Saturday, 4 March 2017

KDrama Review : Misaeng

As promised, here's my post about Misaeng!

Confession hour: I used to be one of those people who would be repulsed at the very mention of anything Korean-related, but look at me now. The Koreans are ruining me, man. I'm not even going low-key with this whole Korean venture, I'm out here (read: in my room under my duvet) fully embracing my KPop-KDrama-KMovie way of life, loud and proud. It's ridiculous the magnitude of impact that KDramas have upon me. They make me learn the language both spoken & written form. They extinguish whatever luck I have of falling in love, one unrealistic expectation at a time. They lure me into the Korean skincare regime with their dewy skin. 

In short, I just want to migrate over and live there asap.

But Misaeng

Boy, Misaeng is the first KDrama that makes me do a double take and question myself if I really want to live in South Korea. And I have my internet friend Ammelia to blame/thank for that. I'm going to try to write out my thoughts on Misaeng in chunks, so that they'll be more structured (hopefully, haha).

Brutal truths of office & working life
I remember watching Suits couple of years back and thinking to myself, "Wah so fancy being a lawyer, working in an office and all. Ugh. I wanna be one too!". A lot of movies/series/dramas have that tendency, I've noticed, to make something appear more appealing than it actually is. The everyday things are always glossed over with a shine of grandeur so that they're, you know, dramatic. On the other hand, Misaeng attempts a different take on storytelling by showcasing a dull, muted tone of office life that captures the microscopic details of ordinary white-collar workers, even the banal ones. I'm talking not just about salarymen (and women) dressed smartly strutting across the tiles of the office lobby, but also these same people with shirts gone crumpled, sleeves rolled up, buttons undone, blazers abandoned on the chairs. I'm talking about newbies getting horrendous scoldings for a typo on a report, for not adhering to the office's standard format of submitting a proposal, for accidentally dropping a piece of drafted work where it shouldn't be. I'm talking about interns coming to the office for the first time and not knowing where the photocopy machine is and which button to press. It's like watching snippets of their lives, but not the ones released on TV shows, but the NGs and behind the scenes that are usually deemed less appealing to go on the silver screen. Every single actor & actress in Misaeng is truly wonderful, but my favourite is definitely Chief Oh, right from the beginning.

While watching Misaeng, many times I wanted to throw a brick on my screen, because Chief Oh's tension & frustration were often so palpable, I felt them acutely to the point that my heart hurt. Lee Sung Min's raw portrayal of Chief Oh's character is brilliant, so much so that even when he's giving a wordless stare, I could feel his dampened spirit & broken resolve. His character seemed to exude an aura of exhaustion, like he's given up on life, like he's on his 9th cup of coffee at 10am of the day yet he buckled up & hustled through the office work to get through the day. Literally every frame with him in it is my favourite, but one incident that I still can't quite shake off from my mind is when he failed to strike a business deal with his old friend. Ripped my heart apart, that one. And when the old friend invited him for dinner at this high-end restaurant to just make a show of not just how well off he's become, but how further up he was compared to Chief Oh, that was like sprinkling salt over my open heart. 

My heart crushed every single time Chief Oh was placed in situations that were morally frustrating. I got to see how Chief Oh was not willing to compromise his work ethics for a sum of money, which translates to stagnancy in the corporate world. Since this drama isn't one to shy away from the consequences of decisions good and bad, I also got to see how easy it was to fool one's self into giving excuses when doing something that's morally incorrect, like the Executive Director. It's terrifying to see him slipping in some extra cash with the justification of "it's for the company". I say it's terrifying because the Executive Director was actually in the frame of mind that he was on the right tracks when in reality, he's gone down a slippery road, and somewhere along the road, his integrity dissipated.

Anyway, back to Chief Oh. Whether Chief Oh realised it or not, he was the Guardian Angel of Jang Geu Rae (and all the other newbies, actually) at the office, and I love that. I love how he was always there to guide Jang Geu Rae, to help give context to the office world, to fill in the blanks, to demystify confusions, to colour inside the lines. He was exactly what Jang Geu Rae needed, exactly when Jang Geu Rae needed it. I don't know how to put it in a way that doesn't sound like a love story hahaha but it's not a love story!!! Yet seeing Jang Geu Rae cling to the little bits of affection that Chief Oh threw his way sent my heart fluttering the way it usually does with romance KDramas.

