Smackdown: Nam Do San vs. Han Ji Pyeong of Netflix's Start-Up

Who are you rooting for?

Team Nam Do San vs. Han Ji Pyeong
PHOTO Courtesy of Netflix ILLUSTRATION War Espejo

(SPOT.ph) Korean drama Start-Up has basically never left Netflix’s Top 10 since its release in October. What initially seemed as a serious watch because of its tech-related title is actually a relatable tale with four main characters, all with a thirst to prove themselves in the world. It also touches on how start-ups work, which makes for an educational watch even for those outside the industry. Plus, we have to hand it to the show’s creators for being able to weave familial themes into the storyline—who didn’t uncontrollably sob during the pilot episode?

The love-story angle in Start-Up has gotten considerable attention since much of the story is hinged on how the accidental love triangle started. Mrs. Choi (halmeoni or grandmother) takes then-teenage orphan Han Ji Pyeong, whom she fondly calls “good boy,” under her wing. One day, halmeoni asks for one favor: help her write letters to her granddaughter Seo Dal Mi to cheer the kid up. Ji Pyeong does so as instructed, reluctantly at first, and goes with the pen name Nam Do San after seeing the name in the newspaper. Dal Mi cherishes each letter she receives from “Do San,” especially since that particular spring has been tough for her. A couple of years later, a grown-up Dal Mi ends up looking for her pen pal, but of course, the search is not without complications.

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Unsurprisingly, some viewers are torn between Ji Pyeong (played by Kim Seon Ho) and Do San (played by Nam Joo Hyuk) for Dal Mi (played by Suzy Bae). Right on the heels of the last two episodes, here’s our take on this hot topic—and no, we’re not basing it on the letters. Be warned that there may be details in this story that contain spoilers, so trudge carefully!

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Is it going to be #TeamBigHands or #TeamGoodBoy? Here's a Start-Up smackdown:

What they do for a living: Start-up founder vs. Investment manager

Do San is a math olympiad who grows up as a talented coder alongside knitting-club friends Kim Yong San (Kim Do Wan) and Lee Chul San (Yoo Soo Bin). Together, they form the start-up Samsan Tech. They struggle to make it big, until they win CODA, a global machine-learning competition before qualifying in Sandbox, a tech start-up incubator in South Korea. It’s in Sandbox where the trio gets to display their skills even more, specifically with AI technology—and Do San gets to be closer to Dal Mi. Alex Kwon (Cho Tae Kwan) of Silicon Valley-based 2STO “acqhires" the three and they all fly to San Francisco to join 2STO. They come back to Korea after completing their three-year stint in the U.S.

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Ji Pyeong, on the other hand, is an investment manager at SH Venture Capital. In his teenage years, he won a virtual investment competition, where he realized that he has the smarts for it. It's important to note, though, that he first tried his hand at investing using Mrs. Choi’s money. At Sandbox, he’s known as Mr. Han, a mentor for the incubator’s residency program for start-ups. He has a reputation for giving brutally honest remarks (“Telling the hard truth,” as Ji Pyeong himself would put it). Mr. Han gets promoted to director after the three-year fast-forward in episode 13.

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Winner: It takes a lot of tenacity and talent to get into these industries. Both are excellent in what they chose to do, and we’ve seen how both Do San and Ji Pyeong defied their respective odds to be able to get far in their fields. For this round, it’s a tie for the Living Buddha with big hands and Good Boy.

  • Do San’s genius has been recognized in the series countless times. Before Samsan Tech even made it to Sandbox, he was already being scouted by 2STO’s Alex. He was also the one who helped out Chul San with his ransomware trouble prior to them founding Samsan Tech.
  • Dal Mi a.k.a. The Question Bomber has consistently sought Mr. Han’s expertise, from deciding like a CEO down to how to secure investments from big companies. In episode 11, Dal Mi acknowledges the role that Ji Pyeong played in Samsan Tech’s journey, saying, “We [Samsan Tech] wouldn’t be where we are today if not for your nitpicking.”

Hobbies: Knitting vs. Taking care of plants?

Knitting is well, woven, into how the guys of Samsan Tech became friends. In episode four, we see the trio in college, with Yong San and Chul San forming a knitting club in the hopes that they would get to meet girls. But by some twist of fate, it’s Do San who breezes through the door, knitting kit in hand. He would knit his stresses away, whether it’s on the subway or at home.

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PHOTO Courtesy of Netflix

There seems to be no indication of a hobby for Ji Pyeong, and the closest he has come to showing an interest in something other than his job, being at Sandbox, or helping halmeoni or Dal Mi, is taking care of the money tree. Now we get why there was some sort of initial disconnect between him and the plant—after all, Dal Mi gave it to Do San under the pretext that Ji Pyeong’s condo is Samsan Tech’s actual office. We’re just glad he still kept the plant and decided to take care of it anyway.

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Winner: Do San, hands down. Ji Pyeong once attempted to get rid of the poor, innocent plant, so there’s that.

  • We love that Do San made three RGB-colored scrubbies for Mrs. Choi. Nothing like making a good impression on their first meeting.
  • Ji Pyeong throwing the plant away in the garbage bin—not cool. But we’re happy that he’s being a responsible plantito after getting the money tree back.

