Drama Review: A Wife’s Credentials

“The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” — Henry D. Thoreau

A Wife's CredentialsA Wife’s Credentials
air date: 2.29.2012 through 4.19.2012
network: JTBC
number of episodes: 16
I watched it: completely enthralled marathon

In a nutshell: We meet a woman quietly living a desperate life she’s long become resigned to. She’s a reluctant participant in the cruel and pounding race to become “the best” — go to the best schools, land the best jobs, marry the best spouse, live in the best neighborhoods, get your children into the best schools… and repeat until death. On the surface all seems well enough, but her husband is frustrated with their position and her son is flailing and she is trying, desperately, to be a good wife and mother. Then she meets a man who has quietly refused to resign. And that changes everything. Quiet — until it’s not, passionless — until passion pushes in, this is a story of awakening. It captures life, in all its humor and tragedy and the often awkward blend of both, telling its tale with intelligence and honesty. Very much a must-see.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately… and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” — Thoreau

The Players: This is entirely a character driven drama, which means the acting must be top-notch. Everything depends on the viewer believing that Yoon Seo-rae lives and breaths and hurts and desires. Kim Hee-ae makes it look effortless — she disappears and Yoon Seo-rae is all that is left. A quiet and unassuming woman, but with something pure about her Seo-rae— a sense of curiosity and humor and a childlike exhilaration for life — that refuses to fit into the sophisticated and cynical and unscrupulous world around her.

Her husband, on the other hand, wants to be a part of that world. He is decidedly desperate, striving towards the gold ring with a quivering, rat-like focus. Jang Hyun-sung is note perfect. There’s a scene within the first five minutes of the drama where his Han Sang-jin watches someone celebrate a success. He is drenched with jealousy and he tries to hide it with an affable bonhomie that is so obviously a put-on it’s cringe inducing to watch. But he thinks he’s doing great! The life of the party! No one is more selfless! He is Awesome-Man and he’d be stunned to learn anyone saw him differently.

Kim Tae-oh is the catalyst character — the man who enters Yoon Seo-rae’s life and shakes it up completely — and Lee Sung-jae plays him as understated and sweet and rather delightfully awkward. But there is a core to him (something Han Sang-jin definitely does not have). He knows what life is and what he wants from it. And society’s definitions will not shape him and society’s expectations will not drive him. It’s not that Kim Tae-oh is perfect — he’s not. But that deep and grounded sense of self-awareness is incredibly soothing and strong in such a surface-focused world.

And then there’s Hong Ji-sun. She is the success story — a person who has mastered the race, grabbed the ring, and is coming back ’round for more. Icy and strong, Lee Tae-ran shows the punishing effort it takes to maintain that upright, impenetrable facade. Though there are some marvelous little moments of warmth when her character interacts with the relatively unpolished and obviously ill-prepared Yoon Seo-rae. It gives us a peek into who this woman actually is — or had been — before she took on the race.

Those are the four main players, but the cast is richly filled out with supporting characters who are something more than exposition-deliverers and scene-fillers. Seo-rae’s younger sister (Jang So-yeon), and her gang of house-cleaning ajummas, represent one side of the class divide. Han Sang-jin’s younger sister (Choi Eun-kyeong), and her gang of well-heeled mothers, represent the other. There are parents and children and work colleagues and put-upon policemen and they all give the impression of starring in their own lives. This is Seo-rae’s story, but there are millions of other stories out there and we get glimpses into a few.

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…” — Thoreau

The Stage: This is a gorgeous drama that gives its story the time to tell itself. It lets the story breathe, letting scenes begin and build and then fully arrive, letting characters anticipate and react and then reach realization. waiting out the rain...Which shows an incredible faith in the actors to communicate all that information to the viewers through their craft.

In the first episode there’s a scene where Tae-oh returns Seo-rae’s stolen bicycle. He’s riding it towards her (he’s on his own bike), coming up a long path from quite a distance away. We watch her watch him. And her expression — her delight at the bicycle’s return, her anticipation as he rides closer and closer — there’s a wealth of information there, information she’s only beginning to grasp herself.

Often, scenes of great emotional import are filmed without music. Because the acting is enough and musical shorthand is not needed to guide the viewer into the correct way to feel. Which is not to say the soundtrack isn’t lovely! It is and, since it’s not needed for emotional nudging, it’s used very wisely.

Settings are chosen carefully and used well. Nature — deer, and birds, and snow, and mud, and trees — is woven throughout the drama, becoming a quiet theme. Seo-rae’s unstudied naturalness is what we don’t want her to lose, though her husband is desperate to embrace the glittery facade of the right neighborhood in the glass and steel of Seoul.)

“Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves…” –Thoreau

In Conclusion: There is a lot going in A Wife’s Credentials. And there’s a reason I’ve peppered this review with quotes from Thoreau’s Walden. Just as the philosopher did, the drama takes a hard look at society. It looks at marriage, parenting, schooling, sexism, and the hypocrisy behind modern measures of success with unflinching directness. And yet, the story is simple and heartwarmingly personal. There is meat and marrow to chew over for days and days and days if you wish. But Seo-rae’s struggle to be a good mother and to not lose herself in the doing is deeply relatable. This is a drama that stays with you and one I highly recommend.

