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.
In 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.
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.
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
Overall rating: 7/5 (because I loved it that much)
Recommended: Is the sky blue?
Director: Ahn Pan-seok
Screenwriter: Jeong Seong-joo