[TW: .gif, epilepsy warning]
Nice Guy premiered last week with two excellent episodes. Sleek, gorgeous, and well-paced, the show managed to capture my imagination and spark my anticipation for next week. And the acting is so. good. It’s always a good sign when the first two episodes of a drama are strong because that suggests that the team behind the project have a roadmap and a goal, and won’t suddenly veer off course à la Mary Stayed Out All Night or seemingly run out of a story to tell à la Secret Garden; it gives the audience a measure of security that the time and interest we are about to invest won’t be wasted. I’ve found that you can’t really judge a kdrama after only a week; usually the first two episodes differ in tone than the rest of the drama. They’re either loaded down with exposition in order to establish a world that will be richer later on or they try to win over the audience by over selling the genre–the first episodes of a comedy will be all slapstick and no story, the first episodes of an action drama will be all yelling and car chases and explosions. One particularly difficult transition dramas have had to work through is with introductory characters, like when we’re introduced to the childhood version of our leads and inevitably become attached to them, only to have them age ten years, like in Can You Hear My Heart, or when an enigmatic character is immediately killed off, like in Shut Up Flower Boy Band. The story doesn’t really start until after a certain set up of events, and then you feel that you have to acclamate yourself to the drama’s world all over again. But Nice Guy manages to avoid these pitfalls by presenting us first with our main character as an adult and immediately putting him in the crucial situation that will determine the course of the narrative.
One thing I really appreciate is the thought that went into the directing. It’s not as intricate as the direction behind Queen In Hyun’s Man, but it isn’t generic. It has some authorship behind it, actually helping to construct the story. The editing is wonderful, with scene transitions that enrich characterization. For example, we move between images of Ma Ru, our hero, from before and after his transformation, putting in immediate, stark contrast just how much he’s changed. It highlights the acting. The editing also creates a bond between our romantic leads in addition to the narrative: again and again the camera will leave our heroine Eun Ki to go to Ma Ru, establishing a relationship between them while the characters themselves remain unaware of one another. All the characters are embroiled in this deceptive, competitive world where they struggle with overwhelming emotions of love and betrayal, almost as if they’re actually struggling against fate. But they make decisions, they work to leave their imprint on the world, try to survive as best they can. They’re willful, manipulative, paranoid, and obsessive, but they’re also vulnerable. It’s easy to fault them, easy to make a villain out of any one of them, but so far screenwriter Lee Kyung Hee has managed to present us with these full characters that make you itch to see them unfold. She doesn’t lay their motives bare for us, which makes for a fascinating landscape that invites you to explore and work to understand it.
Kang Ma Ru Character Analysis: Before and After
The Ma Ru we first meet is is young and optimistic. In episode 2 we learn that he’s a top student and considered a great catch among the ladies on campus, but he only has eyes for his noona, Jae Hee. He’s a studying to be a doctor, and as we follow him on one of his resident rounds we learn that he’s also smart, very good at what he does, caring, and (overly) generous, if a little cheeky. He’s observant and likes solving puzzles and problems. He isn’t afraid to question authority when he feels that something is wrong but he sometimes bites off more than he can chew. All these characteristics go into the decision he makes to take the fall for Jae Hee’s crime. His youth and optimism blind him to the realities of what it means to have a chunk of your life taken away from you and wasted, and his tendency to try and solve other people’s problems is only enhanced by his romantic attachment to Jae Hee. It’s one hell of a potent concoction.
The thing about this Ma Ru is his future. It holds so much promise, and he holds so much potential; he’s at that point in his life where it seems as though things can only get better and better. After proving his professor wrong, he tells him, “It looks like we’re going to have a genius doctor at this hospital.” It makes the future he actually gets that much more disturbing and disorienting because it’s such a long fall, such a great change in circumstances. Going to jail is the kind of thing that, if you’re a regular citizen and not some rich person or celebrity, will ruin your prospects. On every job application you have to check that box that asks if you’ve ever been convicted of a crime, and then there’s that little box under the “Yes” that asks you to explain more. It’s a drastic narrowing of economic and social opportunities, not to mention the emotional and psychological effects the actual experience will leave on you. I imagine it’s only worse if you’re imprisoned for a crime you didn’t commit.
