(This is part 2 of 2. Part one uncapped the opening episodes of Mask.)
High Society is neither as overtly sexy or demented as Mask, and it takes longer for the plot to get going. But four episodes into the series it may offer an even more intriguing central couple.
The elements of the two shows are similar: a wealthy, emotionally abusive family. A hero who will do anything for career success. A heroine hiding her true identity. They even offer two different versions of the clever poor boy striving to enter the elite. The cold-blooded villain Seok-Hoon in Mask and the inscrutable hero Joon-Ki in High Society are two sides of the same coin.
High Society‘s first two episodes take their time introducing Yoon-Ha (UEE), the super-rich chaebol daughter who secretly works as a part-timer to escape her emotionally abusive family. And we meet her working-class best friend Lee Ji-Yi (Im Ji-Yeon) and the men in Yoon-Ha’s life, chaebol cutie Yoo Chang-Soo (Park Hyung-Sik) and his right-hand man, the attractive but remote Choi Joon-Ki (Sung Joon).
High Society looks at first like a simple romantic comedy. The only unconventional thing is that the secondary characters receive more attention than the primary characters. Sung Joon’s character is so stoic and unexpressive that he recedes into the background whenever second lead Park Hyung-Sik steps into the frame.
UEE’s heroine Yoon-Ha is more overtly likable than her character in recent tvN drama Hogu’s Love, but she still doesn’t fill the screen with personality. One obvious good thing about her character is that she’s friends with the sweet but pragmatic Lee Ji-Yi. But like Do-Hee in Hogu’s Love, this heroine has a lot on her mind and doesn’t reveal much of it to others.
Writer Ha Myung-Hee and director Choi Young-Hoon embrace the contrast between the two couples. While UEE and Joon-Ki barely speak to one another, Chang-Soo flirts with Lee Ji-Yi, idly at first, then increasingly putting his ego on the line. They appear to be a typical rom-com couple: rich good-for-nothing hero pursuing hard-working poor girl.
But Ji-Yi’s retorts to Chang-Soo are so fresh, and Chang-Soo is so cheeky, that they’re unusually fun to watch. Park Hyung-Sik was one of the bright points in Heirs, playing a secondary character with a talent for aigyoo comic relief. His cutesy ways remain in evidence here, but he brings along a surprising amount of leading man charisma.
If in the first two episodes, Chang-Soo and Ji-Yi appear to be the primary couple, the secondary couple could almost be Chang-Soo and his assistant Joon-Ki. Park Hyung-Sik’s flirtatious charm is the opposite of Sung Joon’s restraint, which is more in evidence here than ever. Joon-Ki’s stoicism fits with the fact that he’s Chang-Soo’s private secretary and paid best friend. It’s not his job to have opinions, unless they match Chang-Soo’s.
The personality and class differences between the two men make for an uneasy friendship. Chang-Soo is aware that Joon-Ki is the better businessman. He worries Joon-Ki will defect for better opportunities elsewhere, with Chang-Soo’s older brother, for instance. Chang-Soo’s also short on friends and doesn’t want to lose Joon-Ki as a confidant.
But Joon-Ki comes from a working-class background. His mother works as a maid and his father is a retired security guard with a disability. Joon-Ki’s wants the wealth and power his parents don’t have—though his parents dote on each other and live happily.
When the talkative Chang-Soo tells Joon-Ki he likes being friends with him, Joon-Ki merely smiles (one of the few times in this series we see Sung Joon’s distinctive wry smile). Joon-Ki may play the loyal attendant, but doesn’t flatter Chang-Soo much. We sense he has more contempt for his boss/friend than he’s letting on.
Envy is a powerful emotion, however. Joon-Ki’s contempt is mixed with his enjoyment in having access to the rich and powerful. Joon-Ki’s mingled contempt and envy for the rich rise to the surface when he dumps his wealthy girlfriend. It’s a short, frank scene that makes them both look like mercenary marriage brokers rather than lovers.
Joon-Ki chastises his girlfriend for being rude to his parents. He won’t let her disrespect his parents just because she has money. At the same time, he cuts her down to size by pointing out his research shows her father’s business isn’t really doing that well. Joon-Ki could do better elsewhere.
