Human Disqualification: Episode 1
Human Disqualification, the newest offering from JTBC, gives us a solid premiere that centers on two lost souls played by Jeon Do-yeon and Ryu Joon-yeol. We spend this episode getting to know our disillusioned leads individually while they navigate a particularly rough day involving a tragedy and a police summons respectively. The tone is melancholic and introspective as we glimpse into the lives of two people going through the motions, resigned to the hand they’ve been dealt.
EPISODE 1: “The right to be human”
We open on KANG-JAE (Ryu Joon-yeol) entering a love hotel with a woman. In voiceover, BU-JUNG (Jeon Do-yeon) tells someone that she’s been thinking about what qualifies one to be human.
Shortly after Kang-jae and the woman enter their room, a timer on Kang-jae’s phone goes off. He politely informs her that their time is up and declines her request to extend their session since he has another client waiting. Also, taking this further would be illegal.
The woman laughs but doesn’t push further. She leaves him a gift before walking out. Kang-jae’s professional smile vanishes once the woman leaves, and he collapses onto the bed.
Bu-jung continues that this right to be human is only given to those who abide by society’s rules. Only those people are allowed to get angry at the world, criticize, or feel despair. “The right that you have, and I don’t.
Kang-jae lies on the bed, ignoring his ringing phone. He later gets up and opens the gift which looks like an expensive handkerchief. He stares dispassionately into the mirror while Bu-jung wonders if that world of qualified humans even exists.
After getting a text, Kang-jae calls his friend DDAK-YI (Yoo Soo-bin) who is in tears about someone named Jung-woo. He can’t even get out what’s wrong. Kang-jae says Jung-woo was crying just now in his dream and wonders if it’s because he felt sorry.
Ddak-yi is huddled in his bathroom with the sink running and promises to call Kang-jae back. In the other room, Ddak-yi’s sister SOON-KYU (Jo Eun-ji) is setting up their parents’ memorial table with her friend (or possibly partner) WOO-NAM (Yang Dong-geun).
While Kang-jae is on the way to his next appointment, Ddak-yi calls back but can’t seem to say anything. He pulls himself together enough to say that the police called him because they couldn’t get in touch with anyone else. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” Kang-jae asks.
Ddak-yi explains that Jung-woo’s car was fished out of a reservoir. He and a woman were found holding hands with a scarf tied around their wrists. It doesn’t seem like an accident.
At a ritzy apartment complex, Bu-jung takes a bath in the residential bath house before entering one of the rooms to begin cleaning. Meanwhile, Kang-jae meets up with MIN-JUNG (Sohn Na-eun) and tells her about Jung-woo. When her primary concern is that Kang-jae won’t get his money back, he calls her heartless.
He preps her for their meeting, explaining a situation where he was hired to act as a woman’s family member and met her a few more times. Things grew complicated when her boyfriend’s wife saw him going into the house. She’s apparently seeing the husband of her friend.
Kang-jae is having Min-jung pose as his girlfriend so that word will get back to the guy. The woman has a taste for the finer things and doesn’t want to break it off with the married boyfriend.
Elsewhere, Bu-jung is kicked out by her rich, young employer because a guest is arriving soon. On her way out, Bu-jung hears a woman loudly complaining at the front desk about a cleaning lady using the residents’ bath facility.
Bu-jung doesn’t say a word as she approaches the front desk to return her key. The woman sees her and continues pointedly badmouthing her. She only stops to ogle the famous actor that walks in and ask if he lives here now.
At work, Bu-jung’s husband JUNG-SOO (Park Byung-eun) takes a call from his mom who is desperately trying to get ahold of Bu-jung. He then heads to the supermarket floor to deal with a difficult customer.
At the morgue, Ddak-yi and Kang-jae stand outside the room while Jung-woo’s companion’s mother wails over her daughter Hee-sun’s body. It seems like Jung-woo might’ve been the father of Hee-sun’s son, although her family claims not to know him.
Then, Ddak-yi and Kang-jae’s turn. Kang-jae hangs back while Ddak-yi identifies Jung-woo’s body. Afterward, they retrieve his belongings.
When Ddak-yi calls Soon-kyu to say he won’t be home tonight, Kang-jae warns him to be good to his sister so he doesn’t end up like Jung-woo. Ddak-yi wonders if things might’ve been different had Jung-woo had a mother. Hee-sun had a whole family to grieve for her.
Jung-woo had always felt empty. Wouldn’t he still feel that way knowing only the two of them showed up when he died?
Kang-jae recalls Jung-woo mentioning a father and sister and wonders why they didn’t show. He swears he won’t stand in for family at a funeral and then gruffly asks how much it would cost to hold one. Ddak-yi smiles and scooches closer to his prickly friend while Kang-jae grumbles at him to stop.
