From left, Lee Beom-su, Jung Ryeo-won, Hong Soo-hyun and Jeong Gyu-won pose at the press conference for “History of the Salaryman” in Mok-dong, Seoul on Thursday. / Korea Times
By Noh Hyun-gi
Korean corporate life is unique yet similar to the Japanese office culture and something Westerners may find tricky to decipher. Promising to provide a glimpse into that singular world, a new drama, “History of the Salarymen,” combines comedy and action in a plot featuring corporate spies. Actor Lee Beom-su plays the main character Yu Bang, who after years of unemployment, volunteers to be a lab mouse for Cheonha, a pharmaceutical conglomerate led by Jin Si-hwang played by veteran actor Lee Duk-wha. At the high security lab to develop new drugs, Yu meets Choi Hang-wu, played by Jeong Gyu-won, a director from a rival firm. Choi signs up for the experiment undercover to steal the new drug. Jung Ryeo-won plays the immature heiress of Cheonha, Baek Yeo-chi.
Against the background of a worldwide gloomy economic outlook and high unemployment rate, the characters will inspire laughter and empathy from those in and even out of the workforce. Yu, who has a strong provincial accent, is becoming desperate after so many years out of work. Choi is an arrogant Stanford graduate who climbs the corporate ladder with monstrous speed. Choi only knows to play by the book and detests people like Yu who work their way around the rules. Baek is a Korean Paris Hilton and a nuisance to employees who actually do work at their jobs.
“Corporate employees have to put up with a lot unfair things like bosses making unreasonable demands and expecting to be obeyed. My character Yu rejects the hierarchy and confronts his boss. I hope many salary men watching the show get to release their work-related stress through Yu,” Lee said at a press conference in Mok-dong, Seoul Thursday.
Jung said she was drawn to her character because she is unique in the Korean drama scene where women are often depicted as obedient, conventional, and conservative. “Baek is an unusual female character. She swears, she dresses unconventionally … some people will find her obnoxious including her habits like mixing English with Korean in her speech. But I think she is lovely,” Jung said.
She also described the drama as a buffet where one can enjoy multiple genres including comedy, action, suspense and romance to get a well-rounded show.
It is also a comical rendition of historical events during China’s Chuhan Contention period (206-202 B.C.), which has inspired many novels. Lee’s character represents Liu Bang of the Han Kingdom who fights with Xiang Yu of Western Chu, represented by Jeong, during the collapse of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.). In history, Liu won and established the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220). Jin is the modern day emperor Qin Shi-huang who unified numerous kingdoms and founded the Qin Dynasty, China’s first imperial dynasty.
Lee said he first read the original story when he was in elementary school and was impressed by the charismatic Liu. “Liu has the ability to lead people and he understands his shortcomings very well.”
Jeong Gyeong-sun, the writer of the drama, said she wanted to pay tribute to the dedicated and nameless breadwinners slaving away in office cubicles throughout the city. “At the time of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, it was not the board members or the chairman who went to clean up the mess. It was the workers who jumped into the hazardous aftermath to fulfill their job responsibilities,” she said.
“History of the Salarymen” will air on Jan. 2 on SBS.