THE SHORT VERDICT:
A time travel tale that is engaging, absorbing and tightly written.
It took me a couple of episodes to get completely sucked in, but when I did get sucked in, boy did I get sucked in good. Serving up twists and turns that literally keep you on the edge of your seat (and perhaps your sense of sanity too), Nine is thought-provoking, intense and really rather addictive. The dramatic tension flags in a few spots, but overall, I’d say this is a solid, worthy watch.
If you like your dramas to keep you on your toes and keep you thinking, and keep you guessing too, this would definitely be up your alley.
THE LONG VERDICT:
Nine is definitely a different beast than your average kdrama.
If I had to pinpoint one single thing that makes it that different a beast, it is that in Nine, it is the plot development and writing that takes centerstage, over and above character and relationship development.
In your average kdrama, the plot developments power the characters forward, and are the catalysts for character and relationship development, which are often given more prominence and importance than the plot developments themselves. In Nine, however, I sort of feel like most of the characters stay fairly constant throughout the show, letting the writing and plot developments twist around them instead.
It’s an intriguing construct and it works, in the world that Nine sets up.
In keeping with the show’s emphasis, this review will also go a tiny smidge lighter on the characters and their relationships than is my usual, and I’ll spend more time discussing my thoughts on the writing itself.
The cinematography in Nine is excellent, and applied very deliberately to present to us the different facets of the show.
Scenery is framed beautifully and presented with airy, almost magical strokes, like in the opening scene (above) or in this one below:
Cityscapes are dark, slick and polished, like so:
Helpful time markers are overlaid to clue us into which time window we are in, and the use of split screens is applied liberally but judiciously.
Here, it’s used to show details in one given moment, creating energy in the frame:
While here, it’s used to show interactions between characters:
I love the little detail, where characters in the past are framed with rounded corners to give us a retro sort of flavor, like so:
Another important use of the split screens is for the main theme of our show: time travel. We get to see events unfolding in parallel in the present and the past, and that often provides a nice juxtaposition, like so:
I thought the sepia filter was also a nice – and helpful – touch for events happening in the past. It helped to clue me in to which time period we were looking at.
One of my favorite scenes involving the split screen device is of Present Young Hoon and Past Young Hoon both racing towards Sun Woo in the hospital:
So well-shot, and obviously well thought-out and carefully planned. Kudos, Show. Love it.
There were times when the cinematography leaned a little indulgent, such as when the split screen frames whooshed as they moved and changed during a scene. I found it an interesting device, but it drew attention to itself, which is kind of the opposite of drawing attention to the scene. I got used to it after a while, so no major damage there.
Overall, I really enjoyed the cinematography in Nine. The attention to detail was massive, and clearly the result of a great deal of care and thought, particularly in creating scenes featuring the past, as well as recreating various scenes in the present which echo the past.
It all came together artfully and quite beautifully to support the world that the writers created.
Because we are dealing with 2 different timelines revolving around one set of characters, we have a pretty huge cast. I’m just going to highlight our major characters, and for those who are played by different actors in the different timelines, I will differentiate between them prefixing their names with Young and Adult.
Lee Jin Wook as Adult Sun Woo
Sun Woo is the pivotal character of the entire show. From start to finish, Nine revolves around Sun Woo’s journey, and that journey takes eminence over everything else, pretty much. All other characters exist in relation to him, and their importance is also mapped in relation to him.
Lee Jin Wook turns in a solid performance as Sun Woo, effectively portraying him with an almost impenetrable veneer that is at once intelligent, rational and tenacious, while giving us glimpses, in the quiet moments, of the uncertainty, fear and worry that he keeps to himself.
I’d only ever seen Lee Jin Wook in I Need Romance 2012, and there, he played a character with some striking similarities to Sun Woo [SPOILER: presents a strong outer shell while hiding an illness, uses humor as a coping mechanism, and teases the object of his affection with an aggravating off-handed sort of charm].
It did bother me a little that Lee Jin Wook imbued both characters with such a similar sort of feel, but thankfully, the story here is so vastly different from the story in INR2012, that it doesn’t interfere.
Sun Woo’s a pretty great character, in so many ways. He’s smart, quick on the uptake, and fast on his feet. He conducts himself as if he’s fearless, even though there are moments where he admits to being afraid. He cares about the people around him, and puts his own life on the line without hesitation, if it means there is even the slightest possibility of saving someone that he loves.
He put himself on the line for his father, for his brother and for Min Young too.
Even at the point of dying, after the phone booth hit and run, his concern is Shi Ah / Min Young and not himself.
When Sun Woo hears that Shi Ah is there looking for her teddy bear which her mother neglected to pack, Sun Woo smiles and says reassuringly, “I’m glad that your mother didn’t pack the teddy bear… Come here. Remember my face. Don’t ever forget it.” … “When you see a man that looks just like me… don’t get close to him. Don’t try to warm up to him. Don’t even take interest.”
Shi Ah asks, “Why not?” And Sun Woo smiles weakly, “He is going to ruin your life. Just stay away from him. Okay? Promise me. Hurry. I don’t have much time.” And they pinky promise while tears well up in his eyes.
Tears. What a heartbreaking scene. T.T
Above it all, my favorite quality in Sun Woo is his resilience.
From the beginning of the show, to the very end, he is resilient. Whether he’s time traveling and fighting off baddies while dealing with a tumor in his brain, or trying to make it through a time slip while bleeding profusely from a stab wound to the gut, or trying to survive a hit and run, Sun Woo is fiercely resilient.
Even when he allowed himself to get into a drunken slump after Min Young and he agree to live as niece and uncle, he snaps to real quick, when his brother’s whereabouts come into question.
One of my favorite quotes from Sun Woo in the entire series is in episode 19, in one of the messages that he leaves in his phone while trapped under the debris of the phone booth. His voice slightly shaky, he records:
“Third message. I’m really hurt. I still have no way of going back. But I want to believe that this is not how my life is going to end. I have to survive. And I’m going to find a way back.”
That he manages to say that and mean it, while barely staying alive in the lonely wreckage of the phone booth, bleeding out under the relentless thunderstorm, just says so much about the strength of his will even in the midst of extreme adversity.
Yes, he didn’t make it out of the phone booth alive, but he showed such strength of character in the moment. That’s the stuff that true heroes are made of.
Park Hyung Sik and Young Sun Woo
I thought Park Hyung Sik did admirably well as Young Sun Woo, more so when I consider that he’s an idol actor, and we know how so many idols don’t manage the crossover to acting terribly well.
I felt that Hyung Sik’s Sun Woo was a reasonably good echo of Adult Sun Woo, with both Sun Woos giving off similar vibes. While there’s definitely room for growth and nuance, I thought Hyung Sik’s restrained delivery was solid.
One of the most endearing qualities I found in Young Sun Woo, was his courage in the midst of confusion.
There was so much to be confused about, for Young Sun Woo, particularly when a random stranger stopped him in the street and proceeded to knife him with the intent of killing him.
Young Sun Woo’s shaken bewilderment in that moment, combined with his valiant efforts to fight off his attacker and save himself, remains one of my favorite scenes delivered by Park Hyung Sik. He made Young Sun Woo so brave, in the midst of his confusion and fear.
Another of my favorite plot points involving Young Sun Woo, is when he decides that he needs to find a way to communicate with Adult Sun Woo. True to his quick-thinking nature, he leaves messages for Adult Sun Woo where he is sure to see them.
On his guitar, because he knows that it’s so precious that Adult Sun Woo would never dispose of it:
And around the house, because he deduces from Adult Sun Woo’s ID, that he still lives at the same address:
And in his journal, because he believes that Adult Sun Woo will read it:
So smart, that boy.
I love that in him, we see the same qualities that we see in Adult Sun Woo. Truly, a hero in the making.
Lee Seung Joon as Adult Young Hoon
I freaking love Lee Seung Joon as Young Hoon, seriously.
As Sun Woo’s BFF, he balances out Sun Woo’s almost clinical intellectualism with lots (and lots) of care and concern. Mostly in the form of cursing, swearing and railing at Sun Woo to take better care of himself.
Lee Seung Joon’s expressions are priceless, especially in response to all the time-traveling talk and accompanying hijinks that Sun Woo exposes Young Hoon to.
