Spoiler Alert. Watch My Mister before reading any of this. It’s worth the sixteen-hour+ investment. I will wait.
You came back! You made it through the slow-moving, depressing series I sent you off to watch. It’s not your typical K-drama with some crazy premise like time travel, alternate worlds, or dead spirits that can’t make it to the real afterlife because of a grudge. My Mister has none of this. It is set in an ordinary neighborhood, with ordinary people, with normal if not downright mundane lives. Realism pervades the story in the community, the workplace, the hangouts, the subway, the buses, and the homes.
While there is plenty of drama at the executive level with principals jockeying for power, the work itself has almost no consequence. It’s simply a device to extol the virtues and showcase the integrity of Dong-hoon. He cares about the integrity of the work and the people that work for and with him. For example, when the drone fails, Dong-hoon, the senior manager at the site, puts himself at risk by climbing up the water tower to take the necessary pictures to analyze the structure.
The story is barely alive as the two protagonists, Lee Ji-an and Dong-hoon, stand apart waiting for the subway to arrive, sit apart, or are uncomfortably squeezed together at rush-hour congestion. They never walk side-by-side down the road where they split off into their respective neighborhoods. Lee Ji-an spends more time staring at the ground than any other character. Sometimes, my Hollywood brain wants to scream at them to say something, say anything to each other.
Shame on me for those moments of weakness. I watch K-dramas because they break the mainstream mold, not despite it. And nothing breaks that mold better than My Mister. No brains splattered, plot twists sure, but not every thirty seconds like we have the attention span of a one-year-old, no witty and triumphant repartee while slaying people that so obviously deserve to die.
My Mister is an exercise in everyday life rather than an escape from it. Sang-hoon says with all seriousness, “My one and only goal is to leave the house and drink.” Dong-hoon video records his exceptional talent for his son, which consists of dumping shot glasses full of soju into beer glasses lined up to make somaek.
What is not ordinary is Dong-hoon’s integrity. He is a moral superhero. He never maligns anyone or does anyone wrong throughout the whole story. He has no moral chink in his armor. His behavior is impeccable from start to finish. If he has a flaw, it is his flawlessness. He protects the dignity of those he knows are hurting or hurting him and consequently hurts himself more. He doesn’t confront Yoon-hee when he knows she is cheating on him but tries to persuade Do Yun to dump her to maintain her dignity. He doesn’t bring up the subject of Gyumduk, his one-time best friend to Jung-hee, Gyumduk’s spurned lover, even though he misses him, which he ultimately acknowledges with the one-word response, yes, which for him is a tsunami of talk and emotion. He carries grandma up the stairs and fights Lee Ji-an’s tormenter. He gets up for a lady on the subway even though he is injured and hurting.
He is a knight in shiny armor, but he hates his life. To his family, he is the winner of the group, the only brother with a real job, and a beautiful, loving, and successful wife. In reality, he is stuck as a low-level manager subservient to his one-time subordinate turned CEO, who also is having an affair with his wife. He lives within walls of his own making, and it’s not entirely clear if Yoon-hee’s infidelity is one of the causes or one of the symptoms.
Lee Ji-an is no moral slouch either. Even though she is willing to throw two full-time employees under the bus for a manipulative and fearful boss, she does it to pay off a manufactured debt from the vengeful Lee Kwang-il and care for her disabled grandmother Lee Bong-ae. Her empathy towards her assailant, Kwang-il, inspires his compassion, the last piece of the puzzle required to put Do-Yun away for good. But I think Ji-an’s superpower is her ability to read and understand people’s motives far beyond the capabilities of even an older adult. She plays a CEO, an attorney, and even the entire corporate staff of Saman E&C. But if Dong-Hoon has walls, Lee Ji-an’s walls have walls.
Lee Ji-an’s omnipresent wiretap and round-the-clock monitoring penetrate Dong-Hoon’s walls, albeit without his permission or knowledge. There is nothing she doesn’t know about him, and it is all absolutely genuine because he doesn’t know that she is watching over him. Dong-Hoon’s impeccable morality breaks down Lee Ji-an’s walls, always supporting her, even after his understanding of her transgressions escalates. So the dual protagonists dance this tango throughout the plot, slowly bringing the light to Lee Ji-an’s face and life to Dong-hoon’s day.
