The Suspicious Housekeeper
상한 가정부
SBS (2013) 20 Episodes, Grade: A+
Family Melodrama, Mystery, Crime
Drama Review by Richard, 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 new.

The plot is well structured, with a double center. There is, first of all, the suspicious housekeeper herself, Park Bok Nyeo (Choi Ji Woo, Winter Sonata, Twenty Again) 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, Gu Family Book, Jealousy Incarnate) 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'Ěs 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 orders.

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 problems.

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 partĚ 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.

Don't miss The Suspicious Housekeeper!

See Jill's Review of the Drama 
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She Smiles!
Now Choi Ji Woo is enjoying marriage
and motherhood in real life -- you go, girl! :)