I luff Young Hoon. Such a sincere, grizzled, unkempt, dorky and adorable grumpypants. ♥
I love that Young Hoon’s always scolding and swearing at Sun Woo in the most inappropriate places. Out of concern, of course. First, in the ER in episode 2 (above), and then again, in a church during Christmas mass in episode 5. It’s like his love and concern for Sun Woo is so big that it bursts out of him; it can’t be contained by mere lips. Heh.
Even better, I find it hysterical that Young Hoon then gets yelled at by his wife in public, at the restaurant, also in episode 5. So, what goes around, comes around? Or, that’s where he learned that yelling is caring? Hee. I was really quite tickled by this little running gag with Young Hoon.
Young Hoon also brings a lot of the comedy in Nine, from this classic bewildered facial expression:
To actual physical comedy, like here, where he’s whooping in horror while running around the hospital, flailing.
I love how Lee Seung Joon plays Young Hoon and makes him look like he’s literally about to lose his mind. And that he goes this crazy because that’s how much he loves his BFF? Love that even more.
I do feel for Young Hoon, though. The emotional rollercoaster he’s constantly going through as Sun Woo’s BFF is no small thing, and he handles it as well as you can expect a normal human being to handle it, under the circumstances. In that sense, Young Hoon is extremely relatable; his reactions to the craziness of time travel mirror pretty much how any normal person would react.
My favorite Young Hoon moment in the entire show is at the end of episode 9, after he fights tooth and nail to get Sun Woo in the operating theater and promises to save him, only to be ribbed by his best friend, “You’re going to save me? You’re a liar.”
As events unfold in the past and his memories evolve, Young Hoon’s priceless shocked expression gives way to the most endearing, adorable goofy grin as he sees Sun Woo, alive and well, reporting the news on TV.
Young Hoon, all teary, gurgles at TV Sun Woo, “Who says I’m a liar?” … “I just saved your life.”
Aw. I. LUFF. YOUNG HOON. ♥
Lee Yi Kyung as Young Young Hoon
Lee Yi Kyung is an excellent Young Young Hoon, managing to mirror the vibe of Adult Young Hoon to a T.
Not only are they equally dorky, sporting similar plastic-framed glasses and corresponding goofy grins, each loves and trusts his BFF Sun Woo with the same fierce loyalty.
As an aside, I’m particularly tickled by how Lee Yi Kyung is all hardworking & nerdy in Nine, when he was a little gangster brat in School 2013.
The pivotal moment for me, when Young Young Hoon endeared himself irrevocably to me, is here in episode 9, when he sets eyes on Sun Woo lying in his hospital bed and promptly bursts into tears.
Aw. How sweet is he?
And then, when Sun Woo starts with what would sound like crazy time travel talk to anyone else, Young Hoon listens intently, like so:
Without questioning Sun Woo’s sanity (as most people would’ve), Young Hoon does as Sun Woo requests, and goes to the park to wait for Adult Sun Woo, who had promised to meet Young Sun Woo at 9pm.
Not only that, he waits patiently in the cold for 2 whole hours, warming himself by blowing on his hands and even doing push-ups. All for the sake of honoring his BFF’s crazy-sounding request. That’s loyalty, man.
One of my favorite Young Young Hoon scenes is what follows this scene, when Young Hoon goes back to Sun Woo’s room to check Sun Woo’s pager for him, and finds the sachet of meds that Adult Sun Woo had dropped.
It is Young Hoon who connects the dots between the meds and what Adult Sun Woo had said about someone dying. He says urgently over the phone, “Aren’t you dying of a disease?” … “Hey! Call a doctor! Now!”
Smart, nerdy Young Hoon. He really does save Sun Woo. ♥
My favorite screenshot of Young Young Hoon in the whole show is this one, where he pops up in Sun Woo’s room, with a half-eaten bun in one hand and a carton of milk in the other, as Jung Woo is talking to Sun Woo.
It’s a throwaway moment, but the slight milk mustache, coupled with the crumbs around his mouth and the dorky grin as he silently offers Sun Woo the food in his hands, is just SO. CUTE.
I just wanna squish him, I really do. Unnggh!
Jun Noh Min as Adult Jung Woo
Jung Woo is mostly such a tragically weak character that often, I didn’t know whether to sympathize with him or throttle him.
Despite some glaringly wooden moments, Jun Noh Min does a decently solid job portraying Jung Woo’s brand of hapless impotence.
As with all other characters in the show, Jung Woo’s importance is mostly in relation to Sun Woo, and it is his weakness that is ultimately a key catalyst that drives many plot developments in the show.
From the moment that we first meet him and throughout the show, we get a clear sense of Jung Woo’s awareness of his own weakness, and the resulting sense of guilt, self-loathing and frustration.
For most of the show, Jung Woo lives in a world of regret, ashamed of his past and the choices he’s made; deeply desiring to change the course of history, but thwarted again and again by his own cowardice.
I do appreciate, though, that at his core, Jung Woo very much wants to do the right thing.
In episode 12, when Sun Woo drops the whole time-travel bombshell and the accompanying details on Jung Woo, he spends hours deep in thought. The decision literally involves Jung Woo’s very life. If he gives Sun Woo the go ahead to go back in time to change things back, he is likely to no longer exist in the new reality.
Finally, Jung Woo calls Sun Woo, and we hear the most heartwrenchingly honest conversation between the 2 brothers. It’s also the first moment that I feel truly sympathetic towards Jung Woo.
Jung Woo begins, “Is it a dream to have the opportunity to bring the past back? You have no idea… How much I have regretted that moment my whole life. I couldn’t have a good night’s sleep once for the last 20 years. I had hope then. I hoped that I would forget in a few years. But I couldn’t. It tortures me even today. And since the moment you found out, it has been hell for me. I wanted to die, but I couldn’t. Because of my family. I think what you said is a God-given opportunity. Not anyone has this chance. So many people live with regrets in their hearts. Having the chance to reverse it is a fortune. I still remember. 20 years ago is when I was filing papers for immigration. It tortured me everyday. I wanted to turn myself in every time I drove by the police station. But I couldn’t. If you can go back and convince me, I will be able to turn myself in. Do that for me. If you go back, will everything go back to its place?”
Sun Woo answers, “I don’t know either. It never went as planned. Perhaps my life could change completely. But… I think that I have to bring it back. Because the start went wrong.”
Jung Woo then asks about the happiness of his wife and Min Young in that alternate reality and Sun Woo’s answers reassure him. Jung Woo then concludes, “That’s good then. I want you to get to it ASAP then. The wedding is soon. Do it earlier and make it easy for my wife. I mean for Yoo Jin. It’s just terrible for her.” … “Today could be my last day.”
Sun Woo, tearing up: “That won’t happen. That will be meaningless then. I’m telling you this so that you wouldn’t wander for the rest of your life.” Jung Woo answers serenely, “It’s okay for me. When I heard that I died in the Himalayas, I thought that it was like me. I’m not saying that this life is bad. But I always felt that something was off.”
Sun Woo insists, “That won’t happen.”
Jung Woo, still serene, answers, “It doesn’t matter to me.” [also could mean “I don’t matter”]
What a tough decision Jung Woo came to, and with so much sincerity. I admired him in that moment.
Another Jung Woo scene that I found rather moving is in episode 16.
We see Jung Woo in the final moments before his suicide, making a phone call to an oblivious Min Young.
His parting words to Min Young are really sad, “Thank you for choosing me as your father when I wasn’t qualified.” … “I’m sorry. Stay well.”
So much meaning in so few words. Poor Jung Woo.
Ultimately, Jun Noh Min made Jung Woo a sympathetic character, which I consider an uphill task, taking into account how infuriatingly weak-willed he was as a character for much of the show. But I ended up feeling sorry for him, and I appreciated that in the limited scope of his abilities, that he tried hard to do the right thing.
Seo Woo Jin as Young Jung Woo
I suppose Seo Woo Jin did a decent job of portraying Young Jung Woo, since he was effectively infuriating in depicting Jung Woo’s weakness.
I don’t know if it was intentional in the casting, but both Jun Noh Min and Seo Woo Jin delivered their respective Jung Woos with varying degrees of woodenness. So in an ironic sort of twist, they managed to make Young Jung Woo and Adult Jung Woo have enough of a similar vibe to be believable.
