Crash Course In Romance
일타 스캔들
tvN (2023) 16 Episodes
Romantic Comedy, Grade: A
Korean Drama Review by Jill, USA

(Some Spoilers)

What is it with the word Crash suddenly showing up in hit Korean drama titles? There was Crash Landing On You (2019-20), and now there is Crash Course In Romance (2023). What will be the next hit K-Drama with the word Crash in it? Crash Car Love Affair? LOL! (Maybe I shouldn't give them any ideas). ;)

Crash Course In Romance
was written and directed by the same writer-director team who created the hit K-Drama Oh My Ghostess in 2015, writer Yang Hee Seung and director Yoo Je Won. The ratings were very high for this drama on small cable station tvN, reaching over 15% for the last episode. Usually tvN shows run closer to 5%. Their close-knit, confident familiarity with one another was evident in the flow of this story as well, which, for the most part, was pretty smooth, yet predictable (at least for the long time K-Drama viewer like myself). There were a few eye-raising situations which popped up in this script that surprised me, however, such as a teacher in a school disappearing without a trace and no one seemed to care until his dead body was discovered several episodes later! Now I know in my high school, if something like that had happened to one of our teachers there would have been no end of gossip about it, but here? Virtually no concern whatsoever. Say, what??? The script could have definitely been tightened up there and made to be more realistic.

When this drama began I kept getting vibes that it had plot points lifted from the 2021 drama masterpiece Melancholia, which also had a high school setting, with cut-throat ambitious parents vying to have their children get the best test scores, especially in mathematics, but as Crash Course In Romance progressed I was relieved that it didn't feature any potential love affairs between the main teacher in the story and any one of his high school students; rather, the main love affair was between two consenting adults (though I still think a "Will you marry me?" line should have come FIRST, before a "Will you spend the night?" line, especially when you know ahead of time that many impressionable teenagers around the world will be watching your drama. Don't give them the wrong moral lessons, Korea! Because of these two faults in the script, which could have been easily avoided, I had to give this otherwise addictive drama an A instead of an A+. I'm picky that way. ("You know, Marius, a woman's honor is like a match ... you can only use it once." - Charles Boyer, Fanny (1961)).

This writer-director team certainly benefited from having veteran experienced lead actors who knew just how to deliver their lines and be believable: first female lead Jeon Do Yeon (who was so fantastic in Lost, her prior drama masterpiece, as well as older dramas Shoot For The Star, Star In My Heart, and the classic favorite film The Harmonium In My Memory), and cutie-pie Jung Kyung Ho (who played the unforgettable Yune in I'm Sorry, I Love You, the first K-Drama I ever watched two decades ago, as well as a doctor in Hospital Playlist, and businessmen in One More Happy Ending and Falling In Love With Innocence). I had just finished watching Jeon Do Yeon in
Lost, before I started this one, which was a serious melodrama, so it was a HUGE adjustment for me to see her play comedy here. In Lost she barely ever smiled, unless she was with her father character, and in Crash Course In Romance she smiled at the drop of a hat!

Second male lead Shin Jae Ha (who had played evil so well in Page Turner) did just as impressive a turn here, in an emotionally complex role of a clingy male secretary and chauffeur to Jung Kyung Ho's character. As soon as I recognized him in this drama I knew something sinister might show up in the plot concerning him ... and it did! (Sometimes watching close to 900 Korean dramas can tip you off as to spoilers, whereas newbies to K-Dramas might not catch on).

Second female lead Lee Bong Ryun (Awl, I'll Go To You When The Weather Is Nice) was totally delightful playing Jeon Do Yeon's best friend in the story. Also fun to watch was actor Oh Eui Sik playing Jeon Do Yeon's brother with Asperger's Syndrome, and veteran actress Kim Mi Kyung, playing her mother in flashback scenes; both actors have been in so many past dramas I've seen that I've lost count! I really wanted to step through my television screen and hug them all! They seemed like real people to me, full of warmth and humor.

The main teenage characters were all performed expertly well by sweet, girlish Roh Yoon Seo, who played Jeon Do Yeon's niece whom she raised like a daughter, and her two male friends who both like her, Lee Chae Min and Lee Min Jae. Their three characters were so cute together, and you don't see the usual hateful, spiteful jealousy of two guys vying for one girl's affection. Both boys were gentlemen. So nice! Lee Min Jae's character even saves Roh Yoon Seo's character when she starts to fall down stairs. Up came his foot, just in time! A funny moment that received a lot of attention in online chats devoted to the drama.

Also giving thoroughly impressive performances were incredible veteran actress Jang Young Nam (the Queen in The Crowned Clown, and the mother in the film A Werewolf Boy), and the actor who played her bipolar son, Kim Tae Jung. They really had me on the edge of my seat sometimes in their interactions with one another! Frosty in the beginning, warming up nicely by the end.

