My male students don’t usually talk about TV dramas but at the end of last year some of them started asking me if I was watching 미생 Misaeng – the tvN drama about the life of office workers in a trading company in Seoul. At the time I wasn’t watching it. Perhaps like many people, I didn’t think an office drama would be that interesting. Then I was an interviewer for the English speaking test for new employees at a large company and my Korean co-interviewer asked the interviewees which character in Misaeng they related to the most! Everyone seemed to be talking about it. And so I realised that I had to watch it.
And articles are still continuing to appear in the newspaper about it although it finished last December. It was incredibly popular for a Fri / Sat night drama reaching a viewer rating of 8.2% in its finale which is almost a record breaker for a cable channel. I watched it and I wasn’t disappointed. The realistic storylines and engaging characters make the drama surprisingly moving. I felt all sorts of emotions – I was angry, embarrassed, nervous, sad, relieved, and happy just for starters. And I spent a heck of a lot of time with my head in my hands, looking away, shouting at the screen, or just crying. I laughed some too. It’s so emotional.
The director Kim Won Suk said that he wanted to make housewives understand why their office worker husbands drink so much. And it seems to have worked because apparently wives have been calling up their husbands in tears after watching the drama and saying that they now realise why their husbands are so stressed out and drink so much!
In one excruciating episode, Sales Team 3 Head of Section Oh Sang Sik is trying to make a business deal and he realises that the client is someone who he knows. So he makes an appointment to see him and takes his newbie Jang Geu Rae with him. He is very cheerful and friendly when he sees his ‘friend’ but he receives a cold reception which is embarrassing for him. Mr Oh is disappointed and thinks he’s lost the contract. But then he gets a call from the guy who agrees to go out for dinner with him.
They meet and Mr Oh suggests a reasonably priced restaurant. But his business associate is not happy with the choice and insists they go to an (expensive) hostess club where he orders a (probably ridiculously expensive) bottle of whisky. They drink but Mr Oh is obviously mortified having a more modest expenses budget. But he has to keep smiling. They drink too much – the only food is a plate of fruit. They get drunk and he throws up when he gets home. But the worst is to come. The business associate was just playing with him. He just wanted to humiliate him and had no intention of doing business with him. Mr Oh doesn’t get the contract but gets a rolicking from his boss instead. That was hard to watch.
Jang Geu Rae (pictures tvN Misaeng official website )
The story covers the lives of the employees in a fictional trading company, One International which is based on Korea’s largest trading company Daewoo International (now a subsidiary of POSCO). The story is narrated by Jang Geu Rae, (played by boyband singer Yim Siwan) a young man who gets taken on as an intern at One International.
Jang Geu Rae comes from a poor family and didn’t go to university. The other interns and his coworkers know that he got the internship through a connection and they resent him for that. They think he must be lazy or thick since he only graduated from high school, but actually he spent all his time playing the board game Baduk and wanted to become a professional player. He is devastated that he couldn’t become a pro and at first is disappointed with himself thinking he has wasted all this time. But although he has no business experience and no university degree, he realises that the strategic and problem solving skills he learnt in Baduk help him navigate the complicated and competitive relationships in the world of business.
The drama shows in a realistic way all the different characters and issues that make up company life such as the stress of department heads, working mums, and newbies who have to find their place in the company working with new coworkers and under new bosses. Jang Geu Rae has to endure bullying by his fellow interns when they realise his background. But the tone to the drama can be poignant without being sickly sweet or cheesy.
THE MEANING OF MISAENG
Misaeng is a term used for a move in Baduk, (Go) the Korean board game. I think the term misaeng used outside the game of Baduk is a new thing. The hanja for Misaeng is 未生 and literally means an incomplete life or a life that hasn’t yet begun.
I take it to mean that you can’t have it all. Everyone’s life is misaeng (incomplete or not satisfactory) in some way. In clips released before the drama, the idea of misaeng is presented in different situations. The office worker who wants to go home as soon as he leaves his house in the morning to go to work! (above)
The working mother who comes home to find the apartment is in a mess and her husband lolling around on the sofa. (above) Jang Geu Rae works hard to become a baduk pro but due to his poor background has to give up the dream. I guess that’s misaeng.
Jang Geu Rae is placed in Sales team 3 where a lot of the story is based. But the drama is an ensemble piece with all the main characters having their own episodes showing the issues they have to deal with. New employee Han Suk-yool (number 1 above, played by Byun Yo-Han) is in the fibre team. He has a nasty and manipulative senior who makes him do all his work too. Jang Baek-ki (number 2, played by Kang Ha Neul) is in the Steel team but is bored and frustrated that even though he has a high level of education he is only given mundane tasks. An Young Yi ( number 3, played by Kang So-Ra) is the only female intern and she has to deal with sexual harassment as well as not being taken seriously even though she is more competent than many of the men. (maybe that’s the problem! 😉 )
The most compelling character and the one at the heart of the drama is Jang Geu Rae’s boss, the workaholic head of Sales team 3 Oh Sang Sik (played by Lee Sung Min). He always looks exhausted and dishevelled with a piece of hair sticking up at the back of his head as though he doesn’t even have time to sleep properly let alone tackle personal grooming. He is diligent and honest – but also stubborn and always goes by the book which leads his team into all sorts of hot water with other teams in the company. I’m sure many married female viewers can relate to his wife who shouts at him for staggering home so drunk that he has to crawl to the toilet to throw up and then is so tired / hungover all weekend that all he can do is lie sleeping on the sofa while his three sons play and his wife cleans up.
