Review: A Wife’s Credentials (2012, jTBC)

Premise: A dutiful housewife struggles to raise and educate her son in the suffocating world of an upper middle class neighbourhood. She discovers love and compassion, unfortunately just not with her husband.

A Wife's Credentials promotional pictureIn my part of the world, there’s a Hokkien phrase “kiasu” which literally translated means “afraid to lose”. It’s describes the rude and selfish behaviour that ruthless competition engenders, such as cutting queues, not giving way on the roads, and my personal favourite, emptying an entire tray of food for yourself at a buffet. Down south in Singapore, kiasu-ism is a hot topic, widely discussed and acknowledged to be a social ill. It’s an outcome of the country’s economic success over the last two decades. One form of kiasu-ism is the Singaporean obsession with education, where parents fret about getting their toddlers into the best pre-schools for fear of being left behind.

A Wife’s Credentials is a study of Korean kiasu-ism. While watching this totally absorbing drama, I was struck by how it’s depiction of a South Korean world of upper middle class elites could easily mirror the Singaporean experience. Family discussions at dinner about kids and their academic achievement? Mothers obsessing over the best study methods? Competing to get into the best private tuition schools? The pressure on kids to academically excel?  This is reality for Singaporean families. If A Wife’s Credentials ever aired on Singapore TV, I hazard a guess that it would cause a sensation. (Any Singaporeans out there? I’d love to hear what you think.)

I know this probably sounds as exciting as watching paint dry. In fact I probably yawned myself when I read the synopsis. But believe me, I found this drama as compelling, and at times as agonisingly suspenseful as any thriller.

Wife's Credentials screen cap

There is a piggy back ride, just not with who you’d expect

This is a drama for grown-ups. No flower boys, no k-pop OST, no camera tricks, body-swapping or time-travelling. Now, I love that kind of stuff as much as the next addict, and that definitely has its place in dramaland. But this is a textbook example that all you need for a great drama is simply great acting, and a great story told well. One caveat: AWC’s understated tone may come as a shock to the system for anyone used to feeding on a diet of slick and shiny k-drama candy. It may take a while to attune yourself to this drama’s quiet, unassuming manner, but once you do, brace yourself for its impact.

 There’s no time wasted in this drama. In a matter of moments we know what the titular wife Seo Rae (Kim Hee Ae) is up against: her oafish husband Sang Jin (Jang Hyun Sung) and the cold status obsessed in-laws and their conflicting ideas what’s best for her son’s education. She thinks education is for nurturing creative human beings not manufacturing robots. She loses the battle, and they move to the upper-crust Daechidong to gain access to elite private schools.
A Wife's Credentials screencap

A hot ahjusshi bike-riding dentist? Sign me up!

Already an outsider within her own family, the move further entrenches her sense of alienation. The neighbourhood is a vipers nest of snooty, scheming mothers obsessively dedicated to their children’s academic performance. As a sensitive idealistic soul,  she’s denied any meaningful human connection save with her son and her sister who sells side-dishes to the rich mothers in the neighbourhood. It’s no wonder that when Seo Rae meets the first person, a perfect stranger, who treats with a sliver of kindness and humanity, the world cracks wide open. It’s icing on the cake that he happens to be a hot ahjusshi dentist Tae Oh (Lee Sung Jae). Their mutual isolation connects them and they fall in love. Trouble is, he’s married too.

What follows next isn’t totally unexpected or cliche-free. But it’s devoid of cheap histrionics, and it’s told with an unflinching but compassionate eye for finely-drawn naturalistic details. It’s a world that feels real and lived-in by people with desires, needs, thoughts and feelings. I was fully immersed. By the time the inevitable betrayal and the ensuing fallout happens, my nails were bitten clean off and my heart had fallen to the floor. It’s pointless to elaborate on the acting when one word would do: superb.

