Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Suspicious Housekeeper: Episode 1

Suspicious Housekeeper premiered on SBS earlier this week, and it's certainly got a little bit of everything—comedy, melodrama, and an interesting mystery revolving the strange housekeeper of the show's namesake. She always obeys orders, never smiles, and seems to be missing some of the essential components that makes a human a human. Her character alone is worth even a tiny peek into this premiere, which is an adaptation of the insanely popular 2011 Japanese drama Kaseifu no Mita.

As for the rest, well, it's a bit of a tonal mess. Some of the dry humor lands, but most of the comedy feels out of place and shoehorned in to lighten up all the crying, screaming, and general bleakness that comes with the territory of following a family in mourning. If you're easily turned off by whole chunks of time spent on chest-thumping grief, then this might not be the show for you. I'm still trying to figure out whether this is even the show for me, so take from that what you will.


A woman clad in dark clothing and a baseball cap looks dead ahead, her serious expression unchanging even as a female voice asks her off-screen, "Can you do anything you're told to do?"

The woman simply says, "Yes."

"No matter what it is?"

Again the woman replies, "Yes."

"Then…" the voice hesitates. "Can you kill a person?"

We don't hear the answer, but the woman doesn't look like she's about to say no.

Cut to: A funeral service where YOON SONG-HWA (Wang Ji-hye) pays her respects to the departed woman and the family she left behind, including a husband and four children.

The recently-widowed husband, EUN SANG-CHUL (Lee Sung-jae), greets Song-hwa as his coworker, but their words are tense and just this side of strained. Hmm. As Sang-chul turns to introduce Song-hwa to his children, his eldest daughter glares at the both of them knowingly. Does she suspect them of an affair?

Song-hwa's coworkers note her odd absence for the past two days, which she hurriedly brushes off right before the banquet is interrupted when Sang-chul's youngest daughter runs into the room crying because someone already made fun of her for being motherless, which, ugh. I understand that there are social stigmas at play here, but good grief—her mother's body isn't even cold yet and some other kid couldn't resist a you-don't-have-a-mom jab?

She can't stop crying because she misses her mom, and none of her siblings' efforts to console her seem to be working. Her dad looks powerless and in over his head when it comes to comforting her, so the job is left up to her aunt, who's also inept.

Everyone watches the family drama unfolding, but no one seems quite as aloof about it all as Song-hwa.

An ominous forty-nine days passes, and we see the same mysterious woman from the opening scene approach the Eun household thirty minutes before she's scheduled to arrive, causing her to wait patiently outside.

Eldest daughter EUN HAN-GYUL (Kim So-hyun) is first to rise, waking up to a house that looks like it's never been cleaned. She sees the mysterious woman through the window, but her thoughts are drawn elsewhere as her two younger brothers burst into the kitchen to complain about how their noona isn't doing enough of the chores Mom did.

Curiously absent is their father, which leaves Han-gyul to wake up her little sister and all but pry away the sweater of Mom's that she still sleeps with.

Once all the siblings are at the table, they get a chance to imagine the food they'd like to eat before they get what's really for breakfast: cheap, store-bought kimbap. The youngest daughter yearns for real food she spies on the TV, cueing sighs from all her more mature siblings.

The brothers ask after their absent dad, whom we find literally hiding in the bathroom out of fear. Dad Sang-chul has to psych himself up just to go out and be with his family at their meager breakfast table, which he sits at with the utmost reluctance.

Once he's faced with his kids, we see why—Dad doesn't know how to handle their varying requests and answers everything in a stutter, clearly trying to be their dad but failing spectacularly at it.

Interestingly, when he does try to initiate conversation with Han-gyul, she pointedly ignores him.

Her brothers complain that their noona isn't doing enough housework (which kind of makes me want to slap them), though that is a topic Dad wanted to broach with them. He's hired some help…

The doorbell rings, and the youngest daughter opens it to let the mysterious woman inside. In an almost robotic voice, the woman introduces herself as the new housekeeper, which takes Sang-chul by surprise since he was expecting someone older.

All the same, he hurries to produce a pair of worn house slippers for her from one of the many clutter piles. She politely/mechanically declines as she pulls out her own perfect pair from her strangely doctor-like bag.

