The Yeouido Observer #006: Leaps of Faith

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Some call it destiny. Others karma. Some people even make religions out of it.

I don’t know. Faith seems to be a little bigger than all those things, maybe even combined. Perhaps it’s one of our innate qualities, or fatal shortcomings. Once or twice or a million times in our lives, we plunge into the dark fully knowing that only oblivion awaits our next step – perhaps because if we knew where our every journey led to, we wouldn’t even walk to begin with. It is because of that innate sense of faith that we make that leap.

Sometimes faith manifests itself in the silliest of situations. Take my strange relationship with SBS’ 추적자 (The Chaser), for instance.

I recall writing a somewhat scathing preview of this show on DramaTic, before CJ decided they would rather do without that site – bless them! Now I don’t have to waste time translating shows nobody watches and can diss shitty daily dramas on these very domains.

I do understand the limits of judging everyone for their track records instead of resetting my brain every single time a new drama begins, as if it were a coin-op game from the 1980s. But I simply cannot approach a show as if twenty-plus-years of experience had to go through a tabula rasa every time a new drama was on the horizon. It would be intellectually dishonest populism, and an egregious waste of time. But maybe the issue was that I didn’t have faith in the PD (Jo Nam-Guk, whose past credits didn’t exactly promise quality)? Or perhaps I might have said that while I enjoyed 인생의 스페셜 (My Life’s Special), I wasn’t exactly a fan of 태왕사신기 (The Legend),  for reasons that should be obvious to anyone with the slightest critical discernment?

Beats me. I don’t remember.

Fact is, I watched four episodes, was mildly interested in the plot but lost patience with part of the cast and certain directorial choices. And… that was about it. I slapped an average of 54 out of 100 on the show, and promised myself I would finish it before the end of the year when I had a little more time; but then the Olympics came and went, and good dramas kept pouring in like manna from the heavens, so it wasn’t exactly a high priority of mine.

Until I had a call from a friend a few weeks ago. We were talking of this and that, when the topic suddenly moved to dramas, this one in particular. He kept telling me that I needed to finish this show now, but he knew he’d need a killer application to convince me – because, well, you know I’m a stubborn asshat. So he began telling me the story of a certain Park Gyeong-Soo, something he himself had heard from other fellow industry folks who had worked with the man. Yes, of course I knew who Park Gyeong-Soo was. Or at least I thought so. The reality was that I only knew a random name popping up in the credits of a few dramas, but I had no idea who the man behind that moniker really was. Sure enough, that difference made all the difference.

Rewind back to 1998, in full IMF crisis. The industry is pretty much gasping for air, and with one new chaebol going belly up seemingly every other day, you can imagine in what conditions the ad market was. There was still quality on TV (much more so than today, at least on average), but the idea was that the Golden Age which had started with SBS’ advent in 1991 was heading for a rather miserable conclusion, and that some things (and people) would be sacrificed along the way.

The phone rang at Park Gyeong-Soo’s apartment in Busan: it was the call that would change his life. He just didn’t know it quite yet at the time.

Up to that day, this had been your average provincial ajeosshi: a wife and kid, the perfect identikit of the post-386 generation stamped on his face – made of the last vestiges of the pro-democracy student demonstrations in college, a family and a safe job slowly eroding all that vigor of youth. He was making decent money and even had prospects of promotion, but he hated the job; hated that enveloping oppression made of all the social obligations ingrained into the Korean work environment – the endless ass-kissing, the evenings spent at room salons with slimy higher ups drinking this and that, pretending to have fun while singing evergreen hits on that goddamn karaoke machine. That wasn’t life. It wasn’t worth it.

