This review was written for and appeared in the Korean Quarterly.
What’s a neuroses-riddled chaebol scion to do when everywhere he turns germs or ambitious rivals may be lurking? It turns out; he just needs a little protection!
2011 may be one of the finest in recent years in terms of Korean drama productions, and for rom-coms especially. “Protect the Boss” joins the list of entertaining titles like “My Princess,” “Flower Boy Ramyun Shop,” and “I Need Romance,” and goes to the head of the class with its sharp ensemble acting and clever storytelling.
From Gangster to Gal Friday
From the first episode the tone is set as characters are introduced, beginning with the pixie-like Kang-hee Choi as ex-bad girl Noh Eun-seol. It’s not easy living down a past as a gangster-like teen, but Eun-seol renounced those days and has since worked hard to remake herself and find a job in a white-collar world. (It’s too bad that leading a student strike doesn’t really demonstrate leadership qualities to most interviewers.) She’s gone from one unlikely prospect to another and her most current bad luck runs to a position in a very shady company. This employment misadventure will soon bring her into the orbit of our next protagonist.
Choi Kang-hee as Noh Eun-seol
Whereas Eun-seol has nothing but rotten luck in the job world, the same cannot be said for the aforementioned third-generation chaebol, Cha Ji-heon – unless you factor in that his golden job involves working for the family business, where he’s bullied by his father and dogged by his smart, ambitious cousin. Oh yes, and he is completely, excessively neurotic about an increasing list of hang-ups (cannot stand tissues lying on the ground!) Will the axiom about chaebol power and wealth being blown away by a third generation come true?
Playing against his usual manly type, Ji Sung manages to be immature, quirky, part manic, part obsessive, and surprisingly boyish – though he is saddled with an awful curly perm. His Ji-heon is a man trapped by responsibilities (and unnamed burdens); these pressures trigger his neurotic behavior and panic attacks. He either acts out, or fails to act as a company director ought, much to his father’s dismay.
Ji Sung as Cha Ji-heon
The third member of the ensemble is Ji-heon’s first cousin, Cha Moo-won. Played by Jaejoong Kim, best known as a member of the group JYJ, and formerly of DBSK, his Moo-won is suave, intelligent, dedicated to the business, and eager to put a stake in his cousin’s professional heart. He and Ji-heon take great pleasure in messing with each other and as the story heats up, their rivalry soars to new heights of comedic lunacy. He has the misfortune of being number two in contention for role as heir to head up the Cha business because his father died early, leaving his uncle to assume the leadership role.
Kim Jaejoong as Cha Moo-won
Through a set of unusual circumstances, leading to a spot of misfortune for Ji-heon’s father, Chairman Cha (in a very funny performance by Young-kyu Park), and for the company, a new position opens up at the company – as Ji-heon’s secretary. Eun-seol spots the chance and applies, but after being ignored (again), the girl who once led a student strike surges forward and she speaks her mind, knowing that she doesn’t stand a chance. Surprisingly, Moo-won is taken with her forthright attitude and senses something in her, some strength of character that he and others at the company can use. It’s also possible that he’s not just looking to use her strengths in a positive fashion; he may also be looking for someone he can manipulate in his ongoing battle for the chairman’s throne. He offers her the position and becomes, in her eyes, not Moo-won but “Moo-god.”
The Resourceful Human
As Ji-heon’s secretary, Eun-seol is challenged by his finicky ways – “You personally must clean the office, my call must be answered by the second ring” – but she quickly becomes his champion, taking his side in a startling elevator confrontation with his father. Chairman Cha is also amused by Eun-seol; perhaps it’s the recognition of one ex-gangster-like character to another. He demands that she do what needs to be done to whip his son into shape to become the heir to the role of chairman. In order to protect her job, it’s up to Eun-seol to indeed “protect the boss” by helping Ji-heon find a way to conquer his personal demons and as well to become the boss.
She becomes a mother, a friend, wise counsel, a sounding board, and a problem-solver. Resourceful and plucky, Eun-seol soon becomes his rock; then more like a “rock in his head,” so firmly is she embedded in his mind and heart. And Ji-heon learns that to protect his “boss,” he needs to become more of a man and less of a mouse and to stand on his own two feet.
Moo-won too is won over by Eun-seol’s forthright nature. Knowing that she has a crush on him, he uses this initially to his advantage as a way to push Ji-heon’s buttons. But what began as an attempt to control and manipulate his cousin turns into something unexpected. Once again he’s coming in number two to his rival and this is not where he wants to be. The question is, how will Eun-seol’s influence shape him? Will he give in to the push at home to sabotage Ji-heon?
