I’ve checked out a slew of new dramas in the past few months but never write about them because its first episode simply failed to capture my interest. In the past I’d probably keep on watching, but lately I’ve got no motivation to plow forward. When I casually started to watch episode 1 of History of the Salaryman, which premiered today on SBS, I figured it’d be another watch-and-set-aside proposition. With zero expectations, this drama has won me over with sheer chutzpah. It’s bold and daring, unafraid of being ridiculous or insane, all for the sake of meta-entertainment.
This is not so much a story as it is an epic farce with gung ho underpinnings. I laughed until I almost cried in the first episode alone, which does worry me since no drama can sustain this level of hilarity without taking a turn for the serious somewhere down the line. When the first episode involved a throwdown on a golf course between two rival corporate gangs AND a super secret new anti-aging medicine being developed for a pet rooster, you know this isn’t your grandma’s K-drama.
The first thing I found super cute about Salaryman is the nomenclature. Every major character is named after a real life participant in the Chu-Han Contention, a famed dynastic tussle in Chinese history. In fact, the Korean title for this drama is Salaryman Chu-Han Story. Lee Bum Soo plays Yoo Bang (Liu Bang), Jung Kyeo Woon is his rival Hang Woo (Xiang Yu), while Jung Ryeo Won is the K-drama shrewish version of Empress Lu Zi named Yeo Ji and Hong Soo Hyun plays the scientist version of Consort Yu named Woo Hee. Even more hilarious is Lee Duk Hwa‘s Chairman character, named none other than Jin Si Hwang (Qin Shi Hwang, also known as the First Emperor of China). A bunch of secondary characters are named after the generals and strategists aligned with either the Chu or the Han side of the contention, so we know which side everyone will eventually be on.
This drama’s visual style is arresting, with lots of primary blues and browns without any of the light sparkly romantic colors used to film rom-com type fare. The PD likes to play around with the camera angles and editing, even using slow-mo to great effect and a reverse chronology sequence that was curiously effective. I like how the camera doesn’t soften anyone’s features or make characters more attractive, instead emphasizing Lee Bum Soo’s older weary face and even Jung Ryeo Won’s bitchy countenance which so perfectly captures her character’s personality. The OST makes me think of a James Bond-esque scoring tossed with some purposely overly dramatic rousing fare. The overall feel is that this drama is serious without taking itself seriously, which makes it so entertaining to watch.
The story starts with the death of one character, and then rolls backwards three months to show how everything led up to that moment. Chairman Jin Si Hwang runs the World Group and asks his subordinates to start planning a succession plan. He’s not planning on letting his loser son or entitled granddaughter (Jung Ryeo Won’s Yeo Ji) inherit that easily. Concurrently with his succession preparation, the World Group is also in the process of developing a top-secret revolutionary anti-aging medicine. Which the Chairman has commissioned solely to prolong the life of his beloved rooster. Yes, he loves his rooster that much.
His rival corporate Chairman sends Jung Kyeo Woon’s Hang Woo in to steal the formula by signing up to be one of the thirty test subjects for the new drug. Into this mix comes average joe Yoo Bang, formerly a nightclub waiter and now a fellow guinea pig test subject. In charge of developing the drug is Hong Soo Hyun’s Woo Hee, who is all business and no-nonsense. Yoo Bang immediately rubs Hang Woo the wrong way by constantly getting in the spy guy’s way, which turns out to be not a bad thing when the anti-aging medicine may have unintended side effects.
Episode 1 introduces all the characters and starts off with just a few plot points (the succession and the medicine trials), which I can foresee as getting resolved quickly and new business battles introduced down the road. Of all the characters, Jung Ryeo Won has the most distinctive role to play, as her Yeo Ji takes being a shrew to new heights of shrill. Yoo Bang first spies Yeo Ji sitting in a cafe across the street from him and he imagines her as this perfect goddess, while in truth Yeo Ji is tossing F-bombs left and right on the phone when firing someone who has displeased her by being late.
When Yoo Bang turns his attention to signing his drug test consent form, we see in the background Yeo Ji throwing a hissy fit over the cafe waitress spilling a drop of coffee on her pumps. Salaryman loves to revel in these types of extreme contrasts which work well to make you chuckle. While Yeo Ji pitching a hissy fit was funny, it was the subsequent golf course brawl between the two Chairmans and their minions, done in slow motion and with the golf course sprinklers turning on for added effect, which had me nearly rolling on the floor in stitches.
I’m loving all four leads and find their characters interesting in their own ways. The performances are pitch perfect, with Lee Bum Soo playing the seemingly bumbling and oblivious dork to Jung Kyeo Woon’s cool and collected corporate spy. Hong Soo Hyun also changes gears yet again in her repertoire of characters and transforms into a scientist who may be more than meets the eye. I’ve never like Jung Ryeo Won in anything before, but here she is actually really fun and intriguing because her character is so horrid and Jung Ryeo Won plays her with such gusto and relish.
But what I love most about episode 1 was how it kept my attention the entire way and left me wanting more. The slightly dark-tinged humor blending with the patently wacky makes for some good times when the entire cast isn’t afraid to go for broke. The cast appears to be having tons of fun filming this drama, and their energy comes across onscreen and really captures my affection. A character rides a Segway for no discernable reason, another is required to go change a rooster’s poopy diaper. This stuff is so weird it’s endearing. Salaryman gets a tentative thumbs up from me.