Killing your father by mistake, and finding out that your real father is the scumbag who’s blackmailing you about it has got to be horrible for anyone. But for Jung Woo, who’s particularly cowardly and weak-willed, that has got to be the worst nightmare ever, multiplied many, many times over.
It’s no wonder that Young Jung Woo mostly looks like he hasn’t slept in years, with eye bags the size of saucers (enough to rival the awesome Editor’s eye bags in Flower Boy Next Door). It’s also no wonder that he’s always on edge, and pretty much constantly looks like he’s about to jump out of his skin in panic.
I sorta wanted to feel sorry for him, but.. couldn’t. I found him exasperating and infuriating. And his cowardice was completely maddening.
The point in the show where I felt most aggravated by his weak character was when Adult Jung Woo, wanting to set things right, gives Sun Woo the go-ahead to convince Young Jung Woo to turn himself in to the police.
Young Jung Woo hems and haws and even turns around and makes to leave (I was so annoyed at this point), but I do give him credit for finally plucking up the courage to do it. Yes, he got tripped up by a dirty cop and then nothing actually changed, but, well, he did try.
It is only towards the very end of the show, when Young Jung Woo actually walks away from his wedding ceremony, that marks a truly redemptive arc for his character.
I feel that even more than the decision to walk away from the wedding, the defining moment for Jung Woo is when he sees how badly hurt Sun Woo is, from Choi’s attempt on his life. I think this is when he truly steels himself and summons up the courage to do the right thing.
Afterwards, we get to see him speak with Sun Woo while in prison, and honestly, this is the only time in the entire show that we see Young Jung Woo with a sense of freedom about his face. He’s no longer a slave to his guilt, and his conscience is satisfied. And while it was long in the coming, his character finally did redeem himself in my eyes.
Jo Yoon Hee as Joo Min Young
Because the entire show is written such that everyone and everything pivots around Sun Woo, Min Young as a character gets relegated to a very reactionary sort of place, even though she is one half of our OTP.
As a result, Jo Yoon Hee spends most of her time onscreen looking either very smitten, very pouty, very confused, or very sad. More’s the pity, because in the few moments that she got to show some spunk, she was quite delightful. I would’ve loved for her to have been a more proactive heroine, but sadly, the writing wasn’t in her favor.
All things considered, I feel Jo Yoon Hee did a very decent job of the role, and I found Min Young likable, if limited in scope.
I thought I’d just highlight a couple of Min Young moments that I liked.
I liked Min Young’s starry-eyed response to Sun Woo’s reprimands during their first interaction at the hospital. I found it pretty cute, that she just blurted out her attraction to him without a second thought.
Girl knows what she likes and isn’t afraid to say so. And I nod approvingly, heh.
Plus, how does she manage to actually look like she has literal stars in her eyes?!?
When Min Young’s old memories are stirred by the muscle memory of writing her vows on the album sleeve, I like that Min Young pursues those memories, undeterred by Sun Woo’s dismissive explanations.
She is so intent and so focused on the memories trickling back to her, that she doesn’t even seem to hear Sun Woo’s outward disdain, and grabs him for a kiss.
Girl isn’t afraid to reach for what she wants. And that felt particularly refreshing in the sea of reactive material that she had to work with for most of the show.
I was most moved by Jo Yoon Hee’s performance here, in episode 19, as Min Young watches her memories evolve in her mind’s eye as her younger self talks with a dying Sun Woo.
Her pain, horror and grief are palpable as her silent tears turn to anguished wails.
This scene brought tears to my eyes, in part because of Sun Woo’s death, but in equal part, in response to Min Young’s grief. In her agony, I felt Min Young’s love for Sun Woo.
I thought Jo Yoon Hee did beautifully here.
Jung Dong Hwan as Choi Jin Cheol
I have to wonder what the PD was thinking (or smoking, for that matter), coz Jung Dong Hwan’s turn as Choi Jin Cheol was the most OTT crazy overplayed and exaggerated I have ever seen him.
Jung Dong Hwan is one of those veteran actors that has appeared in a gazillion kdramas, and we’ve all seen him deliver performances that were more restrained, subtle, and well, sane.
For some reason, his Choi Jin Cheol acted like he had escaped from the crazy-house, even though he wasn’t a mental patient but a respected researcher that the nation supposedly loved.
I endured his extreme bug-eyed facial contortions, but I didn’t enjoy them. This OTT villain was the most distracting thing in the entire show, which was otherwise played straight. It’s like having Bozo the Clown show up as a character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It’s dissonant, it’s distracting, and it just doesn’t work.
Uhm Hyo Sup as Oh Chol Min
Aw. I really, really loved Uhm Hyo Sup as Chief Oh.
Although Chief Oh isn’t technically a major character, Uhm Hyo Sup made him tremendously likable, and I perked up at pretty much all his scenes.
To Sun Woo, who had lost his own father at a young age, Chief Oh provided everything Sun Woo would have needed from his own father: a father figure, a role model, and an expectation of excellence and high standards, doled out with exceedingly generous amounts of genuine affection, trust and loyalty. And lots of ribbing on the side.
I knew that I loved Chief Oh by episode 2. I loved how he literally put his neck on the line to help Sun Woo, after the stunt that Sun Woo pulled while live on the air with Evil Choi.
I loved his gruff reasoning, which barely conceals the great amount of love that he has for Sun Woo, “…if we don’t help you, we will have to admit that what happened yesterday was an accident. That’s embarrassing. So you just keep going. Okay? What happened yesterday was no accident. It was planned by all of us. I approved it.” And then he adds, while giving Sun Woo the side-eye, “I ripped up your resignation.”
So. Sweet. Seriously. How could I not love him??
I love how Chief Oh has clearly had a deep influence on Sun Woo. We see this in episode 17, when Sun Woo takes up Chief Oh’s offer of help, by asking him for his contact details in 1993.
To Chief Oh’s befuddled response, Sun Woo offers this explanation, “If the police is corrupt, then it should be up to the press to right it… But that doesn’t mean that all the press do their jobs right. You’re the reporter with the most integrity that I know.” … “If I can’t even trust you, then my life was in vain.”
Talk about leaving a deep impression on someone. Loved this moment.
Another favorite Chief Oh moment of mine, is in episode 20, where 1993 Chief Oh – then Reporter Oh – takes Young Sun Woo out to dinner after everything is over.
Sun Woo asks Reporter Oh if he can become a reporter, “I had never thought about it. But I like the job. You did something even the police couldn’t.”
Reporter Oh brushes it off, “Hey! Don’t do it. Don’t even think about doing it. This is a lot of hard work. Why would you want to do this? It doesn’t even look good.” But Sun Woo isn’t easily deterred, “It looks good.”
Reporter Oh protests, “Geez. You know that you have to be smart to be a journalist. Are you smart?” [Sun Woo: “Yeah.”]
And Reporter Oh continues, “It’s not just the brain you need. You also need the face to be a reporter on TV, like me.” Hee.
Sun Woo, without missing a beat, shoots back, “That’s me then.”
Softening, Reporter Oh finally says, “Just come. And I will take care of you. You have experienced a lot. You will make a good journalist. You will see the loopholes in this society with your heart, not just your eyes. You will have the guts to fight it. Other babies can never fight it. Study hard and get in. And I will give you a chance.”
Sun Woo jumps on it, “You promised.” And Reporter Oh gives in, saying, “I won’t have to worry about you having a good life. Here. Eat up.”
How sweet is that scene?? How adorable is it, that Sun Woo instinctively sticks to Reporter Oh like the father figure that he is? And how endearing is Reporter Oh’s gruff affectionate way of taking Sun Woo under his wing?
So many warm fuzzies. ♥
Because Sun Woo is the pivotal character of the entire show, all the key relationships are those in which he is one half of the equation.
I’ve already mentioned some of these relationships in covering the characters above, but I’d like to highlight a couple of these relationships a little more.
In the constant shifting of circumstances, thanks to all the time travel, there are certain constants that remain unshakeable in these relationships. It is these constants that provide us with a sense of immutability in the midst of the continuously shifting pieces of our characters’ realities.
