As much as I want to deny it, I have a small small soft spot for Shin Seung-ho which is why I decided to give his new drama ‘How to Buy a Friend’ a try. I couldn’t let a drama with him in it pass by without at least giving the first episode a chance. It also doesn’t help that Lee Sin-young, the cutie from hit drama ‘Crash Landing On You’, plays the lead in this high school drama. These two names alone was enough for me to tune in into the drama and while I definitely don’t regret it, I also realized that it’s going to be a much harder drama to watch than I had expected.
Content Warning: The following episode includes content related to suicide and rape/sexual assault. Please watch the drama and read the recaps at your own discretion.
How to Buy a Friend Episode 1: What Could You Possibly Do with a Poem?
Park Chan-hong (Lee Sin-young) finds himself strapped onto a chair in a warehouse, head bleeding and mind confused. Not too far away from him is Heo Don-hyuk (Shin Seung-ho) who is also being held hostage by a group of men in the warehouse. As Chan-hong struggles to comprehend the situation, a woman enters the warehouse and seats herself across from Chan-hong. After Chan-hong refuses to hand over what she demands from him, she threatens the high school student by pointing a power drill at his face. Chan-hong recites a line from a poem in order to spare his own life:
“…because wet sand remembers one’s footprints.”
Chan-hong is eventually knocked down onto the ground and memories of a young lady jumping to her death resurfaces in his mind. Before passing out unconscious, he expresses regret in having written the poem that lead him to his current situation.
The drama takes us back to two months before Chan-hong’s life was in danger. He wakes up late for the first day of school and grabs a few quick bites of breakfast before heading out. Similar to his dad, Chan-hong is okay with being the average guy. In a way, that’s become his goal as an eighteen year old. He doesn’t need to stand out to most people, but it would be nice to stand out to Eom Se-yoon (Kim So-hye), the most popular girl at his high school who he has a crush on. But hey, being average isn’t that bad. Most people know him by his nickname, Ninja, and as long as Chan-hong isn’t a prey to bullies, he’s fine. Chan-hong eventually reunites with his friend Oh Kyung-pyo (Oh Hee-joon) while walking to class.
While in class, Kyung-pyo and Chan-hong cheat their way out into leaving early for lunch. In order to finish their poetry assignment, the two end up writing down song lyrics instead knowing their teacher won’t be able to recognize the lyrics. Their tactic works and the two head out of the classroom. While walking outside, they catch Se-yoon staring at the rooftop of a building in the same exact spot where her friend – Shin Seo-jung (Cho Yi-hyun) – had passed away a year earlier. The two converse over the passing and assume that her death must have been more than just a suicide. Kyung-pyo even has a feeling that Se-yoon and Seo-jung must have been dating each other since they were close. Chan-hong finds it difficult to believe Kyung-pyo, but the two continue with their investigation.
They continue to watch Se-yoon hang out with her friend, Choi Mi-ra (Min Do-hee), until Chan-hong is called into the teacher’s staff room. He assumes he’s in trouble for plagiarizing his poem by writing down song lyrics, but things are actually the opposite. Chan-hong’s teacher, Teacher Woo, is actually in awe of Chan-hong’s poem and selects him as the school’s representative for the upcoming poem contest. Teacher Woo even tears up upon reciting Chan-hong’s poem out loud to everyone else in the staff room. Lol.
Chan-hong shares the news with Kyung-pyo. How is he going to write an actual poem for the contest? While walking in the hallway, the two come across who they overhear is the mother of Heo Don-hyuk – the Ironman of Dukmun High School. Kyung-pyo warns Chan-hong not to interact or mess with Don-hyuk once he transfers to their school if Chan-hong wishes to stay out of trouble.
Chan-hong attempts to weasel his way out of the poem contest which is scheduled during Spring Break. He proposes to visit his Grandma during that week, but Mom refuses. Teacher Woo also isn’t buying any of Chan-hong’s excuses so Chan-hong has no choice but to participate in the poetry contest. However, maybe things won’t be so bad for Chan-hong. He learns from Teacher Woo that Se-yoon will also be participating in the contest but for the art competition. The two shake hands upon greeting each other. Cute!
