A Wife’s Credentials is a drama that invites you to watch it peacefully, to set aside a time for it so you won’t be distracted or interrupted. It’s the kind of drama that knows the story it’s telling–and knows how to tell it–right from the start. Each episode is narratively coherent. They’re full of individual events, but never feel rushed or overburdened. In fact, I was surprised at how so much could have happened in only two episodes without leaving me feeling as though the episodes were cram sessions.
It’s a quiet drama. It lets you hear car engines running, the charged quiet inside an elevator; it pauses to show rain streaming down a cafe window; it’s filled with greys and beiges; its apartments are realistically sized, not spacious and luxurious, so they offer a different kind of spacial interaction than trendier dramas. It’s concerned with the most ordinary of things–making sure your child gets a good education–and the romance comes in sweetly, like a stroll instead of a dash, the lap of a wave instead of a crash. And the thing is, our heroine isn’t looking for love or thinking about it at all. She’s focused on other things, and it’s a surprise for her, something that presents itself as a wonder before the realities of how problematic it is set in. Roger Ebert said of Un Couer en Hiver (A Heart in Winter, Claude Sautet, 1992) that the French have a way of portraying love as a challenge and a responsibility that is not always something to be embraced, and he contrasts this to how love is approached in American films. It’s not a comparison I think has much merit, but I think it’s useful here in comparing the romance in this drama to the romance in others. I’m anticipating how our leads will handle their romance, considering they are both married with children, and I think that the obstacles to their romance will be less…fetishized than in other dramas. We’re allowed to experience their relationship develop and progress, and while we suspect or know things before they do, it works more as dramatic irony than a repackaging of things we’ve come to expect.
The pacing is assured in a way that doesn’t bring attention to itself, and the camera is always moving, but not in a handheld, Bourne movie action scene way. It’s measured, calm. It’s always drawing in to focus on a face or a particular detail or scaling back to show us the breadth of a landscape or the distance between two silhouettes, moving from the left to the right until it reaches a block like a wall or a bookcase, then circling around to get us back to our characters. This constant yet unobtrusive motion breathes life into the constrained spaces and plain surroundings.
What I most appreciate is that there isn’t really much of an introduction. We are dropped right in the middle of the story, and it is immediately resonant, immediately political (in the sense that the characters have clear and conflicting interests, with differing power dynamics), immediately emotionally engaging. Within the first few minutes we’re witness to a knowing glance that Seo Rae gives her husband when he tries to pass off his own misgivings about his niece getting into a top school as hers, the impatient honk of a car horn calling Seo Rae and her son away from a magic show. We are shown things, not told things. So far there hasn’t been one moment where a character speaks out loud to herself, giving the audience a run down of what she’s thinking while conveniently offering exposition. Instead we have these skewed shots of Seo Rae’s face and profile; we’ll see her face from an unexpected angle and that creates an intimacy, a visual relationship that’s more evocative than a monologue might be. By the end of the episode we’re anticipating the outcome of Han Gyeol’s scores, and we want him to score well, despite identifying with Seo Rae and being fundamentally opposed to the cut-throat competition mentality. It’s because we know the stakes and the consequences. We’ve seen the derision with which her parental decisions are treated, have heard the relish and Schadenfreude with which the neighborhood mothers whisper about her inevitable demise. And right before we see Seo Rae’s face fall we’re on the edge of our seats, as if the show were a thriller. It’s because we’re invested. This matters. The show makes us care right from the start.
When we first meet Yoon Seo Rae she’s on a crowded train with her son; she’s a mother. She soon gets a text message from her husband saying that he’ll be late; she’s a wife. When she meets up with her husband they head off to a family dinner–his family; Seo Rae is also a daughter and sister-in-law. It’s the relationships to these immediate family members that most define her life. She has obligations to them, and they constrain her agency, both as a mother and as an individual. She has to make concessions to her in laws with the decisions she makes in regards to her son’s education and the moral lessons she wants him to be raised with (in fact the major momentum behind the plot of the show is that she concedes to move to a new neighborhood in order to “better” her son’s education) and even her personality and the physicality of the way she carries herself change when she’s with them.