As Sang-chul explains the new housekeeper to his children, he adds that it's because forty-nine days have passed since their mother's death. Youngest Daughter asks dad what the meaning behind forty-nine days is, leaving Dad to fumble for an explanation.

But it's the mysterious (suspicious!) housekeeper who finally explains that the forty-nine days is a period of mourning, whereafter those who are still living are supposed to move on with their lives, sort of in a we've-paid-our-dues way. But since she's suggesting that people move on and forget, Youngest Daughter vehemently protests the idea that she'll never forget Mom.

The family goes back and forth over what to call their new housekeeper, and just when they settle on calling her emo (aunt), she cuts in to explain that since she is not their mother's sister, she cannot be called their aunt, even if that's a common colloquial term for a housekeeper. She's emphatic without changing her tone, and her explanations are almost textbook-like in their level of detail.

She doesn't seem to like the idea of being called ajumma either (another common way to call a housekeeper), so she introduces herself by name as PARK BOK-NYEO (Choi Ji-woo), all in the same monotone voice, all without even blinking.

Bok-nyeo goes on a tour through the house, making a mental checklist of all the things she'll need to do. But when it comes to Mom's untouched room, the family is in a bit of disagreement—Daddy Sang-chul doesn't seem averse to doing something with it, but his kids want it left the way it is. So it's off limits for the time being.

As Han-gyul walks to school with her brothers, the oldest one remarks that it's odd how Bok-nyeo doesn't smile. Like, at all. No one knows why.

Bok-nyeo stops Sang-chul on his way out to fix his tie, and the ajumma next door sees this normally-intimate gesture with nosy interest. However, she's quickly taken aback by Bok-nyeo's automatic and lifeless introduction, clearly hoping for a gossip-worthier scoop than that.

The ajumma immediately tells her husband how strange their neighbor's new housekeeper is, but her husband is quick to pick up on the fact that his wife is probably just jealous. Then he spies Bok-nyeo through the window, right before his wife does the same. Bok-nyeo catches her gaze and scares the bejeezus out of her. Ha.

Bok-nyeo goes through the house to clean, but no sooner does she open the door to Mom's room that eldest son EUN DOO-GYUL (Chae Sang-woo) catches her in the act and demands to know what she's doing.

He's taken by surprise when Bok-nyeo's hand flies at his face to catch a fly mid-flight, Karate Kid-style. That's her excuse for coming into the room, though there's gotta be more to it.

Sang-chul keeps getting distracted by the sight of Song-hwa at work, and takes the first opportunity he can to catch her alone. "Forty-nine days felt so long, didn't it?" he asks, right before he adds that he'll go to her house later. Wait, so he was cheating on his wife? What an asshole.

Song-hwa looks uneasy with his advances, and uses the first opportunity she can to slip away (when Sang-chul is called by Bok-nyeo's agency). Curiouser and curiouser.

Bok-nyeo's overly-happy manager is just doing a routine check-up call that turns out to be not-so-routine when she cryptically warns Sang-chul to be careful around his new housekeeper… because she does anything she's asked to do. Which means that if she were asked to kill a person, she'd do it.

Sang-chul is obviously very confused by all this and the manager quickly laughs it all off like it's nothing… but I really, really doubt it is. (Because then we wouldn't have a show.)

Bok-nyeo finds a birthday card in one of Sang-chul's suit pockets and calls him to get permission to have his suits cleaned. When she asks what she's to do with the things in his pockets it's almost like she's searching for permission to read the card, and when he gives it, she sees that the card is from his late wife.

When asked what she should do with it, Sang-chul flippantly replies that she can just put it anywhere, all while his eyes remain fixed on Song-hwa.

Bok-nyeo purposefully puts the birthday card right on the fridge, and takes a long look at Mom's portrait.

When Sang-chul returns home from work that night, he's surprised to find the house so clean it sparkles. He doesn't notice the birthday card on the fridge as he instead takes to studying Bok-nyeo from behind out of fascination and/or curiosity, since her manager's words flash through his mind: "If you ask her to kill somebody, she might actually do it."

Without glancing up, Bok-nyeo stops her dinner preparations mid-chop to ask Sang-chul not to stand behind her, causing him to sputter in surprise. Caught.

Dad's youngest daughter takes him on a tour through their newly cleaned home in awe, since even the dinner Bok-nyeo makes later is top-notch. She stands by the table while the family eats and declines any invitations to share a meal.

