I was three-quarters of the way through Youth of May before I discovered that, although the drama is a fictional love story, it’s based on actual events that happened in Gwangju South Korea in May of 1980.
“Every disaster is preceded by warning signs.” – Hwang Hee-Tae
Medical student Hwang Hee-Tae arranges for his critically ill friend to be transported from a hospital in Seoul to one in their hometown of Gwangju. While there, he reluctantly agrees to go on a blind date with the daughter of the businessman his father wants to financially join hands with.
Kim Myung-Hee was thrilled to receive an acceptance letter to further study medicine in Germany but needs a hefty sum of money for transportation there. Luckily, she’s able to earn the money she needs when her best friend, Lee Soo-Ryeon offers to buy her plane ticket in exchange for Myung-Hee posing as her on a blind date.
Having encountered Myung-Hee on three separate occasions before their initial blind date, Hee-Tae is immediately smitten with the attractive and spunky nurse and it doesn’t take long for Myung-Hee to fall for the intelligent and affable young med student.
Although the entire country has been experiencing some civil unrest, no one has any idea that Gwangju is soon to be the center of a deadly, life-altering, political uprising.
Hwang Hee-Tae is a brilliant young man, celebrated for entering Seoul National University with top scores. A traumatic event left him questioning his skills and competence as a doctor so he has yet to finish medical school, claiming he postponed graduation simply to enter the University Song Contest. He moved into his father’s home after his biological mother, who was his father’s mistress, passed away. He knows his father is a hard, power-hungry man and their relationship is pretty much nonexistent. Although Hee-Tae is not an actual member of the Pro-Democracy Movement, he does have friends that are part of it. Hee-Tae is a kind and thoughtful young man.
Twenty-six-year-old Kim Myung-Hee works as a nurse at Gwangju Peace Hospital while tutoring the high school-aged daughter of the family she boards with for a price reduction in rent. Myung-Hee sends part of her salary home to her family. Her mother takes care of her younger brother and paternal grandmother who suffers from dementia while her father makes a paltry living fixing watches from a cart he pushes in and out of town. Myung-Hee dreams of furthering her career by perusing her education abroad. She has a very strained relationship with her father and blames him for her difficult life.
As the daughter of a wealthy and prominent businessman, you’d think Lee Soo-Ryeon has nothing better to do than simply enjoy her fairly cushy life, however, the patriotic young woman is neck-deep in the college student’s Pro-Democracy Movement. She and her small band of rebels vehemently disagree with how the universities are being run and actively protest the country’s martial law.
Returning from some time abroad, Lee Soo-Chan, Soo-Ryeon’s older brother, is back home and ready to open his business, Changhwa Industrial. Because Myung-Hee and Soo-Ryeon have been friends since high school, Soo-Chan knows Myung-Hee well. He appreciates her work ethic and admires the fact that she helps out her family, financially. He’s secretly interested in her but she sees him simply as a big brother.
Once the head of the Anti-Communist Investigation, Hwang Ki-Nam now works at the Defense Security Command Center. The man is cold, self-serving, ambitious, and dangerous. Having no concept of love, he considers his wife and children his property. The man has every intention of carrying out each evil threat he makes.
Hwang Jung-Tae is Hee-Tae’s 12-year-old half-brother. Jung-Tae resents Hee-Tae, thinking the young man is his father’s favorite. He excels at sports and won a place in the upcoming Sports Festival.
Like Jung-Tae, Kim Myung-Soo is 12-years-old and has earned a spot on the team at the upcoming Sports Festival. He adores his older sister, Myung-Hee and, because she lives away from the family, misses her very much.
This is the second Kdrama Lee Do-Hyun (who plays the part of Hwang Hee-Tae) and Go Min-Si (whose character is Kim Myung-Hee) have been in together. Recently, they played opposite each other in the fantasy monster drama Sweet Home.
The young man who plays the part of Hwang Hee-Tae is Lee Do-Hyun (born Lee Dong-Hyun). He began his career in 2017 playing the younger version of Jung Kyung-Ho’s character in Prison Playbook. The following year he appeared in the dramas Thirty but Seventeen and Clean With Passion For Now. 2019 found him in two dramas (Hotel Del Luna and The Great Show) and one drama special for which he won his first Best Actor award. He received three Best New Actor awards for his first leading role in the drama 18 Again. I remember him best from his supporting role in Sweet Home. Before starring in Youth of May he was in the drama Beyond Evil and he is set to be in another drama called Melancholia later this year. Twenty-six-year-old Do-Hyun was a Film and Theater student at Chung-Ang University.