Fashion Sense: Casual vs. Sleek

Do San is often clad in laid-back, casual looks. We’ve seen him in plaid button-downs, printed oversized jackets, and hoodies throughout the show. Remember the time he made heads turn when he went to Won In Jae’s networking party and introduced himself as the Nam Do San from the letters? Everything about the look was last minute, but he pulled it off. Plus, he really looked good in his "Money" video with a Steve Jobs-inspired ensemble.


Ji Pyeong, on the other hand, sticks to a monochromatic color scheme for his outfits. His wardrobe is composed of long-sleeved button-downs, dapper suits, and the occasional T-shirt. There’s not a lot of scenes with him wearing pastel or bright colors, and the most memorable of those rare moments would have to be when he had to borrow a Go Gildong shirt from Dal Mi, which featured a frowning character, no less. And oh, he wears expensive watches.

PHOTO Courtesy of Netflix
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Winner: Do San. He has worn pieces that aren’t even his and yet ends up looking good, every single time.

  • It’s adorable how the Samsan Tech guys, in the earlier part of the series, had matchy-matchy moments with their plaid shirts.
  • Ji Pyeong could rock shirts too—the "Mentor" shirt is a good example, but...

"What were you thinking" moment: Smashing a name plate vs. making someone take his shirt off, stat, multiple times

Since we’re talking about the "Mentor" shirt: The thing with Ji Pyeong is that there were instances that he made his poor staff hurriedly remove his shirt just because he needed it, and it happened in front of the Sandbox crowd once. It’s not exactly mentor material.

In episode eight, Do San and Dal Mi had an eventful meeting with Morning Group chairman, Won Doo Jung (played by Eom Hyo Seop), in which Do San smashes the chairman’s glass name plate. While it's incredibly frustrating that the chairman had to spew personal attacks at Dal Mi and that Do San acted that way out of his growing affection for Dal Mi, breaking things you don't own—in a rich and powerful man’s office at that—is not a good way to approach that kind of situation.

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Winner: Ji Pyeong. It's far less dangerous.

  • Also, Ji Pyeong suggested to Dal Mi that she record their dealings with Morning Group, which Dal Mi was able to use as leverage to get Do San—and Samsan Tech—out of trouble because of that smash-the-glass incident.
  • While that spur-of-the-moment display of rage makes us think twice, it leads us to...

Best moment with Dal Mi: Rooftop kiss vs. The confession over noodles

The rooftop kiss that Do San and Dal Mi shared is as cinematic as it gets, and it almost qualifies as a finale scene. It’s even more meaningful considering it comes right after the aforementioned “smash the name plate” scene, and that they’ve agreed to developing NoonGil, the guide dog-inspired app for the visually impaired, at that moment too. Nothing like a kiss to numb the physical pain Do San probably felt on his bleeding knuckles.

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But there’s something incredibly refreshing in the way Ji Pyeong set everything for Dal Mi before letting his feelings be known. Consider the scene: It’s daytime, in a restaurant at lunch hour. Ji Pyeong sets the table for Dal Mi first—chopsticks, cup, and noodles, the whole K-cuisine shebang. After a calm interrogation from Dal Mi—including Do San’s involvement, Ji Pyeong tells her, “I like you. I have feelings for you. I am telling you this to be honest, not to make you uncomfortable. I don’t expect an answer so don’t let it bother you.” He shakes his head despite himself, realizing what he has done: confessing feelings in the middle of mixing noodles. Do note that this straightforward confession comes at the heels of Dal Mi realizing that everything is a lie.

Winner: Ji Pyeong takes the cake—or the bibim guksu—here for the no-frills confession in a no-pressure environment. Plus, get you a guy who makes sure you won’t get hangry, right?

  • It’s not the first time Ji Pyeong showed his gentlemanly side. He has always done little things for Dal Mi, such as opening the car door for her, adjusting the car seat so she could take a nap, and opening the water bottle before the pitch, among others.
  • Ji Pyeong also cleared Do San’s name even before he got to his own confession.

Grand champion: Both are kind-hearted guys, no question about that, especially when you consider how they've gone to great lengths for halmeoni alone: Do San developing and improving NoonGil, and Ji Pyeong deciding to grant Mrs. Choi's request about the letter even when it hurts him.

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Both of them have contributed to Dal Mi's growth in the series, but the difference lies in how they show their support for Dal Mi. Do San has exhibited his willingness to do things for Dal Mi to the point that he doesn't hold back, so much so that he misses the signals when Dal Mi clearly needed to distance herself and be alone.

Ji Pyeong, on the other hand, gives Dal Mi the space to work things out for herself, while cheering her on from a distance. It gets to a point that it's already disadvantageous for Ji Pyeong if he even plans to make a move because he allows for too much space; he is almost “out of sight, out of mind.”

That being said, being on the swing is an exhilirating ride with all its ups and downs. At the end of the day, it’s nice to be with someone who would catch you when you fall yet allow you to come into your own. To borrow a quote from Jung Sa Ha in episode 10: “Han Ji Pyeong versus Nam Do San? Han Ji Pyeong wins, for sure. The end of story. There’s no question about it.”

Start-Up is streaming on Netflix.

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