That night, Jung-soo frantically bangs on the door – he’s been locked out – as his mother MIN-JA (Shin Shin-ae) and Bu-jung scream at each other inside. Right as he prepares to break in, his mother comes stumbling out. She calls Bu-jung crazy and swears she did aaabsolutely nothing to provoke her.
Inside, she says all she did was ask about the police summons which is now ripped into pieces. Jung-soo scolds his mother for opening someone else’s mail, but she thinks it’s her right as the mother-in-law. He sighs at her dramatics and yells at her when she suggests Bu-jung is losing her mind again.
Jung-soo warns her not to talk like that; Bu-jung was suffering from depression. He tries to get his insensitive mother to leave and to stop coming by unannounced. But once again, she feels entitled since she loaned them money to buy the apartment.
He puts his mother in another room and goes to Bu-jung who’s sitting in the dark on the floor. Jung-soo has to ask a few times before she tells him that she’s being summoned over some online hate comments. She apparently told a celebrity to go kill themselves. Yikes.
When she says he’ll understand her behavior when he’s older (pfft), he sighs that she’s bringing up age again. He wants to help find a solution, but Bu-jung says she’ll handle it. She heads to her dad’s and tells Jung-soo to calm his mom down.
In the elevator, Bu-jung again talks to an unnamed person in voiceover. “If something even slightly unfortunate happened to you today, then it was probably because of my earnest prayer.” At the bus stop, she takes a photo of a mental health clinic ad. “These days, I pray for you almost every day.”
On the bus, we see that narration has all been a message she’s posting to actress Jung Ah-ran’s social media. Bu-jung ends by saying she spends any free moment she has throughout the day praying Ah-ran will be unhappy like her. “I pray every moment you breathe is hell.” Geez.
As Bu-jung and her father CHANG-SOOK (Park In-hwan) decide what they’ll order in for dinner, Bu-jung narrates, “It’s no use suing me. If you sue me again, I’ll write your name in blood, send it to a TV station, and kill myself.” Damn, this woman is hardcore.
Elsewhere, Kang-jae looks at funeral shrouds but balks at the price and decides against buying anything. He later joins Ddak-yi in the funeral hall where he’s listening to Jung-woo’s favorite song “Hallelujah” (the Jeff Buckley version).
They reminisce about their friend and how he helped them when they were down. Although he did collect in the end, they chuckle. He borrowed money from various people in recent months, including 40 million won from Kang-jae and 5 million from Ddak-yi.
Kang-jae sighs that poor people shouldn’t die since it’s such an inconvenience. Ddak-yi jokes that the funeral parlor ajumma who’s been staring at Kang-jae would probably hold his funeral for free, so he’d be fine. Ddak-yi promises to hold a lavish funeral for him when he outlives him due to his healthier lifestyle.
Lying on the floor, Kang-jae knows he has more funeral things to take care of, but he can’t get himself to move. He guesses it’s because he’s sad and wipes his tears before forcing himself to stand.
Outside the apartment building, Bu-jung and her father pass by Kang-jae as he enters. Bu-jung grumbles that he never acknowledges them, although they always greet him. Also, she recalls her father saying Kang-jae is a playboy who’s always with a different girl. Her father chides her for worrying about a stranger and tells her to focus on treating Jung-soo well.
Chang-sook wants her to call her mother-in-law “mother,” but Bu-jung doesn’t want her mom who passed away to be sad. Given Bu-jung’s attitude when she mentions Jung-soo, her father wonders if they’re fighting. Bu-jung denies it but says they’re awkward alone together.
She encourages Chang-sook to stop collecting cardboard boxes to sell – it’s hard work for little pay. While she helps her father unload his boxes, Kang-jae dons a suit and heads out.
Bu-jung asks her father if he’ll quit collecting boxes if she quits her job at the publishing house. He can’t imagine why she’d quit a stable job in this economy and assures her he can handle his work. When she avoids getting on her bus, Chang-sook worries that she and Jung-soo really did fight.
Watching her father diligently collecting boxes even at the bus stop, Bu-jung asks if she should do that too. Or maybe be a housekeeper, although they now go by other terms like “managers” or “helpers.”
Chang-sook argues that those jobs are fine for him, but children should lead better lives than their parents. She smiles and admits that her dad is always right. Bu-jung asks if he’s taking his medicine and starts tearing up. He named her hoping she’d become warmhearted and rich one day.
Looking at the ground, Bu-jung says that she feels like a failure. Chang-sook worries that something happened at work or with Jung-soo, but she says that’s not it. She calls herself foolish and bad. Chang-sook asks if this is about losing the baby. Bu-jung cries harder but insists it’s not that. “I’m just bad. There’s no reason.”
She wanted to try her best because her father worked so hard to raise her, but she’s not sure how. “Father, I didn’t become anything.” Although she has him and Jung-soo, she feels lonely.
