아내의 자격 (A Wife’s Credentials)

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16 Episodes
A Dramahouse Production
Timeslot: Wednesday and Thursday Evening, 08:45 PM
Genre: Melodrama
Format: 1080i Dolby Digital 2.0 – 60 Minutes
Runs from: 2012/Feb/29~Apr/19

WITH 김희애 (Kim Hee-Ae) as Yoon Seo-Rae; 이성재 (Lee Sung-Jae) as Kim Tae-Oh; 이태란 (Lee Tae-Ran) as Hong Ji-Seon; 장현성 (Jang Hyun-Sung) as Han Sang-Jin; 박혁권 (Park Hyeok-Kwon) as Jo Hyun-Tae; 임제노 (Im Je-No) as Han Gyeol; 이정길 (Lee Jung-Gil) as Hang Yong-Hee; 남윤정 (Nam Yoon-Jung) as Jin Soo-Ae; 최은경 (Choi Eun-Gyeong) as Han Myeong-Jin; 이한나 (Lee Han-Na) as Jo Yoon-Jae; 남능미 (Nam Neung-Mi) as Oh Jung-Ae; 장소연 (Jang So-Yeon) as Yoon Mi-Rae; 임성민 (Im Seong-Min) as Kang Eun-Joo; 손성준 (Son Sung-Joon) as Jo Jae-Hoon; 정한용 (Jung Jan-Yong) as Hyun-Tae's Father; 길해연 (Gil Hae-Yeon) as Ha Seom-Jin;

CREW Production Director 안판석 (Ahn Pan-Seok) Main Writer 정성주 (Jung Sung-Joo) Chief Producer 김명환 (Kim Myeong-Hwan) Producer 강미소 (Kang Mi-So) Director of Photography 강승기 (Kang Seung-Gi) 박휴종 (Park Hyu-Jong) Lighting 장태현 (Jang Tae-Hyun) Art Director 김동훈 (Kim Dong-Hoon) 임충일 (Im Choong-Il) Editor 조은경 (Jo Eun-Gyeong) Music 이남연 (Lee Nam-Yeon) Action Choreography 차재근 (Cha Jae-Geun) Action Choreography 박현진 (Park Hyun-Jin) Assistant Producer 민정아 (Min Jung-Ah) 이은창 (Lee Eun-Chang) 김상호 (Kim Sang-Ho)

RATINGS
AGB Nielsen Nationwide
HIGHEST: 3.41% (04/19 - E16)
LOWEST: 1.07% (02/29 - E01)
AVERAGE: 2.06%

OFFICIAL WEBSITE

A Wife's Credentials
Photo ⓒ jTBC, Dramahouse

FIRST LOOK

It’s as if providence was diabolically teasing you, implying that the endless test which seemed to be tormenting you from day one would never end, as she would be constantly re-writing the rules. After you worked hard for so many years to fulfill the dreams which inflamed your adolescence, Lady Luck plays a sneaky trick on you, as you start to leave behind pieces of your youth along the path to adulthood. Some of them vanish into oblivion, to never again be found. Others become memories, joyous fragments of life’s history which have to co-exist with sad and painful ones, shadows which only make those lights shine even brighter. Lost in the comfortably apathetic routine that life becomes – as a wife, husband, mother, father and part of a greater family – you start to forget what brought you there in the first place, and those memories become almost like a film, a fantasy you can only daydream about. Reality, that scary rose which hides enough different thorns to scare away even the most fearless amongst us, becomes a little raft you traverse the river of life with. It’s your lifeline, but also a maddeningly constraining entity – so much that you’d like to, even if just for once, try to experience how it would feel to go for a swim into the unknown.

Yoon Seo-Rae’s life would appear to just about everyone as a success. Her husband is an accomplished broadcast journalist from a well-off family, about to get his own program on TV; after an early childhood marred by endless physical problems, her son Gyeol seems to finally have found the health that should have long blessed him. And although their decision to move to Daechi-Dong (the expensive Mecca of elite hakwon in the upscale Gangnam district) was mostly motivated by the wish to give Gyeol a better education, she’s still proud of having tutored him for years, fostering his creativity and personal identity. But, haunted by the realization that her educational methods might not be competitive in the Gangnam jungle, and the fact that the man she loved had turned into the quintessential Korean “social alpha male” – a life of ruthless competition, weekly one-shots, bad livers and probably dubious fidelity – Seo-Rae begins to ponder when life started becoming such an oppressive prison. And wonder who had the keys.

