Nine: Nine Times Time Travel

How do we understand and appreciate romance in Korean dramas as opposed to Western ones?

While almost every Korean show I've watched has a strong romantic flavor, many of the common tropes are reversed. While Western shows frequently go with boys chasing girls who treat them like crap, Korean shows often have girls chasing boys who treat them like crap.

It helps, then, if there's an actual rationale for the main character's rudeness, at least if we're to root for him or her. Poorer Korean fare is usually light on this, while better examples take great care to come up with believable motivations.


In 'Secret Forest', the reason for the protagonist's aloof attitude is that he's lobotomized and practically unable to feel emotion. In 'Heartless City', he's a criminal and she's a police student and doesn't know. Finally, in 'Nine Times Time Travel', well, she's his subordinate - trashing your subordinates seems standard fare for any Korean drama no matter the gender - and he's just been told he has cancer and only six months to live, so he's in a state of shock.

Simple. Clear. Straight-forward. These are the little things to help us humanize the people in their world.


It also helps to create your female characters as strong, shining stars. Joo Min Young, like Han Soo Min in 'Heartless City', is a force of nature, a little ray of sunshine instantly endearing herself to you.


Finally, on to the plot itself. 'Nine Times Time Travel' is a science fiction detective drama that turned out to be one of the most clever shows in either genre that I've watched for quite a while.

The premise is that Park Sun Woo, an anchorman for a major television news station, gets hold of nine incense sticks each of which can transport him twenty years into the past and allow him to remain there for thirty minutes. The mission is to solve his father's murder but rapidly spirals out of control. It's filled out by an excellent supporting cast portraying the hero's brother, his best friend, a villainous doctor and earlier versions of themselves.


The romance between Sun Woo and Min Young is one of the driving forces behind Sun Woo's desire to "set things right", as it turns out meddling with the past has catastrophic consequences for the two. For a Korean drama this relationship is quite sexual and raw, and after a couple of episodes where you have trouble deciding if you want them to get together or punch the guy in the face, the show somehow manages to get us all on board for the ride. Especially their first meeting - told in a flashback somewhere in the middle of the show - is the stuff of legends, alternately hilarious and heartwarming.

As I look back at this series, I can't help thinking about the similarities with the newly released German 'Dark.' That's also an excellent show, but in my opinion, 'Nine Times Time Travel' is superior in many aspects. Like here, 'Dark' revolves around a premise of allowing yourself to transport exactly a certain time into the past, so the next time you enter, you go back to a later date. That means there are no second chances to right a wrong, so to speak, and that's a major strength of the concept. Where they differ is that in 'Nine Times Time Travel', when you do something stuff actually happens, while everything anyone does in 'Dark' only cements the existing reality.


The way 'Nine Times Time Travel' does the transformation of reality is breathtakingly spectacular and filling you with a sense of wonder that only really good science fiction is capable of. And, I think that's the main takeaway from the show - despite being dressed in your average Korean romance clothing, it really is good science fiction.

Finally this is a show that pulls no punches showing the heavy toll on the main character "daring to play God." Without spoiling too much, the ending may be viewed as tragic, but unlike 'Heartless City', where it seems tacked on to check a box for "gritty drama", it's something that flows naturally out of the narrative. In one word, it's poetic.

All things considered, if you want a good foreign sci-fi show and you aren't allergic to seeing two insanely pretty people make out, add this to your shortlist.


Credits go to kdramastuff at Tumblr for the gracious permission to borrow the animated pictures.

2 comments:

Lei said...

Thank you so much for highlighting the greatness that are Korean dramas. I have been watching them for the past 8 years. I tend to only watch Sci-fi, Comic Book or Sitcom type shows when it comes to American television. I prefer the drama in Korean dramas. I do watch the Romantic comedies off and on, but have gotten too used to the common Korean romance tropes. I highly recommend Signal and Tunnel. They both deal with time travel and actual Korean crime cases.

I hope to see more reviews of this special genre.

Thanks again.

Thomas Ijon Tichy said...

Lei, thank you. I'm sort of a newbie kdrama fan myself, so you have to forgive me for some errors in my coverage.

Signal is my fave Korean show. Reason I haven't covered it is I don't know whether to do a season review or actually review every episode. It really deserves the latter but I don't know if I can manage it. I haven't watched Tunnel.

I can promise you more kdrama reviews.