Chang-sook understands her loneliness and pats her back comfortingly. Bu-jung worries that she’ll be poorer than her father which will break his heart. He says seeing her like this is what breaks his heart and hugs her as she cries that she has no qualifications. We pan out to see Kang-jae standing near the bus stop, watching Bu-jung cry in her father’s arms.
After Bu-jung gets on the bus, Chang-sook calls Jung-soo to say she’s on her way. He asks if everything is okay and asks Jung-soo to take care of Bu-jung. Jung-soo looks abashed and apologizes to his father-in-law.
Kang-jae sits a few seats behind Bu-jung on the bus as she cries audibly. He pulls out the handkerchief his client gifted him and gives it to Bu-jung. She tries to politely refuse but ends up taking it when he insists.
He slides into the seat behind her and hesitantly says he’d usually just let her have the handkerchief, but this one’s expensive. She starts to try to un-crumple it, but he stops her since she already used it. She’s confused and asks pitifully through her tears what she should do then.
Kang-jae awkwardly changes course and says he just wanted to let her know it’s expensive so she doesn’t throw it away. She hasn’t turned around at all, so it’s not until he stands and passes by her seat that she sees his face reflected in her window.
Bu-jung grabs his sleeve, stopping him from getting off the bus. Kang-jae turns toward her, the two of them staring at each other wordlessly.
I’ve been looking forward to this premiere, and after the first episode, I’m not disappointed. It’s the kind of introspective, slice-of-life melo I love when done right a la My Ajusshi or Secret Love Affair. Both the screenwriter and director usually work in film, and it shows. There’s a cinematic feel to how this drama is shot and structured. I appreciate when a drama or film doesn’t try to fill all the empty space and gives its characters room to breathe. More is often said through silence than chatter, and that’s certainly the case here. This is definitely what you’d call a slow-burn drama with a strong character focus, and it’s rather bleak, so it won’t be to everyone’s taste. But the first episode was a promising foray into this grim world of our characters, and I’m tentatively hopeful we’re in for an impactful story. We’re still very much in the setup phase though, so I’m trying to keep my expectations in check.
I liked that we were introduced to our characters in a more naturalistic way without any info-dumping. We learned a lot about both Kang-jae and Bu-jung just by watching them go through their day. I realized this is somehow the first time I’ve seen Jeon Do-yeon in a drama, but she’s great as Bu-jung so far. You can feel Bu-jung’s weariness and anger both at herself and the world for making her feel like a failure. I’m curious about her relationship with her husband because she seems antagonistic toward him, but he treats her decently from what we’ve seen. I’m guessing there’s more to their relationship than meets the eye. Maybe it has something to do with the miscarriage Chang-sook mentioned, or perhaps they just no longer get along. Whatever it is, Jung-soo’s mother Min-ja clearly isn’t helping things with her insensitivity toward Bu-jung’s depression and complete overstepping of bounds.
Bu-jung seems the type to hold things in and let them fester until she can’t take it anymore. She didn’t say a word when that woman at the apartment complex demeaned her by complaining that a mere cleaning lady was using their baths (the horror), but then she goes home and regularly posts hate comments to a celebrity on social media. Bu-jung’s anger toward Ah-ran is intense in a way that feels very personal. What must she have done to make Bu-jung hate her to that degree? Bu-jung is so closed off, but at least she’s got her father. Park In-hwan endeared himself to me after Navillera, and he’s quite lovable here too as Chang-sook. He and Bu-jung seem to have a loving relationship.
Now that we’ve been introduced to our leads, I’m excited to see how they connect. We only got a single scene of them together this episode, but their interaction on the bus was cute. Kang-jae might act the stoic, tough guy, but he cares more than he’d like to admit. Even though he grumbles about it, he ends up doing the nice thing like giving over his expensive handkerchief to the crying lady on the bus. Then there’s Jung-woo’s funeral arrangements Kang-jae begrudgingly handled. I have a feeling there’s much more to the Jung-woo situation and the backstory there. Jung-woo clearly meant a lot to Kang-jae and Ddak-yi, and while his death wasn’t exactly expected, Kang-jae wasn’t shocked by it either. Besides him and Ddak-yi, Kang-jae seems pretty much on his own. Ddak-yi did mention that Kang-jae has a mother, so he must have some family in name at least, but Ddak-yi appears to be his main family. I love the contrast of Kang-jae in all his gruffness and semi-apathy with Ddak-yi who is just a bundle of feelings. Despite being young, Kang-jae is already so resigned in life. He obviously does quite well at his companion escort job, but it’s clear he isn’t happy. He and Bu-jung are both in serious need of a win in life or maybe just a reason to not give up on themselves, and I’m already rooting for them to find what they’re looking for.
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