TYPE OF REVIEW : HINDSIGHT REVIEW
HUGE!!!! Spoilers. Stay away if you don’t want to have the entire series spoiled!
Instead, click here for my non-spoilery First Impression Review or click here for the very spoilery, but only up to episode 10 Check-in Review.
How can you even start talking about tvN’s drama Nine: Nine Time Travels? Where to even begin?
First off, maybe by echoing my sentiments in my Check-in Review. Just ten episodes in and it was clear Nine was going to be more than just a fun time-hopping ride. Merely halfway through the series and it was already shaping up to be a “a genre-bending, game changer.” It was “mind-blowing” and “thought provoking.”
I went on my Philippine vacation before the final six episodes aired with no way to watch them until I got back, thinking, “I hate to do it, but I have high expectations for the last 10 episodes. Not expectations about what’ll happen next, but expectations that the series will continue to be as or even more amazing as it has been so far.”
Still fighting off the jetlag, I excitedly sat down to watch those final episodes and now that it is all over, my opinion hasn’t changed. It’s only been reinforced, if not strengthened.
Nine – Nine Time Travels was and is an incredible series. Not only did it transcend genres, it managed to transcend even language and culture. You’re surely not going to see many Korean dramas this ambitious and unique, but you’d be hard pressed to find even American dramas that successfully piece together an incredibly high concept and intricate puzzle without collapsing in on itself before it ends.
Writers Song Jae Jung and Kim Yoon Joo deserve a standing ovation for taking what could’ve been a horribly convoluted mess and weaving together an emotionally gripping, thought provoking, romantic, fun, thrilling story that all made sense even when it shouldn’t.
It’s all in the details, as they say, and Nine managed to touch on many details that would help carry the premise past what should’ve been natural endpoints.
How many times did it seem like the series was coming to an end, even just a couple of episodes in? I pointed out in my Check-in Review about how they were literally burning through the incense sticks so fast before eventually leaving them in 1993, seemingly never to be heard from again.
Those were just two examples of how the writers truly had a full grasp of what they were doing. They were in total control of the story the entire time. (Or maybe they weren’t and just got lucky as they made things up as they went along.)
But I do believe Song and Kim had a set vision, a full map of the ins and outs of the story because you cannot have such an incredibly intricate story hold together so well if they didn’t. Details like events happening parallel 20 years to the second allowing things like messages being sent from 1993 Sun Woo to 2013 Sun Woo through scribbles on guitars and carvings on banisters. Or leaving voice recordings on a pretty Samsung Galaxy S4… in 1993? Or Min Young remembering her last (first?) meeting with 2013 Sun Woo as if it were happening in real time.
It may have seemed it at first, but Nine was never going to be just about a man, Sun Woo, wanting to go back in time to save his father and get revenge.
For me, Nine was all about choices. The choices we all make in life and the effects they have on our future with some fate and destiny thrown in as well.
It’s a theme I’d already seen on Operation Proposal, though in a fluffier and less-tight way than Nine was able to do. Operation Proposal was likeable and enjoyable, but definitely flawed (and full of plotholes). Nine put limits on its time traveling; only nine chances and exactly 20 years from the present time. No Timekeeper or magic potion to let you go back in time as many times as you want.
There were rules and guidelines. We don’t know who set them, but they existed and that made Sun Woo’s journey and mission that much more urgent and exciting.
Like I’ve said, Nine managed to take a very high concept premise and made it work. It was executed excellently, maximizing every unexpected twist and turn to full effect. And in turn, transcended genres. Flowing freely between cute romance and fantasy-adventure to thriller and soapy melodrama, Nine‘s 20 episodes were full and never wasted.
And because it was so excellently written and produced, we are able to instead focus discussion on… “What the hell just happened!?”
“Keep it simple…”
Indeed. There is plenty to discuss about the actual story itself.
We may never know the real origins of the incense sticks or how Sun Woo’s, Min Young’s, Young Hoon’s and Jung Woo’s heads didn’t just explode from the clusterfrack of conflicting memories they collected. (Sam Winchester sure had a more difficult time on Supernatural.)
How about the existence of what would essentially be nine different timelines? What!?
Sure, Nine managed to present the idea of alternate realities (and memories) much better than Lost ever seemed to dream possible.
But I think, without diminishing and taking way from the complexity and depth of the series, Nine can all be boiled down to two quotes from Sun Woo:
“I would keep it simple right now.”
“You don’t need to find out how I lived. Because every decision you make will make me.”
Each time Sun Woo “played God” and used what he knew to change the past, it triggered that pesky butterfly effect. Every choice he made on each of his trips changed all the events that would happen after 1993. Yeah, everyone’d still have their original memories, but their present realities (whichever one that may be at the time) would be far different.
Nine showed just how profound even one small decision can be. At its most extreme, it could be life or death. At its simplest, it could mean a longer or shorter way around to one end.
