Written by Jim Han-sae
Directed by by Kim Jin-min
Don’t let the high school setting fool you. Extracurricular is a dark surprise just waiting to ensnare you with its somewhat nasty plot twists and escalating tension. This might take place within the corridors of a high school, and even have a similar exploration of social class that reminds one of the work of Bong Joon-ho (that it premiered on Netflix only two months after the huge Oscar victory of Parasite seems apt), but it has more in common with the dark ferocity of American anti-hero serials such as Breaking Bad and Dexter than it does with any high school series you can name.
This isn’t even the noirish world of Veronica Mars or the Lynchian flavourings of Riverdale. It’s basically as if someone came up with a plot line for the next big anti-hero show and figured that the most interesting way to do it would be with high school students.
It gives Extracurricular an interesting undercurrent, especially in light of the fact that we now live in a period of time when kids are exposed to so much through technology. The world is very much in our pockets thanks to mobile phones, and with it that frightening notion that kids maybe know more than they really should. They can also do anything with them. It’s not for nothing that so much of the lead character’s activities here are accomplished through an app on a mobile phone.
For some it might be stretching credulity, but a plot line about school students running a prostitution ring maybe isn’t as far fetched as it might once have been.
On paper, this sounds like a sure thing for a streaming giant such as Netflix. It’s a teen drama; it’s a serial; it’s Korean; it has a young cast; it has so much commercial potential. There is a pot boiler quality to it that ensures that you’ll skip to the next episode as soon as one ends. Cliffhangers are doled out with frequent abandon, and like the best anti-heroic series the writers of Extracurricular have a lot of fun throwing its central characters into the worst scenarios they can concoct and then figuring out how to get out of the corners they have written themselves into.
It has a similar sense of escalating tension that feels reminiscent of something like Breaking Bad. Like Walter White, lead character Oh Ji-soo (Kim Dong-hee) has his back against the wall financially and is having to break the law to make ends meet. Better yet, the series doesn’t waste time on an origin tale to begin the story; we’re in the middle of it all right away. Some of the later episodes are devoted to elements of the backstory, but the structure of the series means that those explorations comes just when the story needs a bit of a calming down.
With some shows that can be quite a minor hindrance, a disrupter of the pace, but here it actually works.
The pace is fast, the structure for the most part is linear, and the writing is as pitch black as anything that a K-drama has given audiences before. Produced for Netflix and running for ten episodes, this is a world away from the meet cutes and nostalgic flashbacks that so many Korean dramas revel in. This is Korean television as the dark night of the soul.
The casting of Kim Dong-hee is the pivotal factor to so much of this. With a face of an angel, those cute good looks belong to someone you’d take home to your mother, but with this, and also Itaewon Class, he has cornered a small market in morally compromised characters, whose motivations you understand even if his behaviour is something you cannot actually support.
Oh Ji-soo is for all intents and purposes a pimp, even if he has a bad case of denial about that (he maintains that he is only providing ‘security’ for his employees and is dismayed when anything else is suggested). Like Breaking Bad the series turns into a double act, and where most K-dramas have their male and female characters meet and fall in love, with any lies and deception part of the comedy, here it’s all part of an ever increasingly dark turn of events that eventually culminates in the only direction it can; violence.
If the explorations of class and social injustice feel like Bong Joon-ho, then the escalation of bloodshed in the penultimate episode has more in common with Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. A never ending series of corridors becomes the setting for an almighty punch up that takes up the bulk of the action, where the punches land in a way that makes them the loudest and most violent ever in a television series.
As for the pairing at the heart of the series, the relationship between Ji-soo and Bae Gyu-ri becomes ever more complex as it goes on. It seems too predictable that the series will have them end up in love and thankfully it never goes in the direction that you’d expect it to.
Manipulation and deception are part and parcel of so much here that any potential romantic love might offer too much hope in a world where work in the sex industry is the only way to make ends meet.
Like Jesse Pinkman and Walter White, Extracurricular takes a weirdly dark joy in throwing its central characters into an ever increasing wheel of never ending suspense and threat, to the point where towards the end they are pretty much presented with nearly dying at the hands of a pair of characters who feel like they’re older versions of themselves, a warning from the future almost of where they’ll end up if they keep on the road they are travelling on.
Maybe that’s the dark hearted irony at the core of Extracurricular. It offers an open ending where we don’t know what happens to our ‘heroes’ and yet we’ve been afforded a possible glimpse of what’s next through its antagonists.
When Ji-soo falls into the orbit of Dae-yoo and his equally psychotic wife who are effectively running their own prostitution ring while using a karaoke club as a front, they could almost be our two lead characters years from now having made the move from high schoolers way over their heads to running an actual criminal enterprise.
It’s maybe the darkest joke of them all, buried underneath the escalating incident and plot twists that draw you in and doesn’t let go for the duration of its ten episode run.
Sadly, the series didn’t get a renewal. The final episode feels open-ended in a way that it feels like the writers expected to return to, but as such it looks like we’re not going to see the next chapter of the story. It’s a shame, and yet, in some ways it ends in a question mark that also feels like a full stop of sorts.
The image of Ji-soo and Gyu-ri looking up the camera, almost breaking the fourth wall and asking some unknown question of the audience, is perhaps as good a place as it could have ended, although I would have loved to have seen where the story might have gone next.
Extracurricular is available to stream on Netflix.