They become more intertwined in each other’s lives, and both intuit the absolute necessity of the other, becoming not lovers and far more than drinking buddies or colleagues or acquaintances. They become friends.
And that is what I think is the point of this story. The story is a recipe for being happy in a world of friends. I think the hypothesis of the movie comes from grandma when she signs, “If you think about it, each interpersonal relationship is quite fascinating and precious. You must repay them. Live a happy life. That’s how you can repay the people in your life.” The most important symbol in the movie comes at the very end when after everything they have done for one another, Dong-Hoon and Lee Ji-an shake hands. They become happy, not for themselves, but because they owe it to the other.
In romantic relationships, we say, “You make me happy.” Or if you are less fortunate, maybe you say, “You don’t.” The burden is on each person to make the other happy as if love is some mutually beneficial monetary transaction. The story has something to say about this arrangement. As much as my Hollywood brain demands a romance, it was never in the cards. First, note the age difference. Dong-hoon is a 48-year-old man. Jee Li-an is a 21-year-old woman.
Second, note the lack of one single, successful romantic relationship in the whole story. Not one. Dong-hoon and Yoon-hee’s marriage is in tatters from the very beginning. She cheats with the person he hates the most. “Why him?” Dong asks. “Why him of all people?” Because Do-Yun manipulates people to get what he wants. He dates married women because “You can trust a married person to keep a secret.” Yoon-hee chooses romance over family and friends. She wants the one, and she wants to be special. She buys into the mutually reciprocal nuclear relationship that Do-Yun represents. The nukes end up doing what nukes do when she discovers that Do-Yun’s interest in her isn’t entirely so mutual. A romantic relationship places the burden of happiness on the other person. Grandma’s friendship places the burden on your obligation to your friends. Even though Dong-hoon and Yoon-hee make their peace, they never get back together romantically, and she leaves Korea to be with their son in America.
In the relationship between Sang-hoon and Ae-ryun, they went the other way. Sang-hoon hangs on to the thought, but there is nothing between them throughout the story. Ae-ryun keeps the family but gives up the romantic relationship. She still shows up for a beer at the bar and drinks with all of them. Sang-hoon sleeps on the floor with his brother in his mother’s house while Ae-ryun has moved into her place.
Jung-hee wears the long-dead relationship with the Buddhist monk, Gyumduk, like cement water shoes. Jung-hee has wasted her adult life commiserating over him. She fakes happiness and independence with her night walks to her place, which is the bar she just left but never actually leaves. Everyone sees through it. She finally emancipates herself and her friends when everyone at the bar is allowed to say his name without her breaking down in remorseful tears or an unconscious stupor. He makes his peace with her, but they never reconcile. His only barrier to happiness is that he didn’t have the strength to stop by and see her after the breakup. It only takes him twenty-some-odd years and punishing meditation for getting it right.
The most bizarre relationship of all is Ki-hoon and Yoo-ra. Yoo-ra bases the relationship on Ki-hoon’s admission that he took out his inadequacies on her, making her feel good to see him as the failure instead of herself. Ki-hoon shows compassion for her in brief but generally unrewarded spurts. The best line between them is when Ki-hoon says, “I love you.” She responds, “That doesn’t help.” As much as I wanted to scream at the TV to make their relationship happen, in the end, I would have yelled at the writer if he had done it any other way.
And that’s it for the relationships. Bong-ae (Li-an’s grandmother) and Yo-soon (the mom) have no husbands. Choon-dae (the trashman) has no wife. No one in the office has a relationship on display. No one in the neighborhood drags their wives along to the soccer games or the bar.
The story creates intimacy among the characters through daily consumption of alcohol, by sharing the anxiety and frustration of friends, reveling in their successes as if they were their own, taking up arms at the sight of a bloody comrade, and sometimes even making extraordinary gestures, like when Sang-hoon uses up all his money to give grandma a decent funeral. Despite all their bickering and disappointments, they have genuine intimacy and decency towards one another.
The romantic realm is filled with demands, deceit, disappointment, and failed expectations.
The boy doesn’t get the girl, and not every story has to be a love story. So, in the end, the story’s recipe for happiness is through friendship earned through intimacy and decency. For every action of decency, you owe a debt of happiness. And I find that entirely refreshing and useful.