Doom at Your Service delivers an amusing philosophical rom-com | By Carl Ackerman (Winter 2024)
In the K-drama Doom at Your Service, a myth-like love story unfolds between a human and a god-like character, which involves their mutual pact to end the world and, and with it, their own misery. Despite its otherworldly beginnings, the drama spins out a good story that becomes a satisfying rom-com in the end.
While there is some suggestion of monotheism in the universe of Doom at Your Service, there is also a dichotomy of two spiritual powers: One is a more traditional God figure, and the other who is not God or the devil, but rather a powerful yet benign spirit called Doom.
As the story begins, Dong-kyung Tak (Bo-young Park) is talking to her doctor, just after being diagnosed with glioblastoma, a fatal brain tumor. Coming to terms with this reality seems to annoy Dong-kyung even in the midst of her shock. She believes she is ill-fated because her father and mother died when she was child, leaving her to care for her loving, but hardly enterprising brother Sun-kyung Tak (Dawon), who, even as an adult, depends on her.
After the shocking news, her day devolves further when her brother begs for money, then a pregnant woman who is her boyfriend’s wife (a wife she did not know existed) accuses her of two-timing in a screaming public rant. The wife is in pain, possibly a pregnancy emergency, and Dong-kyung bundles her into a taxi and goes to the clinic with her. Her boss later publicly chastises her for taking several hours off work. Caught in the rain on the way home with no umbrella, she sees a lone cake in the window of a bakery and buys it. We learn as she sets out her dinner, along with the cake and a photo of her parents, that it is also the anniversary of her parents’ death.
As night falls, Dong-kyung is star-gazing on her Seoul rooftop apartment when she sees some shooting stars. She wishes, or perhaps cries to the heavens, about her fate, calling for the end of the earth. Doom (or Myul Mang, played by In-guk Seo), enters the story at this moment. With his supernatural powers, he hears Dong-kyung’s distant plea for the “doom” of the world. Soon thereafter Myul Mang meets Dong-kyung, and, in true South Korean corporate fashion, successfully signs Dong-kyung to a 100-day contract which will terminate with the fulfillment of her wish – the end of the earth. At the same time, the pact will bring doom upon Myul Mang, a fate that he welcomes because he is so weary of his role as the world’s doom-bringer.
For the viewer, this is something of a confusing and very drastic premise for a K-drama, and a very jumbled collection of spiritual beliefs to sort out as well. Chief among them is the question of what type of universe is it where one person’s selfish wish for the end of the world would make the end of the world happen? Beyond that, his story’s premise does reflect some interesting cultural truths about South Korean society. The viewer needs to hang on at this point, and get into the story, which gets more interesting, more romantic, and funnier as the episodes roll out.
A couple years ago, I wrote an analysis of K-dramas, concentrating on what they say about South Korean culture, entitled A K-Drama Voyage: The Quite Pleasurable Cultural Journey of an American Watching Korean Drama (available on Amazon). Although this drama is too new to have made it into my analysis, Doom At Your Service is similar to other K-dramas in that the storyline reveals some of the spiritual views of South Koreans.
In K-Drama Voyage, I wrote that religious practices and beliefs can be difficult to discern in K-dramas, since South Korea is a diverse and tolerant place when it comes to religion. In addition to Protestantism, Catholicism and Buddhism, there are influences from ancient Korean myths and from indigenous polytheistic practices. This range of belief systems make their way into many imaginative K-drama plots, involving everything from Western-style religious fundamentalism to ancient shamanistic curses.
Myul Mang steals this show with his worldly-wise demeanor that shows great naiveté about the nature of human beings, a group he seems to disdain. He transports himself to various places in the world, creates and destroys seasons, and condemns the unjust to cruel fates. Interestingly, he is also shown saving suicidal people from their fates, with remarks like “doom is my business, not yours.” Doom robotically wreaks destruction on everything around him. Walking down the sidewalk in Seoul, he hears an array of thoughts from passers-by, however, he is unimpressed by the thoughts he hears.
The view of both the Almighty and heaven is unorthodox in Doom at Your Service. We learn that the Supreme Being is Nyeo Shin So (Ji-so Jung), who manifests herself as a dying medical patient in a hospital. She gets reincarnated after death as another fatally ill patient, dies and returns as another terminally ill patient. She tends gardens when she is a bit better, one on earth and one in Heaven. The Almighty Nyeo Shin often converses with Doom. In these conversations, the philosophical yin and yang of the story is revealed. Nyeo Shin wants to help and understand humans, while Doom wants to destroy all the wicked people and (until he meets Dong-kyung) has a cynical and negative view of the human race.
Much of this story’s action revolves around the budding relationship between Dong-kyung and Myul Mang. Dong-kyung works as an editor for a web-novel company. The company’s editorial boss, Joo-ik Cha (Soo-hyuk Lee), is the master of the understatement at work and also in his personal life. Long. Straight-faced, and intelligent looks define his character.
Joo-ik is in love with Ji-na Na (Do-hyun Shin), a web novelist whose former high school boyfriend Hyun-kyu Lee (Tae-oh Kang) went to the U.S. as a high school student, returned as an adult, and is now trying to renew his past romance with Ji-na. This makes for a secondary romantic plot, while Dong-kyung Tak and Myul Mang are going through the not-so-typical ups and downs of their multi-dimensional and literally earth-stopping relationship (Myuul Mang also stops action in the world with his godlike power).
Dong-kyung’s aunt, Soo-ja Kang (Hee-jin Woo), raised both Dong-kyung and her little brother Dawon from a young age after Soo-ja’s sister and brother-in-law died in a car accident. Soo-ja has returned to Korea from Canada to see about Dong-kyung’s health, and brings her dopey (though loyal and loving) Canadian husband, Kevin (Daniel Kennedy). As an aside, there are frequent and uncomplimentary references to American manners throughout the story.
The cosmological interpretation of this K-drama makes it interesting and the ending is reminiscent of the Hollywood Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life, in which all the characters, in the end, seem to do the right thing. While no one earns angel wings, like the angel Charlie does in the iconic American film, the character Doom/Myul Mang is ultimately transformed into a new being. The terminally-ill Dong-kyung is cured, and does not need the neurological surgery in the end. There is also a romance budding anew between Joo-ik and Ji-na.
Although the premise of the story starts off as a hodgepodge of spiritual and mythological beliefs, the real draw for the viewer is how the two doomed lovers, with their desperate suicide pact, still win the day through their love and mutual sacrifice. While at the beginning, both characters are convinced there is no point to existence in a world where death is inevitable and nothing is within our control, in the end, the characters show that love alone can be the antidote to life’s existential crisis. The story is executed with the convincing screen chemistry between Bo-young Park and In-guk Seo and the superb supporting cast.
As the story ends, Dong-kyung’s once-doomed relationship with Doom continues and becomes a sweet romance, flawed and normal, and very much of this world, where people undergo hardships and must try to like their partner’s family members. For the rom-com viewer, it’s a drama that wraps up in a satisfying way.