18 Again (2020) Hong Dae-young Fixes Everything *Spoilers*
Hong Dae-young formerly a whitegoods repairman and all-round handyman fixes everything in his life. Well almost everything. And what a great finale -- one of the best. Not because they lived happily-ever-after but because those who needed to, grew in terms of learning how to do better in all relationships. Every single one learnt (or rediscovered) fundamental life skills to make necessary ongoing "repairs" to maintain what's good and precious to them. It's a timely reminder that relationships are made or broken by little choices and little gestures. In the busyness of life, all that can be easily forgotten. Because we are all flawed, selfish individuals, repair is par for the course. Unless one doesn't prioritize the relationship.
Dae-young learns a very important truth in the time he occupies his 18 again body and that is... he cannot be a father and a husband to the family if he remains in his teenage body. His teenage years are well and truly gone. They're a part of his life that he built with the choices he made over the years. But they're gone and all that's left for him is the present and the future. It's not just a case that absence makes the heart grow fonder but absence makes one realise what has been taken for granted when everything seems like a part of the furniture. He was a friend to his family for a short time and was able to be part of their lives in a way that he couldn't before but those interactions were fraught with limitations especially when his heart was drawn to them in ways he had not previously appreciated. In game parlance it was a "time out" that he needed -- to reflect and re-calibrate in order to map out the kind of future he wanted for himself. In fantastical fashion Hong Dae-young learnt he may have lost a potential career in basketball but he gained a family that he loved for life. His investment reaped a different set of dividends that he might not have been able to have if he had chosen a different path. I would go further and say that the choices he made is a reflection of the man he is
Regretting is a normal part of life. But the biggest lesson one learns (as one ages) is that life is often a zero sum game. No one can have everything. It's impossible. And to quote the great philosopher Westley, "Anyone who says otherwise is selling you something, Your Highness." The path that seems the hardest may seem to be the one most fraught with suffering but the advice here perhaps is that if we look just a bit harder, it probably wasn't all bad. In fact the good might have outweighed the bad. Or what's more, on hindsight much good came out of what was seen to be "bad" at one time. Clouds, silver linings ... all that stuff.
There's much in this show that reminds me of an old Christmas favourite, Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. (I'm reminded a lot about that film lately) Like it's predecessor, this drama might seem sentimental and schmaltzy to some but for me it's a timely reminder in the current climate to take time out and appreciate the little things that we do have instead of dwelling on what we don't because it naturally follows that we're bound to miss what's right in front of us.
In Capra's classic, an angel visits a depressed George Bailey on the cusp of taking his own life and grants him his wish for a world in which he had never been born in. His regrets are similar, wishing he had led a different life and bemoaning missed opportunities. He too led a self-sacrificial life, putting others ahead of himself. But a world without George as he comes to see is not a happy one. It's doom and gloom. Without him, crime and amorality runs rife in his hometown. As the angel progressively demonstrates to him, no man who has made so many contributions in the lives of the people around him can ever be described as being "poor".
Before he regains his 37-year-old body, Dae-young meets Da-jung on the bridge in the same way that they did as frightened 18-year-olds wondering about their uncertain future with babies in tow. They made the difficult choice and stuck to their guns. They wept from time to time about what they had lost but also focused on what they had gained. The crucial thing that I observed from this is that these two were responsible individuals. All their lives they took responsibility for themselves and did a little bit extra. There's a scene where Si-a's admirer and childhood friend Ji-ho watches a video of featuring Dae-young during a school sports meet to reminisce. He has no father to join him in the father-son race so a much younger Dae-young steps in. It is at this moment Ji-ho realises that Woo-young could be his favourite ahjussi Dae-young. For us on the other hand this sequence reinforces the type of man Dae-young is -- how the people saw him and how he made a difference to his world even when he didn't know and harboured regrets about what he'd lost.
We are also told that Dae-young was the one who saved baseballer Ye Ji-hoon's niece in a multiple car accident. It isn't just about fated connections that we are given this piece of information. But what's clear from these two incidents is that Dae-young is a decent human being. He doesn't have a lot but he gives a lot of himself reflexively. One take home from this is that his choice to prioritize his children right from the start had positive flow-on effects for others. He tells Ji-hoon later that he saved Seo-yeon because she reminded him of his own daughter, Si-a.
Perhaps another important lesson that we're meant to get from all of this is that relationships matter more than ambitions or dreams. It's not that ambitions and dreams don't matter at all. However, in the scheme of things, I don't think the vast majority of people wishes they'd spent more time in the office or in the basketball court when they're lying in their deathbed. Life is so incredibly short. The time we have left with the people around us is limited. Those are the sorts of things we shouldn't regret. As I get older and as my kids get older, I have fewer regrets about being out of work for their sake.
Da-jung's situation is relatable for all working mothers. Her persistence is commendable even if she's never certain of attaining the Holy Grail of being a tv broadcaster. But she never lets up even while raising kids and caring for her father-in-law who's estranged from his son. In the end her perseverance pays off but not without jumping through all the hoops as well as overcoming all kinds of discrimination. The fulfilment of dreams come late for some but in some cases they do get there. While she had the skills and personality, she could not have done it alone. That's shown all throughout. Without the support of others from her family to admirers to colleagues, she couldn't have gone as far as she did. Especially when things became unbearably hard.
What follows the wedding at the end is an entertaining does of realism that eschews the Disney fairy tale story. Life goes on after the fanfare in raw mundane fashion. Conflicts are par for the course. But it is in the mundane that we find God in the details. Who we are, why we're here and what life is really about.
The wedding isn't the end of the story for Dae-young and Da-jung but it is the end of his search. They both can move on confidently in an unknown future because they now know what they'd prefer spending the rest of their lives investing their time and energy on.
This is what Hong Dae-yang had to fix. Not the past. But his thinking about the past and to forge a future with no regrets.