Chan-hong practices poetry to prepare for the contest. When the time finally arrives, he meets up with Se-yoon so the two can catch a ride together to the contest location. While waiting, the two converse about Chan-hong’s clothes, but Chan-hong himself is too occupied thinking about more important things – like how Se-yoon actually remembers his name. Eventually, their ride arrives so the two high school students make their way to the contest.
All contestants are given three hours to complete their submission for the contest and is given the freedom of walking around for inspiration. Chan-hong and Se-yoon take advantage of the opportunity and take a walk outside in the snow to get their minds thinking. Chan-hong quietly traces Se-yoon’s steps, but Se-yoon eventually stops to question him. Why is he following her? Why isn’t he writing his poem? Se-yoon moves on to building a snowman which Chan-hong also joins her in. Chan-hong himself is also curious about Se-yoon: why isn’t she drawing anything yet for the competition? That’s when Se-yoon opens up to Chan-hong about her fears of pursing art: it’s something she wants to do, but she’s aware of how much her dad is against it. Chan-hong encourages Se-yoon to keep trying it out; she won’t know if it’s a passion of hers if she doesn’t try (woahhh, he’s so cool).
Se-yoon eventually has some motivation to start drawing thanks to Chan-hong’s support. While she’s busy drawing, Chan-hong is busy watching her focus and he internally recites his own poem,
My unspoken words finally reached you when it fell as the snow. It was the first snow I saw in 18 years. Your feet lie upon the white snow. I try to match my footsteps on top of yours. I knew they wouldn’t match, but I clicked my feet like they were a bunch of keys to open your heart. It was like there wasn’t any snow in the world before you painted the snow.
Chan-hong too finishes with his poetry submission. He titles his poem ‘As If There Wasn’t Any Snow’ and starts off with the line “Wet sand remembers one’s footprints.”
To Chan-hong’s surprise, he and Se-yoon end up winning in their respective areas for the contest. LOL. Teacher Woo as well as Se-yoon’s teacher, Teacher Choi, take photos of their two students like proud parents. Se-yoon and Chan-hong take turns looking at each other’s pieces. While glancing at Chan-hong’s poem, she freezes upon reading the line “wet sand remembers one’s footprints.” Though she claims that she finds the line fascinating, it seems like she knows more to it.
Both Se-yoon and Chan-hong’s parent’s reactions to their prizes differ. While Chan-hong’s parents are proud of him for winning the poetry contest (or at least Dad is), Se-yoon isn’t even given the opportunity to showcase to her parents her prize. They urge her to study the moment she gets home. Eventually, Chan-hong and Se-yoon get closer to each other as the year pass. However, Se-yoon hasn’t quite forgotten about her friend Seo-jung and digs up some conversations from Seo-jung’s cellphone which Se-yoon has hidden in her bedroom. When she is finally able to unlock the phone, Se-yoon discovers a bunch of videos of Seo-jung being sexually assaulted and raped while unconscious. The videos bring her to tears.
The infamous Heo Dong-hyuk finally arrives at the same school as Se-yoon and Chan-hong. Chan-hong and Kyung-pyo remember to keep their distance away from the Ironman, but Chan-hong isn’t so lucky. He ends up being in the same classroom as Dong-hyuk as well as class bully Kim Dae-yong whose first interaction with Dong-hyuk isn’t so friendly. While Dong-hyuk is busy checking the locker that once belonged to Seo-jung, Chan-hong is busy eating with Dae-yong.
Dae-yong too is interested in Se-yoon so he asks for Chan-hong to set them up. Though Chan-hong is hesitant in doing so, Dae-yong pressures the poet to introduce him to the most popular girl at their high school. Speaking of Se-yoon, she asks to meet up with Chan-hong later on that night. Without directly referencing to the videos she saw of Seo-jung, she contemplates whether to speak up about the videos or to just forget about it and pretend like she didn’t see anything. She’s conflicted and uncertain as to what to do. Similar to when he advised Se-yoon on drawing, Chan-hong encourages Se-yoon to do what she thinks will make her happy and not get hurt. Her safety is also just as important to Chan-hong which is why he is hesitant in introducing Dae-yong to Se-yoon.
