My Girlfriend is a Nine-Tailed Fox
내 여자친구는 구미호 / My Girlfriend is a Gumiho
(Aug – Sept 2010)
who’s in it
Lee Seunggi (Shining Inheritance)
Shin MinAh (A Love to Kill)
No MinWoo (Pasta)
Park SooJin (Boys Over Flowers)
what’s it about
If a siren is that of the sea, a gumiho, or nine-tailed fox, is a siren of the mountain, a fabled creature that can manifest as a beautiful woman in order to seduce men. What is her purpose in life? To eat their hearts, or livers…or all parts, depending on which time period you’re looking at during the evolution of the K-myth. But what if it’s all a misunderstanding? A warping of the truth when the tale was passed down through the ages? What if a gumiho is merely a victim of slander and defamation by jealous village women back in the day? Anyhow, Lee Seunggi, a college student who aspires to be a motion picture action star, is about to find out just how much of the gumiho legend is fact…and fiction. When he foolishly releases Shin MinAh from her papyrus prison at a Buddhist temple, he finds his life at the mercy of her whims. With no other choice but to keep her by his side, Lee Seunggi is in a fight to keep his liver...and perhaps, his heart?
Also, No MinWoo is a young mysterious man lurking around…and on a hunt, or so it appears.
Hong MiRan, Hong JungEun
To begin, let me just say, I had really really been looking forward to this one ever since it was announced. These are my reasons: ONE, I think Lee Seunggi is just all kinds of adorable. TWO, I’ve enjoyed almost all of the dramas written by Hong MiRan and Hong JungEun, writers who have a clever way of wiggling and twirling a seemingly simple story into something completely unexpected and untrodden. They truly have a gift of nurturing a seed of an idea into something truly wonderful. In fact, You’re Beautiful and Couple or Trouble are two of my all time favorites. Last, but not least, THREE, the idea of using a fantastical mythological creature who wants to eat her boyfriend’s liver as the central romantic conflict is…simply too horror film carnivorously strange to ignore! How could you not be curious? With these three solid reasons, I had very little doubt this one would end up being a must-watch for me.
After the first couple of episodes…
ONE, I still think Lee Seunggi is all kinds of ten thousand ways adorable. His hyper-narcissistic-but-good-guy character suited him perfectly, for we all know that a large part of Lee Seunggi’s innate charm is the fact that he comes across as an average nice-guy-who-happens-to-be-hot, and so he complements Shin MinAh’s scary slash innocent charm very well.
TWO, as with previous dramas by Hong and Hong, the intricacies within Nine-Tailed aren’t exactly what I’d expected when I’d first heard the premise, but a corkscrew take on an old convention. The worlds they build are often based in reality but over that basic setting, a transparent film of unique details are placed to create a completely new feel. This one, for example, feels like some weird mock-horror-romantic-fantasy genre—and I love it! Credit to the art director for making this work and not feel too comic-booky. Also, the H & H dramas often spend a great deal of time picking and prodding at the knot between the main characters, which I soooo appreciate in a kdrama. My favorite parts of dramas are always the details within characters so I love the ones that spend more time with the people than plot tricks. Sure, we have some distractions here too, a fancy little set-up about a boy and a supernatural ‘monster’ of sorts, which will be delightful because it is so different, yes, but when we get down to business, this one feels like it’s a winner not only because of all that packaging but because it’s clear the story is really about both characters and their respective journeys to become “human,” and not only in the literal sense.
And THREE, I very much like this particular knot holding Lee Seunggi and Shin MinAh to one another, the “knot” being the main misunderstanding set up between the two leads…I can see the inherent symbolism in it (again, layer upon layer of meaning for every thing set and said), and oddly enough, the use of imminent death as a bargaining chip between the two leads…is kind of sweetly romantic, in a really morbid kind of way! She literally holds his fate in her hands, or more accurately, in her almost-kisses! Well, I guess love is a matter of life and death...for some. Besides, love is inexplicable, and these days, it seems the inexplicable supernatural love is the raging trend. If a bat can find love, why not a fox?
