The Woman Trapped in the Painting – My Girlfriend is a Nine-Tailed Fox, Part 1

This time around, our new series will focus on Jeongeun and Miran Hong’s My Girlfriend is a Nine-Tailed Fox (홍정은 & 홍미란의”내 여자친구는 구미호”). The TV show was written by the famous Hong sisters, but the novel was ghost written by Seongyeon Kim (김성연). I don’t usually like to use books based on TV shows or video games for this blog, but they are a valid choice for language study and for increased motivation to read in a foreign language. While by most definitions, these sorts of books wouldn’t be considered truly literary, if the ghost writer is good enough, it could still be quality writing. They can make it easier for language students to get specific sorts of vocabulary, and they provide scaffolding to work off of for easier understanding of the text. Not only do you activate your background knowledge from the show connected with it, this type of book also allows you to check your comprehension. However, when I studied creative writing at the university years ago, there were some very narrow definitions of true literary fiction, but I never subscribed to those ideas even back then. I’ll read just about anything. So this time, let’s have some fun.

Published in 2010, the book is split into 2 volumes and runs to about 800 pages with a section of stills from the TV show in the back of each book. The pages of the prologue and epilogue are done in a design of a pretty blue sky with clouds and cherry blossoms, and every couple of pages has a little drawing of a fox head near the page numbers.  The book therefore definitely falls in the genre of romantic fantasy with a really cutesy feel, and the covers are very beautiful, watercolor-hued, whimsical photos. Each chapter has another black and white photo as well. Both volumes I have are signed by two people whose signatures I can’t read. Maybe the Hongs? The lead actors from the show? I have no clue. The books can be purchased here: (Volume 1) (Volume 2)

Chapter Photo

Chapter Photo

You can watch the TV show here:

Daewoong and Miho from Vol. 2's Photobook

Daewoong and Miho from Vol. 2’s Photobook

The prologue has a different feel from the beginning shown in the TV show in my opinion, mainly because you get interior monologue and impressions better in texts than on film. One part I felt changed the mood of the beginning was the description of Miho:

미호의 결 좋은 긴 머리카락이 바람 장단에 맞추어 아름다운 춤을 추었다. 캠퍼스를 오가는 사람들의 시선이 죄다 그녀에게로 날아와 꽂혔다. 긴 머리에 하얀 스커트가 팔랑거리는 모습이 좀 많이 예쁘기는 하다. 모공 하나 없이 뽀얀 피부, 웃으면 천사처럼 휘어지는 눈초리, 말랑말랑해 보이는 핑크빛 입술까지. 자신을 향해 부러운 시선을 던지는 저 파란 남방에게로 달려가 대웅은 그만 무릎이라도 꿇고 싶었다. (p.7)

“Miho’s fine long hair did a beautiful dance with the rhythm of the wind. The eyes of the other people passing by on campus were riveted on her once they noticed her. Her long hair and white skirt fluttering were a bit too pretty from a distance. Her creamy white skin didn’t show one pore, and her laugh sounded like an angel. She had a docile look and soft blushing lips. Envious eyes were drawn to her, and in his turmoil Daewoong wanted to run and surrender to her. “ (My translation)

The first characters we are introduced to in the prologue are a college student named Daewoong Cha and a woman named Miho Gu. Daewoong hears her calling him, and he takes out his cell phone and tries to get away from her because he’s afraid she’ll kill him and eat him! He passes a number of buildings on campus where people are milling around, and she somehow appears before him. He tries to make an excuse as to why he didn’t hear her, saying he was talking on the phone. Her smile is sunny, yet he’s still afraid of her. She wants him to take her to eat. Feeling a sense of foreboding, he begs off, saying he has no money. Daewoong explains here that her name isn’t really Miho Gu and that she isn’t really his girlfriend. Superstition is actually fact, and she is a 9-tailed fox! He takes the literal Korean word for 9-tailed fox and turns it into a name: 구미호 (九尾狐). Apparently no one else catches on as to the meaning of her name, which stays in the exact order of the actual word in Korean.