The kids notice that the dishes taste exactly like Mom's cooking, with eldest Doo-gyul the most suspicious, even when Han-gyul tells him that Mom's recipes were right on the fridge for Bok-nyeo to use. He's not convinced.

The youngest son asks for his dad's help solving a math problem, but Sang-chul has no idea what he's looking at. Suddenly, Bok-nyeo recites the answer to the equation as easily as if she were reading it from a book, and when Doo-gyul mutters that she probably cheated, she says: "Trash."

His jaw drops at the insult, until Bok-nyeo finishes her sentence, "Today is recycling day." But you just know that's not what she meant. I'm kind of liking her dry sense of humor, but Doo-gyul just finds her suspicious (there's the title!).

Dad tells his kids that he's not too sure about keeping Bok-nyeo around since he found out that she does everything she's asked to do to a fault, causing Doo-gyul to smile mischievously: "Everything she's told to do?" Uh oh.

The ajumma next door catches Bok-nyeo while she sorts the recycling, but none of her wheedling gets a reaction out of Bok-nyeo. She leaves some recycling for Bok-nyeo to deal with, but when Bok-nyeo crushes it under her feet instead, the ajumma gives an exaggerated reaction straight out of a bad silent film.

The kids' aunt we saw at the funeral, WOO NA-YOUNG (Shim Yi-young), drops in to bring groceries only to be surprised to find the family sitting at a full table. Youngest Daughter is less excited to see her than she is to see Bok-nyeo return.

Aunt Na-young's effervescent personality shines through (much to Doo-gyul's annoyance) as she brings up Youngest Daughter's upcoming birthday, wanting to plan a party. When Dad asks what she wants for her birthday, his daughter tentatively asks if she can wish for anything. He makes the mistake of saying yes.

"Mommy!" she blurts. "I want to see my mom."

Even Bok-nyeo looks like she feels sorry for the youngest, who immediately starts to cry when Dad asks her if there's anything else she'd like. But Aunt Na-young gets a bright idea as she spots a family picture taken during a past birthday, and she cheerfully promises that she'll let Youngest Daughter meet her mom. (What could possibly go wrong?)

When it's time for her to leave for the day, Bok-nyeo meticulously changes into her down jacket and black cap. Sang-chul stops her to ask for her advice and a favor—he doesn't know what Aunt Na-young is planning and wants Bok-nyeo to find out.

"Is this an order?" Bok-nyeo asks. Sang-chul just kind of stutters at the question before he tells her that it is, to which she replies emotionlessly that she'll obey.

Bok-nyeo goes to the address of Sang-chul's father-in-law, which is where Aunt Na-young lives. When said father-in-law asks Bok-nyeo to explain why she's there, she does, but is startlingly literal in a way that father-in-law wasn't expecting, especially when she tells him that Sang-chul sent her in his place out of fear.

When Aunt Na-young finally arrives, her father just yells at her for associating with Sang-chul and his family. They fuss back and forth at each other in a way only fathers and daughters can, with Na-young insistent that she stay in the lives of her late sister's family.

Bok-nyeo gives Sang-chul an exact recounting of events, including every word that was said. Her memory is perfect, but not her social skills—she couldn't get Aunt Na-young's birthday plans out of her.

Youngest daughter HYE-GYUL (Kang Ji-woo) watches as all the other moms pick their kids up from the kindergarten she attends one by one, absolutely elated when Bok-nyeo arrives to pick her up. Surprisingly, Bok-nyeo even lets her hold her hand.

Hye-gyul arrives home to see the figure of her mother from behind as she cooks, and she immediately thinks it's her mom since the woman is wearing her mom's favorite sweater. Good God. If that's her aunt dressed up as her mom…

Hye-gyul hugs her mom's(?) back, crying tears of joy. Then her mom(?) turns around… and it's Aunt Na-young, there to wish her a happy birthday. Cue comedic music.

Aunt Na-young is a lunatic I guess, because she seems to think the act is cute. And the light music seems to tell us that the show thinks it's cute. I'll be honest with you guys—it's not cute. It's the opposite of cute.

At least the music turns serious as Aunt Na-young serves the family the exact same food she saw them eat in a picture, which is just nine kinds of WRONG. Wrong wrong wrong-ity wrong wrong.

