Drama Review: Taking the Path Less Traveled: The “Misaeng” Journey

This review was written for and appeared in the Korean Quarterly

Do you (or have you) work in the corporate world in a “cubicle farm,” or do you love someone who goes into the office day after day? Perhaps you’re in the medical field, and fight a never-ending battle every shift to see to the welfare of your patients.

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Do you go to school, and crack the books night after night to keep on top of each day’s lessons, or do you watch over someone who does?

Is your daily life a harried blend of chores and obligations, with just enough sunshine to keep you emotionally fueled and able to continue?

Have you ever felt that you were an outsider and were challenged to find ways to fit in, or have you seen others on the outside and witnessed their efforts?

If so, then the special 10th anniversary drama from the Korean cable channel tvN, “Misaeng” will touch you and inspire you!

“Misaeng,” translated as an “incomplete life,” or one that is not yet lived, takes its characters on voyages of discovery, as they seek the paths that will lead each to find his or her own place in life, and fulfillment.

Adapted from a South Korean manhwa series (which has also enjoyed success as a webtoon and feature film), “Misaeng” resonates with young and old alike, salarymen and students, their partners and parents, because of the universal nature of its tale.

On paper, to read a synopsis of “Misaeng” one would not automatically put it on a list of ‘must-see TV.’ Four young people begin work at a major international trading firm, learning how to succeed in their roles and to contribute to the success of the company, even as they learn to deal with the bureaucracies of corporate life. Along the way they cope with demanding bosses, unfair practices, and grueling work routines, earning little praise and even less respect. Put like that, it might seem like “Misaeng” is too much like sitting through a multi-hour meeting on health and welfare benefits at work (or any other topic sure to be of little interest), but this could not be further from the truth! The reason for the phenomenal success of the story in all its iterations is because it tells the story in such a way that can recognize the central figures, and identify with them.

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Although “Misaeng” benefits from a strong, poignant story, its greatest success has to be attributed to the perfect casting of its ensemble, from the main characters down to the supporting roles. It’s very easy to build cartoon-like caricatures of the various archetypes found in the workplace – the petty, the vindictive, the power-hungry, the shallow, the shifty, the shirkers, and even the good, solid performers – but this is never the case in “Misaeng.” As someone who’s worked for companies of all sizes for over three decades, this writer saw in the employees of the fictitious One International the faces and personalities of past and present colleagues and competitors. But as strong as the ensemble is, the characters at the core of “Misaeng” were perfectly cast, and unforgettable in their performances.

Predominantly, this is the story of two pivotal characters; the young contract employee Jang Geu-rae, and the experienced manager Oh Sang-shik, and the performances of Im Si-wan and Lee Sung-min respectively where especially memorable, for the intensity and commitment they brought to their creation of two characters who will leave a lasting impression.

Im Si-wan, according to the drama’s director, Kim Won-suk, had two characteristics that were pivotal to his casting as Jang Geu-rae. He was the right age (and the advantage of having played the same character in the feature film “prequel” of the story), but even more importantly he was able to convey the naiveté and purity of expression that makes the character able to let the audience experience Jang Geu-rae’s story through his eyes. Si-wan Im manages to convey with his bambi eyes, desperation, naiveté, anger (able, amazingly, to flush with embarrassment, humiliation, or anger just enough on camera), and gratefulness, and you can taste – it’s so palpable, so genuine – his character’s social awkwardness and isolation. When the PR machines crank out stories of ‘breakout roles, years, or actors,’ his name must be at the top of those lists.

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The story begins as Jang Geu-rae is accepted at One International, thanks to his mother having finally asked an influential friend for help, as an intern, although he has no credentials other than a GED. This is because from early childhood he was a prodigy at the game of baduk, to the exclusion of all else.

Because he has so little understanding of how to function in a corporate environment, he can only draw on the logic and strategies of his baduk training, and it’s just enough to win him a contract position, and as a ‘nakasan,’ or ‘parachute’ at that, someone who has been ‘airlifted’ into a position thanks to influence. He is assigned to Sales Team 3, but as a contract worker, he has even less status than a lowly new hire as his contract is for a fixed two-year position.