Is Joon-Ki more annoyed at her privileged attitude or her company’s uncertain future? Would hurting his parents be worth it for a stronger company? Joon-Ki lives alone and hasn’t visited his parents in months, although they live in the same city. In private we see his affection for his mother, but in public he’s stuffy and formal with her. He chides his mom for stopping by his apartment because he’ll “lose his ambition.”
It’s as if Joon-Ki’s business success depends on convincing himself he doesn’t have working-class roots. He’s convinced that his parents deep love for each other has held them back economically. He won’t make the same mistake of finding satisfaction in immaterial things.
Joon-Ki’s a strange character. Except for dumping his girlfriend in episode one, he wears a distant look until the end of episode 3. Then, we learn something that spins the story on its axis. What is Joon-Ki really up to? How much of his gentlemanly behavior towards Yoon-Ha is inspired by genuine attraction and how much by ambition?
Thanks to these new questions about Joon-Ki, when the series finally turns attention to him and Yoon-Ha, episode four is by turns creepy, tense and devastating. Episode four moves at a blistering pace compared to the first three episodes, but every development results from groundwork laid earlier.
As Yoon-Ha pursues Joon-Ki, it becomes clear how naive and inexperienced she is. Her romantic innocence isn’t surprising for a sheltered twenty-something daughter of chaebol privilege. Yoon-Ha has rejected her mother’s attempts to arrange a marriage because she doesn’t want a loveless life like her mother’s. But it’s scary to see Yoon-Ha start trusting a man who might be using her.
Because she’s working incognito when she first meets Joon-Ki, she thinks he likes her purely for herself rather than her wealth. Perhaps he can give her some of the love she lacks at home. But is this true? Or is this The Heiress, Korean-style?
Joon-Ki’s romantic moves certainly could have come straight from the Henry James novel or its classic 1949 adaptation. The subtle ways Joon-Ki gets inside Yoon-Ha’s head and the slightly sadistic way he asks her out suggest he’s not leaving anything to chance. As he says in episode one, meeting her three times could be fate, but he doesn’t believe in fate. He makes choices. Even his courtly politeness—endearing at first—looks more sinister in episode four when we realize he might be deliberately creating distance to draw Yoon-Ha deeper in.
Here’s a difference between Mask and High Society. Whereas the characters in Mask live for emotion, High Society‘s characters are trying to balance their feelings with rational decision-making. In the crony capitalism of twenty-first century Korea, the rational choice may be to marry for money. Chaebol son Chang-Soo thinks of marriage purely in these instrumentalist terms, and Joon-Ki appears to as well.
But Joon-Ki’s episode one break-up shows he may value his dignity more than wealth. Or does he? He tells Yoon-Ha that the working class can’t afford their pride, after all. How much is he himself willing to sacrifice?
Yoon-Ha also tries to act rationally, but her version of reality and rationality is warped by emotional abuse. Her parents are particularly nasty to her, but her older brother and sisters have also belittled her for years as well. (Her older brother has only grown kind to her recently, since his divorce.) Her mother is wrapped up in her own misery and blames Yoon-Ha for everything that has gone wrong in her life.
Even the smartest child will believe absurd stories if she hears them every day from the people she loves most. Even the healthiest brain grows slightly warped under that kind of abuse. Yoon-Ha initially appears in this series as a competent, self-contained—and rational—young woman. But emotionally neglected children sometimes grow up into adults who can’t help falling hard, if they let themselves fall in love.
The creepiness of episode four arises from our realization that Yoon-Ha’s emotions don’t work quite right. She may want to be reasonable—she’s got a good plan to save up money, leave her family and live independently—but when she falls for Joon-Ki her emotions are unfamiliar and overwhelming.
Chronologically, Yoon-Ha isn’t much younger than Joon-Ki. But they’re worlds apart in their experience with relationships. Yoon-Ha has never fallen in love before and never confessed to a man. Joon-Ki, on the other hand, broke up with his last girlfriend in a hotel room, one of those oblique K-drama signposts that they had a sexual relationship. Nor does he appear heart-broken. Clearly he has the upper hand in any relationship with Yoon-Ha.
High Society offers a good heroine and an entertaining, light secondary romance, but what currently makes it worth watching is the ambiguous central character Joon-Ki. Is he truly capable of evil, as one publicity poster suggests? It would be despicable to take advantage of Yoon-Ha, but what are the boundaries of “taking advantage”? If she wants his emotional support—and he wants an advantageous marriage—would it be unethical to marry her without loving her as much as she loves him? And can we even call Yoon-Ha’s feelings for Joon-Ki “love,” when she barely knows him?
Watching Sung Joon in this part is simultaneously frustrating and fascinating. Despite his recent turn as the evil hypnotist second lead in the Other Split Personality Drama, I’m not used to seeing him play dark characters. Because his roles have tended towards romantic comedy (or bromantic comedy?), I give him the benefit of the doubt time and again in High Society, even when his character is abrupt or rude. He can’t be evil, it’s Sung Joon! But because it’s Sung Joon, it’s also more disconcerting when his character says something cold or dismissive. Who are you, Choi Joon-Ki, and where did you put the flower boys?
Joon-Ki’s unreadable enough that his actions have a few possible interpretations. Is Sung Joon under-acting this part? Or is he trying to show Joon-Ki’s talent for hiding his thoughts? Occasional flashes of emotion show Joon-Ki isn’t made of wood—and suggest Sung Joon is deliberately keeping his character mysterious in early episodes.
We see Joon-Ki’s emotions most clearly when he’s dealing with the women in his life, whether his girlfriends or doting mother. Despite his pragmatic approach to dating and marriage, he doesn’t treat women with quite the same cold rationality he treats male colleagues. But his interactions with Yoon-Ha suggest he tries to keep emotions out of his love life.
Joon-Ki is potentially a great role for Sung Joon, who got his start playing young outsiders. He doesn’t have the larger-than-life quality of some K-drama leading men like his co-star in 2011’s Lie to Me, Kang Ji-Hwan. But Sung Joon has had memorable parts as cool guys who don’t follow the rules (particularly as the eloquently inarticulate musician Ji-Hyuk in tvN’s Shut Up Flower Boy Band).
He brings some of this rebellious energy to playing Joon-Ki, who looks like a typical rule-following salaryman on the surface, but seethes underneath. The part builds on Sung Joon’s strengths and pushes him into new territory. If he can bring out Joon-Ki’s internal conflicts, we’ll have a memorable character.
Writer Ha Myung-Hee and director Choi Young-Hoon last collaborated on 2013’s A Word from Warm Heart, a strong melodrama with relatively nuanced characters (according to one regular K-Drama Today reader with a good eye for these things). High Society appears to have a similar touch of compassion. The main characters are a mix of sharp edges and soft spots. And the real antagonists of the story, Yoon-Ha’s cruel parents, aren’t depicted as evil (like Seok-Hoon in Mask) but as terribly misguided.
The tug of war between love and hate in Mask and the tug of war between emotion and reason in High Society anchor the melodrama in the human heart. Good melodrama is a fantasy depicting extreme versions of real-world choices. And because these real-world dilemmas don’t have clear-cut answers, perhaps we can spend many happy hours this summer discussing Min-Woo’s feelings about Eun-Ha, and debating to what extent Joon-Ki is manipulating Yoon-Ha. (One of the smartest, most interesting comment threads on Drama Beans in a long time was the recent discussion of High Society episode 4.)
Here for me is the pleasure of good melodrama: watching and rewatching for clues to the characters’ contradictory motivations. When Min-Woo embraces his wife in the car at the end of episode 6 of Mask, how much is he feeling attracted to her and how much is he enjoying getting the upper hand with a woman who brazenly agreed to marry him while sleeping with his brother-in-law? When Joon-Ki comforts Yoon-Ha after a family tragedy in High Society, is he acting out of concern, or out of the calculation that Yoon-Ha will soon gain power in her father’s company?
Though melodramas depict humans behaving badly, we watch them while rooting for the heroes and heroines to choose love over greed, and trust over fear. And rooting for love and trust isn’t such a bad way to spend an evening, particularly with these attractive actors and actresses are on the screen. ♥
Mask and High Society are currently airing on SBS: Mask on Wednesdays and Thursdays, High Society on Mondays and Tuesdays. Viki is subtitling them in English and DramaBeans is recapping.