For Kim Tae-Oh, things don’t seem to be going too badly, either. Better yet, he might even have the perfect life: his beautiful and talented wife is perhaps the top name in her sector (not to mention that in Korea you can make serious money as a star hakwon instructor), and has come to realize that she makes enough to allow her husband to fulfill his vocation – as a socially-conscious dentist. They’ve got a beautiful daughter, lead a successful and rewarding professional life… and yet. There’s a yet. His wife is so busy, they almost have to plan ten minute “pillow shots” of discussion days in advance, lest her schedule might not allow it. And the pre-packaged and schematically planned lifestyle they’ve been leading for years has started to bring some ennui. Not necessarily an irresponsible impulse to enjoy the rather garish Gangnam nightlife to run away from the routine. But just the need to feel alive again, talk to people about something more than your kid’s education or work, and be moved by a sense of purpose that isn’t limited to fixing some granny’s cavities for one-third of market rates.

Yeah, I know. Makjang, right?

Although what has now become a rather overused piece of industry jargon – suggesting frivolous histrionics shoved down the viewers’ throat for the sole purpose of creating shock value that is not actually backed up by any logical raison d’être – is only a few years old, many drama historians tend to believe that the first ever makjang drama was MBC’s 개구리 남편 (Frog Husband). This was a 1969 daily starring Choi Buram as a married section chief who falls for his newly hired underling, played by Kim Hye-Ja (in one of the first of many legendary encounters between the two). Given the period, you can imagine how it went: the show was so controversial, the government unilaterally pulled the plug after 100 episodes. And of course it ended as a failed tentative to commit adultery. But if you think about it, the narrative tenets which drive most makjang potboilers are the same genre tropes you could find in most Korean melodramas of the 1950’s, both on the big and small screen. The crucial difference, then, is that tiny backing up your histrionics detail – otherwise if anything swimming against the social tide of the time had to be considered makjang, even 1950’s classics like 자유부인 (Madame Freedom) and 운명의 손 (The Hands of Fate) would have to qualify. That is really what makes all the difference: today’s industry has been bastardized to the point that few writers are able to tread such troubled waters without just throwing shock value at the wall, hoping it will stick. Actually surrounding histrionics with a believable narrative backbone, like Jung Ha-Yeon did marvelously in 욕망의 불꽃 (Flames of Desire), is something that only a selected few can aspire to achieve. Perhaps because it’s much easier to toss two women out there and have them stare at each other like the Martian baddies in Mars Attacks!

I did mention in my preview that 아내의 자격 (A Wife’s Credentials) would be dealing with a rather inflammable subject. Basically it’s the perfect synopsis for a morning daily drama. But I also suggested that Ahn Pan-Seok and Jung Sung-Joo weren’t exactly going to serve us with deluxe makjang on a slightly shinier platter. They are too good for that. And boy, does it ever feel good to be right, from time to time. Especially when the end result is as lovely and incredibly rewarding a little gem as this. Tell me if you’ve ever seen things like this in your average morning or weekend potboiler: our heroine on her way to what is going to be her first “date,” struggling to even put on her shoes, as the camera placidly focuses on her moving about with the frantic frenzy of an excited teenager. Her husband ‘s father at a lunch with relatives, gently stepping on his son’s foot as a signal to stop drinking and avoid any embarrassment, without any other visual or verbal hint that would have erased all the subtlety. They’re only two of countless little details that tremendously enrich this show, adding a pleasant and sophisticated layer of realism to what is an already very well balanced script.

It’s that lack of urgency, the absence of that annoying frenzy which desperately tries to bank everything on cheap histrionics, that elevates this drama above just about every other recent genre offering.  That is because Ahn, the expert hands behind classics as varied as 장미와 콩나물 (Roses & Beansprouts) and 하얀거탑 (The White Tower), couldn’t care less about histrionics. He even mentioned it at the show’s press conference — when he said that scoring only 1% on the hybrids had its charms, as he could finally do whatever he wanted without having to worry about what choice of his could have meant the morning after, when he’d have to stare at that daunting piece of paper filled with percentiles. Not having to worry about silly, virulent dramatic excesses to satisfy a viciously undemanding crowd means that you can focus on much more important factors. Like the world populated by your characters, for instance.