Jang Geu-rae begins life on Sales Team 3 not knowing how to work a photocopier, or structure data into a conventional folder architecture (choosing to use his own logic to create a unique architecture based on thematic groupings – logical, but not according to the company manual). And who knew that there are corporate guidelines for this kind of thing? Apparently there are regulations at One International (and presumably other Korean corporations) on everything from how to create a standard file architecture to the exact way a project presentation must look and be delivered! The One International company manual must fill thousands of pages, but Jang Geu-rae consumes it, and the various trade dictionaries, as he sets himself on a mission to fill in his gaps and find purpose in his new life. Most importantly, he searches for a way to belong somewhere, to be a part of the world, whereas previously he’d lived an isolated life, so extremely narrow in its focus that he counts no one as a friend.

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At One International, he finds those friends, slowly, uncertainly, in the form of three other newcomers to the company. In Ahn Yeong-yi, the lone female new-hire, he becomes her “duckling” his first day, as he instantly recognizes that she possesses skills (in languages) that set her far above him. Played by Kang So-ra, Ahn Yeong-yi is gifted, the brightest of the new interns, a linguist (exceptionally convincing Russian skills on display), with an innate understanding of the business environment, but the major disadvantage of being a woman in a very sexist and hostile environment. She comes to admire the diligence with which Jang Geu-rae overcomes his lack of training and supports him in his efforts, to the jealousy of fellow intern Jang Baek-ki, played by Kang Ha-neul. While Jang Baek-ki is intellectually the top of the class, he’s lacking in empathy, so he’s reluctant to include the scholastically inferior Jang Geu-rae into the circle (especially as it seems to him that Yeong-yi is far too solicitous!)

The fourth member of the circle is the intern from a working class background; his family has strong ties to the manufacturing side of One International, so his understanding of solidarity and teamwork is exceptional – it’s just that his personality is a little over-the-top for most. And, Han Suk-ryul (brought to life with playful energy by Byun Yo-han) has another exceptional skill: a nose for news (or gossip), the pursuit of which has him popping up with tasty tidbits of information on a regular basis. Won over by Jang Geu-rae’s ability to articulate how important Suk-ryul’s roots in the working class are and will be to his future in the office world during the internship challenges, he’s one of Geu-rae’s staunchest supporters, though to be fair, at times he’s hard for Geu-rae to cope with, being as outgoing and ‘hands-on’ as Geu-rae has been solitary and introverted.

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There is another member of this core ensemble that deserves especial notice as well; Assistant Manager of Sales Team 3, Kim Dong-shik. Kim Dae-myung brings him to life as a tall, curly-headed and slightly dumpy salaryman. Kim used his background in film and stage, and especially improvisation to great effect in his role as Gue-rae’s immediate supervisor. Scenes featuring Kim Dong-shik flow with the natural give-and-take of the office place. What’s especially gratifying about his character is his very normalcy; and that he’s not some cartoonish buffoon (given his appearance), nor a cardboard villain (often the case in an office setting), but a genuine, likeable human who works hard, who scolds when scolding is deserved, but who takes the time to instruct after the scolding. You pray for a manager like him.

And you especially hope that you’ll work for a man like Manager Oh Sang-shik! Completing the circle of friends and colleagues is the leader of Sales Team 3, Oh Sang-shik, a man who carries the pressures of a demanding business, the burden of principles in a business that often turns a blind eye to guan-xi (the custom of bribes in doing business in China) and kick-backs, and the weight of past failures on his shoulders. Lee Sung-min burns with passion and intensity in this role, and at times makes you fear for his health, as he appears to be under great physical stress throughout the story. But he also manages to portray a man of great strength and integrity, capable of tackling any challenge, even if he is privately fearful of any consequences.

Manager Oh is not delighted to have a ‘nakasan’ with only a GED come to his team, not when they’re so short-staffed as it is, and he demands that Jang Geu-rae ‘seduce’ him during their first conversation; why should he give him a chance? Both skeptical, but also pleased by the response given, he takes the young man under his wing and becomes a mentor, a friend, and surrogate father figure to Geu-rae.