So excited about this one. There have been some great dramas so far this year but I wonder if this is the one that could end up at the top of the class when the year comes to a close...omg! When 2010 ends in only four months from now! Where has the year gone?
(first impressions originally posted August 19, 2010)
Shin MinAh is so perfectly cast as this contradiction of fox and innocence that it’s surprising to learn she was not the first choice. Shin SeKyung was originally set to star...and personally speaking, I do not approve of that particular almost-casting. This drama would not have been the same with the younger actress. Shin MinAh brings pure joy to this role. You know a character really belongs to an actress when it is impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part.
With electropop liveliness—quick, sharp, and upbeat—there was little time to be bored. But I will say, despite my complete enjoyment of it, Gumiho never lathered me up in an obsessive frenzy, as its immediate Hong and Hong predecessor You’re Beautiful had done. I liked this fairytale A LOT, but it fell short of making my all-time favorites list.
There was an umbrella of happiness and humor that protected the viewer from too much weltschmerz despite the fact that the central conflict revolved around a looming promise of imminent death. A supernatural fable-tale, it never deteriorated into grim griping, unlike Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, which the show itself referenced early in the series—although the inclusion did serve as a foreshadowing of things to come.
One character, however, did enough moping and glaring for the whole of the show. Dr. Park DongJoo, portrayed by No MinWoo, was part pet doc, part supernatural know-it-all, and also an
What made him so compelling imo was the very real human emotion behind the actions of this inhuman being, this creature’s inability to just let go. After all, the act of being obsessive and full of self-loathing is more of a global past time for humans than even football (soccer). This guy bottled up his feelings of guilt and planned to stew in it for all eternity, and would have done so had he never met Shin MinAh. Not a villain, but an intensely passionate activist lobbying against the dangers of co-mingling between the Short Life Span-ers and the Live Forever-ers. He spends his time hunting down his kind...for the protection of both sides.
As for his meddling in Shin MinAh’s affairs, from his point of view, completely rational. How would you behave after regretting one mortal mistake for a millennium? That’s a pretty damn long time to feel like a dirtbag, older than most countries. If the situation presented itself, wouldn’t you do everything in your wicked supernatural power to change that past mistake? Yet he could not see the irony in his own behavior. For someone who had grieved for so long, it was amazing how resistant he was to the idea of true love; how jaded he had become while living amongst people. Without being too spoilerish, his final gesture really wrapped up his story for me in a profound and wonderfully not-cheesy, not-emo way, but befitting the light-but-heavy-on-the-metaphor tone of the entire drama.
Since everything worked in this drama I’m gonna discuss the range of acting talents in here instead of racking my brain for some flaw. The main four:
Shin MinAh—pure guava magic. She was sweet, slightly tart and all kinds of adorable pink. My most lasting impression of Shin MinAh, aside from her CF smooches with Won Bin, was her sapfest role in A Love to Kill, which did nothing for me. This is the role that convinced me that she deserves her A-list status. Consider me officially a Shin MinAh fan.
Lee Seunggi—well, right off, my initial instinct is to underline him as a singer and say something trite like, ‘he did a good acting job for a singer,’ but the truth is, he did a darn good job, period. His delivery was probably as capable as any seasoned actor would have managed. This young entertainer is establishing himself in the K-industry as something of a freak of nature. Why is he so freakishly good at everything he does!? It’s unnatural. Now, I’m not saying he was perfect, mind you, there was still a stiffness to his acting, an inability to completely shed his self-consciousness, but overall, a wonderful job done. Besides, the writing was so witty and Shin MinAh was so out-of-the-Milky-Way awesome, any small amount of extra oomph needed because of Lee Seunggi’s limited acting experience was really the difference between =) and :) in smiley face speak. Minuscule.
