Spoiler Warning: This article contains plot details from episode 1-3 of ‘The School Nurse Files’
“I was destined from birth to help others in secret,” Ahn Eun-Young says in the opening minutes of Netflix’s newest K-drama series The School Nurse Files, before wryly adding, “Fuck.” From here on, it’s clear what sort of tone the show will assume over the course of its next six episodes: it doesn’t want you to take it too seriously, but by no means is there anything ordinary about it either.
Unlike the streaming giant’s previous original South Korean offerings, such as the tender romcom My First, First Love and period zombie thriller Kingdom, The School Nurse Files doesn’t slot easily into a single distinct category. Is it a fantasy? Is it a mystery? Is it a fantasy mystery with a dash of horror, comedy and romance? Whatever the case, one thing’s for sure: it’s a hell lot of fun.
Directed by Lee Kyoung-Mi (2016’s The Truth Beneath) and written by Chung Se-Rang, the series is based on the latter’s 2015 best-selling novel School Nurse Ahn Eun-Young. It follows the titular oddball heroine, played by Train To Busan’s Jung Yu-Mi, who begins a job as a nurse at a high school.
But she isn’t your average nurse – Eun-Young has the special ability to see “jellies”, a type of ectoplasmic residue created from the desires of humans. Depending on how much greed they possess, these jelly plasma can sometimes dissolve into nothing or take the shape of adorable octopus-looking creatures. Other times, however, they can evolve into something more sinister, threatening the lives of human beings. Are you following so far?
Admittedly, it’s a bizarre concept to grasp at first, especially for those who aren’t familiar with paranormal phenomena. But Lee and Chung don’t sweat over the facts (or science) behind it all, letting their imagination run wild – you’ll just have to keep up and enjoy in the antics. Essentially it’s Ghostbusters meets Flubber, mixed with elements of Korean folklore and tradition, then wrapped neatly with Chung’s dark humour.
With only six hour-long episodes to flesh out its characters and unravel the intricate setup, The School Nurse Files doesn’t waste time getting into the thick of things. The pacing is deliberate, if not wise – stretched out any longer, the story could lose its spark. Lee and Chung take advantage of Netflix’s short show format, which has proven to be rewarding as other Korean titles on the platform like Extracurricular and Persona (of which Lee also directed the episode ‘Love Set’) have demonstrated. Sometimes, the shorter the better.
In the first episode, all hell breaks loose when Eun-Young’s colleague Hong In-Pyo, a Chinese literature teacher, accidentally breaks a mysterious seal in the school’s forbidden basement, unleashing a swarm of jellies into the world. As the guardian of the campus, Eun-Young’s mission is to eradicate them before they bring any danger to the students.
While most superheroes would embrace their destiny to help save the world, Eun-Young only reluctantly accepts her tragic fate. But she dons the cape anyway – or in this case, a lab coat – because who else would if she doesn’t? Despite her initial resistance to help others, Eun-Young actually cares about the people around her, even if they don’t reciprocate her sentiments. It’s a quality that makes her efforts more genuine than others.
Like Dr. Peter Venkman and Ray Stantz of Ghostbusters, Eun-Young also owns a peculiar weapon of choice. To fend off the monsters, she wields a toy lightsaber and plastic BB gun, a modern alternative to the traditional instruments like rattle bells and gongs typically used by shamans. Had the script fallen into the wrong hands, her character would’ve been off-putting and slightly tryhard, but thankfully Jung is an able actor who slips into Eun-Young’s quirky shoes with ease. It’s the most action-packed role in Jung’s career thus far, who previously favoured more demure and graceful characters. Even as a cop in her last drama, 2018’s Live, Jung remained poised and cool.
Here she injects zest and spunk into Eun-Young, an outcast who on paper comes across as one-dimensional. With those mischievous eyes and perfectly comedic delivery, Jung doesn’t just shine on screen: she’s electrifying, her every movement a jolt of energy. You’d think Jung’s megawatt personality would leave little room for others in the spotlight, but Nam Joo-Hyuk, who stars as the equally eccentric In-Pyo, is magnetic, too.
They work superbly well as partners. Although In-Pyo can’t see the jellies, he radiates a mystical aura that protects him from the school’s evil spirits and in turn is of useful help to Eun-Young. At first glance they’re a misfit duo: he’s indifferent while she’s eager, but they’re both losers longing for a connection. Nam and Jung’s chemistry fuels this offbeat and unpredictable adventure as they nail every gag, bit of banter and moments of vulnerability.
There are times, however, when the plot gets so baffling and yet no one bats an eyelid. Early on, one of the monsters rips a giant hole in the school’s grounds, but none of the students or faculty members ever questions what happened. They brush it off as a simple earthquake, an occurrence that apparently happens so often in the area that they’re unfazed by it. It’s hard to believe how blasé everyone is at times after every strange event, but it’s just one of those absurd scenarios we’re forced to ignore for now. Why fret over the little details when we can just enjoy the chaos that unfolds?
As delirious as it is on the surface, The School Nurse Files proves there’s something more delicate underneath its silly exterior, just like the monsters in the show. Within the first three episodes, Lee has already managed to bring Chung’s colourful world to life, striking a sophisticated balance between its madcap moments and solemn scenes. It’s a tricky job, especially for a director who’s only had two feature-length projects under her belt, but Lee’s no novice and pulls it off effortlessly. Even the visual effects, while still not on par with Hollywood standards, are outstanding.
We’re only halfway through The School Nurse Files yet there are still plenty of mysteries to solve (such as In-Pyo’s backstory). Come for its entertaining premise but stay for its whimsical and refreshing characters. Ahn Eun-Young might not be the hero we deserve, but she’s definitely the one we need.
‘The School Nurse Files’ premieres September 25 on Netflix