Down-to-earth office drama grips South Korea, climbs in ratings

Incomplete Life is a realistic drama about ordinary office workers. -- PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM MISAENG
Incomplete Life is a realistic drama about ordinary office workers. -- PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM MISAENG

Seoul (The Korea Herald/Asia News Network) - Han Jeong Taek, a 30-year-old office worker, rushes home after work on Friday. He chooses to go home and watch a television drama about the everyday lives of office workers rather than stay out with his friends. Sometimes he drinks with them after 9.30pm when the drama ends.

He is not the only one who has never missed Incomplete Life, cable channel tvN's drama based on a webtoon of the same name about office life at a fictional trading company, One International.

The 20-episode series has been climbing in 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.

"When I watch Incomplete Life, I feel like I am not alone in suffering office hardships like long hours, a mountain of work and workplace politics," Han said. "The drama is very realistic, maybe more so than reality. I empathise with the characters in the drama. Their struggles feel like my own."

What makes the down-to-earth office drama popular? 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 Go player and ended up as an intern at a large company.

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

"I think many people relate to the story," 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 in workplace politics makes him an outcast and limits his promotion prospects.

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 is taken from the webtoon by cartoonist Yoon Tae Ho which was serialised on a Web portal in 2012-2013 and tremendously popular. 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 Incomplete Life is the result of his countless interviews with real-life people who work for corporations.

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

The book topped the bestseller list at a number of bookstores here, including the largest chain, Kyobo Bookstore. "Even though it is a 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."

Incomplete Life 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 mum, unlike previous office-themed dramas peppered with romance and success.

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