Lately, Korean dramas have been pleasantly subverting old tropes by either flipping it on its head, or making them seem refreshing despite how many other times it has been used. It is also pretty refreshing when a Korean drama decides to focus and take its time on the development of its characters, while doling out meaningful life lessons, and keeping it simple at the same time. SBS’ “Thirty but Seventeen” is just that- a feel good drama that utilizes the frozen in time trope to teach us life lessons about healing from past traumas and how it is okay to take the time we need in order to achieve our goals in life.
“Thirty but Seventeen” ran on SBS from July 23 to September 18, 2018, with half hour episodes. The drama was originally supposed to run for a total of forty half hour episodes, but was later cut to thirty two episodes. However, despite the shortened run, they were able to wrap everything up nicely, while keeping the right pace and without any of the characters behaving out of character. The show was written by Jo Sung Hee (“She Was Pretty“, “High School King of Savvy”) , and was directed by Jo Soo Won (“Pinocchio”, “Gap Dong”, “I Hear Your Voice”).
The drama centers around Woo Seo Ri (Shin Hye Sun), a thirty year old woman who woke up after being in a coma for thirteen years due to a tragic accident, and who used to be a genius violinist. After waking up, she stumbles into her old home which is now occupied by high school athlete Yoo Chan (Ahn Hyo Seop); his uncle, Gong Woo Jin (Yang Se Jong), a set designer who was also emotionally traumatized by the same accident Seo Ri was in; and Jennifer (Ye Ji Won), a housekeeper with a mysterious past, now live in. Together, as Seo Ri learns how to navigate the world again, they face the difficult challenges of growing and healing from past regrets and painful experiences.
As I mentioned earlier, this drama utilizes a lot of tropes, but instead of making them feel repetitive, instead, they fit in perfectly within this show’s universe, as it is done organically. One of the most glaring ones is the whole “missed chances/opportunities” trope, but it works especially as one of the major themes of the show is to stop dwelling on the “what ifs” and regrets from the past in order to start truly living and moving on.
The story itself was well-paced, and was a good mix of a coming of age story, a slice of life story, and a romantic comedy. I liked that all the characters, even some of the secondary ones, had their own character arcs that came full circle in the end, and the ending that was given to us wrapped everything neatly. They also took their time in delving into the characters, their individual growth and their relationships; and kept it refreshingly simple, as there were really no villains or complicated love triangles and rivals in this drama.
Shin Hye Sun delivered a great performance in “Stranger/Forest of Secrets”, but knocked it out of the park here as Woo Seo Ri. She portrayed Seo Ri with the exuberance and the physicality of a seventeen year old, and as she learned and grew, you could see the subtle changes in how she would temper herself in particular situations, but still be very much herself. Park Si Eun, who also played the younger version of Won Jin Ah’s character in “Just Between Lovers/Rain or Shine” was also great here, and sold me on the fact that she was exactly like the older Seo Ri who had just woken up from a coma, and with the fact that she and Woo Jin do have a special connection with each other.
Yang Se Jong was a revelation in “Duel” where he knocked it out of the park in portraying around three to four characters at the same time. Here, he once again knocked it out of the park portraying Woo Jin and the emotional journey that Woo Jin went through in this show. Whoever the show’s casting director should get high praise because the child actors that they cast were spot on, and Yoon Chan Young was no exception. Here, he showed range, and he really did look like Se Jong at certain angles.
Ye Ji Won was a delight to watch and a revelation to me. She was pretty much one of the veteran actors in this drama, and I’d love to see her in anything, no matter what kind of character she plays.
However, the biggest revelation in this show was Ahn Hyo Seop. I had previously seen him on “My Father is Strange” and was not impressed with his acting. However, here, his acting improved so much that I didn’t even recognize that it was him until I looked it up. Maybe it also had to do with the role that was given to him, as it suited him more than his role in “My Father is Strange”.
I also love how this show plays on age and maturity, not only within the show but with the actors’ actual ages as well.
What makes this show amazing, however, aside from the writing, acting and direction, are the messages that it imparts to us. It teaches us that we can heal and move past our traumas, even though it may take time; that adults usually don’t have it all figured out yet, and that’s okay; and that it’s okay to take your time and respect your limits, because you’ll get to your end goal in the end. And all of this was wrapped in a whimsical slice of life, yet oddly relatable story involving a tragic bus accident, and the people who were affected by it. This, just like “I’m Not a Robot”, were pleasant, heart-warming surprises that are definitely going on my list as good dramas for the year.
