The premiere of Come Back Ajusshi is a lot of things, which may sound like a criticism when it totally isn’t. I think. It’s rare that a first episode has me so confused as to what to feel about it, since we usually know by the end whether we feel one way or the other. Perhaps this feeling of being dropped into the middle of just so much can be attributed to the rich source material the show had to pull from, because while the world of this show may be small, it feels very, very full.
But at its core, the story of two ajusshis who struggle in life, meet in death, and decide to take matters into their own hands afterward is an engaging one, with two very endearing characters to ground the otherwise otherworldly events going on. It’s all so very strange, and at times, heartbreakingly honest. I suppose strange is what you sign up for with an outlandish premise like this, so without further ado, let’s just dig right in.
Note: This is a just a first episode recap.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
It’s a beautiful fall day. The birds are chirping, the sun is shining, and a tiny butterfly alights on the soundly sleeping form of KIM YOUNG-SOO (Kim In-kwon).
But this outdoor napping session doesn’t seem to have been planned, as the bespectacled ajusshi wakes with a start and wonders, “Where on earth am I?”
Bereft of his wallet or cellphone, Young-soo rises to take stock of his surroundings—train tracks, and a giant orange tree that gets a daunting music cue of DUN DUN DUN when he looks up at it. Now that he thinks about it, the weather forecast had said snow…
A choking sound alerts him to the fact that he’s not alone in this strange place, and he goes to check on the man he finds face down on the ground. He rolls him onto his back and attempts to administer CPR, but before he can pucker up, the choking man’s eyes shoot open: “Who the hell are you?”
Utilizing judo like it’s second nature, the choking man throws Young-soo off him and pins him down, believing that Young-soo must have something to do with why he’s here. Even though neither of them know where “here” is.
Another figure emerges at the train stop, amidst the sound of an oncoming train. Young-soo hails the man down to ask where they are, and the man simply points to the sign behind him. The sign reads “PURGATORY” with directions to either “This Life” or “The Afterlife” beneath it.
The previously choking man is slower on the uptake, but Young-soo isn’t. He knows exactly where they are, as he reads another sign at a fork in the tracks pointing to either Heaven or Hell. “This is the afterlife. Apparently, we’re… dead.”
Young-soo’s final moments, of fireworks erupting in the sky as he fell from a high ledge, flash before his eyes. His companion, HAN GI-TAK (Kim Su-ro), similarly flashes back to his last moments being stuck in an overturned car before an oncoming truck slammed into him.
As both ajusshis turn toward the sound of the train, they realize that they both died on the same day: January 25, 2016.
Rewind to two days before. A happier Kim Young-soo struts through the department store he manages, though he has to endure the wrath of unhappy customers with what can only be forced congeniality. The customer is always right! Except when they aren’t.
Apparently, sales have been pretty low recently, and a higher-up takes the flak for it from CHAIRMAN CHA (Ahn Suk-hwan) of the conglomerate that owns the store. Funnily enough, Chairman Cha doesn’t speak—he uses his secretary to do the talking/yelling for him, as though she’s got some telepathic link to his mind.
Meanwhile, Young-soo tells one of his coworkers that women’s clothing is all he can think about lately, prompting said coworker to point him in the direction of a woman whose back is turned to them. He judges her based on her clothing, finding faults from head to toe…
…Until he sees the little girl with her and realizes with horror that it’s his own wife, SHIN DA-HYE (Lee Min-jung) and daughter, KIM HANA (Lee Re).
He quickly tries to usher them out of the luxury goods department before they can be seen or recognized, seeing as how Da-hye came just for the sale on toilet paper. She points out that him acting this way is only going to draw more attention to them, which is when little Hana cuts in to say that no one would believe her mom and dad are a couple when her dad looks the way he does. Hah.
Unfortunately, Young-soo only draws more attention when he steps on the lacquered shoe of CHA JAE-GOOK (Choi Won-young), the higher-up we saw getting reamed earlier. Ah, so he’s the president of the department store, and Chairman Cha’s son.
But of course, since all rich people are the worst, Jae-gook wipes his shiny shoe on the peon’s pants before departing. Young-soo has no choice but to take this insult, which makes it extra sad when he puts on a brighter face to wave goodbye to his wife and daughter.
Things only get worse when his coworker points out the date on Young-soo’s calendar: today is his wedding anniversary, and he completely forgot. Realizing that must’ve been why his wife and daughter came to the store today, he freaks out about not having made dinner plans.
