Overview:

The captivating South Korean TV Kdrama "My Mister" addresses romantic love, and social and economic inequity, in a unique, compelling way.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Long before I experienced the beguilingly and sometimes joltingly offbeat South Korean drama Parasite, which so deservedly won the Academy Award for best picture in 2020—the first-ever Korean winner—I’ve been a huge fan of that country’s ever-enthralling movies and TV series.

Thank goodness for mega-streamer Netflix, which stocks a massive archive of new and older South Korean films and TV series so virtually anyone with a TV and streaming subscription can enjoy them at their leisure.

A stolen kiss

My latest Netflix personal sampling of the “Kdrama” genre—My Mister—is a dark but deeply moving character study of the glacially evolving relationship between a repressed 40-something corporate engineer and a mysterious 20-something woman with a disturbing, dangerous past.

My Mister is at heart a chaste yet curiously erotic love story … a paean to human emotional connectivity, not a master class on the evils of inequity.

rick snedeker

If it all sounds pretty formulaic, and dull, it’s not. It’s charmingly off-center, a kind of love story but one lacking any flirtation, sex or even ardent kissing between the protagonists. Indeed, the one kiss, literally stolen, is anything but romantic, hinting at the dark, conspiratorial undercurrent of the plot-line. Still, the series is endlessly entertaining, intriguing and often hilariously funny.

It just so happens that the male lead of My MisterLee Sun Kyun, who plays buttoned-down, sometimes almost catatonic engineer Park Dong Hoon—is also one of the ensemble stars in Parasite. In My Mister, he stars opposite the breathtakingly beautiful singer/songwriter/actress Lee Ji Eun (her stage name is IU), who portrays the quietly alluring but enigmatic Lee Ji Ahn.

For my money, even though it didn’t bring me to tears, the bittersweet ending of My Mister is one of the sweetest, most heart-swelling moments of cinema, from any country, that I can remember in my more than 60 years of movie devotion.

Performances that leave indelible impressions

My Mister is the sort of film whose intimate performances and mesmerizing images remain trapped in memory, like ghostly dreamscapes, long after you leave the theater. Like the final airport goodbye between star-crossed lovers Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), an American nightclub owner in Morocco, and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) in Casablanca, or when in Apocalypse Now! U.S. Army Captain Benjamin Willard finds renegade Special Forces Colonel Walter Kurtz commanding a nightmarish riverside outpost deep within Cambodia during the Vietnam War, holding in thrall a ghoulish private army of anti-communist AWOL American soldiers and indigenous Vietnamese troops who believe Kurtz is a demigod.

The final scene in My Mister is like that. Emotionally indelible. At least for me.

Korean films often weave odd opposite realities, like the suppressed personalities of the engineer and his Miss in My Mister, which trap overpowering emotion that only rarely vents, and even then generally with understated intensity. I suspect I wasn’t the only one watching the series’ oh-too-short single season with one continuous emotion: a sense of unrequited yearning: for Dong Hoon and Ji Ahn to finally embrace the reality of their subtle but profound affinity for and trust in each other.

But their evolving connection is a very slow burn, which is a key element of the series’ entire cinematic architecture.

Surprisingly, unlike Parasite, I was unable to find any major-media reviews of My Mister by The New York Times or Roger Ebert’s posthumous site, or the like. So I’m writing my own, although it’s more encouragement than analysis.

Class, inequality, and social rules collide

A recurring theme in the tapestry of South Korean cinema—likewise a key premise in both Parasite and My Mister—is a stupefying cocktail of classism, inequity, and ageless tradition. As the protagonists wrestle with their affluence or lack of it in a society that only honors the former, misery and wrenching complications ensue.

Before the Academy Awards ceremony in 2020 the financial-industry juggernaut Forbes magazine published a glowing, prophetic review of Parasite that is also pertinent for My Mister in 2022 (Parasite also garnered Oscars for direction by Bong Joon Ho and for its original screenplay).

“The UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs has recently shown that income inequality has increased in most developed countries and in some middle-income countries,” wrote film critic Jeff Ewing in his Forbes review. “The study has shown that the richest one percent of the population have increased their relative share of global income between 1990 and 2015, while the bottom 40% of the world’s population earned less than a quarter of the income in all surveyed countries. Inequality creates huge divergences in standard of living, wealth, generational opportunities, infant mortality, exposure to environmental harms, etc. The bottom line: in all countries, money begets more money, but it also begets more well-being, more political influence, and more opportunities across the board. Poverty, by contrast, is hard to escape the world over… and for some, hard to survive.”

In My Mister, middle-class Dong Hoon, to the perplexity of his friends and family, doesn’t really care about status, and is extremely conflicted about his obscure, subliminal attraction to other-side-of-the-tracks Ji Ahn. Everyone, except perhaps Dong Hoon and Ji Ahn (and a former Dong Hoon friend who opted for a celibate monastic life), is worried to some degree about how others perceive their station in life or how they might achieve prosperity and ease.

In Parasite, a lower-class family dishonestly finagles its way into the lavish home of a prosperous family, as servants—a home where bad things happen in a creepy basement warren. The title wickedly has two meanings: According to director Bong Joon Ho, the unprosperous are parasites on the rich for jobs and money, while the leisure-addled rich are parasitic on the labor of their servants, without whom they would be largely helpless.

An unrequited love story

But, unlike Parasite, My Mister is at heart a chaste yet curiously erotic love story (due in large part to the leads’ lived-in performances), a paean to human emotional connectivity, not a master class on the evils of inequity. And it’s not just about Dong Hoon’s and Ji Ahn’s connectivity but also about the connective tissue of family and friends; a talented ensemble cast creates the strong, nurturing threads of a wider virtual fabric of community and belonging.

If you’re looking for Marvel Comics-type cinematic super action, My Mister, with its few confusions and many long, thoughtful gazes, long walks, and long faces (although there are lots of laughs and some action, too), is probably not for you. It takes patience, even forbearance, to receive the payoff. But, in my view, it’s well worth it.

Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...