By Overthinking Kdramas from tumblr
[Continued from Part 1]
What is his appeal? What is it about him? At first glance he appears to be a beacon of integrity and stability. The poster child for self-negating, guileless altruism. The archetypal hapless salaryman.
To the people around him, Dong Hoon is different. Dong Hoon isn’t like his brothers or his other loser friends. He’s got a good enough job to set his mom up in a house, his beautiful wife is a successful career woman in her own right, cut from a different cloth than her in-laws–a symbol of his “perfect” life. Dong Hoon is honorable. He’s filial. He’s dutiful. He’s responsible. He is everything that he, as a middle-aged Korean man, has been told he’s supposed to be.
But hear these things from his coworkers, friends, family, Dong Hoon doesn’t feel encouraged. He feels trapped. In fact, sometimes when he hears these things, he feels like he can’t breathe.
If they were to study him for more than a passing second they might realize that Dong Hoon is being slowly eaten away by the gnawing emptiness of his life, he’s terrified that at any moment the people around him will realize that his entire life is a sham.
It’s hard to say exactly when Dong Hoon took on the role of anchor and provider for his dysfunctional family and by extension his dysfunctional neighborhood. Token success story in a town full of losers. But it’s clear that he’s been managing his image for the people who depend on him for a long time now. It’s become second nature.
Dong Hoon feels like an impostor in his day to day life, and in some ways he is one. He senses how much people look up to him and depend on him, and so hangs on desperately to what he has for fear of disappointing them and exposing himself. We know that Dong Hoon’s internal life doesn’t line up with the image he projects from his own words. When his brother says that he knew that Dong Hoon wouldn’t get in trouble with Ji An because of how strong willed he is, Dong Hoon says he can’t know if that’s true because he’s never had any real temptations to resist.
Most of the people around him have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, what the real him looks like. Underneath his mask, Dong Hoon isn’t cool headed and humble. He’s a fighter. He’s a man of violent impulses, as we’ve seen time again when something presses his berserk button.
He isn’t a naturally docile person who finally got pushed too far and snapped. He’s always been this way, but he’s found ways to suppress it. The drama heavily implies that he uses his drinking to deal with these impulses, as well to numb his constant self loathing.
When he goes to confront Kwan Il he reveals a little bit about why he started drinking instead of fighting in his transition to adulthood. He realized that at a certain point if he didn’t put that part of himself in check that something serious might happen.
And we see after his fight with Kwang Il that it’s like something has been shaken loose in him. He even says that he feels more alive afterward, and declines drinking, because if he’s not having to constantly keep himself under that oppressive control he doesn’t need to medicate himself with alcohol.
I think if one thing is clear from the way he handled the revelation that his wife has been cheating on him with his enemy, it’s that Dong Hoon is as scared—perhaps more scared—of losing the illusion of stability in his life than he is of his marriage falling apart. If he has to get a divorce it will complete destroy the narrative he’s constructed around himself that he’s got his life even slightly together. That his marriage is perfect and his life is perfect and he knows what he’s doing. And he’s scared of what it will look like when he finally loses control of himself.
Take his interactions with Ji An and put them through this lens, and we see that while Ji An might interpret his need to push her away when she gets to close as repulsion at her feelings or as a reflection of her own sense of self worth, it’s really Dong Hoon’s fear of his own impulses and desires that compels him to run away from her.
He’s far less scared of her feelings than he is of his own.
The idea that someone knows what is really going on with him scares and depresses him.
So he has to keep himself locked up inside this prison he’s constructed. The same group of friends he grew up with. The same soul crushing job. The same failing marriage. Because if he shifts for even a second the weight of his weary life will crush him. Or worse–in his mind, maybe far worse–the real Dong Hoon will come out, and he’ll tear apart his stable life with his own hands. And then he might have to acknowledge that there is something outside of that prison. Maybe something better. Maybe even happiness.
