여왕의 교실 (The Queen’s Classroom)

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16 Episodes
An IOK Media Production
Timeslot: Wednesday and Thursday Evening, 09:55 PM
Genre: School Drama
Format: 1080i Dolby Digital 2.0 – 65 Minutes
Runs from: 2013/Jun/12~Aug/1

WITH 고현정 (Go Hyun-Jung) as Ma Yeo-Jin; 김향기 (Kim Hyang-Gi) as Kim Ha-Na; 김새론 (Kim Sae-Ron) as Kim Seo-Yeon; 서신애 (Seo Shin-Ae) as Eun Bo-Mi; 이영유 (Lee Young-Yoo) as Go Na-Ri; 강찬희 (Kang Chang-Hee) as Kim Do-Jin; 천보근 (Cheon Bo-Geun) as Oh Dong-Gu; 윤여정 (Yoon Yeo-Jung) as Yong Hyeon-Ja; 이기영 (Lee Gi-Young) as Song Young-Man; 정석용 (Jung Seok-Yong) as Gu Ja-Seung; 최윤영 (Choi Yoon-Young) as Yang Min-Hee; 진경 (Jin Gyeong) as Jung Hwa-Shin; 리키김 (Ricky Kim) as Justin; 변정수 (Byeon Jung-Soo) as Na-Ri's Mom; 이아현 (Lee Ah-Hyun) as Ha-Na's Mom; 김영필 (Kim Young-Pil) as Ha-Na's Father;

CREW Production Director 이동윤 (Lee Dong-Yoon) Main Writer 김원석 (Kim Won-Seok) 김은희 (Kim Eun-Hee) Planning 김진민 (Kim Jin-Min) Executive Producer 김호준 (Kim Ho-Joon) 신인수 (Shin In-Soo)  Producer 전승훈 (Jeon Seung-Hoon) 박인선 (Park In-Seon) Director of Photography 김만태 (Kim Man-Tae) 김화영 (Kim Hwa-Young) Lighting 백강준 (Baek Gang-Joon) Art Director 이수연 (Lee Su-Yeon) Editor 이현정 (Lee Hyun-Jung) Music 지평권 (Ji Pyeong-Kwon) Action Choreography 배재일 (Bae Jae-Il) Assistant Writer 정락희 (Jung Rak-Hee) 배유미 (Bae Yu-Mi) Assistant Producer 강인 (Kang In) 이동현 (Lee Dong-Hyun) 이은호 (Lee Eun-Ho)

RATINGS
AGB Nielsen Nationwide
HIGHEST: 9.5% (07/04 - E08)
LOWEST: 6.6% (06/12 - E01)
AVERAGE: 7.94%

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FIRST LOOK

There was a tiger in the class.

With a skirt, admittedly – although her femininity or lack thereof was hardly a detail worthy of scrutiny, considering that the entire class was almost literally shitting its collective pants.

It’s hard to contextualize memories of your educational background in a universal way, because while our childhood as a whole can be more or less easily pigeonholed through the use of a few functional cliches, education is something that upbringing and our own individuality alone cannot define – something we mostly have no control over, in the grand scheme of things. Indeed, comparing the life of a student in East Asia, Europe and North America seems like an exercise in futility, given how that experience can go from an ancillary formative foundation hopefully creating a (ethical and intellectual) compass the child will live by in his adulthood to a bonafide full-time job dominating the child’s entire adolescence with its disarming influence. As an offspring of the Reggio Emilia Approach like many other fellow European children, school was never that dominating or intimidating an experience for me. But it surely was another story for the fine young ladies and gentlemen I eventually came to befriend in Busan and the rest of that beautiful country.

My Korean friends would narrate tales of sleepless nights and copious nosebleeds, coming home way past sunset after exhausting sessions at the school library studying for that all important test (because landing in the bottom half of the school was akin to a mortal sin); they’d tell tales of school parent associations treating their children’s educational process like a spin doctor paving the way for a political candidate. I’d vividly recall trying to emulate Magic Johnson in the school basketball team with dubious success, playing hookie with a half dozen mates under the suspicion that the stern high school math teacher would serve us with a guerrilla test, and of our frequent visits to run-down cinemas to watch films we were way too young to understand – or to be legally allowed to watch, truth to be told. School for me was at times frustrating, occasionally illuminating, and overall an enriching experience. But in places like Korea it’s often like going to war and back, its physical and emotional spoils weighing on the student’s mind more than the formative benefits inculcated upon him.

