Led by excellent performances by Kim Hee Seon and Kim Hae Sook, tvN’s 2018 series Room No. 9 (나인룸) is an emotional thriller with a deep mystery that unfolds in a familiar, but nonetheless engaging way. And with a little bit of supernatural spice to add some extra flavor.
Room No. 9 focuses on two women whose lives become intertwined after a (literally!) shocking meeting. Jang Hwa Sa (Kim Hae Sook) has been on death row for 34 years. Eulji Hae Yi is a hotshot lawyer who does anything to maintain her undefeated record. When Hae Yi is forced to meet Hwa Sa to discuss possible parole, a strange accident involving an old defibrillator causes them to switch bodies.
Now on the outside and in Hae Yi’s body, Hwa Sa is able to work to get to the bottom of her wrongful conviction in the murder of her former lover. But her digging uncovers a sinister web of lies, death and deception that reveal a connection to Hae Yi and her doctor boyfriend Ki Yoo Jin (Kim Young Kwang).
The series progresses as the two women adjust to their swapped bodies, but the body swap never takes center stage. Room No. 9 at its core is a revenge drama.
With the help of her best friend Mi Ran (Kim Jae Hwa) and a dedicated detective in Oh Bong Sam (Oh Dae Hwan), Hwa Sa uncovers deadly and shocking revelations as she hopes to clear her name. Part of her motivation is knowing how she has not been able to be with her mother for 34 years, especially now as she is in a nursing home with dementia.
Hae Yi, meanwhile, works from prison to try and undermine Hwa Sa’s efforts while figuring out a way to get her body back so she can get the promotion she’s been angling for.
Again, the body swap isn’t the main focus of the story and it isn’t a spoiler to say the ladies switch back sooner than expected. That’s when things get even trickier.
But the series is a fascinating thriller that moves at a fast pace, peeling back the layers of the mystery with each episode in interesting and unexpected ways.
Room No. 9 is also an excellent character-driven story as we get several distinct characters who are intriguing on their own, but even more exciting when together. The powerhouse cast helps bring the diverse group of characters to life. And while the story is engaging, some parts may be familiar to any experienced Korean drama viewer. That’s when the characters are able to elevate the series.
Kim Young Kwang as Ki Yoo Jin is a steady hand throughout the series. He shows once again his leading man qualities as the good doctor and good boyfriend who must face some shocking and painful revelations.
Oh Dae Hwan is a scene stealer as the loveable, smart detective Oh Bong Sam. Always on top of things and never allowing himself to get one-upped by the bad guys, Bong Sam is also a steady hand that gives hope during the series when it might seem like there’s none left.
Kim Jae Hwa as the dependable and equally scene stealing sidekick Kam Mi Ran is such a joy to watch. She is able to easily switch from fun and sassy to caring and serious. And her chemistry with both Kim Hee Seon and Kim Hae Sook is a highlight.
Lee Kyoung Young is completely despicable as the evil Ki San. Not much more needs to be said once you see him in action and secrets are revealed. Rapper One (Jung Je Won) does a great job as rebellious teen Ki Chan Sung who has secrets and painful thoughts of his own.
But the series is undoubtedly a showcase for both Kim Hee Seon and Kim Hae Sook. Both are experienced, veteran actresses and it shows.
As Eulji Hae Yi, Kim Hee Seon must make this selfish, greedy and ruthless lawyer somehow relatable. And she does. Truthfully, there are times when Hae Yi can be absolutely frustrating. She is the typical corrupt, self-serving lawyer you see in many a drama. But Kim Hee Seon is able to keep the character grounded, resulting in a satisfying growth later on.
Kim Hee Seon must then be the complete opposite when she is Hwa Sa. Taking the baton from Kim Hae Sook in the first episode, Kim Hee Son is able to relay the earnest and sincere hopes of an innocent 34-year death row inmate trying to clear her name. It’s a balancing act of course to ensure that she is very much Hwa Sa and not slip back into Hae Yi at the wrong moment. And she handles that balancing act well.
Kim Hae Sook, meanwhile, doesn’t get as much material when she is Hae Yi. But in the few scenes she does have as Hae Yi, she is able to project exactly what it would be like if a hot shot and unrelenting young lawyer gets stuck in the body of an older woman in prison.
The real treat, however, comes when Kim Hae Sook is back as Hwa Sa. The series hinges on the viewer caring about Hwa Sa’s difficult situation and her struggle for justice. And Kim Hae Sook is able to grab your attention and then some. Despite being older and both emotional and physically tired, Hwa Sa is still strong and determined. Her endearing strong sense of justice, for herself and her mother, is a fight that you can’t help but want to see her win. Especially when the layers of the mystery and just how deep and expansive the evil injustice and corruption are slowly, but surely revealed.
Room No. 9 may be a typical revenge drama on the surface, touching on the usual and sad realities of corruption and injustice in today’s society. But the cast and characters are able to draw out something extra to keep the series from being “Been there, done that.” The difficult journey leads the way to a satisfying, if not bittersweet ending. But you are able to feel that way thanks in large part to the excellent performances of Kim Hee Seon and Kim Hae Sook.
The emotional connection you see develop between Hwa Sa and Hye Yi mirror the audience’s connection to both characters. And their journey together and on their own is beautiful and affecting.