Reincarnation and revenge are the perfect pairing in 'Reborn Rich'

Song Joong-ki portrays Hyun-woo, above, an employee of Soonyang Group who is betrayed and murdered by his company. After his death, he is reincarnated as Do-jun, the youngest grandson of the Soongyang family. Song also portrays the adult version of D

The hit JTBC drama series “Reborn Rich” has all the ingredients to become a recipe for global success.

The series hit 19.4 percent in viewership rating just three weeks after it first aired on Nov. 18 — a record among K-dramas released this year, even surpassing global hit ENA series “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” which aired this summer. With eight of the sixteen episodes aired as of last week, the series is highly likely to surpass the 20 percent mark, which would make it the only K-drama to surpass the milestone this year.

Its success is not only limited to Korea. It became the most watched show in the Asian market just 10 days after its release, topping charts in regions such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines through Hong Kong-based streaming service Viu, which holds exclusive foreign distribution rights over the series.

Part of its success can be attributed to the star-studded cast fronted by Song Joong-ki, a globally established name known for his roles in hit K-dramas such as KBS’s “Descendants of the Sun” (2016) and tvN’s “Vincenzo” (2021). Set in 2022, Song portrays an employee named Yoon Hyun-woo who works for Soonyang Group, a fictional chaebol, or family-controlled conglomerate. Although he has remained loyal to the company for decades, he is betrayed and murdered by his company. He wakes up to find himself reincarnated in the body of the youngest grandson Jin Do-jun of the Soonyang Group's head. The year is now 1987, and Hyun-woo finds himself with all of his past memories and secrets about the family of the Soonyang Group. He uses his second chance at life for revenge, scheming to tear apart the company and family from the inside and to find out who murdered him in his previous life.

Posters for JTBC drama series “Reborn Rich” (2022), left, and original web novel “The Youngest Grandson of a Chaebol Family” (translated) published between 2017 to 2018. [JTBC, NAVER SERIES]

The series is based off on a web novel published between 2017 to 2018 on web novel platform Munpia by a novelist using the pseudonym San Kyung. Thanks to the drama’s popularity, the web novel shot to No. 1 again on platforms such as Naver Series and KakaoPage.

Another element which fascinates viewers is that Soonyang Group is modeled after Samsung, which the novelist known as San Kyung recently confirmed during an exclusive interview with the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily.

“Samsung Group founder Lee Byung-chul was born from a rich family, but Soonyang’s head Jin Yang-cheol was born poor,” he said. “The case of the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III, the grandson of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, which was also turned into a film ‘All the Money in the World,’ was also an inspiration to build the character of Jin Yang-cheol. In the film, the kidnapper demands ransom of $17 million but the grandfather only decides to contribute $1 million, which he says is the maximum amount that can be tax-deductible. So it’s a mixture of both reality and fiction.”

San Kyung said he believes people’s fascination with chaebols derives from hierarchical society.

“It applies to not only humans but all primates,” he said. “They instinctively divide everything up into classes. Even in airplanes, people are divided into first, business and economy class. There are those who want to eliminate such distinction, but more people want to climb up to the hierarchical ladder [...] As I see how much love and attention the character of Jin Yang-cheol receive from the viewers — who may be viewed as a villain in the story — I realized that people [instinctively] gravitate toward powerful, larger-than-life rulers.”

Lee Sung-min portrays Soonyang founder Jin Yang-cheol, also the head of the Soonyang family, who holds the power to choose the heir to his throne. [JTBC]

Although being born into the top-tier “gold spoon” (Korean slang for those born into rich families) level of society is a huge step-up as opposed to his “dirt spoon” status in his former life, Do-jun still has to prove his worth to grab the attention of his grandfather, who soon realizes his grandson is no ordinary 10-year-old boy.

The series adequately blends realistic and fantasy elements of the story. Do-jun’s life from 1987 incorporates important historical events and viewers feel vicarious satisfaction as Do-jun, who already knows what will happen in the future, builds a foundation to ultimately destroy Soonyang Group.

