Review | Netflix K-drama review: Little Women – masterful series starring Kim Go-eun and Nam Ji-hyun ends on a high but will be remembered for the journey
- Based very loosely on Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Little Women is a story dominated by strong, richly drawn female characters rarely seen in Korean dramas
- The story of the three Oh sisters is stacked with emotional highs, superbly acted all round, slickly produced – and has the ending we all wanted
This article contains major spoilers.
After 12 furious episodes filled with whiplash-inducing turns, the sensational drama series Little Women has come to an end, bringing down the curtain on one of the most entertaining, exciting and emotional stories to ever appear on Korean television.
Using only the vaguest starting points from Louisa May Alcott’s novel of the same name on which it is based, writer Chung Seo-kyung forged a bold path with her tale of dizzying adventure and hair-raising suspense.
Adventure and suspense are words that are typically reserved for male-led stories in the Korean market, but Little Women gave us a story dominated by strong, inspiring and richly characterised women, the likes of which have seldom been seen before.
Given the series’ huge reception, one hopes that it will serve as a wake-up call for a conservative industry that still sticks to outdated gender norms.
Following the tribulations of the poor Oh sisters, In-joo (Kim Go-eun), In-kyung (Nam Ji-hyun) and In-hye (Park Ji-hu), the series ultimately gave viewers exactly what they wanted, but the journey to get there was never predictable and often rousing.
Knowing what we want and how to subvert our expectations, Chung plays us like a fiddle.
Of course it isn’t just Chung’s script that has this effect on us. We also tuned in for the performances of the wonderful cast, which range from Uhm Ji-won, who has a delightfully batty turn as head villain Won Sang-a, to Kim Go-eun, using her expressive eyes in her portrayal of In-joo.
In the story’s big moments, director Kim Hee-won makes use of Park Se-joon’s exhilarating musical score to focus our emotions and transport us. Adding to the package is the show’s great cinematography and editing, and particularly its terrific production design.
Vivid and memorable props, such as cobalt blue “ghost orchids” and recurring red pumps, add colourful highlights to stunning sets which are often decorated with unusual wallpaper.
One of these is the “closed room” set, with its Mark Rothko-esque walls, which becomes an important location when the show takes a brief but delightful swerve into gothic horror.
Hwa-young’s surprise appearance at In-joo’s trial – she was arrested for embezzling the 70 billion won slush fund set up by Hwa-young – is Little Women’s final breathtaking moment.
The plot has twisted so often by this point that this cathartic image at the end of episode 11 brings us full circle, setting up the satisfying conclusion in the show’s concluding episode.
The wide chasm of social inequality is an evergreen subject in Korean dramas, yet most shows stick to a simplistic view which paints the rich as evil and the poor as downtrodden yet pure.
Little Women starts in a similar place, but Chung’s observations are unusually perceptive, as she examines how social circumstances can shape people’s behaviour. Her show dashes the illusion of free will, positing that people can be controlled by money.
At the extreme end that gives us Park Jae-sang (Uhm Ki-joon), the chauffeur’s son who rises all the way to become Seoul mayor elect. In one of the show’s most shocking moments, on the night of his successful election, he jumps to his death.
He is one of the show’s main villains, but despite all his power and status, he still can’t escape his past as a servant, sacrificing himself for his wife, Sang-a, who was born wealthy.
Then there’s the defiant reporter In-kyung, who is so used to being poorly treated that she has never complained in the face of her many hardships. She is not interested in money but she’s even less interested in maintaining the status quo.
She forges forward the only way she knows how, by always getting back up again. She is the Rocky of Korean journalism.
We wanted In-joo to get the money and for her and In-kyung to be able to take down Sang-a and Jae-sang, but Little Women constantly dashed the dreams we had for its characters.
However, after 11 episodes of having the rug pulled from under them, the characters finally give us exactly what we want for them.
While the story goes exactly where we expect it to in the end, since our nerves have been steeled for the unexpected, the tidy resolutions of the finale feel almost jarring.
Among them is a splendid Grand Guignol climax involving sprinklers armed with hydrochloric acid, but for the first time the characters we want to live and die do so in line with our expectations.
There was a compelling message in Little Women, but what mattered most were the surprising sensations it evoked. It gave us what we thought we wanted in the end, but it will surely be what we didn’t want, or could never fathom, along the way that will stay with us.
Little Women is streaming on Netflix.