응답하라 1997 (Reply 1997)

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16 Episodes
A tvN Production
Timeslot: Tuesday Evenings, 11:00 PM
Genre: Trendy Drama
Format: 1080i Dolby Digital 2.0 – 65 Minutes
Runs from: 2012/Jul/24~Sep/18

WITH 정은지 (Jung Eun-Ji) as Sung Si-Won; 서인국 (Seo In-Guk) as Yoon Yoon-Je; 신소율 (Shin So-Yool) as Mo Yu-Jeong; 은지원 (Eun Ji-Won) as Do Hak-Chan; 호야 (Hoya) as Kang Joon-Hee; 이시언 (Lee Si-Eon) as Bang Seong-Jae; 성동일 (Sung Dong-Il) as Sung Dong-Il; 이일화 (Lee Il-Hwa) as Lee Il-Hwa; 송종호 (Song Jong-Ho) as Yoon Tae-Woong;

CREW Production Director 신원호 (Shin Won-Ho) B-Team Director 박성재 (Park Sung-Jae) Main Writer 이우정 (Lee Woo-Jeong) 이선혜 (Lee Seon-Hye) 김란주 (Kim Ran-Joo) Executive Producer 김일헌 (Kim Il-Heon) Planning 이명한 (Lee Myung-Han) Director of Photography 오재호 (Oh Jae-Ho) 배영수 (Bae Young-Soo) Lighting 최명근 (Choi Myung-Geun) Music 김한조 (Kim Han-Jo) Assistant Producer 권성욱 (Kwon Sung-Wook) 한승호 (Han Seung-Ho) 강민구 (Kang Min-Gu)

RATINGS
AGB Nielsen Nationwide
HIGHEST: 7.55% (09/18 - E16)
LOWEST: 1.20% (07/24 - E01)
AVERAGE: 3.24%

OFFICIAL WEBSITE

Photo ⓒ MBC, CT Pictures

SYNOPSIS

It tells the story of 6 former high school friends from a school in Busan who meet again in 2012 and brings back memories to 1997 when they were still high school students. Moving back and forth between the '90s and today, the story centers on the life of Sung Shi Won (Jung Eun Ji), who idolizes boy-band H.O.T., and her 5 high school friends. [IMDB]

REVIEW

시대는 미장센일 뿐이지 결코 주제가 아니라는 겁니다.

“The period setting is only mise-en-scene, it could never become our main theme.”

Shin Won-Ho, 응답하라 1997 (Reply 1997) PD

Have you ever asked yourself what a trendy drama really is?

Of course you know what it stands for, am I kidding you? Not to mention the fact that more than half of the dramas produced in Korea somehow falls within this category, and that a large part of this industry’s popularity overseas depends on this seemingly all-encompassing “genre.” But just like sageuk has become a convenient one-size-fits-all moniker to describe whatever dons ancient garbs, it seems that a lot of people today forget that once upon a time, this trendy drama “thing” used to be a pretty specific genre. One with well established narrative canons and stylistic idiosyncrasies, and one that didn’t simply indicate a bunch of pretty faces prancing about engaged in fluffy romantic shenanigans.

As it’s often the case with many of K-drama history’s most important pages, this had a lot to do with neighboring Japan.

JEALOUS BUBBLES

One of the monumental changes the advent of the 1980s’ bubble economy brought to the Land of the Rising Sun was the significant altering of social mores that had dominated Japanese culture for centuries – and mind you, I said altering, not changing altogether. Individualism had been a much too exacting, perhaps even selfish, prospect for the country, particularly during the immediate postwar’s reconstruction efforts.

There has been a long line of J-dramas exemplifying this concept of the collective whole dominating society over the years, but the most striking as of late was certainly TBS’ 官僚たちの夏  (Kanryotachi no Natsu) from a couple of years ago: the individual here (determined and talented bureaucrats, in this case) certainly had unique skills and innate creativity, but while that was never downplayed the show always made a mission out of pushing the idea that such individualism was only as good as the benefit it could bring to the collective whole. It was never about personal gains or the fulfillment of one’s aspirations. Culture, at least in its most mainstream-conscious forms (like TV), always stressed this point vehemently.

