reclaim, and getting together with Seung Yoo would only lend credence to anyone who wanted to argue that they had an inappropriate relationship in the past. It’s an understandable dilemma, and the show treats the topic with the sensitivity it deserves.
Thus, if you’re still debating on watching this show, rest assured that there isn’t any taboo or borderline illegal content. If anything, this show takes a harsh look at elite high schools and the pressure placed on students to succeed at any cost as well as what harmful parental expectations do to young minds. It’s a shame that this wasn’t billed as a healing drama or a crusade by two people to right the wrongs of the past, because that’s what it really is. The negative press was unwarranted. With winter in full swing and spring on the horizon, perhaps now might be a good time to give this show a try. It may not be perfect, but you’ll walk away feeling warm and fuzzy.
Check out the first episode below:
Hey Soompiers, have you watched “Melancholia”? What do you think of the drama? Let us know in the comments below!
Shalini_A is a long time Asian-drama addict. When not watching dramas, she works as a lawyer, fangirls over Ji Sung, and attempts to finish up the greatest fantasy romance of all time. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and feel free to ask her anything!
Currently Watching: “Bulgasal,” “Through the Darkness”
Looking Forward to: “Adamas,” “Military Prosecutor Doberman,” “Why Her?” “Grid,” “Link,” “Island,” “Insider,” “Tomorrow,” “Little Women,” “The Sound of Magic,” “Big Mouth,” “Chaebol’s Youngest Son,” “Carter,” “Queen of the Scene,” “Black Knight”