K-Drama Corner – My Girlfriend Is a Nine-Tailed Fox

Now that I’ve accepted my fate as a regular watcher of K-dramas, I felt it was about time I delved further back to get a sense of how they’ve changed. Since it was the Hong sisters (Jung-eun & Mi-ran) who provided my gateway to this world via A Korean Odyssey [Hwayugi] (2017-18) – a highly entertaining transference of the tales of Sun Wukong the Monkey King into contemporary Korean romantic comedy, which I still fully intend to rewatch one of these days – I went back to find the earliest example of their work available on Netflix. My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho [Nae yeojachinguneun gumiho] (2010) takes a similar approach with its transportation of Korean folktales to the modern day, but ramps up the comedy to create the televisual equivalent of a teen manhwa romcom.

The opening credits lean heavily into this association, as an opening theme which screams “lively and wacky” plays over a tale of romantic rivalry – a hot young guy in a nightclub is swooned over by all and sundry but his attention is snagged by the hot young woman across the room; the girl who’s been chasing him hatches schemes to break the two apart but ends up driving them together; and there’s a nerdy hot guy (i.e. he wears glasses) doing something in a lab. Spoiler – these comic-book-panel images are a complete and utter lie. But while on the surface level they’re incredibly deceptive, they do set the tone for the show and effectively set out the type of situations you can expect to recur.

The romantic complications and comic hijinks of the series centre around irresponsible college student Cha Dae-woong (Lee Seung-gi) and nine-tailed fox spirit Gil-dan (Shin Min-ah). Dae-woong was orphaned at a young age and has grown up under the care of his rich grandfather Cha Poong (Byun Hee-bong) and romantically frustrated aunt Cha Min-sook (Yoon Yoo-sun). He slips blithely through life avoiding personal responsibility wherever possible while living on his grandfather’s credit. He has only two goals in life – to become a super-cool action movie star and to win the affection of his older classmate, aspiring actress Eun Hye-in (Park Soo-jin). His life is thrown into turmoil when his grandfather discovers that Dae-woong hasn’t paid his tuition fees, instead frittering his money away on buying drinks for parasitic hangers-on. Cha Poong cancels his credit cards and attempts to ship him off to a boarding school, but Dae-woong absconds from a public toilet and jumps onto the nearest vehicle, ending up somewhere in the country taking shelter from a storm in a Buddhist temple.

Five hundred years ago, Gil-dan decided that she wanted to become a human being, gaining the permission of triple goddess Samshin Grandmother (Kim Ji-young) to make this transition on the proviso that she find a man who would agree to marry her. Although she had no difficulty attracting male interest, her beauty also generated a great deal of envy in the women she encountered, who spread rumours that she was only interested in eating men’s livers. Taken in by these calumnies (later to become fixed in folklore), her chosen suitor failed to keep his appointment with her and she ended up trapped in a painting in the above-mentioned Buddhist temple. Discovering that she is able to make herself heard by Dae-woong, she convinces him to draw her complement of tails on the fox in the painting, allowing her to make her escape. She decides to keep him – but, freaked out by this crazy woman following him, he runs off and takes a tumble down the mountain. To heal his fatal injuries, she give him the kiss of life – i.e. she places her fox bead (yeowoo guseul) inside him to begin a magical healing process. As the bead is part of her it also acts as a beacon, allowing her to follow him inexorably back to his campus, no matter how much he tries to shake her off. After seeing her nine tails in the moonlight, Dae-woong finally accepts her claims to be a gumiho – and, to avoid confusion when talking about this strange girl to his closest friends, gives her the name Gu Mi-ho (which delights her).

Park Dong-joo (No Min-woo), currently operating under the guise of a veterinarian, is a similarly ancient half-human/half-goblin with K-pop star good looks who hunts down supernatural creatures at large in human society. Initially intending to either kill Mi-ho or return her to her painting, her uncanny resemblance to the love he betrayed and killed hundreds of years ago leads him to agree to help her in her quest to become human. It seems to be pretty straightforward. She will need to keep her fox bead inside a human being for 100 days to absorb his human essence, while the human protects the bead by avoiding intimate contact with anybody else. Dae-woong, having overcome his initial terror of her, is pretty stoked about the idea – he’s won the lead role in a fantasy action movie and the power of the bead will allow him to perform all of his stunts without fear of bodily injury. Although the appearance of another woman in his life has fired up the interest of the previously politely distant Hye-in, he’s prepared to fend off her attentions in the short term in the belief that he can rekindle things once he’s met his commitment. What Mi-ho hasn’t mentioned is that the potion she ingests is a slow poison concocted from Dong-joo’s blood which will cause her to suffer a minor death every 11 days, losing one of her tails and a ninth of her powers each time. If she doesn’t reclaim the bead at the end of the 100 days, she will die a mortal death. This doesn’t bother Mi-ho – she gets to spend more time with the boy she’s growing to like, she gets to meet her long-term goal of living as a human and Dae-woong is strongly motivated to keep his bargain – it’s a win-win situation. Except there’s one little thing that Dong-joo has neglected to tell her – removing the bead at the end of the 100 days will kill Dae-woong.

