Leverage meets The Handmaiden in Netflix’s K-drama White Nights

Netflix has perfected its algorithms on me. A week ago, I was feeling dismal about my show selection, after bingeing every season of Mad Men and House of Cards. I found myself watching Lucy Liu star in Code Name: The Cleaner, a diverse yet cheesy flick where Liu doesn’t get to do much but look pretty and say sassy lines. So I started rewatching parts of the Minions movie, hoping someone had miraculously translated and subtitled King Bob’s speech from Minionese to English.

But then Netflix’s recommendation engine pushed me toward a section called “Korean TV Dramas Featuring a Strong Female Lead,” which is an amazing bit of machine learning. After a few months of learning my preferences, Netflix determined the exact niche category that would hook me. Among the mostly floral pink and bubbly looking offerings, I went with one about greed, money, and power: White Nights.

White Nights is a drama starring Lee Yo-won, known for playing Korea’s first historical queen in Queen Seondeok, and Uee, who was a singer in the girl group After School until her contract expired in June 2017. The drama originally aired on South Korea’s MBC network, then Netflix acquired it, renaming it White Nights, instead of the literal translation from Korean, “night light.” While this show is a melodrama, and it relies heavily on flashbacks to push its characters toward emotional epiphanies, it’s also frickin’ cool, and an ode to what can get done when a female CEO uses every weapon in her arsenal to get ahead, including sabotage and blackmail.

Netflix promised at least one strong female lead, but White Nights is actually a twofer. Lee Yo-won plays the conniving, cold-hearted CEO Seo Yi-kyung, while Uee’s Lee Se-jin is a con woman with a heart of gold. Seo intends to make Lee into a “universal key” that will essentially unlock the glass ceiling for Seo and let her dominate South Korea’s businesses and even enter politics. Lee wants to support her family, befriend Seo, and emulate her idol. (Try the Bechdel test in reverse on this show, and you’ll find that every line of dialogue is obsessed with Seo Yi-kyung.)

The show essentially runs on two gears. There’s the more chuckle-worthy and carefree Leverage mode, where White Nights concerns itself with large-scale heists carried out by the perfect team, complete with a female hacker who also brews great tea. Then, when Seo sends Lee out on dangerous, morally dubious solo missions against old, corrupt men with power, the show kicks into full House of Cards mode. But unlike that series, where the First Lady is mostly around to support the president, White Nights builds on the female friendship and imminent rivalry between Seo and Lee. In one particular scene, they share dinner together and walk along the sidewalk until, in a complete non sequitur, Seo threatens to make Lee’s life a living hell.

The strength and complexity of the relationship between Seo and Lee is what sets this drama apart from countless others on Netflix. It’s a strong enough relationship to replace romance, normally a cornerstone of Korean dramas. The innocent-looking male romantic lead of White Nights, Park Gun-woo (played by Jin Goo), is a figurehead who’s strung along emptily, and betrayed at every turn. He exists to keep this series just male and heterosexual enough for Korea’s conservative audiences. His failed relationship with Seo only reveals her strength of character as she weighs her priorities between family, career, and young love.

With White Nights so bereft of hetero romance, but filled to the brim with female characters, chances are high that some of the characters are queer. Seo and Lee are obsessed with each other after their first encounter at a dinner party, and they only grow more enthralled as time passes. Lee wants to become Seo, and Seo just wants to “use Lee fully” as needed. Lee keeps a Polaroid of their intimate dinner on her desk. Seo fingers a bracelet Lee gave her. South Korea took years to accept its most prominently gay celebrity, Hong Seok-cheon, after he came out on a variety show, and having gay sex in the Korean military is punishable by two years in prison. In such a conservative climate, it’s no surprise that a network TV drama would veil its characters’ queerness under multiple layers of subtext. Not that two female characters obsessed with each other must necessarily be gay, but the implicit possibility gives White Nights a subversive edge.

The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden

There are other Korean dramas out there about women on a bloodthirsty path toward power, including Queen of Ambition, but none do it with two female leads at once, and most are concerned with a passionate love story for the ages. In some ways, because of its queer subtext, White Nights feels like a bootleg version of The Handmaiden. In particular, a scene in White Nights, where Lee wakes up in the middle of the night to help Seo through some indigestion by pricking her finger on a needle, seems to speak to a scene in The Handmaiden, when Sook-hee helps Lady Hideko grind an overly sharp molar. Both works are partly set in Japan, and while The Handmaiden is openly about the love and friendship between two women, White Nights winks at viewers, then walks away, never consummating the encounter.

The queer subtext in each scene between Seo and Lee, coupled with some intrigue and mischief, makes White Nights a genre-bending show that is just weirdly entertaining. Precisely because it’s on Netflix, and precisely because it’s been hiding the most unlikely sentiments in a mostly unlikely place, White Nights is worth a watch, if only for a momentarily glimpse of a world where women shatter the glass ceiling through subversive willpower.

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