In Korean this is called 집단주의 (group mentality), one of the secrets of Korea’s post-war success — although I myself often tend to criticize its most aggressively negative connotations, in particular the erasing of independent thought and the lack of respect for views not adhering to the mainstream creed. This is not to say that this brand of vertical collectivism disappeared from Japan during the bubble, but it was significantly, as I said, altered; the importance of individualism within this collective process obtained new vigor, to the point that this “new generation (世代, shin sedai)” led to the consumer society we now associate Japan with. These were people who hadn’t experienced the hardships of war, or the years of propaganda (imperial before the conflict, and motivated by reconstruction immediately after) and sacrifice forced upon their parents. It was an era of prosperity, of euphoria and optimism. In hindsight (particularly with today’s austerity craze in mind), you could argue it was filled with crass consumerism and insufferably vapid excesses as well.

A medium as socially-conscious as television could only feel the impact of this generational change. By the early-to-mid 1980s, the popularity of the annual New Year’s Eve 紅白歌合戦 (Red & White Song Battle) was beginning to falter – although we were still dealing with 55 to 70% ratings – and the same thing happened to enka and baseball programs. NHK’s taiga dorama franchise, which pretty much had guaranteed averages of 24-25% throughout the mid-to-late 1970s and actually began hitting the 30% barrier quite frequently by the 1980s, was the last bastion of tradition resisting what would be an epochal change. What had happened is that the cultural paradigm had begun to shift towards this shin sedai and their increasingly generous pockets, but television wasn’t responding accordingly. At least until 1986. TBS, always very conscious about popular trends, broadcast 男女7人夏物語 (Danjo Shichinin Natsu Monogatari) that year, dealing with the – as the title suggests – summer shenanigans of seven men and women. J-dorama historians will argue that the genre’s true pioneer was 1985’s フポテトな(Half Potato na Oretachi ), but thematically speaking the 1986 TBS show saw the official birth of trendy dramas, as they would later be known. The response was phenomenal, to the point that its theme song (Ishii Akemi’s CHA CHA CHA) hit the top spot in the annual pop charts, and the show averaged over 24% with a peak of 31% — something incredibly rare for non-taiga dramas.

This and many trendy dramas which immediately followed it dealt with what the west defined as yuppies, urban youths with an upper-middle class upbringing and a professional career with significant upward mobility. Their obsession with social status and the carefree consumerist streak they so nonchalantly exhibited was the driving force of these stories, which for the most part involved handsome pop stars like Nakayama Miho, Yamaguchi Tomoko or actors like Mikami Hiroshi in a sort of upgrade of the shoujo manga canon – with all its fluffy romantic underpinnings. The advent of trendies marked an inexorable transition from a predominantly male-centered thematic output to an almost completely female-oriented one, as taiga or other jidaigeki and the occasional political drama were the only place on television that maintained a modicum of traditional mores. It was the era of career women, of their romantic interests, their challenges and aspirations. All painted in refreshingly (for the era and the environment) individualistic tones.

Any debate on Japanese trendies would now venture into familiar directions – does Nojima Shinji ring a bell? – but what is actually of interest to us is the show which cemented the genre’s popularity outside Japan, to the point that TV execs in Korea took notice as well. I’m obviously referring to Sakamoto Yuji’s 1991 trendy 東京ラブストーリー (Tokyo Love Story), in many ways the blueprint for the advent of trendy dramas in the country. The Fuji TV hit was adapted from a 1988 manga by Fumi Saimon, and told the story of a young professional’s descent into Tokyo’s metropolitan lifestyle (in more ways than one) and of his romantic interludes with a rather sprightly colleague. Not surprisingly, this was another 30% hit with a tremendously popular theme by Oda Kazumasa. While the early trendies more or less distinguished themselves for their thematic approach (breezy romances involving yuppies), shows like this and other hits of the early 1990’s added visual and aural elements to the genre – such as music video sensibilities, and the tendency to pester the viewers with hit singles on every other scene (something that made quite  a mark, considering the OST sold 2.7 million copies). What’s fascinating is that by the time Korea took notice of trendy dramas, the genre in Japan was already reaching over-saturation – hence the tentative of people like Nojima Shinji to inject serious themes into the canon – and was beginning to morph into a collection of patterns that would eventually make it feel stale.

But what should be noted is that Korea didn’t merely copy the Japanese format, as they not so subtly did in the 1980’s with the TV Novel and 대하드라마 (daeha drama) franchises, copied wholesale from NHK’s asadora and taiga dorama. It just happened that when the country began to move towards a consumer society, and when its democratization process flourished to the point of making individualism a much more acceptable notion, trendy dramas were the perfect vehicle to capture this epochal shift. Perhaps the only one, considering that Chungmuro was stuck in a transitional period (made of protest films and the remnants of 80s kitsch erotica) and music wasn’t exactly responding to Korea’s own “new generation.”

