During my first few years in Korea, I asked Koreans I knew what was the best South Korean-made TV show they’d ever seen. I would hear different answers from different people, but one consistent answer I got from people who cared about and consumed a lot of movies, films, and books, was the recommendation that I check out 네 멋대로 해라, a TV program that aired back in summer/fall 2002 (and which, in English, got titled Ruler of Your Own World.)
Somehow, though, my other (very brief) experiences with Korean TV dramas kept me skeptical. I don’t care for the kind of hyper-twisty, surprise-focused, romance-focused drama in any case, but in Korea this is worsened by the fact that the most jarring archetypal patterns (rich guy treats poor pretty girl badly; poor pretty girl falls for rich guy; poor pretty girl leaves decent-hearted not-rich guy for rich asshole) meld with other stuff I would rather not watch on TV (mom throws temper tantrum at family dinner; then she does it again… and again… and again…).
When it was recommended to me years ago, the show was really hard to get, and impossible for someone who couldn’t speak Korean; the program had been released on DVD, but without subtitles. I was given copies, along with fansubs (apparently by whoever this Totuta person is, who runs this website), and filed them away under “Watch when I have time.” Well, I ran across them again this winter, and decided to give the show a whirl, and what do you know: it’s pretty good!
The things I was told about it were generally true: it’s well-written, which means that all the characters — even the smaller supporting characters — each have their own story, their own unique struggle. In a sense, the show brings to mind that aphorism, widely misattributed (so they say) to Philo of Alexandria or to Plato, that one should be kind to everyone one meets, as they are all fighting a hard battle. In Ruler of Your Own World, this turns out, to some degree, to be true: everyone seems to be struggling — and sometimes giving up on the struggle — to deal with her or his own problems, and those problems become part of the story too, without overwhelming the main thread of the story.
Another thing this show does which is worth note is that it inverts the expected pattern. There is a rich guy who treats the female protagonist (Kyung) badly (and, to be frank, acts a lot like a child); but rather than falling for him, she relatively quickly spurns him and goes for the screwed-up but honest and much more grown-up ex-con in her life (whose name is Boksu). The ex-con has a very slim and stylish (but also relatively poor and potty-mouthed) long-term girlfriend (Mirae), a cheerleader who in most dramas like this would end up being some kind of oppressively horrible witch, except she isn’t… she’s very sympathetic, and I can’t help but kind of cheer for her, and empathize with her, even as I know that Boksu belongs with Kyung.
Which is interesting, because even I can see that Boksu is not a very handsome guy. Which is not a crime: we can’t all be the handsomest guy in the show, but it does sort of violate the rules of Korean TV, as far as I’ve seen. He dresses like a regular lower-middle-class Korean guy in 2002, and his face is average. And while I like her as an actress, I don’t find Lee Na Young (Kyung) particularly attractive in this show — people constantly comment about her cheesy, country-style wardrobe and her looks. I can’t help but imagine that in most Korean TV shows, the casting would be inverted — that the lovers at the center of this narrative would likely end up on the outskirts of the story, while the man and woman rejected by them look more like the lovers paired at the center of most Korean TV dramas. That would be sad, as I’d say everyone brings their A-game to this show, and because I think that seeing people who aren’t stereotypically beautiful lends the show a kind of realism bolstered by the way each character is so different, so uniquely themselves.
Mirae, the foul-mouthed cheerleader who is, deep down, desperate not to lose the man she truly loves, is an excellent example of this, and probably my favorite character in part because even she, the prettiest girl in the show, looks like a normal person, not some Gangnam plastic-surgery bot… and in part, because she’s the inevitable underdog and yet she’s such a sympathetic character all the same. All she really wants to do is go to college and become a nurse. But she’s also a bit domineering, and has mothered Boksu — in ways he seemingly has outgrown. When he fails to break up with her, it’s understandable in some ways — he knows it will break her heart — but frustrating in others, since he knows that he really wants to be with someone else… and yet, I wondered whether he didn’t also crave the mothering he got from her, and whether it didn’t, deep down, remind him of his own domineering mother.
Once, last year, a student and I sat and discussed Korean dramas in comparison with American ones for the purposes of a presentation she had to do. I told her that one of the biggest differences I’d found was that, in Western dramas, it was possible to structure a narrative around something other than a love story. Love and sex do play a part in most TV shows — or, at least, relationships often do — but, as the student agreed, a TV show like E.R. is kind of impossible in Korean terms: it’s focused on how an E.R. works, on the experience of being a doctor and on how doctors perform their jobs, on the health care system. Yes, there are relationships and even romances in the show, but the focus is the work being done in a busy emergency room in Chicago. This happens with police shows, with shows about criminals (I’m thinking more about Dexter and Breaking Bad than Weeds, mind you), and it can happen with people in jail (Oz, Prison Break).
Ruler of Your Own World is somewhere in-between, in this aspect: the romance is a big part of the narrative, but at the same time, what characters do for money is also important: after all, the male lead starts out the show as a pickpocket just getting released from jail. The question of what he will do next preoccupies him, and his eventual choice to train as a stuntman is less shallow than it would have been in a lot of shows. When being a stunt man could have been presented as all leather-jackets and sunglasses and coolness, it’s actually presented as hard bloody work, as dirty and dangerous, as involving know-how that needs to be acquired, and under-respected by people who know nothing about it. We see Boksu screw up, and struggle, and learn.
