'Misaeng' syndrome grips the nation

'Misaeng' syndrome grips the nation
New employee Jang Geu-rae (Yim Si-wan, right) and sales manager Kim Dong-sik (Kim Dae-myung) in a scene from office drama "Misaeng".

Han Jeong-taek, a 30-year-old office worker, rushes home after work on Friday. He chooses to go home and watch a TV drama about the everyday lives of office workers rather than stay out with his friends. Sometimes he drinks with them after 9:30 p.m. when the drama ends.

Han is not the only one who has never missed "Misaeng (Incomplete Life)," cable TV channel tvN's television drama based on an eponymous webtoon about the office life of a fictional trading company, One International.

"When I watch 'Misaeng,' I feel like I am not alone in suffering office hardships like long hours, a mountain of work and workplace politics," said Han.

"The drama is very realistic, maybe more so than reality.

"I empathize with the characters in the drama. Their struggles feel like my own."

The 20-episode series has been climbing the ratings. It started at 1.6 per cent on Oct 17 and shot to 5.15 per cent, a rare feat for a cable channel, when the seventh episode was aired on Nov 7.

What makes people nod at the down-to-earth cubicle drama? For one thing, the plot is compelling for many office workers who struggle to survive.

The story revolves around Jang Geu-rae (played by actor and singer Yim Si-wan of Korean idol group ZE:A), who failed to become a professional baduk (Go) player and ended up as an intern at a large company to make a living.

Unlike other interns contending for full-time positions, Jang is a high school graduate who has no university diploma, no impressive work experience and no ability to speak foreign languages. But thanks to his hard efforts and unmatched perseverance he acquired from playing baduk for more than 20 years, he lands a job as a two-year contract worker.

"I think the story relates with many people," Yim said in a press conference last week at the Seoul Square building where the drama was shot. "It is a story of everyone. I hope people will know that everyone leads a hard life and that they are not alone in this."

"This story is for people like Jang Geu-rae," Yim added.

The highs and lows of Jang's office life - with more lows than highs - illustrate his survival in a dog-eat-dog business world. As the title suggests, all characters including Oh Sang-sik (Lee Sung-min), his superior and section chief in the sales division, are flawed and have far from a complete life. Oh is a very capable and deserving leader of the division, but his callowness with workplace politics makes him an outcast and limits his promotion.

Even Ahn Young-yi (Kang So-ra), a competent new employee who stands in stark contrast to Jang in every respect as a well-educated, confident full-timer, struggles to be a smart woman in a room full of conservative male superiors.

The plotline takes credit from a webtoon of the same name by cartoonist Yoon Tae-ho, which was serially published on a Web portal from 2012-2013, enjoying a tremendous popularity. The webtoon drew over 1 billion hits apparently from office workers in their 20s and 30s. Fans have dubbed it the "salaryman's bible" for its accurate portrayal of the trials and tribulations facing office workers.

Yoon said in an interview with The Korea Herald early this year that "Misaeng" is the result of his countless interviews with real-life people who work for corporations.

Boosted by the drama, the "Misaeng" comic book series has sold over 1.5 million copies, becoming the first 1 million seller of this year, according to Wisdom House, the comic book's publisher.

The book topped the bestseller list at a number of bookstores here, including the largest chain Kyobo Bookstore.

"Even though its genre is comic book, the book's popularity skyrocketed," a Kyobo Bookstore official said.

"Men in their 30s and 40s account for 35.8 per cent of total sales, which is the largest demographic."

Unlike previous office-themed dramas peppered with romance and success, "Misaeng" director Kim Won-seok has shunned painting a rosy picture of office workers and highlighted the tough realities of Korean employees including contract workers and working moms.

"I wanted to make a realistic drama about ordinary people," Kim said. "I think that's why many anticipate watching."

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