But then one day in 1996 he reads of Kim Soo-Hyun’s latest drama, 목욕탕집 남자들 (Bath House Men). In retrospect, a fine show, and one of the two home comedies – the other being 사랑이 뭐길래 (What is Love), obviously – which would become the leit motif of most of her lighter works from there until the present day, arguably to a fault. The issue was simple: this veteran writer was making in one single episode what it would take him about ten months to earn: ten million won. 50 minutes, a few dozen A4 pages of dialogue. And that would be it. No miserable karaoke sessions, no ass-kissing to get promoted, or prancing about at work pretending to be productive even when there was little work to do. Just a little storytelling that, judging from what he could see on TV, was nothing he couldn’t write himself.

Sounded like his dream job. And, sure enough, he quit his to pursue that crazy little dream only a few weeks later. No, it wasn’t some kind of noble aspiration of becoming a great storyteller that moved him. He  just wanted to make money. A shitload of money. And quickly.

He found a job as a lecturer at what at the time was a famous hakwon in Busan – the Munbong Academy in Dongnae, which has now been renamed Seojeon Academy – and spent the rest of his day studying the world of TV dramas, with the intent of soon writing one. The problem was, of course, that writing a drama was easier said than done. It wasn’t just about tossing a few characters and situations at the wall, hoping something would stick. He needed to learn the finer points of storytelling from scratch, and that was something that a few books couldn’t teach; that people around him in Busan surely couldn’t teach. Was there any other way he could gain that knowledge while staying in Busan, without actually having to move?

That dreaded modem sound gave him an answer.

The World Wide Web was just beginning to catch fire in Korea, and in one of his surfing escapades, Park chanced upon a certain site called 송지나의 영상세계 (Song Ji-Na’s Visual World) – a sort of rudimentary net café part of the Cheollian platform, predecessor of all the various Daum and Naver of the world. Yes, that Song Ji-Na, of 모래시계 (The Sandglass) and 여명의 눈동자 (Eyes of Dawn) fame. More than an average fanclub or BBS, this was a sort of ancestor of sites like DC Inside, with the only difference that it was predominantly frequented by industry people, or those who aspired to become one. It was there that he met people who would later become friends of a lifetime, like Han Ji-Hoon of 개와 늑대의 시간 (Time Between Dog & Wolf), but also Song Ji-Na herself. If you’re old enough to remember what chatting meant in the pre-social-network days, you know how easily friendship could flourish out of that diabolic hobby.

That chat and site were Park’s first real entry way into the drama industry — until the day he actually decided to quit his rather profitable but utterly exhausting routine as hakwon lecturer, and finally write his first drama, with help from some of the fellow members he spent countless nights chatting with. It was the end of March 1998, and after an entire night spent obsessing over that script, his first “creature” was finally born – a short emphatically entitled 설사약 권하는 사회 (The World Asks For Diarrhea Remedies). Seriously. That was the title. The guy either had balls the size of watermelons, or was completely insane.

The phone rang at Park Gyeong-Soo’s apartment in Busan: it was the call that would change his life. He just didn’t know it quite yet at the time. It was CP Kwon Yi-Sang from MBC: turns out that his first script was one of the seven selected as winners of the 1998 MBC scriptwriting contest.

He didn’t know it would change his life for a simple reason: winning a scriptwriting contest meant very little then, just like it will do now. All he got for his acclaimed short was a little prize money he’d end up spending before he could even realize it, a nice award you can show to your neighbors, and the possibility of getting together with a few fellow contest winners once a week at MBC headquarters to talk about dramas that they would likely never get to work in, and for a pittance. That was about it. Dreams of actually making it in the big league? Slim, particularly considering how one of his superiors seemed to intensely dislike him almost from day one. There of course was a reason, something that quickly reminded him of a certain job he used to hold, and that he hoped he would never have to experience in this environment: he hadn’t done enough ass-kissing. Worse yet, he did the opposite.

Those meetings, you’d understand, were one of the few venues where peers could honestly share their feelings about other peers’ work – sort of like an extension of Park’s nightly chatting escapades. It just happened that he chose the wrong drama to criticize, which in quite the dramatic coincidence had actually been directed by that same superior – a veteran producer and CP of sorts. It was back to square one. Park saw all his fellow scriptwriting contest winners slowly but surely get a foot in the door, but his diarrhea remedies just wouldn’t work, thanks to the interjection of his now “favorite” superior. He’d need another equally coincidental situation to actually make it, something even he might have not expected.