Just about every drama out there sticks the fact that they’re using a set straight in your face. All you see is four ordinary walls surrounded by shiny house appliances (fruit of lucrative sponsorships, of course), splendor which only foments the sneaking and intrusive suspicion as you watch that there might be an expensive set of broadcast equipment behind that sofa, and not the rest of a human being’s house. Paradoxically, neither jTBC nor its drama production shingle Dramahouse had any proprietary sets at their disposal, so instead of going out and renting one Ahn is mostly shooting in real places. The added effect is incredibly effective: not only does everything here look the part, from the interior design down to the pleasantly unflattering costumes. It feels like a place where people have lived for years, clothes that have been worn, cars that have been driven. These are real people, living realistic lives. They just happen to have been put in one of those situations which from time to time feel unreal. At least to those who aren’t directly experiencing them. Jung and Ahn earn all their coincidences that way. As always it’s a small world, but they try to give a logical explanation for what happens here, even when it seems rather far-fetched. And you know what is the effect of banking so much on realism? That whatever histrionics borne out of a narrative crescendo we might encounter, they never feel like excesses thrown at the viewer to retain his attention, like a succession of car wrecks. No, everything here feels plausible. Seo-Rae and Tae-Oh falling into a strange and sudden vortex of emotional affinity is perfectly understandable, given the fact that who they are right now fills exactly the kind of voids their respective lives were haunted by.

That sensation of being able to witness something that would otherwise be construed as makjang but is completely natural and logical here is irresistibly charming, as are the fantastic performances of Kim Hee-Ae and Lee Sung-Jae – finally finding a thespian pair of clothes which suit him, harkening back to his 동물원 옆 미술관 (Art Museum by the Zoo) origins. Nothing, not a single thing is wasted. Not an emotion, a line of dialogue or a prop. It’s all expertly intertwined by a master of details, for the sole purpose of creating a world which constantly throws input at us, information which legitimizes the histrionics which are about to come. Then if someone ends up screaming, fighting, doing whatever his personality will allow… you just understand. They’re human beings, and those extremes are part of the greater picture. But set aside the wonderfully three-dimensional characters, what is most striking about 아내의 자격 (A Wife’s Credentials) is its mood and pacing, its laid back visual luster reminding of early 2000’s rom-coms like 나도 아내가 있었으면 좋겠다 (I Wish I Had a Wife), and the excellent use of music, which almost becomes a character of its own – all western at that, from a cover of The Monkees’ Daydream Believer to Jane Birkin and The Byrds. What is more, this is not merely a tale of a realistic love-affair between two adults, but also a sort of love child of 하얀거탑 (The White Tower) and 강남엄마 따라잡기 (Gangnam Mom), exposing the hypocrisy and damaging fallacies of Korea’s obsession with private education, not to mention the impact it has on those children’s creativity and the way they interact with other people.

It’s hard to believe that what could have become a mere excuse to scream in people’s faces could blossom into such a breezy, eclectic and intellectually stimulating show. But that is what happens when you actually use genre tropes as a supplement to a solid story, as the dots that connect a narrative structure supported by realism that sponsorships cannot and will never be able to pay for. A Wife’s Credentials feels like a daydream you want to believe in, like a human being who had been stuck in that gloomy, oppressing prison for far too long, and has now found the key. At last.

HALFTIME REPORT

They call it 불륜.

It might only mean infidelity, committing adultery. But something that is often lost in translation when dealing with this term is its Hanja counterpart 不倫 — which opens a monumental can of worms involving not only sociology but also quintessentially Korean customs that date back to the genesis of the Joseon dynasty and its Neo-Confucian DNA. It’s a combination of 不, which indicates negation, and 倫, which depending on its context could mean human relations, moral duty or simply ethics. English’s adultery comes from the Latin adulterium, the contamination of something seemingly pure via extraneous, illicit entities or actions. In this case, the offending parts compromise the “sanctity” of marriage and the family institution through their actions, behavior which nonetheless firmly remains in the realm of individualism – since only the family (or families, if both perpetrators are married) is directly affected.

Yet, the ancient, Sino-Korean foundation of this term doesn’t specifically comment on the illicit sexual intercourse or even the contamination of marriage’s purity which define it in English, but instead takes a broader, less individualistic approach – describing it as defiance against morals so ingrained in Korean society as to deserve to be classified as a sin. Morals which of course are predominantly Confucian. If you look at the Confucian classics upon which prototypical Korean education was based, you’ll find that among the Three Bonds and Five Cardinal Morals (삼강오륜, 三綱五倫) there are two “commandments” that come in handy when talking about the aforementioned social taboo.

