There’s this lingering feeling of uneasiness that the first six episodes of the K-Drama Little Women leave you with. This might be an apt way to describe what the show evokes, but it isn’t something the readers would have ever associated with Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel Little Women; a book that was a childhood favourite for many.
Over the years, the book has been adapted multiple times to screen with the most recent one being Greta Gerwig’s film of the same name that hit screens in 2019, to much critical acclaim and success. In this K-drama version, which is loosely based on Alcott’s book, acclaimed screenwriter Chung Seo-Kyung puts a rather refreshing and sinister spin on the book, which has so far made for an eerie and utterly engaging experience.
The Oh sisters — Oh In-Joo(Kim Go-Eun), Oh In-Kyung(Nam Ji-Hyun), and Oh In-Hye (Park Ji-Hu) — are battling their own personal demons, while in dire financial straits. In-Joo, the oldest, has a staid job, and much like Meg March from the book, admires and longs for all things expensive and beautiful. Firebrand reporter and seemingly-stoic In-Kyung is on the cusp of unearthing a great story; an investigation on emerging politician Park Jae Sang(Um Ki-Joon), who is eyeing the city’s Mayoral elections. The older sisters dote on the youngest, quiet art genius In-Kyung who is fast forming a solid friendship with her classmate Park Hyo-Rin. She also happens to be Jae-Sang and Won Sang-Ah’s (Uhm Ji- Won) daughter.
When the show introduces us to the sisters, there’s little that’s going their way. They are living in a cramped house with cockroaches and a window that just won’t shut once pried open, the mother has fled with money meant for In-Kyung’s school trip, and things seem rather bleak for the foreseeable future. In-Kyung feels trapped in their cramped quarters, and is much more at home in Hyo-Rin’s massive, foreboding mansion with her seemingly shady and sinister parents, as the promise of attending art school in Boston with her friend looms large.
In-Joo’s life is shaken up when her friendly yet mysterious colleague Jin Hwa-Young (Choo Ja-Hyun) dies, leaving her two billion won and a trail that leads to a more sizable slush fund of a whopping 70 billion won. As she sets out to dig deeper into her friend’s death while waging an internal war about the right thing to do, she reluctantly joins forces with smart slush fund expert Choi Do-Il (Wi Ha-Jun).
As the three sisters get entangled with Jae-Sang and his family in separate ways, nothing is truly what it seems and this unravels a web of deceit, powerplay, and corruption. Convenient accidents happen in quick succession, there’s an alarming increase in the number of people being found dead, and a lot of puzzling information emerges about embezzlement, double lives, and seemingly-hallucinogenic flora.
If the book had its four protagonists — the March Sisters — persevere through domestic and economic hardships while leaning on each other, the K-Drama counterpart has the Oh sisters who are steadfastly determined in their own ways; often naive, fiercely idealistic and unpredictable.
Screenwriter Seo-Kyung, a frequent collaborator of director Park Chan Wook, teams up with Kim Hee-Won who last directed the smash hit thriller Vincenzo, to weave an engaging thriller that’s set against a pointed commentary on class. This excellent writing is bolstered by top-notch performances from the ensemble cast, with the sisters coming through in a big way. Go-Eun is pitch-perfect as the gullible yet calculative older sister, and Nam Ji-Hyun’s In-Kying is everything that one would expect Jo March to embody in a modern-day setting; the circumstances might be different, but her ideals and the fight for her beliefs remain.
What makes a show like Little Women work, is also how visually immersive the experience is. It is beautifully-shot, and every frame is filled with bursts of colour and warmth, despite the rather dark proceedings. Colour, in fact, adds to the recurring motifs in the show; a pair of red shoes and the sinister-looking blue orchids both seem to have a part to play in the larger scheme of things.
Twists have been aplenty through the show so far, but the one in episode six — which heralded the halfway mark — has easily been the best one yet. Saying anything more would mean divulging a host of spoilers, and would greatly take away from the experience of being surprised by the excellent writing in every episode.
The unanswered questions and mystery only seem to have progressively grown with every episode so far, and this is a very promising and exciting sign of things to come in this brilliant thriller.
Little Women is currently streaming on Netflix