The K-List #14: Misaeng
Long time no see, at least in this corner of my mind!
Welcome back to the K-List, a baseball-free area where I’ll review and recommend some of the best Korean dramas on the small screen, an exercise aimed at showing how KDramas are nothing short of US/UK productions, if not better.
Even among KDramas classics do exist, either because of clever writing, stellar acting or, in rare cases, both. Fortunately enough, the drama I’m going to review qualifies as such, a masterpiece on a genre, the dramedy, that is so common yet so hard to accomplish with success.
Without further ado, let’s delve into Misaeng, also known as Incomplete Life, a 2014 TvN drama.
- Chronicles of a day
In a landscape not as wide and diverse as in KDramas, Misaeng stands out as a rare slice of life: without resorting to past connections, ill-fated romances and all the tropes you are accustomed to at this point, this series just shows how four normal employees fight for their job day in and day out…and that’s it!
Quite boring eh?! Not at all!
Misaeng is a masterpiece that starts from the foundation up: writing is impeccable in setting a pace that is not too slow to weigh on the audience yet not too fast to lose pieces as it goes, and that makes it for an entertaining watch all throughout its 20 eps.
Themes might sound shallow yet they resonate with the viewer, simply because they are so clear-cut, common and understandable you can’t help but finding yourself in the protagonist’s shoes: he’s a rookie who failed his previous career and now he’s got no otherworldly abilty nor skill at his disposal.
A standard salaryman, he has to punch his ticket, work himself to the point of being exhausted, check out and get some rest for that another day has to come…does he remind you of someone close? Probably it does!
What makes Misaeng such a delight is a perfect understanding of how to elevate simple matters and trivial situations into the core engine of a clockwork machine: by not trying to do too much. There’s no exaggerating issues, making problems appear out of thin air for no reason nor making characters go out of their path for the sake of building tension: each plotline is well built, straight as an arrow, no nonsense, easy to get and follow.
There you have all good and bad about a workplace: stupid bosses, but also true leaders if you are lucky; enemies and horrible people who’ll do anything to step closer to their desired position, but also friends who’ll battle 8+ hours a day by your side; hazing newbies and harrassing women, but also honesty, friendship and loyalty, Misaeng has all of it and more.
This returns one of the widest emotional ranges among Korean dramas: from hilarious skits, there’s always a clown at work right?!, to misunderstandings, from a laugh and a coffee to sad, tear-jerking goodbies, your feelings are bound to be taken for a ride and a good one.
What Misaeng shows and tells is so important yet understated: as boring your everyday life might seem, in reality there’s a lot more happening around and to you than you may think, so even if you are nothing more than your run of the mill accountant, enjoy the small pieces each day at work gives you to build your own puzzle.
- More than machines
At the end of the day, Misaeng is all about normal people doing normal jobs and interacting in normal ways, and that’s what makes it such a powerful, sharp and keen drama, one that looks no further than real life to provide a complete product of high quality.
While it’s got a ML as any other KDrama, this is a story of ensembles around him: one is his team at work, Sales Team 3 where he’s the new guy no one knows; the other is a group of his peers, young men and women that just entered the same company with different dreams, abilities and challenges.
The former is the most emotional of the two, even if it doesn’t seem so in the first couple of episodes: our ML enters a big and famous company through connections and not by his own abilities and that makes him a pariah among his peers and hateful among his team, with the manager giving him trivial tasks and at first not considering him a part of the team.
That changes in a hurry though, as our protagonist decides to finally put 110% effort not to fail again: stepping in boldly, sometimes carelessly, and helping the team manager and his colleague when in need, our ML opens up his mind to them and they start a bond that, by the end, is almost one of a true family.
The relationship between him and the team manager is the real deal, one of the best bromances to date, developed through thick and thin as both encounter hardships and learn to lean on each other’s helping hand: there’s no thing they wouldn’t do in the name of their mutual respect, two human beings that acknowledge each other as biased but good people on the same side of things. While there’s no painful death nor preposterous tragedy, the way their bond grows and the depth of their dialogues will bring you to tears.