And yet, although our personal reaction will evidently be shaped by the weight the school environment holds in our lives, there is thankfully some common ground. Like the way we as children would react to a particularly strict teacher, especially on our first meeting. Be it an environment which considers both student and teacher as fellow learners (like in the Reggio Emilia Approach) or one where the teacher is a sort of all-powerful drill instructor donning a skirt and glasses, a child’s sense of curiosity and his spontaneous initial fear in approaching every new environment is more or less similar regardless of the realities that await him past that emotional door: we’re all wandering in the dark, fearing the Boogieman will suddenly frighten us. And yet can’t help but keep walking, even running. Most of the time that fear is uncalled for, but there is always the exception confirming the rule. When you grow up then you might realize that that stern exterior might be the result of a teacher projecting her insecurities onto her job, trying to find a solid and consistent milieu (pestering her poor students!) that her chaotic everyday life cannot offer. But at first sight, in the eyes of a child, the scary and strict teacher becomes like a tiger, roaring at her helpless preys from that intimidating pedestal.

Picture a carefree fifth-grader, heading to school for his first day while happily kicking his favorite soccer ball. All that spontaneous fervor and energy of youth can create problems if not controlled by moderation, and sure enough his ball ends up inadvertently hitting the back of a passerby’s head. His gigantic figure dominates the frame, half man half creature from your scariest nightmares. Was he a gangster in layman’s clothing? A ssireum wrestler strolling to his training ground? The proverbial coarse merchant down at the port, cursing up a storm even with a clear sky? No idea, but his intimidating roar startled the kid, as his bulging figure was storming towards him with the fury of a hungry grizzly. The kid barely managed to escape, reaching school at last. Bless the heavens, he would have thought. Except that menacing figure would be now staring at him from that pedestal, inside his class. He had just kicked his new teacher in the head with a soccer ball. Welcome to school, kiddo.

Time was March 16 of 1981, twenty past six in the afternoon – right around the time kids would come back from an intense day at school. The first scene of a drama that would become legendary featured child sensation Ahn Jung-Hoon (who would later go on to transition somewhat successfully into an adult character actor, becoming a regular of Choi Wan-Gyu dramas) as the aforementioned fifth-grader, and the imposing teacher was played by the late, great Jo Gyeong-Hwan, who had become a megastar on TV thanks to the success of seminal police procedural 수사반장 (Chief Inspector) – yes, the one both detectives and criminal suspect stop everything to watch in 살인의 추억 (Memories of Murder). In its five year run, the show would star a who’s who of Korea’s impressive roster of child actors (another name who survived in the industry up to today being the fabulously talented Yoon Yu-Seon), and eventually be picked up by (once upon a time) formidable talents like director Hwang In-Roi and writer Song Ji-Na. It started as nothing more than yet another children’s drama, but eventually became one of the most beloved. People knew it as 호랑이 선생님 (Tiger Teacher).

As you’ve read in the first few chapters of The Rise & Fall of the K-Drama Empire (more of those are coming, I promise), children’s dramas were one of the first formats the industry embraced once it began expanding its timeslots from a predominantly prime-time based venture to something beginning in the early afternoon and extending all the way to late night. People who would write important pages in the history of K-dramas, like sageuk legend Kim Jae-Hyung, would begin here, and it’s through children’s dramas that many child actors (like Lee Jae-Eun and Son Chang-Min) began their careers. But the format started falling out of favor with the masses right as the democratization of the country experienced its final apotheosis in the early 1990s, ushering in the Golden Age of this medium and monumental changes both in viewing demographics and their tastes – bonanza which paradoxically came at the expense of consistently eroding diversity. Children’s dramas were slowly but surely replaced by campus dramas like 우리들의 천국 (Our Paradise) in 1991, and eventually morphed into Yoon Seok-Ho’s trendy drama prototypes like 내일은 사랑 (Love Tomorrow). It would take over a half decade to see the format regain its lost vigor, with Kim Ji-Woo’s 학교 (School) series, but now we were no longer dealing with cheerful and educational school tales targeting children, but something a little more realistic and mature.

