Nine Time Travel: Series Review [spoilers ahead]

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I’ve been meaning to catch Nine Time Travel after watching W Two Worlds and finally found some time in the middle of assignments to do so. This has to be the best drama series I’ve ever watched in a long time, and not just k-dramas for that matter. The show sucked me in completely and while I took a while with the first four episodes because I was travelling, I finished the other 16 episodes within 2 days. The series had such a strong momentum pushing it ahead and was completely compelling at every turn. The pacing was almost perfect and the show made the most of each twist to fully explore the emotional ramifications on the characters involved. It took a bold, deep step into exploring the very tricky, complex device of time travel and brought it to life in a way I’ve never seen before.

In summary, Park Sun Woo, a newscaster, discovers through delving deeper into his brother’s death that he was in Nepal looking for a box of incense sticks, which allows one to transport 20 years into the past whenever it is lit. Each stick takes 30 minutes to burn, which means whatever needs to be done in the past had to be accomplished within 30 minutes. However, what’s fascinating is that both the past and present move in a linear manner, meaning that the change in the present only happens once the character in the past makes a decision that will change the present, and that could happen after the visit to the past is made. This keeps things interesting because both the characters in the present and past retain their sense of free will and have the ability to make their own decisions without any so-called ‘hand of fate’ controlling them.

The returns to the past start off on a victorious note with Sun Woo managing to use the incense sticks to go back to get even more sticks and then returning to bring cheer to his mum and fulfil his brother’s, Park Jung Woo’s, wish of getting together with Yoo Jin. However, things start to take a bleak turn when the good intent on his part penalises him as it turns out his lover, Joo Min Young, is the daughter of Yoo Jin. Bringing his brother together with Yoo Jin in the past results in Min Young becoming his niece and hence him losing her. The events take an even bleaker turn as he returns to reverse his dad’s death and realises that it was Jung Woo who accidentally killed his dad and not the villain of the show, Choi Jin Cheol. He returns again to the past to persuade his brother to confess his crime, but it turns out that is insufficient to reverse the present as Choi has already bribed the police, hence he realises he needs to rely on other allies, i.e. his boss Oh Chul min, who’s a young reporter back then to bring the truth to light. I always enjoy shows with characters who continually think on their feet and come up with ways to manoveur out of difficult situations and Sun Woo manages to do that time and time again, even though the incense sticks seem intent to do him in.

While I enjoyed the overarching plot structure of the series as a whole, I also enjoyed how well-written and intense each individual episode was. Each individual episode was enjoyable on its own and often adopted a non-linear approach in exploring the telling the story, often times detouring from the present back to past, before returning to the painful present. The show also manages to deftly bring in light-hearted or victorious moments amidst the increasingly bleak main storyline by bringing in the past at appropriate moments and then almost always ending with a shocker that almost over-turns all that’s happened in the episode earlier. One perfect example of this was the episode where present Sun Woo dies because of his tumour. We know from the trailer that he dies, but of course, given that that was one of the earlier episodes, it’s also obvious that his end can’t be so soon. Through both skillful directing and writing, the whole episode shifts back and forth between past and present and in the past, we see Sun Woo gradually figuring out that he’s the one who’s going to die, and Young Hoon discovering the pills in his room which present Sun Woo dropped in an earlier scuffle. This key event then leads to a dramatic turn as we return to the present and Young Hoon realises that Sun Woo’s life has been saved, because he has been going for regular scans to pay particular attention to his health.

If I had to nitpick though, I would have liked the show to go deeper into the source of these incense sticks, which is an issue that’s never touched on – perhaps because it will just make things too complex. This was something that Queen In-hyun’s Man managed to deal with satisfactorily, but this show neglects to address. We do get many references to God/Him throughout and much time is spent in the hospital chapel with both Young Hoon and Sun Woo praying, or trying to pray because it’s something so foreign to them. However, perhaps the source of the incense sticks is a moot-point, because at the end of the series, Sun Woo realises that he is the final incense stick – he was the one who brought the fruit of knowledge to those around him and as such, he’s the one who was ultimately in control all along. It’s quite a chilling realisation, if you ask me, yet also neat and in sync with the show’s logic. There’s been a lot of thought put into the mechanics of time travel in this show, and it’s largely consistent throughout, even as more people get clued in onto the time travel process.

Beyond the writing and directing, it is certainly the cast as well who brings the show to life and I must say that Lee Jin Wook far outshines everybody else. He plays Sun Woo with such aplomb and charisma that it almost seems like the role was written for him. He’s able to present such layered emotions within his expression, hiding sorrow beneath smiles or shocks beneath serenity. It’s a pity he’s kind of gone into oblivion mostly after that and is no longer recognised as one of the top male stars in the kdrama-verse. It does seem though that he was the most deeply and intricately written character within the whole show and the other characters were more or less short-changed because most of the others lacked that depth and complexity, the most obvious of all being Jo Yoon-Hee’s character – Min Young. I never quite connected with her character – if I ever cried or felt for her, it was because of the pain that it also caused to Sun Woo, but never did I quite connect with her, either as Joo Min Young or Park Min Young. She just didn’t ever come alive in the show, and it felt that as a character, she was simply responding to Sun Woo’s actions or passively responding to circumstances. She certainly wasn’t a heroine of any sort. It’s strange that I started to like her character more in the finale because she started to show more of her spunk and wackiness, but most of that disappeared for a large part of the series, especially when she was Park Min Young. I enjoyed the ‘bromance’ between Young Hoon (Seung-Joon) and Sun Woo, but it wasn’t as strong as Sun Woo’s own story arc and his ‘relationship’ with fate/the incense sticks.

On a final note, I would say this series came at a very timely moment for me when I was looking for a show that would stimulate me intellectually and impress me with its intelligence. I have found most of the shows thus far in 2017 entertaining, but not impressive in terms of writing and plotting. I’m hoping Tunnel becomes the show that achieves that. Nine far surpassed my expectations and it’s made me look forward to Sung Jae Jung and Kim Byung Soo’s next collaboration. I’ve enjoyed all their series together thus far, and after watching this, QIHM and W Two Worlds, I’d have to say Nine is the best piece of work. W Two Worlds was arguably more ambitious than Nine in terms of what it was trying to do both creatively and thematically, and I’d argue that had a greater emotional hook and fleshed out its key characters more thoroughly. However, in terms of overall structuring and tightness of writing, Nine beats both shows hands down for its sheer complexity and coherence. I will definitely be recommending this show to anyone who wants to watch a great k-drama!

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