It’s clear that Geu-rae has led an ‘incomplete life’ to this point, as he’s young and inexperienced. It’s natural that we should see him grow and discover new things, and learn to find his own place in this world. Everything heretofore has been ‘him versus a single opponent’ in his game training, so isolated and internalized that the use of the word “we” brings him the greatest, most unimaginable joy. But his is not the only incomplete life in “Misaeng.” In his early forties, Manager Oh, with his three healthy, lively boys, a wife who takes care of him and is a partner in their relationship, and his challenging career might be said to have a very fulfilling life, with little else needed to complete it, but as you’ll learn, there are roads yet untaken by Oh Sang-shik as well. His choices, and those of his team, are powerful experiences.

Even if there doesn’t seem like there would be a lot of compelling action in a workplace drama that is just a workplace drama, but there is!

A friend in an online drama discussion forum asked if the reason that I found “Misaeng” so compelling was because of the actors and their performances, or the plot, and the simple truth is that it is both, definitely both.

It offers such insights into the workplace in South Korea, which is both fascinating and depressing. There was also a great deal of curiosity as to whether or not some behaviors in “Misaeng” were realistic, and judging by the responses, they are for the most part based in truth.

In some ways, the workplace of One International (and other corporations) seems akin to medical residency – only rather than just 36 hours of being on-call, it is six days! A boss who hits his employee (a character is cut by papers tossed in the face and another burned by scalding coffee thrown in rebuke) might get called up on it and reprimanded in the form of a docking of pay in the corporate environment, or not, if the employee needs a job he won’t say anything. A woman in the workplace can be seen as a decorative object or a temporary placeholder (as she should leave and start a family) taking the rightful position of a man.

Judging by how very popular this drama has been with the working population, it’s hit very, very close to home. This is no comedy workplace, or one where people act like they’re in a training film to be held up as a shining example of “This Is How We Work”; it is fascinating.

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It may seem hard to believe that the drama around putting together a presentation on a project proposal can have such emotion to it and not be a snooze fest, but as I was watching this I felt very strongly as if I was part of their team, urging them towards success (and wishing that I could lend a hand and improve the visuals of their PowerPoint presentation as it’s part of my own work life!)

In spite of the fact that this workplace is in some ways far different than the ones you and I know, there are many more in which its familiarity made “Misaeng” feel recognizable, genuine, plausible, and very emotional. I did not roll my eyes once (except in frustration at the pettiness of the management weasels), nor did I feel that our heroes took miraculous shortcuts to achieve their successes. When they appear to have ‘pulled the rabbit out of the hat,’ it was really the result of many hours of hard labor and dogged effort, not because the magic script fairy blessed them with moments of mythical geenius inspiration.

Every time I thought, “Oh, so now’s the time when this guy is going to turn petty, or vindictive, or stab someone in the back,” what really happens managed to surprise me. Sure, there are some feel-good moments, but these are plot-driven, completely believable, and well deserved.

One thing you may have noticed receives no mention in this review, and that is romance. This is not a story built on the conventional lines of “boy meets girl” and they fall in love and save the world. If that is what you’re looking for, you may be disappointed, but I urge you to give this drama a chance. You may also be thinking, “I work 40 hours a week as it is, why do I want to watch a drama that makes me relive my daily hours of tedium/frustration/etc.?” Or perhaps you might have other concerns, such as, “What do I know about this world, or care about this kind of story?” The best answer is one that is delivered by Jang Geu-rae in a challenge to the interns; in it he eloquently defends the value of all who labor with pride in their daily work, who give and receive, and who are part of an interlocking network of providers and suppliers. In the business world this sounds pretty cold and efficient, but in the human world, it’s one of interpersonal relationships where we give and receive trust and respect, learn to admire and love, are burned by those who are our enemies (large and small) and either find a way to defeat them, or find solace. Like Jang Geu-rae and Manager Oh, and all the rest of the team at One International, we take those paths that will complete our incomplete lives. And, if we’re lucky, we learn much along the way and are rewarded for our efforts.

Note: If possible, this review should end with the poem that closes the final episode of “Misaeng,” Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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