And so if what characterizes Ma Ru before prison is potential, was defines him afterward is waste. Is there a more stinging word? It’s like when someone is disappointed in you instead of angry. This Ma Ru is wholly changed. He no longer wears a white doctor’s robe and dresses in all black. Whereas before he seemed interested in the world and the people around him, now it as if he’s walking around in a zombie state. His eyes have a dead quality about them, like he’s an empty shell. He isn’t really engaged in anything or with many people. He changes when he’s with Choco, his sister; with her he’s gentle and caring, and their interactions are colored by his remorse and guilt for leaving her–for much longer than either of them could have anticipated–that night to go help Jae Hee, and her indignation and that particular quality of a sense of entitlement that children who have been sick their whole lives have, like Colin from The Secret Garden, only hers is magnified by his prior betrayal. He also has a friendship with Park Jae Gil that is at times prickly. But for the most part he’s now making his way through the world completely cut off from it. When he meets Eun Ki on the plane and he sees that she’s sick he seems concerned for a moment. But then a flight attendant comes and his walls are back up and he’s back in control. It isn’t until he unexpectedly sees Jae Hee that he’s fully pulled back into the moment. His entire demeanor changes: he’s no longer passive or untouched; he’s angry. And suddenly he’s back in the world, with stakes that matter to him.
Seo Eun Ki Character Analysis
Seo Eun Ki is a fabulous character, and it’s delicious watching her on screen, cutting through all the people around her with a biting archness and a sharp intellect. Moon Chae Won plays her with an amused smirk on her face and eyes that constantly cut to the side, as if she’s daring the person she’s talking to to disagree with her. She has this mocking way of speaking to people, especially when she suspects they’re lying to her; she’ll taunt them with their own words, throwing them back in their faces so they can see how ridiculous they sound, and how ridiculous she finds them. (I just loved the way she kept on rubbing “the one who is not a doctor but has qualifications” in Jae Hee’s face.) She’s calculating and wholly involved in the well being of Taesan, her father’s company, which she is to inherit. It’s like her whole being is animated by running the company, her mind, her every word and action, a move to benefit Taesan. She’s like a machine. It’s as if her own safety and prosperity are tied to the corporation’s. She hunts down an employee who is stealing money from Taesan, and brutally, even humiliatingly, calls him out and fires him; she outsmarts a customer who was paid off by a rival company to badmouth a Taesan product and then vows to sue that rival; she has no qualms in treating a four-year-old as a rival to her place in the company. She’s paranoid and obsessive, and she refuses to be fooled by anyone. She’s bitchy, she’s ruthless, she’s cunning, and I love her.
But this isn’t all there is to Eun Ki, and I think it would be a mistake to write her off as a “crazy bitch” who runs around making cute little children cry. She’s cold, yes, but I think she’s purposefully so in order to hide her vulnerabilities. She uses fear as a tool to protect herself professionally and personally. First there’s is the fact that she’s sick. She collapsed on the plane, and if Ma Ru hadn’t been there she most likely would have died. She seems comfortable in hospitals, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s spent a good amount of her life in and out of them. This is something that connects her to Choco, and something I expect will influence her relationship with Ma Ru. This doesn’t mean she’s weak, but she is physically susceptible.
For all her corporate power and machinations, Eun Ki is someone who doesn’t have control or agency in her personal life. She’s been groomed to be the head of Taesan since she was a child. It’s not a choice she had to make, it’s a future that was set up for her that she had to accept–something that differentiates her from Ma Ru and Jae Hee, who both chose their dreams of being doctors and news anchors. But even though her path has been laid out for her, the goal of that path is threatened by the presence of Jae Hee and her son, Eun Seuk. I think she’s justified in her fear of that small boy, and her father tells her as much when he threatens to have Eun Seuk take over the company in her place because she’s “too weak.” They can erase the only future she’s ever been allowed to envision for herself. At the root of her treatment of them is a real fear. Her father is verbally and physically abusive, yelling at her and shattering a glass ornament whose shard leaves a scratch on Eun Ki’s face. There’s an eerie clam to that scene, as if this were a common occurrence, as if he’s done worse to her, as if she’s earned how to deal with his outbursts, that makes me think that her father probably engages in covert and ambient abuse, whereby he manipulates her emotions (I mean, just look at the way he brings her mother into the argument, daring her not to be like her), challenging her confidence and self-worth. Eun Ki is self destructive, maybe even self hating, (she drinks alcohol straight from the bottle and then lies, alone, in a fetal position, on the conference desk in her office) and her relationship with her father is probably the root cause of it. His control is so pervasive that it characterizes the entire household. It’s not until he leaves a room that Eun Ki can speak (somewhat) openly. It’s the same household where she saw her mother get kicked out to be replaced by a woman just six years her senior.
