The K-List #10: How to Buy a Friend

While the regular season comes to a close and the playoffs are approaching ever so fast, it’s time to take a breather and indulge in yet another stop of my K-List, a peaceful oasis in the desert of statistics and baseball where I try to preach the qualities of South Korean TV series as a priest does to the faithful masses.

As you may have come to know, the usual standards for K-Dramas are two-fold: most of all we have 16 ep series, with runtime for each episode in the 45 min -1.20 hr range and those are around 90% of the total production, then we have long-running dramas, albeit rarely in the sense of 2+ seasons rather with a higher ep count (upwards of 100 episodes), familiar and/or morning dramas with a deep cast, situational comedies and romances more akin to South American telenovelas and American blockbusters such as Beautiful.

There’s also a third category though, one that encompasses few series per year but deserves attention: mini series. They are 2–8 ep dramas, with episodes anywhere from 20 minutes to 1.30 hr and a wider array of themes, moreover they usually present young casts with idols, child actors and no namers trying to ply their trade instead of A-List celebrities, so that they can be considered the Minors of K-Dramas, a place to seek for talent and future stars.

While they don’t get a ton of attention, neither in their homeland nor internationally, mini series are a perfect element to insert into your schedule: they are short and well done for the most part, perfect palate cleansers after seeing one too many romances/crime K-Dramas and all their set structures and tropes. Plus, there’s a concrete shot at seeing a Hallyu-to-be debuting and getting “I told you so” dibs in the community.

With that you could have got what I’m going to review this time: it’s a mini series and a recent one, a 2020 KBS2 production going by the amazing title of How to Buy a Friend.

  • Genres: school, drama, romance, action

Strengths

  • Throwback Thursday

A swift look at the storyline tells you all you need to know: you are in for a throwback, ’90s school drama!

It all starts with the setting, a coastal town in a rural area of Korea, a landscape dominated by the sea, a village right on the shore with small shops, a country feeling that permeates the drama all throughout.

To that you have to add up the always functional school theme with the small town caveat: everyone knows everyone and some guys are legends, like our SML, a renowned fighter that, as it gets told around, has slayed gangs alone and almost killed people in the process.

Cover then the whole thing with a strange coat made of absurdities and high bpm rythm: HTBAF has a ton of violence and not just young students punching their faces around. There’s a ridicolous bad guy, a conspiracy of money and power behind the school scenes that our protagonists uncover to then be met with kidnappings, threats and blunted weapons.

The strangest quirk is the premise of the actions though: none other than a verse on a school poem, a piece that our ML wrote, winning an award for it, that contains a hidden message he’s unaware of, that sets off a chain of events culminating in him being in quite the pickle. Each ep’s title, and a lot of what happens, are tied to poetry, making this little drama even weirder than it sounds.

HTBAF is a poster for what mini series brings to the table: something different. Sure, some of the constraints of a standard K-Drama are kept untouched but there’s much more freedom in how to structure, what to say and how to say it, dialogue-wise and in technical specs. Here we have a school drama that was kicked up notches, spiced with action and violence and swirled around peculiar undertones, a uniquely flavored drink that is not in your classic K-Drama menu.

  • Signed up for a friendship

If I had to pick one and only reason to watch HTBAF it would be the two male leads’ friendship, no contest.

Our ML, portrayed by a rookie in Lee Shin Young, is the archetype of the shy, apatic guy: he has no particular traits, there’s nothing he really likes outside of a girl who’s evidently out of his league, he is not a genius nor a moron, a middle of the pack student who just wants his school days to end in peace.

That would be it but his character takes a fun, unforeseen turn: because of someone’s words staying impressed on him, and some good cheating on his part, he wins a class poetry contest and is sent to a competition where he lucks out getting to spend time with the FL. That is also the start of all his troubles though as there’s so much more under what he wrote that should have stayed silent.

Enter our SML, a mountain of a young man, a legend whispered in school corridors personified by an aptly casted Shin Seung Ho, already seen in Netflix’s own Love Alarm.

His character is your classic kind-hearted bad guy: he speaks with his fists, has no friends and the only person he was close to, his girlfriend, died in a suspicious suicide leaving him alone in a world of pain, with no parents to boot. He may seem like a thug, but that’s just the result of all his scars and him trying to hide them under an armor of strength and terror.

Seeing the words of the ML’s poem akin to those his girlfriend told him once, he seeks him out and finds a weakling, so that he decides to offer his protection in exchange for whatever he knows about that phrase and that girl. Their friendship might be a contract but it evolves in a real bond, one of hilarious banter, with the ML’s raunchy accent only making it better, and common understanding.

In the end they are both young teenagers in trouble and they can only help each other to survive the day, fixing their flawed lives if it kills them. They don’t start off well but as the series ends, their kinship is what remains the most.

Weaknesses

  • Acting ain’t a song

In K-Drama land the shift from being an idol to an actor/actress is quite easy and usual, with many Hallyu stars coming from boy bands and girl groups, as the likes of Suzy (Miss A), Nana (Orange Caramel), Park Hyung Shik and Im Si Wan (ZE:A).

That said not everyone is up to the task from the get-go: Suzy herself, now an household name providing a consistent albeit average performance wherever she stars, was criticized at first, and Kim So Hye also has still to learn about the craft.

First an acting trainee, she debuted as an idol after the Produce 101 show in the group I.O.I. and then re-focused on acting after their disbandment. Although she has some other projects on her resume there’s a lot left to desire: her character lacks expressions, a one-toned school beauty who gets entangled with the ML’s troubles, her role is not that felt nor useful, if anything she’s a weak point, a forgettable FL that is outshined by the male component of the drama.

To be honest she wasn’t dealt a good hand, and this is a mini series so you can only dream about character development, so I’m not crossing her out yet: she has presence, interesting features and a lower voice tone that is usually a boon in the industry, we’ll see her again, hopefully in a full series to give her more time to shine brighter.

  • The nature of things

What really separates a good and a great mini series is its own structure: less episodes means less screentime, less diversions, less space for characters to move around and grow.

As it’s usual in such a drama, HTBAF is fast to say the least and that’s good for the action but bad in any other regard: the romance between the leads has no basis, coming out of nowhere just because; the conspiracy is built up for 3 eps and then destroyed in all of five minutes, skipping steps in the process; the finale is good but nothing out of the ordinary, good vibes ending, although one that closes out the series in a much needed positive note.

There was a lot of ambition in setting such a story for that few of a runtime and it fell a little short: too many secondaries left hanging, too rushed of a development for key issues, too good of an idea and execution that it leaves a desire for more, a sense of having wasted a moment of greatness to fit it into a short time gap.

Score: 7,5/10

HTBAF is one hell of a mini series, a refreshing take on the school concept with fast paced action and leave-no-prisoners violence, a poetic detour and a rural setting that gives off real life vibes and a raw, yet emotional aspect that can’t be undersold.

Still, it’s a mini series and that hurts its own, lacking development for a group of characters that deserved more than 4 hours of screentime and pushing a flashy, entertaining plot into the limits of an undersized drama.

The end result is above the average of such productions though, a testament of a job well done in all aspects, from a talented cast, male leads to watch out for, a rapid direction, curious style choices and marvelous photography.

If you have spare time to binge a short series, this is one you shouldn’t miss out on. With that I’m done for today, I’ll see you next time on the K-List, where amazing (and Korean) happens.

Italian baseball stathead. I’ll write about MLB, Nippon Professional Baseball and Korean dramas/shows. A lot of graphs, Astros related content and references.