A chase scene in Jordan. A young fashionable man wearing a suit. Two men in suits inquiring the whereabouts of a fugitive. A parkour sequence over the rooftops of a foreign land.
You would think that this was some sort of cop drama, no?
No, no no my friends. This is actually an office drama that starts at its end and takes you through a flashback for the entire series. Here, Jang Geu Rae was living his best life. But in order to understand the magnitude of his confidence and how we got here, we have to delve through his pain…sift through office politics, abuses of power, human rights violations and ever rampant misogyny. In the end, however – a strong message of hope.
Perseverance and hard work do pay off, despite the cold and calculated reality we live in. Yes, there is a future for everyone and it is something special that we create. We never know what our paths will cross or where they will lead, but these roads should be followed diligently until the very end.
This is Misaeng. This is the story I will write about. A tale that upon waking up a day later, it still brings a smile to my face.
Misaeng (미생 – 아직 살아 있지 못한 자), or Incomplete Life is a 2014 South Korean television drama. It was adapted from the webtoon Misaeng: Incomplete Life by Yoon Tae-Ho. The kdrama follows four interns who earn contracts and become newbies at one of South Korea’s top trading companies. Each character has their own motives, dreams, and aspirations for joining the company.
For blue-collar raised Han Seok Yul, it’s a fortunate opportunity to change work conditions for field employees. For Jang Baek Ki, it means embracing his birthright – a culmination of selfish entitlement and social standing. For An Young Yi, it is a start over from a promising future that was previously snatched away too soon. And for Jang Geu Rae…it is a chance to move forward in the game of life that he views as Baduk, or Go.
College Vs Merit
This series, in short, focused on coming of age in a world that tries to dictate your worth by upbringing. Now I know what you are thinking – In Asian Spaces, that is essentially the case everywhere. And frankly, you’re right. But there is a certain nuance between things we perceive and things that actually are.
Such as the persisting question of a college education and the “right” upbringing versus actual merit and grit to accomplish anything.
In the drama, Geu Rae is allowed an internship at one of the top trading companies in the country. However, things go awry when his peers and the permanent staff find out he received this red herring through a connection. In addition to this perceived favor, he only had a GED from high school. I am referring to this as a ‘red herring’ because ultimately this allowance amounts to nothing. The connection is revealed later on in the series, and it was seemingly just a placid favor with no expectation of the boy’s success. Something intended to hold him over until he essentially becomes another’s problem.
Baek Ki has an insane superiority complex but felt threatened and inferior to Geu Rae and his skills. He was also extremely jealous of his relationship with Young Yi, whom he desired. Baek Ki later admits embarrassment over his qualifications upon realization someone “beneath him” had grown faster in Korean corporate society through hard work and determination.
Baek Ki frequently does things wrong despite instruction, makes careless mistakes and is not for the team but himself – which isn’t bad in a corporate setting but the dynamic isn’t cohesive like within Geu Rae’s group – Sales Team Three. The relationship between these two is the core of the show and explores the dynamic between college-educated employees who know nothing, and ‘less than’ undesirables who put in the work and truly fight for recognition. Once Baek Ki understands Geu Rae’s background and why he did not attend college, he respects him more as he can finally understand things in the context of his own narrow worldview.
Before this revelation, Geu Rae’s character is simply thought of as lazy, too stupid to attend higher education or too poor. These assumptions also carry over into American society. It seems nowadays even the “simplest jobs” (although the most emotionally taxing and stressful) such as retail work require college degrees. A degree from a good university seems to have replaced the high school diploma requirement in most establishments, despite the quality of worker not visibly improving.
Geu Rae is placed with the team that the company has the least faith in. Throughout the series, we learn that the sales team is not ‘traditionally successful’ because they have a heart and are conscious of their actions. They will not lie, cheat, bribe or indulge in illegal activities to secure a contract. It is very admirable morally, but socially due to the nature of the work they are considered a troublesome and outspoken group.
Due to an internal scandal, the section chief and now mentor to our main character, Mr. Oh, leaves the company. Before his departure, he overhears former colleagues gossiping about a recently hired college grad that didn’t know how to use a printer and called his mom for help. This gives Mr. Oh a flashback of how his team had bullied Geu Rae when he first arrived and his response to the treatment by simply saying “teach me”.
I won’t go any further into the plot, because I’d really like you to watch this drama yourself. All I will say is that because of his connection with Mr. Oh, Geu Rae is given a chance. Which still somewhat brings in the underlying factor of the drama into question: do connections matter when merit is involved, or do they only enhance one’s merit?
Also be sure to note Mr. Oh and Geu Rae’s connection at their first true meeting. It will be explained towards the end of the series and I would like to think of it as a “rebirth” for both characters.
We should be receiving a season two of the series, which will explore the aftermath of decisions made.
Which brings us to the land of plenty, which I actually hope to visit one day.
The crossroads of the old world. In this place, the duo is reborn.
Mr. Oh remembers things that he had long forgotten. The yearning to travel, the importance of family, daily life outside of a job that later consumed his being.
The fact that those higher-ups who do wrong never seem to be reprimanded is also hammered home, and perceptions are not as they seem. This is in relation to Mr. Choi, the company head honcho, who is shady and thinks that he ultimately won with his questionable business tactics. (Again, watch the show and you’ll understand exactly where I’m getting at – it’s a great moment I don’t want to spoil for anyone.)
The series ends with a truck driving into the sunset, on the road less traveled. Freedom, endless vast spaces. The sands of time. A complete break from the traditional and opportunity to do whatever one wishes.
A great takeaway from this series is that anyone can ignite their entrepreneurial spirit. That sometimes, office work is not for everyone. People are fake and co-workers who seemed to care really don’t. Or in turn, people who you thought were complacent are actually secretly batting for your wellbeing and supporting you in their own ways. It is also a PSA to not let your corporate office life become your work. Do not lose your sparkle, do not change, do not forget who you were before you began your adult work life. Don’t forget the dreams you had, the places you wanted to see, or the friends you wanted to make.
I have had so many terrible jobs for the sake of a paycheck. I’m at a point where I am not making much money but I’m happy each and every day. I feel free and remember what I wanted to do and what I enjoyed doing before waking up each morning to please people who didn’t give a damn about me outside of what I could do for them. It is pure bliss, and I hope anyone out there reading this is truly happy in their job and lives. I am taking a huge gamble but I want to see it through until the end. I know everyone cannot just up and move things around in their life, but if you can change even just one thing to make life more pleasant – that’s something special.
There is so much more to this…thing called life. And I am so happy that I realized it.
If you enjoyed this review and wish to support the series legally, it can be watched on Netflix VIKI or if you enjoy owning DVD’s, Misaeng : Incomplete Life (Complete Series Episode 1-20, 7-DVD Set, All Region DVD w. English Sub)
Please watch Misaeng, it is so good and is shot in both South Korea and Jordan. I am still looking for similar shows like it, but until then I’ll leave this review here.
Are you happy in your work life? What types of Korean Drama do you enjoy? Do you know someone who has been shut out of society because they don’t have a college degree?
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[Also, if anyone is interested, apparently Misaeng means “incomplete life” in Baduk terminology.]