Telemad

Korean office drama Incomplete Life makes all the right moves

Jung Il Woo (below) plays a prince who sees dead people in Diary Of A Night Watchman. -- PHOTO: STARHUB
Jung Il Woo (below) plays a prince who sees dead people in Diary Of A Night Watchman. -- PHOTO: STARHUB
Incomplete Life stars (from far left) Yim Si Wan as an intern at a trading company, Lee Sung Min as sales manager and Kim Dae Myeong as an assistant manager. -- PHOTO: TVN
Incomplete Life stars (from far left) Yim Si Wan as an intern at a trading company, Lee Sung Min as sales manager and Kim Dae Myeong as an assistant manager. -- PHOTO: TVN

An early high point in Incomplete Life, a South Korean office drama, comes when a group of interns at a trading giant have to pass a two-part examination to score a permanent position.

Working in pairs, the interns first give a presentation to a panel of senior executives. The second part tests the interns on strategy: Can they make their partners a sales pitch they can't refuse?

One intern, Jang Geu Rae (Yim Si Wan), produces a box filled with his colleagues' battered slippers - "the combat boots of the office", he calls them - and it is a masterly step.

His partner (Byeon Yo Han), Han Suk Ryul, is an engineer who takes pride in his blue-collar roots and his grasp of the workings of the company's textile production wing. He's also allergic to pen-pushers.

As Geu Rae presents the slippers and what they represent - the miles white-collar workers walk in them, trudging to meetings, readying documents, racing to telephones - his pitch is clearly aimed at changing Suk Ryul's mind.

Cleverly, it doubles as emotional validation of almost everyone in the room: He's selling them a story they can't reject.

And that's what this show does too. It is a perceptive story of working life and a philosophical balm for anybody who has been chained to a desk. It gets it: the hard-won, high-pressure office battles that might be over nothing much, and the human need for all those hours worked and all that energy expended to mean something.

Apart from a busy, dusty opening shot in Jordan that would belong more in a summer action blockbuster, the show stays mostly in the office, turning up the dramatic heat with presentations and confrontations. In an amusing and horrifyingly accurate episode, Geu Rae and his superior (Lee Sung Min) have to recover a crucial bill of lading that has been filed away in an administrative error that nobody admits.

Korean cable channel tvN's show originates from an online comic, which explains why Geu Rae can seem such a typical nerd hero: the high school graduate and failed chess player who somehow succeeds at work where university graduates fail.

Nevertheless, baduk (encirclement chess, which is better known as weiqi in Chinese and Go in Japanese) is an elegant framing device for the drama. In a story about success, survival and life, chess is both method and metaphor.

Geu Rae's watchful patience, which he learnt from baduk, is his shield against colleagues who underestimate him, while chess strategy is his secret weapon.

Beyond that, baduk is the window through which he sees the world and which puts office life in perspective. He and his colleagues may have heroic instants and little victories, but glory fades fast in the daily grind. A co-worker tries to take respon- sibility for a deal gone wrong, only to be told by higher-ups he is being too romantic. His head isn't going to roll because he isn't important enough, they assure him.

Watching from the sidelines, Geu Rae has a vision of the colleague spreading wings like an angel. Then the comic-book bubble bursts, and all he sees is a wrinkled man in a crumpled suit.

The man is grateful for Geu Rae's support, though, and the moment strikes a note of wisdom and warmth: We're all chess pieces, we're playing a game we might never win, but we're not alone and it's okay.

What's Diary Of A Night Watchman selling?

A ride through a horror house? A rush of period romance? A dark, fluffy fantasy following the 2012 smash hit The Moon Embracing The Sun?

The Korean costume drama tries to be all three, but it doesn't deliver. You want it to transport you to someplace special, but it doesn't quite start.

It's a pity, because the show has potential. It has a painterly look: An evil presence swirls in the air like a ripple of inky water, and a prince (Jung Il Woo) napping in a boat floats on a jade pool like a lone autumn leaf.

It has cute characters, including a trio of guardian ghosts - a minister, an eunuch and a girl - who watch over the prince and wonder if he sees them.

And it has Jung, who is naughty and vulnerable as an orphaned, isolated prince who sees dead people but pretends not to. (He was in The Moon Embracing The Sun with Kim Soo Hyun and the better of the two.)

Diary Of A Night Watchman doesn't deserve Jung, but he goes all out anyway. That's heroism.

woeiwan@sph.com.sg