Do you ever watch something purely for the buzz alone? Because I’ve done that plenty of times with all manner of stories. Half the time, I drop any books and dramas that are unworthy of my limited free time before it ransacks my home, steals my livelihood, and excretes all over my dignity. Alas, ‘The World of the Married’ has robbed me. It has robbed me blind, exterminated my last brain cell, and then, when it was done, curb-stomped the back of my skull for good measure. But I couldn’t stop watching it anyway. How did they do that?
Korean Name: 부부의 세계
Number of Episodes: 16 episodes
Episode Length: 75-92 minutes
Recommended For: People who hate themselves or simply enjoy watching the world burn, or both.
NOT Recommended For: People who love themselves.
Kim Hee-ae as Ji Sun-woo
Park Hae-joon as Lee Tae-oh
Han So-hee as Yeo Da-kyung
Park Sun-young as Go Ye-rim
Kim Young-min as Son Je-hyuk
Chae Gook-hee as Seol Myung-sook
Based on the BBC One’s ‘Doctor Foster’, ‘The World of the Married’ is precisely what it says on the tin — this South Korean remake depicts the sordid world of married couples. It does so by focusing on Ji Sun-woo, who discovers that her overgrown child of a husband is having an extramarital affair. As the foundation of her marriage crumbles, she also finds out that everyone around them has been withholding this secret from her. Enraged, she sets out on the warpath and takes everyone else down with her.
South Korean melodramas follow the same baseline formula, and so does ‘The World of the Married’. Its narrative is born when a perfect life gets shaken at its core, and its existence is designed to stir extreme emotions. In this case, the drama begins with Sun-woo in bed as she revels in the affections of her husband in their beautiful, neatly ordered home. She heads to her workplace where she’s a well-respected doctor, still in her post-coital high, until her discovery of his affair unravels her entire world.
That in itself already does the basic job of a melodrama — make viewers feel things. And then it takes that one step further by having everyone else around her already in the know, letting gossip set the stage before Sun-woo even realises the issue. What we have is a drama that doesn’t drag the distrust out, getting the reveal out of the way right off the bat to focus on the subsequent mayhem.
Highly Suspenseful Vengeance Narrative With Important Themes
It’s a premise that’s packed with plenty of promise for a wild ride. People love vengeance plots with a side of Scorned Woman. And if you’re looking for suspense, you’ll get all the suspense that you could ever dream of in ‘The World of the Married’.
Having stolen your attention, melodramas then use it to deliver at least one social critique. Here, Gosan is transformed into a microcosm of South Korean culture. It then drives forth a bold plot that delivers a scathing take on social hierarchy, gender disparity, abuse, and of course, marriage.
The use of a suspenseful female-centric vengeance plot to explore such themes is one of the many reasons why it’s so good at reeling you in. Gender disparity, in particular, is an issue that interests me, the way that I’m sure it also interests plenty among its target demographic. Feminism and women’s issues are major talking points in South Korea now after all. The team knows exactly what it’s doing.
Beyond that, though, it’s drawn a lot of needed attention to issues such as dating abuse and the vicious cycle that stops victims from leaving their abusers. In a memorable scene, a victim of dating abuse, Min Hyeon-seo, confesses to Sun-woo that she couldn’t leave her boyfriend Park In-gyu out of pity. This moment is an important one because it sheds light on why Sun-woo herself finds it so hard to leave Tae-oh alone. Moments of brilliance like these power ‘The World of the Married’.
With this drama, there are times when a thematic plot point is executed so well that it manages to stir sympathy for even its more tiresome characters or punch a gasp out of me. We’ll get into that soon enough. Other times, though, it eats away at whatever that’s left of my IQ.
Ambiguous Ending: What Happened at the End of The World of the Married?
The internet is rife with questions about the ending. So what happened? Did Sun-woo’s son, Jun-young, return?
My take? No. He does not return, at least not in the scene that we were subjected to.
The ending of ‘The World of the Married’ is intentionally presented as ambiguous, but all signs point to it being Sun-woo’s imagination. Every scene in which the director takes us into the mind of Sun-woo is in slow motion, accompanied by its haunting OST (which, by the way, is its MVP). The same way that Sun-woo imagines Da-kyung and Tae-oh hooking up at his office. We don’t get a clean shot of the figure who walks into the house, either, mirroring the way dreams get fuzzy and details don’t quite present themselves clearly. It’s a dream, y’all.
But since it’s not actually straightforward, viewers can choose to believe that he has returned if they wish to.
