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[Herald Interview] Writer says ‘Extracurricular’ digs into society’s wounds

A scene from “Extracurricular” (Netflix)
A scene from “Extracurricular” (Netflix)

Prostitution is not a common subject in South Korean television dramas, let alone dramas in which the main characters are teenagers.

Jin Han-sae, creator of the sensational Netflix original series “Extracurricular,” says he felt a huge burden when writing the story, in which he says the protagonists are pushed into situations that are extreme beyond imagination.

“I felt like I was setting a time bomb, as it might end up looking like glorifying wrong behaviors. I almost compulsively collected feedback from as many people as I could to prevent myself from missing out on any ethical judgments,” Jin, a rookie writer debuting with the Netflix series, told The Korea Herald in an e-mail interview.

Despite his concerns, the 10-episode series has topped the charts on Netflix in Korea and has received critical acclaim from overseas viewers since it was released to global audiences April 29.

“Extracurricular” screenwriter Jin Han-sae (Netflix)
“Extracurricular” screenwriter Jin Han-sae (Netflix)

According to Jin, the story is rooted in his personal experiences as a high school student in New Zealand.

“I saw a kid selling cigarettes to his friends and, I thought then that, although we were students in the same high school, we were living in two very disparate universes. I didn’t realize the gravity of the crime he was committing just for the intention of making money,” Jin said, adding that questions about passing moral judgment on juvenile crimes had lingered in his mind since then.

He began writing the script for “Extracurricular” around the fall of 2018, after reading a news article about some teenagers who were caught up in organized crime.

“I wanted to seriously think about the answer to the possibly childish question of ‘why is crime bad,’” Jin said. “I came to employ the theme of teenagers and prostitution because I believed that, in order to find a serious answer to that fundamental question, we needed to touch upon part of our society that we find too uncomfortable and painful to face. ‘Extracurricular’ may be a story digging into that wound.”

With tight sequences that pull viewers in, the story follows Ji-soo, 17, who is almost invisible at school but who anonymously operates a sex trafficking ring after hours. His plans to attend university with the profits meet an unexpected twist when Min-hee, his classmate and one of his workers, comes to the attention of the police. Another one of his peers, Kyu-ri, finds out about the business and tries to meddle in it.

The timing of the release coincided with the so-called “Nth Room” case, in which young people were involved in a massive cybersex trafficking ring both as suspects and victims. Dozens of victims, including 16 minors, were forced to create sexually explicit images and videos, which were distributed on anonymous online chat rooms to be viewed by tens of thousands of paying members. Because of the real-life case, the drama gained great attention from the very start.

“I was also shocked by the news of the ‘Nth Room’ case. Although ‘Extracurricular’ is a fictional story, I hope that it can contribute to providing a chance for us to ruminate on such horrific reality.”

A scene from “Extracurricular” (Netflix)
A scene from “Extracurricular” (Netflix)

Jin says his creation also reflects another cold reality of our society -- the way adults turn a blind eye to the struggles that teenagers face.

“Everyone turns into an adult with time. Naturally, people become indifferent to past events and the voices of teenagers are too easily muted. Many grown-ups say that issues of adolescents have been experienced by everyone and simply assume that the problems can be overcome if they patiently wait the passage of time. However, to the kids, it’s their undeniable reality that could feel like an endless cold winter. I believed such perspective also deserved a say.”

Jin is the son of television screenwriter Song Ji-na, who created some of Korea’s best-known smash-hit series, including “Eyes of Dawn” (1991-1992), “Sandglass” (1995) and “The Legend” (2007).

By Choi Ji-won (