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Park Hyung-sik finds love in age of burnout with 'Doctor Slump'

South Korean superstar Park Hyung-sik plays Yeo Jeong-woo, a successful plastic surgeon who has seen his life and career fall apart, in the Netflix rom-com "Doctor Slump." Photo courtesy of SLL/HighZium Studio
South Korean superstar Park Hyung-sik plays Yeo Jeong-woo, a successful plastic surgeon who has seen his life and career fall apart, in the Netflix rom-com "Doctor Slump." Photo courtesy of SLL/HighZium Studio

SEOUL, March 14 (UPI) -- Doctor Slump's Yeo Jeong-woo (Park Hyung-sik) seems to have it all -- he's a celebrity plastic surgeon with a successful practice and a massive social media following.

But that perfect life comes tumbling down when a mishap during a surgical procedure leaves a patient dead. The once high-flying Jeong-woo suddenly finds himself saddled with debt, facing criminal charges and suffering from symptoms of PTSD.

To make matters worse, he is thrust into an unwelcome reunion with his high school academic rival when he moves into a shabby rooftop apartment above Nam Ha-neul (Park Shin-hye).

Ha-neul, it turns out, is in a slump herself. Once on her way to a bright future as an anesthesiologist, her career has been derailed by an abusive boss and a clinical diagnosis of depression.

It's not exactly a classic setup for a romantic comedy, but Doctor Slump finds laughter and a love connection between characters who have fallen from grace. The series, produced by South Korean studio SLL, has struck a chord with audiences at home and abroad with its spotlight on the country's grueling work culture and cutthroat academic environment.

"Doctor Slump" flashes back to the high school academic rivalry between Yeo Jeong-woo (Park Hyung-sik, pictured) and his future love interest Nam Ha-neul, played by Park Shin-hye. Photo courtesy of SLL/HighZium Studio
"Doctor Slump" flashes back to the high school academic rivalry between Yeo Jeong-woo (Park Hyung-sik, pictured) and his future love interest Nam Ha-neul, played by Park Shin-hye. Photo courtesy of SLL/HighZium Studio

"I found that a lot of viewers were able to relate to the topics of the drama, which are slump and burnout," Park Hyung-sik told UPI.

Doctor Slump has topped the South Korean television charts since it premiered in late January and has been a fixture on Netflix's global Top 10 list.

Yeo Jeong-woo's life is sent spiraling down when a mishap during a plastic surgery procedure leaves a patient dead. Photo courtesy of SLL/HighZium Studio
Yeo Jeong-woo's life is sent spiraling down when a mishap during a plastic surgery procedure leaves a patient dead. Photo courtesy of SLL/HighZium Studio

Park Hyung-sik, a certified heartthrob whose credits include The Heirs, High Society, Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth, Strong Girl Bong-soon and Suits, said he was drawn to Doctor Slump for the way it addressed serious themes in "an in-depth and entertaining way."

The 32-year-old actor and singer said he could also relate to the challenges the characters face.

"There are times when I want to drop everything," he said. "But I try not to let it consume me. I think I've done a good job of pulling myself together and focusing on something else as soon as I sense that."

In Doctor Slump, the reunion of Jeong-woo and Ha-neul gets off to a rocky start, as both are instantly transported back to the intensity of their high school rivalry. In flashbacks, we see Ha-neul chugging packets of powdered coffee to fuel marathon study sessions, while Jeong-woo turns everything into a competition, from solving math equations at the chalkboard to simply walking to class.

But -- in classic Korean rom-com fashion -- the former enemies slowly turn into lovers as they bond over their shared misery. (A courtroom crime drama is a subplot, as Jeong-woo tries to figure out who is framing him for the operating room mishap.)

"I kept postponing everything and worked like a dog," Ha-neul says at one point. "But look at me now. I slaved away and only ended up with depression."

They find that stepping off the treadmill of high achievement gives them a chance to experience the simple pleasures in life that they never had time to enjoy -- like karaoke sessions, long walks under falling cherry blossoms and heartfelt conversations over countless bottles of soju.

"Let's take a break while we're at rock bottom," Jeong-woo says.

Doctor Slump's strongest appeal is undoubtedly the chemistry of its leads, who are among the most popular and prolific stars in South Korea. Their on-screen pairing also parallels a real-life reunion, as the two are working together for the first time since starring in The Heirs a decade ago.

"It felt familiar and new at the same time," Park Hyung-sik said. "It was the first time we'd worked together for a long period, so it was new, but we quickly got in sync."

And even when the tone is light and romantic, the series never lets go of its grounding in real-life problems -- including a straightforward portrayal of treating mental health challenges, which still carry a stigma in South Korea.

"Just as we see a doctor when we're injured or sick, I hope visiting a doctor for our mental illnesses is considered natural and this series will help it," he said.

Doctor Slump is streaming on Netflix, with the final two episodes of Season 1 set for release on Saturday and Sunday.