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Moon So-ri in a still from On the Verge of Insanity, a Korean drama about workplace conflicts set in the offices of a fictional South Korean electronics conglomerate.

K-drama preview: On the Verge of Insanity – Jung Jae-young, Moon So-ri lead middle-aged workplace drama

  • On the Verge of Insanity looks at the lives of middle management staff at a fictional South Korean consumer electronics giant
  • Starting with a mass lay-off, the series examines corporate manoeuvring and sexual harassment

The Korean dream is pretty clear and has been set in stone for years: go to a good school, land a job at a big company, get married, move to a new flat in a good school district, and have kids. But if you get that far, what’s next? MBC’s new workplace drama On the Verge of Insanity, starring Moon So-ri and Jung Jae-young, gives us a peek at what lies beyond the end of the rainbow.

For the most part, Korean dramas are a young person’s game. Characters are young and attractive and navigate the highs and lows of their lives in bright and colourful worlds suffused with K-pop soundtracks. As such, modern Korean workplace dramas tend to look like Start-Up or She Would Never Know.

More grounded than its peers, On the Verge of Insanity focuses on middle-aged employees who try to navigate the complex and treacherous world of mid-level management in a gigantic fictional home appliance corporation called Hanmyung Electronics, a stand-in for local corporate giants such as Samsung or LG.

The show introduces its characters in a rather tense and bleak scenario – a mass corporate lay-off. Human resources manager Dang Ja-young (Moon So-ri) has the unenviable task of welcoming a nervous line-up of employees into a makeshift office one by one, as they wait to hear if they’re being kept on or asked to voluntarily resign.

Among the employees waiting to hear about his fate is a 22-year company veteran, engineer Choi Ban-seok (Jung Jae-young). He already has another job lined up if he gets the chop, but he doesn’t seem too thrilled about it either way.

His friend, family man Kim Young-soo (Choi Deok-moon in a guest role), is far more worked up about a potential dismissal, and when he does get the bad news, Ban-seok gives up his job offer, recommending Young-soo instead.

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When Ban-seok is called in to Ja-young’s office, he learns that he’s being kept on, but he’ll have to switch departments. He winds up in a robot vacuum cleaner development team, working under the younger team leader Han Se-kwon (Lee Sang-yeob), a relative of the chairman of Hanmyung who rides to work on a bike worth more than most small cars, and who happens to be recently divorced from Ja-young.

Ban-seok immediately recognises the issue with the prototype they’re working on, which Se-kwon acknowledges but privately resents him for. On the day of the big presentation, the prototype fails and Ban-seok takes the heat – transferred once more, but this time to Ja-young’s HR department where his technical know-how will go to waste.

Suspecting foul play, Ban-seok looks into the prototype and discovers it was tampered with by Se-kwon, which sets their feud into overdrive. But Ban-seok is stuck in HR filling out personnel evaluation reports for Ja-young, while she tries to make sure that no one leaves the company, on orders from higher-ups, owing to a potential corporate merger.

Jung Jae-young in a still from On the Verge of Insanity.

Ban-seok and Se-kwon’s feud continues when Kang Min-goo (Lee Sam-woo), the team leader of the motors department, gets into hot water for sexual harassment. The problem is, he’s already preparing to leave for a rival company. Ban-seok is pushing for him to apologise, while Ja-young is desperately trying to keep him from leaving.

Se-kwon makes things worse when he blackmails Min-goo into sabotaging a rival team’s prototype.

Best known for their film work, Moon and Jung have been among the most celebrated actors in Korea for the past two decades, and it’s surprising that it’s taken this long for them to share the screen. Moon skilfully strikes a balance between cold company stooge and individualistic career woman who has sacrificed her personal life for her work.

Jung has long excelled at playing taciturn and saturnine characters, often to terrific effect in films such as Castaway on the Moon, and he does so again as Ban-seok, although he makes him even more lethargic and tired than he did his characters in past films. I guess that’s what 22 years of corporate grind will do to you.

Hanmyung Electronics staff in a still from On the Verge of Insanity.

In a country obsessed with chaebol – South Korea’s large family-run corporations – On the Verge of Insanity offers a sobering look behind the walls of a corporation with a suffocating work environment. The series is set and shot in South Gyeongsang Province and casts many local actors, including Lee Sam-woo.

The show is quick to highlight shady corporate manoeuvring, as well as how sexual harassment occurs and is really handled in the workplace – as a negotiation. The sexual harassment storyline provides an interesting insight into the troubling corporate logic that drives the settlement of such cases, but the show also presents a disheartening paradox: Ban-seok is the one pushing for real action against the predatory Min-goo, while Ja-young seeks to brush it under the rug in the best interests of the company.

Outside the office, Ban-seok and Ja-young discover that they live in the same block of flats. Though old by today’s standards, their units were probably top of the line as they chased the Korean dream 20 years ago. As they slowly warm to each other, will this pair take on adversaries together, or will a workplace drama also morph into an office romance?

Lee Sang-yeob (left) and Jung Jae-young in a still from On the Verge of Insanity.

On the Verge of Insanity is streaming on Viu.