Review – Incomplete Life (Misaeng)
Work. It’s something most of us have to deal with about 50% of our waking lives, if not more. So much of your identity is tied to what your job is. What kind of life you lead is largely determined by your career, let’s face it. Whether you are a cop, a priest, a lawyer, a chemist, a construction worker, a teacher or a salaryman – your job wraps around you like an extra skin. It shapes your view of the world, the environment you grow accustomed to, the people you are in contact with, and the paycheck you learn to live on.
This is a show about work. It’s a character study, focusing on a few key players and exploring the nature of their personalities, their backgrounds, their current lives, and their struggles and successes as they navigate their careers. It’s fascinating, well written, engaging and just really good. It’s a show that makes you think. It doesn’t hand you all the answers. You’re expected to be smart enough to figure it out or patient enough to wait it out. And the pay off is worth it. It’s an odd mix of realism and subtle optimism, which makes you reflect deeply but offers you hope. I highly recommend it.
Overall Rating – 10/10. You Are What You Do, Not What You Think.
More Musings About Work and the Characters and SPOILERS…
Work. The only place that still uses landline phones.
I read an article by David Wong once (6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person – look it up, read it, thank me later) where he talks about how in society, your value is based entirely on what you can DO. If someone asks you to name off your strengths and you start saying intangible things like, “I’m nice” or compassionate or trustworthy then you’re not saying anything. That though those are nice qualities, they aren’t strengths that improve your value to society. What you can DO improves your value. Hobbies. Skill sets. Mastery of things. Actions. Work is what we do. You have to DO something to get paid. You aren’t paid for being nice.
Most of us don’t have shows that depict our work environments. I work in the school system, for example… and the only thing I’ve seen that even comes close is season four of The Wire… and that’s pretty sad, if you think about it. So I don’t know if this is a realistic presentation of the life of an international business salaryman in South Korea or not, but even if it’s 20%, that’s 20% of hell on earth I could not survive. And thus I found it extremely entertaining. Because this is a world I would not, and could not, inhabit. It’s like visiting an alien planet.. with cubicles. And daily hangovers after binge-drinking business deals. Piles of paperwork. Conversations about correct formatting of Excel files. Screaming bosses. Overt sexism. A dictionary’s worth of jargon. Multilayered departments that work independently of one another yet must come to a consensus on projects in order to prosper (honestly, that’s a small miracle in itself). And obscene amounts of unpaid overtime.
You go to work. You do your job. You won’t be thanked for it. You’ll be paid. Whether or not that feels like adequate compensation is entirely up to you. The people you work with, especially if you stay in one place long enough, will become a second family. You might actually know them better than you know your own family. Their problems are your problems. You become one strange, multi-headed organism. Occasionally you’ll have a really great day and you’ll think to yourself, “I love my job.” Most of the time, though, it’s just work. And work is work.
The water cooler. The break room. The roof. The elevator. These little escape havens where you can get away from your computer screen long enough to interact with other humans… that’s where a great deal of this drama takes place. And that’s pretty true to life in the real work place, in my experience. Those golden moments before work starts when you can idle around and chit chat, lunch breaks, setting up before a staff meeting. You get to chit chatting.
And when you chit chat, you entertain each other. More often than not, whoever has the most drama in their life at the moment becomes the entertainment for everyone else. Gossip is such an ugly word for such a vital part of the work force. It doesn’t have to malicious, after all. Good gossip comes in all forms. It can be whatever drama is happening in your department, with your boss, with a coworker, at home. It can involve your kids or a case or something else entirely. But you feel better when you unload it unto someone else and everyone else feels better when they have a new story to share, even if it’s not theirs. That’s people for you. Extroverts, introverts, no one is immune. In fact, I think introverts tend to be bigger gossips because they pay more attention.
In this show, the office gossip is definitely Han Suk-Yool. Definitely an extrovert.
He’s got his ears to every wall. There’s a certain wild energy to this character and his ability to charm and annoy simultaneously. At one point he is referred to as a tornado, someone who comes along and gets things done but sweeps everyone up as he blows through. This is definitely an accurate description. I LOVED this character, from start to finish.
