How ‘Gangnam Project’ Showrunners Sarah Haasz and Romeo Candido made the K-Pop version of ‘Degrassi’

The show follows a biracial Korean Canadian teen’s journey of self-discovery as she becomes a tutor at a K-Pop academy.

The show follows a biracial Korean Canadian teen’s journey of self-discovery as she becomes a tutor at a K-Pop academy.

Sun Hee (Angela Son) and Hannah (Julia Kim Caldwell) in CBC Gem's 'Gangnam Project'.

by Rebecca Gao
April 15, 2024

Growing up Korean Canadian, Sarah Haasz always thought that, when she went to Korea, she would find herself and be totally accepted by her family and Korean culture at large. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Meanwhile, back home in Canada, her peers often asked her where she was really from, signalling that she didn’t quite belong there either. “I was caught between this cultural gap,” says Haasz. A veteran of the kid’s TV scene in Canada, Haasz decided to develop a TV series about that cultural gap.

But first, she needed a hook. “I didn’t think anyone would want to watch something like that… that’s for a kids and family audience,” she said. So, she turned to boisterous and fun Korean pop music, or K-Pop, as the vessel.

The resulting series, CBC Gem’s Gangnam Project, follows biracial Korean Canadian teen Hannah, who moves to Korea to become a tutor at a K-Pop academy. Though she thinks she knows everything, Hannah quickly learns that she doesn’t know much about her identity at all.

According to Haasz, Gangnam Project is all about finding your voice, despite not fitting in. In one early scene in the first episode of the series, Hannah is told that she isn’t “one of [them],” by a K-Pop academy student—and that moment sets her on a path of self-discovery, and to realize her own version of Korean-ness.

That scene was inspired by something that happened to Haasz when she visited Korea as a teen, and it informed the rest of the show. “These were the types of experiences that we’d lived, that we injected into this series that people have really responded to and related to,” she says.

Halmeoni (Soon-Year Lee), Auntie Jiyeon (Kimmy Choi) and Hannah (Julia Kim Caldwell) in CBC Gem’s Gangnam Project.

Haasz also tapped Filipino Canadian director Romeo Candido early on in the process to work alongside her—the two are now co-showrunners of Gangnam Project. Candido, who directed the series alongside Justin Wu and Gloria Kim, says he was drawn to the story because he knew “what it was like to not be from Canada and not from the Philippines,” he explains. “I lived in the Philippines for a while, where they thought I was a white person. And then here, in Canada, I’m brown.”

So, when Haasz approached Candido with the idea, he jumped on board immediately. “I know what it’s like to chase a dream, what it is to want to perform and sing my authentic song, but I also knew what it was like to not fit in,” he says.

The cast of CBC Gem’s Gangnam Project.

Like Hannah, Candido was going after his K-Pop dreams when he was younger. “I was in a Filipino boy band,” he says. “So I went through all those things: the training to dance and sing, showcases to get signed to a label… but I never fit in, I was a little bit too funny, too weird, too awkward, too cringy.”

The show is a 10-episode coming-of-age dramedy that explores all of this—while incorporating some K-Pop bangers. Haasz says that she wanted to explore themes of identity and belonging through K-Pop because “there’s a person behind that voice that’s very much like us, just trying hard to fit in.”

In her research process for the show, Haasz says she was constantly struck by little tidbits about the idols. For example, she learned that RM from BTS learned how to speak English from a DVD boxset of the show Friends. “It just reminds us that we put these people on a pedestal, but there are real people behind those voices—that’s what fascinated me about K-Pop.” 

Supreme (Joshua Lee) and Rook (Zeboria Peters).

Bringing audiences into a K-Pop academy was also important to Haasz and Candido, who were both fascinated with the idea of creating a fantastical version of the intensive training K-Pop idols receive. “I love the show Fame, about a performing arts high school in New York, but fantastical, with young people coming of age through song and dance numbers,” Candido says. “I loved that we were able to create the universe of a school. Like, we got to do our version of Degrassi but aspirational, with song and dances.” 

To lend authenticity to the K-Pop sounds, Haasz and Candido worked with songwriter, producer and musician August Rigo, who Candido knew from his Filipino boy band days. Together with Rigo, who’s worked with artists like BTS and Justin Bieber, the team behind Gangnam Project were able to create a musical world for the show that was authentic and fun (and, very, very catchy). 

“K-Pop is not a singular musical style, and we needed songs for girl groups, boy groups, mixed groups, enemy groups” says Candido. “We needed songs that expressed feeling out of place, expressed superficial things.” 

Sun Hee (Angela Son), Mina (Kyle Haasz) and Hannah (Julia Kim Caldwell).

That music needed to sound true to K-Pop while also serving the narrative. Fortunately, Candido says that working with Rigo lent the whole production an authenticity check. “We knew if we didn’t get the music right, the show wouldn’t be good.” The team also worked with Korean choreographer Pyro to ensure the dancing was authentic  as well.

They also worked hard to find an ideal cast, and ended up with a slate of great young Korean actors and singers to star. They include newcomers like Julia Kim Caldwell, who plays Hannah, as well as well-known actors in the industry like Sean Baek (Killjoys) and Kimmy Choi (Avatar: The Last Airbender, Pachinko). 

The cast of CBC Gem’s Gangnam Project.

As production for the show went on, Candido says that the young performers blossomed alongside their characters, who are all learning what it means to be a performer and to be authentically themselves.

“While you’re watching all 10 episodes, and you’re seeing these trainees turn into idols, we were watching a Star is Born moment,” Candido says. “But, it’s not just one Lady Gaga, we’re watching eight young performers step out of their comfort zones.” 

Ultimately, Haasz and Candido hope that Gangnam Project will be a relatable and fun watch that teaches viewers the importance of self-acceptance, especially for those caught between cultures. For Hannah, “she has to discover what it means to be Korean for herself, because being Korean isn’t a monolith,” says Candido. “And that is something that translates to any culture.” 

Watch all episodes of Gangnam Project for free on CBC Gem right now. 

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