The implications of the word “stranger” has become even more deliberate and callous as a result of the current pandemic. Now that everyone is required to wear masks in public, the “stranger” that walk past you on the street or who sits beside you on the train is not merely unfamiliar, but anonymous. In this anonymous world, people can only assume a stranger’s trustworthiness based on their overall appearance. Will criminals use this benefit of doubt to their advantage? Or have they already started?
Director Kim Jin-min and writer Jin Han-sae did an experimental take on this idea. They undertook a self-reflective project to highlight the public’s ignorance to social issues happening around them in the form of a dark psychological-thriller: the Netflix Original series Extracurricular.
Extracurricular features upcoming lead actor Kim Dong-hee as Oh Ji-soo, a student who runs a security service for a prostitution business, and the second lead actress Park Ju-hyun starring as Bae Gyu-ri, his partner in crime who invests her money, time, and nearly her life in the business.
This K-drama illuminates multiple controversial social issues and how they can exist in our society due to the fact that it goes invisible under the public’s eye. Let’s take a closer look at how Extracurricular effectively put these issues under a spotlight:
Senior K-dramas, from Sky Castle to Boys Over Flowers, use a parent’s overbearing influence on or negligence of their child’s life as a plot device that has a big impact on the choices their children make. Extracurricular takes the correlation between bad behaviour and bad parenting one step further by having a toxic parent-child relationship be the one thing the underaged criminals had in common. Ji-soo had to start his illegal business because of his parents’ irresponsibility. Min-hee, one of Ji-soo’s classmates and an underaged sex worker, didn’t have her parents around to monitor her as well. But for Gyu-ri, her family issues are caused by a different type of negligence. Her parents refuse to see her as her own person, but rather a cultivation of their efforts to produce a suitable heir for their music empire.
Her parents control what she eats, how she dresses, how she does her hair and makeup, and who she dates. When Gyu-ri plays a fantasy in her head of getting superpowers to shoot her parents in the head and gorge herself with all the food she wants, it was a fun and surprising way to describe any teenager’s resentment for their parents’ control, and deep-seated wishes to be in control of their own selves.
We easily judge strangers based on how we perceive their image, even though parents can be overbearingly concerned with raising their child, yet their children are strangers living under their roof. Her parents not only pushed her into finding her individuality through pimping underaged girls, but may also have been the cause of her depression.
As in Art of Loving, Fromm says, “mental illness originates from living in a fantasy”; your own, or someone else’s.
MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS
Mental issues are more common than you think, WHO reports that depression affects more than 264 million people, and suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds. In particular, South Korea had the highest rates of suicide in a study done in 2005 by Dwaun June. Despite being common, societies stigmatize mental illness as a rare, dramatic and inexplicable condition.
When Gyu-ri gets questioned for pushing a fire alarm for no reason, she diverts the argument by explaining how she always wants to barf because of the smell of her breath. When asked why, she replied: “Because I can breathe even though I do nothing.” She says this to hint at her underlying depressive thoughts, but she makes it dramatic so that she can take advantage of the cultural discomfort with dealing with mental issues to break the law.
Underneath the surface, however, the show creates realistic representations of mental issues like depression, PTSD and anxiety, by portraying it subtly and as ordinarily as someone struggling with these conditions experiences it. For example, showing Gyu-ri picking her cuticles until they bleed, a seemingly harmless habit that actually suggests self abusive behaviors. Extracurricular also uses filming techniques to accurately portray an anxiety attack. It immerses the audience in the overwhelming sense of panic and dread of the characters, like fading the background noise into a faint static sound, the slow motion effect, and the camera getting increasing blurred the more you are disorientated. As the show’s main focus is to give us an insider look in the life of normal people, it’s only rational for them to include mental disorders as something people have to deal with on a regular basis.
Toxic relationships are another social issue that is overlooked in real life and overdramatized in TV shows, and Extracurricular highlights and problematizes this. Ki-tae and Min-hee are in an emotionally manipulative relationship that her friends don’t even notice or advise her to leave him. They probably didn’t even realize that what was going on between them was harmful, because toxic relationships aren’t always as obvious, loud, and dramatic like they are depicted in other shows. Spending money on a boyfriend who would flirt with other women, or your girlfriend belittling you in front of her friends are some of the silent indicators of abusive relationships that Extracurricular highlights.
Furthermore, double standards in relationships are much more common in real life than society might think, and Extracurricular combats that perspective by showing the gang leader’s girlfriend’s mental and physically abusive behavior towards him.