There’s no mistaking Eun Ki’s ruthlessness–after all, she was the one who sent the police after Ma Ru the second time, the one who must be implicated in Ma Ru’s decision to pursue revenge against Jae Hee (and ironically enough, she unwittingly helps to create the situation in which she is the victim, the collateral damage, in someone else’s vengeance)–but there also isn’t any mistaking the mournful longing in her voice when she calls out for her mother in her sleep. It’s not just that she’s ruthless, it’s that she’s ruthless in a world where she can see how her life could be monetarily quantified, could be disposed of for 1 billion won, an amount Jae Hee can get in an afternoon. I think Eun Ki’s the best imagined character on the show.
On Jae Hee and Ma Ru
Right now this relationship is central to the narrative. The first time we see them together is when Ma Ru is watching Jae Hee on a television screen. He calls her “my ajumma,” which he means endearingly, but which signifies how he sees their relationship. He’s protective of her, and the “my” can be seen as either affectionate or patronizing, or both. It’s so appropriate that that’s how we first see them, because they are in two different worlds, with Ma Ru watching her, and that’s how their relationship is defined after Ma Ru comes from jail. In fact, that’s the premise of this week’s preview. She’s married to a rich business man with money to spare while Ma Ru is a bartender and a gigolo, still living in the same low income neighborhood they came from. They have this terribly long and complicated relationship, but I think Jae Hee’s actions toward him can be encapsulated in the moment right after he’s saved Eun Ki on the plane. Ma Ru says his job is finished and gets up to leave. A flight attendant thanks him as he walks away. Then Jae Hee stands up and takes a sharp breath as if she has something to tell him (thanks? sorry?), but he’s already gone, and she probably shouldn’t say anything anyway. All she can do is grip her shirt and try to think of the best way to keep what just happened a singular event. It’s like she’s incapacitated. It makes me think of how she told Ma Ru, right after he’d literally given her the clothes off his back, that she’d carry this debt with her her entire life. It’s not a debt of thanks. This debt is something that has to be paid back. In effect, she’s describing what he did as a burden. But the thing is, with an act as enormous as what Ma Ru did and she accepted, there isn’t really a way to pay it back. It simply cannot be called a debt because it is outside the parameters of one; that’s why she makes the cruel mistake of giving him material goods and money after years of not seeing him–she doesn’t know how to appropriately handle this outsized thing, her hands aren’t big enough for it.
I don’t pity Ma Ru. At least, I don’t pity him uncritically. He was the one who made the decision to go to jail for Jae Hee’s crime, and he made it with no persuasion from her. In fact, he stopped her when she tried to dissuade him. He tells her, “Don’t ever turn back. Just forward. Just face forward and leave.” Of course, he doesn’t know just how well she’ll follow that advice. I pity Ma Ru for the consequences of his decisions, for having clearly lost so much. He was fine with losing his dream of becoming a doctor in order to “save” Jae Hee, but he lost more than that: he lost time, his world view, crucial parts of himself, his future. He was irrevocably changed. It seems like Ma Ru wasn’t aware of the enormity of what he was doing. He saw his actions only from one perspective, that of “saving” Jae Hee from a terrifying future. I want to return to the question of the debt that Jae Hee owes Ma Ru, though, because I’m still not entirely sure why Ma Ru does what he does. I don’t know what he expects in return (if anything). It leaves me feeling uncomfortable.
Nice Guy ™?