Anatomy of a Scene
There’s a hierarchy to the way this family works, and it breaks down along the lines of gender and age. First we have Han Yong Hee, the grandfather and patriarch; then comes comes his wife. After wards are his daughter and her husband, their son, and then Sang Jin and lastly Seo Rae. No doubt that if Sang Jin and Seo Rae had managed to get Han Gyeol to be academically successful they would be regarded with more favor, considering they had a son.
On the way to her in-laws’ Seo Rae leans over and teasingly tells Sang Jin, her husband, not to be jealous of the fact that his neice got into a prestigious international school. With her son we see she’s relaxed and affectionate. With her husband she’s vocal and, when needed, confrontational. But once she steps into her in-laws’ apartment her entire demeanor changes. Seo Rae’s voice seems to drop an octave, becoming soft, yielding, and a little cutesy. Her shoulders curve into her body and she looks up at people who speak to her from beneath raised eyebrows and a slightly bowed head. She’s unsure of herself in their apartment, and it’s not just that she is, but also that it’s like she wants them to see that she is, so that there can be no doubt of her knowing who is in charge. It’s almost as if she’s putting on a performance. She smiles and laughs at the right moments, and the thing is, so does everyone else.
It’s one of those uncomfortable “special occasion” family dinners where everyone works to be pleasant and maintain a certain balance to the interactions while ignoring the looming question in the room, knowing that any false move could upset everything. It’s the kind of atmosphere where people say one thing, something seemingly complimentary, but mean somethig entirely different, and every one knows it does, but the conversation continues as if it doesn’t. And Seo Rae, being the outside woman who married a family’s son and dared to raise a son who didn’tget into a renowned school, has to be the most careful–deferential–of all. So when Han Yong Hee begins to insinuate that perhaps Han Gyeol should start focusing on a__ Seo Rae of cousre has to remain silent. The horror of the situation is made all the worse by the fact that he husband jumps in and aggrees with his dad, nodding along and speking to him about her in the third person, as if she isn’t there! And then he turns to her directly, and all Seo Rae can do is sit quietly as her method of raising her own child and her very character are dissected, critiqued, demeaned.
Han Yong Hee: So you’ll let my grandson fall behind just because of your convictions?
Sang Jin: You’re right, father. She’s much too naive when it comes to that.
Jin Soo Ae: [the grandmother] There’s certainly that side to her.
It’s humiliating. And it’s all in front of the children, including their son. It’s telling that other than Seo Rae, they are the only ones who remain silent.
Seo Rae’s silence is integral to her survival. In the above scene she has to remain quiet because there isn’t really anything she can say. Everyone is critical of her decisions and anything she might say will inevitably be used to corner her. But silence isn’t the only tool she has. Once she and Sang Jin leave her parents she lets out her own frustrations. They have to stop on the side of the road, leaving Han Gyeol in the car, to argue. It’s something she can’t do in front of his family, in their apartment, in what amounts to enemy territory. Sang Jin’s demeanor changes as well. He’s no longer in front of his family and the stern husband with a silly wife act will not work here. Here, amidst cars speeding past and with no father-in-law in sight, Seo Rae can point out Sang Jin’s hypocrisy, how as a journalist he decries the philosophy of ruthless competition, but as a father he wants his son immersed in it. Here Seo Rae can remind him of how hard she’s worked to keep their sickly son well and alive, how she can’t believe the man standing in front of her is the same man she married.