What happened is that a PD from 베스트 극장 (Best Theater) – MBC’s now defunct short drama circuit – urgently needed a script for his September 25 short, because behind the scenes conflict had sent their plans belly up. Said PD was Choi Yi-Seop, a veteran journeyman who just wrapped up shooting the daily 그대 없인 살아 (Can’t Live Without You), and is more likely famous amongst newbies for his 미스 리플리 (Miss Ripley). Irony of all ironies, the only readily available script he could find was a story about diarrhea remedies: Park was about to make his debut.

The only caveat was that he had only four days to make a script revision – rings a bell? Not because PD Choi didn’t like the script, but simply because it was just too long. We’re talking about 45 A4 pages written in a size-10 font, a good third longer than your average 60 minute short. For the first time in his life, Park had come face to face with what would become a frequent job requirement of his: trimming the fat. I still remember that show because it came right after Kim Yoon-Cheol’s 마을버스 (Village Bus), and was one of the most embarrassing wastes of airtime I saw that year. His revision didn’t go all too well, as you’d expect from a newbie who only approached this industry to make a quick buck.

This was a silly, rather shallow comedy starring Jung Joon-Ho, Jo Hye-Ryeon and a young Kim Min-Jung – the likes of which often populated the Best Theater format, arguably contributing to its demise ten years later. If you’re familiar with the type, you’ve probably seen a few dozen similar shorts: one central concept loosely tied to lazy characterization, and a whole 60 minutes banking on non-descript atmosphere rather than storytelling (so if a week you got full-on slapstick comedy, the next you’d most likely get teargas-like melodrama to compensate). Needless to say, Park’s debut wasn’t exactly what he had first envisioned. Writing dramas, after all, wasn’t that easy.

And here he was: a grown-ass man with a wife and kid, quitting a safe and profitable job in Busan to move to the capital for what at the time was very little (those young writers were being paid around 700,000 won a month, and it wasn’t exactly a safe position). And his debut after all those struggles was a complete, utter mess. His wife couldn’t help but be concerned, but here’s our keyword popping up once again.

All he told her was “have faith in me.”

We might lament the ridiculous amount of coincidences littering the stories of too many a K-drama, but sometimes underestimating their power can be dangerous. Park should know that better than most: one day in 1998 his phone rang, and the voice on the other end was that of a certain Song Ji-Na. You know, the same Song Ji-Na he occasionally chatted with on that site. Song was set to write a sitcom for SBS, which had decided to pull the plug on what at the time was an uncharacteristic flop for sitcom mainstay Kim Byung-Wook – 순풍 산부인과 (Soonpoong Clinic). The show was only scoring ratings in the low 10%s, so SBS quickly took steps to get Song working on a new project, and end Kim’s sitcom as soon as possible. Among the four assistant writers Song started this project with were two rather familiar faces: Han Ji-Hoon and Park Gyeong-Soo, the friends who first met on Song’s site a few years earlier.

It seemed like Park would finally make his long awaited debut in the big league, but then – coincidence rearing its ugly head once again – Soonpoong Clinic began to climb up the ranks and reach the heights it is now more frequently associated with. The same show which had been doing 13% and 14% was now easily surpassing the 25%, at times even hitting the 30% mark. You know where this is leading: Song’s sitcom went belly up, Park’s hopes of finally debuting going up in flames along with it.

