The School Nurse Files: Series review, part 1
Quirky, weird, and maybe even a little bit creepy, Netflix’s latest original drama is here in the shape of The School Nurse Files. Our heroine is more than just the eponymous school nurse — she also has insight into a strange and supernatural world that no one else can see. Whether this is a blessing or a curse is left to be seen, but in the meantime, she’s got a school full of students to look out for.
EPISODE 1-3 REVIEW
Our drama opens with a tight introduction to our heroine AHN EUN-YOUNG (Jung Yumi). We first meet her as a young girl, where the adult world is struggling to understand the world she sees, but can’t explain. We learn from Eun-young that the “jellies” (or the little monsters and ghouls she sees), are present with everyone, with varying ranges of seriousness. She describes the jellies like the slime that snails leave behind, and the analogy is not just in how they look, but also how they’re the oozy traces of things that are left behind — unfulfilled desires, heavy thoughts, and worries.
When we meet Eun-young in our present-day storyline, she’s new to her high school job… but not to her supernatural vision. We’re told that the school is good, and that the students are happy and get good grades, but Eun-young has already picked up on the jellies and accompanying weirdness that lurk around the students. And the source of all the troublesome supernatural activity? The mysterious and very locked up school basement.
Mok-ryun High School has a bit of mythology that goes along with it — namely, the school’s founder (whom we often meet via bronze statues and portraits), and the school’s motto: Laughing will bring good fortune. It might be true that laughing is good for the soul, but the enforced laughter “exercise” that’s done at Mok-ryun is downright creepy. Something is not quite right.
But the school has an even deeper mythology than this motto, and that’s found in the bowels of the basement. It’s during Eun-young’s investigation of the activity in the basement that she befriends the founder’s grandson, HONG IN-PYO (Nam Joo-hyuk). He teaches Chinese literature at the school, and he’s got a lot of “old world” knowledge that winds up making him the perfect partner for Eun-young.
But first, the two share an awkward introduction. Then, there’s the even more awkward encounter in the basement. Eun-young has snuck down there to investigate, and when In-pyo finds her, she’s fighting off jellies (that he can’t see) with her light-up toy sword. Her explanation? “I’m practicing Zumba.” It’s exactly this dry, deadpan humor that’s sprinkled throughout the drama, and it meshes all too well with the bizarre and paranormal things that Eun-young encounters.
There’s something special about In-pyo, though, as Eun-young soon discovers. He has an amazingly powerful jelly-aura that acts as a forcefield around him. Theoretically, this means that unlike others, he’s not able to be affected by the jellies and monsters — but it also has another important meaning. His aura is able to recharge our school nurse’s energy/powers — and she sure requires a lot of recharging once the school turns to complete mayhem.
Much like a Pandora’s box mythology, a mysterious stone that the two shift in the basement further frees up all the paranormal stuff that’s been stirring. There’s a legend behind the stone that In-pyo is able to translate: the school was built near the site of a mysterious pond that was responsible for a lot of strange occurrences, and also unexplained suicides. The pond might have been filled in ages ago, but that doesn’t mean the strange energy isn’t still down there, waiting to be let out. And that’s exactly what happens.
A huge monster with some sort of crazy gravitational pull unearths itself on the school grounds, and it’s absolute mayhem. The students transform into half whirlish dervish and half zombie as they rush to the roof and are drawn into the monster’s mouth. It’s a huge burst of excitement and action at the close of Episode 1, but it also serves to hammer in the drama’s tone. Or, perhaps a better way of saying that is that it gives us all the different pieces that make up the drama’s tone.
This is not a drama about a superhero, but Eun-young rushes fearlessly to the roof with her toy weapons to save the students. It’s epicly shot, and the music is fantastic — but then it turns totally quirky when Eun-young’s method of saving them is by bopping them on the head with her sword (accompanied by a most excellent sound effect).
Similarly, this is not an action drama, but this scene is brimming with the style we’d expect from one, including Eun-young’s dry one-liner: “That’s one fucking ugly monster.” But is it really a one-liner? Often, her remarks feel more like the detached commentary of a heroine who’s more irritated than afraid. Her detachment takes us a step out of the action at certain climactic moments, and it works to build the comedy as much as it does lend to her characterization.