So here in this drama we see a male character with Asperger's Syndrome, and another male character with bipolar syndrome. Korea is going out of its way these days to focus on characters with mental conditions, and I think that's just great, and long overdue. Not every kid is genius college material, but they can still make a positive influence on the world, nevertheless.

The Story:

Hardworking business owner Nam Haeng Seon (Jeon Do Yeon) runs a side order take out restaurant called Nation's Best Side Dishes (Banchan in Korean). When she was younger her sister had taken off to Japan, abandoning her daughter to be raised by Haeng Seon. That bright, pretty daughter, Nam Hae-ee (Roh Yoon Seo) shows an early talent for mathematics, and so Haeng Seon wants to get her into a prestigious, very competitive extra tutoring business school called Pride Academy, that only the most gifted math students in Korea can attend (for a lot of money, of course!).

Haeng Seon works a lot of overtime in preparation for Hae-ee's increased schooling tuition; this lovely young girl, who calls her aunt "Mom", definitely wants to attend Pride Academy, and so Haeng Seon can often be seen on her motorcycle in Seoul delivering fresh side dishes to patrons for extra money. Although she is in her forties, Haeng Seon has boundless energy; in high school she had been an athlete, but personal and family troubles, including the premature death of her mother (Kim Mi Kyung) in an accident, had caused her to drop out of athletics altogether.

In addition to running her business, and taking care of her niece like her own child, she also is in charge of a brother who has Asperger's Syndrome, a milder form of autism. His name is Nam Jae Woo (Oh Eui Sik) and he's a total sweetie, who helps out his sister in the restaurant as much as possible. Along with Jae Woo, help comes in the form of a long time friend of Haeng Seon named Kim Yeong Joo (Lee Bong Ryun). She is often the comedienne of the group, her antics sometimes confusing poor Jae Woo, who doesn't always understand her jokes and mild flirtatious ways.

The CEO and main teacher of the Pride Academy is a mathematics genius named Choi Chi Yeol (Jung Kyung Ho) who is a strict disciplinarian with his students while teaching advanced math classes, although he is not averse to making them laugh on occasion by doing a funny high kick. His company advertises all over Seoul and he's quite famous. When he is at home, trying to relax, his own mental issues are more likely to surface and trouble him; for instance, he barely eats anything and is almost anorexic, plus he has chronic insomnia. Sometimes he'll actually collapse and have to be taken to the hospital. His personal assistant and chauffeur, named Ji Dong Hui (Shin Jae Ha) bends over backwards to help him. At times Dong Hui almost seems like a mother substitute for him! A little odd, but since he presents himself as such a caring person it's easy to overlook the fact that Dong Hui might actually be enabling Chi Yeol to be more dependent on him than is healthy. (Raise the red flag!).

One day, in a strange mix up at the hospital and then on the street, Chi Yeol has an altercation with Haeng Seon and her brother Jae Woo, whom he thinks have taken unauthorized photos of him for the tabloids. He runs away with Jae Woo's cell phone, hoping to delete the photos. When he sees that the only picture Jae Woo took was of a tiger drawing on the back of his shirt he realizes he was mistaken about them. Haeng Seon tries to get the phone back from Chi Yeol but it breaks during their altercation. Chi Yeol is rescued by his assistant Dong Hui, and Haeng Seon is left alone on the street with a broken phone.

By coincidence, to get Chi Yeol to eat, Dong Hui visits Haeng Seon's own Banchan restaurant, which has a great reputation for good food, and buys some side dishes to take to him. Amazingly, Chi Yeol loves it and gobbles it down! He discovers that the woman he had the altercation with owns the very restaurant whose food he now loves. Chi Yeol disguises himself to go to their restaurant and buy more food, and when he hears the brother's cell phone is broken he goes shopping to buy them a new one, a designer phone which is much more expensive by far than the one the brother lost. Chi Yeol is awkward with people but he has a good heart.

Yum! Finally Delicious Food To Eat! - Chi Yeol

In flashbacks we are soon given to understand why he likes this food so much: as a starving, poor teenager years earlier Chi Yeol had been fed for free by Haeng Seon's charitable mother (Kim Mi Kyung) at her own cafeteria restaurant because she could tell he was hungry and had no money. Haeng Seon's food is exactly like her late mother's! (Whoever came up with the old adage, The Way To A Man's Heart Is Through His Stomach, certainly knew what they were talking about!).