Now having morphed into a bonafide genre instead of a mere format casting a wider thematic net, these school-themed youth dramas have been wandering in a worrying creative limbo for years – with even the resurrected School format treading the same stagnant thematic waters with its 2013 inception. Kim Hyeon-Hee’s wonderfully breezy 강남엄마 따라잡기 (Gangnam Mom) and Jung Sung-Joo’s brilliant 아내의 자격 (A Wife’s Credentials) are two of the very few highlights this genre has given us in recent years (although both approach its most predominant themes only tangentially), and for a good reason: they contextualize the contemporary life of children in school by inserting it in a wider social, sociological and educational reality – something which even involves those who had always amounted to nothing more than peripheral, non-playing characters, like the parents themselves.

It would be naïve to consider 여왕의 교실 (The Queen’s Classroom), MBC’s new Wed/Thu miniseries, as yet another example in the unnervingly uneven maturation of this genre, because as you know it’s a largely faithful remake of a popular 2005 NTV drama. I will devote an upcoming Yeouido Observer to the motivations that guide this industry’s sudden penchant for copiously remaking Japanese dramas, but let’s just say that it’s not exactly moved by an increasing sense of cultural amalgamation between the two countries – or some kind of endearing sense of newfound affinity. What should interest us is how this drama positions itself in the context of J-dorama adaptations, and what it brings to the table.

You can’t always generalize as you’ll certainly find the odd drama or two going in different directions, but there are generally two ways to remake a drama: either you theoretically extrapolate what made the original work and try to project it onto your derivation as closely as possible (paying special attention not to make a wholesale copy), or you filter its thematic consciousness through your own set of values and cultural idiosyncrasies, applying it to your own environment. I have little interest in the former, as it’ll often turn into intellectually derelict project dramas like 아름다운 그대에게 (To The Beautiful You). But the latter can often have some legs, particularly in the case of material like 하얀거탑 (The White Tower).

It’s easy to see why Yamazaki Toyoko uncharacteristically gave Lee Gi-Won permission to adapt her brilliant original work 白い巨塔 (Shiroi Kyoto), from which an acclaimed film and two television adaptations were born (in 1978 and 2003) – some go as far as suggesting that CTV’s 白色巨塔 (The Hospital) is the third one, as the novel by Hou Wenyoung it was based upon bears a frightening resemblance to her original work. Lee’s brilliant adaptation and Ahn Pan-Seok’s majestic hand created something even more compelling than Inoue Yumiko’s 2003 rendition, as they transcended the Hippocratic struggles of two formidable doctors by throwing them inside the political and social cauldron that is the Korean work environment. The White Tower wasn’t just a superb medical drama debating the merits of that famous oath and its repercussions vis-a-vis the relationship between doctor and patient, but also an astute political drama. One could even argue it was a strange sort of sageuk donning hospital gowns as its armor, and scalpels as its swords. Being able to write adaptations that pay homage to the original but also somewhat transcend its limitations is the most fascinating aspect of approaching any remake. And while I might question the ulterior motives at the core of this particular production, the way this show approaches what was a severely limited premise shows a lot of potential.

女王の教室 (Jyoou no Kyoushitsu) is certainly a passable show with a decent roster of child actors – particularly Shida Mirai, who at the time looked like a prodigy. But what it and a large amount of dramas in Japan often suffer from – perhaps because of strong literary roots that dominate and eventually demote the medium to a mere vessel of narrative information that never feels three-dimensional — was this didactic and frustrating disconnect from reality, the idea that your overarching message was so predominant that everyone and everything inside it felt like a mere puppet, a pawn at the service of your ultimate message, which becomes hamfisted to an insufferably grating extent. Plus if you add Amami Yuki’s terribly mechanical acting and directing that only emphasized the disconnect, there wasn’t much to bite on with the exception of that overarching, omnipresent theme – a teacher’s tough love, the edges of which are pushed to the limit. So a limited original for what looked like yet another star vehicle masquerading as remake, surely? Not exactly promising, and prone to yet another lazy regurgitation by the powers-that-be in Yeouido.

