Also the most-watched drama series in South Korea’s cable network history, SKY Castle tells the story of the lives of four Korean upper-social class families who are residing in the luxurious neighborhood SKY castle. For those unfamiliar to Korea’s education system, the word “SKY” is also a wordplay on the top three universities in South Korea: Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. And these are the schools the children must get into to preserve family traditions and the culture of SKY Castle.
Set against the backdrop of the stressful Korean education system and elitist society, the children of SKY Castle are expected to be nothing but the best in their studies and co-curricular activities with their parents’ end goal for them being gaining admission into Seoul National University (SNU) Medical school. Their parents seek all possible ways, including spending billions of Korean won to hire college admissions coordinator, in order to give their children the best education while the students themselves are suffering from their parents’ greed.
The controversial K-drama makes you ponder what exactly is right and what should be considered wrong. It discusses mainly about academic stress in South Korea, human nature like greed, integrity and dishonesty, as well as elitism.
The drama follows the lives of four families residing in an exclusive and luxurious estate SKY Castle. Each breadwinner of the family, otherwise the husbands, are lawyers or doctors and well-esteemed in their fields. With this, their family gets to stay in SKY Castle for free until the day the breadwinner retires. While the men are busy working, their stay-home wives supervise the study progress of their children and very occasionally, gather, gossip and compare their children’s grades. There are, however, slight differences in each family and their parenting style.
The story starts when the Hwangs move in to the previous residence of the Parks, who left the neighbourhood a day after Lee Myung-joo – the wife of Dr. Park Soo-chang and mother of Park Young-jae – committed suicide. Although shocked and grieved over the news, the residents’ lives continue as per usual but the newly-joined neighbour Lee Soo-im decides to investigate the reasons behind Myung-joo’s suicide and discovers shocking events beneath it all.
What exactly is right and wrong? Selfish or selfless?
One reason is this show struck me personally was the fact that literally everyone is both good and bad, otherwise selfish and selfless. The show does not glorify Lee Soo-im as the morally right one as she does have flaws in her too and neither does it criticise Kim as the only evil person in the show (though she 99% really is LOL); in other words, no one is perfect. Just like the book the families read on their first book club meeting: everyone is selfish.
Let’s talk about Coach Kim first. In the beginning, she would come across as a cold and emotionally distant coordinator who only wants to get Ye-seo into SNU. She has very high standards for her group of tutors and requests Ye-seo’s mom to change several features in her daughter’s room, for example using red light to study a certain type of subjects. Halfway through the show, as you find out more about what happened to Park Young-jae’s family, you would discover that Coach Kim is actually the one fueling his anger and she was the one who suggested him to take his revenge in such manner. You must be pretty done with Coach Kim at that point but ask yourself this, isn’t she only doing what she was told by Ye-seo’s mom? The mom was the only who said “she can put up with everything” even if a chance of a family tragedy will occur. So dutifully, Coach Kim comes up with scheming ways to get Ye-seo into SNU even when she knows there will be severe consequences. Thinking from other perspective, argue it however you want but Coach Kim is technically just doing her job (although I’m very against her ways of doing so).
Even Kim Hye-na is not completely the heroine or the one without at fault. She wants to be accepted by her father Dr. Joon-sang but she is also very manipulative and controlling. She made use of Woo-joo’s love for her to make Ye-seo jealous and annoyed; threatens Seo-jin with the truth; and even threatened Coach Kim to stop tutoring Ye-seo as Hye-na knows the dark reasons behind Ye-seo’s consistent stellar grades.
Like the characters, we can be selfless yet selfless. We can be good and evil and I believe that is just human nature. Contrary to what Hollywood and typical Korean dramas like to tell us, we are not perfect and we can have flaws. But we must know what is morally right and wrong and for me, being moral means to do something knowing that someone else will not be taken advantage of because of my actions. Now obviously I do not mean that you should not take up this leadership position in your committee or your company just because someone’s else future is at the stake. No, you should because you deserve the chance for an equal fight but you should not resort to immoral acts like bribery, lying or even murdering for the sake of.
There is no clear cut definition of what is right and what is wrong but I feel that there is something called “morals” that will guide you to make the correct decision.
Parents’ love for children – good or bad for them?
