Last Updated: 06.23 AM, Sep 20, 2022
Halfway into Little Women’s 12-episode run, we’ve seen references to particle physics and Greek myths, a rucksack full of cash and four dead bodies. And a parrot. The most original K-drama of the year is technically an adaptation of the literary classic Little Women and it is a masterclass in storytelling. No one should be surprised that this show feels cinematic. After all, writer Jung Seo-kyung is best known for being the screenwriter of films like Decision to Leave (2022), Mother (2018), The Handmaiden (2016) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005). In Little Women, she’s held on to core ideas at the heart of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved characters, but her brilliant reimagining of the novel adds tension and complexity to the story about sisterhood and surviving poverty. Add to that the artistry of Kim Hee-won’s directorial vision, and you have the makings of a masterpiece.
Little Women opens in the modest, cramped interiors of the Oh sisters’ home. The eldest is In-joo — an electric Kim Go-eun (Goblin, The King: Eternal Monarch, Yumi’s Cells) — who works as an accountant and is determined to provide for her sisters. K-drama’s Jo March is In-kyung, played by Nam Ji-hyun (100 Days My Prince, Suspicious Partner). She’s a journalist, the most idealistic in her family, and also battling with alcohol dependency. The youngest is the quiet and reserved In-hye (Park Ji-hoo, last seen in All of Us Are Dead). Their names offer hints to their characters. In Korean names, words often have multiple meanings and the combination of words used in a name gives them a particular meaning. One meaning for “In” is mutual love, hinting at the supportive bond between the Oh sisters. “Joo” means pearl, pointing to In-joo’s beauty. “Kyung” means greatness, which is what In-kyung aspires to be. “Hye” has a range of meanings, including wisdom and docility — both of which In-hye displays (along with flashes of impetuous cruelty that make her reminiscent of Alcott’s Amy).
The three Oh sisters may live in the same house, but they meet only fleetingly. Usually, it’s at the dining table. The older sisters have long working hours and the youngest, like students across Asia, is stretched thin between school and extra tuition. Yet it quickly becomes clear that the strands of their seemingly-separate lives are interconnected. After In-joo’s colleague passes away and leaves her a rucksack stuffed with 2 billion won in cash (and a pair of super-expensive shoes), it turns out that the money is from a slush fund connected to a rising politician, Park Jae-sang, whom In-kyung is investigating. She thinks Jae-sang has a part to play in a set of mysterious deaths. Meanwhile, Jae-sang’s daughter, Hyo-rin, is In-hye’s friend. In-hye is charmed by the Parks’ lavish life and longs for the kind of photo-perfect happy family that Hyo-rin seems to have. By the end of the sixth episode, we’ve glimpsed some of the darkness that lurks behind the facade put up by the Parks and the troubled Hyo-rin feels like she’s become the fourth Oh sister, channelling Beth March’s sweetness and sadness.
Translated dialogues, especially in the form of subtitles, inevitably lose some of the original richness and this is true for Little Women. For those who understand Korean, Little Women would feel particularly layered. For example, there’s a scene in which a character is watching Jae-sang deliver an apology on TV. While he delivers his spiel, she bites with vicious energy into an apple. The Korean word “sagwa” means apology, but it can also mean “apple”. In the scene, she’s not eating up the apology as much as chewing Jae-sang out with that one gesture, thanks to the multiple meanings of sagwa.
However, not knowing Korean isn’t a stumbling block to enjoying Little Women. Jung’s writing is filled with references that are decidedly international. For example, shoes play a key role in the first three episodes. The dead bodies of two women who died by suicide are found wearing red stilettos and soon after, In-joo is gifted a pair of red shoes. It’s impossible to not remember Hans Christian Andersen’s story about the poor girl who wished to have a pair of expensive red shoes and was cursed for her greed. The grotesque image of the girl amputating her legs at the ankle and red shoes (still on her chopped-off feet) dancing away on their own is subtly mirrored in the body of the dead woman, whose red shoe-clad feet seem to be floating mid-air.
Speaking of shoes, when In-joo’s shoe breaks unexpectedly, a friend lends her a pair of exclusive, haute couture shoes. The brand is Bruno Zumino, which may sound like the name of an Italian couturier but Zumino was actually an Italian physicist. While the fictional designer Bruno Zumino is celebrated for shoes that offer balance and stability to the wearer, the real-life Zumino looked at how balance is achieved through particle interactions between three of the four fundamental forces in nature. Known as the architect of the theory of supersymmetry, Zumino examined symmetries in nature and the theory of supersymmetry predicts a partner particle for each particle in the Standard Model. (It’s tempting to imagine the Oh sisters as embodiments of the fundamental forces.)