Then again, a few elements made this show intriguing from the start: first, the fact that it’s very expertly cast. Set aside the eclectic choice of going with Go Hyun-Jung and the usual array of talented veterans (Lee Gi-Young, Yoon Yeo-Jung, Jung Seok-Yong et al), it’s the kids that stand out. This is a veritable all-star roster that combines both popularity, raw talent and upside potential: you’ve got the bonafide stars-in-the making like Kim Hyang-Gi, Kim Sae-Ron and Seo Shin-Ae, and established actors who’ve already amassed a decade long career like Lee Young-Yoo – remember the cute kid from 불량주부 (Bad Housewife)? It has fireballs of energy like Cheon Bo-Geun of 헬로우 고스트 (Hello Ghost), and promising and versatile young talents like Kim Ji-Hoon and Jung Ji-In from the childhood portion of 누나 (My Dear Sister), not to mention Son Seong-Joon and Im Je-No from A Wife’s Credentials.

Lee Dong-Yoon is nothing more than a honest journeyman, his credits featuring throwaway makjang like 신들의 만찬 (Feast of the Gods) and microseries like 런닝,(Running). But it’s writer Kim Won-Seok that was an intriguing prospect – and of course at this point it’s pretty obvious we’re not talking about the veteran who wrote 8(Eight Days) and 임꺽정 (Im Kkeokjeong). Intriguing because Kim grew up professionally in Chungmuro, working as assistant director for Kwak Kyung-Taek in 닥터K (Dr. K) and then with Ryu Seung-Wan in his tremendous debut 죽거나 혹은 나쁘거나 (Die Bad) – after which they also worked together in 짝패 (The City of Violence). He has adapted a couple of comedies on the big screen before, but that’s a pretty gritty resume for someone approaching this genre, particularly in light of his only other work on TV – the glorious 친구 – 우리들의 전설 (Friend: Our Legend), in which he helped Kwak Kyung-Taek both write and direct. Someone who’s been dealing with traumatized gangsters and problematic childhoods his entire career approaching the world of grade schoolers? Wow.

The effect is immediate: not only does the show pay homage to the original by essentially adopting its same narrative structure and character trajectory – down to the fine details, like our devilish teacher telling the kids that since a life of discrimination awaits them out there, might as well start to get accustomed to it early on, alleged injustice included. It puts it in a more realistic Korean context in which conformism (or better, Japan’s own brand of group-oriented meta-conformism) is not a culturally (almost genetically) innate trait, but ultimately an acquired form of convenient individualism paradoxically motivated by the Korean psyche’s innate group mentality. As in, a pragmatic, pervading sense that diversity is futile and counterproductive; that in the long run it will make the personal pursuit of happiness even more elusive, and that only those who conform to those invisible social mores can be successful (and therefore happy) – because strength is not what defines survival, but survival is what defines strength. It’s the same leit motif that defined the struggle of all the kids in A Wife’s Credentials and that of their parents: the point is achieving results because of what you gain from them (as in anything that can further and/or improve your social status), not the knowledge and life lessons you can gain from the pursuit of those achievements. Landing last in your class is problematic because it makes you a potentially unproductive member of society and exposes you to possible future hardeships, not because it might highlight learning deficiencies on your part.

These overtones envelop the entire show, and although the parents have only had a tangential role so far, their presence is already felt indirectly. It’s like witnessing A Wife’s Credentials and Gangnam Mom’s dynamics all over again, the intriguing exception being that this time we’re seeing this social conundrum from the children’s perspective. Inevitably, the “teacher from hell” (that’s what kids called her in the Japanese original, oni sensei) is a lot less blatant and grotesque posturing and more deadpan, matter-of-fact pragmatism. What Ma Yeo-Jin says is exactly what those children’s parents know, but would never want their kids to hear: be first of your class or close enough, or happiness will continue to be something you aspire for but never achieve; don’t break the rules society set for you, not because it’s morally wrong or anything, but because you can only be damaged by the consequences. Despite her deadpan delivery, there is an underlying tension in Go’s delivery, as if Yeo-Jin was only reluctantly playing a part she wasn’t completely comfortable with – which is obviously what will define her gradual transformation in the second act and eventual denouement in the third, assuming the show follows the original’s trajectory.