Luckily, his coworker recommends a great restaurant for him, run by none other than the dead ajusshi from earlier, Han Gi-tak. He and his group of mobsters-turned-kitchen-staff take the order from Young-soo’s table, which includes a request to put a necklace into Da-hye’s dessert as a surprise.
Da-hye just smiles when her husband complains about the priciness of their dinner, though her expression changes when Young-soo’s phone rings. He leaves to take the call with the excuse that the store can’t run without him, which seems to be a common problem with him.
While Gi-tak ignores a call coming in on his phone, Young-soo takes his, before returning to the table and saying it’s no big deal, it’s just that a higher-up’s uncle died. It’s not like he has to go right this second or anything…
But Da-hye finally puts her fork down when she can’t stand Young-soo’s nervousness anymore—all he’s thinking about is that funeral, so there’s no use keeping him there. At least he takes her with him instead. (Worst date night ever.)
Gi-tak may look like a tough guy on the outside, but with his men he’s a big papa bear, offering to help them with their college tuitions should they pass their GEDs first. Having no real family, he considers his employees his children, and only asks that they take care of him until he reaches old age and give him a proper funeral when he dies.
The woman whose calls Gi-tak was avoiding, SONG YI-YEON (Honey Lee), arrives at his restaurant unannounced. A megatron looming over the city streets reveals that she was once a young star who’s been swept up in a scandal with a male model only three months after her divorce from rich douche Jae-gook.
Yi-yeon talks to Gi-tak like she’s known him for years, but he gives her a much colder greeting. She appeals to him for help, claiming that her ex-husband is trying to have her blacklisted with this made-up scandal. The only person she knows will believe her is him.
A bit bitterly, Gi-tak asks if she wants him to help by beating up the male model involved in the scandal, which hearkens back to their younger days, when he’d beaten someone up to protect her only to go to prison for it. She’d disavowed him and left him to his fate, even though he had done it for her.
She knows he must think she’s a terrible bitch and she’s sorry, but Gi-tak cuts her off before she can say more: “If you really were sorry, you wouldn’t have come here. I don’t want to spend what’s left of my life in jail.”
Even though he sends her away, he can’t help but worry about her because she said she would die if she were to lose her son in a custody battle, which is why her ex fabricated this scandal. She’s got another supporter in CHOI SEUNG-JAE (Lee Tae-hwan), one of Gi-tak’s employees/lost boys, who advises him to not pass up this chance to rekindle his first love.
Things are a bit icy between Da-hye and Young-soo after his department head referred to her disrespectfully at the funeral, and it’s adorable how Young-soo has to ask his daughter for inside intel about how mad her mom is at him. Short answer? Pretty mad. But she’s willing to lend him a helping hand.
Young-soo gets attacked by a subordinate with a fire extinguisher at work the next day, who blames him for being fired. In reality, a new store has moved in without Young-soo’s knowledge, and his argument with the head of that line results in him remembering something very important: the “rice cakes” Da-hye innocently took home from the funeral actually contained a bribe meant for him. (Rice cakes literally meaning a bribe, perhaps Da-hye thought it was an anniversary gift meant for them.)
His conversation is recorded by the disgruntled employee from earlier and sent to the press, while his department head tries to silence his concerns about the bribe and the new store. It’s too late for Young-soo to return the bribe cakes, so he has to just swallow his pride and play the part his boss wants him to play.
Going out with his boss means that he has to cancel plans with his wife, who he asks to just try and understand for the 2329289th time. She’s just exasperated that his heart isn’t with his family, and how he’s always late. Even when he does come home, he’s always drunk. “What am I to you, exactly?” she finally asks.
She’s tired of always hearing him promise that “next time” things will be better, and how he’s always sorry. She’s tired of always having to be the understanding one when it comes to him putting work over his family, which is a line of argument that escalates to the breaking point when Young-soo raises his hand as if to strike her.
Both of them are momentarily stunned by this sudden turn, and Young-soo can’t even believe what he almost did. “What on earth do you know about making a living?!” he roars. “Why are you doing this to me?!”
Gi-tak threatens some sense into the model Jae-gook was using against his ex-wife, while Jae-gook’s people make sure that bribery article doesn’t see the light of day. Cut back to Gi-tak offering the model his hard-earned money if he gives up Jae-gook’s plan.
