25 June 2019, Tuesday | 07:08pm

‘Sky Castle’: A+ for K-drama about schoolkids pressured to excel

2019-05-31

I don’t usually watch Korean series. In fact, I’ve only completed two so far – 2004’s Full House and this year’s Kingdom.

I’ve tried a number of others over the years, namely, Descendants Of The Sun and Oh My Venus. And while they certainly piqued my interest at the beginning, I find myself running out of steam after just a couple of episodes because of the sheer length of these shows – spanning as long as an hour and 15 minutes per episode.

Sky Castle has the same daunting length, but for the first time, I gobbled it up within a few sittings.

The 20-episode drama is set in an ultra-exclusive residential community, Sky Castle, where only the rich and powerful live. To ensure the children of these families achieve or surpass the success their parents have, extreme measures are employed to make sure they do well academically. And I mean extreme.

First things first, every detail of a child’s study space is thought out to a T. From hanging a certain type of painting to help the mind focus to building a soundproof room to block out all distractions.

 

Sky Castle

The ladies run Sky Castle without breaking a sweat. Photos: Handout

Every minute of the high school children’s schedules are planned out and devoted to their studies. The best after-school classes are snapped up like hotcakes.

They even hire a college admissions coordinator, who then hire a barrage of private tutors specialising in different subjects, to ensure their kids gain entrance to the country’s top university later.

And here’s where the mothers of Sky Castle – the stars of the show – step in. From sniffing out the best college admissions coordinator to stopping another overzealous mother from sabotaging their children’s success, they orchestrate all these moving parts while magically keeping their elegant frocks crisp and pristine and every strand of their salon-ready hair in place.

The story begins when tragedy strikes one of Sky Castle’s families in their pursuit of education excellence, sending shock waves to the community.

A mysterious college admissions coordinator, coach Kim (Kim Seo-hyung), was hired by the family. She has a perfect track record, with 100% of her students admitted to the university of their dreams. Did her methods – which are, let’s just say, unorthodox – have anything to do with the tragedy?

 

Sky Castle

The mums of Sky Castle go to extreme lengths to make sure their kids succeed academically.

Later, Han Seo-jin (Yum Jung-ah), the most prominent mother in the series, puts her daughter Kang Ye-seo (Kim Hye-yoon) in the hands of the same college admissions coordinator.

Seo-jin is determined to fulfill the family’s dream of having a third-generation doctor in the family and Ye-seo seems to thrive in the pressure-cooker environment at first.

But as the show progresses, the picture-perfect imagery of Sky Castle begins to shatter.

A new family, with a comparatively laid back approach to education, moves in and mum Lee Soo-im (Lee Tae-ran) starts to question the other mothers’ achievement-obsessed culture.

The children, too, one by one, begin to crack under the immense pressure placed on them, and it is heartbreaking to watch.

Sky Castle, though a work of fiction, is pertinent to our time, what with the college admissions scandal involving Hollywood celebrities Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin making headlines.

Watching the characters strive and strive for academic success harks back to all the stories I’ve heard from friends who went through something similar in real-life.

Sky Castle

Sky Castle forces us to reevaluate how we parent and educate our children.

 

The series is, of course, dramatised and in no way close to reality but it sends a thought-provoking message: That the children of Sky Castle may pass with flying colours on their test papers but fail miserably in the things that matter most in life – finding out who they are, where their interests lie and being surrounded by a loving family.

Despite this strong messaging, the show doesn’t feel preachy in any way. I sat through episode after episode because of its overarching mystery and fast-paced plot developments. Every episode ends with a cliffhanger, and I could barely stop myself from gasping.

My only criticism is some of the plot twists feel a bit outlandish and unrealistic at times, verging on soap opera territory.

Sky Castle

The children of Sky Castle begin to crack under the heavy load placed on them.

Also, the show is made up of multi-layered characters and does a great job in peeling the layers open. One of my favourite characters is the seemingly meek, submissive wife No Seung-hye (Yoon Se-ah) who stands up against her bullying husband.

Seung-hye, who begins to see that there’s more to life than constantly striving for the next “A”, takes a sledgehammer and knocks down the wall of the soundproof room her husband built. What a sight it was.

Truly, there are no weak female characters here. The women of the show are strong, smart and courageous, and it’s wonderful to see.

The incredibly talented cast members who play them must be commended.

Yum, in particular, steals the spotlight. As Sky Castle’s lead mother, she is fearsome and assertive when it comes to demanding the best education for her children. But in front of her children, she is soft and caring. The actress deftly portrays this duplicity.

For all the reasons above, I’m giving the show an “A”. Then again, from what I’ve learned from the show, that shouldn’t matter.

Sky Castle is available on Netflix.

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