In a nutshell: A mystery, time-traveling, thriller. The plot starts off slowly, just the tiniest ice-crystal of action beginning a slow, rolling, tumble. But the tumble builds up speed, and picks up weight, and becomes an avalanche of secrets and threats and millions of ways things could go horribly, horribly wrong for our protagonist. As it barrels down an ever steeper bank you’ll be breathless, trying to keep up. There is a moment towards the middle where things bog down in doomy-gloom for just an episode too long. But once past that, the action quickly regains its speed sending you headlong into a wonderfully thought-provoking and satisfying ending. It’s an easy drama to get swept away in, if you let it pull you in. And you won’t regret the ride.
The Ticking Clock: Something I was truly amazed at was how the writers used time. Instead of time-travel killing the ticking clock (“whatever, I can just go back and fix it”) it intensified it, becoming an additional tension that twisted the plot into higher and higher levels of danger and suspense. Instead of one ticking clock, our protagonist, Park Sun-woo, was racing against two.
The key was the writers’ tightly defined parameters. The time travel was very time-specific (only twenty years, correlating directly to the time you’re currently in) so mistakes could not be undone. Not easily anyway. Snarled knots had to be untangled — no cheating by avoiding the knot altogether. And sometimes the attempt to untangle just led to more complex knots. Park Sun-woo was constantly being challenged and the challenges increased in difficulty as he went along.
This also provided the suspense of anticipated action (the headsman’s axe raised high above the victim’s neck). Events in the past would send rippling shockwaves through the present — but not until that event occurred exactly twenty years ago. So there was an added dread in waiting for the axe to fall. Both for the head in the past, but also the unsuspecting head in the present. At one point we watch a character place a phone call — and the screaming tension as we waited for that call to go through (will it go through? will it get answered?) ratchets up tighter and tighter as we begin to realize the implications not just for past, but for the present as well.
The Characters: Of course, plot created tension doesn’t amount to much if you don’t care about the people involved. With Nine, you care. An advantage of beginning slowly is we get to know the kind of man Park Sun-woo is, what drives him, how he handles adversity, before things get interesting. So when things do get interesting we can anticipate some of the moves he’ll make. They seem intelligent moves — small, compassionate choices, creating only the slightest of changes to the past — and their outcomes surprise us as much as they surprise him so as he races to contain the damage we’re racing right along with him.
Because so much thinking goes on on-screen, it’s important that the characters are well acted. Lee Jin-wook does an amazing job breathing life into Park Sun-woo, expressing his cavalierness, the vulnerability beneath it, and the gritty determination that bedrocks him. (Park Hyung-shik, playing the younger Sun-woo, does a good job as well. He seems a boy that could become that sort of man.)
This is Park Sun-woo’s story so other characters are in supporting roles. But that doesn’t mean they’re flat. His best friend, Han Young-hoon (Lee Seung Joon and Lee Yi-kyung), his best girl, Joo Min-young (Jo Yoon-hee and Jo Min-ah), and his brother, Park Jung-woo (Jun Noh-min and Seo Woo-jin) each have their own interests and drives. But their care for Sun-woo, and his for them, create an important interconnecting family that you don’t want to see destroyed. Which gives Sun-woo’s quest real weight.
(There are many more supporting characters — all wonderful. If you’ve seen Queen Inhyun’s Man, it can be fun to spot some familiar faces. Nine was helmed by the same team of writers and PD and they brought a good amount of actors with them.)
Every good protagonist needs a formidable antagonist and Choi Jin-chul does the job. He’s deliciously evil, grotesquely so at times. (You can tell Jung Dong-hwan had fun being as slimy and mouth-breathing and… wet as possible.) This is where subtlety leaves the room — but behind the overt bad-guy-ness is a very cunning and clever brain. Which means Choi Jin-chul is always standing ready to play spoiler, grabbing at whatever openings Sun-woo leaves. With him around Sun-woo must be completely on his game. Which is exactly what a good antagonist should do.
The Conclusion: Nine is not a drama you easily walk away from. The final shot is only the beginning. You’ll find yourself replaying scenes, pausing to pick out details, putting pieces together, seeking that satisfying click as clues slide into place. And that searching and seeking are well rewarded. This is a drama that wants you to dive into the details. Well thought-out, carefully planned, and precisely told it’s definitely worthy of watching and even more worthy of rewatching. It’s a tale that only improves in the retelling. And that’s my kind of story.