The Suspicious Housekeeper
SBS (2013) 20 Episodes, Grade: A+
Family Melodrama, Mystery, Crime
Korean Drama Review by Richard J. "Metrofan", Ireland Some "Spoilers" Ahead
The Suspicious Housekeeper (2013) is one of the most
complex and remarkable Korean dramas I have yet seen. This
review only gives a partial indication of its excellence and
I am sure that each time I see it, I will find something
The plot is well structured, with a double
center. There is, first of all, the suspicious housekeeper
herself, Park Bok Nyeo (Choi Ji Woo) who is psychologically
dysfunctional, having witnessed the murder of her family and
been suspected of being party to the deed by the police —
and especially by a particularly unpleasant, vicious, and
fiercely domineering mother-in-law.
Then there is the dysfunctional family she
comes to serve as housekeeper, the Gyeol family. The tragic
mother has committed suicide, in part because her husband Eun Sang Chul (Lee Sung
Jae) has been cheating on her. He is seriously,
morally indecisive, and quite confused about where his
loyalty should lie — with his four children or with his
mistress Yoon Song Hwa (Wang Ji Hye). Indeed, so incredibly
weak-willed and afraid of responsibility is Eun Sang that
for a considerable time he lives apart from these loving
children and favors Yoon Song, despite the fact that she is
willing early in the drama to throw him under the bus to
save her job.
For each of these two plot lines there is
a villain. Yoon Song is certainly the dark person in the
family story. She is most immediately responsible for the
mother’s depression and suicide through her taunts that she
possesses Eun Sang’s love.
Far more wicked is the evil Seo Ji Hoon
(Song Jong Ho). While Yoon Song does grow as a character,
and finally achieves some sacrificial redemption, Seo Ji Hoon remains a
horror to the end. Motivated by jealousy and consumed with a
desire to control Bok Nyeo the housekeeper, he initiated the
fire that killed her family, manipulated the dreadful
mother-in-law, corrupted a detective, changed his identity
and was able to stalk Bok Nyeo by keeping tabs on both Eun
Sang and Yoon Song through offering them jobs with his firm.
There are some interesting side-plots,
such as the story of the relationship between Eun Sang’s
father-in-law Woo Geum Chi (Park
Geun Hyung) and the woman who directs Park Nyeo”s agency,
Dr. Hong (Hae Sook Kim). The busybody neighbor of the Gyeol
family rings another variation on the cheating husband
theme, and there is the gentle early love of Han Gyeol for a
member of the pop band, Soo Hyuk (Kang Joon Seo).
However, the major power and drive of this
drama has its origin in the tremendous acting performance of
Choi Ji Woo in the title role.
When we first meet her she is clearly
psychologically crippled. The combination of the murders of
her husband and son, and the hateful influence of her angry,
vengeful mother-in-law, combined with being stalked by
the corrupt detective who is secretly employed by Seo Ji
Hoon, has left her unable to respond with love to others.
She adopts a defense mechanism — an
external robotic coldness that caps the volcanic emotional
turmoil within. She works according to set patterns; she
follows orders which permit her to avoid making morally
responsible choices. Her request “Is that an order
(myungyung)?” frees her from making a moral choice by giving
control to another.
On two occasions we see the danger of this
situation. First, she takes the little Hye Gyeol (Ji Woo Kang) to the river where the mother
died. She leads the child into the water and is clearly
reaching a point where one or both might be swept away.
Fortunately, the oldest son Doo Gyeol (Chae Sang Woo) arrives in time to prevent
this from happening. This is a very disturbing scene —
particularly as Bok Nyeo is following little Hye Gyeol's
Later, Se Gyeol (Nam Da Reum) is being bullied and in a fit of
depression and anger tells Bok Nyeo to kill the bully.
She nearly does.
Se Gyeol is there on the scene to stop the
deadly attack and, in fact, he learns from the experience
that violence is not always an effective answer to life's
As the drama progresses, Bok Nyeo slowly
humanizes. She organizes the house; she goes to the school
to deal with the problems of Se Gyeol; Doo Gyeol at first
resents her but is won over as Bok Nyeo helps him discover a
hidden talent; she cleverly helps prevent Han Gyeol (Kim So
Hyun) from making a disastrous sexual mistake, and most
significantly she forms a deep emotional attachment with the
little Hye Gyeol — in effect she becomes a mother figure to
the little girl.
This gradual change — the deepening of
character and moral authority — is brilliantly conveyed by
Choi Ji Woo. With incredibly skillful minimalistic acting
she conveys the emotional transformation of the character
with slight movements of her facial muscles, through body
language, through tonal variations in her voice, and with
that incredible gaze.
And through it all she never smiles (her
angry mother-in-law had ordered her not to).
Later she actually “plays the part” of a
mother. But this is actually a way of helping the children
and the father to finally face their feelings for their dead
parent. They must be faithful to the love they have for her,
and they must learn this lesson by again acknowledging that
maternal love, and re-experiencing the sorrow of her loss.
Oddly enough, Seo Ji Hoon is a factor in
Bok Nyeo's transformation. Finding out that he is alive
after all gives the housekeeper a powerful motive to
re-direct her energies. Proving his guilt of killing her
family to the world frees her from her own guilt, and frees
her from the malignant, psychotic hold of her mother-in-law.
And, finally, in a wonderful scene near
the end, she smiles.