The humanity in My Mister

Life is a complicated mess. We all have challenges and traumas that we carry with us on a daily basis. It might feel that the world is a hostile place and you keep asking the same questions. “Why am I here? Why does it feel like the whole world is laden upon my shoulders?”

These are questions that belong to what I call the greater mystery of life. Questions that we often see asked by characters in books, films and tv shows. These are not easy to answer, especially when we struggle with them ourselves in real life. But through exploration of options, by the act of trying different responses based on the encountered situation we may gain a level of insight in ourselves. An insight into our morality if you will. The Korean drama My Mister is such an exploration. 

Premise of My Mister

My Mister follows the characters Lee Ji-an and Park Dong-hoon* as they form an unlikely connection whilst dealing with the misery in their life. The character of Ji-an is a 21 year old dealing with massive debts left by her mother while at the same time caring for her sick, deaf grandmother. 

Dong-hoon is the manager of Ji-an’s department at a structural engineering company. He is under constant scrutiny and manipulation by his supervisors, family and friends. We see him carry that weight tenfold because he is viewed as the only one from his neighborhood who made it big since he works at a big company. 

The plot starts moving when Dong-hoon receives a bribe that was not intended for him. Dong-hoon’s rival in the company sees this as an oppertunity to get rid him. Both our characters get involved from different angles which causes an exploration and eventually deepening of their relationship.

Besides the main characters there are at least 10 interesting side characters who interact with these main characters whilst dealing with their personal issues. While the drama is layered with Korean social norms the problems of these characters are distinctly human. Situations at work and relationship issues with family and friends. This is what makes the show accessible and recognisable. **

The human condition

When I was searching the internet to get a broader perspective for this drama I stumbled upon this article where Brazilian author Paulo Coelho praised the show for its portrayal of the human condition. In My Mister we see this human condition play out and the characters deal with it. And whether the viewer has experienced similar problems or not, it is clear that life is a complicated mess. It is the morality of the characters that decides how they deal with this mess. For Ji-an it is to work like a crazy person and take no shit so she can care for her grandmother. For Dong-hoon it’s carrying his burden and that of others without complaint in the hope that someday, somehow things will change for the better. In fact, this behaviour is rooted in the very core of these characters as their respective names mean (if I recall correctly): “to (reach) comfort”  and “the strong pillar”. Behaviour which turns out to be their saving grace.

Morality as saving grace

Our moral or ethical behaviour is constructed by our view on life, our view of the human condition. It does not matter if its basis is rooted in a particular philosophy, religion or culture. Our first morality is always constructed when growing up. It is learned through family, peers and the media we consume. In simpler terms: it is learned through our environment. So it is fair to state that we are our environment

It is only natural that when we change our environment, our morality changes. This is what happens in My Mister. With the encounter of Dong-hoon and Ji-an, combined with the events of the show, the personal environment of these two respective characters start to change. Through their interactions they gain a new perspective. A new insight into their character. Insight that was hidden beneath the surface. Something that could have been suppressed or simply never manifested in this way before. For Ji-an it is as simple as learning to have tfaith in another person, and accepting that there are people who want to help and support you without anything in return. For Dong-hoon it is to take less shit from the people around him. He stands up for himself, because it is the thing that needs to happen so he can follow his own path. 

Real life introspection

My Mister provides us with a level of introspection that can be applied to real life. Not just because some situations are common to happen in everyday life but because it shows that we humans can adapt. Through interacting with others we can feel support in our cause to help a sick family member, pay our debts, or even learn that if we take a stand for someone we care about we also take a stand for ourselves. We take a stand for what we believe is the right thing to do. Humans are adaptation machines if they realize that they don’t need to invent the wheel themselves. They just need to be open to learn from others, even if you hate those people the most in life. 

If you are able to see the starting point, the process and reasoning behind decisions, you will learn from it. That’s why interaction with people and media on a deeper level is important. So that we can deduce what our own course of action would be. This way we can implement reasoning in our system and become stronger human beings because of it.***

Subtle but powerful

What I like most about My Mister is the subtleness of the changes. Over its 16 episode runtime we see characters slowly realize how they’ve been living over the past years and that a simple change can be meaningful. Take for example Dong-hoon’s younger brother Ki-hoon. At the start of the show he is a person who is stuck in his past, thinking about who people said he was 20 years ago. He never reached the potential people said he had. He feels depressed and scared because of a bad experience connected to that time and has become an inactive person because of it.

But with the single, subtle decision to start working as a cleaner with Sang-hoon we see him grow as a character. He becomes a person who learns to stand up for himself and talk more open about the things on his mind. A seemingly small choice but with powerful consequences. 