Chapter one is titled “Meeting My Girlfriend,” and I think this part is much more exciting in the book than in the TV show, too. The pacing is really good for one thing, and details are told in a different, more suspenseful order. Here we see a few more characters, Byeongsu, Hyein and Seonnyeo. Daewoong is in a beauty salon with Byeongsu and Seonnyeo where all three are getting perms and talking about an upcoming audition for a movie “The Moon and the Swordsman.” Hyein is merely mentioned at this point. She is Daewoong’s senior by a year who does commercials, and he admires her. Seonnyeo asks if it’s true that they’re getting free perms since his grandfather owns the building and deducts these kinds of services from the salon’s rent, but just at this moment, his grandfather shows up and gets upset to see him there. Daewoong tries to cover up what he actually did with the tuition money his grandfather gave him, and he races out to his motorbike with his hair still wrapped in a towel.

Daewoong gets pulled over by the police because the motorbike may be stolen. He has to go make a statement at the police station, but he ends up getting locked in a cell until his aunt arrives in tears. His grandfather wants him to go to a strict hagwon to study, but Daewoong is unhappy with this plan since he has this important audition coming up that he needs to prepare for, so he tells his grandfather that he needs to use the bathroom. His grandfather waits outside the door to the restroom while Daewoong makes his escape. His grandfather wonders what is taking him so long, but Daewoong gets out and hides in the back of a truck which drives off before he can get out. When the truck finally stops, they are out in the countryside at a gas station. The drivers go into the station’s coffee shop for a moment, allowing Daewoong to sneak out of the truck, but he doesn’t know where he is, and it’s starting to rain. A car comes by and stops for him when he tries to flag it down. The driver, a Buddhist priest, takes him up a steep mountain path, and fifteen minutes later, the priest takes him to a small room. At this point, the setting description is rather thin.

Daewoong asks if he can make a phone call, and the priest loans him his cell phone. He tries to call his aunt to apologize seven times, but the call fails to go through since he can’t quite remember the number. There is some problem with the antenna, so he leaves the room and tries an eighth time. The call doesn’t go through. He tries a ninth time and makes the connection. It thunders so loud he nearly drops the phone, but he thinks he hears a woman’s voice. He tells the woman on the other end his name and queries if this is his aunt. She apologizes and laughs. He notices the battery on the phone is dying and feels a chill up his spine and his legs turn to jelly, realizing he is talking to a ghost. The atmosphere is perfect for ghostly activity. He asks where she is since he can’t see her and tells her he wants to run away. She warns him she’ll get angry if he does and asks him to do her a favor. A blast of wind blows past Daewoong, and he feels compelled to do what she asks.

Opening the door, he sees a candle in the corner of the room, but no one is there. She mentions a painting, and he asks if it’s the one with an old woman and a dog. She replies it isn’t a dog, it’s a fox. The phone battery is acting up again, but he hears her request that he hurry up and draw nine tails on the fox. He wonders aloud if he could get in trouble for defacing a cultural asset, but he feels this is urgent and gets a pen. As he draws on the tails, there is a loud peal of thunder, a gust of wind and torrential rain that cause trees to crash. He hears a dog barking somewhere on the mountain. The text counts down the number of tails, and when he finishes the last one, the wind blows open the door with a crash. Daewoong is thrown onto his back, and the phone flies across the floor. He is afraid the ghost will kill him, so he runs out along the steep mountain road in the moonlight but gets injured.

When he opens his eyes in the morning, he’s out in the wild with Miho who rescued him from a wild boar. He thinks how absurd everything had been the day before but marvels that he has never seen anyone as beautiful as she is. He loses his senses staring at her. She reminds him that she is the woman on the phone, and he’s afraid she’ll kill him since she’s the temple ghost! He tries touching her skin with his finger, but she unexpectedly seems human. When he asks why she wanted him to draw tails on the painting, she explains she was confined there by an old goddess for 500 years, which he thinks is nonsense. She insists, and he realizes she is saying she actually is the mythical fox with nine tails. He still thinks it’s crazy talk. She promises to show him her tails when the moon comes out, but he seems too afraid of her. He starts to leave, planning on returning to Seoul, and he tells her not to follow him.