You know how there are people you like right away and other people that grow on you? Kim Dong-Sik, the second in command of Sales Team 3, was one of those characters that grew on me. Like a very persistent fungus. I swear, I was a chia pet of love for this dude by the end of the show.
This is one of the benefits of a slow burn show that focuses on character development. They don’t necessarily have to give you everyone right away. They save some people for later. For dessert, perhaps. Or a midnight snack. Cause you thought you were full on the main characters, but really… after a few hours, you’re ready for more. And that’s when they pile him on your plate. And boy is he delicious! Just insight after insight. I loved all his layered experience and his professionalism mixed with his cunning ability to blend in.
But let’s talk about the main plate. That was the three original interns and the Chief Oh.
You had the girl, An Young-Yi, who started out full of daring and confidence only to be knocked down by working with a group of sexist dogs. Slowly but surely they saw her merit and started to let her shine again, but Jesus, it was hard to watch.
There was something very mysterious about her character, since we never really saw much of her background. She was determined, smart, and a hard worker – all the things needed to be successful in this particular business. She didn’t mind working around the clock and was willing to try just about anything in her struggle to make it. I found her admirable.
And you had Mr. Impatient, Jang Baek-Ki, who was arrogant and uneasy with starting at the bottom of the ladder. You could tell immediately he was the sort of person who will one day be an Executive Director. He had that cut throat, decisive behavior that is more instinct than intellect. I think you need that to be a boss because being a boss so often requires so many hard choices.
It was extremely entertaining to watch him struggle to be a subordinate. Good Lord, this man does not like to be at the bottom of the food chain. He looked put out, tired, and pissed off most of the show. It’s like petting a cat against the fur instead of with it. Just… uncomfortable. I found this character to be very nuanced and believable… and also really fun to watch. (who wasn’t in this show?)
At the center of the story, you have the Chief Oh, the harried leader of Sales Team 3. He’s a bit of a wreck but good at heart, so you love him and feel a little sorry for him the entire show. This is the face of a man whose liver is crying.
He’s in that middle position – given power and authority, but still under the thumb of superiors. His job is difficult and his staff is small… but he does his job to the best of his ability and tries to keep his dignity intact. This guy was played by a veteran actor who really pulled out all the stops for this role… even without too much backstory, there was an enormous feeling of depth and weight to this character. You trusted him to carry the weight of his team to the very ends of the earth.
And finally, at the very core, you have Jang Geu-Rae. Our hero. Our narrator. Our super nerd.
Here’s the thing about life. You don’t lose your skills, even if you end up in a position where you think you won’t use them. The skills you learn, no matter what you are, follow you and enhance your value. Whether they be boy scout skills, game skills, graphic design skills, pottery skills, reading skills, whatever. If it’s something you DO, then it’s of value. This show illustrates that point perfectly. Though our super nerd failed to become a professional baduk (Go!) player, he used the strategy skills he learned with the game in almost every aspect of his life.
Let this be a lesson to us all. Maybe you don’t end up with the job of your dreams. Maybe you’re not a professional athlete or oboe player or novelist, but if you spent time, a lot of time, developing those skills… you will be able to put them to use in other areas. Athletes learn training and endurance. Oboe players learn repetition and nuance. Novelists learn dedication and the challenges of words. These skills are useful. These skills don’t fade away just because your original intention behind them does.
Super nerd was an excellent character. He had been raised separate from the world, sheltered and encouraged to focus on learning one thing. For years. And suddenly he was thrown into the hectic pace of the regular world, where people are fully immersed in each other’s lives and focus on many, many things simultaneously. He was humble but he was also confident. Quietly confident. Confident he would improve. Confident he would master what was necessary, with time. Because that was the skill he had learned. That with time and practice, mastery can be accomplished. So he was childlike yet calm as Buddha. How could you not root for this adorable underdog? The dude was pure zen.
I really enjoyed learning about all these characters through their daily struggles and triumphs at work. There wasn’t one episode I didn’t enjoy. There were a lot of supporting characters that also made this show a stand out hit – but you’ll discover them yourself if you haven’t seen it yet – and if you have, you know who I’m talking about! That entire floor was full of unique and memorable faces.
Check out this little gem of a show. It’s different. It’s interesting. It’s an exploration into some very unique and vibrant lives. Go to work.