It wouldn’t be a proper K-drama without some form of romantic rivalry, which appears her in the form of Hye-in and Dong-joo, both of whom are determined to sabotage the budding relationship between Dong-joo and Mi-ho. Hye-in is a selfish woman who claims to be romantically invested in Dae-woong, but whose actions suggest otherwise. Although enjoying his obvious interest in her, she has kept him firmly at arm’s length until another woman turned up on the scene and Dae-woong’s career fortunes began to improve. One of her early tantrums causes Dae-woong to miss out on a big opportunity, but it takes some time before she shows any signs of remorse and even then she blames her own actions on Mi-ho. Dong-joo claims to be doing nothing more than looking out for Mi-ho’s best interests, but his insistence that humans are fickle has more to do with convincing himself that anybody would have made the same shitty decisions that he did, and his gaslighting romantic advice is clearly aimed at convincing Mi-ho that he’s her only sensible choice for a life partner. But despite this dual onslaught, Dae-woong and Mi-ho prove surprisingly resistant to bad romance cliches by actually talking to each other and resolving their misunderstandings. Whenever one of these crises comes up – and across 16 episodes, there are a fair few – they are generally resolved by the end of that episode, bringing the couple closer together and continuing their transformation into better people.

If one romance isn’t enough for you, there are two more on hand to mix things up. Dae-woong’s best friend Kim Byung-soo (Kim Ho-chang) is in love with Ban Sun-nyeo (Park Sun-young), who in turn has had a long-term crush on Dae-woong. Never a real threat to his relationship, she spends a lot of time mooning over missed opportunities before eventually noticing the person right under her nose. This is a pretty minor thread, however, compared to the hilarious love connection between Dae-woong’s aunt and Director Ban Doo-hong (Sung Dong-il) – a famous action movie director, head of the action school and Sun-nyeo’s father. Director Ban is a huge fan of Chow Yun-fat and (when he’s not wearing Bruce Lee’s yellow tracksuit from Game of Death) struts around as if he were in a John Woo movie – clad in a black trenchcoat and sunglasses, chewing on a matchstick which flicks from one side of his mouth to the other, sweeping away dramatically while flicking up his coat collar. This relationship thread allows the writers and actors to pull out all the comedic stops – setting the bar high (or low) with a “meet cute” scene based on heroically claiming responsibility for stinky elevator farts (!!!) – and as their relationship develops through its ups and downs, the writers allow themselves free reign to indulge all of their urges for juvenile bodily function humour.

The Hong sisters already had five successful series to their name by the time they came to My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho. There’s a solid sense of structure underlying the development of the various plot entanglements and character developments – and while I found myself getting pretty impatient with Dae-woong in the early episodes, he matures at a reasonable pace. The Hongs also take care to make it clear that Mi-ho isn’t just pinning her desire for a relationship on the first cute guy she meets – she’s given multiple opportunities to look elsewhere and doesn’t prove to be too indulgent of Dae-woong’s behavioural lapses. It’s not as sophisticated in its structure as the sisters’ later A Korean Odyssey, which opens up its world to a larger scale and delves deeper into aspects of Korean society, but it doesn’t really need to be – at its heart it’s an intimate romantic comedy with supernatural complications. Although the premise the writers have set up seems doomed to end in tragedy, they find an elegant solution which doesn’t cheat and takes pains to convince the audience that this is a relationship which will last, unlike those screen couples you expect to dissolve into an bitter breakup five minutes after the movie ends. And there’s plenty of fun to be had along the way – I may have spent much of the back half of the series yelling at Dong-joo for being a prick, but I don’t think an episode went by without leaving a goofy smile on my face.

It took me a while to realise that I’d encountered Lee Seung-gi before, until one of his smiles made me realise with shock that he was also the male romantic lead in A Korean Odyssey. I completely failed to notice that this wasn’t the first time I’d seen Shin Min-ah – she was the female lead in the bonkers teachers vs students action movie Volcano High [Hwasango] (2001), one of the earliest Korean films I saw and the first one I bought (clearly time for a rewatch). Both actors contributed songs to the series and made an impact on that year’s SBS Drama Awards, each of them winning an Excellence Award for Actor/Actress in a Drama Special, both of them making the Top 10 Stars list, and jointly winning the Best Couple Award. No Min-woo appeared in two other K-dramas that year (Pasta and Rock Rock Rock [Rak Rak Rak]), but it was for his role as Park Dong-joo that he won the New Star Award.

Among the supporting cast I was delighted to re-encounter Sung Dong-il, who played the more distinguished senior educator role in Hwarang (2016-17) (previously reviewed here). Both roles exhibit his mischievous sense of humour – and while his role in My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho is more overtly comic, both characters experience their share of embarrassing bodily dysfunctions. But the most distinguished actor on show here is Byun Hee-bong, playing Dae-woong’s grumpy-yet-caring grandfather in suitably heightened teen comedy style. After appearing in Bong Joon-ho’s debut feature Barking Dogs Never Bite [Peullandaseu-ui Gae] (2000) (reviewed here) as a dodgy janitor who likes to eat stray dogs, he appeared in three more of Bong’s films, each time playing a character named Hee-bong – Memories of Murder [Sarinui chueok] (2003) (reviewed here), The Host [Gwoemul] (2006) and Okja (2017). He appeared alongside Shin Min-ah as the Vice Principal in Volcano High and played a corrupt politician in By Quantum Physics: A Nightlife Venture [Yang-ja-Mul-li-hak] (2019) (reviewed here).

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my journey back into the Hong sisters’ oeuvre and will definitely be visiting them again in the future. In addition to those already mentioned, two more of their shows are currently available on Netflix in Australia. I’d already been planning to watch Hotel del Luna [Hotel delluna] (2019), about a hotel catering to ghosts, but now Master’s Sun [Jugun-ui Taeyang] (2013) will be joining it on my list.

It was more difficult than I expected to find a decent trailer – most of them, inexplicably, chose to replace the actors’ voices with cheesily “wacky” Asian dubs – but I did manage to find a low quality non-dubbed (and non-subtitled) trailer which captures some of the show’s feel. I’ve supplemented it with a high quality subtitled extract from one of the show’s fantasy sequences, which should give you some idea of its sense of humour.

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