Nine: Series Review
Truthfully, Nine left a poor taste in my mouth after the first episode, which was waddling and lacking of any hook. But I went back to give it a second chance, and in retrospect it was one of the best dramas of the year. It was the rare show that really pushed the bounds of episodic, visual storytelling, and left me entirely convinced of the quality behind this writer-director team. While the show took a while to situate itself, once it got going it was hard to look away. This is the kind of story that stays with you long after watching, and leaves you both puzzled and heart-wrenched in the best way.
Overall Thoughts (Ending Discussed at Bottom)
Despite its production origins, Nine is tonally completely distinct from Queen In Hyun's Man. QIHM was a rom-com at its core, which was a pervasive element of its soundtrack, story, and characters. Nine, by contrast, is a melancholic reflection of human error, with a tragic, dark vibe that shines through all of its scenes. The romance, and everything else, is second to the journey and to the lessons learned through inevitable mistakes and unforeseen consequences in crossing time. This is ultimately what made the show so great - it remained true to itself, and was not afraid to serve up a less than perfect wrap-up at the end. The ending reminded me a bit of Inception, which I personally loved for its similarly thought-provoking (and debatable) conclusion.
The Four Premises of Nine's Time Travel
The first premise of Nine's world is the existence of parallel time flows, meaning that the results of changes made in the past must roll-through in real-time before the consequences are felt in the future. This was a spectacular highlight to the show. It's ingeniously used to keep you guessing and to drive the plot in a way that feels organic to the story (though confusing and inevitably hole-ridden at times). It's interesting to realize that all of Sun-Woo's woes stemmed from a mere 4.5 hours of actual time in the past (or nine 30-min time travel intervals). The idea is that a seed of change can ripple through the subsequent decades, creating a new reality.
The second premise is that one's past can act independently of one's present. For example, Sun-Woo's past self began behaving in unpredictable ways from his present self, which created a sort-of parallel reality. In that sense, a mere five minutes can be enough to change the course of someone's life, through planting something with a past character and watching that take shape and express itself in the future.
The third, and in my opinion the most hole-ridden premise, is that characters can retain memories of the previous versions of their lives even after their current realities change. The key is that they have to either 1) be aware of the possibility of time travel, or 2) be reminded of that past through some artifact of the alternate reality. The second part of this didn't make any sense, because it implied that even physical items can retain an alternate reality form, e.g. the record on which Min Young wrote her wedding vows. This last part felt more like a writing convenience, put in solely as a way to get the heroine to recall her past. It also made me wonder about whether these characters would get Butterfly Effect-esque headaches from all the extra memories carried in their minds.
The final premise is more just my hypothesis - the existence of parallel time worlds. This is built off the second logic, because it wouldn't be possible unless there are separate realities, each separated by 20-years. The worlds directly link and impact each other, but aren't one and the same, like a row of dominoes where each reality is a single domino, and where toppling one (e.g. by making changes) will topple the subsequent ones but still leave them as separate entities. What the incense sticks allowed was travel from one domino to the next. But similar to knocking over dominoes, changes can only fall in one direction, from past to future but not the other way around. This plays importantly into the ending, which I'll explain my thoughts on below.
Reflections on the Characters
Sun-Woo is a more difficult character to reflect on, because while I felt invested in his journey and his fate, I never fully warmed up to him. I think this partly had to do with his distance from the audience; he's our hero, yet so much of his inner thoughts and emotions go hidden. For example, his sudden on-camera rant about Chairman Choi catches us by surprise, because none of that fire or pain was expressed to us beforehand. It keeps him enigmatic and thus more interesting, but it also kept me from ever feeling like I really knew him.
Both Lee Jin Wook and Jo Yeon Hee are on my list of overrated actors and actresses, and Nine didn't fully convince me otherwise. However, Lee Jin Wook did play Sun-Woo with a melancholy poise, and I will admit that he looked progressively better and better on-screen (especially in those suits). Despite the seeming block I sensed from his performance, he was serviceable in keeping Sun-Woo aloof and thoughtful, yet playful when the moments called for it. He made me want a happy ending for the character, and to feel torn-up when the finale came.
Moving on to the heroine, I wasn't a fan of Jo Yeon Hee and her alternately chirpy- alternately crybaby Min Young. She's largely the reason why I didn't like Sun-Woo as much either, because together they annoyed me (and the age-gap felt especially squicky because of her babyface, even though in real-life the actors are only a year apart).
The other characters, notably Chairman Choi and the best friend, needed to seriously tone themselves down. They did nothing except to serve as the villain and the partner-in-crime respectively, and the actors were atrocious (I'll have screencaps and more to say in "Disappointments").
The past selves of Sun-Woo and Jung-Woo were satisfying to watch and surprisingly perfect. They made me care about them even in the limited screentime they shared, and the image of Jung-Woo walking away from his wedding still makes me teary.
Plot and Pacing
Admittedly, Nine too often felt draggy, though the 45-min episode run times helped keep things moving. At it's core it's an action-drama, but at times the show would dwell overlong on the character moments or on scenes we didn't care much about (e.g. anything with the villain). There was also a painful overuse of flashbacks in almost every episode, which makes me think Nine would have been better built as a 16-episode drama.
The story did have some brilliantly satisfying moments, e.g. when Sun-Woo comes back from the dead. It also smartly withheld certain scenes from us, leaving the "reality" of a situation ambiguous. For example, we only see original Sun-Woo and Min Young's meeting up to the point of the hospital. With new SW and MY, we see a repeat of that scene, plus the subsequent cab ride, when she realizes his resemblance to the man she saw in the past. This latter scene is the only version of reality we as the audience see, and thus the only one we can base our understanding on. For all we know, the same thing could have happened to old SW and MY (though unlikely).