Self Imposed Life Sentence
This problem of wearing a mask and hiding his real face has visible, quantifiable consequences for the people around him. It goes way beyond Dong Hoon and Yoon Hee and their disintegrating marriage. It’s a fundamental problem with the way Dong Hoon chooses to live his life.
For instance, very idea that he could continue indefinitely to play out the pretense that everything was okay between the two of them as long as she didn’t know that he knew about the infidelity demonstrates how twisted his view of reality has become. It never could have worked long term, it wasn’t even working short term. But he didn’t give up the notion until the very moment the whole thing exploded in his face. How does someone get to that point of self deception?
He keeps telling himself the same lie.
That this is okay. That this is normal. That he isn’t miserable because of his own choices. He’s just miserable because life is miserable, and there’s nothing he can do to change it. He just has to grit his teeth and muscle through the best he can.
Ji An wonderfully and eloquently calls him on this garbage:
As I stated in the first part of this meta, the violence that characterizes these people’s lives is of both the external and internal varieties. What Dong Hoon has not expressed outwardly, he is forced to direct in at himself. There’s a real emotional cost associated with that for him. It comes in the form of his obvious untreated depression and suicidal ideation that the drama has made a point of showing us not just once, but several times.
From spending her days listening to the dismal minutia of Dong Hoon’s life, or perhaps from her own experience with these sorts of thoughts, Ji An several times senses a change in Dong Hoon’s breathing patterns and runs to him. She watches him where he walks and won’t leave him alone until she’s certain the dangerous thoughts have passed.
The lie Dong Hoon has been telling himself, that he is living well, like the lie that his marriage is salvageable just so long as he shuts his eyes and refuses to acknowledge its fundamental brokenness can lead to only one place if left unchecked: a complete self-destruct.
Words of Affirmation
I don’t want to make it seem like all I see in My Mister is doom and gloom. I find the story very uplifting in many ways and hugely gratifying to watch. Rarely have I found character drama that is so unflinchingly realistic and yet so emotionally satisfying. But I’m also a big believer in the idea that you have to know just how dark the darkness can get in order to really appreciate the light.
My Mister isn’t just an exploration of the every day violence in the lives of ordinary people. It’s also a story about growth and redemption and finding your way out of a self-destructive cycle. With 4 episodes left, we’re far from being out of the woods, but episodes 11 and 12 finally gave us what I see as a small ray of hope.
Sometimes what you need in order to find your way out of a vicious false narrative is a good verbal kick in the ass, like the one Dong Hoon got from his monk friend.
And sometimes what you need is someone to hang on to you and tell you that it’s going to be okay.
Because another huge theme of the drama is this: If you never let anyone know what you’re going through, then you can’t be comforted either.
Dong Hoon needs a lot of things, but chief among them is a heaping helping of honesty with both himself and others. Communication. Human empathy. Healing words of affirmation. He’s tried to give these things to Ji An, though he seems incapable of asking for them himself. And he can’t get them, not if he continues to refuse to open up about his needs and his wounds.
Yes, Ji An had to spy on Dong Hoon’s every waking moment to gain the insight she has into him. And I don’t want to downplay the huge invasion of privacy that is, but Dong Hoon has made it impossible for anyone else around him to understand what he’s going through without employing literal stalker tactics. This unbridled (admittedly non-consensual) honesty has created more intimacy between these two characters than Dong Hoon has with his wife of 20 years, even if he doesn’t fully realize it or know the reason for it.
And as true as it is that betrayal and disregard from the person who is supposed to care for you the most is, in Dong Hoon’s words, like being “declared dead…worthless” the opposite can also be true. Words of encouragement spoken out of sincerity can make all the difference. They can pour life back into you. Just like how being declared dead doesn’t kill you, being declared worthless doesn’t strip you of your worth. But that doesn’t make hearing the words like “you are worthy”, “you are decent”, “you are good” (not merely as a hollow acknowledgement of the mask you wear, but as a recognition and appreciate of your true self) can make all the difference when you’re living in a very dark place.