This is not to say that romances between youths had never taken center stage before – you could look at youth dramas on TV like 사랑이 꽃피는 나무 (The Tree of Love) and you’d get plenty of that. The early campus dramas like 우리들의 천국 (Our Paradise) and 내일은 사랑 (Love, Tomorrow) which resulted from the 1987 KBS drama’s success dealt exactly with such themes, and predated trendies by a few years in showing how the social paradigm was changing – not to mention proving that the audience was getting younger and needed content that would fit its needs. But 1992 was the year which introduced the trendy drama – intended as the romantic, consumerist interludes of this new generation of yuppies – as a bonafide genre both on TV and the big screen, as the success of 결혼이야기 (Marriage Story) can prove.

MBC had already begun to expand the spectrum in 1987 by creating a format which would eventually lead to today’s miniseries: they were all eight episode shows adapted from famous novels – first being 불새 (Firebird) with Yoo In-Chon – and more importantly offered the perfect canvas for an eventual trendy drama. This is because while the aforementioned youth dramas did speak to younger demographics, they were always anchored to age-old formats that pretty much meant you’d be getting long running series, sometimes even well into two-three year-long runs. On the contrary, trendies in Japan were short and sweet, straight to the point and with different goals than the average youth drama, so 8 to 12 episodes was a much better prospect to debut this kind of show. Enter 질투 (Jealousy).

Written by Choi Yeon-Ji and produced by Lee Seung-Ryeol, the show put together Choi Su-Jong – who started his career with, go figure, The Tree of Love – and rising star Choi Jin-Shil, who might have been garnering praise for her rather eclectic work on the big screen (with directors like Jung Ji-Young, Lee Myung-Se and Jang Gil-Soo), but also made a name for herself through a quirky CF and – guess what – Our Paradise’s first season. It told the story of Ha-Gyeong, a college senior preparing for a career as a travel agent, her BFF Chae-Ri (former Miss Korea contestant Kim Hye-Ri) and Young-Ho (Choi). Seen now, the rudimentary romantic artifices and all-too-earnest characterization will feel rather aged (not to mention production values and acting that wasn’t exactly superb), but there’s a refreshing lack of that kind of complacent contempt for the viewer that today’s trendies so often ooze – that annoyingly lazy defeatism that suggests that any tentative to stray from the usual two-three patterns the genre has been bastardized into will pose a much too dangerous risk. It feels alive and topical without being constrained by its settings or the need to respond to trends like a beggar in the proximity of food. Brimming with energy and not afraid to venture into semi-serious themes.

Like many other trendies of the genre’s first decade in Korea, Jealousy was accused of plagiarism by “journalists” who mistake derivative works (in a more global sense, that is) for clear-cut copycats, but we’ll leave that story for another day (or chapter of a certain work-in-progress book, wink wink). What’s important is that, just like Tokyo Love Story (the show it was accused of aping), Jealousy ended up scoring amazing ratings – with a peak of 56.1% — making its theme song a huge hit, and even popularizing pizza joints in the country (the character played by Lee Eung-Gyeong ran one). Love triangles didn’t certainly start from here (they’re an eternal trope of Korean melodramas), and it surely wasn’t the first show to deal with young professionals in love (it was a frequent flyer of many a weekend drama as a subplot from the 1960’s onwards). But it was indeed the first to deal with the romantic entanglements and lifestyles of professional urbanites in the democratized, much more consumerist Seoul of the early 1990s. Trendy dramas were born, and the industry would slowly experience a monumental change as a result.

No need to rush through a history of trendy dramas in Korea (again, I’ll eventually do that in other venues), as we only needed to establish what the thematic fundamentals of this genre were. But it wouldn’t hurt to briefly point out why trendies have become what they are today, as it makes 응답하라 1997 (Reply 1997)’s exploits all the more impressive in retrospect.