So what’s wrong with it, then? For me, it’s a sign that they’ve written themselves into a corner. Do they go for the typical happy ending where the son forgives his mother, or do they piss off thousands with an unhappy one where she returns to her rotten husband out of pity? They’ve hyped up the plot for fifteen episodes and built it up so much that they’ve come to an impossible fork in the road. Most critics seem to agree that the ending was a perfect resolution, but for me, it felt all over the place.
What’s more infuriating about the use of the ‘just a dream’ trope isn’t the trope itself. We’ve seen it executed well in many classics. The biggest problem with it is that it weakens such a plot-heavy narrative. Fifteen episodes’ worth of people ruining and sabotaging each other’s lives. Fifteen episodes’ worth of character development. And it’s all boiled down to a cheap ending with a non-resolution that adds nothing. If you want your drama to end unhappily, grab it by its balls and do it. None of this insipid nonsense.
Realistic Subplots in ‘The World of the Married’
Ironically, I enjoyed the resolutions of its subplots far more than the main story. They’re masterfully written and well-executed in unexpected ways.
Take the Ye-rim and Je-hyuk storyline for instance. The creators cleverly built up a facade of happiness so obvious that any discerning viewer can see it for what it really is. But they’ve created such a compelling character in Ye-rim that it makes you want to cling onto that one sliver of hope that they’d somehow pull through. Even though you know that she deserves better.
By the end, Ye-rim finally admits to both of them that she can’t trust him anymore even if she so desperately wishes to. It depicts the painful realism of shattered trust and the hollowness that comes with leaving a cherished relationship.
If there’s one thing that this drama excels at most when it comes to its characters, it’s stir emotions in its audience with them, precisely the way melodramas should. Very few of them are likeable. Nobody in their right mind would like the villain — resident dirtbag Tae-oh — but that’s a given. In that same vein, most viewers would naturally hate the trashy men and gossipy women on the show. Sometimes, though, it’s difficult to like even Sun-woo or the real victim of the drama: their son.
The bottom line: you’re not going to like most of the characters. So, unless you love hating characters, exercise social distancing with this. Personally, this isn’t necessarily an issue for me here, at least in terms of quality. If anything, it’s far more important for the characters to be interesting even if they’re detestable. After all, at the heart of it, human beings are hard to like sometimes. Not everyone changes either, and the drama faithfully depicts that.
Surprising Reversal of Characterisation
More significantly, the drama keeps it interesting by making the viewer empathise with characters in unexpected ways. One example is Myung-sook of all characters, even though she is particularly difficult to like. Any decent viewer would feel her rage when she’s denied a promotion just because she’s a single woman and even root for her when she stands up to this injustice.
Is this a faithful representation of the treatment of unmarried women in a South Korean workplace? Do old men single out unmarried women at work? It’s not unusual for melodramas to sensationalise matters. But its portrayal of gender-centric double standards echoes the treatment of women in South Korea’s workforce — if the alarmingly wide gender wage gap in the country is anything to go by. No other advanced country out there has a wider wage gap than South Korea, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Missed Opportunity With Female Interactions
What bothers me most about the treatment of characters in the drama is its depiction of interactions between women. The drama joins its many predecessors in perpetuating the perception that all women do is… fight over men. You’ve created so many intelligent women — women who have built incredible careers — and yet a majority of them spend much of the screentime flinging toxicity at each other. And over the most worthless creatures, no less.
There are two female doctors, Sun-woo and Myung-sook, working together and at one point, find themselves sniping at each other over the Associate Director position. And yet even then Myung-sook uses Tae-oh in their quarrel. It’s disappointing, knowing that its screenwriter is a woman. Still, it’s also worth noting that a man is at the helm of this drama, which may very well explain matters.
I will give credit where it deserves, though. When the dust finally begins to settle, the drama ends with Sun-woo reading a letter from Ye-rim (who really is the unexpected MVP), implying that they’ve grown much closer. This is a pleasant change from the scene where Ye-rim refutes that she never saw Sun-woo as her friend. Sun-woo also genuinely congratulates Myung-sook on succeeding on becoming an Associate Director, a decent development from leaping at each other’s throats and using each other’s romantic attachments to men (or the lack thereof) as a weapon.
If only the writer hadn’t chosen to taint this one positive scene between them by having Myung-sook mention Tae-oh. Granted, Myung-sook is warning Sun-woo with good intentions, but couldn’t they at least have given me this one scene?
