A review by Fidhia Kemala, originally published here, May 20, 2018
It’s time to take Korean drama seriously.
At the first time the news about this drama emerged, I thought it could be a mind tickler. As the premise complied the age gap between the two main characters, Lee Sun-kyun will play a 40 years old engineer (Park Dong-hoon) and an early 20’s Lee Ji-an, who is suffering in hardship, will be characterized by IU. With this pairing and a scratch inducing title “My Ajusshi”, it was easy to frame this drama as another genre-mandate of a damsel in distress narrative. Oh, my Ajusshi will help me pay my debt and get me a new castle to live, my innocence and endurance will console him instead.
Despite this hard-boiled pre-conceived belief, at the same time, it sounded so promising that Kim Won-suk, who is the mastery behind the two most commendable Korean shows for the recent years, Misaeng and Signal, will take the lead of this drama. Those dramas have paved his way to collect a bunch of acknowledgments as a genre groundbreaker in drama land. If he decides to infuse his starkly realistic style into this drama, I was so on board to venture another cinematic experience in the drama land once again.
Well, it turns out that my spin misses its mark, not for the taste of realness, but for the blunted damsel in distress part. My Ajusshi is not an ode to a masculine proclamation in the shade of Lolita’s adolescent version, or within the sweetness of excessive romance, but it’s a love letter to the bleak, estranged, and suffocating loneliness. It narrates the two tales of emotional restriction engendered by acute sorrow that’s unwilling to be exposed and prefer to remain unheard.
Regardless of this remark, over the course of the first two episodes, the story is barely set. The two characters meet neither by accident nor by a ridiculous sudden-struck event, they’re just usual co-workers, who work in the same division at a construction company. Dong-hoon is the manager and Ji-an is a temporal employee he hired. They grapple with their own predicament, one congests in the relenting listlessness of middle age life while the other one is in attempt to compromise with undue debt and a threat of her past.
Even so, the destined path of how these two characters crash into each other is something undeniably overused. Park Dong-hoon is entrapped incidentally in a bribe scheme made by the office executive, a provisional CEO, Do Joon-young, who happened to be Dong-hoon’s subordinate back when he was in college. Meanwhile, Ji-an is inviting herself voluntarily to this vicious scheme just for her own merits, to exchange her pro-wicked thief skill into millions of money. She wires Dong-hoon’s phone and espies him through it.
This kind of office politic is so dire and manipulative in the first place. It’s a trite exposition that recurring multiple times in Korean drama, but the deep-cut exposure of the two main characters’ life slowly punctures the story to another level of brutal truth, whisked away the office politic as a mere backdrop of an originated character story.
IU does give a transformative rendition through inhabiting Ji-an character. She is a vacant-looking woman who always puts half of her face from the audience in order to keep sealing a horrendous pain she’s been enduring for. Notwithstanding, this painful misery doesn’t turn Ji-An to be a brash spitfire who lashes out people she’s dealing on with insolent attitude or to be a dweller who caught out in engulfing despair. In her case, there’s simply no room for remorse and depression, her dead inside-and-outside resemblance is her working mechanism to be more pragmatic with the life she fences on.
Not in the same contrast with IU, Lee Sun-kyun intercepts Dong-hoon characters like a malady. Outwardly, he is a regular, decent man with a settled job in a big company, but it’s amply enough to identify the lack of contentment in his drifting eyes and aimless face. He’s been shadowed by his soul-crushing mediocre’s accomplishment, seeing as a diligent, successful middle child while his two brothers are complete failures who failed to maintain their professional job. As the more episodes unfold, it’s more crystal clear that the show more centralizes inside this prosaic character.
Within these two characters’ plot, the show glistens its narrative with a strong sense of realness and Oh Boy, even this drama is not afraid to take time in each scene. Like simulating a real depiction of whether the office daily base or the high-pitched moment of office conflict, in an awkward and fuzzy camera’s maneuvers. Yet the camera often spans through a long, quiet scene where none of the two main characters says anything, just showing a harshly dwelled look on their face.
It ain’t like to use voiceover to describe the main characters’ inner struggle and object to identifying innuendos inside the characters’ head with corrosive loudness. Instead, the show coaxes away with wandering faces of both Dong-hoon and Ji-an who lost in their drifted, preoccupied mind wordlessly. In advance, it didn’t take a half of the series to latch on that the show would be inherently contemplative in various degree of emotional stage.
As the show seems to move, I become less mindful about the nature of Dong-hoon and Ji-an relationship. I do not care what label suits the liaison of the two of them, you can say, romantic love, platonic love, paternal love, whatever, but I don’t think those forms of love are able to translate their relationship either. It’s more than about finding the right phrase of love for it. Well, it perhaps not about love at all. In my apprehension, it’s deeper. It’s about intimate connection.
So, here begins. In her slick motive, wiretapping Dong hoon’s phone in order to straighten up her grand plan, to get more money from Joo-young, Ji-an actually learns too many things about Dong-hoon. She dismissed the consequences of by intruding someone else’s private life in secrecy she might end up fostering empathy for him. While Dong-hoon acts in reverse, not knowing his privacy has been entirely breached by Ji-an, he begins to see her as a reflection of him. He feels intruded in the first place when Ji-an manages to expose, bit by bit, about how miserable his life is actually, but he knows what it means, they share something in common instinctively. They might been trapped in the different form of isolation, but still, it’s the same feeling of loneliness.
This chasm is an echo of how Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson are connected to each other while they are suspended by their own limbo in Lost in Translation, but this pair, Dong-hoon and Ji-an, is too conventional to hold hands or to giggle around at the Tokyo street. Their interactions are brief and sparse, much weighted with silences than with words, but each time they meet, the intimate connection they share is enough to permeate a dense and comforting feeling between them.
There is also a bunch of drags happening along the series, the brotherhood hanging-out session which does take most of the series’ slot significantly — Dong-hoon and his two brothers, Ki-hoon (the youngest) and Sang-hoon (the oldest), are buzzing around almost every night at their old friend’s bar alongside with the other childhood friends — plucks as a horrid and screwball humor that feels so irreverent to digest and so bewildering to react. Honestly, it was devastating to watch the three of them incorporated each other with agony about how such a failure they are in the first place, but later this show punctuates a perfectly right interplay that implies this kind of brotherhood is not a troll face, it’s a real deal.
It was the moment when the friction in Dong-hoon’s marriage has been trailed by his brothers. How they respond to the fact that their sweet and decent brother has been betrayed by his wife is more scornful and explosive than how Dong-hoon himself reacts to it — though, there’s a gut-wrenching moment of how the combustion of his restrain feelings get redeemed. It’s actually the second time Lee Sun-kyun was cheated by his wife. In the last drama he joined, he was the husband whose (My) Wife Is Having An Affair This Week. However, he accommodates the two characters in a totally different approach. The last character was more jittery and tense to the point of swiftly head on to the internet to shed over his distress. Meanwhile, Park Dong-hoon is so untempered, he nails the betrayal with silence and consumes it with constraint.
There’s no doubt that Lee Sun-Kyun is the star of this show. He has delivered the most understated performance in drama land. Besides the fact that his character itself is the real epitome of a human being, he compels it to a degree that he is no longer demonstrated Park Dong-hoon character, but he already reveals it and becomes the one with the character. His constant approach is the torn and drifted face of Dong-hoon that’s captured like a theme of the entire series. Even in very little act that face still resurfaces a myriad of emotional dispersion makes the audiences drench into his plights. It’s so suffocating yet it feels like how exactly a human lives. Yeah, the title bugs me all along, now I concede to pronounce that he is My Ajusshi.