The switch from dying to living

Another subtle change is that Dong-hoon’s older brother Sang-hoon stops talking about their mother’s funeral. And this might be the most powerful change in the entire show. For at the start, the characters are concerned about death. Death of others and themselves. Especially since their life feels dead to them. They are wondering if their life would’ve been worth it when their time would finally come. But when at the show’s end enjoying life and caring about the people around you is the most prevalent sentiment. A dichotomy best shown in the football game after the funeral. 

“Life is a complicated mess, but we cannot let the negatives control us” is one of the simple and powerful messages of the show.**** We can only fully experience our humanity when we are alive. So live. And I hope that you may experience the beauty of life for yourself.

*Note that Lee and Park are the Korean family names, so for ease of reading I will refer to them by their first name

**It is also part of why the critical reception has been good. With 21 award nominations overall and winning the category best drama and screenplay at the 55th Baeksang Arts Awards. Not forgetting the 9.1 IMDB and MyDramaList rating

***The critical Drinker has something sensible to say about meaning in contemporary films

****Have some more life lessons from the show

Other sources and further reading

Francisco J. Ayala (2010): The difference of being human: Morality

My Mister fansite: give me slippers!

3 Quarks Daily review of the show

Motivational video: Humans as adaptation machines

How to love something alien

The last couple of weeks I have been captured by the 2013 Korean drama/comedy My Love from the Star (MLftS).

The premise is simple: It’s about an alien who lived for 400 years on our planet. And while he spend most time living in solitude, his last months are troubled by his new neighbor, a famous Korean actress and supermodel. Over 21 episodes we see them fall in love.

The premise drives totally on the execution: ‘opposites attract’. On one side there is the alien, Do Min-Joon. Because he comes from a different planet has superpowers like super speed and improved hearing. When he just arrived he used these powers to help others, only to learn that humans are humans. Bad things happened or even got worse when he did. So at some point he abstained from helping any further and lived in solitude until he had the opportunity to return home.

On the other side there is Cheon Song-i, who is an actress at the height of her career and completely in the spotlight. She is in almost every show and commercial, but also on billboards etc. Her face is basically everywhere and it quite impossible to not know about her. Unless you’re an alien ofcourse. There are a lot of side characters who are important for the plot progression but for the sake of spoilers I will not touch on them here.

Does it break?

For me the most important elements of a romantic drama and comedy are how the characters are written and performed. And while I’m not proficient to comment on acting skills, I absolutely hate it when it is over the top silly or the drama seems fake. In my opinion MLftS excels at allowing both drama and humor room to breathe. This show could be a reflection of life where two people start from a certain position totally opposite from each other and grow towards the other due to their interactions and their inability to ignore it when the other needs help.

Character growth in real life is about stacking positive subtle changes. Something which is often better portrayed in a tv show then in a film, simply because of run time. An important step to take in your personal growth is stopping negative behaviour and replacing it with new and healthier behaviour. I think that stacking subtle changes on each other is what this show does absolutely right. It also helps that the MLftS does not feel episodic but more like a film cut in 21 separate hours. It becomes very apparent very early on that this show takes it time to tell this story. And I’m very glad it does. Only in the last seven or so episodes you can clearly see how the subtle changes are stacked to change the characters in a believable way. This continues to the very end. And while I must add that I’m not too sure about what I think off the ending, I believe it is a better one than the two obvious other options.**

The importance of humor in drama

I learned a lot from watching MLftS. How it weaves its secondary plot in the main to stretch the characters further out of their comfort zone as well as bouncing an immovable rock with an unstoppable force over a longer period of time. The two main characters are the kind of people that sometimes take a brave step forward, only to step away from each other shortly after. They get in each other’s hair all the time by defaulting to (mostly old ) behaviour just to gain attention in the most silly ways possible. And it had me laughing hard. The humor is what drives this show home for me. It is on the spot, sincerely funny but never over the top. It lightens the drama and makes the important moments even more important. If you laugh with a character, you will cry with a character. It is attachment to the characters that keeps you watching and wanting for more. It is these qualities that make a good show.

It’s just life

There is one more thing I want to touch on. I recognise allegories and metaphors at an increasing rate in the media I consume. The one here is: how to love something alien. As mentioned before the two main characters are opposites, and at the start they are completely alien to each other. But over the course of the show they start to understand and love the alien part in their life, whilst growing as a person simultaniously. 

When we want something in our life, it might be completely alien at the start. We don’t know its rules and possibilities. At least not on a conscious level. But over time, as we spend more time with this one thing we start to understand it. After understanding comes loving, and when you love something you are able to see more possibilities than you initially could when you started this journey of understanding. 

When I started the crazy journey of writing a book most of the rules were completely alien to me. But I am learning; gaining understanding about the craft of putting stories to paper. And I would be lying if I’d say it is easy, but I’m sure that there will come a time that I can say I learned to love something alien.

**Which I will have here as a spoiler: Being 1: a character dies; or 2 she goes with him. *end Spoiler**