Note: Delving into the relationships is where things start to get seriously spoilery in this review, due to the twisty nature of the show. If you haven’t watched the show and don’t want to be spoiled, here’s where I’d suggest you skip to the end of the review and check out the first vid that I posted, which is a set of 2 trailers for the show.
Come back after you’ve watched the show, though, and we can talk and discuss and analyze it all, as much as you’d like. 😉
[SPOILERS DEAD AHEAD]
Sun Woo & Young Hoon
I loved the bromance between Sun Woo and Young Hoon in both timelines.
I loved that in both timelines, Sun Woo never hesitated to share his time-traveling exposure and related thoughts with Young Hoon, even though he must have known how crazy it would sound to anyone listening. And I loved that in both timelines, Young Hoon gave Sun Woo a listening ear and an open mind.
The amount of trust and openness the two shared is the stuff of epic bromances, and I loved how tightly they rolled, in facing Sun Woo’s time-travel conundrums together.
There was never any doubt that as far as Young Hoon was concerned, Sun Woo’s problems were his problems. By the same token, there was never any doubt that as far as Sun Woo was concerned, that there was no holding back or withholding information from Young Hoon.
In spirit and in practice, these two shared a bond that could not be broken. Not even by crazy time travel stuff.
Love it. So much.
One of the most moving, heart-in-my-throat sequences involving Sun Woo and Young Hoon is in episode 9, where Young Hoon runs towards Sun Woo in the hospital, both in 1992 and in 2012. Young Hoon’s panic in both timelines, borne out of love, is heartwarming and poignant to witness.
Aside from the tears and conversation that Sun Woo and Young Hoon share in 1992, the exchange between Sun Woo and Young Hoon in 2012 is even more moving and filled with pathos.
As he’s being wheeled into surgery where his chances of survival are faint, Sun Woo weakly chuckles to a distressed Young Hoon with the darkest humor possible, “I signed it. I was afraid that you would call my legal guardian. You were going to do as you like anyway. I know you. You would have forged it if I didn’t sign it. Just kill me in peace.”
Ow. My heart.
Sun Woo knows that it’s almost guaranteed that he’s going to die by agreeing to the surgery. Yet, because Young Hoon wants to cling to even the most remote possibility of saving him, Sun Woo agrees to the operation even though it would mean truncating whatever time that he does have left.
That is either the greatest amount of trust, to put your life in the hands of your friend despite the minuscule chances, or the greatest sacrifice, to give up the remaining days of your life, in order to give your friend the peace of mind that he tried everything to save you.
Either way, the extent of their friendship and brotherhood is epic, poignant and completely moving.
Sun Woo & Jung Woo
I found the relationship between Sun Woo and Jung Woo interesting in that in the midst of its bitter contentiousness, there ran a deeply ingrained sense of care. And even though Sun Woo was the younger brother, he often felt like the more mature one between the two.
The very reason that Sun Woo began to time travel was to fulfill his dead brother’s wishes, and even when things went wrong and it ended up messing up his own life, he was satisfied that Jung Woo did not die, and now had the life and family that he hadn’t had, in the original timeline. That demonstrates to me, the magnitude of Sun Woo’s care for his brother, despite his brother’s failings.
Certainly, Sun Woo’s only human, and there were moments in the show where his frustration with Jung Woo came spilling out. One such instance is in episode 8, where he bursts out in anger after discovering the truth of their father’s death.
In increasingly upset and emotional tones, Sun Woo erupts, “You should be sorry. You took Father away from me. You took Mother away from me. Then you just left me behind without taking care of me. Then you came back as a dead man. You made me waste my youth hating Choi Jin Cheol. You left these cursed incense sticks for me to find out secrets that I didn’t even want to find out. You ruined all of my precious memories. And my girl!”
Despite it all, though, Sun Woo consistently gives Jung Woo the chance to choose to do the right thing.
In episode 9, when Sun Woo’s tumor has reached dangerous proportions and he’s faced with imminent death, he decides to call Jung Woo in spite of his anger with his brother.
Quietly, Sun Woo says his parting words to Jung Woo, “I thought I should call you once at least. I don’t want to have a conversation. So just listen to me. I don’t think I can ever forgive you. This isn’t up to me to forgive. But let me ask of you one thing. You could get her after all that sacrifice. Be responsible. Don’t just depend on drugs. Fight off depression. Be a good doctor. Make your family happy. If you can’t even do that… Then my life is just too meaningless. Visit Mom often before she passes. Be a good husband. Be a good father. That’s your duty until your death. Okay?”
It’s heartbreaking and true at the same time. Sun Woo has spent all of his precious, limited time trying to fix everything for his brother, only to be disappointed by Jung Woo again. Yet, he’s still giving Jung Woo a chance to make it right, by giving him a to-do list to follow, after his own death.
As the timelines in the show continue to shift and unfold, this is one of the things that remains constant: Sun Woo is very clear about why he can’t forgive Jung Woo, yet, Sun Woo faithfully continues to give Jung Woo the opportunity to make the right choice, in order to right his wrongs.
In episode 12, Sun Woo again spells it out for Jung Woo, “What Father said to you on that night. How he beat up Mother. I know that you had no choice. But I can’t forgive you. Because you lied to me for 20 years. And you didn’t pay for your sins. If you didn’t fall for Choi Jin Cheol’s trick and took the responsibility for your action… At least it wouldn’t have been this bad.” … “Choi changed on that day. He was afraid of nothing. He had lost his conscience. If it wasn’t for that day, he wouldn’t have become the monster he is today. So I’m asking you. Do you have the courage to go back to pay for your crime?”
In episode 17, Sun Woo again gives Young Jung Woo the chance to make the right choice, when he calls the church and tells Jung Woo that he can either run away to America or stay in Korea and pay for his crime.
I have to say, in that moment, after Jung Woo had let us down again and again, I was very doubtful of whether he would pull through. With no more buffer and no more incense sticks, I really thought it would have been safer for Sun Woo to have not given Jung Woo a choice.
But Jung Woo did come through, and I’m glad. And I admire Sun Woo for believing in his brother, despite all indications otherwise, that Jung Woo was capable of doing the right thing, and making the right choice. Sun Woo could not – would not – act without Jung Woo’s agreement and decision. Respect.
One of the most poignant moments between the brothers is in episode 13, when Sun Woo is stabbed during his time slip and Jung Woo comes to the hospital to see him.
As Jung Woo clasps Sun Woo’s hand in his, he tells Sun Woo that Young Jung Woo has just gone to the police station in the past. He adds, “I’m sorry.”
I love the little detail, even as their hands unclasp and Sun Woo is wheeled away, that Sun Woo is still reaching for his brother.
As tumultuous as the circumstances around their relationship get, two things are crystal clear: Sun Woo’s care and respect for Jung Woo, and Jung Woo’s love for Sun Woo.
Sun Woo & Min Young
Although the OTP relationship takes a slight backseat to Sun Woo’s personal journey, it is still a relationship that has a good measure of substance.
From timeline to timeline, as the jigsaw pieces of each new reality shift into place, one of the big constants is the love that Sun Woo has for Min Young, and perhaps more importantly, the love that Min Young has for Sun Woo. The reason I say more importantly, is because while Sun Woo is cognizant of each shifting timeline, Min Young is, for the most part, oblivious to the sometimes massive changes that occur in her life, thanks to Sun Woo’s time traveling. Yet, her admiration and affection for him is just one of those things that never changes. Even when she becomes his niece at the end of episode 4, she is strongly drawn to him.
Throughout the show, we get little arcs and anecdotes that indicate the depth and extent of our OTP’s regard for each other. Plus, we get a nice sprinkling of swoony moments too.
At the beginning of the show, when Sun Woo visits Min Young in Nepal and offers to date her for three months, she is at first confused and annoyed. But when Young Hoon informs her of Sun Woo’s brain tumor and the prognosis, Min Young decides to accept Sun Woo’s proposal, and she determines to put on a cheerful face for him, even though she’s deeply grieved.
Her basis is Sun Woo’s words, “What is the importance of that smile? I’m trying my best to muster up energy. But I still feel like crying multiple times a day. It’s not just a smile. It’s everything to me.”
And so, Min Young forces that smile, to give Sun Woo strength. And she decides to marry him and give him whatever strength and happiness she can, in the little time that he has.
