Korean dramas are not lacking in the genre of supernatural romance, and these shows have almost always swept viewers off their feet. From Master’s Sun and Goblin, to the more recent Hwayugi and Hotel Del Luna, these dramas place a large focus on the central love story while toying with elements of horror. This year, we get yet another eye-catching drama, Tale of the Nine-Tailed (Nine-Tailed), to add to the ever growing list.
This review contains spoilers.
Standing in the line of many successful hits, Tale of the Nine-Tailed brings its own flavour and strengths to the table. Unlike the romance centered Goblin, this particular drama seems to align more with the horror infused tones in the beginning of Hotel Del Luna and Hwayugi. Nine-Tailed begins with Nam Ji-ah (Jo Bo-ah) who gets trapped in a peculiar and horrifying traffic accident as a young child, only to be saved by Nine-Tailed fox, Lee Yeon (Lee Dong-wook). Years after, Ji-ah has become the producer of a supernatural programme while doing her own investigations into the disappearance of her parents.
The show is filled with thrilling scenes of Ji-ah being preyed upon by ghosts and it is a fun ride to watch the fights between the fox spirits. The lighting and camerawork are fantastic in setting the mood for eerie confrontations, but the series also pulls off its fair share of comedic moments. The injection of humour balances out the gore and terror, appearing via the quirky habits of Lee Yeon and hilarious antics of the other supernatural beings.
The romance is inserted into the story as viewers get to know more about the world of the supernatural, and Lee Yeon’s determination to look for the reincarnation of his past lover, A-eum, through a magical fox bead he passed on to her as she crosses into the afterlife. The drama is filled with flashbacks, which is not unusual for a story dealing with past lives, an element that could make or break a show.
Nine-Tailed excels in making these scenes build upon each other and inserting them in critical moments for emotional build-up. The bittersweet reminiscences slowly expand to reveal the tragic love story binding Lee Yeon and A-eum together. In the most recent episode, Ji-ah finally gets to witness the visions of her own past life as she is manipulated into doing so by Lee Yeon’s spiteful younger brother, Lee Rang (Kim Bum). The pain of the moment comes through strikingly as the level-headed Ji-ah struggles to come to terms with Lee Yeon’s motivations for murdering her centuries ago.
As much as the love story is important in grounding much of the plot development, Nine-Tailed also proudly declares itself as a series that is more than another soppy romance about a patiently waiting ancient being and his unwavering devotion to a single woman. From the outset, there is almost no doubt who the reincarnation of Lee Yeon’s lover would be. The drama acknowledges this and skips over the guessing game other dramas might have dragged out till the very last moment. By episode 4, this mystery is resolved and the drama moves on to its more crucial concern — would the past repeat itself, leading to another tragedy with the awakening of the horrifying beast, Imoogi (Lee Tae-ri)?
By revealing part of its hand so quickly, the drama gives itself ample space to develop the rest of its story threads. There certainly seems to be a complex history behind the disappearance of Ji-ah’s parents, tracing back to their visit to Imoogi’s place of rest prior to Ji-ah’s birth. Episode 8 elevates the thrill by revealing the hypnotherapy that Ji-ah went through as a child to suppress certain aspects of either her memory or personality. Viewers also now know that Ji-ah bears a part of the Imoogi within her, presenting her as a threat to Lee Yeon. The future seems bleak for Ji-ah and Lee Yeon, but that is not all. Beyond the star-crossed love, Nine-Tailed throws in the turbulence of family relationships into the picture.
At the end of episode 8, both Ji-ah and Lee Rang have been thrown into life-threatening situations by a mysterious new threat working with Imoogi, a supernatural being who seems to have the ability to transport individuals into their worst nightmares. She reports to Lee Yeon that these are not mere mirages, but that dying in them would mean dying for real. Lee Yeon is given a choice between going to save the love of his life or his younger stepbrother. Interestingly enough, the first half of the series concludes with Lee Yeon heading for Lee Rang instead of Ji-ah.
This particular choice might be surprising, but certainly not unexpected if one were to follow the drama’s focus on both romance, as well as family ties. Lee Rang might have been presented as a villain from the start of the drama, working with Imoogi to enact revenge on his brother who he believes abandoned him in the past. However, when Lee Rang is told to bring his most precious item in his life to trade for the Eyebrows of the Tiger, a pair of glasses enabling one to see the past lives of others, viewers are told explicitly that Lee Yeon is his most treasured item. Bitter as Lee Rang might be about Lee Yeon, it is also clear to see that his hate is a product of overwhelming love for Lee Yeon. More than just having the story revolve around the refound love between Lee Yeon and Ji-ah, this complicated sibling squabble and Ji-ah’s obsession with locating her parents play equally large roles in propelling the plot forward.
The drama also offers up a spectrum of characters, each positioned differently on the scale of morally good to pure devilish. Lee Rang is far less an embodiment of absolute evil, and he earns his time on screen as a fascinating character in the grey area between good and bad. Lee Yeon often chides him as being stuck in puberty, with his motivations often rooted in petty vengeance. Yet, the audience also gets glimpses of his kindness when he saves a puppy being abused or when he gives in to the demands of a young child he glimpses as a possible reincarnation of his beloved pet dog from centuries ago. He continues to be plagued by his own anguish and feelings of abandonment, illustrating him as someone more than just a bloodthirsty little fox.
Lee Rang is just one example of the many characters in the series holding their own set of burdens, experiences that have come to the decisions they make. Lee Rang’s partner in crime, Ki Yu-ri (Kim Young-ji), bears the trauma of animal abuse, and the drama hints at a possible loveline between her and vet, Gu Shin-ju (Hwang Hee), who is able to see through her tough exterior. Even the all-seeing and omnipotent Granny (Kim Jung-nan) is revealed to have lost her son in a suicide, resulting in her strict and at times cruel overseeing of Lee Yeon’s behaviour. By offering up sufficient time for viewers to peek into the pasts of the secondary characters, and tug at the audience’s heartstrings. The drama builds up a world with great depth and believability, pushing viewers to question what goodness and evil mean in the pursuit of either protecting oneself or what one holds dear.
As episode 8 closes with the possible reconciliation of Lee Yeon and Lee Rang, the drama seems to push us to doubt our first impressions of good and evil. Whether it is romance, friendship, or family, the experiences of one’s past certainly do come to shape the personalities of the characters. Nine-Tailed seems to be suggesting that these relationships, though once broken, do not remain irreparable. Well-paced and sturdy in its world-building, Nine-Tailed provides more than just the conclusion of the main love story for viewers to look forward to. Rather, it is the unravelling of family ties that pushes the story forward here on out, proving itself thus far as a drama that sets itself apart from its predecessors. All I am left with wondering is whether there might be redemption even for a seemingly monstrous figure like the Imoogi.
(Youtube. Images via TVN)