Or at least he thought so. In the usual timeslot shuffle you’ve seen portrayed in 드라마의 제왕 (The Lord of Drama), a slot was left open for what concerned the Sunday night situation drama – after a rebranding that took the place of SBS’ second weekend drama slot, the same 임꺽정 (Im Kkeokjeong) was broadcast in. Park had finally gotten his debut: campus youth drama 카이스트 (KAIST) was born. It was early 1999, and our cub writer was already making 1.5 million won a month – a lot less than what he made at that hakwon in Busan, but still a lot better than struggling with only 700,000 won, or having to flatter his way to that miserable million won in his previous incarnation as a salaryman.

Everything seemed to go well: money was coming in on a rather regular basis, and the show was doing well. Then, after about 60 episodes, Song opted out to focus her efforts on what would be later known as 대망 (The Great Ambition), leaving the four assistants as main writers. This meant that, ideally, Park would get at least another 10 to 15 months of writing credits, and the decent money that this brought him. Except Lady Luck had decided to continue being blind towards him: after Song left, SBS pretty much turned the page on KAIST and changed everything. Cast, staff, and of course even the writers. And it all happened because of a little behind the scene skirmish between the PD and certain veterans. You know, that lack of flattery Park thought he could now forget. Our budding writer went from a surefire 1.5 million won a month and a drama gig that would at least last him another six months to unemployment. And a second baby to provide for, to boot.

The next few years of his life would be a constant struggle between the principles that guided his entry into this industry – which was yes a matter of money, but also that of not having to flatter his way around and embarrass himself for a few dirty bucks – and the reality of an entertainment business that doesn’t exactly treat its writers with respect, at least until it can make money off of them. He wrote another sitcom for SBS, entitled 동물원 사람들 (Zoo People), working once again with PD Ju Byeong-Dae from KAIST. He got involved in a few movie projects that never saw the light of the day – this in a period when easy money was flowing in Chungmuro, and along with it all the tricksters and conmen you could imagine. He then got a few offers from the drama industry as well, but they always clashed with what he really wanted to do, in a vicious cycle which seemed to be going on forever.

After signing a contract with Kim Jonghak Production, the shingle launched by the Eyes of Dawn producer which went on to become one of Asia’s major players in the drama business, Park finally got the chance to write the drama he wanted, and this time Lady Luck was on his side, for once – although his newfound luck was at the expense of someone else’s, namely that unfortunate mess of gigantic proportion known as 늑대 (Wolf). The show, which started in January 2006 and was already experiencing live-shoot syndrome a few episodes in, ended up being one of the most illustrious victims of this irresponsible working environment. An accident on the set injured leads Eric Moon and Han Ji-Min, forcing the producers and MBC to end what had been a rather underwhelming show in the most miserable of ways. Wolf was canceled after only three episodes, forcing the station to find a quick solution – because evidently the follow-up drama, Pyo Min-Soo’s 어느 별에서 왔니 (Which Star Are You From?), hadn’t even started shooting.

The only option on the table was a little show by J&H Film and Kim Jonghak Production entitled My Life’s Special. A black comedy filled with social satire that was uncharacteristically shot in its entirety, the 12 episode show had been initially turned down by MBC in 2005, and just like 비천무 (Bichunmoo) was left hanging in search of a broadcaster – which ironically turned out to be the same MBC that had first scorned upon it. Starring Kim Seung-Woo, Myung Se-Bin and Sung Ji-Roo, this was an uneven but interesting show, perhaps hampered by the fact that MBC had edited it down to 8 episodes (although tvN did show the full 12 episodes in October of the same year). Park had actually only written the first four episodes, and eventually abandoned the project because of his lack of faith (here it goes again) in young producer Lee Jae-Won.

Sure, Park kept writing synopses that gained great word of mouth within the industry, but despite the requests of several name PDs to work with him, he always declined – not because he didn’t trust those PDs; he didn’t like what he had written, a true testament of what kind of perfectionist we’re dealing with. He was no longer going to compromise, because even the drama industry had become like the safe job he left in Busan – a place that needed all the flattery, those long bouts of selective productivity and complacency to survive. He chose to go on supporting his family through other jobs, instead of writing dramas that couldn’t please him. The same ajeosshi who entered the industry to make a quick buck was now refusing to write dramas just for the sake of money. Writing itself, conveying a relevant and meaningful message through his stories had become more important.