However, Chan-hong’s plans backfire and he faces the consequences the next day at school by an angry Dae-yong. Chan-hong was seen together with Se-yoon which angered Dae-yong. Chan-hong is to set Dae-yong up with Se-yoon that night or else he’ll face even worse repercussions. Later on that night, Chan-hong lures Se-yoon into meeting with him. Just right when Chan-hong changes his mind and is about to exit the restaurant with Se-yoon, Dae-yong makes his way into the restaurant. As uncomfortable as he is, Chan-hong has no choice but to leave Se-yoon behind with Dae-yong. When he gets home, he avoids greeting his parents and immediately heads into his room to cry. Even though Chan-hong and Se-yoon aren’t even dating, he can’t help but cry his heart out.
The next morning at school, things grow awkward between Se-yoon and Chan-hong. Dae-yong isn’t done with Chan-hong either despite him getting what he wanted and he bullies Chan-hong at school. A quiet Don-hyuk watches the two from his seat in the classroom, but he doesn’t budge. Meanwhile, the same exact woman who we saw in the very beginning of the episode speaks to someone on her phone asking for the whereabouts of Seo-jung’s phone.
While walking in the school hallway, Don-hyuk notices Chan-hong’s poem proudly hung up on the wall. Similar to Se-yoon, the last line in Chan-hong’s poem stands out to Dong-hyuk and it reminds him of the moment when he learned about Seo-jung’s death. He especially feels guilty for ignoring Seo-jung’s phone call the night before she jumped to her death.
Don-hyuk confronts Chan-hong about his poem right as Chan-hong is getting beaten by Dae-yong. Dong-hyuk disrupts the beating by speaking directly to Chan-hong about the poem and whether or not the poem was his idea. When Chan-hong answers in fear that the poem indeed was penned by him, Don-hyuk offers him his help. If Chan-hong would like his support, all he needs to voice is the following line: the weather is great. However, there is one condition: the moment Chan-hong uses the phrase and Don-hyuk helps him, he is indebted to Don-hyuk. With that, Don-hyuk walks away and Dae-yong returns to beating Chan-hong up.
While watching Don-hyuk walk away, Chan-hong recalls a conversation he had with Seo-jung. In that conversation, the two discuss about winter and why the ground freezes up during the winter. While Chan-hong assumes it’s because the ground is holding onto water that seeds need during the spring, Seo-jung answers that it’s because wet sand remembers one’s footprint. After recalling the conversation, Chan-hong is pushed to his limits and yells out loud the line for Don-hyuk to hear. Don-hyuk does as he promised Chan-hong and defeats Dae-yong in order to save Chan-hong. However, Chan-hong isn’t quite in the clear just yet. Like they agreed upon, Chan-hong now owes Don-hyuk a favor which doesn’t sound so great for Chan-hong. The two gather on the same rooftop that Seo-jung was standing on before jumping to her death. Grabbing Chan-hong by the neck and nearly pushing him off the edge, Don-hyuk questions if Chan-hong killed Seo-jung.
Memories of Seo-jung begins to consume Se-yoon as well. She cries upon reading old conversations with Seo-jung who was pleading for Se-yoon’s help moments before her death. Her last comment in their text chat with each other remains the same exact line written in Chan-hong’s poem: “wet sand remembers one’s footprints.”
In a voiceover, Chan-hong recites,
“Our spring has begun. Spring that does not pardon dying things and reveal things hidden in the snow. Spring that urges you to shoot up. That cruel spring has begun.”
Don-hyuk ends up throwing Chan-hong off the rooftop. Meanwhile, a group chat including the people who were involved in Seo-jung’s death is started. In it, those involved panic over how the text message which included the videos of an unconscious Seo-jung had been opened and read. How is that the text message was opened when Seo-jung isn’t alive anymore? The people in the group chat vow and strive to find the person who has Seo-jung’s cellphone and to kill that person just as they did with Seo-jung. Se-yoon is unaware of what is coming for her.