Kyung’s job — playing keyboards in an indie rock band — is similarly empty of glamor: they get excited about small gigs, they scrimp and save the money they have, sometimes they consider pawning their instruments for cash, and so on. Their new lead singer isn’t an instant success — in fact, she suffers from terrible stage fright, something the band struggles with. Kyung’s family is less than supportive of her musical aspirations, and her rich-almost-boyfriend sees it as a hobby.
Other characters all have jobs of some kind: the rich guy is a journalist, Mirae is a cheerleader (and, later, part-time model) whose job kind of sucks; Boksu’s father drives a bus — and we see him doing it sometimes — while his mom runs a fried chicken shop. Kyung’s mother is a depressed housewife, but her father runs hotels (and is well-networked with local gangsters and thugs). Practically everyone in the story not only has a job, but is shown actually doing it, usually in less-than-glamourous tasks, rather than in the showy, cool, and overstylized fashion we’d see in most Korean TV shows.
(This brings to mind what I’ve read about how one of the first English-language novelists to focus on work as a major theme of his narratives, as something that kept the world and the Empire going, was Kipling. I’m not sure about that being quite true, but Kipling — and a lot of writers after him in the Anglophone world — have been making work an important part of characters’ lives, in a way that it doesn’t seem so often to be in Korean TV shows or in many of the Korean stories I’ve read in translation. I rather wonder if this is related to the way many of my students say they want to work in a big company, but only shrug when I ask what specifically they want to do. “Work in an office,” is the most precise response I usually get.)
The show also — all the way back in 2002 — made some pretty clear comments on issues in Korean society. For one thing, Kyung — the sympathetic female lead — openly admits to having had premarital sex to her kinda-sorta-boyfriend, and isn’t willing to take shit for it. She also smokes, and drinks him under the table. Her meekness at home is part of the very reason she has so much trouble with her father (it is not so much a virtue as an annoyance to him). Boksu’s mother, meanwhile, is a broken woman, and there is no magic fix for this problem, only the struggle to relate to her sons (especially Boksu, who was the offspring of a now-terminated marriage to a violent alcoholic), and to men in general. The family relationships in this show seem a lot more real in their dysfunctionality than what I’ve glimpsed in other Korean TV shows. Parents less often throw fits than they just act like jerks sometimes, almost always in ways that relate to their own personal problems.
In any case, I’m only halfway through the program, but so far I get the impression the narrative is centered on the importance of doing the things one truly wants to do — of being honest with oneself, of walking around open to the world and to happy possibilities, of not being locked into an unhappy situation. In that, I’d say, it’s somewhat radical as far as Korean cultural messages go: I can’t count the number of times when Korean students or friends have come to me asking for advice on some decision or other, and reacted with shock when I asked them what they wanted to do, and told them they should do what feels or seems right to them. “You’re the only person who said that to me! I knew I should have asked you first!” is something I’ve heard time and time again, to my sorrow. When I ask what advice they got from friends, it almost always boils down to these two notions:
- Don’t — DON’T! — consider what you want to do. In fact, if you feel an impulse to do A, you most definitely should do B, or C, or something else… but not A.
- If you find the prospect of doing X unpleasant, then that is what is necessary and you really need to do it. (Justification for this is focused on the idea of career building, one’s future, economic stability, or whatever, but the main thesis seems to be that self-torture isn’t just occasionally inescapable — it’s a requisite part of becoming adult and “living well.”)
Anyway, I have thoughts about why these ideas seem to persist and to plague my students and friends whenever they seek advice — or, in many cases, even when they don’t ask for it, but get it anyway — and I think there are specific reasons why in Korea, adult responsibility seems to be so often paired with personal unhappiness and with not doing what one wants to do… but that’s for another post.
In the meantime, I’ll simply note that find it heartening to see a TV show that comes out hard-hitting against all that. The very title of the show does this: 네 멋대로 해라 basically translates as “Do What You Want To Do.” While it’s sad to me that this message might come across as unique or radical in entertainment, I’m glad it got some airtime almost a decade ago. I hope more like it gets out there too…
I’ll sum up my thoughts once I’ve seen the remaining episodes, I guess, so stay tuned for that! For those interested, you can see the show online, at least if you’re in North or South America (or have a proxy that will convince the site that you are… or, there’s always this). Like I said, by all accounts, it’s probably the best Korean TV drama ever made, so… well, there you go. If you can get past the stuff that a North American viewer (like me) is likeliest to trip on — the occasional overlong crying scenes, the weird pacing in certain “dramatic” moments, things like that — you might really enjoy it.
Oh, and as a bonus, long before I ever saw this show I was a fan of the band who was hired to do the indie band’s music, the now-famous 3rd Line Butterfly. (I’m 99% sure that we actually played once at the same club — DGBD — on the same night, sometime in 2004; I somehow doubt they’d remember, but it was a thrill for me.) Someone out there has a copy of the boxed set I bought years ago, which contains (among other things) the soundtrack for the show, and I’d like it back, though I may never see it again… sigh. A fun bit of trivia is that there is no keyboard in the band, while the character Kyung plays keyboards in the show. There are synthesizer bits in the studio recordings, though, so they just barely get away with it…
More next time.