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The Power of Vulnerability in “My Mister”

Paulo Coelho, author of the modern classic The Alchemist, became a fan of Korean entertainment after watching Old Boy back in 2001. About My Mister he said: “It was a masterpiece. It’s one of the best works I’ve seen recently. It shows the intricacy of human psychology and … it is a flawless description of the human condition”. This is high praise for a K Drama from a man who is one of the most widely read authors in the world today.

My Mister is indeed what I call a complete drama. One where heartbreak and sorrow are balanced with humor and optimism, and great actors are matched with a writer who gets to tell an important story. As Coelho says, it is a rich story, and one that allows viewers to get a deeper understanding of the pain of everyday people.

Superbly cast with Lee Sun Gyun from Parasite and Lee Ji-eun (K-pop star IU) as the lead protagonists, the drama’s supporting actors are just as engaging, comical, and important to the story. You end up rooting for the whole cast of down on their luck unfortunates who lean on each other to get through this journey of life with all the bittersweet pain, joy, and hope, that it entails.

Here are six things I loved about My Mister:

How Weakness Becomes Strength

The main characters Ji An and Dong Hoon work at a large engineering company. Dong Hoon is a well respected middle manager, and Ji An is a young temp worker who steals coffee and food from her part time jobs just to have enough food to survive. They seem to be on very different trajectories but their lives soon begin to collide as they realize that appearances can be very different from reality.

Eventually, these two characters recognize that they’re not very different from each other, and that they both have deep pain and trouble in their lives. It is only through the exposure of these deep vulnerabilities that the characters are able to connect and find ways to help each other in very unexpected ways.

Human beings are complex beings placed in vastly different circumstances based on the lottery called birth. My Mister is a story of how even the strongest among us needs help and how the weakest among us may come to our rescue one day.

Shame and the Sad Fate of the Proud Korean Salaryman

The concept of shame has been central in Confucianism based Korean culture for over a thousand years. In a country where shame is almost worse than death, many Koreans work ridiculously hard in exchange for the status and security of solid full time employment. However, modern economic conditions dictate that even the best corporate jobs do not guarantee security.

Central to the story of My Mister is the sad reality of those people who have been discarded or fear being discarded by large corporations. Suddenly unmoored, they have to find their livelihood as well as their dignity and self worth on their own.

The societal contract of total devotion to your company for a lifetime of security no longer exists in Korea as millions of Koreans face early retirement and unemployment. But old habits die hard, and the Korean obsession with the status of working for a large company and holding on for dear life as long as humanly possible is still the norm. My Mister takes an unflinching look at the reality of the daily grind and the shame that weighs on those who are discarded.

The Reality of Poverty

The female lead character of Lee Ji An is powerfully played by K-pop star IU (Lee Ji Eun). Orphaned at a young age by her debt-ridden parents, Ji An is left to take care of not just their debt, but also her disabled grandmother. She scrapes by with whatever part time jobs she can get while surviving on the food and drink she’s able to steal from work.

Through sheer luck she is chosen as a temp worker at a large prestigious company. It is here that she sees a glimpse of middle class life, a life devoid of scratching and clawing for survival.

Korea is a modern developed country with healthcare and social services that match or surpass what we enjoy in the US and other wealthy countries. But what good are services that you don’t know exist? Poverty is a huge but largely hidden concern in Korea and it is this kind of reality that that we see in Ji An’s world. The lack of family support, education, and therefore opportunity, plus the added weight of being responsible for her grandmother drives her to desperation.

Shattering the Illusion of the Perfect

Dong Hoon is by all appearances an ideal Korean man. He is a well educated and respected manager at a large corporation, has high moral standards and does his job with humility and excellence. He takes care of not only his entire extended family but also those who work for him.

That pursuit of perfection is so common in Korea and since it is impossible to attain, it is the appearance of perfection that many Koreans are taught to project. Alas, this illusion proves to be the house of cards that Dong Hoon built but cannot sustain.

Brotherhood, Family, and Priorities

The three Park brothers are inseparable. They, along with their mother, live in the same neighborhood in Seoul and hang out each night at a local bar. Here, they drink with their soccer buddies while commiserating and offering each other encouragement and support.

The bond and love among the siblings and their mother is beautiful and inspiring. But the writer seems to ask how much is too much? Prioritizing parents and siblings before one’s spouse is traditionally considered a virtue in Korea. My Mister questions this virtue and asks if Koreans should reconsider this cultural ideal.

Last but Not Least, the Awesome My Mister OST Playlist

One thing that the best K Dramas seem to have in common is an awesome Original Soundtrack. My Mister is no exception. Ranging from upbeat tunes with a distinct Korean feel to slow sweet ballads, this playlist is a winner.

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Behind the glitz and glamour of high tech modern Korea are the millions of regular Koreans who struggle everyday to power this well oiled machine. You may have heard the urban legend of Japanese workers who drop dead from overwork? Korean employees work an average of 323 hours per year more than their Japanese counterparts. My Mister is a story of those regular people who work like drones, often getting mercilessly thrown off the great machine, but sometimes get a chance to escape and chase dreams they didn’t even know they had.

It took a lot of recommendations to get me to watch My Mister. Although almost every review on this drama was glowing, the images and trailers felt too heavy and sad. Thankfully, it doesn’t just stay in that heavy zone, and there are a lot of light, funny, heart-warming moments. Most of all, My Mister is thought provoking in a way that stays with you long after you turn off the TV.

My Mister is available to stream on Netflix.

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