Oh my goodness, this drama was one hard drama to watch, process, understand, and recap! I usually try to condense my recaps by summarizing multiple scenes down into a few sections while providing important details when needed, but my goodness, there were so many subtle and important details hinted throughout the episode, I just couldn’t simply ignore it and not include it. With that being said, I did not know what to expect going into this drama (I only saw one teaser for the drama and nothing else) so I had no idea as to what it was really going to be about or how it was going to look like. This could explain as to why I was a bit overwhelmed by what I just watched because there were so many things going on.
I didn’t expect this drama to be as dark and gritty as it was? That’s partially because I didn’t watch many of the teasers or expose myself to any pre-existing content before its premiere so I’m not sure if I was just missing out on stuff. Regardless, this drama had some pretty dark and disturbing moments to it which is going to be difficult to process and take in as the drama progresses. Videos of unconscious women being raped and sexually assaulted is not new to society, but I think it hit hard watching the videos of Seo-jung being hurt like that because of all the recent news in South Korea surrounding the Nth Room case and the Telegram sex crime scandal. Seo-jung’s situation in this episode certainly reminded me of what’s currently happening in South Korea at the moment which proved to be even harder to process and watch. The show is going to bring into light disturbing topics and cases that South Korea has been going through and is currently going through at the moment and it’ll be interesting to watch how things unfold in the drama. While rare in reality, I certainly hope there will be justice for Seo-jung in the drama.
It was made quite obvious in this episode that everyone is somehow related to Seo-jung which is what links everyone to one another. Even the infamous Don-hyuk is somehow related to Seo-jung and also feels an immense amount of guilt for not being more involved in Seo-jung’s life before her death. The same thing can be said about Se-yoon who was Seo-jung’s close friend who too let go of the opportunity to potentially save Seo-jung’s life. What’s not so clear yet is how Chan-hong is related to Seo-jung. It seems like they knew each other and the popular line from his poem came from Seo-jung. Is Chan-hong purposely pretending to act like he doesn’t know Seo-jung and if so, why? What’s even more interesting is how a simple line from a poem he thought wouldn’t be acknowledged or noticed by anyone was what got him into much more trouble than he expected. What was just supposed to be a simple poem from an average student ended up leading multiple people to be connected to one another in a short amount of time. Who is Seo-jung and what role does she play in each of our character’s lives?
I can’t say that I fully enjoyed this first episode and I’m not so sure either if the rest of the episodes are going to be enjoyable either. I appreciate the drama bringing awareness about topics and incidents that are rare to come across in Kdramaland. South Korea is currently going through a whole situation of their own with the recent Nth Room issue. However, there’s something about this drama that isn’t yet clicking with me and I’m not sure why. ‘How to Buy a Friend’ sort of reminds me of a darker and more intense version of ‘Solomon’s Perjury’, but I do get some ‘Bleak Night’ vibes from it as well. I know not all high school dramas are going to be pretty and cute and adorable like ‘School 2017’ or ‘Moment At Eighteen’ and once again, I like how ‘How to Buy a Friend’ brings to light societal issues and topics that are often not explored in K-dramaland, but there was just something about this first episode that wasn’t there for me. I’m not sure if it’s the directing or the storytelling or a mix of both, but hopefully the next episode will be a little bit better.
With all of this being said, I also know that the next few episodes are going to be even harder to watch as the backstory and context behind Seo-jung’s death is going to be revealed. It’s also not going to be easy to watch Se-yoon’s life be potentially in danger as she’s the next victim of the same people who tortured Seo-jung’s life. I have an idea as to how Chan-hong and Don-hyuk ended up in the situation they were in at the very beginning of the episode, but I’ll leave it up to the drama to take us there. Until then, I’ll watch this drama with a heavy heart, heavy mind, and with heavy anticipation.