Now, you know the drill! From here on out, there will be spoilers!
As I mentioned earlier, I loved how some of the secondary characters also went through their own little character arcs, no matter how small they were, especially if they were also affected by that bus accident. The only one, regrettably, that didn’t really have much closer was Lee Ri An, the high schooler who had a big crush on Chan.
Many were scared that Rin Kim (Wang Ji Won) would get the usual jealous rival treatment, especially as she was shown in flashbacks to have been jealous and insecure because of Seo Ri. However, I love that instead of that, they allowed her to realize that she was only hurting herself, and she ended up going to Berlin to rediscover the fun in music, somewhere far away from her perfectionist and toxic mother, which is a big trigger for her.
Kim Hyung Tae (Yoon Sun Woo), Seo Ri’s childhood friend who became a neurosurgeon in order to help her get out of her coma, had an even smaller character arc, but I still liked where they went with it. I liked that he ended up realizing that it was a good thing that she ended up in her old home and met her new family there, and that they can still be friends, although they’ll have to take it slowly. He was able to let go of the past-the accident, and his expectations of Seo Ri when she woke up, and is finally able to move on while still being friends with her.
Jennifer’s story arc was heart wrenching, as it turned out that she had lost her husband in the accident, and her depression because of that ended up killing her unborn child, which is why she goes around living a stoic life in different people’s homes, as she convinced herself that she had no right to feel emotions and no right to a home because of what she did and what happened. However, just as she taught Woo Jin how to move on from the past, they taught her the same as well. So, I loved that in the end, she opened up a restaurant, smiled more, and wore colorful clothes with her hair down.
Oh, before I move on, I have to say that the house that they lived in was a character in itself, as it is the glue that holds them all together, even as the years went by. Plus, it’s a gorgeous house!
As I mentioned earlier, Ahn Hyo Seop impressed me so much with how much his acting improved here. I don’t know what it was, but I do think that it also has to do with the fact that he was given a role that suited him well. He was able to portray the nineteen year old Chan well, even though he is twenty three in real life. He played Chan with the excitability of a teenager, but one who is wise beyond his years as, sometimes, he is more mature than his uncle and Seo Ri. Aside from the fact that he can take care of them both, he is mature enough to see the bigger picture, even though it may hurt him, like the fact that he decided to let Woo Jin have Seo Ri as he knows that they are good for each other and as she also healed Woo Jin from his own past traumas. I also like the fact that he decided to go to college and row with the college team instead of going professional, because, in a way, he finally is able to be more of a teenager again there.
Shin Hye Sun was just fantastic as Seo Ri, and I love how she was able to embody the emotions and physicality of a seventeen year old girl, and how, over the course of the drama, as she grew and matured, the way she moved changed and became more refined, with the occasional outburst once in a while. Seo Ri grew a lot from when we first met her when she came out of her coma. Over the course of the drama, she was able to get back on her feet, heal, and figure out the path in life that she does want to take without losing that innate optimistic spirit that she had when she was seventeen.
I love that she decided to become a music therapist and help others, as she is good at that, and that she realized that it is okay to go slowly but surely, because you’ll get there in the end.
Yang Se Jong was fantastic as well as Woo Jin, and his emotional journey was a wonderful one to track as the drama went along. He started out as someone still stuck emotionally at seventeen, at the moment of the accident, and he ended up slowly healing and moving on from his past trauma, which included panic attacks and depression. I think the biggest turning point was when he realized that he didn’t kill Seo Ri, his childhood crush, but felt guilty he had caused her to lose her teenage years, and it seemed like he was really going to regress and run away again, but, instead, he decided to come back and confront his fears as losing Seo Ri would be worse for him. Yes, it was a selfish move that hurt Chan more than it did Seo Ri, but I’m glad that he decided for himself to come back. Se Jong did such a fantastic job, especially as it was the subtle expressions and changes in Woo Jin that made you see that he was opening up and changing little by little.
His and Seo Ri’s love story is definitely one for the books, and I love that just as he had a crush on her, she had a crush on him first thanks to him making sure that her violin case was safe before she auditioned at that music school in Germany.
All in all, this definitely was a fun, sweet and great drama full of life lessons that will stay with me for a long time, and characters that I will sincerely miss. Oh, and remember, when things get too tough, just remember Chan’s awesome motto- “Don’t Think, Feel!”