Plus Nine Boys: Episode 1
Coming-of-age drama Plus Nine Boys* premiered over the weekend on tvN, and I’m happy to say it’s as cute as advertised. It’s witty and full of funny meta references, but more importantly it has everyday, relatable characters and an earnest vibe. I already love the song choices in the first episode, and in fact the entire series is presented as a mixtape, which just makes it all the more endearing.
[*The title Plus Nine Boys is really awkward to translate—it’s more literally boys whose ages end in 9, or even boys with nine luck, which isn’t really much better. Basically, our four heroes are ages 9, 19, 29, and 39, and “plus nine” seemed the simplest way to get at the concept of every decade plus nine. The drama’s premise hinges on the superstitious belief that every decade plus nine is cursed.]
SONG OF THE DAY
Standing Egg – “고백” (Confession) [ Download ]
Track 1: “The plus-nine effect”
A man narrates about a series of famous people (comedians, athletes, actor Park Hae-il) who have all encountered misfortunes at ages ending in nine. Hilariously, they are not at all tragic, but the narrator seems to think that this is evidence of the fact that the plus-nine curse is very real.
The numbers 9, 19, 29, and 39 flash ominously over dark storm clouds, as we’re introduced to our family of boys, in quick flash-forward snippets. Each of them wonders to himself what is happening, and the narrator tells us that this is the beginning of their cruel plus nine year…
A woman fidgets uncomfortably in a fancy restaurant. At first it seems like she might be on a date, but then she calls the man sitting across from her a fortuneteller. He reads fortunes dressed in a suit and tie over formal dinners? The woman agrees to a multiple-course meal, and then eagerly takes out a picture of her family.
This is Mom, who introduces her sons, each ten years apart in age (she explains the regularity of the age gap as the result of a ten-year anniversary vacation her husband always took her on, which cracks me up).
Eldest is KANG JIN-GU (Kim Young-kwang), age 29. The fortuneteller says he looks like a player, but Mom assures him that innocent, hard-working Jin-gu only knows his work at the travel agency, and knows nothing of women. Cut to: half-nekkid Jin-gu partying it up on a sudsy dance floor surrounded by girls, ha.
Her second is KANG MIN-GU (Yook Sung-jae), age 19. The fortuneteller reads anger in this one, and Mom says he did hit other boys growing up, but he discovered judo and has since matured—he now has his sights set on college. Cut to: Min-gu playing video games at the PC bang and throwing an angry tantrum at his friends.
The fortuneteller says he recognizes her youngest, KANG DONG-GU (Choi Ro-woon), age 9. Mom eagerly asks if he’s seen Binding Scandal (a play on Speed Scandal). She says he did a bunch of commercials after that movie that paid for the house they live in now, and after taking a break from showbiz, he’s about to go back.
Last but not least is the boys’ uncle GU KWANG-SOO (Oh Jung-se), age 39. This is Mom’s little brother, whom she describes as the bane of her existence. He’s a variety PD for Music Camp (the title wordplay is just going to be a thing in every possible reference, isn’t it?) and rather successful, but she says it’s all useless because he’ll never marry.
The fortuneteller looks at the picture and says with foreboding that they’re all in their plus nines, and one of them in particular is going to do enough angsting for a lifetime all in this one year. His finger points ominously at her eldest son, Jin-gu.
Mom asks what can be done, and the fortuneteller texts her a talisman (lol, are even talismans digital these days?) to be sent to all four boys. She sends instructions for it to be placed as their wallpaper on their phones, as the fortuneteller told her to do.
She calls Jin-gu to make sure he listens, and he finds the whole thing rather silly. He’s sweet to Mom, but after the call, he erases the talisman from his phone. Ruh-roh.
Jin-gu is indeed a smooth-talking playboy—he turns heads wherever he goes and throws smiles left and right to all the women who notice him. He reaches the top of Namsan Tower where his co-worker from the travel agency frets over the terrible weather, but he breezes that it’ll be fine.
A young woman, MA SE-YOUNG (Kyung Su-jin), leads a group of Japanese tourists but doesn’t know how to deal with their disappointment at the obscured view. Across the way, Jin-gu leads his group of Japanese ajummas who are thrilled to hear about this being a famous spot where Jang Geun-seok shot a drama.
He tells them they’ll skip the rest of the tour to go shopping instead, and the ladies all cheer and take pictures with him. Se-young turns back to her group and finds that they’ve all jumped ship to Jin-gu’s tour, save for one lone man.
It turns out they all work for the same travel company, and Se-young warns her co-worker not to swoon too much at Jin-gu because those new CCTV cameras were installed at their offices because he was caught sneaking around with various women at work.
