Thursday, July 4, 2013

Drama Review: Nine (2013)

Grade: A

Mind-bending time travel

What it’s about
After the death of his troubled brother, Sun Woo decides to make the person who destroyed his family pay. But his quest for vengeance is complicated by the nine magical incense sticks his brother died trying to find—each one offers a chance to travel twenty years back in time. Sun Woo eventually gives in to the temptation to use them in an attempt to avert his family’s tragedy in the first place. As anyone who’s ever seen a drama or movie about time traveling can predict, all hell immediately breaks loose.

First impression
I can just hear the pitch for this show now: the nostalgic charm of Answer Me, 1997 meets the mind-bending time travel of...well...every other show on Korean television in 2012. Nine has excellent an pedigree, at least—it was made by the creative team behind last year’s wonderful Queen In-hyun’s Man. Like QIHM, Nine’s first few episodes suffer from overwrought editing that feels desperate to make an impression. But as of episode 2, the series has evolved into an intriguing, fast-paced mystery.

Final verdict
Although it arrived late to 2012’s time travel party, Nine is without a doubt the guest of honor. It’s a thrilling, noodle-baking action drama that engages both heart and mind.

Nine’s execution is nothing short of splendid—its acting is strong, its plotting is twisty, and its universe is fully imagined. The story’s forward momentum is sustained from beginning to end, with the deft revelation of hints and clues that carry the narrative inexorably toward its conclusion. And unlike the other Kdramas about time travel, it feels thoughtfully prepared, as if its screenwriter was actually smarter than the audience. Rules for time travel were set up, and followed. (Well. Not always. But certainly more often than most similar shows.)

For all that, Nine does have some weak points: its central romance could have been stronger, and its midsection is a bit flabbier than it should be. I’m also not sure what to make of the ending. The structure of the thing works for me—it’s open ended, but provides enough closure so you don’t feel cheated of a resolution. A few of the details don’t seem to work, but I guess that might be me missing something rather than a flaw in the show.

And speaking of missing something: this is not a series that Dramabeans recapped, which is important to note before you start watching. Whenever something is this thought-intensive it’s nice to have backup in case you missed something, and Dramabeans is usually my first stop for meaningful discussion of the things I watch. Don’t fret, though—a number of other great sites have covered this show. Here are some links:

—My own spoiler-heavy ramblings about the finale, posted over on Tumblr

—Recaps of episode 1 and episode 2 on Dramabeans

—Recaps of episodes 3 through 20 on Jomo’s Findings

The Talking Cupboard’s dissection of the series, with emphasis on the finale 

—Ongoing episode recaps at Crazy for Kdrama

Random thoughts
Episode 1. Three minutes in and this show is already insanely derivative, and I haven’t even gotten to the time traveling part yet. I liked its opening scene better when it was in Hyun Bin’s 2006 sudser Snow Queen, and the old-fashioned pocket watch running backward was cooler in last fall’s Nice Guy.

Episode 1. Thanks for the most unnecessarily graphic barf scene in television history, show. Much appreciated.

Episode 1. Don’t governments exist to protect us from the horrors of the world? For example, the female lead’s haircut? I’ve been paying taxes under that assumption for a long time, but here we are. (Also troublesome? The Dorothy Hamill cut seems to destroy brain cells. That’s the only logic I can come up with for the female lead’s behavior.)

Episode 1. I think the editing staff that works on tvN dramas must have some sort of bet going about who can squeeze the most cuts into a single split-screen phone conversation. All these flashes and position changes are making me dizzy.

Episode 1. That incense stick was clutched in your dead brother’s decomposing hand for six months. Call me crazy, but I suspect its smell would have been effected.

Episode 1. You can really tell this show was (over-)directed by the same guy who did Queen In-Hyun’s Man. I’m sure all these crazy cuts are intended to make his dramas feel young and fresh. But they just make me feel bad for epileptics, because man are they ever flashy. Sometimes less really is more, you know. [Finale note: After the first few episodes, the insane cuts pretty much disappeared, allowing the show to settle into more traditional editing.]

