I have never written a reflection about a Korean drama series. My Mister (Ahjussi) will be the first because it depicted a painful process, that of a progression from being trapped and lifeless to being a free and breathing human being.
The series has completed its run and I was impressed. It was not a K-drama with the typical motifs: poor girl marries rich man; a lost child (now grown up) meets his or her mother; a hit-and-run accident; two characters initially at odds with each other later falls in love; the rich are arrogant, powerful, and evil while the poor and the common person is kind, resourceful and hardworking.
This drama is a breed apart; it has none of the abovementioned elements. It has qualities about it that viewers will find they can strongly identify with: the brokenness and fragility of the characters and their relationships; the hollowness and sourness of life; the burdens of living up to everybody’s expectations. This is very real and akin to our spiritual journey.
My Mister tells the story of three middle-aged brothers, who are enduring the weight of their lives, and a strong, cold woman, who has been living a hard life of her own, as they come together in healing each other’s past scars.
Lee Sun-kyun (actor) is Park Dong-hoon, the second oldest of the three brothers. He works as an engineer at an architectural firm and always has a safety-first approach to life. He is quiet and stoic, but also goes all in for the people he loves.
IU (singer-actor) plays Lee Ji-an, a woman who endures many hardships in life. She is paid for finding out Park Dong-hoon’s weaknesses and getting him fired, at the command of the CEO of the company she is temporarily working for, but soon ends up falling for Park’s integrity and kindness, and finally learning to trust someone (the synopsis here is adapted from Wikipedia).
The screenwriter, director and actors worked together to produce a beautiful, meaningful and multi-layered piece about the human journey. I recommend you watch the whole drama online.
The drama begins dark and continues dark and heavy. Many of the early scenes were in dim lighting, in streets and homes and bar. Then as the drama progresses, and as the main characters struggle towards finding their true selves, it got brighter and more cheery in the final two episodes.
The brokenness and misery is portrayed raw from the beginning. The three brothers, loyal but each one rotting in his misery: one a failed and divorced businessman who over-drinks; another a former film director plagued with guilt and a fear of failure; and the hero, bullied at work, disdained by his wife, with repressed frustrations and anger. His brothers moan, drink, wail, squabble, and lounge around but the hero numbly holds back his feelings.
The run-down poorly-lit streets and houses, dated bar and middle-aged friends of the neighbourhood, whose careers and fortunes had plummeted, give the drama a depressive sinking feel. The only flicker of hope is the serene acceptance of their present lot in life and their shared empathy.
However, it cannot be compared with the suffering and hardship and crushing poverty of the heroine, Lee Ji An. Bereaved of her parents while a child she grew up with her deaf grandmother, both living in fear of bullying and violent moneylenders (first the father, and then after the father was killed by the heroine in a case of manslaughter, the son) who pitilessly beat both of them up. They rent a small bare place and work relentlessly to pay back the loan, furtively eating leftover food while working in restaurants. Her heart has grown hard and cold. She cannot trust outsiders and thinks nobody understands her. She feel trapped in a bottomless hole of guilt, and feels totally numb to violence and bullying, and has no hope of ever getting out. She cannot get past societal condemnation even though she was acquitted in court. But she is a survivor, resourceful and quick-witted.
Ji Ann’s journey towards freedom began when she became a temp in the hero’s department. She was paid and tasked by the CEO, who was having an affair with the hero’s wife, to discover the hero’s weaknesses so that the CEO could fire him. She wiretapped the hero’s phone and overhears everything he says at work, on his phone, at home, when he is with his brothers and friends. The more she got to know him, the more her respect and admiration and empathy for him grew. Knowing, interacting with him, and trusting him led to her freedom.
SHE EXPERIENCED THE KINDNESS OF THE HERO. He helped her bedridden grandmother up steep hill to their home and bought food for he grandmother. He helped her grandmother enter a nursing home.
He tried to solve her debt problem and even fought against the moneylender. When her grandmother died, he arranged her funeral and his brother got the community to attend and pay respect. With so much kindness and goodness, the heroine’s defences were breached. She became appreciative and grateful and loyal to him. He even forgave her of her wrongdoing in wiretapping him.
