As far as Valentine’s Day picks go, Start-Up might seem like a very unusual one. Deviating from the hand-holding, battering eyelids, love confessions and shy kisses, the show chronicles in exquisite detail, the romances between aspiring entrepreneurs without ever deviating from its original premise—the nerve-wracking experience of initiating a start-up.
At the outset, Start-Up, starring Bae Suzy, Kim Seon-ho and Nam Joo Hyuk, seems like it could just skim the surface of entrepreneurial ventures and then deep dive into a twisted love triangle, deviating from its title. Or so at least, that was my impression, as I read the synopsis that seemed to suggest a cutesy and pleasant watch, detailing the love story between entrepreneurs, as they set up their business.
I wasn’t completely wrong. Yet, for those who were only vaguely acquainted with how start-ups work, the show draws you in from the start. It absorbs the viewers into the fictional ‘Sandbox’, which is the Korean version of Silicon Valley—and gives the adrenaline rush while demonstrating the hustle-bustle of this life. Each character is beautifully sketched out to the last detail, down to the sidekicks who played colleagues and the snooty company seniors staring down at beginners.
Love, letters, and start-up
Meet Dal-Mi (Bae Suzy)—a girl who has dreams of becoming the next ‘Steve Jobs’. Life hasn’t been particularly rosy, as her parents separated when she was young, with her mother leaving with her elder sister In-Jae (Kang Han-Na). Her life had collapsed during a spring as her father died during that time —and she was left with just pieces. In a desperate attempt to bring some joy into her granddaughter’s life, her grandmother finds a young boy to write her letters as a mysterious friend. These letters give Dal-Mi a new purpose in life, and she doesn’t feel so lost and alone anymore. The mysterious friend grows up to be Kim Seon-ho’s Han Ji-Pyeong, a tough businessman who still holds the candle for her. Yet, he doesn’t want to reveal himself to her, and so pretends that the shy and awkward Nam Do San (Nam Joo-Hyuk) wrote the letters. Dal-Mi, who is torn between establishing her new start-up, and trying to outdo her seemingly icy sister, finds comfort again in Nam Do San, who becomes an essential part of her start-up. Of course, the truth unfolds in a rather distressing and heart-breaking manner, and the main characters are left to contend with the choices they have made. The personal trials and tribulations take place outside the office—as they have other battles to fight at work, including investors who threaten to tear their team apart, and in fact, do so. After much pain and sorrow, all of it works out in the end.
Severe second-lead syndrome
The show is so compact, and follows the age-old motto, “less is more”. Bae Suzy communicates her frustrations and exhaustion in brief exchanges, and yet her eyes betray her emotions. The trajectory of her character is shown as well—from naivety in her entrepreneurial decision-making skills, to finally dropping idealistic notions and understanding what she is doing. The show makes it clear that she’s the protagonist. You won’t always be rooting for her—in fact, sometimes you want to shake her up as well. Kim Seon-ho, as Han Ji-Pyeong, is heart-breaking, and one gets the severe ‘second-lead’ syndrome with him in Start-Up. You wish that Dal-Mi had learnt earlier that he had written those letters, and they could have had that perfect ending. He isn’t as harsh as he appears—he’s breaking from inside, and you see him regretting the choice that he has made—and yet his feelings don’t stop him from criticizing Dal-Mi when she makes absurd decisions. As much as he would like to sock Nam Do-San in the face, he won’t, and will not hesitate from knocking sense into him brutally.
Their friendship and bond despite the unpleasant revelations is a joy to watch, but feels tasteless—only because you wanted something more from them.
Rooting for the first lead as well
It’s absurd, but it’s true. While there has been endless debate among Hallyu fans that Dal-Mi and Han Ji-Pyeong deserved to be together—I wasn’t unhappy with Dal-Mi finding happiness with Nam Do San, ironically. Strange as it sounds, the show’s mastery lay in the fact that it had you rooting for both leads, though you knew that one of them would be left heartbroken. Do San isn’t entirely flawless, he’s burdened with low self-esteem, and a conviction that he was born only to code. For him, Dal-Mi is a breath of fresh air, and with her, his shyness ebbs—not much, but just enough for them to exchange understanding glances during work. He cherishes her path of ‘leading without a map’ because it’s something that he hasn’t encountered before—as the unknown has always been anxiety-inducing for him. This comes at a cruel price later, and takes a time gap of 3 years and an unexpected reunion for him to overcome the old jealousy and insecurities to finally understand what he means to Dal-Mi. In rather melancholy manner, he asks her, “What do you like about me?” For him, it is a legitimate question—he didn’t write those letters to her in childhood, and neither does he have the panache and grit like Han. In his eyes, he has nothing to give her. Her answer soothes him as she says, “I like you for you.” The demons within him stop raging, and are subdued. Perhaps the creators thought that their love story was more realistic, than following the old trope of childhood sweethearts. In my opinion, it worked.
Start-Up’s gentle exploration of love without ever diving into the excesses of rhetoric and profound explanations is what makes this show so wholesome. It balanced perfectly the gruelling professional lives, along with the messy heartbreaks that lead people to make impulsive career decisions. And while you’re engrossed in the tangled and messy love lives, you can also learn a lot about start-ups too, and what it takes to be an entrepreneur. It’s for those who prefer a rather restricted dose of mush.