부위부강 (夫爲婦綱, Buwi Bugang): The wife serves the husband.

부부유별 (夫婦有別, Bubu Yubyeol): There is a clear distinction between man and wife.

I wouldn’t want to turn this into a critique of Confucianism’s core fallacies and contradictions, but those eight characters are the very foundation behind the dehumanization of the married woman which has dominated Korean society for centuries. In this environment, marriage — a social union which supposedly begins with kinship – opens the gates to a lifelong emotional purgatory made of impossibly exacting demands, of codes to observe and rules which must never be broken, lest a single moment of human hesitation might create a social tsunami of epic proportions. Not everyone is cut out for all this, as the increasing number of divorces in the country can prove. It’s almost as if you had to possess certain qualifications before you could marry someone. As if a woman needed 아내의자격 (A Wife’s Credentials).

These credentials imply the forsaking of one’s individuality as a woman (something the man only abandons on paper), turning them into a slightly more evolved form of Swedish sci-fi series Äkta Människor‘s hubots – you know, human robots. It’s no longer Yoon Seo-Rae, woman aged 38 with a past as a journalist in the art department – someone with youthful aspirations, favorite movies, songs that made her heart throb, memories of sights and sounds so beautiful that they brought her to tears. She suddenly becomes Han Sang-Jin’s wife, occasional sexual partner and housemaid, not to mention the woman responsible for nurturing Gyeol, the future heir of the “Han Dynasty” – just another upper-middle class clan living in what I not so affectionately often call Gangnamistan, an elusive little chiefdom with its own rules in the fancy heart of Seoul. Their being upper-middle class is paramount, as it’s actually part of the problem: the higher your social status is, the more attention you’ll tend to pay to the largely obsolete conservative mores which define it, particularly in this social environment. The Confucian social structure cannot help but invite rampant class divide to begin with, and if you couple that with the competitive craze introduced in the 1960’s by the Park Jung-Hee junta, you have legions of nouveau riche so terrified of losing their status, they’ll do everything to maintain it. Even if it means robbing human beings of what they used to call life.

Even before she moved to Daechi-Dong, Gangnam’s mecca of private education, and began to experience a bloodthirsty sense of competition between fellow mothers, Seo-Rae was already suffering from the consequences of a rather lackluster marital curriculum – what with coming from a meager upbringing that involved a senile mother and (Mon Dieu) a sister selling side dishes for a living. This included having to endure the dubiously subtle scorn of her in-laws, and the sneaking sensation that having an ordinary background had suddenly become some kind of sin against humanity she would spend the rest of her life atoning for. Even her educational methods are derided, seeing as they cannot be quantified via a short and sweet grade that confronts her precious child with all the other kids surrounding him. Lest, you know, people might start judging him for what he is (a creative and emotionally healthy kid fostered by affection) and not for what he’s supposed to become (a productive member of society who will continue the proud family tradition of being rich and influential). This all becomes overwhelming, because it robs Seo-Rae of her very existence, her raison d’être. She sacrificed the prime of her life to foster her son into a caring, tolerant human being, and it turns out that those ten odd years were a failure, all because Gyeol’s math skills are a little funky, and he – God forbid – has yet to read Tolstoy’s Анна Каренина (Anna Karenina) despite being already in middle school. Now her decision to stray from the pack and raise her kid in a different way clashes with the sectarian tenets which dominate this small but tremendously influential corner of Korean society. Her family despises her even more than they already were, and she’s ridiculed by her neighbors and alleged peers with that nonchalant, condescending aura of cordiality. She’s almost forty, and there’s no more air to breathe, trapped as she is inside a jungle of soulless buildings that only make the blue sky look a world away.

Enter Tae-Oh.

He’s disarmingly suave and strangely charming in a way that makes all the stifling barriers everyone erects around her vanish. There is no need for duplicity with him, as they can talk adult to adult without having to resort to fluffy conversation whose salient points start and end with status symbols. She once again becomes, in other words, the Yoon Seo-Rae she used to know, before she lost her name and had to conceal her humanity behind a mask called wife, mother, daughter-in-law. It’s a sweet awakening, one which rekindles feelings that remained dormant for years, maybe a decade. She feels like a woman again, and a human hesitation takes her out of that suffocating bubble and back into the light. And here is your tsunami.

