Netflix K-drama Little Women: scintillating, must-watch series starring Kim Go-eun, Nam Ji-hyun and Park Ji-hu unlocks the full potential of Korean TV dramas
- Loosely based on Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, Little Women is shaping up to be the freshest and most original Korean drama series this year
- What sets the show apart from other K-dramas is its perceptive dialogue, rich visual metaphors – and the compelling women characters in a female-driven series
Several new Korean drama series are premiering in time for Chuseok, South Korea’s Mid-Autumn Festival and Thanksgiving Day, but all eyes may be on two big ones that paint a fascinating picture of the Korean content industry’s roots, and where it is headed.
Despite being an adaptation – albeit an extremely loose one – of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century novel of the same name, Little Women is the freshest and most original drama to emerge this year.
Eldest sister Oh In-ju (Kim) is an accountant at a major corporation, In-kyung (Nam) is a determined television news reporter, and In-hye (Park) studies at a prestigious arts school.
The show begins on In-hye’s birthday, for which In-ju and In-kyung have scraped together 2.5 million won (US$1,800) to help her go on a school trip to Europe. But when their jealous mother, Ahn Hee-yeon (Park Ji-young), disappears in the middle of the night with the cash, In-ju and In-kyung are left to raise the money again before the end of the week.
In-ju, already ostracised in her workplace, tries to get an advance on her salary. When she fails, she turns to her friend Jin Hwa-young (Choo Ja-hyun), the loner from the floor above her.
In-kyung swallows her pride and visits their rich aunt Oh Hae-seok (Kim Mi-sook) for her half of the money.
In-hye bristles at her sisters’ doting affection and refuses the money for the trip. A flustered In-ju follows her to the house of Jae-sang and his wife, Won Sang-ah (Uhm Ji-won), where In-hye is tutoring their daughter.
Each confronting their own demons, all three sisters find themselves on a collision course with each other and powerful forces in a tale filled with suspense, surprises and mysterious blue orchids.
Little Women’s protagonists are predominantly female and the same applies to the people working behind the scenes.
Illustrating the difference between Little Women and Narco-Saints, a drama made by filmmakers, is the link they share in actress Choo Ja-hyun. Choo appears as a supporting character in both who largely disappears after each show’s first episode.
In one series, she plays a stereotypical nagging wife who we immediately forgot about when she is not on screen. In the other, she is a strong and fiercely original character whose mystique only grows when she steps away from the screen. I will let you guess which is which.
At a recent Bechdel Day event – honouring those who promote gender equality in their content – at which Chung received an award for her work on Decision to Leave, she lamented the lack of compelling women characters in the male-dominated film industry. Her latest show clearly illustrates what we have been missing out on.
Little Women is compelling proof that in the most competent hands, familiar ingredients can still form the basis of original stories.
Beyond its classic literary source, the show explores a number of very common Korean drama settings and concerns, mostly centred around the chasm between the rich and poor and the importance of social rank in the country.
What sets Little Women apart from other K-dramas is its perceptive dialogue and rich visual metaphors. In one scene, In-kyung’s tenacity and its source are starkly defined when a colleague asks her, “Did you grow up poor? You never complain.”
Meanwhile, a running motif in In-ju’s story are shoes. Her cheap stilettos set her apart from her colleagues, while expensive red pumps recur as a foreboding symbol of the cost of social advancement.
With myriad fascinating details and impeccable performances, this gripping story excites us with its unexpected turns and challenges us with its rich and relatable themes.
It may not feature the dizzying high concepts of some of the country’s most famous recent exports, but Little Women may have finally unlocked the true potential of Korean dramas. This is television at its finest.
Little Women is streaming on Netflix.