I think this argument speaks to how easily dismissed women’s traditional work can be. Like Seo Rae points out, now that Han Gyeol is well Sang Jin and everyone else in the family is ready for him to be exactly like other children, despite the fact that he’s had to cope with different challenges. She’s had to deal with the stress of raising a chronically ill child, and that work can’t be quantified. No longer being sick is not something Han Gyeol can have framed and put above the family fireplace for visitors to admire. But women’s work holds a special place in this drama. There’s actually quite a focus on it, because the child’s academic success is considered to be the mother’s achievement–and a child’s failure the mother’s failure. So it’s a certain kind of women’s work that is dismissed, namely, the kind that isn’t easily translated into societal benefit, the kind that can’t be measured in awards or in bragging rights with one’s friends. But more specifically for Seo Rae, the work she does that is dismissed is the work that doesn’t fit into what the family wants, which is heavily dictated by societal prescripts.
On Isolation and Public/Societal Censure
Yesterday/Yes a day like any day/Alone again for every day
Seemed the same sad way/To pass the day/The sun went down without me
Suddenly someone else/Has touched my shadow/He said: Hello
– Yesterday Yes A Day by Jane Birkin
This show presents isolation in so many ways. In the first episode it is most apparent in Seo Rae’s position: in how she stands in philosophical and moral opposition to her husband and extended family, in how few friends she has, in how she’s immediately pushed away by the other mothers in her new neighborhood, in how she sinks down in front of her husband, crying because she has to move to a new town and give in to her husband and in-laws. And these are just the examples that are shown to us, not the ones that are suggested, like the years she’s spent caring for her son or the distance that has grown between her and her husband, both things that happen before our story begins. Seo Rae is very alone, despite having such strong convictions, and she feels it. I think this becomes the most clear when we discover that Han Gyeol has not passed the test, that he’s finished dead last. Those two words ring out when Seo Rae says them aloud, and it’s like they spell out doom; they have that same hollow, empty, frightening sound that doom has. “Dead last” is the ultimate accusation, an affirmation of all the gossip the mothers have had at her expense, that turns her “I can handle it” from a statement of self sufficiency to one of failure and derision. In that moment Seo Rae is so scared, and it’s all the more terrifying because she is the only one who will bear that failure; her fear is palpable. We see that fear again in the second episode, when Seo Rae goes to visit her mother, who’s suffering from a degenerative disease, one that keeps her from remembering who Seo Rae is. It’s heartbreaking to hear her mother say that to her, but it’s even more so when Seo Rae starts crying in front of Tae Oh, a near stranger. She shares a tenderer, more vulnerable and revealing moment with him than we’ve seen her share with her own husband.
But isolation isn’t simply displayed in different instances, but also with differing consequences. Seo Rae’s isolation magnifies her fear, but it magnifies her other emotions as well. I feel like it helps to create this personal world for her where she can cultivate her own ideas and nurture herself, in an Amelie Poulain kind of way. Like with the way her silence can be used to protect her, her isolation can be used to stimulate her. It’s from this, I think, that the lighter moments of the show arise, this ability both Seo Rae and the show have to find moments of elation, even though her life is so confined and dreary. She may be in a new town with unfriendly neighbors, but she has her bike with her and can take rides around the neighborhood. She may have just had a terrible fight with her husband, have just been berated by her in-laws, but she still has an intimate relationship with her son. And she may have ended up crying in front of a near stranger about something so devastating as her mother no longer remembering her, but it’s from the same isolation that a moment of wonder arises when that stranger retrieves her bike for her. It’s beautiful that she’s able to grab at happiness, particularly because there are no easy victories in the show so far. Her sister-in-law may have the daughter who got into the great school, but she also has a loning for a son that leads her to have multiple abortions and a cheating husband with a whole other family–one with a son, ouch–she knows nothing about.
