Welcome back friends to Lovecraft Country S1E6, or should I say Korea, as this weeks episode “Meet Me In Daegu” travelled back in time and across the sea to teach us about Atticus’ life while stationed there during the Korean war. We see a darker side to Tic through the eyes of Ji-ah (Jamie Chung) and the story of her terrible curse. This flashback episode is one of my favourites of the series so far (after last week’s “Strange Case“) as the story is riveting, the cinematography is stunning (the gorgeous Korean landscapes are a feast for the eyes) and the beauty of Jamie Chung is mesmerising.
It has been building up to this. The mystery of Tic’s love affair with a Korean woman has now been revealed to us, and it was not what I expected I must admit. Ji-ah is the woman at the end of the phone that he wouldn’t speak to, not until he deciphered some of the text from the missing pages of text from the Book of Names which alluded to his death. A death that Ji-ah foretold. How did she know?
Ji-ah was a young nurse in Daegu, Korea, and an incredibly foxy one at that. She lived with her mother, Soon Hee (Cindy Chang) who had little money since her husband died. How Ji-ah and her mother converse is strangely formal—she calls her father “your husband” when talking about him. It becomes horribly clear as to why: Ji-ah’s father had been molesting her. Ji-ah’s mother knew and instead of doing something about it in a rightful way and so not to disgrace the family, she asked a Shaman to protect her daughter. The Shaman placed a curse on Ji-ah turning her into a kumiho, a nine-tailed fox spirit, which meant that Ji-ah would be safe from the memories of what her father did to her, but Ji-ah was gone. Her personality and memories were buried deep, deep down. Only to be set free once she had taken the souls of one hundred men as payment.
The kumiho is well known in Korean mythology, though its origins are Chinese. Folklore tells that a kumiho is a fox spirit which has accumulated energy over a thousand years giving it the power to shapeshift, usually into the form of a beautiful woman.
The kumiho has counterparts in Japanese (kitsune), and Chinese (huli jing) but has a distinctive feature that separates them which is the existence of a yeowoo guseul (여우구슬, literally meaning fox marble/bead) which is said to contain knowledge. The yeowoo guseul is said to provide power to the kumiho and intelligence to people if they can steal and swallow one. The kumiho can absorb human energy with it by deeply kissing their prey. The fox spirit sends the yeowoo guseul into people’s mouths and then retakes it with their tongues. If that person swallows the yeowoo guseul, however, and then observes “sky, land, and people”, each observation gives the observer preternatural knowledge. But the person fails to watch the “sky” in most folk tales, so they get a special power but not the full knowledge. Most legends state that while a kumiho was capable of changing its appearance, there is still something persistently foxy about it (i.e. a fox-like face, pointed ears, or the tell-tale nine tails). Some tales say that if a kumiho abstains from killing and eating humans for a thousand days, it can become human.
Ji-ah is not just a kumiho though. She is a human possessed, at least that is what her mother tells her. The Shaman wanted her to collect one hundred souls; she has ten more to go at the beginning of the episode. Her mother encourages her to bring men home, on the basis that when she has killed the men, she will become Ji-ah as a human once more. It seems to go against the general mythology, which suggests the longer that the spirit goes without feeding, the closer it gets to becoming human. That also seems to be the case here as Ji-ah has not brought a man home for some time. During which, she has made friends at nursing college, enjoys going to the theatre to watch American movies such as Meet Me in St. Louis, has gathered a great deal of empathy for other people and has fallen in love—all distinctly human qualities.
It is her human nature for forgiveness which brings Tic into her life. He arrives wounded at the hospital she works at, much to Ji-ah’s rage, for she recognises him as the man who likely killed her best friend, Young-ja (Prisca Kim). Ji-ah’s memory of him is that of a cruel soldier, who coldly shoots two innocent women in the head while trying to uncover a communist spy within the nursing staff. Ji-ah sobs as Tic moves down the line toward her, and it is Young-ja’s love for her friend that saves her life. Tic likely would have killed Ji-ah if Young-ja hadn’t admitted it was her who was the spy. Paradoxically, Tic behaves more like an animal than a human, killing the women without hesitation or the slightest hint of empathy.
Ji-ah is far from innocent, however. She gives in to her mother’s request for her to take men home, picks up guys in bars, or young soldiers that catch her eye and lures them to her bedroom. In the height of passion and at the man’s climax, her nine fox tails break out from every orifice, ears, eyes and mouth and plunge deep into her prey, stealing his soul and his memories for herself. Whether these men committed crimes or not, she witnesses their moments of joy like the birth of a child or reaching the summit of a mountain and takes them from her victims before devouring them completely. While there is reluctance on her part, she did kill 99 men. Tic would have been her final sacrifice if she hadn’t fallen in love with him.