The concern I have about the status of Ma Ru and Jae Hee’s relationship when he decides to take the fall for her (which according to all the episodes of Law & Oder I’ve watched is completely ridiculous; where are the folks in the adjourning rooms? Where are the street cameras that show he was coming to the hotel after the time of death? Wouldn’t Jae Hee’s hair be all over the room? Wouldn’t the front desk mention her?) is that Ma Ru might have been acting like a Nice Guy ™. A Nice Guy ™ is a critique of the popular “nice guys finish last” trope, in that the whole idea is a sob story for men who aren’t actually nice, men who treat a woman kindly in return for acceptance of his romantic advancements; if she rejects him (if he gets “friendzoned”) then she’s a bitch. It’s also an awful thing because the script goes that if a woman is in an abusive relationship then she deserves it because “that’s what she wanted,” that’s what she gets for passing over the “nice guy” and going for the “bad boy.” And of course there’s the whole feeling contempt for a woman’s friendship but wanting to sleep with her. Did Ma Ru do this…let’s call it a favor, for Jae Hee with the expectation that she’d be in debt to him romantically, that now that he’s done this for her she owes him her love? ‘Cause that would make Ma Ru an asshole right from the start.
Anatomy of a Scene
When Jae Hee first calls Ma Ru she says that she thinks the man is dead, then confirms that he is dead. She never says that she’s killed someone. The first decision Ma Ru makes is to leave his sister. It’s something he’ll come to regret, even more than taking the fall for Jae Hee. I think that if he had to do it all over again he’d choose not to, not because of Jae Hee, but because he wouldn’t want to leave Choco. He turns back on his way to the motel, but ultimately he decides to go. It’s the first in a series of pauses before he finally says, “I’m the one who killed this man.” It’s not something he decides on right off the bat, it’s a conclusion he reaches after a series of events. When he gets to Jae Hee’s room he asks her if the man is dead and she says she doesn’t know; Ma Ru checks and confirms that he is. This prompts Jae Hee to wonder, “Why? Why is he dead? I didn’t kill him,” to which Ma Ru responds with a knowing look over his shoulder. Now there are only two instances so far where Jae Hee has shown certainty: when she says the man is dead, which she immediately negates by saying she doesn’t know if he’s dead, and when she declares that she’s not the one who killed him. She says this four times. It’s like she’s in denial, or shock. Then Ma Ru approaches her and starts asking her these questions, these leading questions that are more answers than they are inquiries: “He was going to do something bad to you, right? That’s why you had no other choice but to…” and Jae Hee nods. He doesn’t actually ask her what happened. Even though he gave her that look, from the start he was going down a path in which she was more innocent than guilty. He’s constructing a story for her. When he points to the object she may have used to kill the man she smashes it.
Ma Ru tells her she has to turn herself in, assuring her, “What does it matter if you’re no longer a reporter? You can start over with anything.” Oh, the irony. Jae Hee immediately flies into a panic, citing her socioeconomic fears and threatening to kill herself right then and there. Ma Ru tries to stop her and is hurt in the process. And then he says something strange: “Can’t I be a reason?” meaning can’t he be a reason for her to live through prison. He’s basically telling her she could supplant her dream of being an anchorwoman with their romantic relationship. He cites the 13 years he’s been in love with her, following her like a light in the dark, and asks if “a guy like [him]” can’t be reason enough for her to live. It’s just weird. Then, after a short discussion about god and how cruel he is to her, Jae Hee decides to call the cops. She’s composed, has gained a measure of control over herself. She dials the number. She answers when they pick up. And then Ma Ru hangs her phone up and declares that he’s the one who killed the man, not her.
Jae Hee protests, three times, and each time Ma Ru shuts her down. She asks him why and he basically answers that he thinks he can handle it and she can’t. He’s afraid she’ll end up dying from heartache. Jae Hee accepts. In episode two she says she’ll never forget the debt she owes him. Here I find I have to consider the fact that while Jae Hee avoids going to jail, she also avoids the consequences of her own actions (if they were hers; I’m not sure she killed that man); she willingly engages in her own infantilization, because what Ma Ru does is a little infantilizing, no? To take the fall for her instead of letting her call the cops? Either way, I think the best way to sort this all out is to examine the crucial scene when it all takes place. But is Ma Ru a Nice Guy ™? I think he comes dangerously close to being one, what with his conflation of romance and gratitude. (Speaking of staying alive for someone else, the conversation here makes me think Ma Ru was going to stay alive for Jae Hee, but instead he ended up doing it for his sister. His sister told him if he left her she would die and Jae Hee told him if she went to jail she might as well die.) But in episode two he makes clear that he’s making an effort to move on, that it’s the only thing he can do. Jae Hee makes a series of gaffes, first with the money, then with confirming the lie about blackmailing, sending him back to jail again. This is what sets him on the path of revenge, and it’s also what keeps him in normal nice guy (no ™) territory. Well, normal for a melodrama. For me it’s crucial that this be the betrayal and not Jae Hee’s moving on from him. It’s cruel of her to do so, but it was his decision to take the fall. Not to mention, he told her to move on.
