In a society where they’d either expect you to be happy or unhappy and lie about what you really feel, a person – at some point – would wish to be liberated from it all. That’s what My Liberation Notes is about. It tackles human emotions in their truest form and how different types of people deal with those emotions brought by inevitable circumstances or even their seemingly ordinary daily lives.
Writer Park Hae-young told all of those through the story of three siblings and a stranger who lives in Sanpo, a fictional town on the outskirts of Seoul. The Yeom siblings – Yeom Gi-jeong (Lee El), Yeom Chang-hee (Lee Min-ki), and Yeom Mi-jeong (Kim Ji-won) are wading through different phases of their adult life while there’s Mr. Gu / Gu Ja-gyeong (Son Suk-ku), a mysterious drunkard who works for their father. The set-up is very similar to Ms. Park’s last drama, a masterpiece entitled My Mister. Aside from the setup, the dialogues and monologues also hold the same impact. However, the similarity ends there. The melancholic undertone for My Liberation Notes as compared to My Mister is toned down by a degree, probably because of the characters’ dry sense of humor.
Zeroing in on each character, My Liberation Notes’ main narrator would definitely be Yeom Mi-jeong. Although the series did a good job giving meaningful screen time to each character – even the secondary ones – it’s no doubt that Mi-jeong is at the center of its story. The series’ title alludes to the club she formed at work after she and two other introverts/outsiders were told off to join after-work activities. There are three rules to joining the Liberation Club: (1) don’t pretend to be happy; (2) don’t pretend to be unhappy; and (3) be honest. The rules, somehow, also represent Mi-jeong’s character overall. She’s not happy but she’s also not unhappy. She may speak less often than her talkative siblings but her words always drip with honesty. Her introversion, which some may think of as a weakness, is Mi-jeong’s biggest strength. Since she’s in touch with her inner thoughts, she could easily process the things that happened to her and take whatever she can from them. Her ruminations during her commute from Seoul to Sanpo at the end of the day were one of the most poignant moments in the series. Intentional or not, it’s clever that they use their hours-long journey back home as a metaphor for how most adults feel about some aspect of their life – monotonous and at some point, a waste of time but in the end we will get comforted by the warmth of our home.
Mi-jeong’s introspection to where she is in her life and where she wants to be is very relatable. And her actions to be liberated from the numbness she feels led to her interesting encounters with Mr. Gu. At the start of the series, it was established that Mr. Gu had been working for Mi-jeong’s family for quite some time and he clearly set boundaries between his personal life and the family he works for. But a troubled Mi-jeong one day asked him a favor – to lend his address for the bank loan notice she wanted to hide from her family. The moment he opened the door for Mi-jeong, he didn’t realize that he also opened the door to his closed heart – not just for Mi-jeong but for the rest of the Yeom family members. The stranger who got lost – literally and figuratively – found an unlikely home with the Yeoms and with Mi-jeong.
Mr. Gu and Mi-jeong do not conform to the usual tropes used in K-dramas. Their conversations sometimes sound rueful and vague but it’s no doubt that they are telling each other their honest thoughts and sincere feelings. The most iconic among their scenes is probably when Mi-jeong asked Mr. Gu to worship her. The word she particularly used is really interesting. Instead of the usual like or love, she chose to use the word often associated with gods and deities. She was, at that point, at her lowest and she wanted someone to lift her up to the highest pedestal, revered her as the woman that she is, and appreciate her with utmost respect and adoration. It was so straightforward and a very rare insight into someone’s vulnerable desires. It was also interesting how Mr. Gu respond to Mi-jeong’s confession. At first, he seemed uninterested but as they spend their time together, Mr. Gu started to open up to Mi-jeong. He did, in fact, admit it to her in one scene where he cooked ramyeon for Mi-jeong, saying he is scared of her. He pointed out that it is a very uncharacteristic behavior for someone like him who wouldn’t even flinch if he stabbed someone. Their conversations are mostly like this – filled with ambiguous anecdotes and authentic declarations that could easily make an ordinary person run away. Instead, the unique way they filled the silences between each other made them closer.
If Mi-jeong and Mr. Gu thrive in silence, Yeom Gi-jeong would rot in it. She’s the type of character that says her thoughts out loud. Her daily complaints could make her the spokesperson for every person exhausted by routine life. She could also be brutally honest about her age and the lack of romance in her life. Her initial aim at the start of the series was to just date anyone before winter comes. Gi-jeong’s loneliness stems from the fact that she couldn’t give love and devotion to someone. There was an interesting point she raised at one point in the series. Gi-jeong said if she lives in the barbaric days and her lover got beheaded, she won’t hesitate a bit to pick up her beloved’s head. It’s a gruesome way of putting how devoted she could be if she would be given a chance to love. And that chance came in the form of her sister’s co-worker, Cho Tae-hun (Lee Ki-woo).
The moment Gi-jeong’s frankness led her to an embarrassing encounter with Tae-hun, I already had an inkling that the two characters would eventually be connected. The development of their relationship wasn’t smooth-sailing. They had to address the prejudices created by Gi-jeong’s blunder in their first encounter. Gi-jeong had to win over not just Tae-hun’s daughter but his sisters as well. But in the end, the reason they stayed together was because of their own choices rather than the external factors around them. And I’m glad Gi-jeong found someone to love in the end. I would have been devastated if this character didn’t get the love she deserves – the kind of romance where she would happily pick up a “beheaded” rose from her giddy lover.
Meanwhile, Yeom Chang-hee is the type of character who would rather get beheaded than sit next to his annoying co-worker. The middle child of the Yeom siblings was honestly my least favorite at the start of the series. He seems petty for no reason and I thought he lacks the color Gi-jeong has or the depth of Mi-jeong’s mind but it turns out, he’s a mix of both. He could be blunt but he could also ruminate about things going on in his life on his own. Although, admittedly he would sometimes need a push – like from Ji Hyeon-Ah (Jeon Hye-jin) – to eventually realize why things are happening to him. But one episode at a time, Chang-hee eventually won me over. His materialistic desires eventually come off as goofy childhood dreams while his frankness becomes the eye-opening honest advice people around him didn’t know they need. His character’s struggle about just living day by day without a clear big goal is a very humbling reality most of us struggle to admit to. Humans, after all, are created to always feel they should do things with purpose. Through Chang-hee, one could see that such purpose isn’t always about the worldly success this society dictates us to aim for. For Chang-hee, it’s being able to work amicably with people; giving solicited/unsolicited advice to his childhood friends; or being a son to his parents.
The Yeom Siblings’ dynamic with their parents was very realistic. We often see families in dramas with a tight-knit relationship that is borderline dreamy. The Yeoms could stay under the sun farming without talking, share a meal without sharing their innermost thoughts, or grumble about each other’s behavior. But they always stay with each other in the end and the glue that holds them together is their mother Kwak Hye-suk (Lee Kyung-sung). That’s why the death of their matriarch was still devastating to watch even though the series didn’t do it in a very dramatic manner. Her death was the series’ last turning point that finally pushed the Yeom siblings out of the comforts of their Sanpo home. Everything changed after that but one thing remained – they are still each other’s home.
The pacing of this series might come off as dreary to some. But it is that kind of drama one should watch with hearts and ears open to listen to the well-written dialogues and introspective monologues. It tackles human emotions in a realistic yet poignant manner. My Liberation Notes took the liberty to show the constant loneliness in varying degrees and for different reasons and that relationships and connections can start and end in a way we least expect them to.