Then we cut back to Young-soo, currently getting schmasted at the outing his department head wanted him to go on. But he gets chastised when he fails to woo the director they took out, and a text from his daughter (“Come back to life, Dad!”) sends him running like a madman after the director’s car.
Even though he almost gets run over, he runs until he’s soaked in sweat, and catches up to the director’s car at a stoplight. He begs and pleads for another chance, he needs this for his family, and at least the man has a heart. He agrees to meet with Young-soo tomorrow.
Gi-tak gives Yi-yeon a file containing the model’s confession, which should be all she needs to be rid of her scandal and her ex-husband. He wants this to be the last time they see each other, but wishes her well.
Her hand on his arm stops him, her tear-filled eyes gleaming as she says, “I’m sorry.” He tries to stick to his guns, but can’t help pulling her into his arms, like that’s all he’s ever wanted. Aw.
A nearby flash distracts them, and it’s with horror that Yi-yeon realizes they’ve been caught by the paparazzi. Gi-tak jumps in his car to chase the offender down, but they’ve got much bigger problems: the model he threatened went to the police and the press, so he’s essentially made Yi-yeon’s scandal ten times worse.
Young-soo gets kicked out from his taxi when he’s feeling sick, and ends up vomiting the second he gets out. He drops to the ground, but is at least optimistic enough to enjoy the fireworks bursting overhead due to a festival. No one stops to even see if he’s okay.
His daughter calls him to take him to task for being out late again, and for being drunk. It’s adorable how much of a little adult she is, and how much her father adores her for it.
He’s about to head home when he notices that one of the giant banners decorating the outside of his department store dangling loose from one end. So he sees fit to go up to that ledge himself… to fix the banner? Because he thinks fixing this banner will fix what’s broken in his life? Really?
As he reaches for the precarious piece of cloth, Gi-tak swerves to avoid hitting the photographer’s car and ends up in a rolling coffin. Da-hye watches the fireworks display, unaware that her husband has just slipped off the ledge he was standing on, and is struggling to hold on…
…But he can’t, and falls to his death. Gi-tak, meanwhile, meets his end in the truck that comes crashing into his overturned car.
Back in the Afterlife Train Station, Gi-tak and Young-soo both receive tickets for their final destination, only to be confused by where they’re headed. Gi-tak believes there must be a misunderstanding when “Heaven” is on his ticket, while Young-soo is sure something’s wrong when “Hell” is stamped on his.
The woman at the desk informs Gi-tak that his ticket is indeed correct, considering that he atoned for his sins late in life. Unfortunately, even though Young-soo always followed the rules, he committed suicide, which means instant hell. It’s funny how even Gi-tak is all, “Yeah, you really screwed up there.”
Gi-tak seems to be taking this whole death thing pretty well, considering that he even jokes around. Young-soo doesn’t have it so good, since his attempt to prove he wasn’t trying to commit suicide falls on deaf ears. And for good reason, because who would buy that he wanted to fix a banner he was totally unqualified to fix?
Hilariously, the ajusshi in charge of tallying up all Young-soo’s deeds in life presents evidence pointing to Young-soo’s suicidal tendencies in the past: like eating junk food for days in a row, taking diet pills, having a gym membership he never used, and drinking exactly 45,800 soju bombs in his lifetime. Not to mention all the other types of liquor he’s ever consumed, which are too many to count (though they’ve all been counted).
Young-soo is taken to task for ignoring his health over all these years, which leads the ajusshi in charge to say that it was most definitely suicide. Young-soo falls to his knees in tears, admitting that he is guilty of all those charges. “I was wrong. I’m sorry.”
His tears fall onto the ticket, changing his destination from Hell to Heaven. The ajusshi’s attitude is much kinder now that Young-soo has shown that he’s sorry, but he can’t reveal to Young-soo whether or not his family believes he committed suicide.
All aboard the
polar express afterlife train. Figuring that they should be friendly since they met after they were dead, Gi-tak formally introduces himself to Young-soo, who admits that it’s nice to meet him, despite the circumstances.
The landscape outside changes into beautiful, endless fields and sunshine. Gi-tak thinks of Yi-yeon, and how he’d clung to his love for her all these years. Young-soo thinks of every day life with his wife and daughter, filled with those everyday moments of happiness. Awww.
As the train takes them into darker and rainier territory, Young-soo can see those memories of his wife and daughter as though they’re right outside his window. All the happy memories they shared come flooding back to him, leaving him crying in their wake.
