Dissecting Neo-Liberalism – Life / Laipeu (라이프) (2018)

Lee Soo Yeon is back. And she’s back with a bang.

Life - Lee Soo Yeon 2
Writer Lee Soo Yeon

On 2017 Secret Forest’s review, I wrote:

                “I always find the most successful K-dramas (read: satisfying) are the ones that meticulously connect multiple aspects of human lives, where individuals are part of a larger collective, hence our personal problems always intersect with larger and more complex problems within the social system. And this is what sets Secret Forest apart from the surge of legal dramas in 2017.”

Still rings true.

This year, Lee is back with another drama that once again sets hers apart from the others of the same genre. Last year she did law, this year she does medical, but the objects of her interest remain the same. Socio-Politics.

If there is one subject that most medical dramas try to avoid, it has to be the capitalism in health care. In Hollywood, where most of the country’s systems are built on capitalism and liberal values, drama makers take a long detour from going to the roots of health care problems and instead, they choose to present feel-good and inspirational stories that come out from (supposedly) though times, and of course, the no-exit labyrinth of love relations among hospital workers. But so strong is Hollywood’s influence that we also find these patterns elsewhere.

And then Life appears.

With Life, it’s probably safe to say that it has become Lee Soo Yeon’s signature to depict the complexity of society’s intersected problems through non-black-and-white characters. We won’t find doctors with miraculous hands holding a scalpel in the operating room or blood splattering the emergency room. In fact, there are very little medical drama clichés seen in this drama.

For the first time in I can’t remember how long (probably never), we see doctors and medical practitioners portrayed as mere humans. No superheroes with hearts of gold, just human beings whose idealism is often times overpowered by their own ego, ambition and agendas. Lee mocks doctors’ deep-rooted elitism which for the longest time has made them arrogant beings playing demi-God.


Ye Jin Woo (Lee Dong Wook) & Goo Seung Hyo (Jo Seung Woo)

Set in a top university medical centre, Life depicts what seemingly a power struggle between a patient-centred ER doctor and the hospital’s newly-appointed CEO, but as it progresses, the show unveils unequal fights in every level of hospital’s hierarchy. Oppressing from the very top of the hierarchy is the chaebol (a large family-owned business conglomerate), and oppressed on the very bottom is the pariahs, ER personnel. But the real battle here is none other than socialism VS capitalism.

Much like Jung Sung Joo (Heard It Through ‘The Grapevine, Secret Affair, A Wife’s Credentials), the charm of Lee Soo Yeon’s works is her eloquent multilayered narration. She understands the great importance of individual-collective interrelations in dissecting systemic problems within a society. And because of that, her stories always need a troop of actors to portray the complexity. Some of Life’s casts are also part of Secret Forest’s ensemble. In fact, it almost feels like Secret Forest + Prison Playbook + Just Between Lovers big reunion.

Life - Casts

With an impressive assemblage of talented actors, it’s a bit of a let-down to see that the weakest link lies in the performance of the lead actor, Lee Dong Wook, who plays Ye Jin Woo, the ER doctor. Though still considered good compared to his previous works, he’s obviously no comparison to powerhouses such as Jo Seung Woo (Goo Seung Hyo, Sangkook Univerity Hospital’s newly appointed CEO), Lee Kyu Hyung (Ye Sun Woo, Judge of the Health Insurance Evaluation Committee and an orthopedic specialist, who is also Ye Jin Woo‘s brother), Yoo Jae Myung (Joo Kyung Moon, Head of the Department of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery), and Jung Moon Sung (Jo Nam Hyung, Chairman of Hwajung Group). Thankfully, he is saved by the immaculate script and great directing.

Jo Seung Woo, Lee Kyu Hyung, Yoo Jae Myung, Jung Moon Sung

With two consecutive outstanding dramas as a start, I can’t wait to see what Lee Soo Yeon has in store.

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