Episode 1. The Back to the Future poster on his wall is a nice, subtle touch. On the other hand, no boy in the history of the world liked NKOTB. (Including its members, probably.) Nothing says early 90s like a Hangin’ Tough poster, although the album actually came out in 1989.

Episode 2. One of the comments about this drama translated by Netizen Buzz says: “Nine was amazing. It was like watching an American drama.” As an American who has all but given up on her country’s television programming in favor of Korean shows, I’m trying to figure out what’s so “American” about Nine. Its production values are high and its plot seems to move forward more quickly than most Korean shows. But what makes an American show American, and what makes that “great”?

Episode 2. You’ve clearly seen Back to the Future—you should know better than to be a blabbermouth about this! You’re going to end up killing your grandfather or something, and then where will you be?

Episode 3. Dude. I don’t remember people in 1992 being so truculent. Also, why not carry the incense into the past with you if you’re so worried about it blowing out?

Episode 4. This drama sure loves to show people’s faces reflected in freestanding mirrors. I think it has happened at least once per episode.

Episode 4. Why do the best cliff hangers always come right at bedtime?

Episode 5. This episode would have been a lot more poignant if I didn’t hate the female lead. You can do better, Sun Woo!

Episode 5. Take it from Ashton Kutcher: The butterfly effect is a bitch.

Episode 7. I love Jun No Min, the actor who plays the older brother in this show. That boyish smile is a real killer. And Lee Jin Wook isn’t too shabby, either—but like Joo Won, stills never do him justice. You have to see him in action to really feel the full effect of that lovely face.

Episode 7. Korean cable shows are getting awfully good at handling commercial breaks. They used to be awkwardly shoved in with no relation to the story in progress, but this drama is actually set up to have a cliffhanger before each block of commercials.

Episode 7. Reason 8,000 why I’m glad I’m not the director of a Korean hospital? I prefer to be home in bed at 12:30 (having spent the last several hours watching Kdramas), not toiling away at work.

Episode 7. The great thing about this show is all the forward momentum in its plot. There’s no padding or unnecessary wank—it’s always moving forward and always engaging. (Still hate the female lead, though.)

Episode 9. This “sliding scale”-style time travel is genius—because both timelines move forward in tandem, it solves lots of the traditional time travel conundrums, like why the lead doesn’t already know everything about his travels from his exposure to it in the past.

Episode 10. Okay. Time for somebody to happen across an enchanted air freshener in the shape of a tree. This show has gotten kind of dull since it moved away from its time travel premise.

Episode 10. Good thing your mother has dementia—if she were in her right mind, she’d kick your ass for defacing her house like that. I can just hear the resale value plummeting with every letter.

Episode 10. Ah, I have such fond memories of Whitney Houston’s greatest hit, “L Will Always Love You.” Wait...that’s not quite right. I suppose I shouldn’t mock the English writing skills of the person who created this prop; I can’t write anything at all in Korean. (And maybe it’s a subtle nod to L, of the Kpop band Infinite?)

Episode 11. It’s cute that this episode’s big couple scene happened in the shadow of a red phone booth just like the one in Queen In-hyun’s Man. I wonder if these phone booths really exist in Korea, or if it’s a nod to the previous production? There are other reminders of the good old days, too—later in the show, a character spends a lot of time in front a poster for the band Queen.

Episode 12. Here’s an eye-opening glimpse into Korean perceptions of America: A mother tells her young daughter, “If you wander around after dark in America, you’ll get shot.” Ouch.

Episode 12. It’s interesting how Western the pop culture is in this show. While practically all the nostalgic music, movie, and TV references in Answer Me, 1997 were Korean, Nine showcases more Western things. NKOTB, Back to the Future, and “I Will Always Love You” much?

Episode 12. Seven words that should have been said in this episode: “Clean up your own mess, Hyung.” And four others would have been a nice addition, too: “Leave well enough alone.”

Episode 14. It’s not like he’s Woody Allen, for Pete’s sake! Couples with bigger obstacles are always getting together in Kdramas. (And usually then dying of cancer, that henchman of the heavens. But still.)

