Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Drama Review: Misaeng


It's better late than never, especially true when a work is fantastic. And it seems like, for 2014, nothing was better than the tvN cable drama Misaeng (aside from It's Okay, That's Love but I'm not the consensus it seems). This was the drama that took Korea by storm, turning usually drama-ignorant citizens into fervent weekly watchers. The drama diverges from the usual light-hearted rom-com fare and instead situated itself into the grueling world of corporate life. The title says it all. Misaeng means incomplete life, and through this drama, it has been nothing but confirmed. While the stories were often debilitating, the satisfaction level proved it to be worthwhile.

Misaeng is a story of corporate office workers in the fictional trading company One International, but mostly rotates around Jang Geu-rae (Im Si-wan). He was once a promising baduk/Go player who had to quit due to family circumstances. Despite only holding a GED, Geu-rae was able to secure an internship spot in One International. There he was positioned in Sales Team 3 alongside the rather stilted Manager Oh (Lee Sung-min) and hardworking Assistant Manager Kim (Kim Dae-myung). To everyone's surprise, Geu-rae was selected as an employee, albeit a contractual one, again placed in the same team, much to Manager Oh's dismay. Alongside Geu-rae, other recruited interns include the "elite" Jang Baek-ki (Kang Ha-neul), the capable Ahn Young-yi (Kang So-ra), and the flamboyant Han Seok-yul (Byun Yo-han). Misaeng follows the lives of these employees, alongside many other figures in the One International company, as they tread their ways through the ups and downs of corporate life.


Compared to other "traditional" dramas, Misaeng is the black sheep. It's low on the romantic scale, it utilizes drama of a different frequency, the characters are relatively average. It was so different from all the other dramas. Yet this is why it's so popular among fans and is critically successful. It doesn't retort to cheap tricks to squeeze out manipulated emotions from its viewers. The drama is even shot like a mockumentary, making the reality level even higher than most. Misaeng is relatable, and not a lot of dramas can say that about itself.

Just looking at the format of Misaeng you can see that it's different. Misaeng doesn't have a singular plot line, instead uses more episodic stories strung by a loose encompassing plot string. It reminds me a lot of the American drama format, and this isn't a bad thing. I've always complained about lack of actual story that many dramas have, with a 16-hour (and sometimes more) playtime just too much for what's actually a simple story. Just to be fair, Misaeng doesn't exactly have the most complicated plot out there. It's pretty straight forward; a team needs to find an item, everyone gets busy, there's one hurdle, someone gets pissed off, another person finds a solution, results may vary. But one dilemma is only discussed within one or two episodes and then it's done. The aftermath can be felt in subsequent episodes, but they don't dwell on the same case for more than a couple of episodes, so the story continues.


The reason why Misaeng was able to execute this so perfectly without feeling redundant is because it's not a plot-driven story. There isn't a finish line these characters have to reach. They're just going by their everyday lives. But these little occurrences affect each character in a unique and meaningful way. The series takes place mostly within a two year period, the length of Geu-rae's contract. Within those two years, these characters grow. From the tight-knit newbies group, to the energetic Assistant Managers, the oft-stressed Managers, all the way to the executives level, through their own trials and tribulations these people grow. Add on to the fact that many of them are so endearing, their every hurdle they pass feels like a personal success for the viewer.

On top of that, I love the complicated relationships every character have with each other. It's not the straight forward I love/hate you. Some characters are downright evil (talking to you, Mr. Ma), some are meant to be loved (like Head Chief Seon). Others, you can't really place your fingers on. Like the members of the Resources team, or many of the newbies' training managers. Even the great Manager Oh does questionable things sometimes (as do many of the usually lovable characters). There are also a complicated and rather subdued love lines. Most of them involve Young-yi, being she the only main female character. But again, it's all subtle. For instance, did you know that Assistant Manager Ha was supposed to have a love line with Young-yi?  That's why there's all that tension between them, one that's more than pure jealousy. It wasn't an obvious expression of emotions which made for a very layered and interesting interaction between the characters. This wouldn't be something you see in the more traditional dramas.


Those complicated relationships are due a lot to the fantastic acting by every single cast member. There really isn't anyone, lead, supporting, recurring, or cameo, that did anything less than wonderful. It may not be surprising that many of the cast members, who drama fans have never seen before, are active members of the theater community. I've heard that theater is the actor's playground and these guys are very good. The highlight is of course Oh Sang-sik, played by the wonderful Lee Sung-min. He's usually that guy you see often in movies but don't really remember. But here, he was the shining star. Geu-rae might be the central character, but it was mostly Manager Oh's ride, and what a ride it was. It was also a roller coaster for Seok-yul, played amazingly by indie actor Byun Yo-han. Out of all the newbies, Seok-yul went through the greatest ups and downs and Byun was able to guide us into the storm inside him while still retaining his cheeky attitude.

While all these things make for a fantastic show, and I've grown fond of many of their characters, it won't be a drama I'm willing to re-watch. The reasons for that is mostly personal. I'm not the biggest fan of the corporate world. Then again, who is? I took a break from watching it due to feeling very uncomfortable with the whole situation. Maybe it's just me, but I don't like to bring my work stress back home and have it replay in a drama. I get that now office workers get a representative drama that depicts them in the most realistic way possible. But perhaps it's a bit too realistic for me. I'll probably watch Season 2 though, if and only if it involves the original cast (at least Sales Team 3 and the newbies).


Also, Geu-rae is, for a lack of better word, a unicorn. Out of the many colorful figures that strut their way through this drama, the main character is the one you'd least likely to see in real life. He's someone who possesses the intelligence but lacks the knowledge, making him the dark horse in One International. That's not to say that he wasn't a well written character, because he is. He doesn't always get his shining moment of glory and he fails just as often as the others. But his circumstances are ones that you'll see mostly on screen than in real life. He also makes me feel like a loser sometimes which I don't really enjoy.

But really, the complaints are still very few. Misaeng was truly a well crafted drama that you don't see all too often. Again, tvN has proven that they're one of the best channels for dramas today, airing some of the most thoughtful, interesting, and worthy dramas in recent times. If the new trend of dramas included meaningful stories, then I'm on board.

1 comment:

  1. I really loved this drama. At moments I felt my life was not as real as this show.Everything was really well depicted. Also as far as i know there hasn't been any drama as real as this one. All we expect from office like shows is comedy or romance and it was none which really caught me by surprise.I have seen many korean shows by now, but almost every story felt like it could have been told in 3-4 less episodes(I generally binge watch so that maybe the reason but I really feel quality shouldn't be compromised) and the quality show could have been better but this show was like a diamond from top to bottom, i loved it's every episode. Frankily I have never seen anything quite like it. I have watched many many English shows and Korean dramas and other shows from many nations as well. There are quite a bit of shows I like from English precisely because of the reason that they have quality content well spread out within that 45 minutes duration and also give a reason to watch their next episode at the end by disclosing a part of the mystery which makes me wonder about them for quiet a lot.But in case of korean shows most of the time the whole plot can be predicted with very slight deviations which turns me off a bit.Coming back to this show, it held itself pretty well in all aspects that concerns me and delivered better and better each episode.

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