My Liberation Notes (2022) Episodes 13-14
This post contains major, important spoilers pertaining to the abovementioned episodes. Read at your own risk.
Try as I might I cannot get away from the embarrassing habit of heaping praise on every aspect of this production. It hits all the right notes and does it so beautifully while keeping the all- too-human emotions raw. The two more recent episodes are surely the best ones yet and that’s not to say that the ones that came before were in any way subpar. Perhaps it’s because these men and women are so vividly grounded in the familiar that I am mesmerized by the storytelling every step of the way. I say it now and I will say it again: My Liberation Notes is good telly and every shot is proof of it.
If there’s any particular theme that ties up all the various threads of the last two episodes together it is that very old notion of carpe diem — of seizing the moment. Nothing like the slap of grief to awaken someone of the need to live rather than persist on the continuous treadmill of survival. For Chang-hee, the temporary use of a car sharpens his perspective in that regard and gets off that treadmill. He leaves a job of 8 years and it couldn’t be better timed considering what comes soon after. In general he doesn’t mind people but the grind of the job has been causing him to wallow needlessly in existential angst. In truth, he’s burnt out and he assures the rest of the clan that it’s only temporary while he clears his head. Afterall, a change of scenery is as good as a holiday. Carpe diem for him is about quitting a job that he’s come to resent and having a proper think about what he really wants to do with himself. It’s not a moment too soon either because of what’s in store just around the corner.
The single momentous event that spurs the rest of the Yeoms to seize the day is the death of the family matriarch. It is sudden and it is quick. She takes a rare outing out of town and comes back distressed after hearing some news about Mi-jeong. She has a lie down and never wakes up from it even as the rice burns in the kitchen palpable with symbolism. Her time is up and her work is done. The poor woman did do more than hint about how exhausted she was but apparently no one took her seriously. In the end her heart gave out. Before her passing she goes to town to cast her eye over a potential son-in-law, Tae-hun who from the looks of things received the mother-in-law stamp of approval the same day she died. It was a big step on her part considering she had reservations about Gi-jeong marrying a single dad.
At their mother’s cremation, Chang-hee is standing with Hyeon-A on the other side of the glass where they can partake of a full viewing of the preparation process. He wonders out loud who might be standing where he is when it’s his turn to be cremated. She responds numb from crying that she will be the one standing there watching. With that answer, he says to her, “Let’s get married” without batting an eyelash. The response comes later and it seems to be the case that Chang-hee is learning that life is rather too short to be hesitating on the big issues. The biological clock ticks on relentlessly and ruthlessly. Time and tide waits for no one And while I’m dolling out proverbs like there’s no tomorrow let me add another. After years of hesitating, Chang-hee is liberated enough to finally strike while the iron is hot.
In another instance of striking while the iron is hot is Gi-jeong’s outburst to Yu-rim’s rare attempt at speech as they both sit alone in the family eatery. It’s been a while since Gi-jeong has come by since her mother’s passing and Yu-rim is seated in her usual spot pretending to be doing whatever she’s doing while listening intently to what her father’s girlfriend is saying. It’s a one-sided conversation, more properly a monologue. This time Gi-jeong sips a bit of beer and talks about wanting to forget for a while. Then with tears streaming down her face, Yu-rim says her first recorded words to Gi-jeong. “Do grown-ups feel sad too? When they lose their mother?” Flabbergasted and speechless for a few seconds, Gi-jeong still reeling from the shock, says what’s on her mind as usual, “Can I be your mother?” It’s hard to know what the youngster thinks as she gathers her things and races up the stairs. Later when Tae-hun walks through the entrance and the door closes behind him, she stares at him with a heartfelt plea: “Let’s get married”. Stunned for a moment but noticing the tears in her eyes, the man agrees without putting up much of a fight.
It’s fascinating sequence of actions and words that I can’t get enough of. There’s a delightful unpredictability in that progression that makes so much sense after the fact. It’s not immediately clear to me that Yu-rim is in anyway against her father dating Gi-jeong nor is it obvious that she dislikes the woman who might end up being her step-mother. The fact that she consistently sits at the next table working through her activity book while Gi-jeong dishes out an unfiltered tirade of her thoughts suggests that she is at some level curious about the woman who has managed to convince her dad to shed his single status. The first surprise of course is her opening up to Gi-jeong when she’s been noticeably silent all this time. This pivotal moment became an unexpected point of connection. Gi-jeong, understandably still grieving the loss of her mother, wears her heart on her sleeve unabashedly. By initiating this line of conversation, Yu-rim was able to open up. There’s now little doubt that Yu-rim has never gotten over her mother’s absence from her life. She has practically no relationship with her birth mother that the latter might as well be no longer in the land of the living.
