Drama review: Misaeng (2014)

I watched this on a whim seeing some positive reviews online. My presumption was this would be about ho-hum office politics and who has time for that? Though I loved how the show’s title sounded. Misaeng. So succinct.

Imagine my surprise when the show opens with a spy chase scene in Jordan (of all places), and when we switch to the office setting I find myself violently empathising with the protagonist. It didn’t help that I was madly sympathising with him as well; all the while resisting the siren call of that feeling which teeters between an urge to kiss and protect.

Why was this poor duckling sent into this cruel sea of corporate thuggery? Why does Duckie’s CV look so scarily holey? Don’t tell me he was a spy! (What was that opening scene all about?) And who is this actor who plays him? I’ve never heard of Im Si Wan but he plays Geu Rae with such precious vulnerability. His face reminds me of the old Jung Il-Woo of the High Kick days. His voice as we hear his deep monologues does something to my heart and it makes me want to cry. Heck, it makes me cry.

The way he gets buffeted here and there unsure how to do simple things and the way others laugh at him make me want to punch all those who victimise him. When he overhears colleagues back-stabbing, and especially on his tired, lonely walk back home I want to walk beside him so he’ll know someone cares. And that oversized Daddy suit. Augh, the suit kills me, too. Yet I sense that he’s not all that fragile and has a core to him that’s something between malleable pride and grit.

I mean, the guy starts the show saying, “A path on which you can’t move forward is not a path.” If that isn’t determination for you then I don’t know what is. Yet he is a straggler to the world in every sense of that word because for 10 years he’s dedicated his life to baduk and had to give it up because his dad died and he had to help his mom earn money.

So now he’s let his dream die and does menial chores to remain alive. This guy, whose friends say he always sees things through, gave up on the one thing that mattered the most to him. This guy who works all day, every day, says that the world abandoned him because he didn’t work hard enough! How much more of sweat, tears and desperation need he shed until his efforts get noticed? How much longer till he goes a bit easy on himself?

Oh boy! If Geu Rae makes me tear up, he and his mom make me fight a hard ball of choky feelings in my throat as I try not to give in to some ugly sobbing. All their scenes have so much heart and there’s so much unsaid and said and so much love. It’s perfect.

So you have Geu Rae (Which sounds like ku rae? Even his name sounds like an existential joke as if life were challenging him with a smirking dare.) who sees patterns in things, people, and the world around him just like the board of baduk that he loves so much.

Baduk, whose precise rules he uses in almost all situations. He’s a strategist even though he may stumble and fumble; and he’s a quick learner who keeps at things until he gets ‘em right, pride be damned. He may be a strategist but he’s not the one who favours cold logic. His way is the way of the heart. A big dollop of it. He’s also a persuasive bastard. See how he won that PT challenge’s second round? He understands people. So it’s a good thing he’s on the Sales team, is all I’m saying.

If I sound like I’m ga-ga over Geu Rae, you would be right. And wrong. Because the other characters are equally compelling. Do I hear you say, “GKu rae?”

There’s Lee Sung Min (Hi, King Jae Kang!) as Manager Oh who looks like an overworked drunkard which is basically what he seems to be. But he’s also an idealistic overworked drunkard who just happens to have a chockfull of pride that he can be drunk on more than the liquor he drinks every night after work.

Manager Oh is one of those loud guys who bulldoze you to do their bidding and who act so tough and rough that you’d think he ate rocks for breakfast. But as with all toughies, he seems to hide a soft heart that he rarely lets out. You can see it in the worried way he looks at a subordinate after he’s terrorized the living daylights out of them in a fit of rage.

In a show where so many characters act directly in contradiction to what they say, Manager Oh is no exception. He’s the guy who cares so much he’s terrified it’ll show, so he acts the opposite of how he feels. I love the dynamic of his relationship (if we can call it that) with Geu Rae which started on such a wrong footing, with him thinking the young one was a ‘parachute’ and coasting to the internship on somebody else’s laurels.

For a man who hates nepotism, Geu Rae seems to be everything that Manager Oh hates in the corporate world. Then later when he’s done being so hard on the boy and when he finds out how Geu Rae may not be that guilty after all, how he tries to help the kid all the while trying not to help the kid… it’s endearing and hilarious and sweet. He even trips Mr. Slimy Dog for Geu Rae. Ha! So pettily chivalrous.