One of the main causes for the problems that occur in this show is the extend of parents’ love for their kids. It is natural for parents to love and want the best for their children and, of course, vice versa. They do not want us to suffer when we grow up and want us to have stable and good-paying jobs so one of the easiest way to achieve this is having good education. Nothing wrong with this as this way, though not the only way, is indeed effective but should it precede morals and ethics?
I recall this scene where Ye-bin stole some food items from a convenience store near her hagwon (private teaching academies in South Korea) during her dinner break. Instead of reprimanding her for her actions, Seo-jin actually bribed the owner of the store, made him delete CCTV footage of the theft case and also gave him money in advance in case Ye-bin steals again. When asked why she did that by Soo-im, Seo-jin merely said that stealing “is a game” for Ye-bin when she is feeling stressed out and she went on to say that she will do other things to ensure her younger daughter gets into the university she wants to be in. Mind you that Ye-bin is only a middle-school student at that point and university is still 3 – 4 years away. Soo-im even went to ask Ye-bin why she stole those items and the young girl burst out in tears and said that she did it to get her mother’s attention.
Of course Seo-jin knows that stealing is ethically wrong and there are definitely two outcomes that can happen if she decides to talk to her daughter about it:
1. Ye-bin will explain to her that she is feeling left out and only did it to gain her mother’s attention, OR
2. Ye-bin may defend her actions and accuse Seo-jin for believing an outsider instead of her own daughter.
The two options seem very drama-like but as the Chinese saying 人生如戏，戏如人生 sometimes life is like a drama. Rather than focusing her attention on Ye-bin instead of the more intelligent daughter Ye-seo for once, Seo-jin decides to ‘ignore’ what happens. So what is so wrong about Seo-jin’s parenting methods? Her intention to get Ye-bin into a good school is great but must she do it at the expense of her morals and ethics? It is good and lucky that Ye-bin is sensible enough to know that stealing is wrong but if this happens to another insensible kid, will he/she get away with it and continue stealing in university or even when he/she is an adult?
I am not a parent now and I will say that I fully do not understand Seo-jin’s mindset at that point. However, as a future note to myself or current parents out there, I believe that regardless of how much we love our kids, we must inculcate good ethics in our children even when they are doing something that would earn them note-worthy achievements. As children often learn from their parents and are easily swayed by negative influences in their teenage years, teaching them to do the right stuff when young will be very beneficial and critical.
Doctors and lawyers: Study to help or for the glory of it?
When I was young, I dreamed of becoming many things. I thought of becoming an astronaut because space was just so cool back then, until I recently watched Interstellar and realised that space is actually a scary as-heck vacuum. I wanted to be an actress because being on TV seemed fun until I actually went on-set and realised just how boring the job is for me. But I never wanted to be a doctor, lawyer or a dentist; it did not appeal to me at all. And my parents never had that dream for me either which was good. Being a doctor is the coveted job in this series and sadly to say, for some students their parents’ dream for them to be a doctor still exists.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to become a doctor or lawyer. These are very notable professions as they literally save someone’s lives from death or the justice system, and because of this they are often well-paid. But the desire to help others should be the reason why people become doctors and lawyers, and not the high social status , massive amount of wealth that come along with it or even family traditions – like Park Young-jae’s parents.
We have all heard about the horrifying stats of teenage suicide cases in the nation as well as the high number of hours South Korean children spent on studying but have we really see the effects of it on the students? SKY Castle is a show which show the dark side and truths of the stressful Korean education system. Besides scoring well in examinations, the children are expected to look good, have good manners and be active in co-curricular activities, resulting in an extremely competitive and intense studying environment.
Besides the children or more like their mothers’ fight to get the best for and out of their child, the workplace conflicts among the fathers are also something worth discussing about. Dr. Kang is a skillful surgeon though he is more consumed with the number of patients he operated on than the quality of care he provides while Dr. Huang is the exact opposite of him. As a result, Dr. Kang chooses to handle and operate on more patients which at times can lead to his backfire when the side-effects of a surgery cause his patients to get even with him. The office politics exacerbate the tensions between the Kangs and Huangs as Dr. Kang tries his best to suck up to the Director of the hospital for a more senior management position. Therefore the question is, should doctors who are entrusted with literally our lives be consumed in office politics and focus on KPI for their promotion or truly the lives of their patients?
SKY Castle is unlike typical romance Korean dramas with pretty boys and girls and a love triangle; it is about human nature and our greed.