At the same time, Sun Woo is feeling a new confidence brought on by the discovery of the incense sticks. His closing words to Min Young at the end of episode 3 are quite swoony, “Don’t you think three months is too short? How about three years? No… should we keep it going for 30 years? That’s good, 30 years! Let’s keep it up until one of us bails out first.” … “You want to bet who lives longer? I’m confident all of a sudden.”
It’s pretty much right there, that we begin to see the depth of the love these 2 have for each other. She loves him enough to condense forever into 3 short months. And he loves her enough, to give her forever.
A quick, almost throwaway scene which I found really cute, is in episode 4, when Min Young wheedles Sun Woo to express his love for her in front of their colleagues, “Make a heart to them. A big one.”
I love that just when we think he isn’t going to do it, he makes the heart at them, complete with a stiffly defiant macho face.
Throwing his dignity away for her? In front of disbelieving male colleagues? Yes, he loves her alright. Heh.
Even after Min Young becomes Sun Woo’s niece, she’s deeply interested in Sun Woo.
I was amused by the exchange the newly minted uncle and niece share in episode 6.
Min Young jumps on the discovery that Sun Woo had a girlfriend, and grills him on why they broke up, and why he isn’t trying to get her back, since he’s so lonely without her.
Sun Woo answers, “Amnesia” … “Don’t you know what an amnesia is? It’s in dramas all the time. The most common disease in the world.” Har har. Way to put a fresh new twist on one half of the OTP not remembering the other half.
Then, in response to Min Young’s question on why he can’t just start over with his amnestic ex-girlfriend, Sun Woo says, “I thought we were strangers, but we were really family. Don’t you know? This is always in dramas too. Birth secret.”
Ha! And Touche.
I love that the writers have a sharp sense of humor and hang a lantern on some of the admittedly more makjang plot developments in the show.
I also appreciate that Sun Woo doesn’t lie to Min Young. He tells her the truth, in a way that makes sense to her.
At the same time, Min Young remains able to read Sun Woo even when she’s his niece. In episode 7, she says to him, “You act like you’re calm. But something inside of you is saying that you’re uneasy. I can see that in your face.”
I love that even though he has mostly kept up a hard outer shell all this time, not really letting anyone in, nor letting any emotion out, that she knows him this well.
One of my favorite OTP scenes is the rain kiss in episode 11.
I like how the writers connect Sun Woo and Min Young finally, through the understanding of a shared memory: The place where they first kissed, in an alternate reality.
After Min Young’s gone missing for hours, she calls Sun Woo and tearfully tells him about her weird alternate memories of their honeymoon becoming more and more concrete.
Sun Woo demands, “Where are you?” and Min Young chokes out, “My… I mean, where Joo Min Young’s first kiss was with her love of 5 years.”
Without hesitation, Sun Woo instructs, “Wait there.”
He drives straight to her, and they finally meet face to face, in the pouring rain.
Confused, Min Young asks, “How did you know that I was here?” Sun Woo answers, “You said it was our first kiss.”
Amazed, Min Young tearfully manages, “You also remembered?”
Grabbing her, Sun Woo says, “You know the word I hate the most in the world? Samchoon.” and he swoops in for the kiss. Eee!
I love that it is a memory that they share in their original reality that reunites them in this new reality. It’s like their love in the original reality is stronger than the fetters of the new reality. That that’s how strongly they’re connected.
Also, in episode 12, in the aftermath of the rain kiss, Sun Woo tenderly says these melty if amoral words to Min Young: “If you ask me to live with you far away, I would gladly do it. If you say that it’s okay that we stay as family, I will just be a good uncle to you. If you want to see me sometimes without anyone knowing… I’m okay with that too. I will do anything you like.”
I like that despite Sun Woo’s usually gruff treatment of Min Young, that in this moment, he’s tender and he’s genuinely giving her the assurance that he would do whatever she prefers.
Yes, the amorality of some of the options he presents niggled at me a bit, but his sincere tenderness towards her, putting her desires and preferences above even his own moral standards, is hard to ignore. In this moment, there is no doubt that he loves her deeply and that to him, her happiness is paramount.
Finally, I think many of us would have liked more OTP sweetness over the course of the show. Here’s a photo spasm to soothe those of us who wanted more lovey-dovey goodness for our OTP:
Adult Sun Woo & Young Sun Woo
Perhaps the most surprising and heartwarming relationship in the show, is that between Young Sun Woo and Adult Sun Woo.
This was a relationship that I didn’t even see coming, because I didn’t expect Adult Sun Woo to enlist the help of his younger self in his quest to save his father. Call it conditioning from watching Back to the Future. Sun Woo basically consistently flouted my expectations when it came to messing with the space-time continuum.
Sun Woo appeared to have no qualms whatsoever in not just engaging his younger self, but identifying himself to him.
At the end of episode 6, Adult Sun Woo wakes Young Sun Woo from his sleep, with the most mind-bending introduction ever: “It’s good to see you again. My name is Park Sun Woo. Born on July 9, 1975. Right now I’m 38. Do you know what that means? I’m you from the year 2012.”
While Young Sun Woo takes some persuading, what I love about this moment is the look of kind affection in Adult Sun Woo’s eyes as he speaks to his younger self.
I love that from deep and bewildered suspicion, Young Sun Woo comes to trust Adult Sun Woo implicitly.
In episode 9, as Young Sun Woo muses to Young Hoon about Adult Sun Woo’s no-show at the park, his trust in Adult Sun Woo is clear: “I think something else went wrong… I think the person who is going to die is me. He’s not calling because he can’t.” … “Because I’m dead.”
In episode 17, as Adult Sun Woo puts a wounded Young Sun Woo in a taxi with the video evidence, Young Sun Woo asks, “Was my father really killed?”
I love the matter-of-fact, yet kind and assuring response that Adult Sun Woo gives, “You will find out soon enough. Don’t hate the killer. He had no choice. It’s no one’s fault. It will be hard for you to accept it right now. But you will understand when you’re my age. And that’s not going to ruin your future. You will have a good life regardless of that. And you will be happy. Okay?”
I love, too, the look of trust in Young Sun Woo’s face, as he hears that. And it’s evident that he takes Adult Sun Woo’s words to heart.
In episode 18, when he visits Young Jung Woo in prison, he says intently, “I still can’t understand you. But he said that I will understand later. I’m trusting his words that I will some day.”
The most affirming and bittersweet exchange between the two, is their final messages to each other in episode 20.
Adult Sun Woo leaves a voice message for Young Sun Woo, which says, “My last message to the me of 20 years ago. I will be going back at noon. I can never come back here again. No matter what message you leave me, I can’t answer you. So forget me, and live your life. You don’t need to find out how I lived. Because every decision you make will make me. I told you right? You always made the right decision. You will have a good life. So forget about my existence. If you live every day the right way then you will find me in the mirror after 20 years. I will see you in 20 years.”
So kind, so reassuring and so full of belief and trust in his younger self.
In response, Young Sun Woo writes a message to Adult Sun Woo in his diary, “My last message to myself 20 years later. Did you get back alright? I will trust you that I will understand my brother someday. I will also believe that I will always make the right decision. You seemed like a good person to me. You were also brave. I won’t leave a message to you again or try to find out what you are doing. I’m a man of my word. You know that right? I will see you 20 years later. Bye.”
Equally affirming, and reciprocating Adult Sun Woo’s trust by promising to keep his word. Love it.
I love how consistent both Sun Woos are, in their trust and belief in each other, and in their strength of character, and the purposeful way they both set their eyes to the future, determined to keep their words one to the other.
I love, too, that we get to see that eventual reunion in the mirror, even though it is bittersweet.
What an unexpectedly awesome bromance, between a man and his younger self. ♥
The writing in Nine is some of the tightest, most well-thought-out writing that I’ve ever come across in all the kdramas that I’ve watched.
The painstaking precision the writers take with the little details totally shows.
The way the pieces fall into place is impressive; bits of throwaway conversation suddenly gain significance as characters learn new information. Like Jung Woo saying on the phone: “It bothers me how you attacked Chairman Choi.” or Sun Woo musing, “I’m worried… That I’ve done something very stupid.” … “I changed Joo Min Young to Park Min Young.”
The first time we hear these words, they don’t seem to mean anything. But on hindsight, they mean everything.