And yet his phone kept ringing for months. Producers kept asking to work with him, and for a chance to adapt his promising synopses, offers he always turned down more or less for the same reason. Until on the other end of that phone was the man himself, Kim Jong-Hak.

The behind the scene drama enveloping The Legend cannot certainly fit in a few paragraphs, and would deserve one of these pieces alone – what with Bae Yong-Joon and his 250 million won per episode cachet being used as a scapegoat for Kim’s own wild and out-of-control spending, and the constant verbal diatribe between PD Kim and writer Song Ji-Na. This was the issue, actually. The script.

We’re talking about the same drama that moved Bae – in the middle of the shoot – to publicly ask himself whatever the hell he was doing, and questioning the nature of the very character he was playing (Goguryeo’s god of war King Gwanggaeto). After what seemed like an ultimatum to Song to change the script’s direction in the show’s second half, Kim reverted to Park, and asked him to finish the show. The young writer was reluctant for obvious reasons (respect for Song who gave him his start, and his own principles about writing itself), but his respect for Kim and for their long partnership (he had worked at Kim Jonghak Production for years, after all) eventually convinced him.

The problem with Park’s involvement in The Legend is that his hands were completely tied, as there was nothing much he could do to change the direction the show took long before he came in – a direction which ended in the spectacularly miserable way many of you will remember, complete with MBC having to force extra time on the evening news to accommodate the drama editor’s requests.

Fast forward a half decade in which both Kim (with the ethical and legal controversies stemming from the monstrous financial flop that was The Legend, endangering Kim Jonghak Production and leading Kim to part ways with the company he himself established in 1998) and Song (by showing her time spent in New Zealand might have given her solace, but also had robbed her of what once used to be legendary writing skills) proved their once shining legacy was beginning to be haunted by shadows, and Park continued to hold onto his principles, perhaps to a fault. Until one of those PDs managed to convince him, and finally turn one of his notorious synopses (not even one of the best, from all accounts) into a show which would be entitled 아버지의 전쟁 (War of the Fathers).

I’m sure that by now Park must have been used to this, but of course the project didn’t go as smoothly as he hoped. Towards the conclusion of 패션왕 (Fashion King) and with Kim Jong-Hak’s 신의 (The Great Doctor, or if you prefer the much more topical title used by certain export markets, Faith) needing more time, SBS put all its eggs on a Hong Sister basket known as 빅 (Big) for its following Mon/Tue drama – efforts which were fruitless, as you know the drama eventually went on to secure a slot with KBS. Their new focus became 드라마의 제왕 (The Lord of Drama), but with less than a month before the end of Fashion King, casting and production issues delayed what would eventually become the current SBS show headlined by Kim Myung-Min. SBS was without a Mon/Tue drama, and they needed one quickly. The decision was to take War of the Fathers – which had already cast a few people, like Wang Ji-Hye – and rush it from the very start, with a new title and some new cast members (because of obvious scheduling conflicts). Enter The Chaser.

If you’re wondering why someone as principled as Park would end up writing post-it scripts throughout the whole show (eventually being hospitalized on more than one occasion for the trouble), that should explain it. Even in the case of a show that’s given a slot a little late, you generally get a two month buffer in which you can begin shooting and make some progress on the script. The Chaser had only two episodes ready when the shooting began. Squaring off against MBC’s 빛과 그림자 (Light and Shadow) and a familiar name – Big on KBS — the SBS drama started with a 10%. Not exactly horrible numbers, in light of what competitors were doing, but still a little disappointing. Just like the feeling I had after watching the first four episodes.

Sure, the script seemed good, but Jo Nam-Guk and a few of the actors – mostly Jang Shin-Yong, Go Joon-Hee, Lee Yong-Woo and Song Young-Gyu – were struggling to do justice to dialogue which seemed to belong to a much better show. But the moment I got back to the drama, something grabbed me right away.