On the other hand, the newbies’ group functions as more of a breather for our ML, even if not all storylines are merry and happy: while he starts off on the wrong foot with pretty much everyone, he’s quick in gaining their respect and they find themselves sharing their breaks speaking about their troubles and working together.
Another smart move by the writers was not to take the easy road, a romance between the ML and FL, instead only inserting hints here and there while focusing on their work lives: that’s the whole point of the show, and losing it in the name of attracting a couple viewers would have costed quite a bit in terms of quality and impact.
Misaeng is rooted on interactions, dialogues and people as a group more than singles: through their clashes at work they find themselves changing and learn things such as camaraderie, loyalty and resilience. It’s easy to build a couple of good leads and leave secondaries out to dry, and Misaeng chooses not to do it: there’s not a solo carry as in many other dramas whereas the ensemble is a joy to watch.
- Right choices
As easy as the plot sounds, Misaeng would have needed perfect casting to pull off what it wanted to be: too perfect of a ML would have stood out too much, too chirpy of a FL could have been a nuisance and what if the Sales Team and/or newbies didn’t mesh well together?
Perfect casting was achieved though, and it all starts with the most fitting actor/character pairing I’ve ever witnessed. Im Si Wan, originally an idol, just looks the part in all aspects: he’s not that overwhelming of a presence, his sharp eyes combined with his quirky mannerisms and calm demeanor are 100% match for a mere employee and his facial expressions are so subtle yet telling, he doesn’t need to talk much to tell a lot.
He’s also an amazing actor by his own and that helps: his career developed well with other good dramas such as Hell is Other People and Run On, and he’s one of the best and most famous idols-turned-actors in the business.
The other shining star is Sales Team 3’s manager, portrayed by a superb Lee Sung Min: his character has a lot of shades, a sad past and tons of troubles to go through yet he’s also such a driving force, a relentless personality that makes for a chaotic pairing with the ML, a working chaos though as they are the reason Misaeng rises from great to excellent.
Prop to all the newbies too: Kang So Ra is a good FL with one of the hardest plotlines and she delivers a powerful performance, Byun Yo Han is the funniest of the bunch, constantly bickering with his boss and the others he’s just the right amount of comedy the series needed to complement the drama part.
- Not as usual
The main quality of Misaeng is also his only weakness: simply put, this is not your standard KDrama, and as one you could have a hard time finding a reason to watch it.
Leads are not as important as the whole cast is, the FL is not even a lead in terms of screentime and there’s no romance, action, thriller or melo: in that sense Misaeng is close to a Korean version of The Office, without much of the absurdity and even more real on themes and situations.
Pacing could also be an issue in the first half, slower than the norm it then picks up from ep 9 on; some storylines are tough to swallow, particularly seeing how the FL is treated by her male colleagues and superiors will make your blood boil in anger; finally it’s not a technical marvel, with few OSTs and lots of dialogues and silences, so it may look raggedy sometimes.
That said, writing and acting are still too much of a calling card not to add this one to your list, trust me.
Misaeng is as close as a KDrama ever got to depicting real life in all its intricacies, the inner charm of a work routine that it’s never truly the same, the importance of human connections and interactions as a mean to understand each other.
The ability of writing, a competent director and a wise choice in that “less is more” made a common slice of life in a true masterpiece of a genre that Korea should explore further if these are the results.
Amazing character construction and development, true growth by most of them and meaningful changes from start to finish, Misaeng’s plotlines are carried on by A+ acting with Im Si Wan’s breakout performance and an unforgettable Lee Sung Min in one of the best rendition of male friendship.
It may lack in visual impact, have no heart-fluttering moments nor thrilling, angsty scenes yet I can’t help but to recommend Misaeng as one of the best KDramas I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch.
Everyday life is so damn beautiful if we’d just stop for a minute and think about it.
That’s it for me today, I’ll see you in the next stop of my K-List, always the same yet always a bit different, such as life is.