WHEN WE WERE YOUNG (2018) is a much more understated show than I initially expected.
Rather than a wacky and silly teen show, it’s actually really quite poignant and moving, a real slice of life drama about the smallest of moments (that often feel like the largest of moments when we are teenagers) and it is filled with nostalgia.
The Setting, Tone and Story:
This is a Chinese drama and I never quite caught the city it is set in, but it’s very definitely a 90s set show, with a lovely retro vibe.
I really like the idea that the kinds of issues that young people face are just so universal, generation to generation and country to country. Even across cultures. There were such lovely moments of insight and wisdom in this show, some of which made me pause my TV so I could write them down they were so relevant, and I constantly found myself moved by the littlest beats within the story, the tiniest of moments that feel like mountains to the characters.
Here is my favourite, a piece of wisdom that just rings so true for me, it is how I try to view the world every day:
I just want to tell you that everyone lives an imperfect life. You have to first learn to accept life’s injustices, in order to better appreciate it’s beauty.When We Were Young – Cdrama
And you know what, I just didn’t expect such insight into life’s minuter from a drama that I thought was gonna be a wacky love triangle show. (and in saying that, please know that I LOVE wacky love triangle shows!)
Which brings me to my next point, this year I also watched the Cdrama A LOVE SO BEAUTIFUL, and I cannot help but draw comparisons between the two!
The heroine is practically the same person (yet somehow the protagonist in WHEN WE WERE YOUNG somehow just wormed her way into my heart just a little more), she lives in the same sort of family structure (and apartment building), has a similar sort of friend group, and her two love interests were literally exactly the same: the smart but neglected boy who lives directly upstairs, and the new cool guy at school who doesn’t have a worry in the world (or does he?).
But really, other than the general structure and framework of the story, I think that’s where the comparisons die.
For one, the love triangle, while there in this drama, took much more of a backseat, with just the tiniest of moving and sweet moments between the characters driving the love story forward at slower intervals, and the boy the protagonist is into, in this drama is the opposite to the direction her affection travels in A LOVE SO BEAUTIFUL.
Which was really interesting.
Also, to me, because this drama was quieter and somehow more insightful, I kind of found the characters to be a little more fleshed out and that totally leads me to the next section of my review!
I think I actually loved these characters. The more I think about them, the more I feel I care.
This was such a good friend group, each kid dealing with their own heavy stuff, but also really caring about eachother, their interactions caring and sweet and attentive, their friendship felt real and true, and actually a little bit moving.
Aaaah, I just thought of the correct word that utterly describes this show:
Yup. That is the perfect way to describe this drama.
The heroine, Yang Xi, really grew on me, even though I have seen this exact character quite a bit lately, the brash, bold, clumsy girl who yells at her mum and blusters around school. But man, this girl ended up being really charming.
I really liked her.
She gets knocked about quite a lot over the span of this drama, and though the small difficulties she faced (sometimes small, sometimes big of course) were like mountains to her, I so feel like this is true to youth. The very first time you experience something it can feel absolutely huge, especially at a time in your life when everyone is constantly telling you that your daily decisions could impact the rest of your entire life, the whole course of your life.
I loved how no matter how many times she got knocked down, and no matter how hard she was hit with difficulties, or how long her recovery time was, she always got back up.
She was a pretty great role model to be honest, she worked hard. She had dreams, and she worked for them. She worked her butt off, but she wasn’t invulnerable either. She didn’t magically achieve anything, when she won in this drama, I felt like she deserved it.
The other stand out character for me, was one of Yang Xi’s love interests, nicknamed downhearted tiger (real name Hua Biao).
I wasn’t sure what I felt at first, only because he was obviously being set up as the cool, charming as hell, bad boy who barges into everyone’s lives, the new guy at school, who disrupts everything and everyone….. except that’s just not how his character was played out at all.
He was actually thoughtful and sweet, had a sad past but a positive and enthusiastic outlook on life, and he treated everyone around him with extreme kindness at all times. The wonderful relationship with his grandma was a standout too.
The Love Story
The review gets super spoiler from here on out – so you are warned!
So I am ALWAYS all about the love story.
But in a way, the love triangle aspects sort of took a backseat in this drama, simply because it was such a slice of life show and even when the love stories developed they bloomed so slowly and sweetly that it was almost like watching molasses. But um… in a really really good way!
If you are a fan of romance, this drama is a great one.
I wasn’t actually sure which boy I hoped Yang Xi ended up with for a lot of the drama, as I felt like both had such true and lovely feelings for her, downhearted tiger’s constantly blossoming from a very deep friendship into something more, and Li Yu’s feelings being constant and true.
And I really liked both boys, I loved the petty jealousies, but also how ultimately, despite their understanding that both liked Yang Xi, they weren’t able to keep from becoming fast friends too, which was really cool to see.
I am ALWAYS really touched by the whole unrequited love thing, especially when it’s a boy secretly pining for his best friend who is oblivious.
I love it.
This trope always leads to such great interactions, and lots of opportunity for petty jealousy and skinship and touching moments, but…..
In this drama, I realised pretty early on that Yang Xi’s feelings were extending towards downhearted tiger, and although quite often in a love triangle I just seem to love the torture of choosing the loser man as my favourite (leading to intense sadness and tears) in this one, I cared enough about the heroine to respect her choice of downhearted tiger, and I kind of loved them together.
Their slow building friendship and relationship was solid, endearing and felt really real, their caring for eachother was just lovely to watch unfold.
I loved them. Oh my heart.
The ending of When We Were Young:
Aaaaah. I kind of loved it?
I mean, man, I am super keen on happy endings, all tied up with a pretty pink bow and a wedding, and to be honest I kept waiting for the flash forward to college or whatever but …
…it just never came.
The kids all worked their bums off for final exams and the fall out was beautiful, sad and realistic.
Some failed even though they tried, others succeeded, others did awesome with their results but their home circumstances meant their dreams needed to be put on hold. It was heartbreaking and just so real.
Life is a strange beast, and it just falls the way it falls, often so beyond our control.
And so the ending of this drama is that everyone goes their own way. Everyone has to.
When I thought about it, though utterly bittersweet, I ended up deciding that I really liked this ending. It was poignant and moving, and in a lot of ways, a big tied up happy ending would have undone so much of the insightful commentary the drama made on youth the whole way through.
I LOVED that in a lot of ways the ending of this drama felt like the beginning, as it should be. It was the beginning of the next phase of these characters lives, and I felt faith in the foundations of their relationships, that they felt built on true friendship, and I do feel like they will meet eachother again.
I also felt like Yang Xi and downhearted tiger actually would have a chance in the future too, but I also loved how they didn’t hold eachother back. I felt like they would circle back around towards each other when the time was right, because their sweet and charming romance was built on the one thing that all lasting love stories are built on:
To finish, here is another quote from this drama that that really moved me:
The simplest way to show your love to someone is to spend time with them.When We Were Young – Cdrama
If you have time to chat with me, I would absolutely LOVE to know:
- Did you watch this drama?
- Will you?
- If you have watched it, who was your favourite character?
- Did you like the romance?
Thank you for reading, please feel free to leave a comment below!
LEE EVIE is a podcaster, blogger and author of dark historical fiction set in old Korea. Discover Lee Evie’s historical fiction novels by clicking on the images below!