It’s not completely flawless. I wish the drama was a little more kind towards the men, and that it wasn’t so unkind towards the one character that offered the only chance for female solidarity and friendship. Ultimately, it’s a story about Seo Rae’s journey towards self-discovery. But its also got alot to say about class, the brutality of materialism, the price of wealth, motherhood, womanhood, and yes, education.

N/B: If you’re interested, and it’s worth a read, go here for discussions by people far more articulate than I about the drama’s visual beauty.

A Wife’s Credentials 

Starring: Kim Hee Ae, Lee Sung Jae, Lee Tae Ran, Jang Hyun Sung  

Crack-meter:  2.5/5 

Overall rating: 7/5 (because I loved it that much) 

Recommended: Is the sky blue?  

Director: Ahn Pan-seok

Screenwriter:  Jeong Seong-joo 

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14 thoughts on “Review: A Wife’s Credentials (2012, jTBC)

  1. This drama surely sounds boring if we go by the synopsis, but your review has convinced me to check it out…..
    Fluff and fancy dramas are good in their own way, but I love shows that are simple and natural 🙂

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    • High praise coming from you! Actually, the first word that came to mind for hubby dearest was asshole, but that’s so not polite. Your review convinced me to give this a go, so thank you 🙂

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  2. I enjoyed reading your review. Your style of writing is jjang! I’ve heard of this drama and unfortunately, I avoid drama such AWC. I can’t handle heavy, emotional drama well… Long story short: I woke up with a puffy eyes and I was stuck with that puffy look for two days!!!! It wasn’t a pretty sight lol.

    But I’m now intrigued by it due to Korean style of kiasu-ism. Would I watch it? It’s just not my type of drama 😦 but I may consider it 😉

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    • Thank you so much for the compliment! This might sound heavy but it’s not. It’s like a soap opera, but erm, classier?? HAH. Really, I’m not kidding! The first 5 epis flew by coz I was like dying, wondering when the shit is going to hit the fan. Just find the right time for it and give it a try!

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  3. I’d run across this drama a time or two, but always gave it a pass because I assumed overwrought melodrama. (And now we’ve all learned a lesson about assuming! ;))

    I’m really glad you’ve given this review because now it’s definitely on my list. I’m not sure I’m in the right mood now, but I know those moods strike so I’ll be ready! 🙂

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    • Yeah like I told @missienelly, think of this as a classy soap! ;P It’s really really beautiful in so many ways. I’m gonna put this one on my list of favourites. Plus hot ahjusshi dentist!!

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  4. I’ve been hearing so many good things about this drama and your review just makes it so appealing.
    And it is interesting that in Singapore you have such a word. I’m always getting excited when learning words from other languages that don’t translate exactly into mine.. Am I the only one?
    I think I will be checking t out pretty soon.. 🙂

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    • This drama really moved me! I love it, it’s one of my faves, and I really really encourage you to watch it! Give it some time and it will work its quiet magic on you. 🙂

      Singapore and Malaysia share the same main languages, we were one nation until the 60s after all. And we engage in petty rivalries as countries ever since. As a Malaysian, I’m compelled to side-eye S’poreans quite a bit, all in good fun of course ;P. But there are kiasu M’sians too, plenty of them!

      It’s funny, sometimes when I blog, the only appropriate word I can think of to describe something is in Malay/Chinese which doesn’t have the same ‘kick’ in English. I’m sure it’s the same with Greek, Korean and other languages. I wish I was more fluent in Malay to be able to blog in that language too!

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      • I will check it out.. Definitely..
        And there are so many times that I’ thinking words in greek that would go perfectly with what I’m trying to write about but then the translation in english doesn’t have the same feeling.. (there was this one time one of my friends was trying to explain what the word στοργή,sounds like storghi, meant to someone and she just couldn’t. It means roughly affection but it has such a deeper, motherly feeling to it.)And to blog in greek? That would be interesting..haha..
        Sorry about the rambling.. And btw I love the new appearance of your blog.. 🙂

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