‘Go Back Couple’...A surprisingly profound story about grief and grievances.
In Reply 1994, Son Ho Jun played a college student in the year of 1994. In Go Back Couple, he plays a college student in the year 1999. The difference? Here, he is a 38-year-old ajhussi (uncle) in the body of his 20-year old self. How did this happen, you ask? I have two words for you: Time Travel.
Most people find the concept of time-travel overly used in Korean dramas, but I personally don’t think so. I haven’t come across so many of them, that I would call them a trope. I quite enjoy this concept and don’t care much for the logistics of it all — the how, the why — as long as the story also doesn’t. Don’t make me think about paradoxes, parallel timelines, or the serious consequences of altering the future if you also don’t. 2017’s The Best Hit is the perfect example of this. The show kept the time-travel aspect relevant throughout its runtime, only to conclude it with a whimper of an explanation when in actuality, the drama was more about friendships, family, and music.
Go Back Couple doesn’t go into the logistics either, and neither does it care for them (only at the end do we get a short and somewhat loopy reason for it). Here, time-travel is a shorthand for second chances — if you could go back in time, would you do things differently?
We first meet our time travelling duo, Choi Ban Do (an excellent Son Ho Jun) and Ma Jin Joo (an equally on par Jang Na Ra), at their wedding. We see the nervousness, the excitement but most importantly the love (as the drama so often describes it as ‘heart arrows shooting off their eyes’). Fast forward, fourteen years to the present day, and they are exiting the Seoul Family Court after finalizing their divorce. That love, that innocence has now been replaced by a lot of bitterness, anger, and resentment. We get a brief look at their marriage, a month before the divorce. She is tired from single-handedly looking after their home and their baby (in a very matter-of-fact moment, she is on the toilet seat, taking a dump, with the baby on her lap). He is tired from working long hours at a demeaning job that expects him to even take care of his client’s mistresses. Neither one is aware of the difficulties the other faces and assumes that they are having it easy. The universe then steps in like a fairy godmother and whisks them off to the year, 1999, when they were still college freshmen, and when they still hadn’t met each other. With complete knowledge of what their future holds, they decide to take this chance to turn their life around. Maybe marry someone prettier. Maybe marry someone who is guaranteed to become rich in the future. Maybe not marry so young.
Jin Joo’s first reaction upon landing in the past and seeing her mother (a magnificent Kim Mi Kyung) alive and well, is outright joy. She doesn’t care about the fact that she is younger, has nicer skin, or can wear pretty clothes. As a mother herself, she now understands the value of her own. All she cares about is making up for the lost time by going to the bathhouse with her, singing karaoke, or drinking together. It was so sweet to watch Jin Joo follow her mother all around the house, just soaking in her presence.
Ban Do’s reaction is more conventional, as he is just happy to be young again and be free of his responsibilities. But their middle-aged wisdom has made their past self more confident and relaxed, as they no longer find things like dates, exams, haunted houses, or seniors, as unnerving as they once did.
Jin Joo acts like an ajhumma (aunty). She chides her friends to go out and enjoy more. She compares the power struggle in the Joseon Dynasty to having difficult in-laws. She takes over the cooking duties at the college fair. She remarks about how people are scarier than ghosts. Ban Do too sounds like an ajhussi, spilling out advice to his friends and even acting parentlike to his first love Min Seo Young (a beautiful Go Bo Gyeol). After all, you can’t get rid of years-long habits within a few days. In a hilarious scene, Ban Do runs into his father-in-law (Jin Joo’s father, who would be a stranger to him in this timeline), and upon meeting him, immediately bows 90 degrees and calls him 장인! (Jang in-nim, meaning father-in-law).
This part of the drama is fun as it revels in this dichotomy between youth and adulthood, as well as giving time and freedom to Jin Joo and Ban Do to enjoy themselves and rediscover their lost talents. I honestly didn’t care much for the An Jae Woo — Yoon Bo Reum couple (Heo Jeong Min, Han Bo Reum), but I did love Go Dok Jae (Lee Yi Kyung), and his antics really cracked me up.
In the second half, surprisingly (because I didn’t expect the drama to go so… deep) the drama dissects the reason why Ban Do and Jin Joo’s marriage failed. It isn’t attributed to a mid-life-crisis or the stress of having a newborn, but a wound that manifested years ago, which remained untreated and spread that resentment to the other parts of their lives. This detail elevates the story from just being a 90’s nostalgic indulgence and provides gravitas to the couple’s trip back in time. As they heal and reignite their romance, they also regain respect and appreciation for the sacrifices they both had made for their marriage. These moments are the greatest, as we finally see all the anger, the bitterness, the snarky comments wash away to open up a dam of emotions between two people who are deeply in love with each other, making this trip back in time totally worth it!