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Netflix K-drama My Liberation Notes ended on a high. Son Suk-ku (left) as Mr Gu and Kim Ji-won as Mi-jung in a still from the series. Photo: Online

Review | Netflix K-drama review: My Liberation Notes is a rich and rewarding journey like few others

  • Korean drama series My Liberation Notes finished on a ratings high, with the characters either finding what they were seeking, or starting new beginnings
  • Kim Ji-won’s Mi Jung becomes separated from Son Suk-ku’s enigmatic Mr Gu, who ends up on the Seoul subway heading back to his old gangster life

This article contains minor spoilers.

4.5/5 stars

Contrary to what the biopics that find favour with Academy Awards voters show us, real life seldom fits neatly into a narrative. But while we accord storytellers artistic licence and can be generous when their tales edit life for the sake of dramatic effect and clarity, some stories face the messiness of life straight on.

Over the weekend, the acclaimed slice-of-life drama My Liberation Notes reached its finale, which achieved a rating almost triple that of its lowest-rated episode. In the lead-up to its concluding instalment, writer Park Hae-young faced a difficult question: how do you end a series about life’s endless small struggles?

Giving Mi-jung (Kim Ji-won), Ki-jung (Lee El), Chang-hee (Lee Min-ki) and Mr Gu (Son Suk-ku) happy endings would have gone against the show’s raison d’être. The other option would have been to give these characters the tools to deal with their daily trials, the mental strength to brush them off and move on. But even that could come across as a cop-out, since life isn’t something that can be fixed.

Instead, Park opted to combine these options, but stopped short of providing us with conclusive endpoints. Some of her characters get what they wanted but not in the way they expected, while others embark on surprising new beginnings. Some seem hopeful as we leave them, others uncertain.

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All have demons that threaten to return, but they have also learned to appreciate small snatches of tranquillity throughout the day.

The members of this quartet each sought escape in their own fashion. Ki-jung looked for it through marriage, desperately seeking someone to latch onto before the long winter. For Chang-hee, escape meant securing financial stability. Mr Gu searched for his at the bottom of the bottle.

Those three characters sought their escape instinctively, reacting to their situations and surroundings, but Mi-jung was the most aggressive. Her philosophical approach defined her as a person. She was driven by her need to identify and achieve liberation for herself.

Lee Min-ki as Chang-hee in a still from My Liberation Notes. Photo: Online

This search began with the “liberation club” she joins at work, which she forms with colleagues like her who don’t want to join any clubs. The club gives birth to her “liberation notes”, the words of which provide the show with its wistful and pensive narration.

Her main outlet for liberation is the inscrutable and magnetic Mr Gu, who long-jumped into her heart and ours early in the series and has stayed there since. For Mi-jung, who is surrounded by temperamental siblings and stoic parents in a small countryside home, and suffocated by her office job, Mr Gu (and his enigmatic silence) is a novelty – someone who doesn’t judge and doesn’t ask her for anything.

Mi-jung, on the other hand, does ask for something. In fact she demands that Mr Gu worship her, and worship her he does. Mi-jung is the only thing that gets a reaction out of Mr Gu, who drinks the nights away and never shares anything about himself, not even his name.

Lee El as Ki-jung in a still from My Liberation Notes. Photo: Online

Pieces of Mr Gu’s life do eventually trickle out, including the key to a Rolls-Royce which Chang-hee discovers in his bathroom. In the back half of the show Gu lends the car to an overjoyed Chang-hee. Chang-hee later dings the car, which provokes a rare response from Gu. He chases Chang-hee for miles, until both of them board the subway into town.

The Seoul subway is a powerful symbol throughout the show. An artery that connects millions of people, it stimulates their dreams while also confirming their hopeless situation. After all, people who can afford fancy cars seldom ride the metro.

When Chang-hee runs to the subway he does so out of instinct. He never quite felt like he belonged behind the wheel of Mr Gu’s car, but the subway is home for him.

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For Gu, the subway connects him back to his former life. He found himself in the countryside when he got off at the wrong stop (a mistake that saved his life) and never left. Chasing Chang-hee onto the platform, another of life’s unplanned journeys, triggers his return to his former existence as a gangster.

Although he needed alcohol to do so, Gu could tolerate his quiet life around Mi-jung in the countryside, but back in Seoul he descends into destructive alcoholic behaviour. At this point in the series, Mi-jung also gets into trouble in town, understandably losing her cool with the boss and colleague whose affair has unfairly affected her life.

Kim Ji-won (left) as Mi-jung and Lee Min-ki a Chang-hee in a still from My Liberation Notes. Photo: Online

Both Gu and Mi-jung are lashing out after being separated from one another, but while they each may be a calming influence on the other, the truth, which they both later acknowledge, is that they hate other people. They are misanthropes who shrink back into themselves to avoid dealing with the world they hate.

They may have been the cooler characters on the show (particularly Gu, played by Son, who plays the villain in the smash hit movie The round-up) but the awkward Ki-jung and Chang-hee don’t hate other people, they just want to carve out a little piece of the world to call their own.

Regardless of which side of the human spectrum you find yourself on and which character’s journey you relate to the most, My Liberation Notes has been a rich and rewarding journey like few others.

Son Suk-ku (left) as Mr Gu and Kim Ji-won as Mi-jung in a still from My Liberation Notes. Photo: Online

My Liberation Notes is streaming on Netflix.