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Studio Santa Claus Entertainment, 2021
📷 : Used with permission, Netflix
“To take revenge is to become a monster. A monster is what you are.”
The action genre is littered with revenge stories. More often than not, though, the central character is a man with combat training and a violent past. He is an underdog merely in the sense that he is outnumbered and has made strides to retire his violent persona. Less common in the genre is a revenge story centered around a female protagonist going undercover in order to achieve said vengeance. Ji-Woo (Han So-hee, Nevertheless) is that protagonist, joining organizations on both sides of the law in the Netflix K-drama My Name.
When her father (Yoon Kyung-ho, All of Us Are Dead), a cop masquerading as a powerful gangster, is murdered while trying to protect her, Ji-Woo seeks both the truth and payback. She joins the dojo of gangsters funded by her father’s closest friend, Choi Mu-Jin (Hee-soon Park, Seven Days), and learns martial arts. Once she has honed her skills, she infiltrates the local police force, operating as a mole for Choi Mu-Jin’s criminal organization. Once she gains her footing in law enforcement, Ji-Woo transfers to her father’s old unit in order to gain access to the documents she hopes will lead her to her father’s killer.
The draw of My Name is Ji-Woo’s character arc, with the story taking place over a 6-year period. She must keep growing both as a martial artist and a detective if she wants to achieve the vengeance she craves. As a teenager and student, she has raw anger and aggression that she must learn to harness. Ji-Woo fends off an attack from school bullies, showing that while she is not a trained fighter, she can still defend herself. When she first goes to Choi Mu-Jin for help, he puts a knife in her hand and challenges her to stab him as though he were her father’s killer. She cannot bring herself to even make an attempt, causing him to impatiently throw her out of his headquarters. After she returns, she becomes a highly skilled and disciplined fighter over time, besting all of the male gangsters in the dojo who have harassed and bullied her. Ji-Woo’s ability to quell her blind rage and learn to think like a detective make her a lethal weapon.
We see Ji-Woo’s progression continue when she first joins the police force. Thanks to her experience of being surrounded by violence and misogyny at the dojo, her gut instinct in every mission is to beat up the bad guys rather than complete the objective in covert fashion. This tendency lands her in hot water multiple times with Pil-do (Ahn Bo-Hyun, Itaewon Class), who eventually becomes her partner. Once Ji-Woo learns to operate with patience and discipline, she draws less attention to herself, which allows her to escape several close calls where her identity is nearly revealed to her co-workers. As she admits multiple times throughout the series, Ji-Woo has made her entire existence about catching her father’s killer. This would be hampered if her motives were found out prematurely.
Where My Name excels the most is in its action sequences. Ji-Woo’s petite frame makes her appear overmatched in every fight, so she must use her agility, quickness and any objects handy. In the very first episode, she finds herself in a caged match at the dojo with dozens of other gangsters as part of a free-for-all. They must fight until only one of them is left standing. She and fellow martial artist Gang-jae Do (Yull Jang, Welcome to Waikiki) outlast every other member and face off with one another. Many other scenes show Ji-Woo taking on several villains in confined spaces: bathrooms, narrow corridors or even elevators. She generally does not have the option to run, rely on back-up, or even use a firearm.
The claustrophobic nature of the hand-to-hand combat illustrates the sense of self-reliance Ji-Woo has had to take on without her father’s protection. As the fight scenes play out, a recurring thought a viewer may have is that Ji-Woo does not really have to endure any of these life-and-death situations. Yet, as she states, “I gave up my future and my name to get my dad’s murderer!” She grieves over his death many times throughout the series, as seeking information about those responsible forces her to relive the agony repeatedly. While on the surface level she is fighting for temporary survival, Ji-Woo is always essentially fighting for revenge.
A major motif of revenge stories is whether or not success ultimately fulfills the protagonist. Generally, the main character finds that they are still not satisfied when they reach the end of their mission. They still carry the emptiness they previously had and realize that nothing will bring back the loved one they lost. Ji-Woo questions out loud not only if vengeance is worth what she loses but also what the quest for vengeance has turned her, and others, into.
Similar to other revenge stories, My Name incorporates the “fish out of water” trope. In shows like Lupin and The English, the main character comes from a different background or socioeconomic situation as the villains they target for vengeance. In spite of her combat skills, Ji-Woo certainly qualifies as a fish out of water by first infiltrating an all-male criminal organization and later the predominantly male police force. Her mission is not steeped in greed and malice like the gangsters, but it is also not in criminal justice like the other police officers. She is merely there to avenge her own father’s murder.
As far as revenge stories go, My Name is most reminiscent of the 2010s ABC hit Revenge (hard to get more on-the-nose than that). Emily Thorne arrives in the Hamptons seeking payback against those who wronged her father. While Revenge is more based around money than violent crime, Emily and Ji-Woo both serve as good examples of characters who have broken off their life paths in search of retaliation.