K-DRAMA REVIEWS: The Suspicious Housekeeper (수상한 가정부)

Every now and then you come across something that is an instant classic with you personally. You know what I mean: it’s nearly perfect, though not quite perfect, and even its imperfections are familiar and loved friends by the time you’ve finished watching/reading it.

That’s how I felt about The Suspicious Housekeeper by the time I finished the first episode. I still feel like that. It’s far from perfect, but even those imperfections are an integral part of what I like about this odd-ball, not-this-nor-that South Korean Drama.

What is unusual about me loving this drama so much is that it deals with a couple of things that I will almost never watch, but found were dealt with in a beautiful way. In fact, there were a lot of things about it that, had I known in advance, would have stopped me from watching it altogether.  Themes such as adultery, suicide, teenage rebellion carried to extremes, and little children in emotional pain are not things that I would typically watch for amusement. The Suspicious Housekeeper does them in such a way, however, that I found them not only surprisingly moral, but enthralling.

The title refers to a Housekeeper hired by father Sang Chul after his wife dies, to look after his children and the house. It’s not, you understand, that she is suspicious of someone (though she is, later on). It’s more that everyone finds her suspicious. But really, it could go either way and work just fine.

The plot

-ish. It’s kinda hard to condense HOW MUCH FLAMIN’ PLOT there is in these 20 eps down to a paragraph or two. The essentials, however, are as follows:

*Sang Chul’s wife died in an accidental drowning before the beginning of the drama–or did she? The children are reeling from her death already, though Sang Chul is less sad.

*Sang Chul is less sad because he wasn’t really ever in love with his wife, and had, in fact, been having an affair. Normally, this would have stopped me watching the series immediately. This time it didn’t, because knowing a little bit about K-Dramas now, I was very well aware that in a drama of this calibre, cheating would never be shown to be okay, or rewarded. I was right, and I’m happy I was right, because this show is so worth watching!

Sang Chul’s mistress. Oh, I hated her! Her ending, however, I completely loved. Well done, the writers.

*Basically, by the end of the first couple episodes, everything is on fire. The children are no longer sure of anything. They know their dad cheated on their mother. They don’t know whether or not he loves them because he’s a truthful (if wishy-washy) man, and can’t commit to tell them he loves them when he isn’t sure he is.

*The children take over the house and refuse to let Sang Chul back in until he agrees that he will never again meet with his lover. This is, again, something that would normally make me stop watching something: I have no love for children being taught that it’s okay to dishonour their parents. But again, the way this drama dealt with it was so poignant and beautiful that I can’t really fault it.

*Toward the middle, after Bok Nyeo has more or less settled things with the children (if not with Sang Chul) we meet with a VERY SCARY MAN who Bok Nyeo is sure she knows, but that man is supposed to be dead. This is where the drama goes from family drama into psychological thriller, including a crooked cop, a stalker, and layer upon layer of conspiracy. The children by this point are firmly on Bok Nyeo’s side, and fiercely love her, so there is the constant threat of danger to them as well as Bok Nyeo.

That’s all I can say without major spoilers, so on to the characters!

The Characters

This is Bok Nyeo. She doesn’t smile. She very rarely shows any emotion, as a matter of fact, even guilt. When Sang Chul asks her how she could do a certain thing that she’d done, and asked her didn’t she feel any guilt/responsibility, her response is: “I threw that away somewhere.”

What Bok Nyeo does do is cook exactly like the childrens’ mother did, keep the house impeccably clean, and…follow orders. I mean, really follow orders. Without hesitation, without second thought, without remorse, and without ruth. (Yeah, I could have said ‘ruthlessly’, but it wouldn’t have matched, okay?!)

This, with the four children also giving orders, could and does become dangerous. And yet, each time, when I hoped for the best from the children, they invariably showed me their best (after a little while in the case of some of them).

Bok Nyeo is a truly amazing character, played by a truly amazing actor.

Sang Chul, the childrens’ father. His life is unravelling, one awful lie after another. Weak, wishy-washy, and yet absolutely truthful with his children once the biggest, dreadful truth is out there. It’s like he lied to himself and everyone else so much that now he won’t even lie when his children want to hear that he loves them and he doesn’t think he does love them.

Eldest daughter Han Gyul. Angsty, bereft at her mother’s death, and furious with her father for cheating, she is an explosion of bad decisions waiting to happen. I actually kinda disliked her for a long time, but I could really see why she was behaving the way she was behaving, so I was willing to give her some slack.