Aunt Na-young tries to salvage the quickly-devolving situation by telling Hye-gyul to think of her as her mom from now on, which only makes Hye-gyul break down as she all but tears her mom's clothes off her aunt, who only then just realizes what a bad idea this was.

Hye-gyul runs to Mom's room where she clutches her clothes and sobs, and her fed-up older sister finally yells at her that their mom is dead and nothing will change that. She rips Mom's clothes out of Hye-gyul's grasp and orders Bok-nyeo to throw them away.

"Is that an order?" Bok-nyeo asks, like a genie waiting for the magic words. Han-gyul tells her yes, and to throw all Mom's stuff away while she's at it. Bok-nyeo: "I will obey your order."

Just like that, Bok-nyeo starts to throw out Mom's things, sending the kids into varying states of panic. When the youngest son asks Dad why he isn't stopping Bok-nyeo, Dad can't come up with a reply, and Han-gyul turns on him with this fire in her eyes. She accuses her dad of wanting to get rid of this stuff all along, though their reasons are very, very different.

That's the last straw for Han-gyul, as she flies into a rage by throwing away Mom's things before she has her own mental breakdown.

Outside, Bok-nyeo sets fire to Mom's stuff. Doo-gyul rushes out and slaps her across the face (WHAT) so hard she falls to the ground. He doesn't seem to notice her bloody lip as he shakes her by the shoulders, blaming her for pretty much everything.

Then he turns on Dad: "Are you fine living without mom? Are you?!" Then he has his own mental breakdown, and now this seems like a joke. It's not supposed to be funny, it just is when he's third in line to deliver an explanatory monologue about his feelings.

After his turn is over, the youngest son gets to make an angry quip. Once he's pushed down by his older brother his anger dissolves into sorrow as he gets his turn to cry and explain the pain he's truly feeling. It's a chorus line of sadness.

Everyone blames themselves, but no one more than Hye-gyul, since her last memory with Mom was a fight where she'd told her to disappear. Dad's efforts to comfort her just make her cry harder.

Then the next door ajumma breaks the mood by complaining about the fire happening in their backyard, which takes the scene from everyone wailing and gnashing their teeth in grief to… not that.

The ajumma stands from across the fence to tell an entire tear-stained family that they'll be looked at differently now that they don't have a mom, because that's totally the way real people behave. At least Bok-nyeo puts a stop to her by spraying her with a water hose, using an excuse that we know is a total lie. Cue comedic music and Hye-gyul's laughter. Because why not.

The water-soaked and makeup-streaked ajumma declares an overdramatic war on the family, which has me wondering if this lady didn't read any part of the script that wasn't made up of just her lines, because she thinks she's acting in Gag Concert when I thought we were all just watching something-like-but-not-necessarily-Schindler's List.

The family recovers a box from the fire filled with small stones, a gift that Hye-gyul had once given to Mom. This lifts her spirits and they continue with her birthday party like nothing ever happened. Bok-nyeo stands nearby with her bloody lip still, and Dad asks her for birthday candles like his son didn't just slap her. Something is very wrong with this family.

Luckily, Bok-nyeo produces candles from her magical bag. Then, when they need a birthday card, Bok-nyeo pulls one of those out too. She hands Dad a bill for her overtime later, and he launches into a not-apology by explaining some of his life story, and how he was never ready to be a father.

I do love that Bok-nyeo is all, Are you finished talking? She read my mind.

Little Hye-gyul falls asleep crying and clutching her mom's box of stones that night. The next day, her classmate calls her stupid and tells her how to actually meet a dead person. This… seems like yet another bad idea.

Daddy Sang-chul tries to salvage his relationship with Song-hwa, who doesn't want any part of it anymore—she was fine with their affair, but now that his wife is dead, she knows what people will think about her.

At home, Doo-gyul tries to pry open Bok-nyeo's bag o' tricks before they realize that Bok-nyeo and their sister should be home by now. No one picks up when they call her agency.

Then we cut back to Song-hwa asking Sang-chul if he'd be prepared to abandon his kids should she not want to break up with him. I think him declining Han-gyul's call says he is.

The kids go out to look for their little sister, whom we find sitting by the river with Bok-nyeo. Hye-gyul asks her, "Do you really do everything you're asked to do?"