Go Min-Si, the gal who plays Kim Myung-Hee, began her entertainment career through the short film Parallel Novel, for which he was the director as well as a co-star. The movie must have been pretty good because it won the Grand Prize at the Three Minutes Film Festival in 2016. She has been in five films (her sixth is set to begin filming soon), two webdramas, 12 Kdramas (with another called Cliffhanger scheduled to air in October), and one music video. Aside from Sweet Home and Youth of May, the dramas I’ve seen her in are My Sassy Girl, Melo Holic, The Smile Has Left Your Eyes, and Love Alarm.
Around Youth of May’s 10th episode (there are a total of 12), I stopped the show and went to Google, typing in – “May 1980 Gwangju South Korea” – and was surprised to discover this drama was based on actual historical events. If you know nothing about the Gwangju Uprising, I suggest you read this Wikipedia page before you begin watching the show. I had no idea that at the end of October of 1979, because South Korea’s president had been assassinated, parts of the country were under martial law and pro-democracy demonstrations were going on throughout the country. What happened in Gwangju in May of 1980 was horrendous but in my opinion, it just may have been the catalyst responsible for the stable centralized democratic republic South Korea’s citizens enjoy today.
I liked Youth of May even though there were things I just couldn’t accept. So, as you read the next three paragraphs, which point out what I considered to be errors, please remember I actually enjoyed the show.
Youth of May reminded me a bit of Romeo and Juliet in that Hee-Tae and Myung-Hee barely know each other and are already willing to walk over hot coals and swim with man-eating sharks to be together. In Shakespeare’s play, Juliet tells Romeo, “My ears have yet not drunk a hundred words of thy tongue’s uttering…” just minutes before she declares, “If that thy bent of love be honorable, thy purpose marriage,… all my fortunes at thy foot I’ll lay and follow thee my lord throughout the world.” In other words, “I know we’ve just met but I’m willing to chuck everything I have just to be your wife.” Myung-Hee and Hee-Tae have known one another just a couple of weeks before they are both willing to give up their careers, friends, and families to be together. In a fictitious story that may work, but while my heart’s pounding, “that’s true love”, my brain’s screaming, “that’s so stupid.” Is Myung-Hee and Hee-Tae’s relationship romantic? Heck, yeah. Is it realistic? Hell, no.
At the beginning of the show, a skeleton that was buried deep underground is discovered and by the end of the show we find out who it is. However, when we see how that person died, it makes absolutely no sense that their body wouldn’t have been found for the past forty-one years! When the person died they were wearing white, laying right out in the open, near a path. We also see that dead bodies in the area were being gathered up and taken to a church, so we know people weren’t deliberately hiding them. Are we supposed to believe that this deceased person was somehow overlooked and was deeply buried before anyone could discover their body? NOPE! I’m not falling for something that outlandish!
There is a tremendously huge “oops” at the end of the drama concerning a silver pocket watch. I’m not about to tell you what happens but you’ll see that there is no way that watch could have been damaged as baldly as it was – the crystal is broken and the cover is completely bent/wrecked. However, the last time we see it (before it’s discovered with a body), the watch is in perfect condition. There’s no way being buried, even under tons of dirt for four decades, would have damaged the watch that way. “OOPS!”
Youth of May’s entire soundtrack is very good. Close your eyes and imagine the song you’d hear if you were watching a couple playfully walking through a field of weeds while flirting with each other. That’s Melody of Spring, performed by Sondia. Reset, sung by Borest, is another sweet, innocent-sounding love song. Ryeowook, from Super Junior, lends his golden vocal cords to the sad-sounding ballad Starry Night. I highly suggest you listen to the show’s soundtrack. It’s lovely. A quick FYI – the show highlights two songs made popular in 1979 – Annie’s Song by John Denver (around the end of episode six) and The Rose sung by Bette Middler (at the end of episode eight).
As far as settings and backgrounds go, I really enjoyed seeing what things looked like in South Korea in 1980. The phones, the cars, the hospital, the clothes… it’s interesting to see how some things have changed a lot while others are almost the same as they were 40 years ago.
Although I consider Youth of May’s original love story to be far-fetched it is also most definitely romantic. However, it wasn’t the drama’s romance that pulled me in, it was the historical part of the story that captivated my interest. I highly suggest you give it a try.
Based on heroic historical events
Decent love story
Fairly-realistic bad guy
Looks like 1980
Death doesn’t match how the skeleton was found
The watch would not have been so damaged
The love story doesn’t seem realistic – although it is romantic