Lastly, I loved the idea of fates being sticky, though ultimately pliable. Much like the inflexibility of a person's will, the past is built on much more than any single factor. Sun-Woo couldn't thwart Dad's death despite two attempts, because ultimately there are multiple driving forces behind an event, and that sometimes to change all of that is beyond a single person's power. The same could be said of his inevitable love line with Min Young and Jung-Woo's dual deaths. Yet once a root cause is discovered and changed (e.g. Jung Woo turning himself in), then fate can be changed, though usually not without consequences.
Generally, I was pleased with the show, but there are some faults I had trouble overlooking:
1. Sun-Woo's occasional incompetence
Despite how suave the man was about 90% of the time, there were a few purely idiotic moments, where he would do something that made everything about 100x unnecessarily challenging. Let's just mention a few:
- Him waiting until "next time" before telling his past self about the brain cancer. Dude, that should have been the first thing out of your mouth, regardless of if past-you believes it or not. Thank goodness for the pill pack, or else you really would have died.
- Pulling off to stop at a phone booth barely 100 meters from an insane killer - I just facepalmed when what I expected to happen happened.
- Past him running into that dead-end, empty record store to try escaping the assassin, instead of just down the street to find someone who could help him. BTW, who else noticed that the past world is pretty much like a ghost town, where no one's ever around to help out when you need it?
- Not ordering past-Chairman Choi to stop the assassin's order to kill him when he got the guy on the phone. That would have been a heck of a lot easier than trying to ask for directions, then rush in and save himself. Admittedly we wouldn't have gotten that grandiose fight and lovely present-past reunion moment, but my enjoyment was spoiled by the fact that all I could think about was how blazing stupid the oversight was.
2. "30 minutes" is more like 2 hours
That incense stick must lengthen time like no other, because some moments literally seemed never-ending. For example, during the first encounter with the assassin, he somehow manages to sit around Hyung's shop, steal a car, lose the assassin's trail, make a phone call, get stabbed, have another car chase, and still have time left. WTF? Similarly, during his last visit to the past he must have teleported from Choi's office to the record store. I get we're dealing with time travel, but some realism would have been nice.
I also noticed the drama had a penchant for lengthy action scenes for the sake of action, again at the sacrifice of logic or realism (e.g. the first time travel when he has to duck around about 10x for the incense bottle). It got a bit old after a while.
3. Teary and generally useless female lead
The romance was my least favorite aspect of the show, and in many ways I wish we'd stuck to the other story elements and toned down on the melo. My least favorite moments with Sun-Woo would be when he was whining about his thwarted love interest. I didn't feel his connection with Min Young, because ultimately I didn't see her as a girl to be hung up about for the rest of his life. If he wants a cheery, immature Candy, he could probably go to any bar and find a new one. Just saying.
It didn't help that once the melo got into full swing with the memories, etc. all Min Young did was cry. Every freaking scene...
Alright, was there really a need for all the dwerp faces? We get they're surprised, I don't need the exaggerated expressions. The best friend sometimes ran around looking like a drugged monkey, which was both unnecessary and unattractive. The villain - this guy's been in like 50 dramas, so I thought he knew how to act - what gives?
As you all know, Nine had one of the gloomiest endings of the year. But it was appropriate, because the dark vibe was pervasive throughout the drama, even in the cheery earlier episodes. As mentioned, this was no In-Hyun, and thus I felt fine with the tragedy just as I felt fine with In-Hyun's closure.
I also liked how the realization of Sun-Woo being trapped in the past was framed. We go through the new reality flashbacks and the happy realization of the change in his reality's inhabitants, only to pan back to him counting down and past the 30 minute mark from his rain-drenched phone booth. Sidenote, but this writer certainly has a penchant for phones and phone booths (which supposedly fit with the motif of linking people / time).
Going with the domino hypothesis, my theory is that while original Sun-Woo died in his past, his death will not have any bearing on young Sun-Woo, because changes can only be made in one direction (past to future, not future to past). Given that, I think we can rest assured that young Sun-Woo will remain fine and happy in his reality, so long as more incense sticks don't pop up.
However, this also means that original Sun-Woo was permanently displaced from his reality, and that in the world he came from, he no longer existed after his disappearance. It's a sobering thought, and honestly the whole sequence with the rain and the phone booth was heart-breaking.
Moving on to the final scene, I'm still puzzled as to whether it has any bearing on what came before. Is this young Sun-Woo's reality, and does this mean that by waiting things out the realities start to converge? Or is this a third-reality, one in which a time-traveling Sun-Woo doesn't die but still gets trapped?
I will mention that the final moments in young Sun-Woo's time planted plenty of seeds to suggest that Hyung ventures into the Himalayas just like his former incarnate. During his lunch with Sun-Woo, he mentions in passing how similar Sun-Woo looks to the guy who saved them. Don't forget that he has the picture of old Sun-Woo, and is probably smart enough to have put the two together and realized that Sun-Woo found a way to time travel. I'm assuming that in this timeline he manages to learn about the incense sticks again, and goes out to find them, perhaps in hopes of completely changing his father's death. I'm not sure if this means though that he's found a second set of incense sticks.
Regardless, it's an optimistic end, and a fitting cap to an enthralling series.