'Man Who Dies to Live': Comedy-drama careens toward racism controversy
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By Chang Dong-woo
SEOUL, July 17 (Yonhap) -- It's no secret that South Korean media has had its share of stereotypical depictions of foreign cultures in the past. One of the more notable cases of cultural appropriation in recent years was of the generic rich Middle Eastern man, personified through the character "Mansour" on KBS 2TV's "Gag Concert" in 2014, who was supposedly modeled after Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the current deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates.
Promotional image for MBC TV's "Man Who Dies to Live" (Yonhap)
Throughout the segment's run, the character's name was later changed to "Eoksour" amid criticism that it was racist. This time, MBC TV is launching a new comedy-drama series, named "Man Who Dies to Live," centered around a Korean-born man, played by Choi Min-soo, who travels to a fictional Middle Eastern country, becomes wealthy, earns the title of "count," and becomes a naturalized citizen named Said Fahd Ali.
"He's a very unexpected character but has a lot of points what can be related to in today's society," Koh Dong-sun, the show's director, said at a press conference on Monday at MBC TV's headquarters in northwestern Seoul.
The show is about Said Fahd Ali, born Jang Dal-goo in South Korea, who left his country and family at a young age due to unknown circumstances, and returns to home to find his long-lost daughter and her husband, played by Kang Ye-won and Shin Seong-rok.
The series, according to the trailer, doesn't hide its color. The eccentric and tough-guy actor Choi plays Said Fahd Ali, an obnoxious, authoritative and imposing Middle Eastern man, who dons the white thwab, dark sunglasses and sports a goatee. There's no subtlety: Choi's character seems as though he's silently shouting "I'm a stereotypical Middle Eastern man!"
Director Koh says the series, a follow-up to "Ruler: Master of the Mask," is about "entities that can be felt burdensome people, such as family, friend, wife and home country." The plot begins with Choi's character, whose fortune is about to vanish unless he fights his biological daughter, and returns to Korea.
Main cast of "Man Who Dies to Live" poses for the camera during a press conference on July 17, 2017, at MBC TV's headquarters in northwestern Seoul. (Yonhap)
"(The count) returns to his home country and learns of the importance and value of the people he's denied the existence of by meeting the daughter, family and acquaintances he didn't want and expects to reunite with," said Koh, explaining that his show is more than a skin-deep slapstick comedy.
Lead star Choi, though, stipulated that his latest project is first and foremost a low-brow comedy, but not necessarily an easy one.
"This was difficult work, since there was no character that I could refer to. When referring to our show as having a 'B-level emotion sentiment' but in honesty we are at a B plus level," Choi said jokingly.
Kang Ye-won said she was happy to work with Choi, her long time show business hero.
"I became a fan of Choi when I was 8 years old watching his work 'What is Love' and I'm grateful that he's doing comedy this time and for me to be a part of it," Kang said. She also recalled being hit by Choi's foot in the face during an early small action sequence.
"After being hit once, I became free of fear and become comfortable," Kang chuckled.
Though the series has yet to debut, the trailer and publicity material revealed so far hints that Choi will, for the most part of the show, portray a rich, self-centered and patriarchal Middle Eastern character.
Given the supposed "human drama" aspect of the drama, Choi's character probably will break the mold and change depending on how the story turns out, but its cast and the publicity material suggests that some Middle Eastern viewers watching the show could be offended by the portrayal of a generic Middle Eastern man without much subtlety or nuance.
"Man Who Dies to Live" premieres Wednesday on MBC TV.
Actor Choi Min-soo, lead star of "Man Who Dies to Lives," poses for the camera during a press conference on Julyh 17, 2017, at MBC TV headquarters in northwestern Seoul. (Yonhap)