Though I wonder about this overworked man — when does he have time for family?!! He seems to have 3 sons but he keeps that framed family pic on his office desk turned face down. Did you guys catch that moment in episode one when Geu Rae almost turned it right side up but got distracted?

I was pleasantly surprised by Kang So Ra as well. She speaks English (and Russian) with convincing confidence. But Young Yi’s introductory scenes threw me off as I scratched my head as to what in the name of what was the show trying to do. Yet the scenes highlighted how competent this woman is. She’s so put together, in the words of Manager Oh, “She’s suspicious.” Heh.

So far it’s always she who ends up seeing Geu Rae at his most vulnerable and humiliating moments. It’s also she who sees that this boy is not just a precious snowflake. “You’re comfortable eating alone,” she comments and coming from her this must be a compliment as she seems to have eaten every lunch at the office alone. No wonder as the boys there are too busy being alternately cut-throat and pervy to be good company.

Then there’s Baek Ki. Man, Kang Ha Neul, why do you go around playing the Nice Guy that makes me wonder, “Hm, are ya really nice or are ya playing nice?” He was like that in Monstar as well. Baek Ki tries so hard to be on Young Yi’s good books to repeated rebuffs, and he sees how easily, without even trying, Geu Rae manages to win her over. Should a predictable bout of devilry be in order for the unrequited piner? We shall see.

It’s like how Manager Oh judged him: “He pleases the brain but doesn’t touch the heart.” You may end up Mr. Nice after all, but for now I shall be suspicious of you and your smooth, calm ways. Good job, Kang Ha Neul.

Then there’s the Dog-boy, I mean, Han Seok Yul. Man, he’s hysterical. I love him. Not that the character is that morally upstanding and all that respectable, ahem, but he’s so entertaining. Who goes around patting girls’ bums all in the name of Textile Industry?

Cocky, slimy, with that silly laugh, that sticky self-satisfied grin, and a hand everyone seems to refuse to shake, what great fun to have him play off of our serious Geu Rae? And the hair. Don’t forget the hair. (He looks like Jang Geun Suk’s cousin.) That hair is priceless.

I love how during the presentation you see all that bravado and slick smooth-talking disappear and you see how much getting this job means to this kid. That moment when you learn how much he loved and respected and refused to feel shame for his menial job-holding dad is when you see the guy’s ‘calm centre’ — the part of him he keeps hidden beneath all that jazz of supposedly silly activities.

See how this show operates? It sets you up with a preconceived notion and prejudices against a character and lets you run away with that judgment, then it turns that thought around and makes you cry for someone you’d previously mocked.

Can I also say how much I like Asst. Manager Kim? This guy is so kind. That’s how I see him. Plus I love what the actor is doing with the role. I think he keeps on improvising his lines or ad-libbing because the camera seems to linger on him as he keeps muttering nonsense when his scenes would normally should have ended.

And the last of the interns: The one who seems to be the real parachute. Though I still think Geu Rae is also a parachute. Did I miss something in the plot? Anyway, even he has a story. He’s a new father with a newly married wife who’s also an over-tired, cranky, sleep-deprived mom.

The way the show gives us a glimpse of their life outside of the office makes my day!

Asianwiki tells me that this team consists of the director of Monstar (which I wrote about and broke up with last year) and the writer of Arang and the Magistrate (which I wrote and wrote about the year before). I think their paring is working really well. As I said during Monstar’s run how visual the show was and the director got us into the characters’ head, the same thing is happening here. He’s using the heart tugging backstories interspersed with the current moments to get us on the characters’ side.

And the best thing about Arang was its characters which is exactly what’s happening here. This writer seems to write a very talky script for her characters — people in Arang talked a lot to themselves — but here that’s used to a beautiful effect where Geu Rae’s deep thoughts are presented in moments that make you CRY. That’s another thing that’s common between Arang and this show: I am crying for and with the characters. Asianwiki also tells me that this show is 20 episodes long, and I can see that the episode lengths are uneven — the first was 1.5 hrs long and the rest are 1hr 5 mins to 1 hr 10. So I do fear that all this office talky might get a bit dreary or drearily meandering (Monstar), but that’s just my fear for the show.

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