Look Back: A “Salaryman” Worth His Weight in Gold

This review originally appeared in the Korean Quarterly

“Bold,” “brash,” “funny,” and “playing for keeps” – those are descriptions that can be applied in equal measure to not one but nearly each member of the cast of the raucous comedy-drama, “History of a Salaryman,” from SBS. One might well add “brave” and “devious” too.

Far from the traditional makjang dramas of hidden births and family secrets or stories of puppy love, “Salaryman” is a colorful re-imagining of the historical tale of the events leading up to the creation of the Han Dynasty in China, known as the Chu-Han Contention (206-202 BC). Cleverly weaving parallels to characters past and present and mapping out the ebb and flow of battle successes and failures, history has rarely been so amusing.

An Atypical Hero

The unlikely lead (or at least that is how he seems) and the titular salaryman is Yoo Bang, the Liu Bang of centuries past. He is played with an appealing zest by the youthful Lee Beom-soo. (And “youthful” is a particularly appropriate adjective in this case, as the story develops.) Yoo Bang not only is saddled with an unfortunate name (when not reading his name in it’s original Chinese characters it can refer to breasts), but he’s from a decidedly working class background.

salary1At the start of the story, Yoo Bang is unsuccessfully trying to fulfill his (now deceased) father’s most devout wish; that his son would go to college, get a job at a proper company, and wear business shoes every day – not work some menial job as he’d done. Yoo Bang has gone to college, but it’s some no-name, low prestige school and now he’s finding his task nearly impossible. He’s filling in some paperwork to participate in a medical study for some much-needed cash when he spots a fashionable, attractive, and graceful-looking young woman in a café opposite. He daydreams about how sweet and lovely her voice must be.

Fabulous (Fabulously Foul-mouthed)

Were he to be in the position of the wait-staff in the café he’d be in for a rude awakening for this is, in fact, the fantastically spoiled and foul-mouthed granddaughter of the Chu Han conglomerate, Baek Yeo-chi. With flaming red hair and a fiery tongue to match, Yeo-chi dialogue is 50% expletives-deleted as she chews out one person after another. In a radical departure from many of her other roles, Jung Ryu-won sets out brilliantly as the unforgettable heiress.

Salaryman_29If there is a contention, there must be an antagonist, and in “Salaryman” there are, in fact, several contenders for the role of chief villain. The most prominent of these (and not just because he dwarfs Lee Beom-soo by about six inches), is the dashing, American-educated marketing wunderkind and evil genius strategist, Cho Hang-woo. Jung Gyu-woon, who normally plays more conventional athletic and handsome leading men type roles, jumps in feet first to play the unscrupulous Hang-woo – Liu Bang’s ancient rival, Xiang Yu.

Continue, to read more of this review (plot-related spoiler level: medium-low)

Schemes Galore

However, Hang-woo is not the only “Big Bad” facing Yoo Bang in this drama; he will also face off against Mo Ga-bi (played by Kim Suh-hyung), the duplicitous secretary to the chairman of Chu Han Group, and her erstwhile suitor and Chu Han Group vice-president, Park Bum-jang (Lee Ki-young).

The story begins with a pivotal moment; Yoo Bang enters a mansion on the proverbial dark and stormy night only to discover that the person he’s come to see has been murdered and it looks like a frame-up. The dead man was Yeo-chi’s uncle and co-heir to the family fortune and now Yoo Bang has been set up to take the fall; he’s going to have to make a run for it, only he won’t be doing so alone. He finds someone else in the house, someone else who’s made that shocking discovery, and that person is equally vulnerable to being framed. It’s Yeo-chi, and an unusual alliance is forged.

The story takes a step back to explore more closely how these two came to this unlikely meeting, tracing back to that medical experiment application being completed by Yoo Bang. It is a human trial of a secret new drug that has been developed by the Chu Han Group – a longevity pill! The rival firm must have it – at all costs! And the plan to obtain it is the brainchild of Hang-woo. There is no other alternative; he too will enter the test as a participant and steal it. Little does Hang-woo know that all the MBAs and fine training in the world will not prepare him for the likes of Yoo Bang. Nor is he prepared to meet a woman who seems oblivious to his charms. This is the final member of the main quartet – a key worker on the drug project, Cha Woo-hee (delightfully played by Hong Soo-hyun).

The attempt at corporate espionage is a total failure, as Yoo Bang manages to (innocently?) hilariously thwart Hang-woo at every turn. Those big, obviously “spy issue” glasses that Hang-woo is sporting, tricked out with microphone and mini-camera? Yoo Bang accuses him of pulling a fast one, giving Hang-woo a near heart attack. “Those are knock-offs, aren’t they?” chortles Yoo Bang. Not all is sunshine for Chu Han Group though; the drug does have some side effects. Yoo Bang is rendered impervious to pain, another test subject becomes ravenous, and Hang-woo develops a nervous twitch! Hang-woo plans to make use of this though, and sets out to create a new plan to achieve his mission. And his reasons go beyond financial ones; he harbors a grudge against Chu Han Group, it seems.