One of the reasons this device works is because Sun Woo answers questions with the truth, and that’s why Min Young can piece things together later. Eg. About Joo Min Young not remembering him, and how it would be wrong for them to be together because they realized they are related.
How far the writers must have planned ahead, to plant these unassuming decoys. Well done indeed.
The writers also clearly put in an enormous amount of thought to flesh out the mechanics of the time travel, the inter-workings of the parallel timelines, and the ripple effects of every twist and turn resulting from each time slip.
Where the writers didn’t fill in the blanks, I mostly got the sense that it was because they chose not to, not because they overlooked to do so.
There were some instances where I questioned the consistency in logic, which I’ll get to later. Overall though, I’m very impressed with the writers.
The Mechanics of Time Travel
Because the writers don’t spell things out for us (versus, say, Operation Proposal, where you get a Time Conductor explaining the rules), understanding the mechanics of time travel in this drama is like a journey of discovery for the viewer. As things happen in the show, our understanding of how it’s supposed to work gets clearer.
It got a little confusing at times, but overall I’d say it was a fun puzzle to piece together.
Coming from the people who brought us Queen In-hyun’s Man, it’s no surprise that Nine’s treatment of time travel is somewhat similar. The past is positioned as a parallel timeline to the present, and both timelines unfold concurrently. This means that Sun Woo’s own timeline doesn’t gain or lose time when he moves between timelines. Essentially, it’s almost like a geographical movement instead of temporal one. This also means that when Sun Woo time travels, he basically goes missing from the present.
This set-up made for interesting developments, which I’ll touch on in the next section.
I also found it interesting that we got to see events unfolding from Young Jung Woo’s and Young Sun Woo’s points of view. That’s an open door that I hadn’t expected. I’d thought we would experience everything from Present Sun Woo’s point of view, particularly since he was the one doing all the time traveling. I liked that this shifting lens also added interest and texture to our story.
In terms of the mechanics of Sun Woo’s location as he moved between timelines, I thought it was rather convenient that the writers chose to have him return to his original location in the present, regardless of his location in the past. But, the writers were consistent with this, which made it easier to buy it as part of the construct of this show’s time travel device. Plus it saved our hero from drowning in the river, so that’s a good thing.
One thing I was puzzled about for a bit, was the way physical items from previous timelines remained even after massive changes to the present reality.
It’s good though, that the writers point out the inconsistency themselves. Sun Woo muses, “Strange isn’t it? My brother didn’t die in the Himalayas. I didn’t go to Nepal to retrieve my brother’s stuff. But I still have the incense sticks. I still have the LP record that I picked up from the mountain. The memories do not exist anymore. But I still have the remains. It’s a mystery isn’t it?”
Just as I was asking my screen the question, “Yes, but why would the LP still be there? It doesn’t make any sense?” the writers have Sun Woo helpfully reply, “It’s pointless to ask that question. Nothing that happened in the last few days is possible. This is the problem. Just like the objects are not disappearing… The memories should be gone physically. But they don’t go away forever. Can I live on with two memories? Even if I get healthy. How can I live on if I miss my alternate life?”
I was a little deflated that this quirk in our time-travel universe was not explained and that I had no choice but to buy it if I wanted to continue to enjoy the rest of the show. Plus, if it had worked the other way, meaning the objects couldn’t remain behind after timeslip-related shifts in reality, then after Jung Woo didn’t die in the Himalayas and Sun Woo didn’t go to retrieve his body, the incense sticks wouldn’t have remained either. And we kinda needed those for our story.
In the same mysterious vein, we never understand why Sun Woo’s tumor grows larger and his life gets shortened with every time slip. Neither are we told why Sun Woo continues to have the headaches after he’s cured. Nor are we told why the headaches seem to stop after some time. Nor are we told whether the time travel after that point affects Sun Woo’s health negatively in any way.
Eventually, though, I realized that the writers never actually spell out the rules of the time travel even though rules are implied. So I guess I can’t quite blame the writers for inconsistencies because, well, this time travel incense never promised consistency. Heck, the incense didn’t even promise return trips.
They only promised time travel. And they delivered on that.
Inter-workings of the Parallel Timelines
Timelines Unfolding in Parallel
One of smartest uses of the parallel timelines unfolding concurrently, I thought, is the way the New Past affects the present as new events unfold and the ripples from those events create big changes in the New Present.
A number of the show’s best moments stem from the events in the New Past affecting and creating a New Present.
Like Min Young disappearing from right in front of Sun Woo at the end of episode 4, because her younger self calls Jung Woo, which triggers his reunion with her mum, which then prevents his death in the present, which then makes her Sun Woo’s niece.
Or like Young Sun Woo deducing that he is the one who was going to die, then Young Hoon finding the pills and them linking the two to deduce that Sun Woo would die of a brain tumor, and then having that save Sun Woo in the present.
Or like the incense stick disappearing in the present out of Young Hoon’s hands because one stick gets stolen from Young Sun Woo in the New Past.
I read that some viewers believe Adult Sun Woo and Young Sun Woo become 2 people, divorced from each other, and that’s why Adult Sun Woo has to read the journal in order to find out what Young Sun Woo is thinking.
I actually disagree that they become 2 people, even though they interact as such during Adult Sun Woo’s timeslips.
To me, it actually makes sense that Adult Sun Woo has to read the journal everyday to find out what Young Sun Woo was thinking. After all, these two timelines are unfolding concurrently, in parallel. He would remember details from the Old Past, since those memories pre-exist and don’t change. But as long as it’s the New Past that’s unfolding, Adult Sun Woo wouldn’t be privy to what happens until it unfolds in the New Past.
The only thing that I think got overlooked here is, shouldn’t Adult Sun Woo’s memories evolve as Young Sun Woo writes in the journal? As with other characters who can see their memories evolve in their mind’s eye as their younger selves take new actions, logically Sun Woo should have experienced the same. (More on that later)
As a side note, I thought it was funny that Adult Sun Woo could hear the scraping of the screwdriver on wood as Young Sun Woo left him messages around the house. I wonder if that was intended to just be some cool effect, or if it was meant to indicate that the barrier separating the two timelines was thinning? Much as I would like to go for the cooler explanation of the barrier between the timelines thinning, I’m pretty sure it was mostly for dramatic effect.
Speaking of cool effects, I really like this particular use of the split screens and the concurrently unfolding parallel timelines.
Time traveling Sun Woo in the past, looks down threateningly at Past Choi, while Present Choi sees it unfold in his mind’s eye through his evolving memories and looks scared and threatened. And what we see, is Sun Woo in the past, threatening Choi in the present.
Nicely done, Show. That’s what I call clever editing.
Changing Fabric & Evolving Memories
By episode 5 we learn that the tilting camera angle is to clue us in to a change in the fabric of reality.
We also see for the first time, someone actually experience the shift in reality and the related evolving memories, in Young Hoon’s stunned moment in the OR.
Comparing it to the previous time, when Sun Woo tested it on him with the Christmas card, it had worked differently then. Young Hoon had gained the memory without realizing it. It’d felt natural to him the first time.
Based on the experiences of other characters in subsequent episodes, my conclusion is that the condition for being aware of memory changes is first being aware of the incense sticks and the time travel. That’s how both Young Hoon and Jung Woo became aware of memory changes stemming from events occurring in the New Past.
I thought it was really interesting that subsequently, characters began to see their memories evolve in real time, in their mind’s eye. Like how Jung Woo could see his memory evolve in the moment, as he watched his younger self struggle to muster up the courage to turn himself in.
We’re not told why this happens, since previously, characters’ memories had always adjusted in one shot, whenever a key event changed.
I wondered if it was because the ripples of the New Past increased in force and speed as the 2 time dimensions continued to interact, but, as with many other questions, this went unanswered. I’d like to think that it was because the ripples of the New Past increased with speed, coz that’s the cooler explanation. But I also kinda think it probably was a decision made for greater dramatic effect.
Either way, the memories evolving in real-time was a cool device that made for some excellent dramatic tension. I liked it. I just wish the writers could have been even more consistent with it. Only Sun Woo doesn’t experience it, which feels unfair and convenient. (More on that in a bit)
I am impressed with the attention to detail that the writers serve up, particularly in relation to the ripple effects of Sun Woo’s time traveling.
