“Dream High” (드림하이)

Dream High 1 cast

By Jae-Ha Kim
March 2, 2016

2.5 stars

Song Sam-Dong (played by Kim Soo-Hyun)
Go Hye-Mi (played by Bae Su-Ji aka Suzy)
 Jin-Guk (played by Ok Taec-Yeon)

“Dream High” is one of those series that starts off with a ridiculous premise. But, if you stick with it, you’ll be amused, angered and (at times) deeply touched. Yes, this is a glossy high school musical with a love triangle. But it also deals with child abandonment, sexual assault and the abuse of children by the system set in place to manufacture “idols.”

This isn’t just a Korean thing. Think about all the American boy band members who have revealed how they were abused by their predatory management.

Throughout the series, we’re left wondering which student will become an international superstar who will perform — and most likely win an award — at the 2018 Grammys. We’re also not sure which boy — shy Sam-Dong or rebel with a cause Jin-Guk — Hye-Mi will pick.

The drama revolves around Hye-Mi, a precocious singer who hopes to be admitted to Julliard. Though still in high school, she has already sung on stage with opera star Jo Sumi. Pampered and headstrong, she has high expectations for her future.


Raised in a wealthy household, Hye-Mi doesn’t realize until too late that her father has rung up insurmountable debts that he can’t pay back to the local mob boss. Afraid for his life, he flees to America, leaving Hye-Mi and her younger sister behind.

He tells her to take her sister and go live with his frenemy, Mr. Kang. A teacher at Kirin — a local arts academy (think of the school in “Fame”) — Mr. Kang apparently had an affair with Hye-Mi’s mother, which broke up the Go nuclear family.

I know we’re meant to view Mr. Kang as the bad guy, but even if he’s an adulterer, he’s not as bad as her father. Kang isn’t the one who abandoned his underage daughters.

When the mob boss can’t find the dad, he finds Hye-Mi and tells her that she will have to pay off her father’s debts in whatever way possible — including with her body. He has makeup put on her face to make her look grownup and drags her onstage to see if she could pass as a singer.

Though they don’t dwell on the latter too much, the concept is all kinds of ewwww. The father had to have known that this would be one of the consequences of his actions.

Before I go any further, I’d like to refer you to this reference (via PopSeoul) that may help you keep track of all the characters:

Dream High map

Baek-Hee is Hye-Mi’s mouse of a friend. Actually, friend is probably too strong of a word. Baek-Hee idolizes Hye-Mi, who merely tolerates her. But, when she sees other girls bully Baek-Hee, she stands up for her.

Hye-Mi decides that her only chance to pay off her father’s debts is to become a famous and rich K-pop star. Even though she views Kirin as beneath her, she knows that it has produced many stars. So she auditions. Baek-Hee decides to try out, too. For what seems like an arbitrary reason, Jung Ha-Myung (the superstar head of the school) decides that he will only admit one of them.

Baek-Hee says she won’t attend without Hye-Mi. But the latter disses her friend and says that she should be picked, because she is first rate while Baek-Hee is merely third rate. Granted, we could give her a bit of leeway since we know that she is desperate to become a star and pay off her father’s debts, but she could have been less cruel in her assessment.

Shocked and feeling betrayed, Baek-Hee turns into an uber bitch who revels in her former idol’s downfall. When Hye-Mi is admitted to the school after all, a fierce rivalry begins. Especially when Baek-Hee develops a crush on Jin-Guk, who likes Hye-Mi.

Dream High boys


Also vying for her affections is country boy Song Sam-Dong, who doesn’t have the charisma or stature of Jin-Guk, but remains persistent nonetheless.

During the first few episodes, the only characters I liked were Sam Dong and Pil-Sook, a chubby girl with an angelic voice. The adults were ineffectual, bumbling idiots or guilty of child endangerment. And the students, well, they were jerks who would stab each other in the back so that it’d be easier to climb over each other.

The level of condoned bullying was disturbing. Classmates poured water over Hye-Mi’s head when she was in the toilet stall, threw eggs at her and scrawled obscene graffiti about her on school walls. And the administration not only left the graffiti up, they didn’t even try to find the culprits. When a fellow student threw a potted plant at her from the roof, there was no investigation to see who might have tried to kill Hye-Mi, because they were afraid it might ruin the school’s reputation.

It is a testament to Lee Yoon-Ji’s acting abilities that I despised her portrayal of instructor Shi Kyung-Jin almost as much as I hated her resting bitch face.