As the eldest girl, Han Gyul gets not only a big part in the proceedings (both family drama and thriller), but her own little story-line complete with a couple of love interests (one of whom manages to be even MORE ANGSTY than she is, which is, frankly, incredible.) Kim So Hyun was as amazing as ever in this part, but then, I’ve never seen her anything but amazing.

Eldest brother Doo Gyul–AKA, my squishy. I loved this kid! He was my favourite of all the kids, despite me loving clever cookie Si Gyul and adorable Hye Gyul. I actually started out by hating him: mostly because he slapped Bok Nyeo, and that really got up my nose. Before too many episodes were over, however, I had begun to love this messed-up little kid.

Doo Gyul actually makes this face (or variations thereof) A LOT. That’s because he’s always doing something daft.

Why, you ask? A number of reasons. The first and foremost of these is because of his big heart. The second is his stupidity. He rushes in where angels fear to tread, stuffs things up majorly, and tries his stupid best to protect and serve the people he loves. Mostly he does this by doing groan-worthy things that a moment’s reflection might have told him were bad ideas, but that just made me love him more. He’s quick-tempered, hasty, and really not very bright. The thing that cemented my love for him was the scene where he and the other children sneak up on Bok Nyeo at the amusement park, where she has a meal set up for someone else. Doo Gyul sits down angrily, grabs one of the burgers, and stuffs it in his mouth, saying: “These are ours now!” He’s just adorable.

Clever cookie Si Gyul. Oh, this little baby! He’s dealing with mum’s death, bullies, and the fact that he has to pass his tests. He made me cry. This whole drama made me cry so many times, but Si Gyul was the first who made me cry happy tears because I was so proud of him. That’s right, I cried because I was proud of A TOTALLY IMAGINARY PERSON. Si Gyul is such a little darling.

Darling, pig-tailed Hye Gyul. An emotive little girl who just wants someone to love, and a stable family. Hye Gyul made me cry heaps because she’s always getting knocked down and having to get up again–always having to deal with things that are far too big and old for her to deal with.

Bok Nyeo doesn’t show much emotion, but when she does, you can guarantee that Hye Gyul is the cause of it, somehow.

Honestly, most of the tender Bok Nyeo moments were because of Hye Gyul, and Hye Gyul is the primary mover in Bok Nyeo’s eventual restoration.

Hye Gyul is the one who brings back fear, love, slight happiness, and tenderness into Bok Nyeo’s scarred, cold life. When Bok Nyeo’s freakin’ scary stalker sees them together, in fact, the first thing he does is go off into a mad rage: “I saw a mother’s look on her face again? Why is there a mother’s look on her face?”

Which brings us to scary stalker guy, Seo Ji Hoon. This guy legit terrified me. Gorgeous face, and the most frightening eyes I’ve ever seen. He creeped me out every time he appeared on the screen, and he just got scarier and scarier as the episodes went on.

One of the scariest things about Ji Hoon? His ability to portray absolute fragility.

His utter ruthlessness in going after what he wanted, his boy-like adoration, his terrifying tenderness–this guy just really freaked me out. First rate job, Song Jong Ho. You’ll always be my litmus test for creepy stalker guy.

You’re never in any doubt that this man is a Very Bad Man, but you can’t stop watching with your mouth open.

Flaws…

I loved this so much, guys. I really did. Go out and watch it, and you’ll see why. You’ll come to me with tears on your face saying: “W.R., why?? Why all the feels?? Why did you make me cry?”

And yet, it wasn’t perfect. I’ve come to the conclusion that perfection in this case might have made me love it a little less. I love this imperfect, messy, emotion-tugging drama.

And yes, okay: the camera does tend to pan over each of the children’s faces to get each of their reactions every time something particularly bad or good happens. It’s campy but the kids are such good actors, and it’s done so often that it’s more of a quirk than an actual flaw. Maybe a quirky flaw.

And it’s too long. Well, not exactly too long. But the storyline doesn’t quite know what it is–is it a family drama, a psychological thriller, or a story of redemption through pain?–and this means that it has three rather uneven acts. Again, it’s more of a quirk than a flaw, and I admire this story for pushing out of the mould and being what it wants to be. It also means that you get satisfaction on all counts and all threads: the family drama is brought to a close, the thriller ends with a bang, and the redemption is lovely. It’s just…odd.

I’ll leave you with this pic. It’s what I like to imagine the family looks like now. I love that they’re all smiling, even Bok Nyeo.