For what seems like ages, viewers have been trained to view infidelity on the lil’ screen as a sort of narrative dildo – an artificial device that cannot stand on its own legs, but might bring shallow, ephemeral pleasure. The act itself and its numerous implications are never that important to begin with, it’s the shock value it represents which slowly turned this social taboo into a mere McGuffin. Entire formats have been built around it for decades, such as morning daily dramas, making the riotous excesses of Venezuelan telenovelas suddenly feel like a subtle Kieślowski flick. Explaining what led to adultery and its consequences is never too pressing a concern, when all you care about is finding another way to shock the viewers. The louder and more over the top, the better. But then you’re blessed with something like this, a drama with the balls to see adultery as the starting point of a greater debate on Korean society and not just as a tool to stimulate the viewers’ most visceral instincts. A show where characters go on pouring their hearts out for five minute long scenes, unabated by nary a single cut or even a brief musical intrusion, as if this were a theater play. A show which wears extreme realism on its sleeve, knowing that any emotional response is up to the viewer, and that it is something the drama must sincerely earn from him. Not just get on its knees and beg for it with the subtlety of a starving beggar.

There are moments when Ahn Pan-Seok’s masterful camera is so subtle, so unabashedly confident in its script and cast’s ability to deliver, it doesn’t even feel there. The natural lighting, the tiny details that make the apartments, cafes and locations come alive, the time that is given to the actors to breathe life into their characters. It all magically flows together into a breezy, lifelike whole that envelops the viewer like few post-Hallyu dramas have ever done. Subtly buried inside this world are moments of hilarity that never feel forced, immensely poignant scenes that explode in all their emotional power just at the right moment, and then vanish away when their purpose has been fulfilled. A Wife’s Credentials is so satisfying an experience, no amount of praise can do it justice, simply because its immense realism and irresistible atmosphere is something you must experience firsthand. It’s causing quite the interesting stir among viewers as well, and not just because it nearly doubled 빠담빠담 (Padam Padam)’s previous record, becoming not only the highest rated show out of all the four new hybrid channels, but basically the top show outside the big 3’s efforts. Perhaps it’s because it speaks to married women in a way that doesn’t treat them like demographic percentile points, by challenging them intellectually and emotionally in an equal way. It does so in such an intelligent manner, even someone far removed from the situation can easily relate to what Seo-Rae and Tae-Oh are going through, simply because the show looks at their predicament with a more humanistic sense of objectivity – one which despite strictly adhering to reality is still able to play with it, criticizing its most tragicomic contradictions.

Take, for instance, the increasingly ironic portrayal of the supposedly “perfect” family Seo-Rae escaped from. They’re so-called 강남좌파 (Gangnam Pinko), the Korean equivalent of your average gauche caviar, limousine liberal, kystbanesocialist and what have you – their raging hypocrisy defining them just as much as their lifestyle does. What Jung Sung-Joo does in depicting all these contradictions is not merely hiding a black face behind a white mask, but showing that there are no masks that can hide the fact that everything in life is gray. This is the rare superior show which takes responsibility for every single histrionic it presents you with, and earns those moments every step of the way, never indulging you a second more than it’s needed.

I would praise members of this phenomenal ensemble cast, from Lee Sung-Jae’s best performance in over ten years to Lee Tae-Ran’s subtle touches of weakness finding their way outside the poker face Ji-Seon seems to wear 24/7 – not to mention Jang Hyun-Sung’s deliciously layered elite alpha male, and Kim Hee-Ae’s amazing dualism between conflicted mother and woman rediscovering her youth. But that would single out elements of a whole so organic and cohesive as to appear perfectly put together.

In a 2012 which has so far brought back real sageuk like 무신 (God of War) and 인수대비 (Queen Insoo), real home dramas like 곰배령 (The Garden of Heaven) and real trendy dramas like 난폭한 로맨스 (Wild Romance), it’s awe-inspiring to see a genre as deservedly maligned as that of adultery dramas finally find a voice, and through what is one of its all time best offerings. It reinforces the notion that when you pour your heart and soul into a production, then no genre will ever need any credentials to stand out from the rest.

FINALE

It’s something everyone does. Every single day.

