If there’s one thing that’s going to make a high school melodrama about two straight kids stand out and grab my attention, it’s a supernatural element. Plus, I’m always intrigued by time travel and its more mundane, personally-motivated (you know, travelling back in time to help your friend, as opposed to travelling back in time to kill Hitler) uses in stories. 9 Seconds – Eternal Time seemed to push all these buttons as it promised me the story of two young loners bonding when they find a camera that has the power to pause time.
This South Korean miniseries (only seven episodes that are roughly 15 minutes each, easily watchable in one sitting) follows Yoo So Ra, a seemingly surly and closed-off teenaged girl who has just been dumped unceremoniously in a new town following her parents’ messy divorce. Left to fend for herself while her mother does the high-flying-single-businesswoman thing, So Ra goes to buy herself dinner and manages to piss off a trio of high school dudebros in a convenience store. Inevitably, of course, our take-no-shit fair maiden is rescued by an innocent but heroic bystander, Kang Yoo Chan, a mysterious boy who always wears sunglasses. After a clunky-comedic “why are you following me?” “Why are YOU following ME?” conversation they realise that they live next door to each other, and so a slightly awkward but endearing friendship begins.
Yoo Chan wears those sunnies, it turns out, because he’s slowly going blind. This is a real bummer since his favourite hobby (taught to him by his uncle, who is objectively the best character in the show) is photography. This hobby, though, is what leads Yoo Chan and So Ra to a quirky antique store to pick up an old camera, which, they realise, can stop time. Not for long though, only about nine seconds. But could it be enough to give them a little more time, the little extra to savour a moment or gather the courage to do something daring?
This is me being a big whiny magic-realism-loving baby, but the magic camera wasn’t used nearly enough. For one thing, I genuinely thought they were going to use it as a revenge tool on the bullies—like, nine seconds is long enough to dash over and draw a moustache on a guy, right? Or you could move all the objects around him slightly to the left so when time starts again he feels sort of weird and can’t explain why. But perhaps the lack of use was the point: the kids are almost relieved when it seems like the camera isn’t working anymore, because they were spending so much time fretting and pondering that they should only use it to take pictures of something really special that they weren’t taking any damn pictures. I think it’s a message about enjoying the moment—don’t wait for special occasions to use a magic camera, make your own special occasion. If you dwell too much on spending your remaining time “right”, you’ll end up wasting that precious time by worrying.
I love the interplay of time magic and photography—a photograph is a moment frozen and captured forever, after all, so a camera that can pause time is the logical extension of that. It was a bit of a letdown that it really wasn’t in the show that much, to the point where it almost felt like an afterthought. The one time it really does affect the plot leads to one of the most confusing endings I’ve ever seen—and I’m going to talk about it now, so steer clear if you’re going to watch it and don’t want spoilers, etc.—and also one of the most unintentionally funny moments in the show.
Picture this: Yoo Chan is on one side of the road, So Ra, his girlfriend by now, is on the other. It’s kind of a dramatic, heartfelt reunion, there are sparkles in their eyes, young love is blossoming in the air. My immediate thought, because I’m aware I’m watching a drama, is that she’s going to run across the road to her lover and get hit by a car.
To my great surprise, she waits patiently until the pedestrian light turns green, and then runs across the road to her lover. I was very impressed with her foresight and common sense and the way the show had subverted my expectations by giving its characters road sense. And then a goddamn freight truck barrels out of nowhere and hits her anyway.
Or rather, she’s about to be hit by the truck, but enough dramatic blurry slow-motion happens that Yoo Chan has the foresight (or maybe he just heard me shouting “use the camera!!”) to pause time and push So Ra out of the way. He wakes up later in hospital, they’re together, she’s happy he’s alive and also not quite blind yet, and so they go on a big long beautiful date where he takes portrait photos of her—the first he’s taken in years, apparently, since he used to do it with his parents before they died and the process was connected to grief. So, that was heartwarming. So Ra has unfurled over the series from a standoffish loner into a suitably adorable, funny and warm person, and they both feel less alone in the world. And… then Yoo Chan wakes up from a coma. Again.
So like… what the show tried to tell me at this point was that both kids actually got hit by the truck (YC must not have gotten there fast enough, even with his magic nine seconds) and a month has passed. So Ra is still in a coma. Then that beautiful day was all a dream? Yoo Chan comes to accept this, and his impending blindness (which, I guess, was the one tiny clue we got that the photography date was a dream—he said his eyes had felt strangely better since the accident). Except that his uncle developed all the photos taken on the date, and the love note they made is still where they put it, and… was it real? Was it magic? Did they somehow use the camera to create a separate pocket of time and space or an alternate universe??
Neither the audience or characters know. But Yoo Chan promises to wait for So Ra to wake up, and… that is the end. I have rarely been so baffled. So much so that I forgot all my questions about whether or not So Ra and her mum resolved their fight, how did Yoo Chan’s parents die, how is he coping at the School for the Blind (some cultural context on Korea’s attitude towards disabilities would have been interesting here, i.e. is it a really big deal to have a vision impaired main character in a romance? If anyone has any experience or resources to educate me on this, they’re welcome in the comments)? At least the subplot where the kids played matchmaker to Yoo Chan’s shy photographer uncle worked out.
If you’re going to introduce a magical element and then not use it, and then wave it away with “I guess we’ll never know, but it was important emotionally” when you actually do do something beyond the realm of possibility… I mean, help me out here. I thought I understood the minimal magical rules in this universe, however background they were, and then this philosophical brain-teaser ending happens. The main ship is simultaneously happy and tragic. Schrödinger’s romance.
In any case though, it was a fun enough way to spend a couple of hours, if only for the beautiful scenery (including cultural monuments, pretty greenery, and cool street art. I’d be interested to know where it was filmed), some cute moments between the characters as they fell in love, and Yoo Chan’s uncle, who was, again, the best character in the show.
I watched 9 Seconds on Netflix Aus, but it’s also available on Drama Fever!