This is something I noticed in the early portion of My Life’s Special as well, but Park has a knack for great prose that seems lost on most writers his age. It is a tad literary in nature, in a way that reminds of great veterans of yore. And frankly even a little of Song Ji-Na herself, at least in her glory days, circa The Sandglass. Filled with great pathos without becoming corny or breaking the narrative tempo, it brims with so many cultural and social references that in the end it defines the characters without the need for any exposition.

Take the seemingly endless list of amazing lines the great Park Geun-Hyung got to utter in this show as the formidable chairman of Hano Group – a role which reminds of his own character in The Sandglass, but also of the great Hollywood villains of the pre-blockbuster era, like a more parochial and perhaps resonant version of Don Corleone from The Godfather. With only a few words, you can deduce the character’s past and what built his current personality, not to mention his view of the world, of politics and all the ethical brume surrounding it. It is dialogue too rich to effectively be rendered in another language, but let’s just mention a few of the most memorable.

Episode 11

“혜라야. 내가 우째 술을 배웠는지 아나? 스무살 때 옆집 딸내미를 좋아했었다. 그런데 그 딸내미가 다른데로 시집을 갔다아이가. 마음 쓰리고 그래서 술을 배웠다. 그런데 두어달 지나니까 그 딸내미 잊어버리고 술 먹는 버릇만 남았다. 지금은 그 딸내미 이름 기억도 안난다. 그래도 요즘도 술은 먹는다. 꿈도 그런기다. 처음엔 페어한 세상을 만들겠다, 뭐 하겠다고 하면서 정치판 끼어들지만 이제 니는 내가 잊어버린 그 딸내미 이름처럼 처음 뭘 하겠다는 것도 잊어버리고 권력을 갖겠다는 욕심만 남은기라.”

“Hye-Ra, know how I first learned about the charms of the bottle? I fell for my neighbor’s daughter back in my twenties. But what do you know? Turns out this lass was going to marry someone else. The heartburn was so painful I drowned all my regrets in that bottle. Give it two months, and I’d already forgotten who that lady even was, and all that survived was my obsession with the bottle. I don’t even remember her name now, but you sure can bet I still remember how that bottle tastes like. It still keeps me company to this day.

Know what? Dreams are the same thing. First you fill them with great intents, and say things like “I’ll build a fair world for everyone to live in” as you enter the world of politics, filling your mouth with promises. But give it a few years, and those promises end up becoming like the name of that lady I can’t remember, vanished from my memories like the love I felt for her. All that remains is your thirst for power.”

Episode 12

“내 말 잘 들어라. 자존심은 미친년이 머리에 꽂고 있는 꽃과 같은기라. 왜 시골 마을에 꽃 꽂고 다니는 미친년 안 있나. 그런데 희한하제. 암만 얼굴을 만지고 때리고 그래도 하하 웃던 애가 머리에 꽃을 만지면 살쾡이로 변해서 덤비는기라. 지한텐 머리의 꽃이 지 몸보다 중요한기라. 사람들은 미쳐서 그런갑다 하겠지만 내가 볼 땐 다 똑같은기다. 사람들은 머리에 하나씩 꽃을 꽂고 산다. 아무 쓸모 없는데도 지 몸보다 중요하다고 착각하고 사는 게 하나씩 꼭 있다. 니한텐 그게 자존심이다. 닌 가만히 있어도 서동환 아들이고 한오그룹 회장이 될기다. 동윤이 저 놈이 아등바등 기어와 대통령이 되고 뭘 해도 니 발꿈치에 못 따라오는 거다.”

