Men Are Men: Episodes 1-2
Men Are Men starts strong, giving us a heroine who has taken a stand against a conventional life, but faces roadblocks she never imagined on the way to her dreams. As if that isn’t enough, she’s dealing with suddenly surfacing memories from past lives, and a mysterious man who seems to be pulling strings in her life from afar. But she’s no damsel in distress, she’s refreshingly prepared to stand up for herself when she needs to, and confident enough to forge her own path. I’m in.
Note: This is only a first episode recap.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
A woman walks down a dark hallway, lingering outside an apartment door before heading to the roof. Inside the apartment, webtoon writer OH SHI-UN (cameo by Lee Shi-un) makes excuses to his producer about not being able to work because of his sick mother—until she calls him out for fanboying instead. From outside his window, which she threatens to break if he doesn’t let her in. This is our heroine, SEO HYUN-JOO (Hwang Jung-eum).
Elsewhere, HWANG JI-WOO (Yoon Hyun-min), dressed for mourning, drops a white chrysanthemum into the sea.
As Hyun-joo works with the writer, we see a montage of all the writers she manages, and how above and beyond she goes to make sure they keep up with their deadlines—including providing them with herbal supplements, keeping them awake, even serving as a model. While Hyun-joo is distracted, someone calls the writer and assures him he’ll soon receive payment for the secret job he’s doing for them.
In a graveyard, Ji-woo lays flowers at someone’s grave and promises they’ll meet soon.
Hyun-joo rushes to a wedding, where we meet her group of friends, whom she’s known since kindergarten: one is single and was promised the bride’s bouquet, one divorced after a short marriage, and one married early and happily. “And I,” narrates Hyun-joo as she watches, horrified, as the flung bouquet misses her friend and comes toward her instead, “am neither single, married, nor divorced…”
She falls back as she tries to avoid the bouquet, and into a memory of nearly drowning as a child.
27 YEARS EARLIER
7-year-old Hyun-joo’s accident causes her to remember three of her past lives, specifically, being left by the same husband in each of them, in the Joseon era, the 1940s, and the 80s. Wow, it takes a special kind of jerk to leave someone behind in a protest where police are beating and killing people. (The man has Ji-woo’s face.)
Young Hyun-joo awakens from her coma craving soju and cursing her past-lives husband, to her parents’ horror. The doctor tells them these are just dreams she had during her coma that she believes are real.
Hyun-joo tells her class at school that her dream is to never marry—written in Chinese characters, ha! I love this sassy child actress. She makes a kid with a crush on her cry (after pointing out that he confessed to a little girl in another class too), and the ensuing commotion gets her sent back to the hospital. After plenty of treatment, she slowly forgets. As the years pass, we see her with a succession of terrible boyfriends.
By 2015, Hyun-joo is an aspiring webtoon writer and believes all men are the same—until she meets a man who changes her mind. They date happily for a year, and he proposes. Hyun-joo invites her friends and family to a wedding venue, where introduces the companion she’s going to spend the rest of her life with: herself.
She tells the audience that she realized that she can think of lots of reasons not to marry, and none that make her want to, so she’s decided she’s just not fit for marriage.
Hyun-joo vows to love herself and prioritize her dreams instead of trying to find an impossibly rare chance at happiness. PARK DO-GYUM (Seo Ji-hoon), on leave from the army for the occasion, applauds her speech. Hyun-joo’s mother has a meltdown. A man in a suit watches from the back, but we don’t see his face. (I’m 99% sure that’s Ji-woo.)
And now we’re back in the present. Hyun-joo narrates that her marriage-free life is not the utopian one she imagined. But she promises herself that in six days, she’ll be able to do whatever she wants.
EPISODE 2 RECAP
Ji-woo reads Hyun-joo’s webtoon in his office (although he closes all the tabs of his browser at once like an actual psychopath when his secretary enters). He seems unwell, and pops a pill before his board meeting.
He’s the CEO of a pharmaceutical company, and he calmly exposes a board member’s attempt to sell their new anti-cancer drug to a competing Chinese company. The men begs for another chance, but Ji-woo tells him to take it up with their auditing team.