Next, the novel finally explains Miho’s background, which I think is more effective placed after the intense scene where Daewoong calls her and draws on the tails. In the TV show, it’s reversed, which is a valid choice for presentation, it just makes it maybe more humorous and romantic than suspenseful. Originally, the nine-tailed fox was the companion of a goddess, though the name of the goddess given in the text refers to something a little different from what is portrayed in the TV show. The novel doesn’t really clarify this point. I suspect she is really Chinese goddess Xi Wangmu, who is profiled in this excellent essay by Max Dashu:

The sacred mountain is inhabited by fantastic beings and shamanistic emissaries. Among them are the three-footed crow, the nine-tailed fox, a dancing frog, and the moon-hare who pounds magical elixirs in a mortar. There are phoenixes and chimeric chi-lin, jade maidens and azure lads, and spirits riding on white stags. A third century scroll describes Xi Wangmu herself as kin to magical animals in her western wilderness: “With tigers and leopards I form a pride; Together with crows and magpies I share the same dwelling place.” [Cahill, 51-3]

This detail of the goddess seems particularly interesting in light of how Miho’s background is portrayed in this story:

Others portrayed her as young and seductive. [Lullo, 276] Worse, a few misogynists disparaged the goddess. The fourth century Yü Fang Bi Jue complained about her husbandless state and invented sexual slurs. It claimed that she achieved longevity by sexually vampirizing innumerable men and even preying upon boys to build up her yin essence. But the vigor of folk tradition overcame such revisionist slurs….

Xi Wangmu

Xi Wangmu

However, the story seems to refer to this goddess, the Samshin grandmother, who is portrayed rather differently, and I’ll have to study this page in more depth when I have time to see how she relates to Xi Wangmu (Korean only:)

Samshin Grandmother

Because Miho was so beautiful, she evilly tempted men to the point where they neglected their duties, and the women of the community went to Samshin grandmother to ask her to cut off Miho’s tails. The goddess wants to find her a husband instead, but the women hate her and circulate baseless rumors about Miho eating men’s livers. Therefore, the man set to marry her abandoned her and left her waiting at the wedding pavilion in tears. The emphasis in the text is on this being a rumor, but I think this was left fairly neutral in the show. It is the legend generally, but the book makes her a bit more sympathetic in this regard.

Meanwhile, the wild boar appears again, and Miho has to protect Daewoong until he is finally able to get away from her. He has to pawn his watch to get money to return to Seoul, but he doesn’t get as much as he hoped. He calls his school from a public phone while realizing that Miho has followed him from the temple. After the call, he wants to go eat, and Miho says she could eat a whole cow and is desperate to eat meat. He tries to get rid of her but is surprised she overheard his phone call from such a distance in detail and now knows his name. He gives in and takes her to a restaurant where they grill beef, though Miho can barely wait for it to cook. They talk about her becoming human and the fact that she has no family. She eats all of the meat, and he tries to slip away to catch the bus to Seoul without her.

The next segment has the priest from the temple Miho escaped talking to Dongju, who is going to Seoul to fix the priest’s phone. Dongju is concerned about the fox escaping from the painting and wonders if the male student who borrowed the priest’s phone was the one who helped her.

Daewoong has a rude awakening on the bus back to Seoul. After sleeping a bit with a dermatologist’s face mask on his skin, the attendant asks him for two tickets, one for him and one for his girlfriend! Miho somehow is there, and they fight about why she’s stalking him. They talk a little more about the nature of the 9-tailed fox when Miho admits that she saved his life and gave him a jewel so he wouldn’t die. He says he’ll believe her when she shows him her tails and the jewel. Otherwise, he still thinks she’s crazy, but he allows her to stay on the bus with him. When they arrive in Seoul, Daewoong meets up with his friends Byeongsu and Seonnyeo who advise him to stay at the action school he is attending where Seonnyeo’s father is in charge because Daewoong’s grandfather is still angry. Byeongsu notices how badly Daewoong is bruised when they have a minute alone, but Daewoong is shocked since he didn’t feel a thing. He admits to Byeongsu the strange things Miho is telling him, and Byeongsu scares him with a few of the fox legends.

Later when Daewoong is alone, Miho appears as the moon comes out. Her nine tails unfurl behind her like blue flames, and Daewoong counts them out. Then she comes close to him, getting near his face, saying she wants to take out the jewel, but he doesn’t want her to touch his lips. This is the critical moment where chapter one ends. It’s kind of abrupt, and the scene continues in chapter 2, which we’ll look at next time, but I like the last line here. It leaves the reader with just the right impression of Daewoong’s confusion about what Miho is about to do.

Part one of a five part series.

About Lady Xiansa

Lady Xiansa is a writer, linguist, artist, and dancer. She has been a core volunteer for the Silk Screen Asian Arts Organization from 2007 to 2018 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her gothic horror novel, The Haunting at Ice Pine Peak, won the Bronze Award for Young Adult Fiction E-book in the 2016 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards and earned the 2018 Story Monsters Approved Seal in the Tween Category.
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