One of the most common honorifics is “? (hyung)” or “older brother”, a title a younger brother uses to talk or refer to his older brother. This expression is often also used by non-family members who are close to each other to indicate the degree of mutual friendship.

If you have watched the drama, you might recall Ali, the Pakistani labourer, who came to South Korea to earn money. Ali got to know another participant, Sang Woo, a graduate of Korea’s top university, who embezzled a huge amount of money at work and was determined to win the game to get rid of the debt.

As they became close to each other, Sang Woo suggested that Ali call him hyung, instead of “??? (sajang-nim)” or “Mr Company President”, one of the first terms that foreign labourers in South Korea pick as a result of spending most of their time at work under often exploitative bosses.

The moment that Sang Woo became Ali’s hyung is one of the most humanistic moments in the gory drama.

The poignancy of the moment, however, could not be fully delivered due to the absence of an equivalent English form. In the English subtitle, the line “Call me hyung” was translated as “Call me Sang Woo”.

When Sang Woo later betrays Ali in the game of marbles, the kinds of emotions experienced by viewers who are able to understand the degree of intimacy attached to hyung compared with those unable to do so may, therefore, be very different.

Scenes like this show, in a powerfully raw form, the cruelty and selfishness of human beings in real life, albeit in a different kind of “game”.

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