At MyToon, where Hyun-joo works, her colleagues congratulate her on having the webtoons she manages ranked highly for the first half of the year—perhaps a promotion is on the horizon? But her awful boss soon appears to harass her with misogynistic taunts, though she holds her own impressively and even cleverly turns his own words on him.
But she has a new problem: Do-gyum, now their star webtoon writer, has suddenly run off despite his upcoming deadlines. She chases him down at the airport, and he explains that Hyun-joo’s boss is planning to fire her. Do-gyum refuses to create any new episodes until the company rescinds her dismissal.
Hyun-joo confronts her boss, who tells her that the other webtoonists, led by Writer Oh, petitioned for her to be fired due to abuse of authority. He hands her a statement where they claim all kinds of offenses, which she denies, shocked. In response, he plays a recording of her yelling horrible things earlier in the day. Writer Oh had called and asked her to impersonate a boss abusing employees, which she did enthusiastically, thinking it was for his webtoon.
She explains, but her boss doesn’t care—the writers are threatening to take this story to the media. Hyun-joo asks about the promise he made five years ago when she applied to MyToon’s competition and he offered her a job as a producer instead: if she did well for five years as a producer, he’d debut her webtoon.
“I only have six days left,” she points out. She worked day and night, refusing offers to work elsewhere, and now he’s firing her? He gives her two days to bring Writer Oh to him and exonerate herself.
Meanwhile, Ji-woo creepily looks at photos of Hyun-joo. His secretary promises him that the matter will be taken care of soon. Ugh, is he bribing Writer Oh to ruin her career?!
Do-gyum accompanies Hyun-joo to find Writer Oh. They track him to a showcase for Yuna, the idol musician he’s obsessed with, but he spots Hyun-joo and hides. Writer Oh follows Yuna and her bodyguard out of the venue after the show—but it’s actually Hyun-joo and Do-gyum in disguise.
Before they can grab Writer Oh, Yuna’s manager sees them and thinks Hyun-joo is the real deal. Panicking, Hyun-joo pulls Writer Oh into Yuna’s van and Do-gyum follows. The manager angrily dumps them at the side of the road a few minutes later, ha.
Writer Oh leads them on a muddy chase, but they finally catch him. Hyun-joo demands to know the reason for his actions, and he admits that someone ordered him to do it. We cut to Ji-woo, creepily looking at an embroidered handkerchief.
But when Hyun-joo gathers the writers at her company, Writer Oh goes back on his confession, which apparently pointed to Hyun-joo’s boss as the instigator. Skeevy Boss vehemently denies involvement, and the writers stick to their original story that she was violently lording it over them.
She points out how much personal time she’s devoted to helping the writers and catering to their whims, but her boss tells her she’s fired.
Do-gyum enters then, ripping away the things each writer has received that they’re wearing on their bodies, even spraying one dude in the face with the herbal medicine Hyun-joo bought him. He tells them to have a sense of shame, and grabs Hyun-joo’s arm, ready to walk out. But Hyun-joo stops him, and kneels in front of her boss. Girl, what are you doing?!
But it’s really to pull off one of the prized dress shoes he’s always wiggling in her face and fling it out the window. She tells them she wishes for their collective ruin, takes Do-gyum’s arm, and leads him out.
Her colleagues are waiting miserably outside, and they watch sadly while she gets her things from her desk, including the calendar on which she had so excitedly marked D-DAY, my dream will come true!
Hyun-joo tearily gets into the elevator, where Ji-woo is already waiting like the stalker he is. Ji-woo slowly offers her his handkerchief, but suddenly the elevator shudders and gets dark.
The emergency call button isn’t working, so Hyun-joo calls Do-gyum for help. Ji-woo has some kind of attack in the corner, seemingly unable to breathe. Hyun-joo notices and asks if she should call for an ambulance, but he passes out on the floor.
Though she’s frightened, she remembers her first aid training and begins CPR. Chest compressions don’t work, so she awkwardly tries mouth-to-mouth—but when she puts her lips to his, she’s suddenly flooded by memories of a man leaving her in those same three lives.
Hyun-joo pulls back from him with a gasp.