Kim Dong Shik was nothing short of spectacular too, but his character isn't one that I like totally, immediately. His decision to help Jang Geu Rae on the first day in the office laid a solid foundation for my trust in him. His continual support and loyalty for Chief Oh, and his blooming hyung-dongsaeng relationship with Jang Geu Rae made for strong pillars. But it was when he disagreed with Chief Oh's view to take on the old Jordan project and he voiced his honest concerns yet he still obeyed & followed Chief Oh's lead, that sealed the deal for me. This is a man who's not merely a blind follower, but a faithful supporter in its truest sense. Despite everyone telling him that Chief Oh was weighing him down when he should be on a higher rank, despite everyone telling him that he deserved to be in a better team, he stood unwavering by Chief Oh's side in Sales Team 3, cheering him on tirelessly. Suchhhhh a charming character! And I can't imagine a better assistant to complement Chief Oh, their dynamics work like a well oiled engine roaring to life.

Harsh realities of South Korea's office politics
Misaeng shed light on sensitive issues - from sexism, hierarchy, corruption, alcoholism, favouritism - and handled them in a delicate manner: exposing, probing, but not inciting malice. It honestly scares me to realise how prevalent these things are in South Korea. I'm sure they're pervasive still in other parts of the world, but in Misaeng they were laced with discomforting nuances, suggesting that they're not just existent in the office settings, but in fact growing in existence. Maybe it's because I come from an Asian country myself, these nuances speak a lot more to me. But like I said, the issues were tackled cleverly. 

I admire Young Yi for not lashing out in the first instance when the other men in her team looked down on her because she's a woman. Any woman of the 21st century in her position would have immediately arched her spine and barked back at the men, demanding the respect that they deserve, but Young Yi knew better than to act on reflex. She's wise enough to know that this problem is a deep-seated ailment in society that cannot be remedied by simply talking some sense into the men. It's a problem so ingrained in their heads and their auditory canals, that whatever words she said wouldn't have gotten through the eardrum. So instead of talking the talk, Young Yi walked the walk. It may seem like she was retreating under the attack (in Baek Ki's eyes, at least), like she was stooping so low that she was treated like a maid by her team members, she even gave up on a project so her senior could take over (and steal the credits, essentially) but it's part of her strategy. Ultimately, her end goal was not to prove her capabilities, but to prove her worth as an individual and her willingness to contribute to the team. She was trying to show that she could be a team member, not just an office worker, and I think that's pretty damn amazing. It worked, albeit rather slowly but surely, it worked. She showed that her soft-heartedness & kindness were not her weaknesses. This resulted in her team members recognising her as an active role player and becoming protective of her when she was being abused by the sexist Head Of Department.

I disliked Assistant Manager Ha at the beginning, good God I hated him, and I told myself nothing he does will ever change my view of how misogynistic he is, but Misaeng has a way of changing my heart about its characters, and it does so without being ostentatious. Because hey, no one turns a saint overnight. The amount of hatred I harboured for Assistant Manager Ha at the beginning was slightly reduced as I found him endearing, sitting across Young Yi during a coffee break in the final episode.

Though the other newbies stood in solidarity with Young Yi all the while, it's nothing quite like having another woman's support to keep her going. The toilet scene where Young Yi broke down from the mistreatment from her team members & Director Sun sighed in her struggle of being a working mum, it's a juxtaposition of two women faced with differing challenges stemming from the same root cause - their gender. They looked at each other knowingly, though no one could offer any form of solution to another, the very fact that they silently had each other's backs was enough of solace to keep them going. It's a good reminder that women should stick together, empower one another, always and forever!!

Alcohol/drunk scenes in most KDramas I've watched are always utilised as an excuse for unintentional, slurry confessions & half-hearted kisses, followed by piggyback rides home (if you've watched KDramas for long enough, you'd know the drill). But in Misaeng, the drunk scenes were never associated with any of those (okay, well, maybe one time, when Chief Oh referred to Jang Geu Rae as "our kid". Even I felt giddy inside!!!). In fact, Misaeng kind of touch based on alcoholism, as in the addiction to alcohol, something that most of the characters resort to as a coping mechanism and to pave the way to the heart of a potential business partner/dealer/whatever. 

