Note: This article contains some spoilers.
I first started watching The School Nurse Files during a rough work week when I just wanted to melt into the ground. You know, the kind of week where you fall into the abyss of your own mind and swim in your existential crisis.
Dark image, but this brings me to Nurse Anh Eun-young (played to perfection by Jung Yu-mi), an exorcist of sorts and the protagonist of The School Nurse Files. She has the special ability to see spirits, auras, and the messiness of human emotions in the form of jellies, which she must then slay using her BB gun and glow-up sword. None of this is immediately comprehensive, but I swear this K-drama is delightfully intuitive (sometimes) in its absurdity, especially if you’re looking for some clarity in an upside-down world.
Released on 25 September, the Netflix Korea Original drama is a 6-part adaptation of South Korean science fiction writer Chung Serang’s 2015 novel School Nurse Ahn Eun-young. Chung co-wrote the series with its director Lee Kyoung-mi who is known for films with riveting female leads (Crush and Blush and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance? Iconic). The drama also stars Nam Joo-hyuk as the Chinese characters teacher Hong In-pyo.
Full disclosure, I mostly came for Nam Joo-hyuk (if you haven’t seen him in Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo, what are you doing with your life), but I stayed for everything. Part teen fantasy-horror, part coming-of-age and social critique, the drama is a chaotic mass of jellies. Jellies are manifestations of the residues of human tendencies (I think??). They come in all shapes and sizes, from colorful bugs to giant toads. Not all jellies are harmful, but human greed, malice, insecurity, prejudice, and other adverse tendencies give rise to the ickiest blobs of danger.
Born with the ability to see jellies, Ahn Eun-young is the reluctant hero who slays the most harmful of them to protect a place overflowing with chaotic energy: high school. Together with Hong In-pyo, Ahn Eun-young investigates the ancient mysteries hidden in the forbidden school basement which seem to attract jellies that threaten to destroy the school. Though she longs to be normal, Ahn Eun-young uses her skills to save the students from dark forces, secretive cults, evil capitalist organizations, and themselves. In the process, she bonds with Hong In-pyo over their shared loneliness and rejection of disingenuous interactions with others who manipulate them.
But life is not always a high-powered smashing of jellies. Ahn Eun-young is a kindred spirit who validates your exhaustion at the end of the day by making it clear that her world of colorful jellies and intrigue at every turn isn’t something to aspire to. High school is pretty awful, jellies or not.
Just like anyone else, Ahn Eun-young gets burnt out from taking on extremely stressful work without due compensation. Her labor is literally invisible to others who don’t have her powers, and she spends a lot of time wishing she didn’t have them. At moments, she is extremely vulnerable and relatable, questioning her purpose and whether there’s a point to any of it.
But there is a point, and it’s a point that Ahn Eun-young stubbornly avoids like a cliché: connection. She shares some of her tenderest moments with a supernatural being with similar burdens, a genderless entity in the form of a teenage girl named Baek Hyemin who desires a life beyond what the system has prescribed. This system has also entrapped our protagonist.
Ahn Eun-young is also wary of Hong In-pyo despite his sincerity. When she finally shows him her cupboard of bizarre weapons, she comments, “Eerie, isn’t it?” As if he’s looking at the coolest thing in the world, Hong In-pyo responds, “Yes. They are, but I love them.” Everyone, including Ahn Eun-young, knows by this point that he’s a keeper.
So the two grapple with adulthood with while fighting outlandish jellies that are obviously metaphors (for something, I’m nearly there). Even the soundtrack superbly reinforces the sheer impossibility of the scenarios. A high-pitched childlike repetition of the word “Jelly” to an upbeat quest format video game tune while Ahn Eun-young fights soul-sucking spirits with a plastic sword and laughs humorlessly as a cry for help? Did I mention this drama is also a dark comedy?
The School Nurse Files is also unique for being progressive. At the heart of it, it’s a story of disabled characters, queer teens, adults coming to terms with their mental health issues, and young people trying to find their feet, all while fighting against institutions that have already decided how they should behave. And jellies! Lots of them! I can be forgiven for finding them cute, even if they would probably wreak havoc on my life.
My only complaint is that the show is also much too short, and we absolutely deserve a second season to recover from the first one. The writer and director are reportedly willing to come back.
For the sake of jelly enthusiasts everywhere, please make our dreams come true, Netflix.
Read an excerpt from Chung Serang’s novel School Nurse Ahn Eun-young, translated into English.
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