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Extraordinary Attorney Woo: Immense love for a lawyer with ASD

Why Korean dramas have garnered praise and support over the years for their depiction of people with disabilities

Official poster for Extraordinary Attorney Woo.
Official poster for Extraordinary Attorney Woo. (Source: ENA)

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Extraordinary Attorney Woo dropped its last episode on 18 August on Netflix. The Korean legal drama revolves around Woo Young-Woo (Park Eun-bin), a lawyer who suffers from autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Diagnosed at a very young age, Young Woo grows up to be a child prodigy—with a photographic memory and an ability to connect dots. Young Woo graduates from Seoul National University (SNU) summa-cum-laude. However, life isn’t easy, with friends picking on her throughout school and an absent mother. Young Woo’s only family is her father, Woo Gwang-ho (Jeon Bae-soo). Hired by Hanbada Law firm, Young-woo begins her journey inside the courtroom. 

With a new case in each episode, the drama traces Young Woo’s growth and development as she navigates friendship, authority, love and the truth about her birth mother in a world which is often cruel to her. Young-woo is an exceptional attorney—she can come up with solutions to problems effortlessly, she knows the law like the back of her hand and she is an excellent learner. But she faces difficulties with tasks that are normal for everyone around her.

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In the first episode, we see Young-woo getting overwhelmed because of having to walk past a revolving door. We see her studying a chart of human facial expressions to understand human interaction. She wears headphones everywhere she goes because loud noises and even sudden jerks on the subway scare her. She struggles at communicating—she repeats sentences so she can better remember them, a habit she has to let go of as she begins work at the law firm. Young woo is also aware of all the challenges she faces and the audience often catches her talking about how things are hard for “people like me (Young-woo).”

While the Hallyu wave had been brewing for decades in India, it exploded during the pandemic. Korean dramas have also drawn tremendous attention to stories about people with disabilities, mental health problems, domestic violence, psychological trauma of being in the army, and much more. There is a long list of reasons why audiences love K-dramas, and with the growing popularity of Extraordinary Attorney Woo, one more reason stands out: the representation of people with disabilities.

In 2021, K-drama It’s Okay to Not Be Okay was nominated for the Best TV Movie or Miniseries Award at the Emmy Awards. The story revolved around three young people navigating their lives around their childhood traumas and depression. One of the main leads, played by Oh Jung-se is an autistic man in his 30s. The same year, Oh Jun-se won the Best Supporting Actor on TV at the Baeksang Arts Awards in South Korea. The drama also triggered an intense discussion around not only mental health but the representation of specially abled people in the Korean film and TV industry.

In May 2021, another K-drama, Move to Heaven, debuted—the story of a young boy with ASD, Han Geu-ru (Tang Jung-san), who helps his father clean people’s apartments after they die. One day, his father passes away. Geu-ru is now left with his uncle, Cho Sang-gu (Lee Je-hoon), who is neither sensitive nor accustomed to living with someone with a disability. The show takes us through the drastic changes that take place in both Geu-ru and Sang-gu's lives as they learn to adjust and live with each other.

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Earlier this year, the K-drama Our Blues took its audiences on a bitter-sweet journey of love and healing through the stories of different characters in a small village in Jeju, South Korea. One story that stood out was that of the lively and extroverted Lee Young-ok (Han Ji-min) and her older sister, Lee Young-hui (Jung Eun-hye), who has Down’s Syndrome. Young-ok has always disliked taking care of her older sister because of her disability. The episodes trace her relationship breaking down and building back up with Young-hui; in episode 15, Young-ok, in an emotionally charged conversation with her boyfriend, Park Jeoung-jun (Kim Woo-bin), talks about the world and how it ill-treats her sister. “I hope they end up with a kid like Young-hui. If not, then I hope they get struck by lightning or get into an accident and become disabled,” she says before breaking down in tears.

What makes the drama unique, however, is that the actress who plays Young-hui, Jung Eun-hye is herself a caricature artist with Down’s syndrome. Our Blues received immense love and support from audiences all over the world for its casting and its depiction of specially abled people.

Film and TV needs more representation from people whose lives challenge the scope of normality and acceptance. Watching and learning from these K-dramas could be the first step.

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