He gets a firm A-
As a side note, the acting dynamic between the couple reminded me a bit of the duo-mojo between Oh JiHo and Han YeSeul in Fantasy Couple. Oh JiHo was a great watch but he, too, had limits to his range. The writing and Han YeSeul, however, filled up the small fraction of empty cup with ease. Both Fantasy and Gumiho were really about the strength of the female roles.
No MinWoo—he was one of the three lovely Idol Chefs from Pasta, so yes, he’s a good-looking man. It took me the entire drama to decide how I felt about his delivery, but in the end, I thought he did a commendable job.
Solid B work.
Park SooJin—honestly, the role was a little lame so there’s little to critique. Not only was she a peripheral villainess, but she wasn’t really given scenes enough for an opportunity to shine, although I’m not all that convinced about her acting ability had she been given more meat.
She gets a C.
I can’t stress enough the wonderfulness of this screenplay written by the Hong writers. This kind of clever imagination is a gift, truly a skill born with, not learned. To be able to bring identity and breath to fictional characters by untangling ideas/cinematic situations in a way that is both new and accessible appears effortlessly easy when done right, but impossibly difficult in reality. These women have their fingers on the pulse of entertainment tv, they know kdramas, and they know how to deliver a satisfying yet fashionable miniseries. To borrow the gumiho’s much loved compliment, they are fashionistas...of trendy dramas. The tangly twists and layered dialogue managed to deliver kdrama conventions in unexpected ways. It had everything a kdrama should have, but with more panache.
One of their greatest strengths as writers was their uncanny know-how of when plot devices needs to be closed, when they need to be explored, and when to turn it upside down. The managing of conflict, for example, perfect. Usually in dramas, the characters stumble forward in ignorance of everything for almost an entire series, misunderstandings piling up on top of one another until it becomes a goopy mess, problems that never get completely resolved even by the end. In Gumiho, struggles between characters were settled and squared away one by one in a deliberate, well-organized manner. Here is an example: I appreciated the fact that all the main players figured out Shin MinAh’s secret early, and the story was able to move onto playing around with the way everyone dealt with it. A problem is presented, solved, the the next one brought out. This kept things in constant movement, interesting and engaging. It did not store away problems like a hoarding squirrel. How refreshing!
Another highly impressive, seemingly duh writing trick was their utilization of character consistency. Why is that impressive? Because it’s not all that normal in kdramas. These shows are usually written episode by episode and on a ridiculous time table. Plots and characters regularly become derailed because of many external reasons: ratings, fan furor, network pressure, time constraint, premature cancellation, bad writing, etc. In this case, none of the characters were sacrificed for the sake of The Powers That Be. Until the very last scene, they remained sincerely true to themselves. Lovely. So nice when character insanity doesn’t shoot a good show in the foot.
Last, if I don’t discuss the abundance of symbolism in this drama, I would be missing a large part of what made Gumiho so charming. There was a great deal of emblem use in the storytelling, many actions and objects embodying greater meaning than the actual value of the action or object itself. For example, the gumiho’s ‘jewel’ of life that is lent to Lee Seunggi evolves throughout the show to signify different things. It starts as the imprisoning chain between the two leads, then it acquires a deeper symbolism to become a manifestation of their love, and eventually becomes the divine connection between the couple that transcends even death, the very symbol of humanity.
The writers carefully develop an idea or thing, redefine it, recreate it to become something else entirely. They use this type of association to evoke emotions on a deeper level, but the artfulness also allows for some very unique dialogue between characters that speak of one thing, while saying another. As an example, only in Gumiho, with the careful build up of beef’s significance, could the gifting of “cow meat” have become as romantic a gesture as the presentation of flowers. Another clever trick worth mentioning? Their redefining of “fox rain” as an external manifestation of Shin Mina’s tears. Just brilliant.
