CJ E&M under fire for suicide of Drinking Solo rookie PD
I’m sorry to say that tvN’s Drinking Solo is making headlines half a year after its run, and for all the wrong reasons. CJ E&M, the conglomerate behind cable channels tvN and OCN, is currently weathering a firestorm of criticism for both the circumstances leading up to the death of a rookie PD who worked on tvN’s Drinking Solo and how they handled the situation in the aftermath.
Last October, junior PD Lee Han-bit was found dead from an apparent suicide two days after the last episode of Drinking Solo aired. People were aware of this when it happened back in October — the production team cancelled their reward vacation, citing the downcast mood following his death — but the issue is resurfacing now because a civilian investigative committee made up of lawyers, labor union officials, and activists held a press conference today (April 18) in Seoul condemning CJ E&M’s actions following Lee PD’s suicide. The committee is demanding a formal apology, as well as measures to prevent something like this from happening again.
According to reports, what drove Lee PD to take his own life was the physical and mental toil of working on the Drinking Solo set. Most of us are aware of the physically demanding environments that are drama productions, which include many sleepless nights and manual labor for the cast and crew. However, Drinking Solo was also plagued by production missteps early on: The show was originally planned to be half pre-produced, but after filming only a fourth of the episodes, the external vendors and staff in charge of lighting and camera equipment were replaced. As a consequence, filming had to stop for a while and a large chunk of footage also needed to be re-shot. After that, it seems the atmosphere behind-the-scenes on Drinking Solo became very tense, and at times even hostile.
Because of the acutely shortened timetable, the crew was overworked, even by dramaland’s standards. Lee PD’s responsibilities included, but were not limited to: costumes, props, cast and crew meals, data delivery, set prep and clean-up, handling receipts, and editing. On top of this, for reasons that aren’t clear yet, Lee PD was subject to substantial verbal abuse from fellow staff members. His younger brother revealed that the newbie PD had recordings of calls and instant messages on his phone that were full of abusive and aggressive language from his colleagues.
Tragic as this situation is, Korea is no stranger to its youth taking their own lives from being overworked and/or bullied; every once in awhile, you’ll hear of conscripted soldiers either killing themselves from being tormented, or even dying from their wounds after being physically abused. I think what has got most people (even more) riled up, is CJ E&M’s actions around the time of Lee PD’s death, and in the months following it.
While his body was found on October 26, Lee PD was actually reported missing on the 21st when he didn’t show up for work. However, it wasn’t until October 25 that his parents were notified, albeit for different reasons. Lee PD’s parents were summoned to CJ E&M’s offices to criticize their son for his work, calling him unqualified to work for them. (As a side note: In the 55 days before his disappearance, he only took 2 days off, with no weekends.) His parents found his body the next day.
Angry yet? Because, don’t worry, it gets worse. On behalf of the bereaved family, the aforementioned civilian committee was set up back in November to investigate the circumstances surrounding Lee PD’s death. In the months since, they attempted to work with CJ E&M, but what they got was (1) a stubborn refusal to allow Lee PD’s family to participate in the investigation, (2) deliberate attempts to stall by requesting document after document from the family and committee, (3) refusal to provide objective documentation regarding Lee PD’s workload and shifts, and (4) testimonies from staff members that were made to paint the rookie PD as negligent and lazy. They also suggested that his suicide was solely due to his own mental weakness.
The heartbreaking irony in all of this is that Lee PD, a recent graduate of prestigious Seoul National University who had just joined CJ E&M 9 months prior to his death, had entered the company because of his interest in social issues centering around employment and labor rights. As a student, he was an active supporter of labor movements, and was interested in issues like the plight of temporary employees (think Jang Geu-rae in Misaeng). He had foregone other job opportunities to make dramas that could provide comfort to such people who were marginalized in the labor force.
Amid the furor that built throughout the day, CJ E&M released a statement that expressed deep regret regarding the situation surrounding Lee PD’s death, and also condolences to the bereaved family. (This was, notably, not an official apology.) The company said that they had cooperated to the fullest extent in both the initial police investigation and the following civilian investigation, so they thought it unfortunate that the committee had held such a press conference. They added that they will actively cooperate in any further investigations, and implement any recommended reforms internally.
It’s not clear if this will affect any plans for Drinking Solo Season 2. Even if CJ E&M were to issue an apology now, I’m not sure they would be able to contain the controversy that’s brewing. The country is, understandably, extremely sensitive at the moment towards large conglomerates seemingly abusing their position, or turning a blind eye toward injustices committed internally. Just look at the drama landscape. Hopefully, they’ll take a leaf out of their own shows to do the right thing, although I don’t know whether that makes me an optimist or just naive.
Lee Han-bit PD