Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of 해피니스: Happiness Series Review

Korea follows up the splashier Squid Game with a searing indictment on those who only care about themselves during a pandemic

Happiness. What is it? How do we get it? What does the word mean?

Technically, the word happiness is common across the English-speaking world. And yet when an Australian uses the word it simply isn’t laden with the same intense cultural meaning as it is for Americans.

Life. Liberty. The Pursuit of Happiness. A proper noun. Something to aspire to. Inextricably bound up with life and liberty and something that can be achieved.

It’s this meaning of happiness that imbues Korea’s Happiness. So much so that its Hangul name has no meaning in Korean itself but instead phonetically sounds out the word in English. It is not happiness the drama is exploring – a universal emotion translated easily across languages and cultures – but HAPPINESS; the pursuit of which is not only possible but a God-given human right.

Thus there are two ways to approach the Korean drama, Happiness. One is as a zombie flick with a surprisingly deft romance plotline in it. The second is as a discussion of materialism versus humanism, of the individual versus the communal. Of happiness as an aspiration or happiness as a state of being.

The drama, Happiness is a searing, Parasite– inspired indictment on human selfishness and greed. And how a quest solely for self-interest in a time of crisis is ultimately counter-productive. You don’t find happiness through things, you find it through other people. Or to put it another way: putting other people first ultimately saves everyone, including yourself.

The Plot

It’s the near future and Korea is suffering from Covid fatigue and ready to put the pandemic behind it. After an incident at both their workplaces, friends and police officers, Jung Yi-hyun (Park Hung-sik) and Yoon Sae-bom (Han Hyo-joo), become aware of a new contagion spreading. Caused by the interaction of a Covid variant (we speculate) and a failed pneumonia treatment, sufferers show signs of a kind of human viral rabies. They develop a great thirst that turns into a desire for human blood, spreading the disease through bites. Characterised by decreasing periods of lucidity, those infected with this new disease can pass as normal for some time before openly succumbing.

A blood covered zompire in his lucid state, looking sad

Yes they’re blood craving zombies. Or zompires if you will. Or rabid if you want to pretend the science behind the show is somewhat plausible (it is not). Those waiting to the end to find any kind of scientific basis for the illness will be disappointed. The recalled pneumonia-cure-turned-black-market steroid, Next, is blamed, even though the illness is revealed to be a virus. I speculated the link between a new Covid variant and the drug, since it would explain why not all users of Next were infected and why infections broke out suddenly when the drug had been prescribed for some time before its recall. This is – as we in the business say – a fanwank.

Still, science is not what we’re here for anyway. Not when we have such likeable leads to root for.

In a first scene flashback, Jung Yi-hyun and Yoon Sae-bom are introduced to us in one of the finest romcom scenes of the year when she pushes him off the roof of their school. As he plummets helplessly to the ground (or rather to the crash mat laid out below him), he smiles in the certainty of having found his soulmate. It’s as delightfully romantic as you would think but still has an air of pragmatism about it. It’s this – a matter-of-fact sensibility, a down-to-Earth forthrightness – that gives the unfolding romance plotline its charm.

Yi-hun looks up the camera as he plummets to the crash mat below

By the time Sae-bom bluntly asks Yi-hyun to marry her in the first episode, both we and him are completely on board. It’s been ten years since the school incident and she is in counter-terrorism while he is a detective. Offered the opportunity of a lease-to-buy in a new apartment complex, she jumps at the chance to qualify. With marriage improving her chances, marriage is what she decides to do. Yi-hyun rather adorably simply agrees with her on everything, even to a fake marriage to get an apartment.

A home of her own is all Sae-bom has ever wanted and, with the security of a place to live, she can finally be happy. But, as we will all soon learn, it’s not the house but who you share it with that matters.

Three family members clearly infected with the virus sit on a couch watching TV together

When our contract couple’s new apartment is identified as an exposure site for the disease, it is put into lockdown. Not just any lockdown. With widespread use of Next in the building’s gym, the entire apartment complex is cordoned off just before the surrounding region is put under martial law.

The lockdowned complex – already a site of brewing hostilities between wealthy apartment owners, public housing tenants and lease-to-buy owners like our main couple – becomes a microcosm of society at large; examining the best and the very very worst of humanity. From pandemic-ready survivalists to grifter religious leaders, wannabe online influencers, the aspiring (sometimes grasping) poor, the selfish elite and the outright sociopathic, almost every facet of our human society is canvassed as the show slowly sieves our world into two groups: those who believe that happiness comes from what you obtain and those that realise it comes from the people around you.

The denizens of the apartment building with a shopping trolley go for supplies while armed with a baseball bat

As Sae-boom and Yi-hyun try to keep order and keep the infected alive while they hold out for a cure, the other residents rebel against their efforts in ways that are sometimes subtle and sometimes gross. And outside the lockdown, tensions are also rising between those who want to use the pandemic for their own gain and those who are willing to do anything to stop it spreading and save their loved ones.

Happiness is a fast-paced and enjoyable ride that takes you on its journey through characters you care about (and some that you love to hate). And while its latter episodes become somewhat farcical in a series of Parasite-inspired images of social dysfunction and near collapse, it is unfortunately no more farcical than what we are witnessing right now in the world around us.

Neither life nor liberty are necessary for the pursuit of happiness, Happiness tell us. True happiness is not something that can be ruthlessly pursued at the expense of others. It is instead a state of being that comes from your care for and concern for others. And there has never been a more timely moment for that particular message.

Happiness is available to stream for Australian viewers with English subtitles on Viki

Our two leads walk holding hands, feeling happy


3 thoughts on “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of 해피니스: Happiness Series Review

  1. Hapiness is a show I enjoyed very much. In fact, I was so caught up in it, I watched it two parts and then waited for the final episodes to drop. It made my Top 10 for Kdramas in 2021. Overall, it was a very clever show and the OTP were ever so refreshing. Yes, I would certainly have them on my team during a pandemic (wait, I hear them knocking on my front door right now 😂)

    At the time Thomas Jefferson was busily nutting out the American constitution, he did state that the one true purpose of a government is the people’s happiness. At that time, it quite simply meant their well being. It’s a basic principle that flowed on to the rest of the democratic world, but somehow it has disappeared from the land of the free and everywhere else, or am I being too harsh?

    I haven’t watched Squid Games. Our two sons have, one enthusiastically, the other one half heartedly. Maybe, I will one day, but I have this nagging feeling it would disappoint me. Speaking of which, that’s exactly where the Doctor Who New Years Special 2022 ended up for me, in the place where shows go to die. It’s resurrection, if RTD can save it, seems a long way off. Perhaps I shouldn’t write things before I have had my second cup of tea of the day 😁

    1. I’d be interested in what you think about Squid Game. I thought it was thematically very strong but its execution was not as strong as you’d expect from a kdrama generally. Give it a go though, it does have something to say. And then you can comment on my post on it 😉😇

      I agree about the New Year’s special for Doctor Who btw, it was uninspired and almost tiresome. I’m not sure if RTD can save it, it may need another hiatus but it will be good to see characters he created back on my screen. He is brilliant at characterisation, an absolute master.

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