‘Doona!’ review: emotionally visceral, refreshingly grounded

When college student Lee Won-jun (Yang Se-jeong) arrives at a sharehouse in Seoul, where he has rented a room, he comes across a beautiful woman, who silently broods as she takes long drags from her cigarette, tipped with gold foil. She scowls at Won-jun upon his arrival, after a quick glance finds him wearing a hoodie of Dream Sweet, a K-pop group she used to be a member of. She’s filled with disgust by the unintentional reminder of her past, but what surprises Lee Doona (Bae Suzy) is that Won-jun himself is unfazed by her presence; he makes a mental note of how familiar she looks, but brushes it off as soon as he does.

As they each carry on with their lives, inevitably bumping into each other from occasion to occasion, Doona begins to think of Won-jun as some sort of stalker. Won-jun himself finally connects the dots about Doona’s identity – the hoodie was gifted to him by a childhood friend from his rural hometown, who had been a huge fan of Doona’s. He notices that she doesn’t seem to enjoy the fame and recognition it brings her, and she continues to avoid Won-jun as much as she can.

When Won-jin comes home to the sight of Doona passed out in the snow, he accompanies her to the ER and claims to be her guardian after she tells him that she has no one else to turn to. Doona begins to warm up to her housemate from thereon: They begin getting to know each other – Won-jin finally tells her he’s not a fan despite the hoodie – and sparks fly.

Bae Suzy’s portrayal of Doona is something we have never seen from her before: the character she embodies is dark, traumatised and dreadfully cynical. Doona has been put on a pedestal her whole life, but she can never escape it. The ex-Miss A member pulls off the complexities of her character with ease – likely thanks to her own personal experience as a former K-pop idol – but it’s how Doona learns to let her guard down and show her vulnerabilities where Suzy shines best.

Yang Se-jeong’s on-screen chemistry with Suzy is palpable and infectious. He characterises Won-jun’s sensitivity in a way that breaks down the walls of Doona’s hesitation. Rather than putting his own needs first – which lots of male protagonists tend to do – his priority is to help Doona find and love herself first. He actively encourages her self-discovery and becomes a pillar of support as she takes her first steps back from her self-destructiveness. Yet, he has his own set of problems: college aside, he is the sole support for a chronically ill sister and a single mother who both rely on his tertiary education for a better life back home.

doona bae suzy Yang Se-jeong
Bae Suzy and Yang Se-jeong in ‘Doona!’. Credit: Kim Seung-wan/Netflix

Doona! is an emotionally visceral, refreshingly grounded story of two young, naïve, troubled people who fall in love at the wrong place and the wrong time. It also sheds light on the harsh realities celebrities face in private, namely company policies that restrict many K-pop idols from enjoying even the simplest pleasures. This series isn’t afraid to confront the dilemmas and factors that affect a relationship – a harsh reality check that love does not always conquer all.

K-dramas have long had the formula for romance perfected – but Doona! throws all out the window for something more rooted in reality. Everything from the performances of its leads to the writing and direction of the series bolsters what makes the series so alluring. It is not a conventional or even appeasing tale of romance, but that’s where its strength lies, and because of that, Doona! may very well emerge as one of the best romance series 2023 has to offer.

Doona! is available to stream on exclusively on Netflix

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