What would you do for success? If the reward was your child given the best start possible in life, would you lie? Would you cheat? Or would you go so far as to kill? In Korea’s highly competitive hierarchical world, this is a very real and dangerous question encapsulating the heart of this drama. Specifically, Sky Castle revolves around four different households who are faced with this very question.
Well written, hard hitting and thought provoking, Sky Castle is a fantastic Korean drama and a sobering look at a system that hurts people just as much as it helps.
The story here introduces us to four women who live a life of perfection within the walls of Sky Castle, a neighborhood reserved for elite families. On the surface, each of these live the idyllic life but under this glossy façade is a far more damning and shocking truth.
The families themselves are all complex and feature many moving parts – each important to the story being told here. At the center of this is Seo-Jin, a woman striving for perfection, typified by her orthopedic husband Joon-Sang and trophy daughter Ye-Seo. Younger daughter Ye-Bin is the tearaway of the family though, struggling with her studies and ultimately the odd one out.
Next up we have Seung-Hye whose family is ruled with an iron fist by Professor Min-Hyuk Cha. Their model daughter Se-Ri is overseas in Harvard, leaving a large shadow hanging over despairing students Seo-Joon and Ki-Joon.
These two families make up the bulk of the drama here, with Seo-Jin’s best friend Jin-Hee “Jin Jin” and her husband Yang-Woo essentially the odd ones out in the series, not given too much to do beyond a sub-plot halfway through.
All these families are rattled by the introduction of a new family on the block. Free-spirited and easy going Woo-Joo is one of the top students at school, something he’s achieved thanks to Mum Soo-Im and Dad Chi-Young’s easy-going nature. This is a far cry from the other families, who push their kids to breaking point.
The drama itself is given an extra dose of tension through the mysterious Coach Kim. Boasting a 100% success rate in exchange for a steep entry fee, Seo-Jin buys her way to success, recruiting this woman to help Ye-Seo with her studies. Unfortunately this brings a whole world of trouble, as Seo-Jin plunges her family head-first into a nightmarish scenario.
The first half of the drama essentially works to set all these characters up and begin fleshing out their complicated dynamics. There’s a lot of drama here, including fights, fall-outs and bad blood between the families that are explored through the lens of class, hierarchy and status.
These are obviously all very important symbols in Korean culture and Sky Castle does an excellent job taking each of these and examining their impact on families, distorting and challenging what we knew about these characters across a number of different scenarios.
The second half of the show takes a deep dive into the realm of melodrama. With the characters already set-up, a death in the neighbourhood along with startling truths rock everyone and sets up a chain of events that see our characters forced to choose between what’s right and what’s easy.
While a little overlong and armed with a final episode that feels more like a tacked on epilogue, Sky Castle does take a few missteps along the way. The pacing during the middle chapters are a tad on the slow side too, and at times the show could have done with pacing itself a bit better.
However, where the show excels is through its technical mastery and use of visuals. There’s an absolutely fascinating symbiotic relationship between the characters and their homes, which is explored in more detail across the season.
Professor Cha’s house for example, is bathed in harsh, uninviting blacks and greys. The light is dim, sharp angles accentuate the spiky demeanour of this unpleasant character and there’s an uneasy dread clinging to most of these interior shots.
By contrast, Seo-Jin’s house is very open, full of big colours and floods of light filling the open spaces. And yet, the house feels uninviting; a show home that’s just being temporarily rented. Shelves hold numerous trophies while large portraits show a happy family that are anything but. As the title song of this series sings “We All Lie” and that much is especially true here.
Sticking with the contrasts, Soo-Im’s house is very open too but theirs feature a lot of plants and herbs. This, in turn, reflects the free-spirited nature of their family. It also showcases a more positive and easy-going approach to teaching without driving Woo-Joo to stress-related breakdowns.
It would be amiss here if I didn’t mention the soundtrack as this really is one of the best parts of this show. The aforementioned “We All Lie” is such a fitting title song and the opening credits are among some of the best from any Korean drama.
There’s an eclectic blend of different tracks here too, including a nicely reworked version of Bolero, a haunting piano score titled “Butterfly” and a more relaxed, almost reflective track in “It Has To Be You.” Each song is deliberate and helps to enhance what’s happening and when you’re finished with this, you’ll undoubtedly go hunting for the tracks on YouTube or Spotify.
Ultimately though, Sky Castle revolves full circle back to that question about success. Through the lens of these four families, Sky Castle delivers a damning assessment of our reliance, as parents, on our children becoming the best they can be.
With an intent focus on becoming the best, and instilling ungodly amounts of stress on our children for a certificate or recognition, Sky Castle challenges us to ask whether it’s really worth it. This is a bold, brilliant Korean drama and more than a little uncomfortable to watch.
It may not be the best Korean drama out there but you’ll be hard-pressed to find one as topical and hard-hitting as this. Sky Castle is an incredibly important and stunning slice of Korean television that deserves to be seen by everyone.