JTBC’s drama “My Liberation Notes” does not conform to the typical K-drama mold. There’s no handsome chaebol prince; there’s no crazy mother-in-law.
What you see in it are three siblings who live in a small and humble house on the outskirts of Seoul. Although it takes one and a half hours to their workplaces in Seoul, none of them have a car because their conservative father -- who despises unnecessary spending and believes in the dignity of labor -- won’t allow it.
The three grown children of the Yeom family – two daughters and a son -- have their own thirsts and desires.
Ki-jung, the eldest daughter, wants Mr. Right. She has a list of wants, expectations, or outright requirements. She shuts unqualified people out from the beginning, only to later realize that she’s just a few years shy of 40 with little relationship experience.
“I will love anybody from now on,” she declares one day in front of her younger brother and sister.
The son and middle child in the family, Chang-hee, is timid in relationships because he is afraid to disappoint his partner. He thinks he would stand a better chance at love if he didn’t have to worry about catching the last train home after taking his date home.
The youngest of the three, Mi-jung, always tries not to step on anyone’s toes at work and at home. But when it comes to love, she has a big hole in her heart and says she has never been loved unconditionally, not even by her parents.
It is her thirst for affection that leads her to Mr.Gu, a mysterious man who works at her father’s small kitchen sinks workshop. No one knows his full name; he’s an alcoholic who barely talks.
“Don’t you have anything else to do other than drink? Revere me. I’ve never been filled and love is not enough. Revere me,” she says to Mr.Gu, as if it was an order.
After the episode was aired, the Korean word “chuang” -- which means to revere, respect or worship -- created buzz online. As Mr.Gu does in the show, it prompted many to look in the dictionary for its exact meaning. The term is rarely used in drama series, nor in daily conversations -- especially in reference to a romantic relationship between two people.
So why does this unfamiliar phrase resonate with so many? Or why do people relate to the character who wants to become an object of reverence as means of her “liberation”? What is the liberation she wants in the first place?
The three siblings are ordinary people who have no significant issues in their lives, at least on the surface. They find it hard to pinpoint what’s wrong, but feel that something is missing in their lives.
“I want to call anyone and say anything. I want to have a conversation that relaxes me, rather than the chattering I do to demonstrate my presence,” the eldest daughter says.
To me, “My Liberation Notes” seems like a portrait of a generation trapped by the preconditions they have set – or those they’ve learned to set from society -- for relationships. They have internalized a judgmental approach to classify people by their wealth, possessions, social image and status. They also try hard to fit into their respective desired group and are selective in choosing friends and a partner.
The problem is that the list of criteria to classify someone’s economic and social status is getting longer in Korea. It often determines people’s perceptions of each other’s worth. It can also be distressing for some people if they fall short of the high standards they or other people have set.
In the past, when things were simpler, people lived with much less material abundance. This lack motivated people to continue striving for better, more fulfilling lives.
But when there is no hope that hard work will pay off, people don’t strive for success. They long for liberation.
This drama reminded me of the “Sampo Generation,” a neologism in South Korea referring to a generation that has given up on three things -- courtship, marriage and having children -- due to high living costs and a house shortage.
The term was first coined in 2015 and new words similar to it kept on being created, like the “Sippo Generation,” those who have given up on 10 things. And then there’s the “Wanpo Generation” – for those who have given up on everything completely.
While rapid economic growth during the 1980s and ‘90s acted as an impetus for young Koreans to dream big, the economic slowdown that continued throughout subsequent decades have promoted hypercompetitive behavior. In this context, some people have stopped hoping for a better tomorrow and abandoned future plans.
Viewers may have immersed themselves in the character of Mi-jung and her choice of the term “chuang,” as they also want to be loved with no strings attached, and to be accepted in this highly competitive and judgmental society.
By Park Han-na (firstname.lastname@example.org