The Weekend Binge: "Little Women"
If you were one of those people who was expecting a modern Korean adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th-century coming-of-age novel you are in for either disappointment…or a treat, depending on how much you like surprises. The much-beloved novel featured four poor sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) who, with the love of their family, make their way in the world and find happiness in the mundane but still important role of motherhood. But what surprises does this k-drama have in store?
Three sisters, bookkeeper Oh In-ju (Kim Go-eun), reporter Oh In-kyung (Nam Ji-hyun), and student Oh In-hye (Park Ji-hu), are trying to make ends meet in modern day Seoul. They have enough on their hands with their bills piling up and their absentee parents. But their situation changes drastically when oldest sister In-ju finds a huge amount of money. Will the sisters get the life they've always dreamed of, or will they just have to deal with being poor for the rest of their lives?
Screenwriter Jung Seo-kyung’s version is more re-imagination than a retelling. The k-drama feels like the writer got inside the skin of three poverty-stricken March sisters, raised them in economically-obsessed modern Korea, and simply allowed the story to unfold on its own.
Kim Go-eun plays Oh In-ju, who channels timid Meg and her deep desire to be accepted by the upper class. But Meg never had to deal with chaebols, money laundering, or identity theft. So world-weary In-ju must take her place— a divorcee in her late twenties because she once married for money and ended up conned. Kim Go-eun deftly plays both the fragility and hidden strength of the eldest sister who is neither entirely heroic nor virtuous. The subtle chemistry she shares with Wi Ha-joon who plays the handsome but suspicious Choi Do-il, makes her dilemma about whom to trust even more believable.
In the novel, middle child Jo is a headstrong, uncompromising adventurer who dreams of becoming a writer someday. She leaves her hometown to pursue her goal but eventually finds her way back home to settle down and start a school. Oh In-kyung (Nam Ji-hyun) is a news reporter and is as unrelenting and impulsive as the character on which she is based. She even has a Laurie-like childhood friend, Ha Jong-ho (Kang Hoon) whose love is as unrequited as ever. (Seriously, Jo and Laurie should have ended up together!) But that’s where the similarity ends. Jo wrote about murder and mysteries. In-kyung not only writes about them but puts her life on the line in the process of uncovering a story. Nam Ji-hyun has a tough challenge in trying to make her character likable when she’s so darn stubborn.
And then there’s the youngest Amy or in this show Oh In-hye (Park Ji-hu)—the talented artist who’s so used to being cared for that she ends up being a spoiled brat. Alcott’s Amy is the annoying pampered sister who throws tantrums when she doesn’t get her way. But In-hye is stoic and scheming. Next to her outspoken sisters, she’s hard to read and you always wonder what’s behind those observant eyes of hers.
Behind the Scenes
And the characters are basically where Alcott ends and Jung begins because nothing else in the drama leads anyone to believe that it is in any way related to the book. You have to wonder what Jung was thinking when she came across Alcott’s saccharine novel and saw secret societies, murder, suicide, corruption, money laundering, alcoholism, negligent parenting, and war. But whatever she was thinking, she sure thought it through because the fast-paced show offers twists and turns in every episode. While the plot is not airtight, it is still engrossing and downright entertaining.
Little Women thrives not only from its highly competent cast, but also because it is the product of three of the best female brains working behind the scenes today: Esteemed screenwriter Jung Seo-kyung, director Kim Hee-won, and veteran art director Ryu Seong-hee.
Writer Jung Seo-kyung brings her expansive bag of screenwriting tricks and pushes our protagonists (and their villains) to near-makjang heights, a specialty she’s held as the right-hand scribe of esteemed film director Park Chan-wook. As the show gets more unbelievable as the episodes roll in, it makes one wonder how unhinged it would all have become if Writer Jung was given a full deck of 16 episodes to thrash the Oh sisters about. But one thing is for sure: be it her infamous Lady Vengeance or her wry protagonists of The Handmaiden, or the Oh sisters, Writer Jung can always be counted on to create frustrating, intriguing, but downright compelling female characters who survive by the skin of their teeth, and almost never need men to help them get by.
But the show’s unpredictability isn’t its only strength (or for some, its biggest turn-off). Adding fuel to the fire is the masterful direction by Kim Hee-won, the female director who helmed 2021’s Vincenzo, as well as the equally twisted The Crowned Clown (2019) and Money Flower (2017). These dramas have enjoyed both critical and commercial recognition for their breakneck storytelling and dramatic visuals, so there is little doubt that she applied all her best directorial tricks and her mastery of tension on the set of Little Women as well.
Esteemed art director and set designer Ryu Seong-hee completes the stunning triumvirate by giving Little Women its gorgeous yet sinister look and style. The longtime film veteran has worked with top Korean directors and boasts an incredible resume: she's worked on such film masterpieces as Bong Joon-ho’s Mother (2009), The Host (2006), and Memories of Murder (2003), a film usually exalted as one of South Korea’s best. She’s also been director Park Chan-wook’s art director for classics such as Old Boy (2003), Thirst (2009), and most recently, the Cannes darling Decision to Leave. From the decaying wallpaper of Jin Hwa-young’s dark apartment to the creepy dollhouse-like rooms in the Won mansion, the forbidding atmosphere of Little Women is amplified under the tasteful art direction of Director Ryu. Little wonder why she’s on the speed dial of the most famous Korean directors today.
When you put together Jung’s decades of screenwriting experience, the tense but elegant directorial style of Kim Hee-won, and the impeccable taste of art director Ryu Seong-hee, we get an exquisitely shot and gorgeously cinematic atmosphere that adds to the enjoyment of an already intriguing story.
With masterful performances on screen and behind the scenes, you must admit that there is nothing little about this version of Little Women at all.
12 Episodes, available on Netflix
Stream if you like suspense, makjang, and Wi Ha-joon.
Skip if you're looking for a faithful adaptation of the novel.
-- by Barrio Chaebol and Seoul-lo