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)

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