I think that more than anything the opening of the industry to investors who had no previous experience in television encouraged writers and producers looking to make a quick career to take shows at face value, without ever pondering what the gears that made the engine run really were. This can also be applied to sageuk and any other genre, as they’re experiencing similar dilemmas. Most Korean dramas today don’t really belong to any genre,  they’re just commercial ventures catering to certain audiences (mostly ajumma and certain demographics Japanese investors profit from) and almost completely dependent upon the whims of their funders (again, the same Japanese investors and the domestic advertisers responsible for ad revenue, sponsorships and PPL). This has nothing to do with the genre bending and blending the film industry went through between 1995 and 2005, it’s only a crass form of commodification. When even sageuk begin acting like shoujo manga wearing hanbok because that trendy “aura” sells, you know swimming against the current becomes an almost heroic feat.

This is why real medical dramas like 골든타임 (Golden Time), real sitcoms like 청담동살아요 (I Live in Cheongdam-Dong), real sageuk like 인수대비 (Queen Insoo) and real, bonafide, 100% legit trendy dramas like Reply 1997 need to be highlighted. They harken back to a time when genre meant something, regardless of whether you told it via accessible mainstream sensibilities or meatier, much more intellectually compelling means.

OPPA CORPS

What if I said… ass and bitch?

No, don’t bring out the forks quite yet, this is no filth flarn filth. I’m just talking about donkeys and dogs. But without any context you wouldn’t really know the difference, would you? That’s what happens with words, particularly since time has the tendency to alter their meaning quite significantly, or at least the context in which we use them. I recall one particular episode back when I was an active subtitler: I once used the term “slattern” in the subtitles for 추노 (Slave Hunters), and some confused kids over at a rather popular Korean entertainment community thought I was arguing that Jang Hyuk called his beloved Lee Da-Hae a meretricious slut. I was of course only using slattern in its obsolete form (via Scandinavian roots, the most suitable to a mid-Joseon setting like that of the KBS show), which translated into a much more innocuous “sloppy, untidy woman,” and not the sexually promiscuous nature of its more modern  rendition. It was an amusing but perfectly understandable reaction, as it happens for just about every language: a generation appropriates a term, and uses it in a different context, in the long run changing the original meaning itself. It might be a slow process in most cases, but it’s pretty much inevitable. Even in trendy dramas, go figure.

One of the things PD Shin Won-Ho and his roster of variety writers wanted to accomplish with Reply 1997 was reevaluating  the figure of the 빠순이 (bbasuni) — the obsessed, bubbling K-pop fangirls that in many ways have created a sort of sub-culture in the last few decades. Derided by the masses for their lifestyle and often misinterpreted, Shin commented that by meeting some of those ladies firsthand he realized how it wasn’t always a shallow adolescent vagary that moved them, but that they had a sort of philosophy and thought process of their own; that they weren’t just impressionable pawns manipulated by a commercial machine they could never understand, but ordinary people who found an emotional catalyst that happened to have hair like a porcupine, was dressed like a part time Teletubby and sang hideous cacophony while shaking his behind for no apparent reason. It’s fascinating, though, that we still use that term today, considering what it meant when it was first used.

The “순이 (suni)” suffix is not that hard to comprehend if you’re a little familiar with Korean, as you’ll surely have seen it used in many other contexts – alongside its male counterpart, 돌이 (dori). They’re not surprisingly vestiges of Joseon’s Neo-Confucian past, which suggested that women should be pure and innocent, and men clever and steadfastly honest like a stone – or if you believe folklore, that pretty kids were saddled with such ordinary monikers to avoid the envy of murderous spirits, but that’s another story. So we’ve got the “suni” part covered, but what about the bba (which has now become a bonafide verb and adjective, as in 빠는 = fangirling)?

Bbasuni began its life in the immediate postwar as slang for women working in bars (hence the bba romanization), particularly ones frequented and/or operated by US Army soldiers – as a regular Korean establishment would just be called 술집 (suljib, liquor house). Of course some of them took their job quite literally and went beyond working as a hostess or dancer by engaging in prostitution, something which in the long run monopolized the term. At least until the 1990s, being called a bbasuni was a creative way of calling you a bitch. And no, this time I don’t mean female dog. After slowly disappearing into oblivion, the term began resurfacing in curious ways almost half a century later, when anti-fans of H.O.T.’s Moon Hee-Joon christened his most ardent female fans as bbasuni.

What they likely were looking for was a short and catchy Korean equivalent of “groupie,” but the term was for the most part used by a tiny niche of people on the Internet, and it would take another few years for it to be associated with hardcore fangirls. Mind you, this doesn’t necessarily mean that raging fangirls didn’t exist before the 2000’s, they just had another name for them: 오빠부대 (Oppa Corps). Corps because these young women represented a sort of faithful legion of fans protecting their oppa against his fiercest rival and his fanbase. If in the 1970’s this happened to be a battle between Na Hoon-A and Nam Jin, the conflict in the 1980’s was fought over Lee Yong and superstar Jo Yong-Pil. What’s most fascinating – and perhaps even a little frightening — about this cultural movement is how these fans’ habits changed over the years.

