Director: Park Heonsu
Cast: Ko So-young, Jung Woo-sung, Dok-go Young-jae, Bang Eun-hee, Lee Ki-young
Duration: 115 mins.
By Paul Bramhall
Korean cinema was in a period of transition during the 1990s, a decade that would culminate in its film industry achieving an international breakthrough thanks to Kang Je-gyu’s bombastic action film Floor. The beginning of the decade was a very different story, with Korea opening up to the importation of foreign cinema, the early 1990s saw little attention paid to local films even from a domestic audience, when a wave of of Hong Kong gave rise to what became known as the “Hong Kong wave”. Stars like Joey Wong, Leslie Cheung and Chow Yun Fat have gained huge followings on Korean shores, and by the mid-1990s one film in particular would be successful taking inspiration from a certain popular Hong Kong fantasy series.
In 1994 The nine-tailed fox hit movie screens and was a landmark production in a couple of ways. The first, and arguably most cinematically interesting, is that it holds the honor of being the first Korean production to use CGI, paving the way for the likes of The Ginkgo bed, The Guardians of the SoulAND Ghost in love which would follow later in the decade. Secondly, it was also one of the first productions (and certainly the first supernatural) to be used chaebol financing (large family-owned conglomerates like Samsung) to secure a sizable budget. Combine both of these elements together and it’s easy to see why The nine-tailed fox it holds an important place in the history of modern Korean cinema.
The nine-tailed fox spirit, or gumiho as it is called in Korean (which is also the Korean title), is a popular creature from folktales in Korea. Her ability to assume human form, usually as a beautiful woman, has seen the seductive spirit become a fixture on the small screen, appearing in Korean dramas such as 2010 My girlfriend is a Gumihoand most recently 2020 Tale of the Nine Tails. Heck, there’s even a brand of soju that uses the nine-tailed fox for its marketing (Saero, for anyone who wants to try!). In 1994, though, the on-screen rendition of gumiho clearly owes a debt of thanks to Ching Siu-Tung A Chinese ghost story trilogy, a Hong Kong fantasy wuxia series released between 1987 and 1991. More specifically, the lovestruck ghost of Joey Wong and his desire to experience human love, despite the rules of the underworld strictly forbidding it.
In The nine-tailed fox is Ko So-young (Project makeover, Double agent) who enters the lead role, here making her starring role debut, as the human incarnation of an Earth-dwelling fox spirit who needs to consume a human soul if she is to survive her next 1000th birthday. Despite being her debut, So-young creates an effectively enchanting presence as the fox spirit who works at a café, eventually befriends and falls in love with a rough cab driver, despite knowing he needs to drain his life force if he does. is to live. The role of the taxi driver offers another debut performance, this time by actor Jung Woo-sung (Steel rain, Asura: City of madness). While Woo-sung lacks the screen presence here that would bring him later in his career, as a rough-and-tumble but still relatively innocent cab driver he still brings enough charisma to make it clear why he would go on to have such an enduring career.
Offsetting the juvenile leads (So-young was just 22 and Woo-sung was 21 at the time of its release) is Dok-go Young-jae (White badge, The General’s Son 3), who was already a veteran of over 30 productions dating back to the early ’70s when he appeared here. Playing a lowly worker from hell (literally), a pair of bumbling superiors mistakenly send him to Earth based on his ID number 69, when they should have sent number 96. Tasked with finding and capturing So-young to send her back to the realm of the spirits, there’s a nice inclusion of uniquely Korean culture in how he goes about his mission, looking for a shaman who worships him to help him. In Korean shamanism, each shaman is believed to have been chosen by a specific god to be his earthly vessel, so seeing the belief used in such a playfully commercial way was a nostalgic reminder of when Korean productions were still aimed exclusively at an audience local.
Speaking of debuts, The nine-tailed fox marked the directorial debut of Park Heonsu. As a director Heonsu wasn’t exactly prolific, he only directed 4 more features in the next 17 years, including the 1996 ones The real man2000s Chu Nomyoung Bakery2004 Two boysand 2011 Perfect partner. Behind the scenes he was much more active, often credited as part of the production crew, and remains active today. The Hong Kong influence is certainly strong on his debut, to the point of obscuring any impression of his identity as a filmmaker, however that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The tonal shifts and melding of genres feel typical of Hong Kong filmmaking of the era, with epic romance, supernatural fantasy, bursts of violent action and broad comedy all thrown into the mixer so proceedings never get boring .
By the nature of the era it was made in, the CGI in question is far from used for every fantastical element on screen, instead working alongside practical effects and only sparingly used for certain moments. Hell is depicted as a vast subway station for which trains are used in CGI, but the subway platform itself is populated by a large number of extras, a setting that seems more than a little influenced by the depiction of Hell. Hell by Chang Cheh in his 1980 production heaven and hell. Similarly a scene in which Young-jae finds himself run over and crushed by a truck is both funny as expected and thanks to the now dated CGI effect.
On the practical side, the wirework is effectively used to portray So-young’s flights of fancy through the forest in her nightgown, clearly emulating Joey Wong’s aesthetic from A Chinese ghost story. While CGI is used to transform her face into one with fox-like prosthetics, the fox makeup itself doesn’t quite hit the mark, looking more like a hairier version of Anjelica Huston’s witch transformation in Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of 1990 of Witches. Also, instead of having nine tails, we only have one which appears to be a particularly long white feather boa. Despite this though, there is something undeniably charming about the effort that went into creating the transformation, and I’d probably still take this version over one that was created entirely from CGI.
As much as I speak positively about how the effects and influence of Hong Kong cinema work The nine-tailed fox a product of its era, on the other side is also an unfortunate case of violence against women that permeated much of 1990s and early 2000s Korean cinema. While violence against women itself and in itself it’s not a problem when it serves a narrative purpose, when it’s done in a misogynistic and almost causal way, by a character who is supposed to be someone the audience relates to, then it always makes for uncomfortable viewing. For reference, I have similar issues with the likes of My wife is a gangster, Two policemen 3AND No blood no tears. In the meantime The nine-tailed fox the scene is mercifully short, and the context in which it happens in the end is resolved, whatever you think of the current quality of Korean production, I’m glad its film industry has largely moved away from this kind of misogyny.
The scene certainly isn’t enough to overshadow what is rightly considered a landmark of Korean cinema. While The nine-tailed fox usually brought up in the context of being the first production to use CGI, it also deserves to be brought up as a fun slice of mid-90s supernatural fantasy. By swapping the period setting of those films it drew inspiration from and placing the characters in a contemporary one, the result is both refreshing and unique. While Korean cinema would go on to find its own distinctive identity, there’s something about this era where it still drew inspiration from its Hong Kong neighbor that I’ve always liked, and there’s certainly a lot to like from Park’s debut Heonsu, Ko So young, and Jung Woo-sang.
Paul Bramhall’s assessment: 7.5/10