HE WAS A PERSON OF INTEGRITY & TRUSTWORTHY. He was fair and protected her at the workplace. He invited her to join the permanent staff for dinner. He rejected her advances and almost sacked her for that. He treated her with respect. He never talked behind her back.
HE VIEWED HER POSITIVELY, AND THAT HELPED HER TO SEE HERSELF POSITIVELY. He said to her, You are good, after he saw how she worked so hard to care for her grandmother. He spoke up for her to the moneylender, in front of other directors, and when he was with his friends and colleagues. Thus she was able to shed aside her years of shame and condemnation. He asked her to confess her wrong to be forgiven, which she did and it brought her freedom from condemnation and self-hatred.
SHE IDENTIFIED WITH HIM IN HIS PAIN AND SUFFERING. She saw how was bullied and humiliated at work, cheated by the CEO and his wife, and the silent pain and agony of being betrayed. Their common pain and misery fused them invisibly. She felt he alone would understand and sympathize with her own personal suffering and pain too. She could only trust a man who has also suffered much.
HE INTRODUCED HER TO HIS COMMUNITY OF FRIENDS AND THERE SHE FOUND ACCEPTANCE AND LOVE AND FELLOW-SUFFERERS.
All these gave her the courage to hope, to leave the painful past behind, and to reach out for a new, free, more human Ji An. At the last episode, she was shown with a new job, smiling and conversing with friends, well dressed with nice shoes, and the permanent job tag around her neck. She had moved. From being trapped to being free. From living in isolation and fear, to having a sense of belonging and hope. From one with cold dead eyes to being fully alive.
Isn’t this a picture of a person dead in sins being made alive in Christ?
What of the hero Park Dong Hoon? He was a wounded healer. Trapped and bullied at work and suffering silently in a dead shell of a marriage, the hero was miserable and sought to forget his problems in the company of his beer drinking brothers and weekend football. All his pain and anger had been repressed as he tried to live up to everyone else’s expectations of him. He had not attended to his own needs and pain.
Unknown to him, his movement to being alive and free from the expectations and constraints of society would be facilitated by an unlikely character: the temp he hired, the heroine.
SHE BROUGHT OUT HIS BEST & TRUE SELF. He had to boldly act with fairness and kindness on different occasions in the face of being misunderstood as being in love with her. He went against cultural expectations of workplace culture and community and family. The many steps of courage strengthened his muscles to leave the safety of the big corporation and strike out on his own.
HE FOUND DEEP SOLIDARITY WITH HER LIFE EXPERIENCES. He found that he could identify so closely with the heroine’s feelings of crushing burden and misery of life, feeling trapped and without power and hope. This was a great comfort and encouragement to him. If she could go on, so can he.
HER TRUST, GRATITUDE, & LOYALTY TO HIM WAS LIKE MEDICINE FOR HIS WOUNDED HEART. Meeting someone who understood him deeply(unlike his own wife), who was fiercely loyal to him(unlike his own wife), and who would sacrifice herself for him (unlike his own wife) was like medicine to a wounded soul. She knew when he felt depressed, defeated and discouraged and she encouraged him(unlike his own wife). She even rescued his marriage and helped him get promoted(unlike his own wife).
HE OWNED HIS FEELINGS & EXPRESSED THEM. He was numb to his feelings and could not name his submerged rage, shame, hatred and wounds of humiliation. But when he named them and expressed them and was later able to let everyone know he was a cuckold, he was set free from trying to keep secret his shame and to save face, and able to be his true self. What could be a worse shame for a man than being viewed as a cuckold? Freed from shackles imposed by a culture of shame, guilt and duty.
In the last two episodes, we see more smiles from the hero and heroine – rare sight in earlier episodes. We noice that the hero has moved. From being a flat, play-it-safe and bullied engineer, Park Dong Hoon became someone who dared to leave the chaebol and strike it out on his own, make lots of money, be freed from office politics, and enjoyed his work and new found happiness. When the heroine and hero bumped into each other we see both hero and heroine smile broadly, proudly and happily.
THIS WOULD BE THE FIRST TIME IN THE WHOLE DRAMA THAT EITHER OF THEM SMILED SO HAPPILY!
Fully human and fully alive – at last! The journey to be fully human is a difficult struggle, but very much worth the pain one goes through.
Here are some enchanting songs from the drama that grow on you the more you listen and read the lyrics: