Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Midterm Exam: Nice Guy, Episodes 1–10

I’ve realized lately that my preconceived notions about what a drama is (or should be) can make it a lot more difficult for me to enjoy the show for what it actually is. Nice Guy is a prime example. Based on its promotional materials, I was bound to love it: Melodrama and murder mysteries, seduction and revenge? Sign me up! But while its first eight hours were enjoyable enough, Nice Guy didn’t quite click with me until this week’s twisted, over-the-top makjang-fest.

This was partially caused by Nice Guy’s lead-in: before starting it, I had just finished watching the similarly themed Sang Doo, Let’s Go to SchoolAs stunned as I am to be typing these words, that 2003 Rain vehicle is an emotionally truthful exploration of the gigolo lifestyle, and it left me ready to see a revenge and redemption drama focusing on Ma Ru’s time as a ladykiller for hire.

And maybe revenge and redemption will eventually be Nice Guy’s the central themes, but its first half is about something fundamentally different: love. Only not the cute, fluffy-bunny love we find in most Kdramas. In Nice Guy, love is an obsessive, destructive addiction. It’s love grown fangs, love gone radioactive.

Again and again, we see the show’s characters compelled to make catastrophic decisions for love. The trend is set in episode 1 by Nice Guy’s second male lead, Jae Gil. Although most of his time on screen is devoted to comic relief, his introduction is tragic: We see him weeping helplessly, waiting for news of the ex-girlfriend who absconded to Japan with his money. Eventually Ma Ru, the titular not-nice guy, shows up and lets Jae Gil know that he’s used his skills as a morally ambiguous gigolo to retrieve the money. But Jae Gil’s response isn’t appreciation. Instead, he scoffs through his tears: “No matter how dumb I am, would I cry because of the woman who lied to me to take away my everything? Would I cry because I can’t forget about that bitch? … Would I still have feelings for her?” Ma Ru’s response is simple: “Yes.” Even though they’ve discovered that the woman is a professional con artist, Jae Gil can’t keep himself from loving her. He tortures himself with questions about what Ma Ru did to get the money back—“Did you kiss her?” “Did you sleep with her?”—reacting to each affirmative answer as a jealous boyfriend, not a man who has been robbed.

But it’s Ma Ru who really needs addiction counseling. When it comes to Han Jae Hee, his childhood love, he’s completely compromised. He will do anything and sacrifice everything for her. In the first episode Jae Hee’s call for help causes him to abandon Choco—his sick, helpless little sister—not once but twice: first when he runs to her side even though Choco is so unwell she can’t even stand, and then again when he decides to take the fall on Jae Hee’s behalf. Choco, who’s utterly dependent on Ma Ru, doesn’t even figure into the equation; when Jae Hee needs him, the rest of the world disappears. Even well into the show’s run Ma Ru is still defenseless against her. By episode 8 he’s clearly starting to have genuine feelings for Seo Eun Gi, but the second Jae Hee calls to say she needs him he ditches Eun Gi, just as he did to Choco. 

Then there’s Eun Gi. We first meet her as a no-nonsense businesswoman who takes seriously her responsibility to her father’s company and its employees. She’s driven and ruthless but unfailingly champions the employees, doing her best to convince her father to agree to union demands. Eun Gi’s character is one of the most interesting things about this show: even though she started off sophisticated, smart, and self-contained, she was still susceptible to foolish decisions made for love. After all, she did the very same thing Ma Ru did—she confessed to a crime she didn’t commit in order to spare someone she cared about. In her case the result was a slap on the wrist for drug possession; in Ma Ru’s case it was five years in prison for murder.

When Eun Gi meets Ma Ru their twinned storylines continue. Eun Gi choses Ma Ru over the employees who rely on her when she volunteers to run away with him, paralleling Ma Ru’s choice of Jae Hee over Choco. Love has blinded Eun Gi to her responsibilities to the rest of the people in her life, just as it has blinded Ma Ru.* They are each defined by their hunger for their beloved, willing to do whatever it takes to be with that person, however extreme. Ultimately the show even gives them analogous punishments for their abdications of responsibility. Each loses the single thing that’s most important to them: Ma Ru’s bright future vanishes when he’s sent to prison. Eun Gi’s loving past, and with it the memory of her mother, is erased when she suffers amnesia.

As of episode 10, we’ve actually seen three separate Eun Gis. Dressed in black, she is strong and capable, director of Tae San and romantically unavailable. Her actions and demeanor are gruff and masculine. Dressed in pink, as she does during her date with Ma Ru in episode 5, Eun Gi is a girl in love. This Eun Gi is delicate and unsteady. She totters around in high heels and has to ask for help applying makeup. Eun Gi in pink will do what what Eun Gi in black would never imagine: she waits for Ma Ru for hours, crouched down in the traditional pose of scared, sad Kdrama girls. And then there’s Eun Gi dressed in white, who appears in episodes 9 and 10. She is an empty slate, a woman wiped utterly clean by memory loss. This Eun Gi has become a child again. She struggles to learn how to read and write, unable even to be outside alone without supervision.

Eun Gi in black...
...in pink...
...and in white.  
As far as Kdrama journeys go, I see a link between this third Eun Gi and the Barbie doll that’s acted as a talisman for all three versions of her character. For Eun Gi, this child’s toy represents both the love of her mother and the possibility of a different kind of life. In episode 3, Eun Gi’s mother hands her the Barbie her father once tried to throw away. She asks, “Why don’t you, like this doll, wear pretty clothes and shoes, and be cared for by a good man who loves you?” By starting over from scratch, by becoming a child again, Eun Gi has an opportunity to do what her mother said: she can be cleansed of her bitterness and have the “average” life she once derided.

The Eun Gi of the first eight episodes is a woman split in two. In both metaphor and in fact, she has chosen her father over her mother. Instead of being like her mom, whom we last see running away from their awful home life, Eun Gi stayed in defiance of her dad’s anger and brutality, even if it made her angry and brutal in response. But her fresh start as Eun-Gi-dressed-in-white could be an opportunity to bring together these two halves represented by her parents—the masculine and the feminine—to make a complete human being who is capable of both being a businesswoman and loving and being loved. 

Nice Guy didn’t align with my expectations early on in its run. To my eye, its quest for ambiguity prevented the script from taking things far enough: everything about it felt like the Disney version of darkness. Ma Ru may have been a gigolo, but we only saw him in action when he was acting as Robin Hood to save Jae Gil’s money. The Ma Ru of Nice Guy’s first episodes wasn’t a character who got his hands dirty on screen, in spite of the bad things the show told us about him. Making his living by taking money from women seemed mostly to involve schoolgirl crushes, complicated ice cubes, and shots of Ma Ru glaring darkly over the shoulder of a woman in his arms. Now I see that I should have withheld judgment: that Ma Ru was a man who still had a toehold in decency. In episodes 9 and 10, the show has taken him further, truly into the abyss of hopelessness and vice. I can’t wait to see what it does with him now that he’s there.

Whenever the issue of divine retribution is discussed in a Korean drama, watch out: it means an unhappy ending is on the way. (See, for example, Autumn in My Heart.) In episode 10 we see one of Ma Ru’s new-school marks mourning the terrible thing he’s just done for money. “I will be punished by the heavens,” he says. “Do you believe such heavens exist to give punishment?” Ma Ru asks. “If God really existed, he wouldn’t let the world go around like this… Someday if you ever hear about a guy named Kang Ma Ru struck by lightning, you can then believe God exists.” The very next scene shows Ma Ru in a doctor’s office, hearing dire news about the brain injury he sustained in episode 8’s car crash. Naturally he denies surgery until he gets his affairs in order.  

That, I think, is the beginning of the end, for both this character and this show.