I hope that they paid the casting director handsomely. Because they could not have cast a better set of ensemble cast members. More notably, they could not have cast a better actress to portray the tumultuous Sun-woo. Kim Hee-ae is a multi-award-winning actress, and this drama alone makes it clear why. Every single inch of her acts. Even her hair is involved. She uses literally every part of her anatomy to build up the perfect body language — hair, posture, gaze — and commands your attention onscreen. There’s never a moment of delivery from her that is less than perfect.
But she’s not the only strong performer either. Nearly every single one of them pulled their weight and then some, amounting to powerful ensemble performances. You will find almost zero weak links here, and just as importantly, you will also find chemistry in abundance where it is needed, amplifying the tension within the narrative. It would be almost unfair for me to point out a second standout because of how good they all are at embodying their roles.
Notice how I used the qualifiers “nearly” and “almost”? Lee Geung-young should have been blacklisted by the entire industry. There are old actors in abundance, and his performance isn’t irreplaceable either. Was there truly a need for him? What an ironic choice, given Tae-oh’s storyline.
A good soundtrack not only enhances the story that it was made for, but it should also stand on its own. And ‘The World of the Married’ has some of the finest accompanying music in the world of K-drama. It’s able to elevate each scene to greater heights, and there were also times when I felt inclined to keep watching for the music alone. That’s how good it is. Funnily enough, while I wasn’t a massive fan of the music on ‘Mystic Pop-Up Bar’, one of its composers, Gaemi, contributed some of the most remarkable works to ‘The World of the Married.’
Among the many enjoyable tracks featured in ‘The World of the Married’, ‘Lonely Sailing’ a true standout. The version with Kim Yu-na starts off with a delicate piano opening, leading into Kim Yu-na’s heady vocal stylings, that eventually build up to a powerfully angry orchestral crescendo.
The instrumentals are a true force of nature, too. ‘Endless Story’ by Gaemi and Lee Gun Young has such a distinctive melody that contributes to the story’s tragic motifs and overall identity. And the combination of a dramatic choir and strings in ‘Finale’ creates an atmosphere so epic that you could envision Sun-woo’s distraught expression just by listening to it. More epic still is the frenetic ‘The Woman Amongst True Friends’ by Cho Yoon Jung and Park Jung Hwan.
I could put most of the official soundtrack on repeat for hours. Definitely one of the best there is.
An honourable mention: ‘Sad’ by Sonnet Son.
Cinematography and Editing
Above all else, I’m most disappointed by the cinematography in ‘The World of the Married’. It’s by no means subpar. There are highlights worth noting, but it also lacks the quality that I would expect from a melodrama with incredibly high ratings.
We’ll start with the good. I enjoy the majority of its camera work, but a pleasant surprise is their use of a handheld camera to underscore the characters’ frame of mind. It can be all too easy to overdo this, but the director exercised great restraint with it to great results.
Another plus is its use of camera angles to depict the characters’ place in life or positions of power. Take the low angle shot in the scene where Sun-woo meets Chairman Choi’s wife at her home alone for instance. We’re taken into the eyes of Sun-woo as she looks up at her here, and it’s a great use of space and camera to highlight her place in the social hierarchy compared to the latter. As well-respected as Sun-woo is, she’s nowhere near the Chairman’s wife. And she knows it, which is why she’s elected to approach her for her own gain.
Its quality is inconsistent when it comes to editing, though. Fortunately, there are instances of editing excellence that lend the viewer some perspective into the mood of the scene. In episode eight, Sun-woo shares a scene with Kim Yun-gi at her home until a jump cut suddenly sees her pushing Tae-oh away. It’s a choppy edit that’s designed to throw you off on purpose because that’s exactly where Sun-woo is. Her head and her heart are warring within her. She can’t seem to stop herself whenever she’s around him, no matter how hard she tries.
Other times, the editing seriously grates on me, particularly in its gratuitous abuse of slow motion. Its employment is effective in suspenseful scenes, but other times, it comes across as tacky and annoying. Okay, I get it, Sun-woo joining a club with Da-kyung and her mother in it is crazy. Point taken. Let’s move on.
'The World of the Married' makes several points, but isn't something that I would be subjecting myself to again. I have miraculously learnt to love myself. If you don't love yourself, watch 'The World of the Married' by all means. It guarantees a wild ride at least. Just don't expect perfection, and most of all, don't watch it on your own. Bitching about it is part of the experience. Rant on social media, if you must.
Cinematography and Editing