Eventually the ruse of his disguise is revealed and Haeng Seon is shocked to learn that this man owns the Pride Academy her niece wants to attend. The frost between them melts. Haeng Seon's niece is admitted to the school, as is her best male friend Lee Sun Jae (Lee Chae Min) and another male friend Seo Geon Hu (Lee Min Jae).

As Chi Yeol grows closer to Haeng Seon there is someone watching close by who doesn't seem to quite like the idea that Chi Yeol is falling in love: his own close personal secretary Dong Hui. His behavior is sometimes oddly obsessive, which leads Haeng Seon to question his motives; however Chi Yeol is far too grateful to Dong Hui to consider there might be something "off" about his personality. Therefore Haeng Seon's concerns are ignored. 

Also, as this romance is blossoming, the neighborhood and school are experiencing a possible serial killer scenario. Two men at least, including a male student and a teacher at Pride, disappear and are found dead days later. The weapon the killer is using is a strange metal ball shooting gun, not one that shoots regular bullets. Police are on the murder cases but they don't make much headway. The killer is very smart and secretive and knows how to hide his identity. Then, at different times, he even seems to be targeting Haeng Seon and her niece as well. Creepy! This makes Chi Yeol feel even more responsible for Haeng Seon and her family's welfare.

The Serial Killer Takes To Chasing Hae-ee
For quite some time the audience is led to believe that the killer might be the bipolar son of a well-known attorney named Jang Seo Jin (Jang Young Nam), a young man whose name is Lee Hui Jae (Kim Tae Jung). He seems very disturbed and hides in his room a lot. He seems to possess several of those same metal balls that have killed people. It's obvious his own mother suspects him, though she does try to shield him. The younger brother of Hui Jae, Lee Sun Jae, is his only comfort, and that brother, of course, is the close friend of Haeng Seon's niece. When police actually arrest Hui Jae on suspicion of murder his mother defends him, but in court Hui Jae admits that he is not the killer but that someone else, who always wears a hoodie, is the real killer. This suspect started with killing cats on the street, using them for target practice. Hui Jae loves cats and often takes them to the vet clinic when they are hurt. He became committed to following the real killer, to expose him. This is corroborated by the veterinarian when police question her. Hui Jae is released from jail, no longer a suspect.

Meanwhile, Haeng Seon and Chi Yeol's love affair has been heating up big time, which leads to gossip about them which might even threaten his own livelihood in the education business. The other mothers with children at Pride Academy, including gossipy Jo Su Hui (Kim Sun Young, Crash Landing On You) and Lee Mi Ok (Hwang Bo Ra, Vagabond), who both believe Haeng Seon has a long distance husband, demand that Chi Yeol stop teaching their kids. No adulterers are allowed to teach their kids! These same parents start to boycott Haeng Seon's restaurant as well, so she starts to feel tremendous financial pressure and can't pay her bills.

Then the noble teen Hae-ee comes forward and declares publicly that her mother is not an adulteress, that she is actually her aunt and that Haeng Seon has never been married. The scandal dies down immediately and people start visiting Haeng Seon's restaurant again.

However, the serial killer lurking out there targets Hae-ee next and she ends up in a coma at the hospital. Then Hae-ee's long absent biological mother Nam Haeng (Bae Hae Sun, Love In Contract) returns after she hears the sad news about her daughter, but what can she possibly do to help the situation at this late date? Haeng Seon has been more of a true mother to Hae-ee than her own biological mother ever was! (Her scenes kept reminding me of another scene from the classic film Fanny (1961) with the actor Horst Buchholz asking Charles Boyer who the true parent is in a situation like this, and Boyer answers simply, "The father is the one who loves". Here Haeng Seon is the "one who loves." True love is commitment to stay the course).

The remainder of the drama ties up loose ends pretty favorably, although there are some sad and perplexing situations arising as well among the different characters. When will Hae-ee wake from her coma? When she does, how will she get along with her biological mother, whom she hasn't seen since she was a tiny girl? Will the serial killer ever be caught, and what will happen to him? Will Haeng Seon and Chi Yeol ever make their love official to the world through marriage?

Honestly, I really think this drama should have remained a mostly light romantic comedy throughout. The serial killer subplot really wasn't necessary to make this show a hit in the ratings. They are a dime a dozen these days in Korean dramas anyway, and I am getting quite tired of them. This story was strongest in the beginning, emphasizing the potential romance and delicious comedy. The shadow of a creepy serial killer subplot threatening innocent characters did little to keep me watching this drama. I was far more interested in watching the major characters grow as people.

My Favorite Korean Pianist Plays "The Opposite Side"
Beautiful OST Song by Lee Juck

Crash Course In Romance
is still well worth watching, despite its few faults. Definitely put it on your K-Drama queue if you haven't watched it yet! Overall it will lift your spirits, not drag them down. Enjoy.