“The idea that mutual respect would trump competition, isn’t that delusional?” – Han Sang Jin
And while her isolation stems in part from her moral and philosophical diffrences from those around her, they also serve to protect them. And it’s a good thing, ’cause Seo Rae is surrounded by gaping assholes. For a show that doesn’t have evil villains lurking in dark corners, I was really gritting my teeth. First off, there’s a culture of bureaucracy that seems to permeate everything. There are schools for children to go to, tests for them to take to get into those schools, places for them to study to take those tests, and places for them to study to get into those places where they can study to take those tests! It’s like the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit! This culture of bureaucracy stultifies everything so that achievement is not a matter of creativity or original thought, but a matter of 12-year-olds working through Harvard reading lists and Seo Rae being upset when she’s told her son tends towards the arts. It’s absurd. It feeds into the societal hierarchy and public lives that everyone is supposed to have. Only those lives aren’t real. Just as Sang Jin is a hypocrite who professionally disagrees with the craze of private education but privately endorses it, Seo Rae’s mother-in-law is a hypocrite who lies about how she spends her time and her father-in-law is a hypocrite who lies to his friends about the importance he gives to the education of his children. All these people are running around with these public facades while in private they hold totally different views. Seo Rae, the one with the convictions that so offend her in-laws, is the only honest person, aside from her son, in the family.
The Banal and the Magical
One of my favorite things that this show does, and I alluded to it when I talked about the possibly positive side of isolation, is how it presents a juxtaposition of the everyday and banal to little moments of spontaneity and imagination, almost like pockets of magic in our world that those of us who want to, get to appreciate. For example, Seo Rae’s day consists of running errands: she delivers packages to her new neighbors to introduce herself to the neighborhood, she visits her sister and asks about the other mothers in town, she goes to the dentist with her son. But her unwillingness to conform liberates these mundane acts from their tedium. She has these boring errands to run, but she uses her bike to get around town; when it starts to rain she takes out her bright yellow rain coat; and when she has to get the best tutor for her son she approaches her by sneaking into the showers at the tutor’s gym. The scene that best exemplifies this, though, comes very early on in the first episode. Fresh off a crowded train Seo Rae and Han Gyeol stop to watch a magic show being given on a sidewalk. The magician is surrounded by parents and children, and one of the other parents is Tae Oh. They’re both completely unaware of the other, but there they are, sharing a moment that neither notices. There’s clapping and shouts of excitement and streamers and smiles on everyone’s faces–it reminds me of that scene from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where Clementine and Joel find themselves in a middle of an elephant parade in New York City, surrounded by bedazzled animals and costumed circus people, captivated by their own joy–and then there’s a rude car honk. It’s Sang Jin, impatient and rude and wanting Seo Rae and his son in his car to take them to that horrible family dinner.
The drama does it again when Seo Rae’s bike is stolen. She’s in a local cafe being openly mocked by a next door neighbor and fellow mother when she sees it happen. She dashes outside to chase the thief, but falls and dirties her coat. But then!–a man comes whizzing by on a bike of his own, and he chases down the thief and brings her bike back for her. She stands at the end of a long walkway and watches amazed, mouth agape, as he slowly bikes towards her. It’s like she’s become so used to the gossip of the other mothers and the general lack of interest she’s met with that this one gesture of kindness just overwhelms her. It’s something so simple, and yet it’s colored with romantic strokes.
I Choose Happiness by David Choi: The perfect song for Seo Rae, who is visibly burdened by a callous husband and in-laws, but always chooses happiness. She’s like a realistic Candy figure.
Daydream Believer by The Monkees: A wonderful song to accompany Seo Rae and Tae Oh’s romance. During the scene when Tae Oh’s small figure becomes bigger and bigger as he brings back Seo Rae’s bike the lyrics “You once thought of me/As a white knight on a steed” were particularly resonant, and made me want to think about Seo Rae’s imagination and the expectations of romantic fiction and how those are portrayed in a work that’s trying to be more realistic.
Turn Turn Turn by The Byrds: Speaks to Seo Rae’s perseverance, and especially highlights all the different tones of the show, from the despair of having a mother who doesn’t remember you to the wonder of having a stranger rescue your bike.
Yesterday Yes A Day by Jane Birken: Oof, those first few lines. Kind of a perfect encapsulation of the show: Seo Rae is living her life, day to day, in isolation, but working through it, and all of a sudden, Tae Oh (metaphoriaclly) says hello.