The most chilling thing about all of this is how dismissive they both are about the dead man in the room. Ma Ru immediately pegs him as the villain, and then they proceed to have an exchange about life and fortunes! Another thing is how easily they both acknowledge that even if the police accept that Jae Hee was acting in self defense against a man who was sexually assaulting her, she would still suffer in all spheres of her life–professionally, economically, in the eyes of society, etc.
I don’t hate Jae Hee. I understand how Ma Ru could leave his sick sister and going to help her. She’s someone he cared deeply for and she was screaming about having killed a person, while the scene with his sister seems to have been a familiar one.There’s something strange going on between Jae Hee and Eun Ki’s father, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some coercion involved in their relationship. He had (and has) much more power than her back when she was still an anchorwoman, and after the motel scene she went to him with documents, asking him if he knew the extent of the sacrifice she had to make for something he asked her to do. He’s involved in Ma Ru’s revenge, too. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that he’ll become the ultimate villain of the narrative. There’s obviously some secret aspect to his and Jae Hee’s relationship that’s yet to be revealed, but I think we can deduce from how Jae Hee doesn’t tell him about Ma Ru’s being on the plane that she doesn’t completely trust him. If Eun Ki is living in a house that is controlled through fear, then so is Jae Hee, and so is her son. Jae Hee was so calm after Eun Ki had been berated by her father; she’s been a witness to his violence and she and her son are probably just as susceptible to it as Eun Ki. And, of course, we’ve been shown that Jae Hee has had a troubled history with men, which should probably be taken into account in her relationship with both Eun Ki’s father and Ma Ru.
On Eun Ki and Ma Ru
It’s amazing how much chemistry Moon Chae Won and Song Joong Ki have already, when they’ve only been in one scene together, in which Moon Chae Won was unconscious. (Although this makes me feel uneasy. How can there be romantic tension when one of the participants isn’t actually participating? It probably has to do with a mixture of the fact tat I know they’re going to be romantically involved–I’ve seen promotional material–and rape culture conditioning, but I don’t think I have the chops to get into the intricacies of romance and rape culture just yet.) I mentioned before how their characters are being drawn together through editing choices. There are some other scene transitions I loved that establish parallels between them. One is the whole second part of the second episode, where we move from Eun Ki on the phone with her ex to Ma Ru on the phone with his sister. We already know that Eun Ki and Choco are connected through their respective illnesses and how Ma Ru (in doctor mode) treats them. That connection is strengthened here, but we also get an emphasis on how both Ma Ru and Eun Ki have willingly gotten in trouble with the law for their lovers (and how this information is used by Jae Hee). Also, we see Eun Ki dump her phone in a fish tank, and right afterwards we see Ma Ru, in the rain, picking up his phone. Not only do we have a water motif (artificial vs natural; which also reminds me of all the water we saw in the first episode in Japan at the hotel where they were both staying) we also have the fact that they have the same ring tone. And the call Ma Ru gets is about the cops coming to get him–the cops that Eun Ki sent after him. Another great transition is how we pan from Ma Ru in his jail cell to Eun Ki drunk and alone in her high rise office to an overhead shot of Ma Ru leaving the jail. He’s also alone (no one is there to greet him with some tofu), and it’s like the camera is coming down from Eun Ki’s office to face him. And rearwindow (comment # 46.2) also mentioned how both of them are often seen through windows and bars, a juxtaposition of possible freedom and certain imprisonment.
