The K-drama Lady With Class is a glossy soap opera about rich wives and social climbers
The wives of the flashy, filthy rich Gangnam district in the South Korean drama Lady With Class work hard to stay married.
Not only do they submit themselves to regular aesthetic treatments and yoga classes to keep in shape, they also rely on psychics and tarot card readers for marital forecasts - to warn them of, say, ambitious mistresses who might sashay in and take over their rich husbands.
Those are the basics. Then there's the overachiever, Woo Ah Jin (Kim Hee Seon), a social butterfly and patron of artists whose charm, ingenuity and willingness to use connections make her an asset to her husband's family business.
Ironically, she also links up her family with two social climbers who will turn her world upside down: Yoon Seong Hee (Lee Tae Im), an artist who is smitten by Ah Jin's husband, and Park Bok Ja (Kim Sun A), a live-in caregiver who has designs on Ah Jin's father-in-law and his fortune.
A glossy soap opera with comic overtones, Lady With Class has been a ratings smash for the South Korean cable channel JTBC. It invites comparison with Desperate Housewives (2004 to 2012) and Big Little Lies, even as it outdoes both American series in its blinding, label-loving ostentation.
Ah Jin and her fellow wives live as if in a permanent showcase, dressed to the nines whether they are having brunch, playing golf or picking up their children from school. It's Gangnam style, for sure.
Lady With Class, like Big Little Lies, is also framed as a murder mystery.
Although it opens with and often circles back to Bok Ja's death in the residence of the family she will marry into, there is a bigger mystery to unlock: What do these women want, if they even know it?
Certainly, men are not the answer for all the women, even those who are fighting to snag a husband or save a marriage. Instead, a child or a designer handbag is often more likely to inspire tear-streaked devotion.
In a showdown with a mistress, a wife likens her husband to a pen she received as a graduation gift. He might be old and useless now (ouch), but she is used to him and has no intention of throwing him away or sharing him, she declares.
Out of the objectification and conspicuous consumption, a subtle morality tale does emerge, though.
Bok Ja, deliciously brought to life by Kim Sun A, is an opportunist, a gold digger and the obvious villain of the piece initially. The caregiver's country accent and naive manner turn out to be part of a performance for the benefit of her patient, the bedridden, widowed patriarch, and her ability to stay cool after his family exposes her is chilling. She is, emphatically, a woman with little to lose.
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But then the show draws a shadowy parallel between Bok Ja and Ah Jin, as one of them goes up in the world, the other comes down, and the wives and servants of Gangnam gossip about both.
If taste is a mark of social superiority, Bok Ja has some claim to it too. After all, in the interview for her live-in job, she charmed Ah Jin by dropping artists' names (Matisse, Manet, Kandinsky).
And Bok Ja, in her own way, may be more emotionally invested in her would-be husband than his own children.
Even if it is an act, she works hard to pull it off - to make an old man feel like the star of his own romantic comedy.
In the view of the drama, the go-getting, gilded wives of Gangnam are not as exceptional as they would like to think they are.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2017, with the headline 'Marriage and murder, Gangnam style'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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