But when the scenic train ride takes to the sky (literally, the entire train flies up into the air), Young-soo yells that he wants off. “There’s so much I have to do!” He can’t leave his daughter this way, and more importantly, he has to go back and delete all his porn before someone else finds it.
Gi-tak joins in his new buddy’s rebellion, convinced that he can’t just do nothing in the face of injustice—how could he eat the beef soup he asked his lost boys to prepare him at his funeral with such a burden? Unfortunately, his jabs and punches have no effect on the giant train attendant.
When more attendants come running, Gi-tak grabs Young-soo to make a run for it. They can only run through so many cars before they reach the end of the train overlooking nothing but sky.
Young-soo says his prayers and jumps first, leaving Gi-tak with a decision to make. Since it’s not like he’ll die again, Gi-tak decides to throw caution to the wind, and jumps too.
As they fall, both of them scream, “I have to go baaaaaaaack!”
Young-soo wakes up in a totally different, totally ripped body (provided by Rain), and takes a video call from MAYA, their genial guide to the afterlife, who asks if they “arrived safely.” But when he speaks in return, he’s struck what he hears: “What happened to my voice?” It got hotter, is what.
Young-soo looks in the mirror in shock, as Gi-tak also wakes up in a much more updated body (provided by Oh Yeon-seo). One has hairy legs, one has manicured nails. Both are naked.
I never thought I’d say this in all my years of existing, and may the drama gods smite me for it, but: Did we really need Rain there? And before you say “That’s what insane people say, Heads,” just hear me out. It’s not that this story didn’t need Rain there, only that the addition of Rain in those last few seconds felt like yet another weird directorial decision in what’s become a string of not necessarily bad choices, just… odd ones.
Trust me, I totally understand that the point of that slapdash final scene was to finish flushing out the premise, it’s just that it didn’t do that very effectively. So the obvious choice would’ve been to just leave them out until next episode. Not doing so almost feels like a last minute distrust of the audience, as though the production was worried that we’d be gone without knowing there was body possession involved. I’m sure it all came from a good place, it’s just that it didn’t feel really necessary, and if they felt it was, there must’ve been a better way to present it.
Overall though, this was a much more ambitious production than I anticipated it would be, even while recognizing that expectations are worth a hill of beans around these parts. Truthfully I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I was actually very surprised at the amount of heart packed into just one episode. So much so, actually, that I find myself again going against every belief I’ve long held dear in wishing that Rain wasn’t in the picture (I know!!!), because after an episode spent coming to know Gi-tak and Young-soo, I want to see their story. (For the record, Rain was my gateway drug, and is my forever bias for it.)
Even though their new bodies will be a continuation of their story, which is an idea I think I’ll only understand when I see more of them. And since we only saw three seconds (and six beautiful abs) of Young-soo’s new self, so who’s to say that we won’t fall in love with him all over again? It feels strange to have gotten so attached to two characters in only one episode, even stranger because the presentation itself was not without its flaws, but maybe it’s because the show aimed so high that its occasional failures almost made it endearing? I can’t quite figure it out either.
But there’s heart here, and heart counts for a lot. Young-soo and Gi-tak are two pitiful creatures indeed, but for very different reasons—Young-soo was the man who tried and tried but never actually could in life, and for all intents and purposes, was a fool. A fool who loved his family to death, but one perpetually plagued by insecurities so ingrown that he had no way of escaping other than… well, the second chance just presented to him. Although I wish so badly that they had chosen just any other way for him to die. Literally, any.
What puts Gi-tak in a league of his own is his great big teddy bear heart, which seems like such a well-worn trope at this point that it shouldn’t be so affecting. Maybe the honor goes to Kim Su-ro’s portrayal of him, which was all kinds of heartbreaking in the most unexpected of ways. I was actually shocked by just how good of a person he was, and how they played it so that he was still wholly believable and not some holier-than-thou saint. He’s just an ajusshi who loves too much and tells bad jokes, a trait combination that unsurprisingly makes for an absolutely winning character.
The challenge, of course, will be whether both their new bodies will be able to live up to the sky-high bar set by those two. There’s certainly rich potential with the multitude of interesting side characters already introduced, but just as much potential for disaster if the directing were to lose its already very tentative focus. It certainly takes itself quite seriously when it needs to, but the humor, played dead (har) straight by everyone involved, is oddly winning. I suppose that’s what can best be said of this first outing as a whole, really: It’s oddly good.