Knowing that James Cameron’s “Titanic” (1997) will remain the highest-grossing film of all time for a decade, he advises his father, the head of the distributor of foreign films, to make a large investment. After striking a deal with his grandfather, Do-jun asks for his payment in real estate instead of money — because the 10-year-old boy wisely tells him that the value of the currency will fall by the time he becomes an adult — and his land in Bundang, Gyeonggi, will reap him far more, as the near-empty farmland becomes one of the five new towns around the capital city Seoul to accommodate 420,000 people.

With the profit he makes from the land, he boldly invests in an American online bookstore which turns into today’s Amazon (referred to as “Amazom” in the narrative), and sees a 900 percent profit from his investment. Before the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 hits, he swiftly exchanges all of his profit into dollars.

Knowing that an era will come where the global market revers after K-pop and K-content, Do-jun’s next investment is in the development of a landfill in Sangam-dong in western Seoul, which will become the center of entertainment conglomerates and local broadcasters and is now referred to as Digital Media City.

Although the series’ narrative has been tweaked to fit the storytelling format of the small screen, the overall plot remains unchanged from the original web novel. And for both the original and the series, there’s no explanation given as to why ordinary employee Hyun-woo is suddenly reincarnated as the chaebol group’s youngest grandson. However, the audience does not question this absurd turnabout of events because “reincarnation” has become a genre itself in the world of web novels. Along with regression — a genre which centers on characters going back in time to change the future — and possession — where a character’s spirit possesses the body of someone else — the three genres are referred to as “huibinghwan,” which is an combination of the Korean words for regression, possession and reincarnation. The key similarity between all three genres is that they're focused on getting a second chance in life.

Kim Kang-soon portrays the younger version of Do-jun, who has retained Hyun-woo’s previous memories. [JTBC]

From as early as the 2000s, the three genres have been popular in the world of web novels and webtoons, and they are now finding a new home on screen. They have been especially popular among those in their teens and 20s. On the Munpia platform, for instance, 61 percent of its 1.2 million users were in their teens and 20s as of February 2021.

Seo Eun-young, a scholar of Korean literature who studies and researches Korean comics, noted that the genres became popular from the early 2000s, which she dubs as a phase of cultural and social change.

“After the IMF, socioeconomic disparity in Korean society grew wider and it became more difficult to climb up the class hierarchy,” Seo wrote in a column for Paris-based International paper Le Monde Diplomatique in June 2020. “The self-portrait of a younger generation could be encapsulated by popular terms such as sampo saedae [the three-without generation connoting their lack of prospects in finding a spouse, having a child or owning a house], which expanded to nthpo saedae as the generation gave up more due to their hardening reality [...] Other terms include 'dirt spoon' and 'hell Joseon,' or the saying ‘this life is doomed,’ all reflect the rage and a sense of helplessness the generation feels about their society.”

If no hope exists for the those ranging from their teens to 30s in this life, they are likely to be attracted to the concept of the reset button, which they are accustomed to from the narratives of online and video games they enjoy.

A poster for “Reborn Rich” featuring a portrait of the Soongyang family [JTBC]

Seo believes that this second chance in life that the characters are bestowed with is a reflection of the younger consumers’ desires — although it’s complete fantasy, it’s better to read about them than never to have them fulfilled in reality. However, creators do not deviate completely from reality and instead add only add elements, because as novelist San Kyung said in the interview, “facts immerse the readers.”

“The setting in which Hyun-woo is reincarnated [...] where he bides time to grow in a period in which he already knows what will happen is similar to a player in a game, collecting items until he can become omnipotent,” Seo wrote. “He sees through all the situations and characters’ psychology, and uses all his knowledge about the people around him to his advantage. Then there is only one goal left to be fulfilled: victory. If it’s his second life, [consumers] find pleasure in the protagonist successfully carrying out his revenge rather than seeing him struggle [...] The thrill of the story is to put themselves in the protagonist’s shoes, to believe that I myself toppled the chaebol family and took the throne of the castle.”