These sort of mix-matched moments happen on repeat in this scene — and it becomes a construct of the drama, too — to juxtapose dramatic tension with these strange moments of comedic letdown, or even bathos. For instance, when the huge monster is finally defeated, it’s by a bullet from her toy gun. And when it dies, it explodes into a gazillion jelly hearts that fly around Eun-young like the proverbial cherry blossom petals, while the soundtrack quickly flips to a lullaby-esque tune. It’s these sorts of reversals that give the drama its unique tone.
This rooftop scene is also pivotal for Eun-young’s own story, because it’s when she finds out that In-pyo’s aura is able to recharge her. The two form a sort of unspoken partnership, In-pyo not even questioning the world that Eun-young can see, and Eun-young using him as a talisman of sorts.
Jung Yumi is really great here, bringing out all the layers of Eun-young’s character, from her potty-mouthed annoyance and sarcasm, to her moments of genuine inquiry and concern over her responsibilities.
I kind of expected her to be great in this role, though, so it’s actually Nam Joo-hyuk’s performance that’s surprising me the most. Give the boy some grandpa clothes and a limp (and this crazy script with long pauses and dry dialogue), and suddenly he’s got a gravitas that I never saw coming. It turns out, this works perfectly for the storyline, because the grounding nature of In-pyo is exactly what Eun-young needs.
It’s only in the subtext of the drama at this point, but you get the sense that anyone Eun-young can relate to about the world that she sees is a relief to her. It’s actually something interesting that the drama is able to draw out without saying it much at all: Eun-young is isolated. And who wouldn’t be after a lifetime of being privy to a world that no one else is? Our nurse does her duty protecting the kids from the jellies that are in/on/around them, but she doesn’t exactly do it out of heroics. Instead, she comes off as a heroine who’s a bit tired of her responsibilities, but still carries them out.
It makes sense that Eun-young doesn’t have many people that are close to her — and the ones that are, are the few that are also privy to the supernatural world. One such person is her friend HWA-SOO (Moon Sori) whom Eun-young says is like a mother to her.
Hwa-soo is a “healer” to Eun-young’s “soldier” persona, and often counsels Eun-young while performing acupuncture and other rituals that are meant to revitalize her aura. During one of their conversations, we learn that Hwa-soo has long predicted the appearance of the one that Eun-young is “destined to be with.”
That counterpart is now in her life, and even though Eun-young insists she’s staying single, she also silently accepts that that person is In-pyo. But her friend also warns her that there will be some competition — and here we welcome a new antagonist on the scene. He’s known as MACKENZIE (Yoo Teo), the school’s new English teacher and Gardening Club representative. And he’s got his sights set on In-pyo.
Talking about the character of Mackenzie is actually a great segue into the ominous and eerie vibes that this drama also balances — right alongside its quirky humor and strange plot. There’s something sinister when it comes to Mackenzie, and it’s not just the way he’s always lurking around, whistling, or feigning ignorance to the jellies that he can also see.
If Eun-young spends most of her days getting to the bottom of the disturbances (emotional and physical) that are caused by the jelly-infected students, Mackenzie is the opposite of that. Not only can he also see into the world that Eun-young can, but he’s taken the opposite approach by stealing and selling the jellies. He sucks them up into a little seed or kernel, and then gives them to the highest bidder. What he’s doing is clearly immoral, but for a sinister character, the logic makes sense: if the jellies are the traces of desires, setting one of them loose could very well cause your desires to be realized, right?
While most of Episodes 1 and 2 are concerned with the students, their jelly problems, and Eun-young’s attempts to solve them (with In-pyo’s assistance), the introduction of the threat posed by Mackenzie at the end of Episode 3 kicks the whole plot up a notch. I wasn’t expecting Eun-young to have to go up against not only a world of gooey monsters, but also a rakish man who’s actually quite dangerous.
As we reach the drama’s midway point, Eun-young not only has to worry about the students’ safety, but also has to keep In-pyo away from Mackenzie’s clutches (and I mean that literally — he actually grabs In-Pyo by his belt!). Mackenzie is also vaguely threatening towards Eun-young herself, and seems to know far too much about the extent of her insight, energy, and worse, her limitations.
If it feels like Eun-young’s left with a little more than she can handle at the drama’s halfway point, I can’t imagine how she feels about it. Actually, I can, and it’s a long string of curses, followed by some mumbled words about having something — and maybe even someone — to protect.
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