Oppa Corps in the 1970’s and 80’s were just content with following concerts or writing letters and had no real organization behind them. But fans in the 1990’s – as you can see in the show – began to actively follow the stars around all the time, and not only in official venues like concerts and interviews. What’s even more important, the fangirls of the 1990’s were organized in huge rival fanclubs covering the entire country – something the characters in Reply 1997 even pay homage to in what historically was a rather infamous confrontation between “warring states.” It was still an underground and rarely used term at the beginning of the new millennium, but when DC Inside was launched a few years later, these obsessed fangirls would “officially” gain the moniker of bbasuni, this time not necessarily suggesting they were groupies, but as a portmanteau of the more innocuous Oppa Corps + the suni suffix. 오빠 (Obba)+순이 (suni) = bbasuni. There you have it. Fangirls obsessed with their oppa. Simple, isn’t it?

If Oppa Corps and the first few generations of bbasuni only showed a sometimes unhealthy affection for their fans – which led to many cases of lost youths neglecting their education or their personal lives for their oppa’s sake – the borrom of this evolutionary tree gave birth to a much more dangerous kind of fan in the early 2000’s: the so-called 사생 (sasaeng) – short for 사생활 팬, private life fans.

Scorned at even by bbasuni themselves, this is  the most extreme approach to the matter, something which is closer to stalking than fan appreciation. While old school fans in the 1990’s would actually have to work hard to get up-close and personal with their beloved even for a short moment – as shown by Reply 1997 in an hilarious scene where Si-Won infiltrates Tony Ahn’s house – the explosion the Internet experienced in Korea from the Kim Dae-Joong junta onwards made sure that a vast network of fans with too much time on their hands and a seemingly limitless pool of personal information at their disposal could do a lot more than camp outside their oppa’s door.

You’d have people infiltrating idols’ homes, finding vital personal information like the Korean equivalent of a social security number, stalk them all the way to jjimjilbang and film them while sleeping (!), or build a bonafide network of taxis with the only purpose of stalking the idols around no matter where they’d go. This could only happen thanks to a private, exceedingly secretive web of sasaeng (who would go all the way to infiltrating a management agency to secure information) scavenging for information on and offline. It’s easy to dismiss those idols as pretty faces of dubious talent (as I often do, and you’ll agree that as much as it might only be a generalization, it’s not too far off the truth), but these kids are paying a huge price for the fleeting popularity they’re experiencing, one that even huge sums of money might not be able to repay – and if you know how management agencies in Korea work, I won’t need to mention that good money is something limited to just a few idols.

For years fanclubs have attempted to make a clear distinction between themselves and these sasaeng, but the line is often blurred. Most adults (particularly males) don’t have a great opinion of this bbasuni culture, and either see it as an inevitable wart of the coming of age process, or a needless obsession that can only damage those girls’ lives. I would be a hypocrite if I said I’m not one of them (although I subscribe to the former category), but the cultural underpinnings of the movement itself are definitely fascinating. It’s the object of their obsession I can hardly tolerate.

Shin PD’s reevaluation process probably started from here: how exactly do you redeem this cultural manifestation in the eyes of the skeptics? Even someone allergic to variety like myself can recognize how he was one of the first variety PDs to comprehend that this sector of the industry needed to evolve beyond stale formats pitting a few celebrities together so that they could waste time with silly shenanigans inside a tiny studio. But his exploits in the variety world wouldn’t help that much when making the big jump to dramas. And that’s because while quite a few writers with a past in variety shows have made a successful crossover (Kim Young-Hyeon, Kim Hyeon-Hee, Park Ji-Eun and the Hong sisters being the most obvious examples), you rarely see producers make the jump, because the dynamics are just too different.

But paradoxically what helped Shin in this process of rediscovery might have been the fact he wasn’t “spoiled” by age old patterns of this genre and subject. You give this to someone a la Jeon Gi-Sang, and you just get 드림하이 (Dream High) with lazily researched flashbacks. Now, claiming that the new age “hybrid” variety shows a la 1박2일 (One Day Two Nights) present you with reality is dangerously naïve – they’re just as scripted as something seemingly spontaneous like Top Gear is. But having dealt with such formats helps you when trying to create a realistic drama, because your foremost goal is achieving verisimilitude, the idea that what is happening is spontaneous. Realism and spontaneity are certainly not the same thing, but the latter has always been one of the core tenets of the trendy drama genre, and a somewhat realistic background is what the early example of the genre started off with.