“Listen well, son. Pride is like a pretty flower a deranged wench sticks on her hair. You know the type… Head to a small town and you’ll find a lass or two putting on flowers and prancing around as if it made any difference. Know what? You can slap the tar out of them and they’ll keep going Hahaha as if nothing happened. But dare to touch that little flower and they’ll jump at you like some kind of ravenous wildcat. They’re telling you the flower means more to them than their own body. People will say it’s because they’re crazy, but I’ll argue it’s the same for everyone else. Every single one of us prances about with one of those flowers on our heads, that kind of useless little something we carry around and consider more important than our own selves. And your flower is pride. Just stay put, do nothing and you’ll still remain Seo Dong-Hwan’s son, and the future chairman of Hano Group. That Dong-Yoon can do all he wants. He can hurt your pride. But even if he becomes president, he won’t hold a candle to what you’ll become. To what you are.”

Episode 16

“내가 소학교 다닐 때 산 넘어 학교 가다가 책 하나 안 주웠겠나. 우찌나 재밌든지 읽다가 나무에 부딪치고 또랑에 빠지고. 내도 영욱아, 글쟁이가 되고 싶었데이. 그칸데 위로 형 둘이 징용 가서 죽어뿟제, 아버지는 간도가 자리 잡는다 하더니 연락도 없제, 동생 넷 하고 다리 저는 어매만 남았는기라. 고 때가 내 나이 열두살이었데이. 그래가 학교 작파하고 지게 지고 역전에 안 나갔나 내가. 집에 들어가면 어매하고 동생 넷이 내 주머니만 보는기라. 오늘은 얼마나 벌었을까, 쌀은 몇 되나 살 수 있을까. 요라고 보는기다. 요 때 생각했데이. 사나이는 돈을 버는 것이 다인기라. 자식 굶기면서 옳은 소리만 하는 것 그것만큼 큰 죄는 없는기라. 내는 이래 살았다. 동생 넷하고도 갈라섰다. 어떤 놈은 날 보고 괴물이라카고 어떤 놈은 악마라카고, 이 나라에 손가락 가진 놈 치고 내한테 손가락질 안 한 놈이 어데있노. 그라고 앉은 자리데이 여그가. 그런데 영욱아. 이 자리 딴 놈한텐 못 준다 내가. ”

“Think I never got hold of a single book when I had to cross those mountains to get to school? Some were so fun, I’d hit trees while reading them, or fall down the creek. Know what, Youngwook? I wanted to become a writer, too. But turns out my two older brothers get drafted and die in the war, my father leaves for Gando (Jiandao) saying he’d bring us over there when things settled down and then he disappears, and all I am left with are four young siblings and a mother who limps her way around. I was only twelve at the time.  What else could I do, if not quitting school and finding myself a job? Whenever I got home at night, all my mother and siblings looked at were my pockets. “How much will he have made today? How much will it take to buy some rice?” That’s all they wanted to know. That’s when it dawned on me: making money is all that matters for a man. Because there isn’t a greater sin than throwing fancy principles at the wall while your children are starving. That’s how I lived my life. I even had to part with my siblings for that. Some called me a monster, others a demon, and everyone in this country who has fingers pointed them at me at least once. But that’s what brought me here, what put me on this seat. So listen well, Youngwook. I’m not giving this seat to anyone. Anyone.”

That’s just three examples out of so many you could fill a book, for every character, in a way that strangely fits their personality like a glove. It’s the kind of dialogue that makes your hands tremble when you hear it, because you don’t get to witness this kind of quality all that often. Sure, Jung Ha-Yeon does it. Sometimes Noh Hee-Kyung does. Dialogue is not exactly Kim Woon-Kyung’s calling card, but he’s obviously good at that. But this kind of dialogue from someone who for all intents and purposes is still a glorified newcomer? Someone who’s too much of a perfectionist to even call himself a writer (he thinks he’s still a 작가 지망생, a hopeful. Someone who will be a writer when he grows up)? That kind of complexity, of social commentary and respect for genre tropes is something that today’s young blood completely ignores, perhaps because those who came before them (and now often act as their superior) wouldn’t even bother asking for any such effort.

