There are lots of excellent K-dramas (South Korean shows) on Netflix, Youtube and other channels. Here’s a review of five recent shows with some interesting philosophical themes. I come into these as a philosopher with no background knowledge of the language and little background knowledge of the culture, with some thoughts on philosophical themes in these shows. Minor spoilers are possible, I’ll try to keep these at a minimum.
1. My mister (My ajusshi), 2018
Park Dong-hoon, a man in his mid-40s, is depressed. He works as a structural engineer in a toxic workplace, a zero-sum environment of backstabbing colleagues who try to get ahead at each other’s expense. His wife cheats on him with his more successful colleague. Dong-hoon still goes to work, more out of a sense of duty than anything else, but he has lost his pleasure in life.
This changes when he meets a young female coworker, Lee Ji-ahn, a woman in her early 20s who has a past that haunts her. The show is about the growing connection between Dong-hoon and Ji-ahn. Controversy surrounded the show while it was in production because of the age gap between the characters (though note, without spoilering it, this story is not a classic romance).
Park Dong-Hoon is by many measures a successful man, but this does not make him happy. At some point, he visits his friend who has become a buddhist monk. The friend aced his entrance exams for university, and many expected him to enroll in a first-class university and become successful. Why did he become a monk, Dong-hoon wonders. “Best case scenario, I would’ve ended up like you, and you are unhappy. Who wants that?”
I found the series engrossing, in spite of its slow pace and I felt invested in the characters. The cinematography is subtle, with lots of long shots and effective use of light, which reflects the mood of the characters.
Park Dong-Hoon’s two brothers play important secondary characters, his younger brother is a failed movie director, his eldest brother is not successful either, but both try to make it work with a cleaning company they’ve recently started.
With a Buddhist monk as an important secondary character, the movie is suffused with Buddhist ideas and imagery, notably in Lee Ji-ahn’s claim that she has lived for 30,000 years and suffered all that time. Happiness is letting go of one’s desires, particularly for worldly ambition and recognition, and cultivating meaningful connections.
2. Another Miss Oh, 2016
(Note: I didn’t see the American remake of this one, so I can’t comment on that one. I liked the original).
Though branded as a romantic comedy, this is rather a romantic drama with a speculative fiction element. The two major viewpoint characters are Park Do-kyung, a foley artist who runs his own company, and Oh Hae-young, who is a planning team representative of a catering company. Her fiancé broke up with her the day before their wedding, without a clear explanation.
This last minute wedding cancellation has thrown Oh Hae-young’s life in disarray. She pretends that she broke up with him, which spares her some social censure and shame, but still leaves people wondering why she did it. What she doesn’t know is that her fiancé broke up with her because of machinations by Do-kyung (who does not know Oh Hae-young). Do-kyung ruined her wedding because he believed her to be his ex, who is coincidentally also called Oh Hae-young.
Both Oh Hae-youngs were classmates high school, and meet each other again in the course of the show. The Oh Hae-young who got dumped by her fiancé was always was unfavorably compared to her vastly popular namesake.
The speculative element of the show are visions that Do-kyung gets that have a déjà vu feel. He sees the other Hae-young (not his fiancé but her namesake), and also a disturbing image of his own death in what clearly seems to be a car accident. Can Do-kyung avoid his fate?
This show has more episodes than a typical k-drama series (18 + 2 special). The ending is a surprising plot twist that I did not see coming. It is perfectly in line with the show’s underlying philosophy that true happiness means letting go of bad interpersonal relationships, motivated by envy (the less successful Oh Hae-young toward the more successful one), a sense of revenge (of Do-kyung for his ex), or even trying to prevent an impending murder (which Do-kyung foresees happening to him). The path to true happiness, or at the very least, to contentment and a sense of serenity, is letting go of such desires.
3. Because this is my first life, 2017
A thirty-year-old woman, Yoon Ji-ho, has no place to live after her brother’s partner becomes pregnant and her parents and brother kick her out of the house. A victim of patriarchal culture, she is left with few options and enters into a rental agreement with Nam Se-hee, a 38-year-old quiet computer designer of whom it is said by colleagues that his brain only has two places for commitment: the left side for paying off his mortgage, the right side for his cat, that he cares for deeply.