A Perfect Foursome
The fourth member of the inner “square” of “Protect the Boss” joins the story a little later on; this is the woman who once broke Ji-heon’s heart, and did a number on Moo-won’s too. Seo Na-yoon marches back into Ji-heon’s life and wants to pick up where she left off, but he’s no longer interested. Thanks to Eun-seol, he’s making progress emotionally, though he’s not yet made the connection that Eun-seol is more than just an employee.
Wang Ji-hye as Seo Na-yoon
Immature, indulged, but surprisingly not mean-spirited, Ji-hye Wang’s Na-yoon is more than a little put out that Ji-heon can move on, and then even more so when Moo-won seems less inclined to be a party to her plan to make Ji-heon jealous by agreeing to an arranged match. What really surprises her is that plain, low-class Eun-seol appears to have both men jumping to pay attention, to the point of fisticuffs!
Fortunately, we’re treated to a character who is actually able to grow and learn from her experiences, and who quickly moves from seeing Eun-seol as a rival to a supportive friend. Her time spent taking shelter from her pushy mother in the tiny apartment shared by Eun-seol and her childhood pal Myung-ran (Jae-sook Ha in an amusing supporting role) has to count as some of the happiest days in her life and a real growth experience.
It’s delightful to spend time with characters who can be petty and jealous, but who can see their own bad behavior and repent. Na-yoon is a brat at times, but she’s got a really good heart, much to her mother’s chagrin.
Childish Plots a-Plenty
Along the way, the dynamic duo of Ji-heon and Eun-seol face a number of backroom dealings and plots hatched by Moo-won’s bitter mother. She will stop at little to make her son the one true heir. Played with a brittle intensity by Hwa-yun Cha, Shin Sook-hee engages in quarrels with her former brother-in-law with the same childish pettiness as seen in those between their two sons, and with equally hilarious results. She is a doting mother, a “Tiger Mother” you might say, and however spiteful and detrimental to the family her actions are, the trouble she causes is – in her eyes – in a just and rightful cause.
Of course, the Chairman doesn’t need anyone’s help to get into trouble; taking issue with the way his son was pushed around by some gangster bullies, he pulls on his black leather gloves and shows them who’s the boss – and ends up doing community service to atone for his sins! His long-suffering secretary Jang (Ha-kyun Kim) manages his agenda, protects his boss and does his best to guard the gruff, no-nonsense Chairman from further incident.
Elevator rides fraught with peril
In addition to exploring the romantic quadrangle, the drama mines comedy gold in the portrayal of the relationship between Chairman Cha and his mother, deftly played by veteran actress Young-ok Kim. Her son may be over 50, but he’s not too old to be taught a lesson, whether it is making sure to finish your meal so you don’t tempt Fate to leave you hungry or how to be a better parent. Trying to stem the tide of quarrels between her son and daughter-in-law keeps her busy in her retirement. Chairman Cha is often clueless with how to handle his sensitive son, but thanks to the efforts of Eun-seol he learns to stop shouting and make the office elevator a safer place to be.
A Personal Touch
One nice thing about “Protect the Boss” is that, even in creating somewhat broad characters, the writer has done a good job adding touches of personality here and there that it’s very easy to understand their actions and empathize.
Praise is due Kang-hee Choi for bringing to life a heroine that is so normal and unspoiled, as well as resourceful in a truly professional way. Ji Sung deserves applause as well for investing himself completely and showing a hero who can be both adorable and flawed, and who discovers courage in a realistic fashion.
When Eun-seol and Ji-heon fall in love, the care these two actors have taken in developing their characters lets us love them as a couple and believe that they love each other so sincerely.
Kudos is due as well to Jaejoong Kim for taking a chance and allowing himself to look perfectly ridiculous every time Moo-won tussles (with unseemly frequency) with cousin Ji-heon. There is not a character out of place in this drama, and that is not something that can often be said.
Ji-heon and Eun-seol
This is a well-balanced drama in every respect. Whether evaluating the cast (praised extensively in this review), or the writing that makes the characters come to life and behave in ways that touch you, there are exceptionally few weaknesses. And to this list I would be remiss if I did not mention the fine production values. They clearly took a lot of care with choosing the sets and locations as well – from Eun-seol’s cozy apartment to Ji-heon’s stark bedroom (complete with custom dartboard) to that lovely office wing that Moo-won and Ji-heon shared (with three other hoity-toity secretaries) – it all looked lovely and interesting.
Make time for this charming rom-com and, in addition to enjoying hours of entertainment, you’ll discover that sharing an elevator at the office with the company president will never be the same again!
Watch this drama on legal sites, like Dramafever.com.