Yes, realistic. Take Jealousy and any two-buck Hallyu drama shot these days and compare them. You’ll notice right off the bat that the former might still be as hyper and silly, but its foundations are firmly rooted in realism, which after all is what creates spontaneity. Despite its middling script, one of the most underappreciated trendies of recent memory was 그저 바라보다가 (The Accident Couple), exactly because it was able to recreate the kind of spontaneity that harkens back to the trendies of yore. This pursuit of relatively realistic spontaneity is what shows like One Day Two Nights are based upon, so in a way people like Shin (and writer Lee Woo-Jeong, who actually wrote the first season of the hit road variety show and made a name for herself in the “real variety” genre) had an advantage over your ordinary drama writer right off the bat. Plus of course you have the benefit of working on cable, which has completely different dynamics, target demographics, funding structure and expectations in terms of performance. Nobody, even the most popular of writers and producers, could get the freedom of playing with the running time as they see fit as Shin and his writers did here. That’s a huge advantage nobody should discard.

Another thing that this focus on realism helped achieve was the sense that this bbasuni culture enveloping the characters was not just a fleeting, adolescent wart, but a healthy catalyst which helped those kids “survive” through a decade that was rather turbulent, if you think about it – consider that we went from the final steps of the democratization process in the early 1990s to a scorched-earth-like cultural rebranding which began in the early 1990s with the birth of K-pop (with Seo Taiji and Boys and later Deux), the incipit of K-dramas’ third Golden Age and the rebirth of the film industry, all in a frenzy which was only tamed down by the IMF crisis in the mid-1990s.

And yet, the almost obsessive attention to detail and the near perfect recreation of the period might mislead people into thinking that this was anything but a trendy drama. Scratch the surface, set aside the period details and look at the plot itself, and you’ll find out it doesn’t really differ that much from the live action shoujo manga blueprint trendies started from. Of course we’re not dealing with yuppies and the love life of young professionals only becomes part of the equation in the second and third act, but the story’s narrative structure basks in trendy drama tropes from the very first minute. If anything, the decision by the producer and writers to use an episodical, short-drama-like format for their story helped reinforce that notion: coming of age stories are generally linear, but adolescence is mostly about selected episodes, parts that in the long run cement the whole. You pick a few memorable ones while establishing an underlying theme and there it is. Your atmosphere, that spontaneous sense of realism is created.

For this to happen, research alone is not sufficient. I talk about this all the time when dealing with sageuk: it’s not that Kim Young-Hyeon’s historical dramas are poor because she doesn’t research enough. Hell, she might be one of the few post-Hallyu sageuk writers who actually try to study the period they cover. I doubt Choi Wan-Gyu ever opened a history book to write his sageuk, and the less said about Kim Yi-Young (who is actually a HISTORY MAJOR!), the better. What she lacks is historical awareness, the ability to see the big picture and understand what to focus on. The same thing goes for anyone approaching a certain period, even if it’s only a few decades ago. The 친구 (Friend) franchise would have never had the impact it had if it weren’t for Kwak Kyung-Taek’s understanding of Busan’s roots and culture. Sure enough, Shin PD could have never recreated the world of bbasuni all by himself, or simply by meeting a few fans and researching the period. One of his writers, Kim Ran-Joo, was actually a fellow bbasuni herself, and although many of the episodes in the show might be exaggerated for the sake of comic relief, you can rest assured the foundations come from personal experience. And she probably fought with her father over limited edition H.O.T. raincoats. I guess she’s the perfect proof that you could be a bbasuni and still become an emotionally healthy, mature, and productive member of society. With lousy taste in music…

Set aside anything you could say about the show, that’s likely their biggest achievement: successfully reevaluating the image of the bubbling fangirl, something that no one in the music industry – or the bbasuni movement itself – has ever managed to do in more than a decade.

