This article contains spoilers.
Over its final few weeks My Roommate Is a Gumiho has seen its characters grapple with their fates, but this being a romantic drama, Shin Woo-yeo (Jang Ki-yong) – a nine-tailed fox of Korean folklore that takes on human form – and college student Lee Dam (Lee Hye-ri) were always destined to become a couple.
The fantasy elements in the show may have aligned to tear Woo-yeo and Dam apart but, no matter the apparent internal narrative destiny, the fact that these characters are the leads in a prime-time Korean romantic drama means their fate is already sealed.
Given that the end point of such dramas is seldom in question, what matters is the journey the characters take to get us there. My Roommate Is a Gumiho began as a goofy, fantasy-fuelled cohabitation romcom and blossomed into a forbidden college romance while introducing several other romantic pairings along the way.
Despite the mythical lore it indulges in and the fantastical abilities of Woo-yeo and his centuries of existence, the show has kept things light and fluffy. So much so that, when they eventually came to a head and Woo-yeo was confronted with his death, there was very little dramatic weight as he began to lose his powers and fade away in the months leading up to his 1,000th birthday.
Aside from his potential demise, Woo-yeo was the ideal would-be suitor – handsome, skilled and knowledgeable about everything, chivalrous and occasionally goofy at the right time. With his height and good looks, Jang Ki-yong had little trouble assimilating the character, but then again, given how inexpressive Woo-yeo was for the most part, it wasn’t a particularly challenging role.
Lee Hye-ri, known for being a member of the K-pop band Girl’s Day, has the more difficult role to play as Dam, the temperamental and callow student whose mood swings, imperfections and easily triggered jealousy make her the vicarious channel for much of the show’s intended audience.
Relatable though the imperfect Dam may be, Lee’s grimacing and physical performance was occasionally overbearing and, over time, began to shine an uncomfortable light on her character’s lack of more positive attributes.
Dam is supposed to be the normal girl, the modern-day accidental princess who unwittingly falls into the arms of a prince, but over the course of 16 episodes of a series that was never burdened with a complicated storyline, she never emerged as a full-bodied character.
Her unquenchable desire for greasy food and heavy-drinking habit may make her a fallible and relatable character, but they became her chief attributes, to the point where it became clear she had no real desires as a young woman.
Compare that to say, Moon Ga-young’s Ju-kyung in True Beauty , who harbours an ambition to be a make-up artist, which adds layers (no pun intended) to her character and serves as a welcome distraction from the dynamics of that show’s ever-shifting love triangle.
Aside from being heavy-drinking, unambitious and a poor role model, Dam’s character is too thinly sketched to carry a full series on her shoulders.
Not for the first time in a romantic series this year – Run On comes to mind – a late-stage secondary couple threatened to take the spotlight away from the leads, in this case former gumiho Yang Hye-sun (Kang Ha-na) and Dam’s friend Do Jae-jin (Kim Do-wan).
The unlucky-in-love Jae-jin hardly seems a match for the beautiful, if slightly screwy Hye-sun, but their opposites-attract courtship was a compelling one. As with much of the show, their eventual relationship is partly the result of a misunderstanding.
Hye-sun helps a very drunk Jae-jin one night, and lets him sleep at her apartment. The next morning, Jae-jin sheepishly asks if they slept together, and Hye-sun, capping a running gag about her ignorance of the meaning of verbal expressions, answers in the affirmative.
Aside from Woo-yeo’s gumiho troubles, the big obstacle for the lead pair was Dam’s classmate Gye Sun-woo (Bae In-hyuk), who had been after her all season. Instead of showing Dam warming to his charms, the writers tossed in a deus ex machina by having a mountain spirit, played by Go Kyung-pyo in a cameo role, tie a magical red string between Dam and Sun-woo which destines them to be together.
This leads to an endless series of close-ups of the CG red chord tied around Dam’s finger, but since their closeness is not the result of a change of heart on Dam’s part, this doesn’t create the tension we expect from love triangles. Instead, the not-quite-courtship quietly runs its course and Sun-woo fades into insignificance.
Sadly, the same can be said for the show overall; Woo-yeo dies and comes back as a human with little fanfare and hokey logic, meaning he and Dam are free to love – and we viewers to move on to something else.
My Roommate Is a Gumiho is streaming on iQiyi.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.