Episode 16. The guy who plays Choi is really dragging this show down—his hammy overacting would feel more at home in a cheesy fusion sageuk than it does here, a drama filled with reasonably naturalistic performances. We Americans have a saying that seems fitting for the occasion: close your mouth or you’ll catch flies.

Episode 17. I bet I’d go to my church more often if its stained glass there showed cute little lambies frolicking like this instead of the boring old stations of the cross.

Episode 17. I hope nobody’s happy ending ever depends on me remembering my phone number in 1993. If it does, they’re out of luck.

Episode 17. Or maybe you could pretend the phone worked, dummy.

Episode 18. The pacing is kind of screwed up in this drama—this episode feels like a super padded, pointless finale. I hope they’ve got some narrative tension left to carry the plot through the remaining two hours. [Note from myself two episodes later: Don’t you worry, Amanda. The rest of the story has more to offer than an extended victory lap.]

Episode 18. So the office lunches and dinners in Kdrama are paid for by the company? That’s amazing—even for special occasions, we pay for our own meals at my office. We’re having a going-away lunch for someone this week, which means we all buy our own lunches and pitch in to cover hers. I guess that’s what working at a threadbare not-for-profit in a dying industry will get you.

Episode 19. I’m delighted that I waited for this show to finish airing before I watched it. It’s way too good at excruciating cliffhangers for live viewing. (On the other hand, I missed out on a lot of fun fangirling along the way.)

Episode 20. Did they outsource this script to fanfic writers or what? Thanks for finally selling me on the lead couple, show—but I’m going to hate you forever if you don’t have a serious rabbit to pull out of your hat in the next twenty minutes.

Episode 20. I sure hope Sun Woo washed his hands really well after he picked up that arm.

Episode 20. Dramabeans, how could you abandon us and stop recapping this drama after episode 2? I need you to tell me what to think about what just happened!

Episode 20. I was all “But why are people making such a big deal about the ending? That thing he said before getting on the plane with the key to the show.” Then the credits rolled...and then WTF! Excuse me. I need to go rewatch several key scenes. For more involved discussion of the finale, see my Tumblr.

You might also like
Queen In-hyun’s Man, for its breezy time travel. (In spite of QIHM’s more compelling romance, I think Nine is the better drama.)

The character-centered nostalgia Answer Me, 1997


  1. I'm with you on the romance. I kept asking myself WTF does hunky Sun Woo see in this infantile woman?! And that hairdo certainly doesn't do her any favours. But overall I must say I enjoyed QIHM much more. I wasn't as engaged with Nine and disliked the ending which felt like a cop out.

  2. Ooh! I haven't heard much about this drama, but I am excited to watch it! I remember seeing the lead actor in I Love Romance 2012 and a few other dramas, so it's nice to see him again! Can't wait to watch this drama!

  3. I so enjoyed this drama and was surprised that Dramabeans didn't do recaps. It's an intelligent, thrilling drama. In fact, it's one of those dramas where even without the compelling romance, I still really liked it. So glad you are giving it some shout-out for it!

  4. I was thinking about giving this another shot so I decided to do some readings on others takes on it before diving back in-I watched a few episodes but it was too ...tense and I was not feeling the tense. Plus the female love interest made me want to barf, and the male lead made me want to barf in scenes with her.
    I still think it is just not going to be my cup of tea. Thanks for the post, some of it just cracked me up.

  5. I really enjoyed this drama. I would recommend others too watch it too.
    And about the incense sticks,they are called "Pae"(this might not be the correct spelling,i wrote it how it sounds in tibetan in nepal) and extremely fragile,even if you hold it a little tight it snaps.So its a wonder that the(dead)hyung holds it for months and still its as strong as ever.Haha. Apart from this not so imp detailand the villians overacting and owl-like expressions,it was a gr8 drama.

  6. Love this drama! I actually liked the lead couple a lot. I thought the way they interacted was rather endearing. Definitely don't think she's the coolest heroine, but I enjoyed her as his love interest because she always said everything on her mind and had him all bewildered. It was cute. It might be that I went into it expecting not to like her because someone else hadn't and then...well I did like her. Actually now that I really think about it, I liked her quite a bit.

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