The other notable highlight in that interaction is the clear demonstration of how much Gi-jeong has shifted with regard to this issue of ending up with a single father from where she was in Day 1. It’s a complete change of mind that showed a gradual progression over time. But it could only have happened because she took those early incremental steps of apologizing and then confessing. Losing her own mother helped her bridge that gap. It made her empathize with the plight of the sullen child who did nothing to encourage or discourage her after work visits. They had been sitting at separate tables so there was inevitable distance. All this while Gi-jeong did not presume the young girl would be immediately accepting but she was content to have these one-sided interactions from the other table in the hope that one day she would be able to penetrate the wall of silence between them.
There aren’t many of us who are untouched by death but there is something different about losing a parent or a child. Because of my experience with the writer’s other production My Mister, I had a feeling that a character death was on the cards. Even so, I was taken aback by how grief-stricken the Yeoms were over Hye-suk’s passing as it never occurred to me that they were a particularly close-knit family who interacted much beyond meals and farm work. They all seemed to be preoccupied with their own issues before but are now suddenly united in their grief to the point that they’re making day trips as a family of four. The introspection that characterized the early episodes saw them more as disparate individuals who happen to come home to the same B & B. At their mother’s wake, the camera shifts along a series of panels to show a consecutive tier system separated by a series of walls from the inner mourning area where everyone comes to pay respects to the third wall where significant others like Tae-hun and Hyeon-A take refuge and can be seen commiserating in their own way on the outside. Hard to pigeonhole they are relegated to an outer area — not quite family but much more than friends. The aunt on the father’s side seems like an interloper in this case, a misplaced figure whose company feels disruptive. She reminds them that death is inevitable but at least Hye-suk went peacefully.
Here I am reminded of something Chang-hee said in a much earlier episode about the fact that nothing much happens in Sanpo except old people dying or something along those lines. My Liberation Notes is that kind of show. Superstitions and fears aside, death is a part of the rhythm and hum of life.
Was there any doubt that Gu would reconcile with Mi-jeong? It was always just a matter of time. While I root for them to have their happily ever after, I am far more fascinated by Gu’s perception of Mi-jeong and why he “worships” her enough to leave and then “worships” her enough to return. He left to keep her safe from the parasites that depend on Chairman Shin’s largesse. (Ed. Someone reminded me that it’s Shin not Baek. Baek’s out of the picture now) But doing Shin’s dirty work efficiently comes at a price. He’s gone back to drinking alone and dang… it’s lonely on top of the Baek Enterprises food chain. So he goes back to the place where he last felt like a human being and not some soulless debt collector.
Before he makes his way to Sanpo, he waits outside the train station for Mi-jeong in freezing cold weather. She doesn’t appear even when the sky turns dark and so he goes to the family home only to find a strange woman outside. There he discovers that much has happened while he’s been gone — Hye-suk has since passed, Je-ho has remarried and all three siblings are now living in Seoul for one reason or another.
I suppose good jobs are hard to come by and from Mi-jeong’s point of view I can see why she doesn’t think she should be the one to leave. She is the one with all the talent and skill. But meritocracy is something of a myth in large organizations as some us know only too well. Mi-jeong’s relationship with her immediate supervisor was a little more realistic than the one I saw in recent C drama where the director said that results take precedence over seniority. Choi Jun-ho was determined not to make things easy for her. The man’s face was already immensely punchable even without his dragging Mi-jeong into his infidelity antics. Many a philosopher has observed that people are inherently self-centred but some people are so entirely self-absorbed that they bring chaos and destruction in their wake. Apparently his work antics are a reliable guide to the kind of man he really is. Still, it feels like a silver lining in a dark cloud that team leader Choi Jun-ho is no longer Mi-jeong’s problem.
In both Mi-jeong and Gi-jeong’s workplaces, men in higher positions are featured dating women in the office. One is a fairly harmless somewhat principled serial dater but the other is cheating on his wife with a colleague. The public and the private are hard to separate in this modern world where the division of labour among men and women don’t fall along traditional lines. The workplace is often already a minefield for the people in it to navigate without the complications of personal dating issues adding to the woes of bystanders who just want to do their jobs well.
Romance in slice-of-life shows bring their own delights — it’s certainly true of the ones that are well-written. What is romance but a small fabric in a much larger tapestry of life. “No sunbursts or marble halls”. Love is just a part of life like birth and death. As Chang-hee observes there is never a right time to die. In the same way, there is never a “right” time to love or to marry, build a family or to leave the ones you love. None of us are omniscient and we have no window into the future. Because one never knows when death will befall us, we should live as if every moment matters. Carpe diem. “Pluck the day”.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8, ESV)