My Mister opens in a typical office setting, bright and bleak as a winter afternoon, everyone absorbed and professionally distant in their open-office “teams.”
The only signs of anything green and growing here–passing shots, no more; the merest hint of new life springing up–are the office plants, watered by someone who is mostly invisible to the viewer. Shortly after, a comical sequence ensues as some of the office staff are sent into a panic by a flying bug—turns out, it is only a ladybug—as if something as vulnerable and colorful and living as that little ladybug has no place in this world of computers and statistics and measurements as the Safety Team analyses the structural security of their building assignments.
Ironically, the invisible “gardener”—the young temporary employee, Ji-an, the “girl who dresses lightly”—who keeps the plants watered behind the scenes, is the same one who, in front of an office-full of onlookers, callously squashes the ladybug. (After our hero, Dong-hoon–or Mr. Park–tries to save it.) What kind of person kills a ladybug?! My friend Laura, now watching it, asked virtually the same question of me that I had asked of Elliott at the outset. (My friend Elliott Blackwell, who has both a beautiful twitter account and has started a marvelous blog, is the one who introduced me to this show and to K-dramas. Thank you, Elliott!)
We come to find out that Ji-an is working several jobs and caring for an aging and deaf grandmother—how I love the grandmother!—while trying to pay off an impossible debt to a sadistic loan shark, Gwang-Il.
I’ve always loved a character who is better than they make themselves out to be, but we don’t know whether this will be the case here, as she sabotages herself and others again and again. Is it only when she is observed by others that the mask comes up, the façade of callous indifference, as with the ladybug? Does a real sensitivity hide behind the sullen exterior? Is this a portrait in miniature of the rest of the story?
And what is this strange, oddly charming show anyway?
My Mister, an award-winning and highly rated “K-drama” that aired in 2018, is a quirky, often funny, and touching story of an unlikely friendship between a melancholy, kindhearted man in mid-life, and a standoffish young woman, surviving contra mundum, whose short life has been one misery after another. Things get dicey after an operation—an operation concocted by the company’s CEO, the ruthless young Do Jun-yeong, to fire one of the managers, a certain Park Dong-un—backfires. The parcel that is supposed to be illicit money vouchers is misdelivered to our hero, Park Dong-hoon, whose name is similar enough to the target to prompt a mix-up.
Ji-an, the temporary employee who observes more than she lets on, witnesses Dong-hoon’s confusion about what to do with the mysterious parcel and takes matters into her own hands. And not only that, but she sleuths out another truth: the CEO, Do Jun-yeong, has been having an affair with Park Dong-hoon’s wife. Desperate for money, Ji-an blackmails the CEO into paying her if she can manage to get both of his enemies fired: Park Dong-un and Park Dong-hoon. The payment she expects to receive would alleviate her crippling debt to Gwang-Il, who has a mysterious hold on her, and an even more mysterious grudge against her.
“She would have endured everything as she listened to your voice.”
But there is a complication: in order to spy on our hero, Dong-hoon, she must listen to his voice. His voice becomes a companion in her lonely life–theirs is, in some way, a shared loneliness, a shared sadness. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that a voice could potentially change a life; I toyed with the notion in the novel I’m currently revising, and the idea is considered here, too, though you’ll have tp watch it to find out how this idea plays out…
Is this a good place to mention that Park Dong-hoon is played by Lee Sun-kyun, known in Korea as “The Voice”? (I could listen to Mr. Lee read the Korean phonebook all day.)
“If you think about it, all relationships are amazing and precious.”
In coming to know Dong-hoon, we also come to know a larger, eccentric neighborhood, including the Parks, notably Dong-hoon’s brothers, Gi-hoon and Sang-hoon (the comic relief, and the less “successful” of this delightful “trio”), who live with their long-suffering mother. We meet Jeong-hui a few episodes in, the kind but broken-hearted restaurant owner who creates a kind of community space for the neighborhood; from a distance, we meet Gyeomduk, a monk, with a connection to our community. We have some laughs and sighs with the beautiful but often innocently tactless model and actress who struggles with lack of self-worth.
It’s impossible to write more without giving away too much. The show takes its time, its pacing always compelling but never rapid or jarring, as it reveals things incrementally. But I will say this: what My Mister sets up, it also pays off; it knows how to pull an eclectic ensemble of characters and subplots together. Whatever misgivings one might have early on about the direction that the show will go in, I would just give the reassurance that it made me laugh, cry (often), and ultimately—in spite of the many shenanigans that ensue—feel a whole lot better about humanity.
I’m now on my second viewing and have been introducing my family to it. My Dad has been calling it “Chaplinesque” ~ and it’s oddly appropriate: it possesses that benevolent humor which has, at its core, a real sweetness and an optimism about people. Ultimately, as Elliott said, it really becomes a show about community. (I would add, forgiveness and trust too.) Ultimately, it’s not only about the central friendship, but about several; not only one relationship, but many; and each, as a key character says at a key moment, is “precious.”
Mr. Lee plays the role with the perfect blend of sensitive melancholy and reserve; the English Lit nerd in me sees his character as something of a Korean Arthur Clennam—with his own less angelic “Little Dorrit”—or a more melancholy Mr. Darcy. There is actually a reference to the latter in the show. (And is it too superficial to say that he might be the best-dressed leading male onscreen in recent memory?)