But there is a humanity and warmth about Oh Sang Sik which makes him so endearing. He supports his team no matter what and refers to Jang Geu Rae protectively as 우리 애 uri ae ‘our kid’, when others try to blame or punish him. Jang Geu Rae doesn’t want to leave this team as he feels that here he is part of a family and finally he is not alone.
Then there’s Sales Team 3 member Kim Dong-Sik (number 6 above, played by Kim Dae-Myung) with the soft voice and the curly hair who is still single and can’t get a girlfriend because he’s ‘too nice’! Sun Ji-Young (no 7, Shin Eun-Jung) is a working mother and has to balance work with motherhood, And Chun Gwan-Woong (no 8, Park Hae-Joon) is put in an awkward position when given an assignment from very senior management.
If Oh Sang Sik is the boss that everyone wants, then Department Head Ma is the boss that nobody wants – he’s sexist and physically and verbally abusive to his subordinates. Apparently in real life the actor Son Jong Hak is quite the opposite of the character he plays. But still, when the actor goes out to pubs for a drink, middle aged women (aka adjumma) come over to him demanding to know why he had to be so mean to everyone – especially sweet An Young Yi! 😀 (you’ve got to love the adjummas!)
Other minor characters appear fleetingly in the drama for just one episode or so. And then there are the colleagues from other teams who create the realistic office environment by ‘working’ all the time although they don’t have speaking parts. They often simply watch as sales team 3 go through another trauma!
MISAENG IS DIFFERENT TO A USUAL KOREAN DRAMA
It’s been described as an unusual Korean drama as it deals with economics and office politics. And there’s no romance. Also there is not one main protagonist. So the writers were told that the drama would never be popular.
But viewers loved it and many office workers say they can relate to the characters in the story which is based on a webtoon. The webtoon had to be adapted for drama but the director wanted to keep as closely to the webtoon as possible choosing actors who physically resembled the characters and developing conflicts without straying too far away from the original story. Keeping the story as realistic as possible was also important so the writers worked in a trading company for a month to understand how the company works.
Another unusual aspect of the drama is that it was the first Korean drama to have scenes shot in Jordan. The crew flew to Jordan with the actors to shoot the scenes and over 50 local extras were hired. A helicam was used to show air views of Jordan and Jordan was chosen as the drama is based on trading and Jordan was the centre of ancient trade. Here Oh Sang Sik tells Jang Geu Rae about the different roads that people can take in life as written by the Chinese writer Lu Xun. And they visit Al Khazneh, The Treasury, an elaborate temple in Petra – a must see tourist attraction for people visiting Jordan and the middle east.
The story is not incredible or out of this world. It’s not a fairytale – no rich handsome man comes to save the poor young woman from the misery of ordinary life. She just has to get on with it. As does everyone else. The bullying and sexism and favouritism that goes on in the office is a common part of life that most of us can relate to. So most of the time I had a tight stomach and a fast beating heart in anger at the unfairness of it all.
The relationships are very believable and the tension feels real. The director wanted to keep everything as real as possible, so characters who were not supposed to get on with each other in the office were told not to become friendly with each other off set! That way they would naturally be more nervous around each other. And once on set the actors always called each other by their character’s names not their real names. To make sure their acting was believable a business consultant was hired so that the actors could ask about how their character would act or speak in certain business situations since they hadn’t worked in an office before.
The quality of the drama is very high more like a movie and a filming director was used just like on a movie set. The office setting looks very realistic with details such as the items on the desks of each office worker being different and reflecting their personality. Close ups of post it notes on computers and business files have to be relevant. I’ve been in lots of different offices in Seoul teaching English and this is SO realistic.
The prop team visited a trading company to try to get the set as realistic as possible. The office interior has two identical sets – one by Seoul Station in Seoul Square and the other set was made at the Namyangju studios. The Seoul location had to be used for scenes that have shots looking out of the window across Seoul and for the roof scenes (above – that’s Seoul station below). The evening scenes with the sun setting are dramatic and reflect the long working hours. CG was also used to get a more realistic look.
Jang Geu Rae gets a pep talk on the roof from boss Oh Sang Sik
I think this drama is so relevant because getting a job at a large company in Korea is considered by many to be the pinnacle of success. It’s very competitive to get into the company in the first place and young people like Jang Geu Rae who haven’t graduated from a top university or studied abroad would normally not stand a chance getting a place here. All these issues are tackled.
But what happens after a new employee is hired and actually starts to work in the company? I know many people who work at these large companies and although on paper they would be seen as successful, they are unhappy with their working lives – dissatisfied with work/life balance or worried about the stability of their job, stressed out, or simply bored. Just like many films deal with romance and falling in love but don’t tackle the (harsh 😉 ) reality of life after marriage, so life after entering a company has not been dealt with much either. And that’s why I think this is a must-see drama.
Working for a large company can have its benefits and there is a family atmosphere if you have a boss like Oh Sang Sik. But at the end of the day (as they say) it’s just business and everyone is expendable. That’s the harsh reality.
Luckily the drama at least offers us a happy ending which is a relief after all the stress of watching the characters struggle. Thank goodness for that. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night otherwise. But I think the ending is in keeping with the overall tone of the drama. Yes, life is tough but the drama remains optimistic.