Go has visibly gained weight and that’s sort of become the talk of the town concerning this show (along with the usual J-dorama fanboys pestering all Korean drama-related communities with their ad-hoc vitriol), but I wouldn’t point out something as superficial and uninfluential as this if not for the fact that it actually helps the character. Go is a little less pretty than usual, and those “slight imperfections” (bear with me, I know K-drama’s idea of beauty is severely misguiding and misguided) highlight that underlying sense of tension even more than Go’s own acting does. I don’t know if it’s just a little stress or whether she consciously gained weight because of this role, but had Go shown up a la Amami Yuki, all perfect and pristine and looking like a model posing as a ruthless and devilish teacher, then all you’d get is yet another soulless cipher who helps deliver the writer’s message in spite of lacking any tangible sign that there’s something pulsating inside her – if not for the maudlin thematic U-turn tacked on in the third act. Go’s portrayal is a lot more compelling: you can see a little of the spite and malice that dominated her performance in 선덕여왕 (Queen Seondeok) as Mishil, but there’s a touch of frailty as well, that je ne sais quoi that tells you something is cooking, and that we’ll eventually find out. You can question the public figure all you want (she’s batshit crazy, if you ask me and a good number of industry people), but when it comes to delivering riveting performances, it’s pretty obvious she’s a very reliable actor. And that’s all we need from her, really.

This show has good performance across the board, though. Kim Hyang-Gi is predictably wonderful, showing more maturity than her biological age would suggest but never becoming too perky. And the little we’ve seen of the rest of the cast (including parents and teachers) can only promise good things – as there are no potential black sheep in sight. What’s even more comforting is that the kids look pleasantly ordinary, it’s not a collection of child models straight out of a fashion magazine — or impossibly pretty teachers uglying themselves up for the camera, for that matter. The premise might be unrealistic, but you surround the core with realism and then it can still be compelling.

That is the point. PD Lee is not exactly exploding with flair, but he’s doing a honest, competent job, never resorting to egregious tonal shifts and trying to limit music to the strict necessary (and it’s music by Ji Pyeong-Kwon, so we’re in good hands anyway). Kim’s script is relatively rich and compelling but never too dense as to give people the idea we’re dealing with a children’s version of The White Tower. And while it would be a little too far-fetched to expect great things from this show, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that we’ve got a promising little tiger on our hands. Although her roar might not be as scary as you first thought…

HALFTIME REPORT

How much of a role did your education play in shaping your current self, as opposed to the environment which surrounded your growth?

The other day I was talking with an assistant professor of the Eastern Studies faculty of a prominent European university, and she remarked how teaching functional [in this case, Chinese] had become a bit of a nightmare as of late: as recently as the late 1990s you could realistically abide by a somewhat “limited standard” (with which you could inculcate a basic structure and teach students how to build from there) and obtain satisfactory results. But today’s spoken, colloquial Chinese changes and literally morphs at such a rapid pace (be it because of the country’s inherent social changes, or thanks to technopop culture-induced frenzies like Weibo) that keeping up with it is a huge challenge for the teachers themselves, let alone their students. One quite illuminating answer to that dilemma she gave is that education doesn’t end outside her class’ door, but it’s merely from inside that door that it begins. That you should teach a hungry man by the river how to fish, and not merely stuff his mouth with food he might not even be able to digest.

Hoping that the repetitive and mechanical inculcation of basic, static knowledge will be enough to tackle an entity in perennial state of change as language can be is utopian and counterproductive at best, very dangerous in the most extreme cases. And if only it could be but a matter of language. Therein lies the greatest pitfall of rote learning, the idea that you can find a needle in a haystack via obsolete mathematical models or repetition, instead of looking at the big picture and thinking outside the box. It was with this hope in mind that the Japanese government launched a gradual approach to a new form of education that would later be known as ゆとり教育 (yutori kyōiku, pressure-free education). Eased in from 1976 onwards and reaching its apex around the early years of the new millennium, this new policy opted for fewer hours and a stronger focus on education that could help students grow, instead of shoving industrial (that’s a keyword, and it’ll come in handy) quantities of information that will be dubiously useful down their throats. So kids eventually saw the introduction of a five-day school week, a one-third reduction in the material covered, a 10% cut in school hours and most importantly a greater and possibly smarter integration of subjects.

