Question: What do Jang Hyuk, Ha Ji Won, Kim Rae Won, Jo In Sung, and Gong Yoo all have in common?
Answer: They were all “graduates” of the School drama series.
The School series started in 1999 as a 16-episode Monday/Tuesday miniseries on KBS. It was pretty unprecedented at that time for a high school drama to air during the coveted weekday prime time slot.
Centering around the lives of 2nd year (equivalent to 11th grade) high school students in Seoul, the drama dealt with many educational and societal issues faced by teens, including school violence, suicide, the outcast (왕따) problem, and runaway teens.
Due to the popularity of the drama during its run, KBS went ahead and made three more sequels, aptly titled School 2, School 3, and School 4. Beginning with School 2, however, KBS changed the series to a once a week (Saturday or Sunday) format that was more conventional of a youth drama.
Each sequel had a completely different cast, except for the return of School 2 cast member, Lee Dong Wook, in School 3. The first three installments all took place at the same fictional high school in Seoul. In contrast, School 4 took place at a fine and performing arts high school.
The School series singlehandedly revived the youth drama genre in the late 1990s. However, the greatest legacy of the franchise is not in the show itself, but in its discovery of new acting talents. Although the four installments did cast familiar faces to play the teachers, they opted to cast fresh faces – young, inexperienced actors, many times in their acting debut – for the main student roles.
After the success of the first School series, every young aspiring actors in their teens and early 20s in Korea auditioned for the drama. Once the casting was decided, the fans of the show flocked online to read up on the bios of the new cast members (and the future stars). And indeed, by the the time the series ended, these young actors had turned into teen idols sought after by casting directors and advertisers.
Before long, School earned the reputation for discovering and producing new stars, the sure-fire road to stardom. What is even more impressive is that most of these actors were “nobodies” (unfamiliar names and faces to the public) until they met School. (The major exception is Kim Min Hee, who had already established herself as a teen cf star when she was cast in School 2.)
As might be expected, the acting was for the most part atrocious. But looking back, the cast members read like a Who’s Who of the current Korean entertainment industry, with many of them having become the leading men and women on television and on the big screen.
Here is a short summary of the four installments of the School series, and the many young actors who have “graduated” from the School drama series. It’s always fun to look at stars when they were first starting out, but would you have guessed it back then that any of them would make it big as they did?
Broadcast period: Feb. 22, 1999 – Apr. 13, 1999
PD: Lee Min Hong (Hometown of Legends 2009)
Scriptwriter: Kim Ji Woo (Devil)
Cast: Ahn Jae Mo (Rustic Period); Bae Doo Na (Gloria); Choi Kang Hee (My Sweet Seoul); Jang Hyuk (Chuno); Kim Gyu Ri, formally known as Kim Min Sun (Portrait of a Beauty); Park Shi Eun (Delightful Girl Chun Hyang); Yang Dong Geun (Ruler of Your Own World)
Awards: 1999 KBS Drama Awards – Bae Doo Na (New Actress Award); Choi Kang Hee (New Actress Award)
Broadcast period: May 8, 1999 – Feb. 27, 2000
PDs: Park Chan Hong (Devil); Go Young Tak (Hometown Over the Hill); Lee Kang Hyun; Han Joon Seo
Scriptwriters: Goo Sun Kyung (Oh My Lady); Lee Hyang Hee (Land of Wine); Jin Soo Wan (Capital Scandal); Kim Ji Woo (Devil); Kim Yoon Young
Cast: Chu So Young (Merchant Kim Man Deok); Ha Ji Won (Secret Garden); Jae Hee (Three Dads One Mom); Ki Tae Young (Creating Destiny); Kim Heung Soo (Invincible Lee Pyung Kang); Kim Min Hee (Love & Marriage); Kim Rae Won (Gourmet); Lee Dong Wook (Partner); Lee Seung Min (Tamra the Island); Lee Yo Won (Queen Seon Deok); Shim Ji Ho (Frozen Flower)
Guest Appearances: Chun Jung Myung (Cinderella’s Sister); Jung Si Ah (Haha Mong Show); Soo Ae (Athena)
Awards: 1999 KBS Drama Awards – Kim Min Hee (Youth Actress Award); Kim Rae Won (Youth Actor Award)
Broadcast period: March 5, 2000 – Apr. 1, 2001
PD: Lee Kang Hyun (School 2)
Scriptwriters: Hong Jin Ah & Hong Ja Ram (Beethoven Virus)
Cast: Jo In Sung (Frozen Flower); Lee Dong Wook (Partner); Lee In Hye (Comrades); Oh Yoo Na (King and I); Park Gwang Hyun (Pink Lipstick)
Awards: 2000 KBS Drama Awards – Jo In Sung (Youth Actor Award)
Broadcast period: Apr. 8, 2001 – March 31, 2002
PDs: Jung Hae Ryong (Golden Era of Daughter-in-Law); Hwang Eui Kyung (Partner)
Scriptwriters: Lee Hyang Hee (Land of Wine); Jin Soo Wan (Capital Scandal)
Cast: Gong Yoo (Coffee Prince); Im Soo Jung (I’m Sorry, I Love You); Lee Yuri (Mom’s Dead Upset); Yeo Wook Hwan (Frozen Flower)
Awards: 2001 KBS Drama Awards - Lee Yuri (Youth Actress Award); Yeo Wook Hwan (Youth Actor Award)