Home Theatre: The School Nurse Files - Delightfully droll and immensely inventive K-drama
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's The School Nurse Files, streaming on Netflix
Netflix Originals aren't always, well, original. The streamer's approach seems to favour quantity over quality and a good chunk of the offerings tends to be, in my experience, safe and somewhat ordinary. Their new South Korean mini-series The School Nurse Files, however, is a far cry from safe and ordinary. It's one of the most delightfully novel shows to have graced their catalogue. Based on the award-winning novel School Nurse Ahn Eun-young by Chung Serang — and written by the author herself in association with director Lee Kyoung-mi — the six-episode fantasy series is centred on the titular school nurse Ahn Eun-young (a fabulous Jung Yu-mi) who can see things others can't. Eun-young calls these things jellies and describes them as the traces left behind by people's desires. In effect, they are physical manifestations of emotions. Sometimes jellies linger even after a person is dead, she tells us. So, in effect, she can see dead people. But Eun-young is nothing like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. She's a self-appointed superhero of sorts who quietly goes about saving people, armed with a toy sword and a BB gun.
As you'd expect with a premise like that, there's a lot of humour on offer and a healthy dose of quirkiness too (special shout out to those ducks). But the show manages to not go overboard with it. A character like Eun-young could have easily turned into a caricature — I mean, here's a woman who goes around attacking invisible monsters with a lit-up toy sword. The wonderful thing about The School Nurse Files is how Eun-young's character is treated and developed over the course of the series. We first meet her as a child, confused and scared of her special power, and quickly jump ahead to her as the grown-up whimsical school nurse. It's only quite late in the series that we learn how that transformation occurred and it's surprisingly moving. Jung does a brilliant job of balancing the manic energy of Eun-young with her inherent goodness and humanity.
The same can be said for the way Lee Kyoung-mi deftly steers the series from the deliriously fun and fantastic early episodes to the thought-provoking and touching later ones. The arcs of the mite-eater Baek Hye-min and Eun-young's childhood friend Kim Kang-sun are so affecting, it's hard to believe we're watching the same show that had us laughing at Eun-young trying to play off her monster-fighting as Zumba. Episode five, in particular, hits hard. Eun-young wants to help Hye-min live past 20 (the age at which the mite-eater always dies). The latter asks, "Is it nice to grow old?" When Eun-young replies with decided negative, Hye-min questions why she is suggesting it for her then. It's a good question. This episode also contains the aforementioned glimpse into the transformation of Eun-young's character from the brooding child to the weird and wonderful adult.
So, we've got comedy, fantasy and drama, but how can you have a K-drama without romance? The School Nurse Files has its share of that too, but again in its own special way. Eun-young's romantic interest and partner-in-crime-fighting is Chinese Characters teacher Hong In-pyo, who has a special aura around him that protects him from harm. In-pyo can also recharge Eun-young by holding her hand — sparks literally fly when the two touch. But the romance is understated and remains as a sort of romantic tension throughout. It's refreshing this way and the little hints we get of it (Eun-young's expressions of jealousy, for instance) are the more adorable for it.
Also refreshing is the choice to write Hong In-pyo as someone with a disability without leaning hard on that aspect to draw sympathy for his character. Eun-young only mentions in passing how it is odd to see someone like him (with the protective aura) with an injury like that. In-pyo, on the other hand, is drawn to Eun-young not despite her eccentricity but because of it. "I find being normal boring," he tells her. "Unless it's something bad, it's better to be weird than ordinary."
I quite agree with In-pyo. And that applies to TV shows as well as people. It's not without its flaws (the villains' angle is a bit muddled), but if you want to see a Netflix Original that is truly original, and would rather watch something weird than ordinary, The School Nurse Files is the series for you.