I’m generally a fan of Hwang Jung-eum, despite her tendency to go over-the-top sometimes. She has such a likable, charismatic presence on screen that it’s very hard for a drama to make her boring (I would have said impossible, but Handsome Guy and Jung-eum exists). Right now I’m fresh from her wonderful performance in Mystic Pop-Up Bar, so I’m happy to dive into a new drama that will hopefully center around her character as well. The parallels to her last role are amusing: not just the past lives angle, but the fact that she’s apparently sworn off men due to deep wounds from the past, and is close to a deadline that will be the culmination of years of struggle.
The similarities are superficial, though. I’m intrigued by Hyun-joo, a heroine who has decided to live unfettered by romantic love. She chose radical self-love after a lifetime of terrible relationships, no doubt helped along by the buried memories of heartbreak and betrayal that emerged at such a formative age. It’s completely understandable that she would give up on men (who among us hasn’t wanted to do that?) but that didn’t end up with her prioritizing herself the way she’d envisioned.
Instead, she’s devoted herself to her career, exhausted and debased herself trying to achieve her dream of becoming a professional webtoon artist, only to have all her work turned around and thrown in her face in the worst kind of betrayal. I was disturbed at first by how willing she was to do all kinds of questionable things for the writers she managed, but even that gets turned around in Episode 2 as evidence of her teeth-gritting determination to make her boss deliver on his promise. She is, in fact, unwilling to take anyone’s crap unless she has a very good reason.
It’s not explicitly pointed out, but you can clearly see that sexism is at play here, given that her boss devalues her work but is happy to have her manage an entire team of male writers for five years, touches her inappropriately and makes sexist jokes to her face in the workplace. The webtoon writers use her as their personal servant, and I saw no evidence that MyToon’s workplace culture frowns on this practice, or even has any female webtoon writers. I’m interested to see if the drama will end up tackling this in a satisfying way, given how her career relates to Hyun-joo’s decision not to marry, and the broader context of the #NoMarriage movement that has been gaining momentum in South Korea in recent years. That also aligns well with the Korean title for this show, which loosely translates to “all men are the same,” although the official English title seems to be the much more fluffy-sounding To All the Guys Who Loved Me.
This show is billed as a rom-com, however (despite the jarring thriller vibes whenever Yoon Hyun-min is onscreen), so I’m expecting that she’ll find romance at the end, even if it plays out unconventionally. We’ve already met the two male leads, with their dramatically different roles in Hyun-joo’s life. The drama’s synopsis tells us that Do-gyum is a childhood friend, and he’s so in her corner that he’s willing to leave his job in solidarity with her. That level of loyalty is unmistakeable evidence of love, although at this point it seems more familial than romantic. (Still, they don’t lack chemistry—in the scene above after she was fired, the way he went smoothly from having his arm around her to holding her hand, all while gazing intently at her face, had me swooning.)
Ji-woo, however, has only barely met Hyun-joo, but we’ve seen the many threads that connect them in these first two episodes. We’re clearly being set up to believe that he’s the one who ruined things for her at work. It’s been signposted so obviously that it almost has to be a red herring; then again, that’s a lot of circumstantial evidence, and we did see Ji-woo’s secretary call Writer Oh. (Besides, who would ever trust the CEO of a pharmaceutical corporation, am I right?)
Regardless, even if this is all an elaborate misdirect and the only morally questionable thing about Ji-woo is that he stalks Hyun-joo, it’s enough for me to put him on the Bad List. And then there’s the past lives angle, which seems to indicate that no matter how many times these two fall in love, he will always leave her. But it’s Yoon Hyun-min, so my drama senses are telling me that he’s obviously going to be endgame here.
I don’t care, though. It’s early, but Do-gyum is the one I’m rooting for, whether as a love interest or a lifelong best friend. He stands up for Hyun-joo but follows her lead, he supports her decisions even when they’re unpopular, her parents love him already, he’s a major cutie…there is no downside here. And my hope springs eternal—this PD directed Chief Kim, after all! Maybe the real happy ending here will be Hyun-joo and Do-gyum starting their own webtoon company together, while Ji-woo reads their comics in his dark office. Creepily.
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