But the all-important 2003 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results painted a different picture: one year after the yutori policy had officially become the law of the land, Japan saw its chart-topping (in other charts, truth to be told) score experience an embarrassing (?) fall all the way down to no. 4, preceded by perennial chart-topper Finland, neighboring Korea, and the Netherlands. Critics failed to take into account how the score had changed – namely that the score of more affluent students coming from families where book reading and extracurricular education could be more easily fostered substantially remained the same, while going lower down the social totem pole meant larger discrepancies, showing the damage that decades of rote learning had inflicted upon the “educationally-challenged” and their adaptation capabilities – and instead took result at face value, and the right wing media began pointing fingers at the purveyors and pioneer of the yutori revolution, instrumentalizing education to further their political agenda. Or at least they made those accusations a little more explicit, now that they had “facts” they could corroborate their theories with. It was in the midst of this controversy that NTV drama 女王の教室 (Jyoou no Kyoushitsu) was born.

This was hardly the first time writer Yukawa Kazuhiko had tackled school-themed dramas, seeing how he was responsible for hits like the original グレート ティーチャー オニヅカ (Great Teacher Onizuka) in 1998 and 学校へ行こう! (Let’s Go to School!) in 1991. But seen in the greater cultural context of this anti-yutori movement of the mid 2000s, his 2005 NTV show becomes a lot more insidious: making it explicit why Akutsu Maya’s (Amami Yuki) brand of tough love criticizes the alleged idealism and laissez-faire attitude of the yutori policy would reveal too many spoilers concerning both original and Korean remake, but the real key is that the ultimate goal of the Japanese show was using this menacing educational figure and the way students adapted to her as a catalyst for a critique of the system that fostered that very environment — critique that at the end favored a more conservative and conformist approach to the matter, of course. Extreme times call for extreme measures, and all.

This is a recurrent fallacy that pesters most mainstream Japanese dramas, the idea of turning characters into puppets at the service of a the invisible hands of a thematic puppeteer who will subject us to precious ethical notions at the story’s end. Along with this disconnect will be buried any semblance of realism, but the Japanese TV industry has never really rectified its penchant for turning characters into caricatures to tell a story. What’s interesting, though, is the message’s statement itself. That is, the idea that yutori was indeed wrong, and a return to older rote-based educational policies (or at least a more pragmatic and realistic approach to education) was in order for Japan. Interesting, or even ironic, because this is hardly a problem in Korea, where there has never been such a thing as the yutori policy. Perhaps you could argue that the approach to education was similar in pre-and-immediate-postwar Korea, but in that case we’d either be dealing with a Third World nation, or one undergoing a painful process of rebuilding whereby educational policy wasn’t exactly the government’s top priority. It became one once Park Jung-Hee’s junta took over, though, and using education to foster productive drones that could help an industrial revolution through reckless competition and the use of rote-learning was one of the budding dictator’s keys to his feat of achieving an economic miracle with relatively little turmoil – considering how much individual freedom was castrated by his bulldozer policies.

Which begs the question: why would you remake a drama that essentially criticized a “problem” that in Korea doesn’t even exist? Of course that’s assuming that today’s decision-makers in Yeouido even stop a second to ponder such questions, since this show’s raison d’être is mostly that of milking the last surviving cash cow in that moribund carcass known as the Hallyu, namely remakes of Japanese dramas. But it still remains an interesting paradox, particularly considering the recent history of school-themed dramas in the country.

I’m not even considering past remakes like 공부의 신 (The God of Study) or sheep in wolf’s clothing like 학교 2013 (School 2013) – where the utopian idealism that criticizes the educational system via grotesquely obsolete cliches always seems to play second fiddle to quintessential trendy drama dynamics. I was more inclined to mention fine examples like 강남엄마 따라잡기 (Gangnam Mom) and especially 아내의 자격 (A Wife’s Credentials), shows which aspired to do a little more than simply use empty rhetoric (like the ideal utopia of education that moves the 2013 KBS show’s heroes and heroines) to question the status quo, and that instead used realism and a ballsy mix of pragmatism and healthy critical thinking to at least change the individual – hoping that the system will eventually change as a result. We’re not exactly dealing with a thematic trilogy (not yet anyway), but I’m happy to report that 여왕의 교실 (The Queen’s Classroom) is approaching the latter examples more and more as the episodes go by.