Probably. I’m still holding out that the grand finale will reveal that Eun Gi is actually playing Ma Ru as a means to get revenge on Jae Hee. When Eun Gi first agreed to date Ma Ru, after all, it was unclear just what she was reacting to: Ma Ru himself, or Jae Hee’s shock at seeing them together.


  1. I thinks I might have the same issues; I want this show to be other than what it is...Le sigh. But lol, complicated ice cubes!

    1. I'm holding out for a great, insightful ending, which could utterly erase all my doubts about Nice Guy. But then again, I did the same for Big. That didn't turn out so well :b

  2. I accidentally spoiled ep 9 for myself, and watched the whole episode with my hands over my eyes peering out at the screen.. thought I was going to hate it! Somehow though, I think the show managed to pull it off, and for once I like it. I hate to say though, my favorite part of this show is watching Maru descent further and further into the darkness.. It's been a while since (or never?) that I've seen a main character go this far.. maybe I'm sick, but I love it. Lol

    1. I think this is one of my favorite uses of amnesia in a drama—it actually feels like more than an absurdly lightweight plot machination. But if she's magically healed by brain surgery performed by a third year med student, I'm done ;)

      I'm totally into the debauching of Ma Ru, too. Hitting absolute bottom is necessary for redemption in this kind of show. Appropriately, he's just about there as of episode 10.

  3. Thanks for the mid-term report. I was on the wall as to whether or not to pick up watching Nice Guy, but I think I'll pass on it for now. It doesn't sound like my type of show at all.

    I watched the first two episodes of Answer Me 1997 last night. I've avoided all of your posts on it so I wouldn't ruin it for myself, but I'm thinking maybe I should read them now. Does it get a lot better? These 2 episodes were kind of cute, but I'm not really loving it. I thought I'd be all over this because I myself graduated high school in 1997, but I can't really relate to these characters so far.

    1. I'm enjoying Nice Guy at this point, but in a pretty take-it-or-leave it way. I'd recommend sticking with Answer Me 1997, though—the first two episodes aren't really that representative of the whole thing. (The female lead doesn't get cuddlier, though. She's sort of a Sam Soon.) By its midpoint AM 1997 starts to feel more like a traditional Kdrama love triangle. I loved, loved, loved, loved its first half (having been a stalkery fangirl myself in 1997), but just loved the rest. So we might end up flip-flopping on which part is better.

  4. Ooh, VERY well-written - thank you! This is a show of a different caliber than the usual revenge kdrama, because the writer has actually given her characters a more ambiguous set of motivations than just plain...revenge. Plus the fact that all three actors are being phenomenal just carries their characters above the writing.

    I admit, the love-obsession thing frustrated me a little; it seemed too easy and pat for a dark story. I wanted Maru to play Jae Hee, Eun Gi to play Maru (having her genuinely fall in love with him sapped a little of her toughness), and Jae Hee to play both...does that make me sadistic?

    I'm also curious about Jae Hee's real feelings toward Eun Gi. There were many times when it seemed like she genuinely cared for her stepdaughter...


    1. I actually really like that there's more to Nice Guy than just revenge, too. It sounds like we both wish it was a little more twisted, though ;)

      And that's an excellent point about Jae Hee's feelings about Eun Gi. If Eun Gi had been nicer to her from the beginning, this all might not have happened—Jae Hee was looking for safety and a family just as much as she was looking for money. (Although more recently she's clearly been training her son to be an entitled bastard.)

    2. I'll third the "please be more twisted" party!!

      I'm still very much on board for this drama (seems to be my boiling hot cup of tea at the moment), though the last two episodes seemed a bit lacking in overall.. twisted progression? Can I call it that? Feels like the calm before the storm, and I have a bad feeling that maybe this will end up going down a familiar Kdrama what's what makjang of illness death and disease.. I'm sort of not ready to start forgiving characters yet...which they always try to swing..

  5. I love your insights. I wish I could write like this :)

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