The 2020 KBS drama series Born Again (본 어게인) has an intriguing premise and excellent cast. But it unfortunately gets bogged down by a plot-driven narrative and unnecessary distractions that ultimately prevent it from being the epic story it had the potential to be.
Born Again begins in the late 1980s where we meet bookstore owner Ha Eun (Jin Se Yeon), her boyfriend detective Hyung Bin (Lee Soo Hyuk) and lonely outcast Ji Chul (Jang Ki Yong). As fate would have it, the three of them getting entangled in a deadly love triangle leads to a tragic ending.
Fast forward 30 years later and unbeknownst to them, they have been reincarnated as archaeologist-cum-forensic advisor Sa Bin (Jin Se Yeon), elite prosecutor Soo Hyuk (Lee Soo Hyuk) and medical student Jong Beom (Jang Ki Yong). And their paths and lives become intertwined once more and their two lifetimes intersect in shocking and surprising ways.
Born Again dips its toes into several genres and different themes. A little bit of time travel without actual time travel. And with some supernatural elements related to it. There’s romance. Some murder mystery. A touch of psychological thriller. Judicial corruption (of course). And a hefty dose of soap opera.
It’s a pretty interesting mix. But the series unfortunately feels weighed down by being unfocused. And none of those themes are ever given the time and attention they deserve
The essential hook of the series is watching our main trio’s tragic lives in the 1980s quickly unfold and then watching their present lives unfold with relation to that previous life.
The biggest positive for the series is that Jang Ki Yong, Jin Se Yeon and Lee Soo Hyuk are absolutely excellent in their roles. A strong lead trio absolutely carries the series and in turn helps bring the reasonably strong characters to life. Each character (a total of six between them of course) all has solid footing. Each are distinct, each are multi-faceted characters. Each of them has a depth that is interestingly absent from the actual narrative. It is an accomplishment that they are able to deliver such performances with the material given. But at the same time, the three of them deserved much stronger writing.
Aside from Ji Chul’s father being a serial killer, he was also physically and sexually abused by his foster family. The only light in his life comes when he meets the kind Ha Eun whom he falls in love with. But she’s already in a relationship and soon-to-be-wed to the devoted Hyung Bin. With some gaslighting and manipulation from his murderous father, Ji Chul is driven to commit a crime to help Ha Eun get a heart she needs for a transplant.
A tense confrontation on the eve of Ha Eun and Hyung Bin’s wedding leads to what appears to be a tragic end to their first lives. Now reincarnated in 2020, fate somehow brings them together and throws them into another love triangle only for everything to get thrown for a loop by more criminal and deadly intent.
And that is where the series stumbles. The plot-driven narrative seems intent on taking what might be a familiar set-up and trying to mask it into something fresh and different. But in that effort, the series loses its way and ends up doing its best to undermine the strong characters and even stronger lead actors. Nothing good can ever come from a plot-driven story forcing its characters to twist and turn in the wind in order to fit through whatever tight hole the writing needs them to squeeze through.
And that is what happened here.
Born Again has the makings of an epic love story. And it starts out that way, quite engagingly as well. Perhaps some might appreciate a not-so-fairy tale story. But the series’ premise and its first couple of episodes effectively lay the groundwork for such a story before almost abruptly changing course. Almost as if someone pulled the tablecloth from the dinner table and a couple of glasses and utensils fell to the floor.
Especially when the characters are such strong foundations on their own, it is a little frustrating to see them be forcibly morphed into completely different people in order to fit the twists in the narrative. There is also a bit of a repetitive feel past the halfway point in the series when instead of moving forward, the series falls into a loop of events that seem right off of a checklist rather than being natural development in the story.
The idea about being reincarnated is also never parsed through in a significant way so as to drive story. Instead, reincarnation ends up being a go-to deux ex machina for a surprise twist or two and to attempt depth for what should be emotional or climactic scenes.
Using the idea of past lives, the memories of those lives and the complications that arise both for the reincarnated themselves and the people around them would be fascinating on its own. The series touches on how people are using and manipulating our lead trio for their own personal, selfish gains. But instead of having the reincarnation be used as a way to seek justice or unfurl a mystery, it is instead used to loosely connect subplots and side stories that are far less interesting and sometimes even irrelevant to the grander narrative.
And again, this is already a narrative that has a lack of focus even without the several side trips the series goes on. Some of those stories, on their own, had potential to be interesting. But they only ever appear as if to give our characters something to do to fill the time. The amount of subplots for various characters never get the time they need to fully materialize. And the almost haphazard way they try to come together results in a mish-mash of ideas.
Born Again would’ve been better served focusing on our lead trio. Whether an epic love story or the fascinating idea of past and present lives being as different as they can be similar, the series missed a huge opportunity to be something more than it has ended up being. Jin Se Yeon and especially Jang Ki Young and Lee Soo Hyuk deliver excellent performances. But they ultimately have to carry the series on their backs as a high potential premise suffers under the weight of a lack of focus.