One last thing I’d like to add about these two: the show makes a point of how Ma Ru keeps his eyes open when he kisses his marks. It shows how unfeeling and disconnected he is. This immediately reminded me of Heartbreakers, the 2001 romcom with Jennifer Love Hewitt and Sigourney Weaver playing a mother-daughter con team. In it Weaver’s character explains that once you close your eyes while kissing a mark, it’s a sign that you’ve gone to deep and have gotten your emotions involved. I feel that Nice Guy is going to do the same thing, that one of the ways Ma Ru’s romantic sincerity is going to portrayed is by having him close his eyes when they make out.
Becasue I love Eun Ki and Jae Hee’s tête-à-têtes.
Eun Ki: Coming back from somewhere, I see. …I snuck out. The nurses don’t know. Dr. Kim seems to be pretty frustrated right now. Please put in a good word for me. I’m now perfectly fine. Whether it’s eating desserts or chweing on rocks, I’ll be able to swallow it.
Jae Hee: It’s a relief that your recovery was fast.
Eun Ki: Thanks to you. I was able to recieve emergency care on the plane.
Jae Hee: I didn’t really do anything. The doctor took good care of you.
Eun Ki: Doctor…They say he’s not a doctor.
Jae Hee: Yeah. He’s not formally a doctor. They say he went to med school but quit in the middle of it. But seeing as he saved your life, he must have some qualifica–
Eun Ki: So you met with the one who “isn’t a doctor but has lots of qualifications”? …Why did you give him 1 billion won? To the one who isn’t a doctor but has qualifications?
Jae Hee: I was threatened. 7 years ago, in the US, you were arrested for drug possession? He knew about that. The young man did. If the media or the shareholder knew about this, what kond of blow that would be to you, you would know better than me. And the board is already investigating you over management assessment qualifications. You have to be careful of even the wind that breezes past you.
Eun Ki: That 1 billion won, I wonder where he hid it? You know my nickname is “Crazy Dog,” right? Letting him go is the police’s prerogative. I definitely do not plan on letting him go. Although, I don’t know how Han Jae Hee-sshi will feel about this…
Jae Hee: Tha 1 billion won, I have it. It was returned to me.
Eun Ki: Why?
Jae Hee: Because he failed the mission. “Help me kill my husband’s previous wife’s daughter Seo Eun Ki.” Because he failed the mission and let you live. If what happened 7 years ago, when you were arrested for drug possession were made known then it wouldn’t be a matter of just loosing a little blood. Your becoming the manager of the company would be impossible. even if this wasn’t an issue, becaue you’re young, and a woman, there are already 1/3 of people against you. Of course, it’s a thank ful thing for me and Eun Seok. After all, it’s a card that can destroy you in one shot.
Eun Ki: For now I thank you for coming out. But what is the point of being threatened? Revealing that card and destroying me?
Jae Hee: Why would I play such a lame game? When it’s so much more fun to play around with you? When you become as big and scary as me, then let’s fight. We can have a fair fight when that time comes. Then we’ll see whether you’ll win and I’ll die, or you’ll die and I’ll win. So don’t act so mighty in front of me, spiting me, and don’t keep throwing your tantrums at me. Don’t bother me while I still have that card. You little bitch.
Note that although it’s Eun Ki that begins both of these arguments, the first one to pull out a threat, Jae Hee is the one to respond with a greater threat that shuts everything down. at first she tries to cover by creating a lie in which she was simply trying to protect Eun Ki–a threat masquerading as concern. Then she looses all pretense and threatens Eun Ki straight out. Not only does she that, but she deliberately encourages her paranoia. Eun Ki is right when she says she’s like a snake. The thing is, is she kind the that, if you leave her alone, simply passes you by, or is she the kind that strikes at you regardless? Because I can’t help feeling that Jae Hee is protecting something, too, that if Eun Ki weren’t so bent on getting rid of her she’d be relatively harmless. And I love that these two have conflicts that exist outside of Ma Ru, that their respective romances with him don’t constitute the whole of their relationship with one another. They have their own personal reasons for being opponents that reflect their positions in their family, and they’re probably things that have to be resolved (if they even can be) outside of the romantic sphere.
I’m so excited for Wednesday/Thursdays! Shout out to all the great folks over at Viki!