It wasn’t until that final incense stick that Sun Woo made the moves that negated the need for 2012 Jung Woo to look for the incense sticks in the first place. The guilt he felt for 20 years was, maybe not gone completely, but at the very least not strong enough for him to risk his life for magic incense. Until of course, that final scene of Jung Woo, once again in the Himalayas holding a God-forsaken incense stick with a supposedly older-looking Sun Woo coming to his rescue.
But like Sun Woo also pointed out on the plane, maybe he was always fated to fall in love with Min Young. Maybe he was always meant to become a reporter. And maybe Jung Woo was always meant to die in the Himalayas in search for a way to change the one mistake he made in his life.
Whether Sun Woo and Min Young live 20 happy years as a married couple or whether Sun Woo finds a magical incense stick in 2032 or whether 2013 Sun Woo survived in 1993 and has been alive this whole time, that’s all left to our imaginations (and fanfics).
And the fact that we can go deeper and poke at every possible lead in the story already proves just how successful Nine has been.
To have been able to bring it all together, Nine needed a very strong cast and that’s what it had.
I never get tired of saying, I’ve been a big fan of Lee Jin Wook since he was the lead in one of the two series that introduced me to Korean drama. And after seeing him in roles ranging from mature leading man (I Need Romance 2012 and City of Glass) to unlucky second lead (Air City and Myung-Wol the Spy) to childlike and fun (Powerful Opponents and Before and After Plastic Surgery), I think Nine and his role and performance as Park Sun Woo might be his best since Someday.
He’s already proven it in his career, but Nine highlighted Lee Jin Wook’s talent as someone who can be charming and playful, but also emotional and strong. He definitely led the series and a different actor would have brought a completely different approach to the character. The material was well-suited for Lee Jin Wook and Lee Jin Wook helped bring the excellent writing to vivid life.
We’ll get to Lee Jin Wook’s great chemistry with Jo Yoon Hee in a minute, but the other big standout in the cast has to be Park Hyungsik as 1993 Sun Woo.
I’ve liked ZE:A and their music and I’ve liked Hyungsik and knew he had been in a drama but it wasn’t until January’s KBS Drama Special Sirius that I realized he may be one of the most promising young actors today. Idol actors are hit and miss and groupmate Siwan has gotten all the attention in the acting department, but this year so far, Hyungsik has shown he’s got a lot of talent left to show. Many times, having to stay side by side with Lee Jin Wook in terms of story and character progression, Hyungsik never skipped a beat. He’s definitely got a very promising acting (and music!) career ahead of him.
Veteran Jung Dong Hwan was great and formidable as the villainous Choi Jin Chul, balancing the meeker 1992/1993 version with the ruthless and conscienceless 2013 version all while throwing in some deliciously over the top histrionics in the final episodes too.
Both Jung Woos also did their part. Jun Noh Min has become a more than dependable actor in his most recent projects. But it is Seo Woo Jin’s younger Jung Woo that carried the heavier load. Getting the meatier and heavier scenes, he needed to deliver a strong performance since young Jung Woo is pretty much the catalyst for everything that happens in the series, including 2012/2013 Jung Woo’s decision to trek up the mountain. And he did just that. From the shocking revelation of Dr. Park’s real killer to his increasing struggle with guilt and the truth, Seo Woo Jin gave a strong, breakthrough performance.
The two Young Hoons didn’t get left behind either. It’s a shame Lee Yi Kyung’s screentime was probably diminished after his recent run in with the law because he and Hyungsik had shared a great chemistry that definitely helped lay the groundwork for Lee Jin Wook and Lee Seung Jun’s great chemistry as the older, present-day versions. Lee Seung Jun’s Young Hoon definitely grew into more than just Sun Woo’s sidekick. Being both slight comic relief and the voice of reason, Lee was able to make Young Hoon an important part of the story and the journey.
And of course, Jo Yoon Hee. It was interesting at first seeing her pretty much playing the same character she had portrayed on the popular You Who Rolled in Unexpectedly, for which she won a KBS Drama Award for. But thankfully, her character gained much more depth as the series went on, giving her stronger material to really stretch her acting chops. And she definitely delivered; the conflicting emotions, the young naivety, the need to grow up in a matter of seconds just to be able to comprehend what in the world was going on.
Her and Lee Jin Wook’s chemistry was also very evident. You only need to see the final episode for an excellent example of it. Seeing their great rapport with each other, the back and forths, both cute and emotional, and of course their much-talked about kisses; Jo Yoon Hee skillfully navigated the intricate material and was a big part in helping to make the story and Sun Woo’s journey worthwhile and believable.
Nine – Nine Time Travels is an example of the most pleasant of unexpected surprises. You go into a series expecting one thing and getting another, in the best way possible.
Nine is simply an epic drama, one that tells a story of life and love, family and friendships, and all while masterfully mixing in fantasy, mystery and adventure. It’ll probably be a while before we see another series as unique and as excellently put together as Nine. But it’s okay, because Nine is not a series one would forget anytime soon.