The co-worker thinks bad boys are kinda hot, but Se-young points out his obvious player tendencies—how he knows to stand at the perfect distance away from women, the way he turns his body 15 degrees, or sticks just his thumbs in his pockets, and always appears busy so that he leaves them wanting more. Hm, for someone who hates him, you seem to know an awful lot about his behavior.
It’s Jin-gu who’s been narrating since the start, and he comes back in voiceover to introduce himself as a 29-year-old tour planner. He finds Se-young waiting for him inside and sneaks up to backhug her: “Were you waiting for oppa?” He coos and calls her his Sam-shik, and she brushes him off in exasperation.
This seems to be normal dynamic between them—he’s syrupy sweet and she’s grumpy, and she likes to point out how full of himself he is. She calls him out for flirting with the ajummas and enjoying the attention, while he denies it and complains that ajummas grope the worst. Ha.
Se-young wants to stop and eat, and Jin-gu’s eyes glaze over when she orders the most giant fried cutlet I’ve ever seen. He narrates that no matter how she’s feeling or what she’s doing, Se-young must eat three square meals a day—hence his nickname for her, Sam-shik (three and shik as in shik-sa).
He calls her a mystery of the universe, for somehow remaining the same exact petite size for 26 years no matter how much food she puts down.
As they walk back to work, her giant scarf comes undone, and he insists on fixing it for her. He pulls her so close that she starts to feel awkward, and he teases, “Why, do you feel so fluttery you’re going crazy?” She grouses that he’s the crazy one and they tussle playfully.
She notices their co-worker PARK JAE-BUM (Kim Hyun-joon) nearby and calls out to him (calling him oppa as well). He greets them stoically, and Jin-gu tells us that Jae-bum is his bestest friend.
Jae-bum is robotic but loyal and never afraid to speak his mind, and whether happy or sad, he is implacably cold and prickly. We get a photo collage of Jae-bum’s emotional states from happy, depressed, surprised, to excited… and the faces are all exactly the same. Hahahaha, I’m dying.
Se-young asks Jae-bum to join them for coffee, and happily swings on the boys’ arms between them. They tell Jae-bum about their day at Namsan, and when Jin-gu brags about saving the day, Se-young wonders what on earth women see in him.
He leans in close and tilts her chin up: “Do you want me to show you?” But she tells him to get lost, seemingly unaffected by his charms.
Se-young notices JOO DA-IN (Yoo Da-in) sitting at the next table over and calls her “my unni,” though they have different last names. When Jin-gu compliments Da-in for looking especially pretty today, Se-young warns him to stay away from her unni, because she’s too innocent to be sullied by the likes of him.
Mom calls Jin-gu to double check that he saved the talisman that she sent, and he lies that he did. She says she’s on her way to take maknae Dong-gu to an audition today, after which she’ll go to see Min-gu’s judo competition.
Min-gu psychs himself up before the big match, mostly admiring himself in the mirror. His coach thwaps him upside the head for being distracted, and tells him he has to win today to get into his dream school. He’s feeling confident, though we see that his contestant number happens to be 199.
Meanwhile, Mom picks Dong-gu up from school where she has to pry him away from the other kids who want autographs, and he wears sunglasses and never once looks up from his phone like a little mini celebrity. The car breaks down as soon as he gets in, making him late to his audition (for Gift of Room 9, heh) and she feels a sense of dread as she has to press 9 in the elevator.
The other stage moms worry about their kids’s chances when Dong-gu arrives, and he narrates that he’s been on lots of auditions, but he’s always been the star. But when he’s called into the room (wearing number 29), the director is shocked to see how much his face has changed, including a missing front tooth.
They have him act out a sad scene where his dog has just died, and pwahaha, he’s terribly stilted and emotionless. The boy next to him, named Do Min-joon, of all things, takes his turn and brings the whole room to tears.
Dong-gu comes out of the audition not knowing where things went wrong, and the other moms whisper that he’s growing up to be another Macaulay Culkin or Daniel Radcliffe, as in, not cute anymore.
At his judo competition, Min-gu does well until the semi-finals, when he meets a particularly strong opponent. They’re evenly matched, but then Min-gu suddenly gets a rumbly stomach and tenses up.
It’s bad enough that he gets knocked on his back and pinned down without much of a fight, and by then all he can do is plead with his opponent not to push down on his stomach because he might poop his pants.
