A Wife's Credentials
(Viewed One Time)
A young boy sits in his classroom with his schoolmates. The atmosphere is very subdued. His school, a very prestigious and expensive one, has just re-opened after the indictment and jailing of the school's owner. Conspicuous behind the boy is an empty desk. New scene. The same young boy is sitting on a park bench. He is enfolded in the arms of his mother and his voice is choked with emotion and grief. Her face is the face of every mother who would give anything to take away her child's pain. Talking about the empty desk, the boy sobs "Every time his grades went down his father beat his mother. Finally he just killed himself". A shocking revelation, but not really unexpected based on what we have seen in the first 15 episodes.
There are a number of major themes in A Wife's Credentials. One is a strong indictment of the Korean educational system; a succeed-at-all-costs structure in which enormous pressures are placed on children by their parents to be among the elite, a system where nothing less than total success is acceptable. In turn there are enormous pressures placed on the parents by their own elders and other parents in their social strata. Moms and dads become obsessed with getting their children into only the very best schools, even as low down the ladder as pre-K.
This succeed-at-all-costs syndrome in Korea has bred a multi-billion dollar industry whose sole purpose is to assist kids in getting the best possible grades on standardized testing, the marker by which the children are admitted to the best schools and universities and also how they are viewed by their family. Such a system is a breeding ground for greed and corruption, and in this story at least, parents are quite willing to take part in such corruption (passing along test answers to their kids in advance of the test), and by doing so, indirectly passing along to them the idea that this kind of behavior is acceptable and in fact is the norm.
But the major story line that holds A Wife's Credentials together is the compelling tale of an adulterous affair between two souls, lost in a world where they don't belong, a segment of society (upper middle class) where appearances are everything, even if beneath the veneer, love has long since disappeared and there is only emptiness. In fact this best-appearance-at-all-costs mantra is a perfect reflection of the soulless educational system in which families strive. When the two lovers are discovered, they must face the wrath of an entire society that is quick to self-righteously condemn their immorality, but never willing to look in the mirror at their own emptiness, that is until that emptiness causes a total and complete collapse of their family unit house of cards.
And finally, A Wife's Credentials is a strong indictment of the patriarchal dominated Korean society as a whole and more specifically the family unit; one in which dad is always right, is to be obeyed at all times, and even to be feared, and mom's job is to bow her head, shut up and do whatever is necessary to get the kids into the best schools.
Asian dramas, and even more specifically Korean dramas, are viewer driven, which is another way of saying sponsor driven. Viewers are constantly probed to find out what story elements are most popular in the drama du jour, and the creators of the dramas frequently change their storyline in midstream in search of the almighty 20% (or higher) viewing audience. This frequently leads to chaos.
Storyline threads are left hanging if the viewers seem to prefer a different direction for the story than was originally intended. Actors, writers and crew sometimes work 20 hour days to accommodate the changes, and there is anecdotal evidence of individual episodes being edited right down to the very last minute; yes, literally the very last minute before the episode goes out over the air waves. Such on-the-fly changes obviously lead to compromised storylines, with actors never getting the chance to fully flesh out their characters, and directors and technicians abilities stretched to the limit by looming deadlines.
Fortunately, A Wife's Credentials aired on pay TV in 2012, and no such sponsor pressure existed. As a result, we get a production rich in every aspect. If there is one word that comes to mind, it is respect. Respect by the writers to trust their storyline and not needlessly insert excess melodramatic manipulations and machinations, which are great for the ratings but not for the storyline. Respect by a director that his actors, if given enough space, can produce three-dimensional characters that are actually real life human beings. But above all, respect by everyone for the audience; that we can actually have enough intelligence that we don't need to have our noses rubbed into the show to get the point. Some may be put off by the leisurely pace of A Wife's Credentials, but one of its strongest points is the refusal to rush the storyline along. It unfolds itself in a very believable manner.
At its heart, this is the story of an affair. However, this is not your typical rip each other's clothes off at the first opportunity type of affair. In fact, it is not until the last episode that we can even postulate that the relationship has been sexually consummated. These are two people whose initial interest in each other appears to be much more the finding of a kindred spirit in a world they cannot understand.
Seo Rae, a quiet and lovely middle-aged mom, enjoys a beautiful and close relationship with her preteen son, Han Kyul. He has recently turned a corner with a degree of sustained physical health for probably the first time in his life. During his early sickly years he needed constant attention, which his mother lovingly provided. She has also provided at-home schooling for him. However, her concept of a loving, caring, humanistic style of education becomes a point of derision by her husband and his family.
Daddy is many things, very few of them admirable. Sang Jin is a coward, a loudmouth, an arrogant bully, and a prototypical alpha-driven male. He lords over those lower than him on the work and social strata, and shamelessly kisses up to those over him. At a family get together, he leads the assault on the education provided by his wife to their son, and makes it clear that it's time for his son to start producing. Grandpa and Grandma quickly chime in and actually express their embarrassment over the boy's failure to pass the examination to get into a better school, feeling that he is a disgrace to their family name. Both mom and son are stunned to hear such a thing, and when Seo Rae and Sang Jin leave, they have a knock down drag out verbal bout where she quite appropriately calls him a hypocrite. Sang Jin is a television news reporter who has railed against the Korean educational system, and yet here he is saying just the opposite regarding his own son. He then does what he does best, which is to out shout whoever opposes him, and she breaks down in tears as she realizes what is in store for her son. Shortly thereafter, the family moves to the upper-crust Daechidong area of Seoul, in order to gain access to elite, private schools. Daechidong is a veritable snake pit of snooty, upper middle class mothers, and Seo Rae feels completely alienated and alone as she tries to make things work for her son in an openly hostile environment. She is now living in an alien world where appearances are everything, including how well your child performs in school.