I wonder if this is really the norm of working people in Korea? Downing soju almost every evening after work and passing out flat and waking up to continue working and repeating the whole damn cycle? In a way, I feel like the people in Misaeng deserved it. Especially Jang Geu Rae. I mean, every episode felt like I'm shadowing him closely in the office, watching his ever so subtle microexpressions, experiencing his ostracism, feeling his inferiority & his desperation to belong, that at the end of his long day, I felt like I myself needed to drink the stress away (even though I don't drink). But I can't help but constantly be on the lookout for possible liver cirrhosis/cancer diagnoses in the drama because that amount of alcohol ought to do some damage to their livers!!! Chief Oh was at the top of my worries, considering he's been working for a long time (thus, drinking for a long time), but I was concerned of Jang Geu Rae too. Yes I know he looks like an adorable puppy when he's drunk but I don't want him to get accustomed to the drinking habit shared by his colleagues!!!

Drunk but ughh PUPPYYYYY

Drunk but ughh ADORBSSSSS

Misaeng: incomplete life
Im Shi Wan, who played Jang Geu Rae, is all sorts of marvelous. The superb directing & cinematography help to accentuate Jang Geu Rae's microexpressions - the slightest quiver in his speech, the small smile, the gulp, the uncertainty in his slow response. 

I like both Im Shi Wan the actor (he kind of reminds me of Jin from BTS!) and Jang Geu Rae the character. Jang Geu Rae is an absolute underdog, like the underdog of all underdogs, he's a tragic character that is a victim of difficult circumstances who never once blamed his circumstances, but pinned his failure to his inadequate effort. Aww man. I didn't have a choice, I had to root for him!!! He had this glazed over look on his face most of the time and it just makes me want to scoop him into my pocket & feed him cookies & protect him at all costs. But when he's given a task and he put his mind to it, I have the maternal instinct to send him out to battlefield (with flying kisses and packed lunch, of course) and watch as he rose to the challenge & surpassed it!!!

I think anyone and everyone wouldn't encounter any difficulties to emphatise with Jang Geu Rae. Misaeng is not your typical zero to hero story where the main character gets stuck in a 20-minute hardship and then emerges out to a happy ending with a spirit-burning thematic music in the background. Misaeng shows the up, down, up, down, down, plateau, up, down, plateau, down, down, up of Jang Geu Rae's life as he learnt to navigate his way through the convoluted office politics. It painsssss me to see how inadequate Jang Geu Rae felt and, let's face it, how inadequate Jang Geu Rae was. He really was inadequate. He lacked the exposure, knowledge, and credentials that the other newbies had. He stepped into the office equipped only with the lessons he got from Baduk & a little intuition, but it's intriguing to see how he always managed to identify the parallels between his real life & Baduk and apply his Baduk philosophies in the office tasks, even in the most basic ones like organising files & folders in the thumbdrive. My favourite of all his Baduk musings would be the idea of misaeng itself, which means incomplete life, and his analogy that even if you lose a stone, the game goes on. That's life, isn't it? It's a work in progress, our lives are yet to be complete, and the game is still running, so the only way out is forward. In the world of office politics and corporate world, surviving equals winning. Jang Geu Rae may seem like a pushover at times, like he genuinely doesn't mind being trampled over, and I think I can understand where he's coming from, but he had the tenacity and the vigour to learn. And he was humble enough to learn regardless of who's teaching him the lesson - be it Chief Oh, Assistant Manager Kim Dong Shik, or even that IT guy whose name has escaped my mind. It's his sincerity and humbleness that elevates him and makes him all the more lovable.