He holds it for as long as he possibly can, and then a sigh of relief passes over his face. Oh no, he pooped his pants in front of all those people? Also, why do I always get the pants-pooping episodes? Min-gu narrates that on that day, Kang Min-gu, age 19, fell from the top.
My math says we still have two unlucky boys to go. Uncle Kwang-soo is busy at work during a live broadcast of Music Camp, and only half-listens to the urgent call from his noona about the talisman. He erases it and gets back to work. His co-worker worries about the unknown indie rock band they have on the air right now, but Kwang-soo assures him that they might look crazy, but they’re a great band.
Meanwhile, Jin-gu rides the bus home with Se-young, and it happens to be Bus 909. He teases her playfully as always, but things take a turn when the bus driver falls asleep at the wheel just long enough to swerve.
Thankfully there’s no accident, but Jin-gu hugs Se-young close to keep her from falling, and hangs on much longer than he needs to. He’s enjoying it a little too much, and when she pries herself away, he teases her about her bra size. No wonder she finds him infuriating.
But later when she’s dozing off in the seat next to his, the way he looks at her changes completely—he gazes at her intently, and feels a jolt when her hand grazes his. Gah, you loooooove her.
He reaches around her to let her head rest on his hand, and beams when she leans on him for a split second. He shrinks back when she stirs awake, not wanting to be caught, and spends the rest of the ride just grinning at her as she sleeps. It’s adorable.
They get off at the same stop and he tells her to call if she misses him, which she just scoffs at. He waves and watches her walk away, and then narrates that Bus 909 doesn’t go anywhere near his house—he just wants to ride the bus with Se-young. Awww.
Back at the broadcast station, Kwang-soo directs the music program as it goes live, and cuts over to the rock band when it’s their turn to perform. Suddenly in the middle of the song, the lead singer drops his pants and flashes everyone (this actually happened in 2005 at MBC with indie band Couch).
Kwang-soo freezes in horror, and scrambles to get something, anything else on the screen. But the damage is done, and the worst has already been broadcast. My favorite reaction is Mom and Dong-gu, who watch it happen on TV and just sit there with their mouths hanging open.
Kwang-soo walks like a zombie through the corridors of the station, as everyone else runs frantically around him. He narrates that he though maybe, just maybe, he could get through age 39 without incident. Clearly that won’t be the case.
With 9, 19, and 39 knocked down, there’s only 29 left standing. Jin-gu visits an old co-worker who left the company to open a bar, and the friend asks if he’s still hung up on Se-young. Ah, this friend is aware of the long-standing crush, and wonders how Jin-gu could be so popular with all the ladies and so inept when it comes to his one-sided love.
He asks if it’s because of “that incident,” and assures Jin-gu that he couldn’t help it and Se-young will have forgotten about it by now. Jin-gu doesn’t seem so sure. He rides the bus home and swoons at pictures of her, and then gets jolted out of his happy reverie when Mom texts him to hurry home.
Mom sits the three boys down to warn them about their doomed curse of the nines, and tells them to be cautious about everything. Jin-gu argues that she shouldn’t believe in that silly superstitious stuff, but she points out that in one day Dong-gu failed his audition, Min-gu got the poops and lost his judo match, and Kwang-soo suffered that awful embarrassment.
Jin-gu’s the only one who hasn’t seen the news, and has to stifle a laugh when Min-gu shows him the pants-dropping snafu online. Still, he argues that he’s perfectly fine and doesn’t see why every single person in a plus nine year is cursed. Mom points out all the bad luck they’ve had over the years at those ages, and adds that the fortuneteller said Jin-gu would have the worst luck of all of them.
He asks warily, “You didn’t buy a bunch of talismans again, did you?” Mom says guiltily that she did nothing of the kind, and then Jin-gu goes to his room to find the ceiling plastered in talismans and straw dolls under his pillow.
He narrates that Mom had always believed in this stuff, but when their dad passed away eight years ago, it turned into religion for her. Even at the breakfast table she’s full of wary admonitions, and they can hardly do anything without her turning it into a sign of the curse.
It’s Valentine’s Day, and Jin-gu gets showered with chocolates at work. Of course the only person he really wants chocolates from is Se-young, but she just gags at the lines he tosses out to other girls. He asks why she doesn’t give him chocolates and pouts when she says she’d rather eat them all herself. Jae-bum, on the other hand, is as cold as ever and rejects both chocolates and dinner invites.
Min-gu broods at a convenience store with his teammates, as they wonder what to do about college when medaling in judo was their only real shot. The boys squeal in excitement when they spot a pretty girl, and even Min-gu looks mesmerized as she walks past them.