Despite her quiet appearance, Seo Rae shows her resourcefulness in finagling a meeting with Ji Sun, the principal of a very elite tuition school that assists children in preparing for their standardized exams. Ji Sun is a very ambitious, industrious woman who has made a fortune as an elite and expensive educator for social status climbing parents and their children. She is quite taken by the quiet Seo Rae, and in addition to admitting Han Kyul to her school, the two women form a quick friendship. She even invites Seo Rae to participate with her in her private judo workouts first thing in the morning. More about that later.
When Seo Rae's bicycle is stolen right in front of her eyes, she is rather heroically rescued by another man riding a bike who catches up with the thief, and then returns the bike to her. She is quite grateful and only later realizes when she takes her son to a dentist appointment, that her bicycle theft hero, Tae Oh, is actually her son's dentist. These two middle-aged adults are drawn to each other, not so much in a physical sense, but more because they see in each other a quality of genuineness and lack of pretense; an oasis in their world of superficial appearances. Although each knows that the other is married, Seo Rae is not aware that Tae Oh's wife is the above-mentioned Ji Sun, her new-found close friend.
Seo Rae's mother is in a nursing home on an island farther to the north, and when she receives word that her seriously demented mother needs some extensive dental work done, she inquires if Tae Oh could help, and he accepts. It is on their trip to and from her mother's residence that their real feelings for each other begin to show. While Tae Oh is certainly given some detail during the ensuing story, this is really the story of Seo Rae and her journey from a life of virtual imprisonment to one of freedom. Her journey is a painful and difficult one. Episode eight of this show may just be the most harrowing and emotionally exhausting hour of Korean drama you will ever see. As things reach an ugly climax between her, her husband and his family, she is physically attacked by her sister in law, she is thrown out of her own home by her husband, her son is moved against her wishes to his grandparents home, and she is forced to move into her sister's tiny apartment.
For those of us who really need to see someone get their comeuppance, episode nine provides some relief. When her loud mouthed and abusive husband shows up at the apartment and tries to push her around, this very quiet woman resorts to the judo she learned from Ji Sun by kneeing him where it hurts the most and tossing him over her shoulder and slamming him to the floor. I'm sure every person who has watched the show pumped their fist with a loud "YES!"
There is so much to praise about A Wife's Credentials. Characters are real humans, drawn with great care and depth. The creation of those characters by the director and the actors is carefully crafted, sometimes down to the finest detail. The cinematography does not make judgements for us. We are observers, allowed to draw our own conclusions. The entire production respects the intelligence of the viewer and never stoops to the lowest common denominator. There is simply not enough space in this review to mention just how effortlessly this show flows. At no more than 20 minutes into episode one, we have been given a depth of detail about Seo Rae and her relationship to her son, her husband and his family which is far more than we get in one or two hours in most K-Dramas.
Visual metaphors abound. Perhaps the most touching occurs as the two lovers manage to escape for a boat ride and lunch up the Han River. Seo Rae spots a deer in a lightly wooded area along the embankment and expresses her amazement at seeing a deer in such an unexpected place like inside the city limits of Seoul. The innocent deer so misplaced in the big city, the idealistic mother so mismatched against the morally bankrupt people around her; a beautifully drawn metaphor.
There is a soundtrack, and it's a good one. Turn, Turn, Turn by the Byrds is judiciously and appropriately used. However, it is Daydream Believer by the Monkees that is the star, and if you are not humming this in your sleep by the end of the second episode, you're probably just not paying attention. It is the perfect description of Seo Rae, a daydream believer who never gives up on her belief of something better for herself.
Veteran actress Kim Hee-ae's portrayal of Seo Rae is the performance of a lifetime. The rapid dismantling of her life by her foes in episode eight leaves her literally suffocated and gasping for air in her sister's apartment. But by episode nine, her transformation has begun, and though exhausted, she quietly and confidently confronts her bullying husband. She is a changed person, and fortunately for her she is lovingly supported by a man who is there to help her out of the forest on the rare times when all she can see is the trees. It is a painful process and we are pulling for her every step of the way.
Lee Sung-jae's performance does not demand such a full gamut of emotions. However, he is perfectly cast as the male protagonist. He plays a 21st century man who knows that he must let his partner find her own way in life, and only then can she be open to sharing it with him. Her wounds are still healing and he knows he cannot force himself into her life. At one point, however, her behavior becomes suspicious and he discovers she is hiding from him the existence of a nighttime job working in a restaurant in order to pay back court ordered compensation to her husband. He feels betrayed, as he has tried in every conceivable way to lovingly support her, yet she hides something this important from him. Her fear of course is that he will want to pay off the debt for her, which he offers, and she refuses. This is something she has to do herself. But she knows she has wronged him and apologizes for having kept it from him.
Jang Hyun-sung plays the wronged but thoroughly despicable husband, Sang Jin. He gives an excellent performance of a man who never does confront his shortcomings, preferring instead to be the victim by blaming everyone else. By episode16 he is a public drunkard who has been forced to resign his position as a television reporter because of a charge of sexual harassment.
By the end of episode 16, Seo Rae and Tae Oh are sharing an apartment together. While going on a bicycle ride for a picnic, they stop at a fork in the road. Neither one is sure which is the quicker road to their destination, so they take separate routes. She stops at one point to admire the scenery and her revery is interrupted by a text from him, saying he has arrived already. She gets back on her bike to join him. It is another perfect metaphor. Each is following their own path, but they are doing it together.
A Wife's Credentials is certainly the finest K-Drama I have ever viewed. Admittedly, that list is not long. As of the date of this review I have viewed just 22 Asian dramas (9K, 11J, 2T), however, that short list contains some very high quality work. This story, however, is unforgettable and beautifully rendered. Highest recommendation.