For instance, when Young Sun Woo tussled with him and hit his head, I liked that the writers remembered to give Adult Sun Woo a corresponding scar on his forehead.
And then when Min Young became Sun Woo’s niece and I realized that she wasn’t aware of his brain tumor, I had to think about why. I realized that as his niece, Min Young wouldn’t have been crushing on Sun Woo and they wouldn’t have had all those conversations and she wouldn’t have called Young Hoon and that’s why she didn’t know about his illness in the reality where he was her uncle.
That’s a lot of thought right there, that needs to go into every single bit of plot development in this show. The writers need to track every ripple’s possible effects. It’s a herculean task for sure, considering the number of shifts that take place over all the time slips, and I think the writers did a great job of it.
Despite the multitude of ripple effects, though, there are certain things that remain constant, and the show makes it a point to remind us of this.
After the big shift causing Min Young to become Sun Woo’s niece, he muses, “Fortunately, [Min Young’s] life hasn’t changed much. Other than that her step-father is now a doctor instead of a lawyer. If her life had changed a lot, her character would have also changed. Fortunately, she still doesn’t use her brain much. She is still as bright as ever. My brother finally got together with his dream girl… But he still left Mom and me. He’s still not a good son or a good brother. But I guess he is now a good husband and a good father.”
There are a couple of smaller things that don’t make sense in the show, like how it was odd that paramedics were rushing Sun Woo’s very dead father away in an ambulance. But I’m not going to nitpick about those things.
I’m only going to highlight the biggest one which directly relates to time travel & its mechanics.
I’ve asked the question earlier in this review and I’ll ask it again: Why doesn’t Sun Woo’s memory evolve like everyone else’s? If the condition for being aware of the memory changes, is knowing about the incense sticks and the time travel, then Sun Woo, above everyone else, should qualify.
Even if, arguably, characters only see their memories evolve in their mind’s eye as the ripples become more advanced, it still doesn’t match up, because to the end, Sun Woo doesn’t see the memories unfold in real-time.
Like, when the incense stick disappears from Young Hoon’s hands, logically, Sun Woo should have an altered memory as soon as Young Sun Woo discovers the loss. But I can rationalize that possibly, Young Sun Woo never checked on them and didn’t know they were taken?
STILL. There’s that other big incident where Young Sun Woo is confronted by the guy with the knife. Adult Sun Woo should have memories evolving in his mind, in the moment, like how Jung Woo could see his past self deliberating on whether to go to the police station. That Sun Woo doesn’t have the same is not consistent.
Instead, Sun Woo has to deduce what is happening, based on the scar that’s forming on his forearm: “I think I’m going to die soon. But I don’t know where I’m going to die.”
Well. It makes for nice dramatic tension, but I just couldn’t shake the thought that this was terribly inconsistent.
On a smaller note, it niggled at me that during Sun Woo’s final timeslip, the 30 minutes – no, 25 minutes, and that was just his best guess – lasted a ridiculously long time. That he could do so much in 25 minutes – including having a leisurely conversation with Choi – was just unbelievable. Plus, he moved in such an unhurried manner, which didn’t make sense to me, considering that he knew his younger self was seriously injured and could possibly be killed.
Tsk. The things that get sacrificed for dramatic tension.
My Take on Certain Details
I thought I’d give my take on a couple of questions that I saw raised by other viewers.
1. Sun Woo’s headaches
After Sun Woo’s tumor is confirmed to be gone, he continues to experience pain, and he theorizes, “I have all the memories and all the objects. I have the pain too. I guess that’s how it works.”
After some time, though, the headaches seem to disappear, coz we don’t see Sun Woo wincing in pain from them anymore. (Side note: Lee Jin Wook was very convincing at Sun Woo’s headaches, I have to say. Every time he had a pain spasm, I tensed up in my chair.)
I don’t know if that was deliberate, or an oversight by the writers.
I like to think that the residual headaches were akin to the way amputee patients continue to feel their phantom limbs. And I expect that, as with amputee patients, that sense of the phantom limb, or in this case, the phantom tumor, faded with time.
2. Seo Joon’s affected looks
One of the questions I saw thrown about among viewers, was why Seo Joon (Oh Min Suk) kept looking at Min Young and her family from afar all through episode 15, with tears in his eyes and a conflicted look on his face.
My take is that he probably felt guilty for calling off the wedding based on his presumption of the truth.
After all, he called off the wedding without any real proof, or anyone’s admission of the truth. So he’d called off the wedding on a hunch, technically. And now, stemming from that, or at least apparently so, all manner of terrible things were happening.
Since he’s written as a decent person at heart, he’d likely feel guilty thinking that if he hadn’t done that, that the entire media circus and Jung Woo’s suicide wouldn’t have happened.
That’s how people respond. Unless they’re evil like Choi, that is.
3. Jung Woo’s missing alternate timeline memories
I saw another question about episode 14 which I found interesting: Why doesn’t Jung Woo seem to have alternate timeline memories?
At first, I thought the person who asked the question might have hit on an inconsistency by the writers. Upon closer inspection, though, I found that the writers were consistent.
Min Young’s alternate timeline memories were regained through repetition of writing the words she’d written as Joo Min Young, not through knowing about the incense sticks.
On the other hand, like Jung Woo, Young Hoon doesn’t regain alternate timeline memories either. The only thing Jung Woo and Young Hoon gain from knowing about the incense sticks is the awareness of changing memories as events unfold in the New Past.
Therefore, it makes sense that Jung Woo didn’t gain alternate timeline memories, and instead, gained the ability to see the memories evolve in his mind’s eye as his younger self made those new memories in the New Past.
The Emotional-Mental Hook
All series long, I felt a tension between the mental versus the emotional hook of this show. What I mean is, I felt mentally engaged much more than emotionally engaged.
Through most of the drama, I moved forward based more on curiosity than actual emotional engagement. Chewing on it to figure out the reasons why, here’s what I came up with.
What Blocked the Emotional Hook
1. Sun Woo’s Character
When we’re introduced to Sun Woo, he’s a character that appears mysterious and emotionless. He keeps everything to himself and keeps other people at a distance.
I feel like he’s also pushing me away, vicariously, in a way.
As the show progresses and he starts to time travel, he’s dogged and determined and almost never seems deterred, no matter the obstacles that he comes up against. Most of the time, he’s like a machine, plowing through, with focus, without emotion.
It’s hard to feel for someone who feels like a machine, basically.
2. Twisty Writing
I think one of the big reasons I felt more mentally engaged by this show than emotionally, is because I had to switch on my mind so much in order to keep up with the show’s plot points and its related web of implications. My brain was so preoccupied that my heart couldn’t engage as well as it usually does.
If I didn’t have to switch on my brain this much, I’m guessing I might have felt more for the characters?
3. Makjang Mood
Somewhere along the way, I realized that a good number of the plot points were quite makjang, really.
I mean, a death was covered up, and the body burned, so that the wound wouldn’t be detected? And Jung Woo’s father is Evil Choi? And Min Young is really Shi Ah?
So we have birth secrets and murder. And fauxcest. And crazy people. And disapproving fathers. That’s kinda makjang, you hafta admit.
The thing is, the moment I realized the makjang bent of the plot twists, I actually felt myself being less invested.
4. Time Travel Device
Perhaps the biggest thing holding back my emotional engagement, was the nature of the show itself: time travel.
Because it’s a time travel show, there’s always this thought hanging over everything, that things could possibly change if Sun Woo goes back to the past to fix it. So even with Jung Woo’s death, I didn’t feel any sadness. Instead, I felt only a clinical sort of interest, in terms of how the writers could possibly turn this around with a time slip.
What Helped the Emotional Hook
Despite my relatively weaker emotional engagement with the show, there were definitely moments that moved me. Here are a couple, for the record.
1. Other Characters
Playing opposite Sun Woo’s Terminator-like focus, Young Hoon and Min Young were much needed foils.
Young Hoon’s upset-ness at Sun Woo was believable, likable and relatable. I also liked the way Min Young reacted to Sun Woo’s illness, with tears and anger.
Young Hoon’s and Min Young’s reactions helped to humanize every situation where Sun Woo withheld emotion.