Symmetry, being split in two and balance are central to Jung’s Little Women. Almost every character is paired with another and also has a secret self, as though the self is split in two. It’s no coincidence that the flower that keeps returning as a leitmotif in the K-drama is an orchid, which happens to be one of the few flowers that is perfectly symmetrical. These ideas also inform the drama’s visual language. Director Kim Hee-won’s artistic eye was evident in the stylish flair that she added to Vincenzo, elevating it from a silly revenge drama about a Korean mafiosi to an expectedly beautiful show. In Little Women, Kim and Jung’s collaboration feels like the stuff of magic. For instance, with the Won family in Little Women —which Jae-sang has married into — Jung offers an imaginative, modern take on the Greek legend of the minotaur. Minos, the king of Crete, becomes General Won Ki-seon. His daughter Sang-ah is repeatedly described as Ariadne and he’s had his son locked up in a psychiatric hospital because the son threatened to expose the General’s slush funds. It’s an obvious parallel to the myth which says Minos locked up the Minotaur — who was Minos’s son — because he feared the monster would destroy his kingdom. From a directorial standpoint, Kim shows the hospital as a labyrinth and in a delightful hat-tip to the original myth, the way out involves using a string (of sorts).
The elegance of Jung’s writing is matched note for note by Kim’s direction. It begins with the gorgeous, illustrated credit titles, which give the viewer an artistic summary of the drama’s plot (Kim did something similar with the opening credits of Vincenzo too). With each episode, you can find details in credit titles that feel like tiny epiphanies. The director also has another very special collaborator in production designer Ryu Seong-hee, whose credits include Decision to Leave, The Handmaiden and Memories of Murder (2003). Ryu’s work in cinema shows her gift for creating elaborate sets that feel reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s meticulously-arranged sceneries, and this happens with her art direction for Little Women too. Every prop is placed with neat, geometric perfection. Kim, Ryu and cinematographer Park Jang-hyuk work together to create exquisitely-beautiful scenes that are rich with symbolism and detail. Every space feels lived in and credible, every character looks realistic, and there’s meaning layered in every frame. From the way Kim uses reflections and light to show a character’s state of mind, to the shots of stairways that feel reminiscent of M.C. Escher’s prints, the visuals in Little Women marry aesthetics with storytelling. One of the most haunting images of the show is of the secret garden, with the parent tree and its hundreds of blue orchids — an intricately-intertwined chosen family of dreams and nightmares.
It would be unfair to talk about the plot and narrative devices until Jung and Kim bring Little Women to its conclusion, but the drama has already given us many fascinating characters not just in the leads, but also relatively minor roles. For instance, invisible patriarchs and absent mothers loom large in this story. In-kyung and Jae-sang stand as each other’s opponents, but both are grappling with the difficult legacies left to them by inadequate fathers. The mothers in this drama are a tangle of curious miseries. Jae-sang mentions in passing that his mother abandoned her family. Both the Oh sisters’ mother and Hyo-rin’s mother feel trapped in their lives and make desperate attempts to escape, leaving their children behind. The divorced, childless women offer a sharp contrast — both In-joo and her great-aunt Hye-suk are the ones who are reliable pillars for the Oh family. While the married women leave (and choose uncaring husbands over all else), Hye-suk and In-joo stand by the ones they love. The mothers’ selfish choices in Little Women speak of the manic sadness of their married life. Their marriages reduce them to victimhood and the only way for the mothers to feel they’ve survived is to be selfish. It’s a pointed reversal of the stereotype of selfless mothers and conventional family structures, headed by the patriarch. In Little Women, marriage leaves the mothers terribly flawed and there is no forgiveness for them, even though they’re written with sensitivity and respect.
At the end of the sixth episode, the Oh sisters have lost an important champion with Hye-suk’s murder and there’s a tightening sense of dread that surrounds In-joo’s decision to team up with the mysterious (and gorgeous) money laundering expert, Do-il. Standing tall over all the characters and their plots is the tree of blue orchids and its secrets, and the magical pairing of writer Jung Seo-kyung and director Kim Hee-won.