Somehow over the years, the (meandering) Grey’s Anatomy has become today’s epitome of a medical drama series. That’s why K-drama Life arrives like a breath of fresh air. It is, thankfully, nothing like that romance-fuelled American series even though it is set in a hospital.
For one, there is only a hint of romance here. Secondly, the plot of Life does not really revolve around doctors treating patients; rather the focus falls on how the doctors in a general hospital are involved in the management of this large institution, and having to deal with greedy corporations and (the often clueless, yet corrupt) government officers.
Not that Life paints the doctors as saints either; more than a few of them are materialistic, with a healthy dose of God Complex.
What is interesting about Life, too, is that it shows there’s always two sides to a story. For example, Episode One is told from the doctors’ point of view, whereas Episode Two recounts almost the same events but from the management’s point of view.
Hence audiences are privy to both arguments and we keep changing our allegiances as there is no clear cut depiction of who’s the hero and villain.
At the centre of the story is Sangkook University Hospital, a teaching hospital in Seoul, where medical students graduate to be respected doctors in their respective fields.
It has also recently been bought over by a corporation that’s intent on turning the hospital into a profitable business.
Life kicks off with the death of the hospital’s director under suspicious circumstance, and the appointment of savvy businessman Koo Seung-hyo (Stranger’s Cho Seung-woo) as the new CEO.
Seung-hyo’s first order of the day is to close down three departments in the hospital that are bleeding money, with no profit in sight, and transferring the doctors from those departments to rural areas in South Korea.
One of the departments he plans to shut down is the emergency room, where Dr Ye Jin-woo (Goblin’s Lee Dong-wook) works at.
In the course of the 16 episodes, these two don’t really come face to face often, but each launches moves on a metaphorical chessboard that cause trouble for the other.
While Jin-woo’s background is intricately delved into, details of Seung-hyo’s life is few and far between. With the latter, the viewer has to keep guessing. Just when we think he is an arrogant jerk, we are forced to change our minds after watching his interactions with a paediatric doctor (Won Jin-a, who always manages to brighten up a scene with her presence).
But both of these men are equally compelling (not to mention appealing), as they drive Life’s storyline.
They are, however, not the only interesting characters in the series.
There is a subplot about nurses who complain of being overworked and under appreciated. A more poignant tale revolves around a medic whose job is to convince relatives of comatose patients to donate their loved ones’ organs to people who could use them. Phew, that is a tough task.
There is also a murder investigation in the midst of this power tussle at the hospital to further complicate matters. (Really, you wonder how these doctors have time to see patients with all the drama and intrigue around them.)
Life is created by writer Lee Soo-yeon who came up with the whip-smart 2017 series Stranger (available on Netflix), which explores corrupt prosecutors and police officers. With Life, she touches on a number of debates swirling around the healthcare system. After all, medical care is ultimately a lucrative business with many pharmaceuticals out to suck a patient’s finances dry.
For instance, those banners placed strategically at hospitals and clinics advertising different health products – somebody is making money from that. Or when a pharmaceutical company has monopoly at the hospital, patients have no choice but to buy only that brand.
Not to mention health insurance and its close relationship with hospitals. In one episode, Life highlights how patients’ details garnered from their visit to the hospital equates to big bucks when sold to insurance companies.
Of course, we’ve all met doctors who are only too eager for us to go under the knife – is it so they can earn money first from surgery, then physiotherapy and who knows what else?
All these and more issues are explored in Life. The series argues that good healthcare should be available for all and not only the wealthy. Nonetheless the poor could be sidelined if a hospital becomes fully corporatised.
In short, Life is a well-acted, well-developed and well-told drama that maintains its pace throughout.
All 16 episodes of Life are available on Netflix.