Wheelings and Dealings

Hang-woo’s plan involves getting a man in on the inside and Yoo Bang seems like the perfect dim-witted patsy for the job. Little does he know how this failure to understand Yoo Bang’s character will cost him! He sets him up to succeed at his entrance exam to Chu Han Group and surprisingly, Yoo Bang makes the grade. Given a position in Marketing, he is soon vulnerable to the political maneuverings taking place at the company and given an express assignment. He is to take charge of fellow new recruit, the phenomenally reluctant and resentful heiress-in-training, Baek Yeo-chi. Either he makes sure she’s present and doing her best or his job is on the line! Needless to say, she finds his predicament of little concern to her. She resents her grandfather, Chairman Jin Si-hwang (Lee Duk-hwa), and blames him for the death of her parents. Whatever she can do to spite him she will (and does), including her best shot at humiliating him and the longevity drug launch.

The various skirmishes that take place over the first few episodes as the characters size up their opponents and lay down their initial strategies are plentiful and fun. Hang-woo will stoop at nothing to obtain his prize, including the seduction of Woo-hee (harder than it looks), and even taking a position with the competition.

Salaryman_36As the story unfolds, the stakes are raised and new players enter to give succor to Yoo Bang as he unexpectedly rises to meet every challenge. Blessed with boundless energy, enthusiasm, and an ability to think outside the proverbial box, Yoo Bang finds new allies in the form of Bun Kwae (Yoon Yong-hyun) and Jang Ryang (Kim Il-woo). Bun Kwae, although Yoo Bang’s manager, turns out to be from his hometown and Yoo Bang is his hyung, demanding his loyalty when the knives come out. Jang Ryang is one of the early casualties at Chu Han Group, thanks to the machinations of Mo Ga-bi and Park Bum-jang; as a former high-level vice-president at Chu Han Group, his insider knowledge of the business world proves invaluable to Yoo Bang. Kim Il-woo is particularly effective in this role; he comes off as slick and emotionally distant, but this persona slowly ebbs away and reveals a committed ally as he becomes increasingly invested in Yoo Bang’s war.

Satisfying on Many Levels

There are many ways to enjoy “History of a Salaryman.” There is both subtlety and high drama in the unfolding of the plotting that goes on in the war to win Chu Han Group. Anyone who has worked in the business world will appreciate the endless jockeying for positioning that takes place in this drama and recognize the actions of the players at the corporation as being perhaps all-too-familiar in their own workplace. That those moments of backstabbing and glory-hounding are played to the hilt will make those sequences highly entertaining. There pathos as well in the corporate battleground, because there must be consequences to make one care more deeply about the success of the righteous. This too is very effective.

Where “Salaryman” really shines, however, is in the performances. Lee Beom-soo is certainly a versatile actor and has proven himself equally at home in melodrama as he is in physical comedies. The role of Yoo Bang could be said to be tailor-made for him. Yoo Bang is a happy bundle of contradictions; he is at times oblivious to the point of being a dimwit and at other times he is an inspired strategist. One could almost call him an idiot sauvant! He is tender and respectful of women, specifically of Woo-hee, but much more careless and concerned about Yeo-chi (of course, she does swear like a sailor, so perhaps that has taken the bloom off that particular rose from Yoo Bang’s perspective). He is aware of his humble origins but he never lets that serve as a reason to kneel before those who consider themselves his betters and those humble origins keep him in tune with the problems of the working class. He is naïve, and yet so savvy when it comes to human nature – he is a force of nature! In every scene with his adversary – be it Yeo-chi fighting him as she’s fighting her grandfather’s orders or Hang-woo thinking he has the upper hand (but why is this yappy little dog of a guy always there in my face?) – Lee Beom-soo snaps and cracks with vitality.

Equally, Jung Ryu-won starts out spectacularly and finishes even more so. There have been times where she has played characters that have been annoying and needy (watch “My Name is Kim Samsoon,” for example), and has been difficult for this writer to warm to, but with every scene Jung takes the role of Yeo-chi and makes her character a living, breathing, unforgettable person. Rather than the foul-mouthed princess she seems at the start of the story, Yeo-chi is a foul-mouthed intellectually under-challenged and hurting young woman. Keeping company with the honorable and very challenging Yoo Bang is just the right sort of stimulus to help her come out of her shell and blossom. In particular, there is an especially fine scene in the latter episodes of the drama that, were this a U.S. drama and eligible, would proudly go on an Emmy reel for consideration for that award. It is excellent work.

The complex role played by Jung Gyu-woon as Hang-woo is also worthy of notice. He is called upon to be superficially handsome and physically compelling and as he is, this seems no great challenge for him as an actor, however Hang-woo is also driven, jealous, single-minded, egotistical, and Machiavellian – except where Woo-hee is concerned. The honesty and vulnerability that Jung Gyu-woon brings to this dichotomy makes you root for Hang-woo, all the while you know that a villain who does not repent his unscrupulous ways must be punished. You are never left confused, thinking that somehow he is right to pursue the destruction of Chu Han Group, Yeo-chi, and Yoo Bang at whatever the cost. He is wrong to do so, but yet, there is the side of him that he shows around Woo-hee… “If only…,” you think.

salary4Finally, the dialogue itself comes in for special praise as well, for if the characters were not so sharply defined by the words they say this drama would not shine half so brightly. The give-and-take verbal sparring between characters is fast and ably delivered by the cast. It is insightful in terms of understanding the foibles of humans in various walks of life and under conditions both delightful and most stressful. Every episode spent with the characters of “Salaryman” flies by with shocking speed; the hour speeds by and you’re left disappointed that it’s over so soon. There is only one solution: set aside long blocks of time to watch this drama several episodes at a time – preferably when you do not need to rise early the next day. (You may just find yourself too entwined in the world of the “Salaryman” to leave it behind!)

Currently, History of a Salaryman is avalable for viewing on Viki.com.

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