Tving original series “Yumi’s Cells” (2021-22), which wrapped up on July 22, was a first in many ways for the local TV industry and had, quite literally, many shoes to fill to satisfy the original fans of the massively popular Naver Webtoon of the same title.
The 512-episode online series, created by Lee Dong-geun, garnered some 3.2 billion views and 5 million comments during its five-year run from 2015 to 2020 and still remains one of the most popular webtoons on Naver to date.
The narrative centers around an average woman in her 30s named Kim Yumi and some 200 different cells residing in her brain. Not one of the cells had been created without a purpose or a talent, leading them to influence Yumi’s decision-making process and her daily thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
What made the webtoon so popular was how the readers, as they aged alongside Yumi over the years, related to her relationships from work, friends, and family to boyfriends.
As Yumi matured both in her career and in her relationships — from starting as an entry-level worker at a company to becoming a popular novelist, dating two different guys, Goo Woong and Babi, to finding the perfect life partner and eventually getting married — she realizes, at the end, the protagonist of her life is none other than herself.
With the perfect ending and countless relatable, comical, and sometimes saddening tales filling up the 512 episodes, it seemed to be a waste if left in just the original 2-D format.
So it was up to the main creators — director Lee Sang-yeop and screenwriters Song Jae-jung and Kim Kyung-ran — to transform the webtoon into a combination of live-action and 3-D animated scenes. Such an adaptation was the first of its kind in the local television industry, and from the beginning of production, the series was set to span two seasons, each consisting of 14 episodes, to best portray Yumi’s journey through her 30s.
Despite initial concerns, Season 2 successfully wrapped up on July 22, ranking No. 1 in the accumulated number of views among Tving’s paid subscribers. The series, which was released locally exclusively on Tving, also gained a massive global fandom as it was simultaneously streamed in 160 regions worldwide through global streaming platforms such as Rakuten Viki and iQIYI.
Although the ending for Season 2 deviates somewhat from the original, the creators earned points from the original fans for the series’ distinct originality. Instead of Yumi getting her happy ending with her boyfriend Soonrok, it is tantalizingly, albeit frustratingly, implied that Yumi meets Soonrok through a party thrown by her friends and colleagues and them exchange text messages on Christmas. Although Yumi remains single in the TV series, she has matured, just as the 2-D Yumi did in the webtoon, becoming more secure and content in the new chapter of her life as a writer.
As Season 2 came to a close, the viewers applauded the alternative ending. The original webtoon ending had received criticism that Yumi’s relationship with Soonrok felt rushed compared to those with her exes such as Goo Woong or Babi, and that the ending of the webtoon was cliché in that the female protagonist’s happy ending was tied to marriage.
As viewers awaited Season 2, one big focus was the casting of Soonrok and whether he would show up in the season. Creators said that Soonrok would be revealed only briefly without showing his face, and much of Yumi’s romance with Soonrok would be swapped for her ex-boyfriend Babi.
“We planned the two seasons together from the start but wanted the theme [of each season] to be different,” screenwriter Song explained in an online interview on Thursday.
“For the first season, we thought the original fans would automatically focus on how similar Yumi is to the webtoon character and in the depiction of her cells,” Song said. “So we focused on making the story come alive on screen, taking all the most important episodes from the webtoon to portray Yumi’s relationship with Goo Woong and her incidents at work.
“For Season 2, we thought it might get a bit boring if we remained too loyal to the webtoon, or that viewers would have no anticipation for what’s to come. So we decided to deviate a little from the original narrative, and one of those deviations was taking episodes with Soonrok and transferring them to her relationship with Babi. That hinted to the viewers that Babi in the series is not completely the same as Babi from the webtoon.”
Song continued, “From the onset of this production, we weren’t sure about making a Season 3 of the series, but we wanted to emphasize and depict the creativity of the original webtoon, which, we thought, was best shown in Soonrok’s episodes.”
