Welcome to Global Breakouts, Deadline’s brand new strand in which, each fortnight, we shine a spotlight on the TV shows and films killing it in their local territories. The industry is as globalized as it’s ever been but breakout hits are appearing in pockets of the world all the time and it can be hard to keep track… So we’re going to do the hard work for you. We kick off with a buzzy resurrection drama breaking records in Korea, the nation that introduced the world to Netflix’s Squid Game but in reality has been making smash-hit shows for decades.
Name: Reborn Rich
For fans of: Netflix’s Dark or Christopher Nolan’s Inception
There had never been a ‘reincarnation drama’ on Korean cable before JTBC’s Reborn Rich and local viewers had rarely seen anything quite like it, but that didn’t stop them watching this ambitious series in their droves.
Launching at the backend of last year and airing weekly — a treat in this era of box-set viewing — the 16-parter was adapted from a web novel to critical and audience acclaim by local writers Kim Tae-hee and Jang Eun-jae. The pair count the Korean Designated Survivor among their credits.
Starring some of the best known Korean actors, including the multi-award-winning Song Joong-ki (A Werewolf Boy, The Innocent Man), Reborn Rich tells the story of Yoon Hyun-woo, a loyal higher-up employee working for Soonyang Group, a Korean conglomerate, or ‘chaebol.’ To cover up a tax evasion scheme, Hyun-woo is betrayed and murdered by a member of the Soonyang family but in a twist that partly evokes Netflix’s German hit Dark, he wakes up in 1987 discovering that he has been reincarnated into the body of Jin Do-jun, youngest grandson of the Soonyang family. Using these circumstances to his advantage, he starts his revenge by plotting a hostile takeover of Soonyang Group. The all-star cast also features Lee Sung-min (Golden Time) and Shin Hyun-been (Confession).
Rarely had such a big budget bet been taken by a Korean network and producer (Squid Game was financed with Netflix money) and the subject matter was new to many, but having read the 13 volumes that comprise the web novel, director Jung Dae-yoon was confident this one could introduce ‘reincarnation drama’ to the masses. He personally consumed all 13, 300-page volumes in three days.
“The web novel is legendary and opened up a wealth of Korean stories combining time travel and reincarnation,” he tells Deadline. “The books meticulously depicted Korea’s modern and contemporary history and the characters in a way that was so alive and dynamic.”
In an era of global recession in which the Korean term “lee saeng mang” (loosely translated as “this life is ruined”) has become part of the everyday lexicon, the idea of reincarnation is having a moment, believes the director. “We wanted to be the first to fully introduce Korean audiences to the subject,” he adds.
Exec producer Park Sung-eun calls the web novel a “masterpiece in the genre of reincarnation” that “deeply touches people’s intrinsic desires for a new and successful life.”
For JTBC’s in-house production arm Studio LuluLala (SLL – formerly JTBC Studios) to create the TV version it desired, however, was going to take a lot of cash. Securing Song Joong-ki as lead back in 2020 was crucial.
Filming took almost a year, coupled with enormous investments “incomparable to any [of SLL’s] existing drama” and lengthy marketing campaigns, according to the director. CGI was also an expensive challenge given the creator’s desire to painstakingly recreate the feel of late-1980s South Korea while retaining the high-end values of today’s drama.
But what a punt. In an era where achieving double-digit overnight share is a near-impossible task, the show now sits second only to JTBC’s The World of the Married as the most-watched Korean cable drama and achieved a massive 26.9% share. It is now available in selected territories on Asian streamer Viu, alongside Netflix and Disney+ in Korea.
Director Jung says the subject matter and star quality helps appeal to all ages.
While “focusing on one target age group” is in vogue for the modern drama producer, he points to Reborn Rich’s ability to attract all age groups due to its spotlighting the nation’s modern and contemporary history.
The director and EP are, of course, conscious of Squid Game’s breakout global success but stress Korean TV and film has been killing it locally and globally for years. They flag other SLL hits such as Netflix drama series Hellbound, D.P. and Suriname. The streamer’s series The Glory is currently one of the world’s top-rated non-U.S. shows on the platform and a second season is in the offing.
There is plenty more to come, with Netflix unveiling its largest ever Korean slate last month featuring 34 TV dramas — including a number in genres Korea is less known for such as romcom — plus movies and entertainment shows.
Driven by the influence of YouTube, Director Jung forecasts the next development as a “breaking down of the boundaries between ordinary people and TV stars” in the nation.
“The whole of Korean culture — from [K-pop band] BTS to Minari and Parasite, TV drama and even cuisine — is gaining increasing attention,” he says. “This diversity of Korean content has been accumulating for years and, going forwards, global viewers will have more opportunity to access it.”