Dream High street

Standout scenes:

Episode 8 (51 minutes in): Hye-Mi is about to tell Sam-Dong that she has feelings for Jin-Guk. Sam-Dong knows this, but tearfully begs her not to say it. As he tells her why he thinks she’s crying, you can see the pain in both his and her eyes. The scene is heartbreaking and shows some fine acting from Kim Soo-Hyun and Suzy.

Kim, who is the only non-idol of the group, actually has a lovely voice and sang his own songs. I can understand why the producers hired an actor (rather than a singer) for the part he played. Sam-Dong is a complex role to play. He is a country bumpkin, lost soul and scared boy. He isn’t always likable, but he makes the viewers care about what will happen to him.

You may recognize:

2PM’s Ok Taec-Yeon and Jang Woo-Young play Jin-Guk and Jason, respectively. Their bandmates Nichkyun and Chansung also make cameo appearances. Chansung gets to act in one of the series’ more comical scenes. Mr. Kang’s older sister is a bit of a cougar who lusts after Sam-Dong and Jin-Guk. After a night of drinking, she meets a young man (played by Chansung) who showers her with attention. They share a kiss and only then does she sober up and realize that she kissed the mob boss rather than the handsome young thang.

Um Ki-Joon plays the kind-hearted teacher, Mr. Kang, here. He played the bloodthirsty murderer in “Ghost.”

Choi Il-Hwa often plays the cold, emotionally-distant father role. Here, he played Jin-Guk’s dad. He had a similar role in “Oh My Venus.” He was less austere as the dad in “Coffee Prince.”

George Takei wasn’t in this series, but every time Lee Byung-Joon (as the smarmy school principal) spoke, I halfway expected him to say, “Oh, my!” Both actors share a similar deep, rich voice.

And, not for nothing, but recognize anything below in the screen cap? As if any reporter would be named “Jae-Ha Kim.” As. If! ?

Kim Jae Ha

Adoption element:

As children, Jin-Guk and Hye-Mi met on the streets. She was waiting for her parents. He was hiding from his mother, who wanted to send him to an orphanage. His father was a married man who wouldn’t acknowledge him as his son, because it would’ve ruined his marriage and caused a scandal in his career.

To this day, unwed mothers have an incredibly difficult time finding work in real-life Korea and are often forced to put their children up for adoption because of poverty. The series doesn’t touch on this, making it seem like his mother just didn’t want him anymore.

Spoiler alert:

The final episode shows that Hye-Mi has been in love with Sam-Dong for a while, but didn’t want to hurt Jin-Guk’s feelings.

We knew early on that Sam-Dong suffered from tinnitus and feared he was going deaf. We learned in the final episode that he is the one who becomes the international star.

Some fans were unhappy with the ending, because the showrunners ended the series with Hye-Mi and Sam-Dong on separate continents. I saw it a different way. She was a successful singer performing in Korea. He was now a superstar. Even if he wasn’t based in Korea anymore (and that wasn’t determined in the finale), they both would have the means to travel to be with each other.

I really liked that she didn’t give up her career to cater to his. And that when he had the opportunity to leave Korea as a teenager to jumpstart his career, he didn’t want to leave — but Hye-Mi made him get on the plane. If he hadn’t, his life would’ve been filled with what ifs.

Hye-Mi also learned that her teacher was as good a man as she knew him to be. Mr. Kang never had an affair with her mother. When the latter was dying of a terminal illness, she didn’t want to watch her family grieve over her death. Instead of telling her husband and daughters that she was sick, she told them that she was leaving them to be with Mr. Kang. Not wanting to hurt the family, Mr. Kang lived with that secret, even though it tarnished his reputation.

Baek-Hee is raped by the president of her agency. But instead of helping her press charges, her friends and advisers tried to dissuade her. They warned her that if word gets out, she is the one who will be vilified and shamed, even though she is the victim. People will say that she seduced him. I kept wondering about all the students who were already under contract with that same entertainment agency. Did no one fear for what would happen to the other kids? Later, she went to the police to report the crime. The netizens blamed her and her fellow students spread rumors about her. But Baek-Hee got some peace of mind knowing that she had done the right thing.

Meta moment:

Almost three years after the cast completed shooting “Dream High,” Bae Su-Ji would make a cameo appearance in Kim Soo Hyun’s “My Love From Another Star.” In Episode 17 of that series, she played a college coed, who had a crush on Kim Soo Hyun’s character. She tells him that he looks like her exboyfriend, Sam-Dong. ? She tells him that she flunked her first class with him so that she could retake it the following year, earning the wrath of her family.


Premiering on Jan 3, 2011, the 16-episode series ran through Feb. 28, 2011. There was a concert featuring the cast members that airead on March 1 of that same year.

@2016 Jae-Ha Kim | All Rights Reserved


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