The production for Season 3, however, remains in the dark for now.
“I think many people are curious about whether or not there will be a Season 3, but nothing has been decided as of yet,” director Lee said. “The actors and staff members need a little break because they’ve worked on one project for so long […] As you know, Soonrok from Season 2 is an understudy, and we don’t know who to cast for the character. Because so many fans are looking forward to seeing him, we joked among ourselves that the actor would have to be the equivalent of Timothée Chalamet to fill his shoes.”
“I was also a fan of Soonrok of the original webtoon,” Lee said, “but the image that I associate with him is someone who has it all: Tall, handsome, though he chooses to hide behind glasses, kind, and knows how to appreciate what he has and likes.”
“Since it’s a big if, we cannot confirm anything,” Song said. “One of the biggest assets in creating a drama series from a popular original is that the story itself is so well-made. But the obstacle is that there are no surprises because the viewers already know what’s in store for them. So if we do get to do Season 3, I think the character of Soonrok needs to go through more alterations — maintain the overall good qualities as the man he is, but change the episodes that he goes through with Yumi and show a different side of their relationship.”
Also in the TV series, Babi isn’t quite the jerk he is drawn up to be in the webtoon, where he eventually breaks up with Yumi and marries Da-eun, a part-timer at his tteokbokki (stir-fried spicy rice cakes) place that he says he momentarily fell for.
Although Babi admits to Yumi in the show that he fell for Da-eun, portrayed by Shin Ye-eun, as an intern to his team, the similarity ends there: Babi remains a good guy, cheering for Yumi’s career and flatly ignoring Da-eun even after he first breaks up with Yumi.
“Webtoonist Lee Dong-geun left the narrative completely up to us,” Song said. “We did clear with him whether or not we could tweak the story, such as deleting the love triangle between Babi, Yumi, and Eda and altering the ending for Yumi and Babi to suit the narrative of the series, to which he said to do as we wished. Lee said he particularly loved the animated cells for Ahn Dae-yong [Yumi’s copy editor] and he also loved Park Jin-young’s serious acting [while portraying Babi].”
For screenwriters Song and Kim, they loved how heated the debate would get among fans as they took sides: Team Goo Woong or Team Babi. In the series, Goo Woong’s role was expanded as he earnestly tries to win Yumi’s heart back after he becomes CEO of his own game company.
“I personally loved the responses from the viewers, divided by either being on the side of Goo Woong and bickering about Babi or vice versa,” Kim said.
“I actually wanted the debate to intensify even more,” Song added. “From all of Season 1 and 2, I personally think the latter of Season 2 is the most fun part of the story. We actually tried to build up the tension [between the trio] as we wrote the script.”
The creators unanimously agreed that they felt the following behind the series grew bigger with Season 2.
“For Season 1, I felt the pressure as watchful observers tapped their feet and craned their necks to see how we articulately managed to adapt the webtoon into a series,” Song said. “For Season 2, however, I felt that fans of the series who really loved Yumi and her life were watching and rooting for her.”
“I think the age and the generations of viewers also diversified for Season 2,” Lee said. “For Season 1, I heard from my colleagues and friends that they first turned it on because their children wanted to watch it. For Season 2, however, they found themselves watching the series too. [laughs] And I felt that the viewers were really enjoying and becoming immersed in the series because they understood the context behind the story from the prior season. Also for Season 2, I heard many comments from the staff that not only their friends but also their parents were entertained by the series, so I really felt the entertainment factors for the two seasons were different.”
Director Lee also gave his thoughts on how “Yumi’s Cells” gathered its global fan base.
“It’s a personal story, but also very universal,” Lee said. “Yumi’s story may be special, and maybe not, but regardless of age, generation, gender, and nationality, people can sympathize with the process of meeting someone you love and breaking up, and it was refreshing to show this process in a new way [by combining live-action and 3-D animated scenes].”
BY LEE JAE-LIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]