Fascinatingly, the role of Ji-an is played by one of the biggest K-pop stars, IU, who happens to be an immensely talented actress as well. The whole ensemble is beautifully cast.
This was my first “K-drama”–a term which, like “K-pop,” I’d only encountered a few months ago as I started getting active on twitter–and I suppose I’ve been well wedged under the proverbial rock not to have been swept up into the so-called 한류 or Hanryu (“Korean wave”) that started some decades ago. I’d seen the phenomenon that was/is Parasite—how didn’t I recognize that voice?—but until recently I couldn’t have said whether BTS was an acronym for an insanely popular Korean “boy band” or something from Medical Terminology 101 that I’d forgotten over the years. (Yeah, I know. I’m a bit behind the times…as in, anything past about 1914.) Now I’ll be watching my second K-drama, as a small company of twitterers—and my brother, too—watch Mr. Sunshine together.
But my ignorance has been more pervasive: until almost this moment—to my shame—I knew next to nothing about Korean history, culture, language, nor its huge global influence. For better or worse, however, I do have a curious nature–too much curiosity, too little time–and a tendency to fall very far down rabbit holes, once I’ve discovered a subject of interest.
In the midst of various research and writing projects and a delightfully consuming Dickens read-along (on my other site) during the free time I can scrounge up, I’ve added a couple of books on Korean history borrowed from the library. Currently, I’m reading A Brief History of Korea by Michael J. Seth, and Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History by Bruce Cumings. I’ve even been practicing a little Hangul (Korean script—usually the first thing that is recommended to learn when learning anything about the language) and the most basic elements of Korean grammar and beginners’ sentences. I keep telling myself: I will just dip a toe into the water…that’s all…I have too many other projects going to try learning an entirely new language. I’ll only allow myself a little bit of time in the evenings when all else is done…
But I must admit that it is hard to pull away from it. Besides—speaking of enduring anything for a voice—I think I could endure a bit less sleep in order to study if it means I might better understand “The Voice” of Korea, and to feel a small kinship with that quirky neighborhood.
If you too need some distraction and gentle humor, a compelling mixture of drama and suspense with restful, rambling enjoyment, or if you need to feel uplifted and moved and perhaps even inspired, I hope you’ll consider visiting the Parks’ neighborhood too.
Sydney Wren, you have described this series wonderfully. It is heartwarming, funny, benevolent, representing both the best and the worst angels of our nature.
I really delighted in the insight about the ladybug in the office, and the ensuing commotion. It had not occurred to me how UNnatural the office environment–its cold spaces, corporate utility, and hidden cruelties–contrasted with this sweet phenomenon of nature.
Indeed, the male lead is a Korean Arthur Clennam, a (humbler) Darcy. A deeply good man, mired in situations and relationships where he feels unseen . . . .
This rich world of “My Mister” could easily and happily lead down a rabbit hole of research and discovery. Happy burrowing!
Pardon the Wellerism, but…”The things I do for love!,” said the Incestuous Knight as he pushed the Little Lordling out the tower window.
But that Voice is indeed a Miracle, so I can see why one might go to extraordinary lengths–learn Korean!–the better to appreciate it! (Nice Coat, too.)
I’ve been aware of KPop for a while from Twitter–loved the way they hijacked every trending MAGA hashtag during the last election–but KDrama is new for me, too, and I’m so grateful you introduced us to it! MY MISTER is completely bingeworthy.
Lend me those history books when you’re done, would you?
a Dickensian wren
Haha, the lengths one goes to!!! 😅🥰 (Love the new Wellerism! 😜) Yes, the books I’ve been reading are both from the library and one is an ebook that I’m reading on Hoopla, you might be able to borrow it simultaneously? But I own a used book on the same subject which I wish I’d started out with, as Korea’s Place in the Sun is such a tome, so comprehensive, that I’d preferred to have started out with a more beginner-friendly overview…if you’d like to borrow that one, I’ll read it after. It’s called, I think, Korea: The Impossible Country.
Great review! Fun to see someone’s thoughts after watching it for the first time. As a fellow lover of Little Dorrit and Pride and Prejudice, it was fun to see you reference Arthur and Darcy! I had thought of Dong Hoon as Darcy of course (since the show does) but I hadn’t gone back to Arthur Clennam – but you’re right, there are some parallels there.
MM is my all-time favorite show. You described it so beautifully, especially the neighborhood relationships and the themes of forgiveness and trust. Like you I love the pacing of the show, especially as it takes its time revealing new characters like Jung Hee, and new aspects of people’s lives, like Dong Hoon playing soccer. And the three brothers together are just hilarious.
“(I could listen to Mr. Lee read the Korean phonebook all day.)” – Ain’t that the truth!
So glad to find your review today!
a Dickensian wren
I’m so happy you enjoyed the review!! 💙 Thank you so much for your comments… and I love that you agree with the Clennam/Darcy references!!! I can see why it’s your favorite show… it is so unique and special! I should have mentioned the soccer…I love how that, too, is all pulled together at the finale, without giving spoilers…💙💙💙