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