We see them next as they walk hand-in-hand into the water. Bok-nyeo's expression doesn't change as the water reaches Hye-gyul's chest, steadily inching higher as they march onward to death(?).

After all, Bok-nyeo can't disobey an order.


Okay, that was messed up.

There's something irrevocably haunting about that final scene, which achieves a kind of depth that the hour before it tried and mildly failed to set up. It's already harrowing to see a child presumably marching toward their death in an effort to see their departed mother, but where this show excels in taking it to that next level of soul-suckingly bleak is the fact that Hye-gyul is heading toward that fate hand in hand with an adult who's supposed to be her caretaker.

It's that breach of trust with an authority figure that goes beyond neglect or abuse and into another realm of WTF-ery, mostly because Bok-nyeo's apathy reads as though she truly isn't human. Her mysteriousness is part of the charm, since I am curious to know how the show plans to explain her existence. Even if she's dead inside, how is it that she has just enough free will to throw water on an annoying neighbor or cleverly call out an errant son, but not enough to say no to an order? Any order? Even one asking her to kill someone, or to help someone kill themselves? What if the person asking is a child? It's normally a good thing when a show has you asking so many questions by the first episode, and I'd definitely say that Bok-nyeo is the most interesting aspect of Suspicious Housekeeper by far. Choi Ji-woo is putting in a strong performance.

The story itself is rather straight forward even with the added level of intrigue as to how exactly Mom died, what part Dad had to play in it, what part Song-hwa might've had to play in it, and/or whether the ready-to-kill Bok-nyeo might've been the murderer. Aside from that mystery we've got a family in mourning over the loss of their mother, all of them struggling to heal in their own ways—except for maybe Dad.

Maybe he's grieving in his own way, but I was definitely taken aback by his "I'm not ready to be a father" speech when he's got four kids. Accidents happen, but not four of them. And they're not four little mistakes, two of them are at least into their teenage years—so then he wants pity because he's been a father for over a decade but he's still not "ready" to be a father? But he's ready to leave his kids for an affair? Even if he gets a redemption arc, they might've done too good a job in setting him up as an insufferable tool that redemption isn't an option.

So it's a plus that some of the characters in this show elicited such strong initial reactions (maybe not if most of those reactions were negative), but the writing was downright problematic at times in that there was just so much of it. Words words WORDS! And then they were super depressing words followed by strange comedic beats. Some shows can manage levity in a sea of melodrama so seamlessly that you barely even notice, making the comedy feel organic as the drama. This show is just not one of them.

In the absence of balance, we get scenes that go on for so long and skew so melodramatic that they could almost be taken for parodies. This is where the directing might be to blame, because though each child had a separate mental breakdown moment in one very long mental breakdown scene, there are different levels of intensity that could've been played with instead of just setting the dial to 10 and letting it ride. The loss of a family member is indescribable, but to have not just one child but four violently sobbing for the entire duration of their separate monologues just became way too much to handle, especially when each of their moments happened in a very precise order and in a very spotlight-esque, center stage manner—which made what should've felt like raw moments of grief feel like simply manufactured, overwritten lines. It was very much like, "I am [insert child type #47]. I am angry because of [insert trauma here]. But really I'm just covering up my grief which I've internalized and transferred onto my [insert type-specific character neurosis]."

And all that's fine really, even if there was so much more telling than there was showing when it came to revealing character. It was the most un-subtle way to tell us about each child specifically, and they weren't even the only victims of this treatment—Song-hwa had her tell-all moment with Dad where she went from "I want to break up with you" to "I still have feelings for you and now I will explain why those feelings are causing me inner turmoil." Eventually, I just wanted the episode to end so everyone would just stop explaining their every thought process.

Maybe someone didn't get the memo that there will be more than one episode with which they can tell a story, but I can't say I'm totally out of the game either—I'm interested enough to check out a few more episodes, but further recaps look like a no-go when October premieres are just around the corner—and darn if there aren't some great looking prospects in that bunch.


  • Suspicious posters for Suspicious Housekeeper
  • Family discord abounds in Choi Ji-woo's Suspicious Housekeeper
  • Choi Ji-woo's new surrogate family in Suspicious Housekeeper
  • Choi Ji-woo becomes a Suspicious Housekeeper
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Tags: Choi Ji-woo, featured, first episodes, Kim So-hyun, Lee Sung-jae, Wang Ji-hye

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