2. Cracks in the Armor
Thankfully, Sun Woo does show cracks in his armor, and there were moments when I really did feel for him.
In episode 8 (above), when Sun Woo cries in grief, and perhaps hopelessness, marks the first moment I actually really feel for him as a character.
Min Young asks why he keeps calling her Joo Min Young, and Sun Woo answers weakly, gently, thoughtfully, “No, you’re Joo Min Young. Although you probably do not remember. I only remember Joo Min Young.”
When Min Young asks, “Why are you crying?” Sun Woo whispers hoarsely, tears streaming down his face, “It’s a secret.”
I felt for him so much, in this moment.
3. Moment of Liberty
Just as much as I liked to see the cracks in Sun Woo’s armor in terms of expressing his weakness and fears, I also really appreciated this brief moment of happiness that we see at the end of episode 3.
Sun Woo records in his voice diary: “I still can’t believe this fortune. I’m still afraid that it’s a hallucination. But in front of death, everything is simple and crystal clear. Believe in the fantasies you want to believe. Love the girl you want to love.”
I love the liberty in those words. And anything outside of Sun Woo’s dogged emotionless armor, helps to humanize him to me.
He tries so hard to hold it in. But it’s only when the cracks in his armor show, that I am able to feel for him.
My Thoughts on the Ending
I confess I was a little underwhelmed by the sudden lack of dramatic tension in the last episode. After so many episodes of taut tension, this sudden slack felt unfamiliar and a little dissonant.
I get what the writers were doing in killing off Original Sun Woo, I think. It was to cut off one timeline for us, so that we could just focus on New Sun Woo walking in the new reality that Original Sun Woo had paved with his very life on the line.
Having Original Sun Woo stuck in the past was good dramatically, but because the writers didn’t give us an explanation for it, it felt a bit gratuitous. Sun Woo’s reasoning of “I am the incense” made no sense to me, and I couldn’t buy it.
I did like that Jung Woo now seemed like a more confident person. Probably an effect of having made the right choice, and having cleared his conscience. I was glad to see him no longer living in guilt.
I also liked how the show filled in the gaps for us for all the characters. We got to see the rewrite of events in New Sun Woo’s life, so in a way, we got to savor the fruit of Original Sun Woo’s labor.
I liked the call-backs to details from earlier episodes, like scenes built similarly but now different (Sun Woo and Jung Woo meeting in a coffee shop, Jung Woo with his red parka, except this time it’s for food and not coffee, and Jung Woo isn’t asking for money), as well as consistent details like what Sun Woo says:
“December 4, 2012. My first message to myself. I don’t know if it’s fortunate or unfortunate that your will didn’t work. Joo Min Young loved me regardless. I can no longer live without not caring about the future. Perhaps this is what happened. Because you left a strong impression to Min Young when she was young. She fell in love with me at first sight. I could have become a reporter because of the connection you made for me in the past.” … “If that’s true, then I can save you. I can prevent Min Young from being unhappy because of me. But that’s not true. What would you have done right now? I would keep it simple right now. I will just believe what I want to believe. And I will just love the girl that I love.”
The closing bit is very reminiscent of what our earlier version of Sun Woo had said at the end of episode 3, when he’d found the incense sticks and felt the freedom of hope: “Believe in the fantasies you want to believe. Love the girl you want to love.”
This provides some sort of confirmation that this version of Sun Woo is essentially the same person as the earlier version that we’d gotten to know. Except this version is unfettered with the burden of a brain tumor and a guilt-ridden brother searching for a way to change the past.
So in the end, all the time traveling that Original Sun Woo had done, did do something positive in creating a new future for New Sun Woo. That he had to die doing it, is not the way I had wanted it to be resolved. But I consider this a technical out, coz the writers never did explain to us the finer rules of the incense sticks.
My thoughts on the ending credits scene:
There are so many ways to interpret the scene that played during the ending credits. An older-looking Sun Woo, with a fuller more wrinkly face, sporting a graying goatee, saves Jung Woo, who’s collapsed in the snowy mountains, with incense stick in hand.
I came up with a couple of interpretations.
1. The scene is a hint that the writers created to communicate 2 things. 1, that New Sun Woo didn’t die in the past in this timeline like Original Sun Woo did, coz he looks visibly older in this scene and 2, that he somehow still time travels in this new timeline too. So, some things don’t change. Essentially, he’s still who he is, and he still time travels for the sake of saving his brother, who still seeks out magic incense sticks. But New Sun Woo has a brighter, longer future than Original Sun Woo who died in the past.
2. New Jung Woo heads for the mountains and dies in pursuit of the incense sticks, and New Sun Woo waits 20 years in order to come back to the right point in time to save him.
3. We’re looking at another timeline where other versions of Sun Woo and Jung Woo exist.
4. It’s the same timeline, but this is another version of Sun Woo, from another timeline, come to save Jung Woo.
5. The ending credits scene is literally taking us back to the first scene of the show, and showing us that it was a version of Sun Woo from the future, who had found Original Jung Woo in the mountains, clearly with the intention of saving him. Of course, that attempt failed, as we saw in the early episodes of the show. Basically, this is to show us that the window of time travel that we were privy to, wasn’t the start point. That there are other timelines and other versions of Sun Woo (& everyone else, for that matter), all intersecting at various points of their time-space continuum depending on the decisions that each version of Sun Woo makes. That the circle of time travel that we’ve spent time with, is just one part of the bigger picture of this multiple-timeline universe.
My favorite one is #5, coz I think the concept of there being many parallel timelines is intriguing and way cooler than thinking of these 20 episodes as a once-off split and re-joining of 2 timelines.
This reminds me of the Griffin character in Men in Black 3, the fifth dimensional being who sees multiple timelines unfold in his mind’s eye, depending on the decisions that people make. I feel like there are multiple timelines existing in the world of Nine, and the writers chose to show us this particular one to end the series.
I also like the idea that after spending 20 whole episodes together, that Interpretation #5 completely overhauls our foundational beliefs about the world of Nine and how the time travel all started. I love the idea that one key piece of information changes the whole game, akin to how the writers planted unassuming bits of decoy dialogue early in the show, that later took on a lot more meaning and changed the way our characters saw things.
While some viewers prefer to believe that the original timeline and its inhabitants that we spent 19 episodes with ceased to exist with Original Sun Woo’s death in 1993, I find that hard to accept.
Even while watching New Sun Woo pave new inroads into the New Present in episode 20, I still had that nagging feeling, that in the original timeline, there was a heartbroken Min Young who had lost her groom and a tortured Young Hoon who had lost his best friend. Just because the writers choose not to show it to us, doesn’t mean that it stops existing.
Throughout the run of the show, the question keeps coming up: as humans, can we really mess with who lives and who dies?
In the show, Sun Woo first seeks to save Jung Woo, and then he seeks to save their father. Both attempts result in messy and unexpected aftermaths. Which begs the question, who are we to play God? And what is the price, for playing God?
At one point, Sun Woo sends this message to Young Hoon: “You were right that the incense sticks were not a blessing, but they were a curse. I shouldn’t have bitten the fruit of knowledge. Some secrets are kept as secrets for a reason. Bringing the dead back isn’t something up to a man. I only realized that after experiencing it myself. I’m such a fool.”
Young Hoon, at another point, says to his wife: “What’s the point of trying so hard? Our fates are all decided already.”
That’s definitely a core question in any time travel drama – Can we play God? And what’s the price, of playing God?
In the end, we see that Original Sun Woo’s time-traveling efforts did result in a freer, better future for New Sun Woo. The price, though, was his very life.
At the same time, the show also demonstrates that no matter the timeline, we are essentially the same people. There is a character consistency across timelines that doesn’t bow to human meddling. Min Young loves Sun Woo, never mind the dire warning from a dying man. Sun Woo chooses to save his brother, chooses to believe what he wants to believe, and love the girl he wants to love.
Although we can be shaped (Jung Woo living guilt-free = Jung Woo being more confident) our core doesn’t change. And consistently, through it all, only the past can shape the future.
Thought-provoking stuff indeed.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A rollercoaster of a ride. For thinking thrill-seekers.
FINAL GRADE: A-
Edit: You may also be interested in Trading Thoughts: Nine where Betsy Hp and I dig even deeper into the workings of the show.