In fact, I’d go as far as calling this the natural thematic successor to Jung Sung-Joo’s 2012 shocker, and nickname it something like A Child’s Credentials. In fact, the biggest difference between this and the original – save for what looks to be a complete U-turn on the anti-yutori arguments of the 2005 show – is how it puts the child as the core of a wider social spectrum that involves teachers and parents. If last year’s jTBC show dealt with the role a child-raising wife played in modern Korean middle-class dynamics, here you’ve got their children as protagonist, and more or less the same world – with the only caveat that this time it’s filtered through their eyes. We don’t so much put emphasis on who lands first and who’s dead last in school, but how that will impact their social dynamics within the class and vis-a-vis their relationship with their teachers, how it will influence their relationship with their parents and as a result the interplay between parents themselves. It’s not a throwaway school subject regurgitated on the cheap in search of easy success.

For that, Kim Won-Seok should be praised – and assistant Kim Eun-Hee as well, although it’s not the Kim Eun-Hee of 싸인 (Sign) and 유령 (Phantom). Just like Lee Gi-Won added a decidedly Korean spin to the original novel in his masterful 하얀거탑 (The White Tower) – notice how I keep mentioning shows directed by Ahn Pan-Seok, by the way – Kim has managed to keep the narrative structure of the Japanese original intact, as the events unfolding remain more or less the same, but it’s the thematic compass and the reality surrounding it that change. The mothers here have a much bigger thematic weight, and instead of merely pointing fingers at the system by suggesting that the idealism of the yutori policy is much better, it asks them a much more important question: what do you want your children’s education to be, an important step in their growth as human beings and social players, or merely an expensive and stressful tutorial on how to maintain or possibly improve your social status? The entire arc involving Go Na-Ri’s denouement, for instance, is centered around her mother. Everything she does – from having Ha-Na take all the blame for the mistake she made to turning the entire school against her – is a result of her fear of what would happen if she dared to disappoint her mother, or to defy her expectations. If I mentioned before that this is a drama about “kidults,” it’s because the struggles they go through aren’t things a child should realistically have to deal with. Should a thirteen year old girl endure such harmful competition and oppressing atmosphere to make sure her mommy can continue driving imported cars that cost nine figures, wear designer brands and continue the illusion that status symbols equal nobility? Of course not, ergo the inevitable injection of maturity that’s forced upon them, and is so realistically portrayed here.

It wouldn’t work without effective performances from everyone involved. And while you’d expect such maturity from people of Go Hyun-Jung and Yoon Yeo-Jung’s talent and seniority, it’s the kids that are taking the ball and running with it all the way to the basket. From the headliners like Kim Hyang-Gi, Seo Shin-Ae, Lee Young-Yoo and Kim Sae-Ron all the way to the bit players like little Kim Ji-Hoon and Jung Ji-In, this is a phenomenal cast. Phenomenal because they only do what’s required from them and nothing more, but they do it so well, adding nuances of humanity to characters that are already well defined as they are, that it can only enrich the experience. Even if it wasn’t this mature and well structured, it would be a joy to watch this show for the acting alone, and that refreshingly subtle lack of urgency. This is old school storytelling, taking its time to delve into themes and uncover character trajectories, regardless of how that will translate in the ratings.

And of course the central enigma remains. How is this show going to deal with the original’s ultimate message. Will it give a pragmatic, realistic answer to the plague afflicting Korean education, just like proud predecessors like A Wife’s Credentials did? I’m not sure. But witnessing the process has been a pleasure, whatever the outcome will be…

ACTING GRADES

88 김향기 (Kim Hyang-Gi)
86 고현정 (Go Hyun-Jung)
85 이기영 (Lee Gi-Young)
84 윤여정 (Yoon Yeo-Jung)
83 서신애 (Seo Shin-Ae)
82 천보근 (Cheon Bo-Geun)
79 정석용 (Jung Seok-Yong)
79 김새론 (Kim Sae-Ron)
78 이영유 (Lee Young-Yoo)
77 최윤영 (Choi Yoon-Young)
74 이아현 (Lee Ah-Hyun)
73 변정수 (Byeon Jung-Soo)
73 진경 (Jin Gyeong)
72 김영필 (Kim Young-Pil)
63 강찬희 (Kang Chan-Hee)
50 리키김 (Ricky Kim)

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