Perhaps one too many people take it for granted, while others conveniently commodify it at the altar of questionable motives. Food can represent different things to different people: It can be a joy they all too nonchalantly abuse, a continued journey of discovery, or even a nightmare they would rather not deal with. Some make this culinary underbelly sound, look and taste like an art, while others bastardize it into a sort of grotesque, Borg-like assimilation filled with happy meals that only look, smell and taste of corporate imperialism. And yet, I would never question the existence of the fast-food industry, at least for what it represents for most of the people it serves: unassuming, viscerally satisfying, affordable pleasure of the moment. I wouldn’t even dare to sing the praises of the slow food industry in its current incarnation, either – what with the hypocritical veneer of status symbol it has increasingly gained, coupled with the creation of yet another hackneyed pseudo-movement with a lot of slogans but little in the way of ideas.

A world without fast food would bring about a lot of inconveniences, particularly for those who need to obtain some semblance of nutrition while having to choose between investing 60 minutes in their home-made lasagne, or in a meeting that could decide the size of their next house. And being bereft of everything that the slow food mentality stands for would rob us of the joy of discovering how much injecting love and passion into our dishes can enrich us mentally and emotionally, after it has titillated our palate.

These are two diametrically opposite conceptions of the act of eating, polarized and polarizing worlds that should organically co-exist like yin and yang in Taoism. Balance which instead is being increasingly compromised, as one end of this dichotomy continues to devour the other. The crescendo of prosperity, industrialization and urbanization Korea experienced from the 1960’s onwards has altered the social paradigm of this country in a way that resembles the “Supersize Me-zation” of our eating habits as a people. By focusing on break-neck speed and the mantra of achieving results first and foremost – along with the ruthless competition it entails – anyone or anything not abiding by these rules cannot help but fall by the wayside, and become persona non grata. Not that difference per se would mean something the majority would not be prepared to accept, mind you. It’s just that breaking away from status quo would make a five decade-long bubble spectacularly pop, and question the way just about everyone has been living for the last half century. And who’s prepared for that? This only means one thing. In this social system, you never represent who you are as an individual, but merely your role in the grand scheme of things. It means that no matter where you sit on the totem pole, whether it’s as the holder of a McJob or the multi-billion won cachet of a Hallyu star, people will only see the label on your forehead and what it stands for, not the soul pulsating inside. What truly defines you as an individual. No need to think of it only on a macroscopic level. It can apply to just about everything. Even the TV drama industry.

The early 1990s, right as I started watching Korean dramas, felt a little like Korea’s postwar, in a sense — the feisty, chaotic cultural renaissance the industry began to go through during those years mirroring in many ways Myeongdong’s own fatally romantic 1950’s Rinascimento. There was a sense that things were about to change in a way that would have soon completely altered the landscape, but people never forgot the fact they had to walk together towards that strange, enticing light for it to happen. It’s because of this environment where everyone had a voice, perhaps, that I picked up the name of individuals right away. Teenager crushes like Park Ji-Young and veteran actors of larger-than-life charisma like Kim Hye-Ja, Choi Bul-Am and Kim Mu-Saeng; the admiration great writers like Jung Ha-Yeon, Kim Woon-Kyung and Kim Won-Seok commanded with every sentence and character they wrote. It’s not that everything was better back then, not by a long shot. It’s just that nearly everything felt like a labor of love created by individuals whose passion for this medium far surpassed their desire to merely make money, or survive the ruthless competition surrounding them at all cost. That diversity which found its apotheosis in the 1980’s was still carrying over, and made sure that no matter what you were watching – be it an unabashedly gloomy period piece, a campy home drama or the corniest of early trendies – the fervor the industry was approaching its artistic offspring with could only transcend the screen. You had your fast food – lots of it – alongside gourmet cuisine and slow food, and no one would dare question the reason why they existed. Some of it was so good that a mere bite would bring tears to your eyes. Other lesser instances, of course, involved barely edible material. But when that happened, it only meant the chef wasn’t up to the job. Not that an Anthony Bourdain had been forced to cook Chicken McNuggets.