The Chaser is the perfect example of what taking a leap of faith and banking on quality can do to this industry. It was a last-minute decision entrusted to a cult favorite but someone who had never dealt with a complete feature drama before – particularly in an environment which asked him to deliver scripts in record time. It was a drama that, for once, didn’t spend 60% of its budget on a few stars whose only selling point is the fame they gained in another country doing something other than acting. Son Hyun-Joo, the lead, “only” got paid 6 million won per episode, more or less one tenth of what your average Hallyu star makes these days. But the point is not that he made little money and gave a terrific performance, when there are idols out there prancing around a set, spitting out some lines without the least effort and getting paid a significant portion of the budget for the trouble. The point is that whatever money was saved by paying Son that little, it was re-invested into what really counts. Production. Neither SBS nor anyone else involved with funding was allowed to interfere in the casting of the show, something which evidently meant that Jo Nam-Guk and company could get the best actors for the job, or at least the best they could find. A novel concept in an industry which lets PPL advertisers dictate who should or should not appear in a show, because of the repercussions their image could create.

It’s ironic that I got to finish The Chaser right around the time the last curtain call closed the chapter on The Great Doctor, the final nail on the coffin of the once shining legacy Kim Jong-Hak and Song Ji-Na could benefit from. It felt like a symbolic passing of the torch, from someone who was launched by Song himself, and had worked directly under Kim. Ironic because with this drama the “pupil” showed the way to his “mentors.” The sageuk (although I might get  an intellectual rash defining it as such) was haunted by controversy from day one, as both Song and Kim cashed their cachet right away, and then the veteran producer wasted 2 billion won on CG and getting everything in order so that they could produce the first bonafide 3D sageuk in Korean history. Except that in the end his plans failed, wasting what was a reported 20% of the budget before a single day of shooting had completed.

This was immediately reflected on the set, setting aside the accusations of plagiarism Song faced in the aftermath of 닥터진 (Dr. Jin)’s broadcast. With Kim Hee-Sun and Lee Min-Ho commanding 30% of the remaining budget by themselves (and whomever agreed to pay 60 million won to Lee Min-Ho, someone who might not have any acting skills but – more importantly – doesn’t even have any tangible drawing power, might be the most irresponsible decision of the year), the crew was forced to cut corners to an insufferable, even dangerous extent: it got so bad towards the end that many action scenes were shot without wires, opening actors to the possibility of severely injuring themselves.

Then of course there is the matter of the overdue compensation, something Kim Jong-Hak and his new ad-hoc SPC should be familiar with – given that The Legend had become almost legendary for not settling its bills even up to 4 years after the show’s broadcast. While major stars like Lee and Kim might get their money in advance because of their clout and that of their management, the rest of the cast didn’t fare so well. As it stands, the show’s SPC (obviously led by Kim) owes KBAU (the actors’ union) an impressive 1.5 billion won of overdue, which were promised to the cast and crew the moment money from export contracts would roll in. But with an underwhelming 4 billion won of Japan sales and lukewarm ad revenue, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

It’s a very striking dualism. Kim Jong-Hak and Song Ji-Na (and Kim Hee-Sun, and Lee Min-Ho) laughing to the bank after a disgracefully produced and written mess of a drama. And then their pupil, debilitated by two months of writing one of this year’s most surprising and accomplished shows, one which went from an anonymous 10% like any other failed “mania drama,” and closed with an incredible 22%. The mentors’ legacy is forever tarnished by now, the pupil is now taking a short rest before his comeback, 황금의 제국 (Empire of Gold). And you know what? SBS even signed another contract with him for an extra 30 episodes, so it looks like we might have found a stable job for this incredibly talented perfectionist and his to-die-for dialogue.

Seems like he might have finally achieved that goal of his. Now he’s got his money, and he’s earned every single penny by not prostituting his principles. I’m sure his wife is proud.

After all, that was all it took for her. For the industry, and even for me.

A little leap of faith…

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