BACK TO 1997, A VISUAL COMMENTARY

While it’s sad to see so many contemporary dramas ignore the reality that surrounds them to favor a sort of parallel world inside which their stories develop – another reason why 아내의 자격 (A Wife’s Credentials)’s geographical and social verisimilitude was so welcome – it would be a cardinal sin to ignore your surroundings in a drama which purports to represent an era. Shin PD commented that the period setting was only an addition to the main theme, a sort of partner in crime assisting plot development and making it more incisive. While I believe anyone watching Reply 1997 will be able to appreciate its overarching themes – both the ones dealing with things predominantly associated with trendy dramas like the big “mystery” over the identity of Si-Won’s husband and the wider theme of surrogate families – on a superficial level, this is the kind of drama – like 친구, 우리들의 전설 (Friend, Our Legend) – which requires some background knowledge to be fully appreciated. Part of this is the Busan dialect – mixed with an almost frighteningly realistic onslaught of youth slang from the late 1990’s – and I do mean dialect, not just inflection. Like in Kwak Kyung-Taek’s drama debut, most of the cast was from Busan or other South Gyeongsang province areas, and the attention to detail in recreating the region’s true sound is something that no subtitle can do justice to – although the inflection alone has such a distinctive phonetic timbre, it’s hard to mistake it.

But there are other elements which enriched the show, visual and aural cues that can enhance the viewing experience by increasing realism. All this for the most part was done rather subtly, almost like Bong Joon-Ho’s attention to detail in 살인의 추억 (Memories of Murder). It’s something that slowly crept on you and became a sort of invisible character supporting the main ones. And those, unlike dialect, are details we can certainly discuss.

Exhibit 01: C’est Si Bon vs Candy [Episode 01]

The show throws us right into the mix with one important thematic point, one that just about everyone – regardless of provenience – will have experienced once in their lives: how the generational gap affects the parent-children relationship in terms of culture. Dong-Il chastises Si-Won’s choice at the noraebang not necessarily because it’s horrible cacophony (which… it kind of is, to be honest), but because of how distant it is from the idea of music he built in his mind while growing up. Going from good old Song Chang-Shik to a “bunch of pansies blubbering nonsense in English” can only be a culture shock. Then again, want to bet Si-Won will have something similar to say when her daughter grows up to be a fellow bbasuni and interrupts her H.O.T. song with some autotune abomination?

HISTORICAL DETAIL: the C’est si Bon (세시봉) Si-Won mentions as a sort of genre was a music hall in Mugyo-Dong (Jong-Ro) from which folk singers like Song Chang-Shik emerged in the 1970’s and 80’s. Folk mainstays like Jo Young-Nam, Kim Se-Hwan and Yoon Hyeong-Joo all cut their teeth right here.

Exhibit 02: DDR Revolution [Episode 01]

This is a clear historical distortion, considering that the game was released first as an arcade version in November 1998, and it would take until the spring of 1999 for its Japanese PlayStation release — a few months later for the Korean one, although I can confirm firsthand that a lot of people in Busan had been already playing the Japanese version for months by the time the Korean one was released. I think what’s interesting here is not so much the distortion (which Shin PD acknowledged), but the whole frame’s composition. You’ve got Seong-Jae on the dancing pad trying to break his personal record, and all the boys practicing alongside, most likely because they’d be up next. Now I’ve been out of the loop for years when it comes to gaming, but one of the changes online multiplaying brought in social terms is that people would rather play against others from their homes, singularly – that is unless, of course, you’re dealing with a LAN party. Forget the PC bang phenomenon, which started in the late 80s but didn’t really explode in Korea until at least 1998 and the Starcraft revolution. This was the time when, for the most part, “gaming” meant getting together in groups of 4-5 and playing all afternoon. It was a social aggregator, something which has significantly morphed over the years. This will be the first of many hints at the analog -> digital transition the characters go through in moving from 1997 to 2012.

HISTORICAL DETAIL: Smile.dk’s Butterfly from 1998 is the DDR song they’re using. You think Gangnam Style is annoying? If you took a tour of arcade rooms in Korea around early 1999 you’d hear the bubblegum dance hit pester your ears about a dozen times a day. Boy oh boy, was Eurodance ever bad…

HISTORICAL DETAIL 2: Kim Guk-Jin’s Star Docu. They obviously re-shot it for this show (and Tony Ahn looks just like he did in 1997), but this was a real program airing back then, whereby Kim would offer a rare look into these oppa’s personal lives – or so it was supposed to be, as it often just was a collection of phony, made-for-TV moments. More than anything, what the producer was likely trying to do here is highlighting how much harder it was for Si-Won and the other bbasuni to follow their oppa. The Internet was still in its primordial stages, so programs like this, various music shows on TV and magazines were often the only source of information they could find about their idols. Again, stressing the analog vs digital angle.