There’s a situational type of irony in how the Society Research Club members Ji-soo and Gyu-ri indirectly brings the audience to study these societal issues with them through the club’s undercover activities.
I realized the show had an underlying reflective take when I first watched the K-drama. I saw all the obvious problems like gang violence, underage smoking and drinking, and prostitution, but I was so distracted by Ji-soo’s cute, hardworking, high school boy image, I didn’t even realise he was the show’s main antagonist.
As you re-watch the show more than once, it becomes easier to notice all the hidden warning signs of these issues. And the longer you take to notice these signs, the longer it takes for you to realise the true message of the show: the threatening problem of the increasing unawareness of one another in our society.
The main theme of the show is introduced in the first scene. It opens with a collage of kaleidoscope images and ominous music alluding to Ji-soo’s tainted psyche, and then the visuals transition to someone rummaging their hands through garbage, with a voiceover describing an individual like they would during a court testimony. This suggests that the person the voiceover describes as “a diligent well-behaved student” is contrarily the one digging in someone’s else’s trash for a taser, up to no good.
This scene is also very interesting because it shows how criminals with good appearances can manipulate their way out of any bad judgement or court punishment by cultivating a favorable public image of themselves.
After realizing the subtle indications of serious societal issues, if you discover Ji-soo for the evil criminal mastermind that I perceived him as, you must be wondering how someone in real life can have sympathy for such an obvious criminal. But this happens much more than you think. A popular example is popular K-pop idol Seun-gri from BIGBANG, who was arrested for his involvement in the sex bribery and rape scandal known as The Burning Sun scandal that had ten women confirmed as victims. Despite knowing about all the evil things he did, and with evidence, people still turned a blind eye to the crime because they only saw him through the good and innocent image he created. Other cases of criminals depending on their appearance and popularity to escape punishment include Donald Trump, R. Kelly, and XXXTentacion.
Ji-soo is also aware of the value in his image, so even though outside of the public eye he is quite aggressive, rude, and heartless, he keeps his prim school boy public image up, allowing him to conduct his criminal activities in broad daylight with plenty of unknowing witnesses. The show also makes sure to show him murder someone in broad daylight to prove this.
Another easter egg the director added to emphasize Ji-soo’s invisibility to the public eye is in the costume design. Normally, the main characters wear brighter clothes to set them apart from the extras, but they purposefully make Ji-soo blend into the dark and mute blacks and greys of the crowd, as inconspicuous as possible. At the same time, Min-hee wears flashy accessories and lightly colored clothes, and that could be connected to how visible and incriminated sex-workers are by the public, as they take the spotlight from the dangerous sex crime organizers.
Extracurricular is deliberate with its purpose of bringing awareness to silent issues, and even includes a helpline for underaged girls doing sex-work for viewers who experience any of the circumstances shown.
However, the show is way more neutral than expected in its delivery.
Criminals in this show are not necessarily painted in a bad light. They use techniques to allow the criminals to feel familiar to the audience, like you are watching a show about someone close to you, like a colleague or classmate. Once you let go of the emotional investment you hold for the characters, you start to take notice of the unmentioned criminal activity in the show you might even disregarded in your own daily lives, and social issues around you—like bullying, or a friend caught in an abusive relationship. To keep the neutrality, the show explores proper reasons why Ji-soo might choose that line of work, or why Gyu-ri got herself involved. And so throughout the series we are prompted to flesh out a particular stance that the audience should come to a conclusion about by the ending scene.
After witnessing all the events of the show, would your perfect ending be Ji-soo and Gyu-ri getting caught by the police? Should Ji-soo only be held accountable, or should they both make an escape at the last minute?
Overall, I commend Extracurricular for having a well written script that did a good job at reflecting our current societal issues and calling the public to concern themselves with these problems, as well as take action. It may seem dull at first, but it really captures the mundanity of real life social interactions. There were numerous brilliant performances by the cast throughout the show and although Kim Dong-hee’s angry tone of voice wasn’t as threatening as it could be, his portrayal of Ji-soo’s descent into madness in episode ten was one of my favorite performances in a K-drama. Despite Extracurricular being a dark psychological thriller, I enjoyed how it included many embarrassingly funny and awkward situations, and caricature-like characters such as the gang members to commemorate the signature Korean comedy-drama style.
Considering the relevant subject matters about the society that the drama discusses, I highly recommend watching Extracurricular if you’re in the mood for enjoying an introspective satirical drama.