Misaeng's stupendous writing is such that one needs not be a Baduk player to relate to Jang Geu Rae's monologues and to feel his agony of not being at par with the other newbies and to celebrate his little triumphs (like being called "our kid" by Chief Oh!!! Swoooon!). One only needs to be a regular human being, because aren't we all Jang Geu Raes, deep down inside? Or weren't we, at some point in our lives? Haven't we all felt inferior and been the brunt of a joke? A regular human being, that's all it takes to be to fully immerse one's self in Jang Geu Rae's story. However, I still wish I understand & play Baduk though, so that I could appreciate the little overtones better. The Geu Rae = okay wordplay makes me giggle every single time, but that's because I understand a little bit of Korean, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to truly make sense of the subtitles. 

Humans are complex
Misaeng's brilliance is its storytelling that encompasses office life of our characters and the homes that they go back to at the end of the day (if they do get home, that is). It forces one to pay attention to the characters' emotional and psychological states, which are a lot more complex than the mundane office setting suggests. Misaeng reiterates, over and over again, that humans are individually complex, and everyone is fighting their own battle. Jang Geu Rae's a late bloomer who's just starting to get his life together and taking his time experiencing the various tastes of adult life, yet his relatives' indirect insults thrown on his mother makes him desperate to expedite the process so that he can prove them all wrong & save his mother's face. Chief Oh's a team leader who's not climbing up the ranks as quickly as his colleagues because oftentimes the opportunity to do so presented in a way that compromised his morals & beliefs, and being the good guy that he is, he chose to stick by his principles. But he's also a family leader that's trying to get by & pay the bills & care for his children. A stressful day at the office can sometimes make him less likeable, as a husband and a father, but he's doing his best, Misaeng highlights that. The characters in this drama convey messages that apply beyond the four edges of the office desk; they're the kinds of messages that each of us can take home & contemplate on. 

Jang Baek Ki's struggles hit close to home for me, not because he's played by the ever so talented Kang Haneul... Oh what the hell, who am I kidding, of course it's largely due to Kang Haneul. Not gonna lie, he's a fine specimen of men in office wear, period.

But it's also because I see bits of myself in him and him in me. This is a guy who took the template Right road in life - went to the right school, befriended the right people (read: connections), got the right grades, gave presentations in the right way. He must have been a superstar in his schooling & college years, yet he somehow found himself slowly falling into mediocrity in the office. For every one step he made forward in the game of office, he noticed that Jang Geu Rade would have advanced 5 steps. This, this is where I see myself in him. He's so, how Chinese people would say it, kiasu. Everything was a competition to him, and he wanted to come out first, no less. He didn't want to be good, he wanted to be the best. And he couldn't for the life of him find it in himself to be genuinely happy for another friend's achievements. 

My best guess is he wasn't used to not being the centre of attention, so the idea that Jang Geu Rae was out there, with far less accomplishments than him, being celebrated in choirs of praises by the other seniors at the office, was foreign to him. I'm glad he finally managed to wrap his head around the idea in the end, when he realised that what matters isn't finishing the race first (heck, it isn't even a race) but making progress at his own pace. He learnt the basics of working life - humbleness - and from there, it enabled him to learn how to share the spotlight with the rest of the newbies.

Team Newbies!!

Masterful directing, cinematography, writing, music, everything!
I felt like it was an honour to watch Misaeng, because this is a byproduct of labour, love, skills, and attention to details. Everything was executed to perfection by the deftest of hands. Who knew I'd tear up multiple times watching a drama about office life?! It's the realness of working life that Misaeng captures and delivers so well that stings, in a good way I mean. From the stress to the dry humour, Misaeng is an ode to the part of life that no one really acknowledges/talks about. It's a celebration of some sort for the unsung heroes clad not in a red cape, but white collars and sunken eyes. I found out that this drama was so raved about during its time, and it is, no question, deserving of all of its accolades.

Misaeng successfully lands itself in my list of Top KDramas, along with Healer, Signal, City Hunter, and Sungkyunkwan Scandal. Thanks again, Ammelia, for urging me to watch this. I have no regrets ;)


  1. I LOVE Misaeng! I can see we have quite the same taste in Korean drama! I love your top KDramas list!

    1. It's so good isn't it?? Hehe, thank you. What are your top KDramas?

  2. I am one month late but ahhhh I la la love your review on this awesome drama!!!! Kinda makes me want to rewatch it again haha