Metaphors are threaded through the narrative. At nursing college, Ji-ah is intrigued by Young-ja’s autonomy. In admiration, she takes to wearing her socks rolled down as Young-ja does. The two become close friends, though it appears that Young-ja thinks that Ji-ah is gay—that this is the big secret she seems to be carrying with her—and interprets Ji-ah’s lack of interest in taking a man as a preference for other women. As a fox spirit, Ji-ah doesn’t know much about the ways of the world for humans. She is learning as she goes along, but then aren’t we all? Young-ja appears to welcome this attention, even if she hasn’t read the situation correctly. Being a gay woman in 1950s Korea was probably more dangerous than being found out as a nine-tailed fox spirit.
Young-ja is beaten and taken away by the American soldiers. Chances are that she is dead, but I will refer to my “little book of TV nuances” and say that as we haven’t seen a body, therefore she still exists.
Despite every intention of killing Tic in the beginning, Ji-ah learns to love him when she realises that he is much like herself. They have both done awful things they wish they hadn’t. The more time they spend together, the more human they both become again. She reads The Count of Monte Cristo to him as his glasses were broken. Not being able to read and escape into his fantasy world brought him to tears—yet killing two innocent women (and probably hundreds of men in battle) left him stoney-faced.
Likewise, when Ji-ah can’t escape the horrors of her life through cinema when the local theatre is closed down, Tic creates a private film screening in his tent. They give each other a haven, bring each other back to life and fall deeply in love. Her anger at him for what happened to Young-ja still remains, however, and she pushes him away when things get heavy in the bedroom. She later confronts him about her memory of him killing her fellow nurses and he is horrified. She forgives him because she is a monster, too; it would be hypocritical of her to treat him any other way. Once the truth is out there the pair are able to have sex without her tails wanting in on the action—at least the first time. The pair become inseparable; spend their time gallivanting in the snow, watching movies and reading together. It is perfect until Tic gets the call—he is allowed to transfer back home. She tells him to go but that she can’t travel with him.
This must impress some rage inside her for the next time they have sex, she cannot help the tails from snaking out of her, trying to take his life. For a moment the tails lock onto Tic’s eyes and Ji-ah can read his memories. She sees Tic being beaten by his father as a child, Young-ja having her teeth pulled out by Tic during torture, Tic buying tickets for the bus journey home and then his death. This startles her for she has never been able to see the future before, only the past. Did she regain her humanity at this moment? For if the folk stories are to be believed, to gain superhuman powers, you have to be human to receive them.
Ji-ah manages to break Tic loose from the grasp of her tails and he flees, never to return. Of course, most people would do the same if they found out their partner is a soul stealer, but it would be a kick in the teeth for Ji-ah who unconditionally forgave Tic for the monster he once was, but when it came to the crunch he could not do the same for her.
Looking back at the beginning of Lovecraft Country, Episode 2, you may remember Ji-ah leaping out of a wardrobe while Tic was held inside his room by Christina’s magic. She was a conjured up then of course, but it is interesting to note that she was dressed like a soldier, could fight like ninja warrior and had some serious beef with Tic. The fight between them ends with him strangling her to death. Once again reliving the nightmares of war in Korea.
I still don’t quite understand what Soon Hee wanted for her daughter. It did not appear that she really wanted her Ji-ah to be free. Perhaps she was jealous of the love that Ji-ah’s father had for his daughter, despite how messed up it was. Or maybe it was the fact that she loved her precious child so much she wanted her to be locked away from the realities of the world. Yet in doing this, she just pushed her daughter further into the darkness. The kumiho killed Ji-ah’s father, and she can still remember his memories as his life flashed before his eyes. Soon Hee comes around in the end, and she and Ji-ah walk the snow-covered mountains to visit the Shaman, Mudang (Alexis Rhee) and ask for Ji-ah to be set free. Soon Hee knows that because Ji-ah has not taken the full one hundred lives that she will pay the ultimate price. A red fox stares at Ji-ah from afar—I interpret this as the fox spirit separating from Ji-ah, leaving her human once more, or perhaps even superhuman.
Will this make a difference to Tic now? What about Leti? Or perhaps he has more important things on his mind like his impending doom. What will that be and is there any way around it? Hopefully, we will find out more next week. I shall see you there, in Lovecraft Country.
All images courtesy of HBO