Born Again: Episodes 1-4 (Review)
If seedy thriller-romances are your thing, you’ll love the opening week of KBS’s Born Again. It takes the plot of a tragic Victorian novel, sets it in the good old 1980s, and then lets all hell break loose. And not in a good way.
Note: This is only an opening week review.
EPISODES 1-4 REVIEW
Born Again tells the reincarnation story of three people whose fates are so deeply entwined they wind up meeting each other for round two a mere thirty years later. And it’s thirty years too soon, for both the characters themselves, and the audience. Because after enduring the drama’s opening week that details Life #1, I don’t even want to know what Life #2 holds.
They call it Born Again, but I call it The Cop, the Waif, and the Wild Man. Our cop is CHA HYUNG-BIN (Lee Soo-hyuk), and he’s your typical drama detective. He’s investigating a string of serial murders that center on women (of course) and yellow umbrellas (because why not), and he’s committed, stable, and seems like a good man.
The love of his life is the bookstore owner JUNG HA-EUN (Jin Se-yeon). She’s the kind of girl that sits in her shop next to a photogenic basket of yarn and writes in her diary while reading it aloud for our benefit. The topic? That love transcends death; that souls meant to be together will always find each other. For her, that soulmate is Hyung-bin.
Because being a good-hearted orphan isn’t enough to make her interesting (and trust me it’s not,), she’s also got the requisite heart disease to elevate her into full-on waif mode. She’s frail, fragile, loving, and sweet as pie, and Hyung-bin dotes on her. Yes, it’s as saccharine as all that sounds. They adore each other, but Ha-eun won’t marry him since she knows her life teeters on the balance.
Ha-eun’s favorite book just happens to be Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights — and the drama gloms onto that parallel and rides it for all its worth. Wuthering Heights in and of itself is a gorgeous gothic-esque romance of its time, but put in the hands of the drama gods, things are not so… high quality.
The novel figures in Born Again as both a book, and as a bit of not-so-subtle character allusion. Ha-eun loves the book so much that she quotes it, her boyfriend Hyung-bin quotes it, and he proposes to her by writing “Will you be my wife?” in the margins of her worn out copy. As if that wasn’t enough, she also “teaches” the book to a sorry collection of poverty-stricken people that meet in a church to have a… book club meeting? Well, what’s important here is that our other hero just so happens to attend said gathering.
That hero (or perhaps anti-hero?) is GONG JI-CHUL (Jang Ki-yong), and he is as Heathcliffian as you can get. He’s a wild man that looks like he really does live out on the moors, and every part of him matches, from his unkempt
wig hair to the fact that he keeps it over his face to hide the scars around his eye.
Ji-chul was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused by his mother (and if they had time to name any other forms of abuse I’m sure they would have), and the scars he carries are more than just the ones on his skin. He can’t relate to people or live a normal life… but then he is transformed by the softness and warmth of Jung Ha-eun. It’s like Wuthering Heights + Phantom of the Opera + Beauty and the Beast all rolled into one — but that does not make this drama any more watchable.
But Ji-chul’s tragic story continues! His father is a raving lunatic, and the very serial murderer that everyone is after. He does all the typical things that a psycho father does to his son in dramaland like gaslighting him, forcing him to think he also has The Killing Gene, mocking his pure love, and basically destroying him. Incidentally, his father also looks like Louis the XIV, lives in an abandoned school, and murders for the inspiration to paint — but my real question here is why Jang Ki-yong always seems to get such evil drama fathers.
Born Again goes exactly where you think it will. That means Ji-chul is infatuated with Ha-eun and becomes her secret protector. He saves her when she faints in the street (this is like a daily occurrence), watches her in the bookstore day and night, and of course, devours Wuthering Heights with equal voracity. Hyung-bin, being the diligent detective that he is, becomes aware of
Heathcliff Ji-chul and his obsession with his girl. Rather than see that he is trying to protect her from his deranged father, Hyung-bin of course assumes that Ji-chul himself is the killer out for more blood.
Watching this love triangle of adoration and misunderstanding play out should be exciting. The stakes are sky-high, with Ha-eun almost dying every ten minutes, Hyung-bin striving to protect her, and Ji-chul so determined to save her that he declares (aloud, to himself) that he’s going to give her his own heart. It should be enthralling, sweeping, and carry enough emotion to resonate thirty years into the future. But it doesn’t. These characters and their undying loves are pretty lifeless.
These opening episodes of storytelling hell only get worse when they reach their culminating scene. We already know everyone has to die (otherwise why be reincarnated so soon?), so this gorgeous snowy massacre that’s supposed to be moving, is actually supremely boring. The boys scuffle, as boys do. Hyung-bin gets accidentally stabbed. Ha-eun’s heart gives out. Ji-chul takes the nearby gun and shoots himself in the head. And that, my friends, is Life #1.
In case we forgot that Born Again was about being reborn, the drama’s opening week episodes drop allusion after allusion that the question of rebirth is at stake. “I’ll go to you even after I’m dead,” is a common line used by everyone.
Also, one of the things that Ha-eun first says to Ji-chul upon seeing his scars is that, “In your next life I hope you’re never hurt by anyone.” Later, she changes her tune and tells him there’s no way he will be born again due to his crimes. Is the question of what happens to souls after death really something you can announce to people, like telling them they’re gonna miss the bus or step on a banana peel?
As terrible as it sounds, I couldn’t wait for all three of these characters to die. All the interest in this story surely lies in the question of Life #2, and the shape that it will take. Will these three souls be reborn? Have they earned another try with all their suffering? Will the love that was supposed to transcend all boundaries actually transcend it? Well, I’ll never know, because I’m not watching any more of this drama to find out.
We do get a hint at what their present day life looks like, though, and the drama’s opening and ending are bookmarked by about three minutes of present day story. I would have liked a little more than the glimmer we got (because the present day storyline is the only thing I’m curious about), but I suppose that’s what the rest of the drama is for.
The question, then, is how fate will unfurl the second time around. Ha-eun seems to have a little more spunk to her in the present day story, but I’d bet the farm she’s going to get steamrolled between Linton and Heathcliff again, so to speak.
We see glimmers of both heroes, too, and the story seems a bit different. Ji-chul is dapper, got a damn good haircut, and seems way better off than he was prior. He serendipitously meets our girl at a bookstore and they bicker over a book, which means love. Hyung-bin walks by, equally dapper, and it’s clear that he doesn’t know Ha-eun yet. Who is Linton this time, and who is Heathcliff? Wait, are we still going with that whole metaphor, or did we leave that behind in the ’80s with the stabbings, heart failure, and rotary phones?
We might not know where our characters have landed yet, but there’s surely some decades-old rivalry — or the echoes thereof — still in the air. Our premiere week closes with the two heroes exchanging some loaded glares across the subway platform, while our heroine stands there cluelessly.
While I like the drama’s thesis of these characters’ past lives determining where they wind up in the present day story, the “prologue” segment was so poor that I don’t expect the rest of this drama to be much better. I’m mildly curious how our characters fare in round two, but I don’t think I can forgive this drama enough to find out.
- Premiere Watch: Born Again, When My Love Blooms
- Bookshop meetings and fated reunions in Born Again teaser
- Snowy hillsides and fateful timing in melodrama Born Again teaser
- First look at 1980s Jang Ki-yong in KBS melodrama Born Again
- Reincarnation melodrama Born Again holds first script read
- Jang Ki-yong, Lee Soo-hyuk confirmed for retro reincarnation melodrama Born Again