I admit I shed a little tear as 아내의 자격 (A Wife’s Credentials)’s credits began rolling. It wasn’t as a result of being emotionally overwhelmed – I’ve perhaps become too jaded for that, although greatness can still affect me on an emotional level. Were they perhaps tears of incredulity, after witnessing quality that – at least in this genre – hadn’t graced Yeouido shores in well over a decade? Maybe. But all throughout this show, I felt the same pervading sense of confident tranquility and uncompromising zeal that characterized the highlights of this industry’s Golden Age in the 1990’s. The very soul of Korean dramas had come back to life, if only for an ever so brief moment. It’s hard to explain this kind of feeling, particularly to younger and/or less experienced viewers so infatuated with their Hallyu stars, angsty melodramas and wacky rom-coms. It’s difficult because those who approached this world in its recent incarnation won’t have the tools to understand just what a dramatic fall from grace this industry is experiencing, despite the risible claims of people who conveniently and complacently put it on a pedestal that only hides their ulterior motives. I’m sorry, folks. It has nothing to do with elitism, not a single damn thing. If you’ve ever seen the heights this industry could reach once upon a time – the days of 여명의 눈동자 (Eyes of Dawn), 서울의 달 (The Moon of Seoul), 임꺽정 (Im Kkeok-Jeong) and 모래시계 (The Sandglass)  – the praise so easily lavished upon today’s often puny offerings can only highlight how much our standards have fallen. And how a raw piece of meat not wrapped in familiarly trademarked packaging will easily appear like filet mignon, after what has been almost a decade-long Supersize Me marathon.

I’ve witnessed – both as an inquiring outsider and by observing people on the inside I’ve come into contact with over the years – what can only be described as a plague, slowly eroding the very passion that made this industry special in the first place. It’s painful and hard to admit, but the vast majority of the people populating today’s K-drama world are only doing a job. They don’t care about the legacy of this industry, the cultural power of what they produce, or its future. One by one, pillars that helped create the environment which fostered the industry’s own growth in the 80’s and 90’s are being dismantled right under their watch – from the short drama circuit that made sure new blood would continuously be pumped into Yeouido’s creative veins to the industry’s own funding structure, now in the hands of megalomaniacal media moguls and trigger-friendly advertisers. The slightest hint of criticism has disappeared from the realm of journalism, now transformed into a collection of hit-friendly Pavlov’s dogs all too eager to regurgitate whatever management agencies, production companies and stations feed them. It’s a mess. A gigantic, ugly mess. And yet we still got a masterpiece. A – pardon the French – fucking immense, once-in-a-decade one. Hyperbole? Gee-here-he-goes-again-this-wasn’t-as-fun-as-Dunkin’2Nuts? Perhaps. It’s not fast food, junk that shows up on your table and shoves all its ingredients down your throat with the subtlety of explosive diarrhea. It doesn’t have lofty aspirations of securing lucrative export contracts, and it won’t even show up on any award shows. It has no Hallyu stars who will go on to pester every show on TV (and goddamnit, even during commercials), no flimsy plots written on post-its spoon-fed to K-pop starlets who spent more hours with a plastic surgeon than at an acting academy. It is just a drama. A simple but terrifically well made one. Done like dramas should be done. Like they used to be done. With brains, cojones, heart and soul.

In a recent interview with Jo Min-Joon (former editor-in-chief of the late, great Dramatique, and one of the few discerning voices left in field), PD Ahn Pan-Seok said something that struck quite the chord. Jo asked him whether today a show of this kind was only possible outside the network TV environment – as they didn’t have to deal with all the pressure ratings and competition force upon most big 3 dramas. Ahn had commented a few months ago on the subject, saying that working on jTBC was a sort of blessing in disguise, as being somewhat ignored (at the time most shows airing on the hybrids had a hard time cracking the 1%) only meant he could do whatever he wanted without risking reprisals or interference from the higher ups. But his answer this time was a lot more intriguing:

“Not at all. You certainly can’t say there aren’t forces trying to alter your path, but they’re far from insurmountable. It’s something a producer can cope with.”

There you go. Something a producer can cope with, if he’s got the balls and passion to do it. If you’re not in it for a mere paycheck, and respect the legacy and prestige of your profession, then you’ll find a way. You won’t pander to the lowest visceral instincts of an audience which has been trained for years to accept mindless tripe as commonplace; you won’t let a JYP, SM or YG do the casting for you, or write the songs your music director (paid by the aforementioned gentlemen and not the production company) is forced to use on the show. You won’t need to risk the health and lives of your staff and crew by wrapping up insane shoots just hours before air-time, jostled around from timeslot to timeslot by broadcasters who have lost every notion of long-term planning they ever had, just for the sake of mindlessly making it to the top. I shed a tear because A Wife’s Credentials had none of that inglorious parade of familiar oddities. It was a normally shot, familiarly written, ordinarily structured drama. A glimmer of sanity in a world of perennial derangement. A glorious one.