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17 thoughts on “Drama Review: A Wife’s Credentials

  1. Oh my god now I am totally gonna watch this *puts in to-watch list* I’ve heard stuff about how difficult it is to find/watch online though, especially in near HD… Care to share where you watched it? Thanks in advance 🙂

    • Also! I forgot to mention this: beautifully written! Loved the insertion of Thoreau, very fitting, and from your review mentioning breathing spaces used throughout the show, I now have a better sense of the show (I’ve heard sooo much about it, but never moved me enough to pick it up – until now!).

    • It is difficult to find. I watched it on Gooddrama, which did not make for the best viewing, unfortunately.

      I think it’s something that would be right up your alley — it’s very thoughtful.

      And also, thanks! I was having a hard time figuring out how to approach the review and then I recalled that first Thoreau quote and that sent on my way. 🙂

  2. Well, you know my love for this drama knows no bounds and I gotta say that this creative team can do no wrong, really. Or rather hv yet to misstep. This PD knows where the heart of a scene is. And speaking of the show’s brilliant economy, that first few minutes before the big move really tells you everything you need to know about the drama. Tae Oh’s there too! Talk about wealth of information with the lightest touch, alot of it with no dialogue too–she and her son on the train for instance. Love!

    • Oh yes, “brilliant economy” indeed! It’s amazing how much time a scene will be given and yet also, how much information is packed into that scene. The train ride tells you everything you need to know about Seo-rae’s relationship with her son, and that pickup from the magic show tells you everything you need to know about their relationship with Sang-jin. And then you’re all set up for what will follow.

      I rewatched the first episode, just to make sure I was remembering those scenes correctly and it amazed me how much happened in that first episode. No dithering or space-filling at all. Love, love, love. ♥ (Cinematic in the very best sense. I’d imagine the PD is someone actors love to work with.)

      • You know I haven’t rewatched the show but I’m struck by how much I’m able to retain, which is a sign how memorable this drama is to me since my memory is usually swiss cheese. I mean, obviously I don’t remember all the details but that opening episode is so good and so real and I think so different frm other k-drama I’d seen before it that I must’ve been pretty blown away…or something ;). Secret Love Affair does this too, the everything-you-need-to-know-within-minutes part. Hah, how could I not steer this conversation to that drama, right??!

        Oh and lastly, I loved this review! So wonderfully written!! HAIL Betsy!!

        • Thank you! 😀 I can totally understand how scenes from AWC would stick. Because they’re so powerful — there’s so much in them and they’re given time to really land on you and sink in… bliss. 🙂

          Eeeeee!!! Secret Love Affair!!! I have so many words. (Seriously — I’m over the 1,200 mark and it’s just two episodes. XD ) Because it is so, so awesome and I’m both thrilled to be live-watching it (time to let it soak in) and pained to be live-watching (want next episode NOOOWWW!!)

          • You know about SLA, I had to deliberately step away coz I was starting to get way too sucked in to the point of …. well. I can’t write about it, yet, coz well it’s too much and I want to be on an even keel in case the disappointment comes and I fear I will be gutted. Because I want this way too much!

          • With me, after the second episode ended I just sat there stunned, realized I couldn’t get into the next episode BECAUSE IT DOESN’t EXIST 😥 …and then I just started pouring out words. Which is not always the way of things — I totally get the “it’s too much!” feeling — but that’s how it hit me.

            Oh, and I want it so, so badly toooo! It must be as good as I hope! It simply must!

  3. This is such a beautifully written review that I had to read it twice in a row. It really encapsulates everything about A Wife’s Credentials and with an economy that would make TPTB of the drama proud. 😀

    AWC is what a drama looks like when every single aspect of a good visual storytelling comes together just right and makes a wonderful whole. It will forever be one of my ultimate favourites.

    • Oh wow, thank you! 😀 And total, total agreement that AWC is a gold standard. (I haven’t seen enough to say it’s the gold standard — but it is so, so close.)

  4. What an amazing review this was.. So beautifully written. I’m definitely watching it.. It’s a drama I’ve been meaning to start for some time now..
    And I especially liked the bit you said that music was not used in scenes with great emotional import.. I find that when music is not used on scenes like these it makes the emotions and the situation much more, how should I put it, it makes these moments matter that much more. The impact they sometimes have on you is much stronger. Just the voices of the actors and their character’s feelings..

    • Thank you! And you definitely should watch it. It really is a gooder. 🙂

      There can be such a power in silence, I agree. It makes the scene more real, because life doesn’t usually come with a soundtrack.

      Also, I find that sometimes the musical nudge (oh, the music is sad therefore I must feel sad) can be intrusive. Especially if the actor is already doing their job. But I can imagine it takes a good amount of trust on the PD’s part — that the scene really does work, that it’s sharing the emotion it should be sharing — to leave the music off. So there’s a confidence on display, too.

  5. Pingback: Secret Love Affair : Episodes 1-2 (ooh, this is good!) | Creating Volumes

  6. i wub lee sung-jae
    i really need to watch this…
    i wub lee sung-jae
    gah, where is that thing called time?! 😉
    did i mention that i wub lee sung-jae and i need to watch this for realsies? ^^

    • Once you’ve successfully tracked and trapped that elusive time-beast, you should totally watch this! Lee Sung-jae is so awesome in this. So awesome. *tempts* 😀

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