For the past couple of months I’ve been slowly watching this drama while juggling other books and shows. I tell everyone that this is a winter drama, not only because it takes place mostly in the season but also because it’s rather merciless about life’s crushing realities. Unless you sympathize with the story, it’ll be hard to watch during longer summer nights where the inclination is bent towards watching less TV and going out more. But if you are like me, with an affinity for “slice of life” stories, and going through a somewhat difficult or existential time yourself (at the time I was job-hunting and more and more thinking about what constitutes a meaningful life), then you will deeply enjoy this drama regardless of timing. I hope to write this post mostly spoiler-free (rather, it’s difficult to spoil because the plot is rather complicated), and to encourage those who might never have watched a Korean drama to give it a try.
What is an Ajusshi?
The translation, “My Mister,” is a bit odd, and hard to understand because it is impossible to translate “ajusshi” in a single word without adding a footnote for cultural context. Furthermore, the bit of cultural context required is essential to understanding the drama as a whole (and many other dramas, for that matter) without getting annoyed. Essentially, given Korean culture is based on a tight collectivism, aspects of the culture that may seem rude to foreigners, such as yelling at the waiter to take your order, is quite normal because the underlying assumption is that all Koreans live together in a kind of larger “family.” Growing up, I was often confused about who was actually in my family, because any middle-aged woman was called my “aunt” and any middle aged man was called my “uncle.” Just the other day I was with a friend who told her son to come talk to me, his “uncle” (the first time I had been called 삼촌, which was odd at first). Ajusshi is similar but a step removed from the word for “uncle,” which I have also been called one time by a little kid on the street at a crosswalk (again, felt strange because I don’t consider myself middle-aged). It’s the equivalent of “mister” but in English “mister” is a bit neutral — to call someone “my mister” is a bit strange because there is no closeness embedded in the word.
“Ajusshi,” on the other hand denotes a connection based on a hierarchical, collectivist society. And again, aspects of this society can be particularly bothersome throughout the drama (and many other dramas). This drama does critique the system itself, taking place in a corporate setting, showing corruption and abuse of power, and often breaking traditional gender roles. At the same time, it’s still often irritating to watch various subplots or secondary characters who too accurately embody life in Korean culture, such as being too over-protective, or over-reliant. This is likely reflective of my own views on Korean society more generally, and the drama can be a good litmus test to see where your own views fall (if you are not aware of them already).
An Unconventional Love Story
The fact that the drama offers a critical lens on Korean society is most prominent in the slow construction of a love story that heavily differentiates itself from other Korean dramas. The man is not only middle-aged rather than young with lots of money, but also is married and, above all things, pretty ordinary. He’s the epitome of a “nice guy” who stays quiet and gets by pretty well in the middle class. The girl is not only more like a “girl” rather than a woman, but also is unconcerned about her appearance and is more capable and aggressive than the man. The way their relationship develops is difficult to anticipate, making it a breath of fresh air compared to other dramas.
The difference between the two characters is cemented in the unforgettable first scene, where an insect is flying around the office and the man tries to catch it and release it, but the girl kills it without a second glance. This is the starting point: a man who is too nice to challenge his place in society, and a girl with a mysterious past who lives in society’s seldom examined edges. From there, the two characters move closer to each other, the man spurred to shake off his complacency, and the girl gradually learning that toughness doesn’t come from pushing others away but from being vulnerable, and fighting for others. On paper, these two ideas look rather trite, but they are brilliantly brought to life by Lee Sun-kyun (who just looks like a nice guy), and IU (whose face is a bit mysterious and almost acts in its natural state).
Thankfully, the characters do not neatly meet in the middle, nor is their development so obvious. It comes like life itself, in sudden bursts and moments of defeat. At one point the man is on his knees, and repeats the girl’s words to give him some strength, and later the girl is on her knees, apologizing to the man despite being alone. I found those scenes to be the most beautiful, where despite how lonely we may feel or actually be, the words of others can help nudge us along. In the end, they have changed each other but the moral may be that neither side is correct, that the best situation is to live somewhere in the middle, both dependent on others yet with a fierce, independent agency.
Love, in the context of this drama, is perhaps purer than actual romantic love. That is, perhaps the two characters would be a perfect match for each other if not for time and place. However, some doubt also lingers in the idea that if they were romantically involved, none of this development would have occurred. One of the most profound, unspoken statements of the drama is that strength comes less from romantic relationships (they’re shown to cause more pain than anything else) and rather from family and friends. They are the constants, the ones who always support you unconditionally, without any pretext for what is sometimes the impossible expectations of love: validation of self-worth, satisfaction of romantic fantasies, fulfillment of some pillar in what one perceives or desires to be his or her identity, etc. The only reason family and friends have to support you is the bond itself. I can’t help but remember a quote from A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, a self-proclaimed meditation on friendship:
Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.
If we expect out of romantic relationships the cliché of us being “changed” into “better people,” then friendships succeed in this more so than any form of dating. Romance might crumble under its expectations but friendships are strengthen by the lack of expectations. The only thing a friend expects out of another friend is trust and for the friend to be there — it is by nature much less transactional.
Internal vs External Forces
The drama largely takes place in a structural engineering company that not only engineers but also conducts security inspections. Halfway through the series, the two main characters have a conversation where the man explains his work, talking about internal and external forces and how his job is to make sure buildings withstand both of them over time. The man then talks about his childhood friend who was talented at everything — sports, grades, sociability — but ended up not being able to stand it and instead gave everything up and became a monk in a nearby temple. The drama does well in comparing different aspects of life — people who are aiming for the top of society’s ranks, people who have fallen to the bottom, and people who have rejected it all — and examining their different internal and external strengths.
It is easy to read external forces as friends and family and internal forces as being some intangible, likely exhaustible inner strength, the former being embodied by the man and the latter in the girl. In the corporate world, the sheer number of relationships and cogs in the system make for a constant clash between various external forces that ultimately decide one’s fate. In unemployment, one lacks the external forces and so must suddenly depend on his or her internal motivation to continue each day. Ironically, while many of us like to say we would rather not work, the show depicts characters who wish they could go with everybody to commute in the morning and come home feeling like they had done something. In leaving everything behind to be a monk, you succeed in cultivating inner strength and being unhindered by external forces, but, to continue using the metaphor of engineering, you forgo the possibility of building anything at all.
Koreans, perhaps because of their tumultuous history, a collectivism that encourages the sharing of grief and joy, and a strictly hierarchical society, commonly express the idea that “life is difficult,” perhaps more so than I’ve heard the sentiment in America. This drama affirms the adage that “the grass is always greener” — life is difficult regardless of what you do or do not have.
On a final note, one song in the OST that captures the drama as a whole is shared below. The lyrics are quite beautiful:
There are English subtitles, though it’s difficult because certain phrases that sound perfectly fine in Korean can feel cliché or just not as meaningful in English (e.g. “I become me”).