This is the labor of love of a man who went all the way to staging auditions for someone – formidable theater mainstay Gil Hae-Yeon – whose role amounted to watering flower pots and casually commenting about her “keepers’” monumental bout of delusion – a sort of extension of Won Mi-Kyung’s character in his 2001 weekend drama 아줌마 (Ajumma).  Someone who willingly moved away from studio shots because the lighting wasn’t natural enough, and that actually reduced his camera’s presence for a very simple reason: Kim Hee-Ae and the rest of the amazing cast were so good, he didn’t need any gimmick to emphasize their performances. So, you know, he just let them act?

Remember the last time you got scenes of 5-6 minutes where the camera doesn’t move an inch, actors are left to breathe fire into their characters for incensed one-take diatribes, and there isn’t a whisper of music interfering with it all? Scenes of such utterly perfect simplicity, you’d want to get on your knees and beg all the blingmeisters a la Kim Byung-Soo and Kim Hong-Seon to sit down and take notice of how you direct a drama. It’s not just the realism of it all, which is quite frankly astounding. It’s the intelligence with which every situation and character was approached. Just because the increased onslaught of makjang has turned divorces and marital disputes into nothing more than a lazy narrative gimmick, it doesn’t mean you can’t use them as part of a compelling discourse on much bigger themes and social trends. And the idea of being a serious, realistic drama doesn’t force you to omit scenes of disarming hilarity which earn laughter through rock-solid characterization and an enveloping atmosphere that becomes a character of its own.

Nothing here is all that different from the great dramas of yore, and that’s maybe why. It’s not a complex show, although it deals with terribly complex themes. It asks you to pay attention, yes, but it’s not the kind of cerebral tour-de-force that tires you out in the long run. No. It’s a charming journey into the contradictions so painfully ingrained in Korean society. And by continuously stressing the charms and often painful pitfalls that diversity entails, it ends up respecting all the individuals that define it, even those part of the problem – like the epitome of the 386 generation alpha male Han Sang-Jin, what with his selective bouts of pinko guilt mixed with Kimchi-flavored chauvinism. Is Seo-Rae’s and Tae-oh’s answer the solution? Maybe it is, maybe not, as that gloriously ambiguous finale suggests. But this kind of attention to detail, the love for the medium that transpires from every painstakingly researched angle and musical piece (Lee Nam-Yeon’s soundtrack is magnificent both in subtlety and diversity), every minute exchange the characters have is something that had been absent in shows of this kind for way too long. It all looks so effortless, so confident of its strengths and aware of the genre’s pitfalls. So respectful of its audience’s ability to wait for a payoff, while at the same time respecting itself enough not to ever let them directly or indirectly dictate the course of the story.

Hindsight would write history a lot better than my intuition, but as it stands, A Wife’s Credentials might become to jTBC what The Sandglass meant to SBS: the first killer application that puts you on the map. Just like the 1995 masterpiece turned SBS from a budding station whose signal couldn’t even reach the entire nation to a major player, this show scored ratings that not only were never expected from a hybrid born only a few months ago, but something that even cable channels with a decade-long history would have a hard time scoring. All while receiving praise from critics and public at that. Knowing the state this industry is in, it likely won’t mean all that much in the grand scheme of things. Just like 한성별곡-正 (Conspiracy in the Court) became the swan song of a dying genre, it might only end up being one of the last great bursts of greatness this increasingly decaying bucket of dreams will serve us. But at least it has earned its place in history, as one of the finest examples of what this genre and this industry can truly offer. Brains, guts, heart and soul. It’s all there is to it.

So thank you.

Goodbye.

ACTING GRADES

97 장현성 (Jang Hyun-Sung)
92 김희애 (Kim Hee-Ae)
90 이태란 (Lee Tae-Ran)
90 이정길 (Lee Jung-Gil)
88 박혁권 (Park Hyeok-Kwon)
85 길해연 (Gil Hae-Yeon)
81 정한용 (Jung Han-Yong)
78 장소연 (Jang So-Yeon)
77 임성민 (Im Seong-Min)
72 이성재 (Lee Sung-Jae)
71 남윤정 (Nam Yoon-Jung)
70 임제노 (Im Je-No)
70 남능미 (Nam Neung-Mi)
67 최은경 (Choi Eun-Gyeong)
64 이한나 (Lee Han-Na)
60 손성준 (Son Sung-Joon)

90
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