The tone of this drama was established so perfectly, written so effectively, that it lent itself to a great many cute scenes and story turns.
There were truly too many adorable scenes to count or pick as a favorite. BUT if I must, I select The Killing Mosquitoes While Drunk scene (hit CC if English subs do not automatically show up):
And, for bonus’ sake, here’s a montage of cuteness from the show:
what made me want to gouge my eyes out
Nothing really. Everything was great, even the exaggerated comedy, like the relationship between the goofy action director and Lee Seunggi’s ‘spinster’ aunt.
what kept me going
Actor-cuteness aside, the intriguing premise was a big draw. It was one that seemed impossible to deliver with any kind of class. This supposed liver eating creature that looked like Shin MinAh, who had been unfairly maligned by popular opinion for hundreds of years, suddenly found herself among humanity only to fall hopelessly in love with a self-absorbed action star. Seriously? Is that not the most insane pitch ever? And yet…it worked.
This drama was more than a supernatural giggle, there was genuine heart and thought found here. It was about growth—how would a child (in this case, an innocent immortal being) see this modern world we people have created? Who really lacked humanity, the creature with a heart of gold, or the human being distracted by all the superficiality in society? In fact, Lee Seunggi’s grandfather (rightly) credited Shin MinAh for finally turning his grandson into a human being. A story about transformative love—literally. How could anyone stay away?
predictability Completely surprising. Although the ending was well-deserved and satisfying, a tad bit too convenient
originality I think to call it original would still be selling it short
eye-candy Shin MinAh, of course, but also some pretty cool cameos by the talented You’re Beautiful alums UEE, Park ShinHye and Lee HongKi
hair and fashion Everyone looked great
is it worth trying to find?
Absolutely. Warning: a light hearted comedy, yes, but I cried like a baby in some scenes. I don’t know why but the waterworks spilled like the dam cracking; that good writing reared its ugly head again and again!
total enjoyment factor
why this review is completely biased
I have never been Shin MinAh’s biggest fan prior to this airing but Lee Seunggi I have always liked, although I do not think him the strongest actor (yet). But everyone was stellar. Why did this show work so well? Here’s my opinion: the writers really knew how to play to their actors’ strengths. They didn’t compromise the story, but they made care to write their characters in a way that was a complement to the core identity of each casted star, used their real charms to make the roles better realized. Instead of forcing the actors to depict far-fetched personalities, the writers drew the best qualities out of the actors themselves to create the parts, much as an animator would incorporate the physical attributes and personalities of voice actors into an animated work.
could a non-kdrama fan like this
This would actually be a good entry vehicle for a total newbie.
I think life and death stories are hard to pull off in a contemporary setting and can come across as totally cheesy and a difficult sell, as most of us don’t fight the mortal coil on a daily basis. It is also a complete oddity in a contemporary romantic comedy. This sort of anti-romantic comedy premise requires a deft touch, the ability to evoke a real sense of danger without allowing that melodrama to take over the entire show. Gumiho did a wonderful job respecting its own mythology, taking it with grave seriousness, but still allowed the natural brightness of the characters to keep the narrative airy despite the the whole “death in a bottle” conflict.
The Hongs have made an art form out of poking at social conventions in both kdramas and in all K-society, and they do it which such humor and grace. After all, television and film is always at its best when it sheds illumination on some real truths in our world, about the things we take for granted…about the things we should not take for granted. In this case, the difference between being human in the literal sense and being human in the moral definition. And it shared that lesson with us in the most romantic way. When Shin MinAh’s window of time with Lee Seunggi begins to close, she tells herself, “I don’t need five hundred years or fifty years. Fifty beautiful days is good enough.” She is an old creature, but she has never truly lived, only existed. This gumiho had lived 500 years but she had never truly felt alive until meeting Lee Seunggi. He, likewise, found real meaning and selfless love while at her side. Just thinking about it makes me weepy.
The length of time, centuries or days, is less important than the way one spends it.