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Home Theatre: The School Nurse Files - Delightfully droll and immensely inventive K-drama- Cinema express

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

Published: 30th September 2020

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.

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