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See You in My 19th Life (2023) Ramblings
I can’t quite put my finger on it but there’s something gloriously magical about See You in My 19th Life that I don’t sense from other K dramas that present themselves as modern (and dark) fairy tales. The Good Bad Mother tried hard to position itself as such but as a result of failing to deal with heavy subject matter with due diligence, the results were mixed. Clearly there has to be a place for television taking itself seriously especially when it delves into topics like childhood trauma, domestic violence and murder. However, My 19th Life handles all of that with a deft touch by blending the darker material with the use of bright colours and light touches of humour displayed through character interactions. All without… so far… diminishing the core message with an overuse of levity. The theme is simple. One that’s been done many times. Nonetheless it is a beautiful story about death and grief… and that elusive chance to do it all again… to get it right.
Soul transmigration/reincarnation tropes have become popular K storytelling devices for the same reasons ghost stories continue to have sway even in a so-called naturalistic secular age. The notion of having another bite at the cherry certainly has universal appeal especially when fallen humans are prone to make a muck of things and regrets abound in hindsight. The main character here Ban Ji-eum played by Shin Hye-sun is one of the “lucky ones”. She is reborn with full-knowledge of her past lives once reaches a certain age. Previously she was content to accept her lot in each rebirth but in her 19th life her attachment to the people she left behind appears so much stronger that she goes looking for them the moment she gains all of her memories. The trope is not without its plotting limitations and the consequences that follow from the protagonist’s choices are problematic. Still the “what if” aspect to the premise still has merits that are worth exploring.
Shin Hye-sun is fascinating as Ji-eum who in her 18th life was known as Ju-won. Unlike her previous lifetimes, she deliberately ingratiates herself with the individuals of her previous life with the baggage of her present dysfunctional family in tow. Shin Hye-sun plays Ji-eum as you’d expect an individual with some of the wisdom of the ages with an added idiosyncratic touch. Ji-eum has been characterized negatively as a “Mary Sue” elsewhere and it’s not hard to see why. But a soul that has passed through many experiences while retaining knowledge of them should hopefully possess accumulated wisdom that is properly applied even in the current context. Like the symbiont joint Trills of the Star Trek universe she has memories of her past while being her own person. What is particularly noteworthy about this 19th iteration of the soul is that the entire focus of the individual is on renewing her relationship with someone who outlived her. All her energies are poured into doing whatever she could to get closer to him. I don’t think we’re meant to think too hard about all the implications. It’s a shameless plot device.
As I’ve noted in the most recent podcast, this show is reminiscent of something like Hi Bye Mama. The dead returns to their loved ones and are stricken by how the people they love have become husks of their former selves. Loved ones are trapped in one of the four stages of the Kubler-Ross grief cycle and can’t get to the fifth. It is beholden on the one who left tragically (and abruptly) to return and to expedite the grieving process to reach the resolution stage. In the case of Ahn Bo-hyun’s character Seo-ha is wracked (and wrecked) by guilt because the girl he liked protected him in a traffic incident so that he is the only survivor of it.
The value of My 19th Life and others like it — Tomorrow, Mystic Pop-up Bar and even The Uncanny Counter to name but a few — is that they serve as a reminder of human frailty. How most are unprepared for death despite the fact that it is the most certain part of life. Perhaps it is a modern malaise when the expectation for a long life is much greater. Of course, in our heart of hearts we know that there is something terribly wrong about the young dying before the elderly. It feels unnatural. Even unjust.
Alongside grief, there are grievances. So many questions. Mysteries cloud the present and the future. Who was behind the Truck of Doom? Did Seo-ha’s mother really die of a drawn out illness? Was there more to that? And what happened in Ji-eum’s first life that’s relevant to present-days concerns?
All of that begs the question. What is the purpose of Ju-won/Ji-eum’s return to this timeline (for want of a better term)? Is she meant to reveal hidden issues or is it to break the cycle of karma that seems to have haunted her, Seo-ha and the mysterious archaeologist Min-gi? What happened in Ji-eum’s first life that she’s not remembering that has led her to act more cavalierly than Min-gi would like? It’s certainly convenient that she’s blurry on the details while Min-gi watches on the sidelines bursting to say things he would rather not have to.
The more I see him, the more I’m convinced that Ahn Bo-hyun plays Seo-ha’s moody angst-ridden traumatized male lead consistent with the plot. Never having read the source material, I still think he does the role justice because there’s a sense that Seo-ha is looking for salvation. Or a lifeline at least. Like a boy wandering around lost in a forest with no compass or map to guide him out. He hates wallowing in a perpetual funk but he has no answers that would alleviate all the symptoms. He is a soul very much trapped in the past. Furthermore there’s some indication within the larger narrative that much of his suffering has something to do with a past life. In light of recent developments he seems to be living the consequences of certain actions committed in the past.
Hence the primary romance looks to be more of a vehicle of redemption and healing. Ji-eum’s quirks are obviously affecting change on Seo-ha who is desperately trying not to dwell on anything that might get in the way of his newfound happiness. It’s a romance that comforts and soothes. A refuge in a storm. He kisses her because he is relieved to see her after wandering around drenched, lumbering on lonely roads directionless. He is an emotional wreck and she’s there for him at his lowest. When he’s with her, he feels transported away from the horrors and thus emboldened to grasp what little sparks of happiness come his way.
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