REVIEW: Don Lee tickles your funny bone in Korean comedy-drama Start Up

Taek-il portrayed by Park Jeong-min and Sang-pil portrayed by Jung Hae-in Start Up. (PHOTO: Clover Films)

By Lim Yian Lu

Adapted from a 2014 Korean webtoon of the same title, Start Up follows the life of two teenage guys, Taek-il portrayed by Park Jeong-min and Sang-pil portrayed by Jung Hae-in. Taek-il is a hot-headed, rebellious teenager with blonde hair, who hates school and studying. Despite his outward appearance and frequent quarrels with his mother Jung-hae, portrayed by Yum Jung-a, he is actually good and innocent at heart. In contrast, his best friend Sang-pil is a typical boy next door, yet reckless and eager to make money. As Taek-il runs away from home with no plans, and Sang-pil takes on a dubious full-time job, both get a taste of the real world sprinkled with some humour.

For Taek-il, he would rather do what he wants, or what he is suitable for, than to continue studying, like what his former volleyball player mother wishes for. Although he has no directions in life now, he holds on to his “something’s bound to turn up” mindset as he leaves town. He meets Geo-seok, portrayed by Ma Dong-seok or Don Lee, in a Chinese restaurant. This quaint little restaurant by the name of Jangpoong is where Taek-il learns to grow, as he starts working there as a deliveryman and lives with Geo-seok and the owner of the restaurant.

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While Start Up is a drama about life, it is layered with hilarious moments, mainly coming from the mysterious Geo-seok. For one, he is a tough-looking guy who looks more ready to throw some punches than cook jajangmyeon (black bean sauce noodles). To top it off, Geo-seok sports a bob cut with interesting outfits like a pink sweater, polka-dot pants and even hairbands! Sheesh, talk about weird and creepy. However, Geo-seok is more than just comic relief as he reveals his past and some words of wisdom. 

Ma Dong-seok or Don Lee plays Geo-seok in Start Up. (PHOTO: Clover Films)

It is also interesting to see Don Lee in such a comical role, as compared to his serious and capable role in Train to Busan, and his intellectual role in Ashfall. With a variety of facial expressions and appearances that he has never shown in his previous works, Start Up is bound to let you discover yet another side to Don Lee. Psst, don’t miss the scene where this middle-aged man dances to the song of K-pop girl group Twice.

On the other hand, Sang-pil tries to make a living working in Global Financial Company, which is actually a moneylending company. Just as he thinks he is becoming successful, he is slapped with challenges and ethical concerns from his job. Taek-il even questioned him as to whether this is really what he wants to do in life, or if this is suitable for him — a recurring theme in the movie. Although it is nice to have a moral message as the backbone of a movie, this message does not have the strong impact it potentially could have, or make you leave the theatre feeling more motivated than ever. It is a weak attempt but not a bad one, which can be enhanced perhaps, by better storytelling or characters with more depth.

At the start of a new year, watching Start Up can serve as a catalyst to rev up your engine. Because like what the story is trying to say, regardless what you are doing or going to do, you just have to follow your heart and “something’s bound to turn up”.

Start Up opens in cinemas on 9 January. It is 102 minutes long and rated PG13.