It’s getting late at the office, and Jin-gu and Jae-bum complain to each other, wondering if they’ll ever get out of there (hee, they call their boss Gap-dongie). Jae-bum decides he’s just going to get up and go, but Jin-gu can’t manage the same kind of bald-faced defiance and sits back down in his seat.
He does notice a box of chocolates stuffed into his bag though, and beams when he reads the card from Se-young saying that she made them and they’re messed up and she was going to throw them away anyway, so he can have them.
She assumes he has a date tonight but he runs out to catch the bus with her, and they spend the ride talking about their moms and their endless worries. He just goes googly-eyed staring at her, as “Pretty” plays over the radio.
Then the DJ comes on and a caller says he’s had a crush on his co-worker for a long time, and she made chocolates for him on Valentine’s Day—what does it mean? They insist that she likes him back and it’s a green light for him to confess his feelings, and play Standing Egg’s “Confession” (posted above) to encourage him.
Both Jin-gu and Se-young are acutely aware of how closely this describes them, and Se-young looks for a funny video to share to break the awkward moment. Jin-gu bravely puts his arm around her… but can’t bring himself to actually touch more than the back of her bus seat.
When they get off the bus, he haltingly tries to say something twice and just ends up telling her to get home safe, and just waves from a distance like he always does. Agh, why are you so tongue-tied?
He slumps on the bench and sits there for a while, mulling over his inability to say the words. He takes out her chocolates and comes to a decision, and takes off in a run. Yay, go tell her how you feel!
He runs excitedly all the way to Se-young’s house, but suddenly stops short in the street. Up ahead, Se-young is looking up at someone and smiling sweetly… it’s his best friend, Jae-bum. Oh noes.
He stands there in disbelief as Jae-bum bids her goodnight; and then he pulls her in for a kiss. OOF. Poor buddy. He backs away slowly, and as he walks through the streets, the bad-luck-meter shows 29 falling to join the rest.
He narrates that the plus-nines isn’t some terrible curse. We watch as Dong-gu gets the official rejection for his movie audition, as Min-gu looks wistfully at his dream of being a judo medalist start to drift away, and as Kwang-soo packs up his desk at the network and walks out.
“When something shows up to get in the way of a long-standing dream or a love we’ve dreamt of for a long time, when it’s no different from a rejection that came yesterday but you somehow feel more anxious and lonelier… that is plus-nine luck.”
Aw, the just-friends trap is one of my favorite romantic conflicts, and they really made Jin-gu’s one-sided love surprisingly endearing from the start. I wasn’t expecting it when he was presented as such a smooth-talker who’s popular with women wherever he goes, but I love the twist that he talks a good game but has been harboring this secret crush for a long time because he can’t work up the courage to confess. He actually becomes kind of stupid around Se-young, which does a good job of negating the potentially greasy vibe I thought he’d have when they introduced him as silver-tongued and girl-crazy. It’s nice to start a drama with a hero who’s already in love and pining alone.
I like the characters individually, but I hope there’s more family interaction in store. I can see how separating them and giving us their introductions and personal crises is more important for the first episode, and the fortuneteller was a good device for that, but now I want to see them being brothers and affecting each other’s lives. And we’d better get more screen time for Uncle Kwang-soo in the next episode, because I really like Oh Jung-se and I can’t wait for his antics.
When presented with the premise, I wondered how believable this plus-nine curse would be, but Mom’s superstitious nature works to ground the concept because she can be outrageous in her fears, and the boys can remain skeptical. She clearly wants to believe that this is real and attributes rather harmless misfortunes to these larger workings of fate, while anyone else might argue that any age ending in 9 sucks because you’re facing a new decade which naturally brings change. While they seem inordinately dogged by the number 9 and unlucky all at once (The obsession with the number 9 (gu) is even in their names: Jin-gu, Min-gu, Dong-gu, and Gu is Mom and Kwang-soo’s surname.) I like that their troubles are really not anything stranger than everyday growing pains. It’s just a coming-of-age story for four boys facing some particularly rough waters in life and love, and they happen to be connected by Mom, who believes that it’s a wave of bad luck.
The writing is witty and a little obsessed with wordplay, but I like most that the episode lands with earnestness and leaves us feeling like there’s potential for character growth and lots of endearing relationships. I already love Jin-gu and Se-young’s crossed-wires friendship, so I have hopes for the rest of the boys and their romances, and am especially looking forward to the boys’ family relationships. They all have their different crosses to bear in their cursed year, but overall it seems to be a fall from grace for each of them—and when boys who are used to being at the top of their game fall flat on their faces, we ought to see some interesting chain reactions.