He has decided not to marry and has his entire life plotted out, up to the moment of his death (see screenshot below).
They start a contract as tenant and landlord. This contract is based on a miscommunication as Nam Se-hee initially thinks the tenant is a man (if I understand it correctly, Yoon Ji-ho’s name is gender-ambiguous in Korean). After realizing she is not male, they decide to live together anyway with a clear contract stipulating obligations. They then appear as a married couple to their respective families, in part to get Nam Se-hee’s parents off his back who wish him to be married.
Economically, there is a large imbalance between the two main characters, as Se-hee is landlord and Ji-hoo is his (at first unemployed, later part-time working) tenant. But through the use of an explicit contract, they come to an understanding. The show quotes Becker’s Marriage Model, which sees marriage as a rational economic arrangement, based on an unequal division of labor of the man and woman (at the time in exclusively heterosexual arrangements). Se-hee and Ji-hoo try to make their relationship more equitable.
In one touching episode, Se-hee goes to make kimchi on behalf of Ji-hoo to provide compensatory labor for her observing the ancestral rites with her family-in-law (this is usually unpaid and undervalued female labor). Eventually, without spoilering it too much, we can see that Se-hee and Ji-hoo realize that a good relationship is built on explicit negotiation and revised agreements, which prevents the couple from falling into traditional Korean gender roles.
The entire show is great, with fresh characters and acting, and a cute fluffy cat that plays a significant role.
4. Discovery of Love, 2014
What is the shape of a failed relationship? This series traces the trajectory of Han Yeo-reum and Kang Tae-ha, who met in a train in their early twenties, both as students, and were smitten with each other. He’s an architect, she is an interior designer and maker of furniture. After five tumultuous years, they break up. At the point of their breakup Tae-ha was working hard to take over his father’s architecture firm, and Yeo-reum was dealing with significant challenges in her personal life, particularly, the sudden death of her father.
Years later (now in their early thirties), they meet again as circumstance throws them together. Yeo-reum seems to have the perfect boyfriend, a plastic surgeon. Tae-ha is single. It becomes clear that their failed relationship was imbalanced and marred by lack of good communication. As Yoon Sol, a mutual friend puts it, their relationship was an exemplar for her: “I wanted a different ending for you: “They fought, got angry, misunderstood; doubted and got disappointed in each other. But they tried their best to be happy together”. Now it turns out a realistic, but difficult relationship doesn’t work out, what does this mean?
Tae-ha comes to realize that, as he puts it, the weaker person in a relationship is not the person who loves the other one less, but the one who loves more, because that person has no regrets. Going into a relationship with vulnerability is something both learn and see if they can succeed this time.
5. Familiar Wife, 2018
You take the premises of Sliding Doors and Groundhog Day, and throw them together to make this show about the importance of being thoughtful in a marriage and gender equitability. Cha Joo-hyuk has been married for years to Seo Woo-jin for many years and their relationship is clearly in a slump. He works in a bank, she works as a masseuse. They met years ago in a bus, when she was being sexually harassed by another passenger and he stood up for her. At that time, she was in her final year in high school and he was a university student. They married, had children, and Seo Woo-jin has turned into, as her husband calls it “a monster”, and someone who scares him. She screams at him for failing to pick up the kids from daycare, and when she realizes he bought a rare old game console (one of his few pleasures in life), she puts the device into the bathtub and puts the showerhose on it.
Joo-hyuk contemplates divorce. If only he had not met on the bus! Then he might have married his first love, Lee Hye-won, his first love, member of a prominent entrepreneurial family and a talented cellist. He gets the opportunity to go back in time and change the past, then wakes up in the present. To his delight, his children and Woo-jin are gone and he’s now married to his first crush.
The first moments of this new alternative life look perfect, almost like wish fulfillment. However, it becomes soon clear that life with Lee Hye-won is not all he had hoped it would be, and to make matters worse, Joo-hyuk meets Woo-jin again as his new colleague. She is unmarried, managed to finish her degree (unlike in the version of reality where she married young), and happier and more confident. Soon, Joo-hyuk realizes that her becoming a “monster” was to a large extent him not stepping up and doing his part in the marriage (in childcare, care of her elderly mother, etc). But can he win her back?