HISTORICAL DETAIL 3: VCRs, remember those? We actually had to program the damn things, we couldn’t activate the TiVo via our smartphones. And the tapes were clunky. And they could break easily. And they were humongously large. And we could inadvertently tape stuff over them. Or forget the fact that innocuous “Winne the Pooh” tapes featured another kind of beaver…

Exhibit 03: The Sincerest Form of Flattery [Episode 01]

It’s easy to think of China as the only mecca of creative counterfeiting, but Korea had a pretty badass tradition of its own particularly during the 1980’s and later on throughout the IMF crisis, when buying a designer brand could actually pose quite the financial burden on families. The (intellectual property stealing~) creative minds behind these often ingenious malefactions were called 짜가 (jjaga), which is just Korean for “fake” (가짜, gajja) in reverse. The scene where Yun-je goes through a succession of ruined birthday present at the hands of our diabolic jjaga is not hilarious just because of how carefully constructed it is, but because it’s pretty much what every middle class kid in Korea experienced around those days or in the 80’s.

HISTORICAL DETAIL: The popularity of counterfeit apparel (particularly sneakers and t-shirts) exploded in the 1980’s with the advent of infamous Nike knockoffs “Nice,” which led to an amazing succession of bandwagon jumpers, from Adadas (Adidos, too! Those t-shirts are real) to Kalvin Clein, Donuts Donuts, Eastpok, Chima (the “shirt” version of Puma, so to speak) and so on. Nice shoes even went all the way to Chungmuro, being featured in nostalgia flicks like 품행제로 (Conduct Zero) and even Memories of Murder.

Exhibit 04: Mops on my Head [Episode 01]

Ahh… 별은 가슴에 (Stars in my Heart), one of the most popular trendy dramas of all time. We’re talking 40% average and a peak of 49%, although one could argue it didn’t have strong competition at the time – KBS was airing 폭풍 속으로 (Into the Storm) with Lee Chang-Hoon and Yoo Ho-Jung, while SBS aired 연어가 돌아올 때 (When the Salmon Swims Back) with Hwang Soo-Jung and Jo Min-Gi, which is actually one of Oh Jong-Rok’s most tolerable works. Ahn Jae-Wook’s popularity reached insane levels (as did his mop-like hairdo, sadly), and even found some popularity in China. The show would later feature clips from a much more eclectic drama, Kim Woon-Kyung’s 파랑새는 있다 (Bluebirds) – one of the truly finest shows of the 1990’s, and one that climbed up the ranks via word of mouth, reaching a peak of over 30% on its finale. This shows that the attention to detail here is not merely superficial, as anyone who’s seen K-dramas for a while might be at least aware of Stars in my Heart, but Bluebirds is the kind of serious material that only someone who had a keen interest in dramas from that era would remember.

HISTORICAL DETAIL: More than an historical one, it’s about frame composition. Notice everything that’s around the TV set, how it perfectly captures slices of the Seong family’s past: baseball accolades with the Haitai Tigers (the Jeolla Province-based team which completely dominated Korean baseball in the 1980’s, the same one where the Seong Dong-Il character might have played before becoming a coach), tapes of late 80’s Korean Series (perhaps when he “played”). Tapes of Schindler’s List and a few Disney flicks, symbol of the generation which led Chungmuro to its mid-1990s new wave. I talked about something similar when discussing A Wife’s Credentials sets, but that’s how you deal with production design. This place feels alive, and not just four random walls built inside a studio.

Exhibit 05: Onions, Plums and Spiders [Episode 02]

Lesson of the day is never enter bets you can’t guarantee you’ll win. More than Yangpa’s music or the incredible success of her debut album (which costs Yun-Je a little half-naked cartwheeling around the school), what is truly memorable is her dramatic life story. She debuted at 18 years old as a 엄친딸 — eomchinddal, short for 엄마 친구의 딸, the daughter of Mom’s friend, denoting a sort of paragon of virtue in the eyes of all mothers – before the term even gained notoriety, what with her clean-cut model student image. But on the very day of her CSAT  she was taken to the hospital due to stomach convulsions, and was eventually unable to fulfill her dream of going to Yonsei University. Yangpa, whose real name was Lee Eun-Ji, went on to graduate from Berklee and then spend the better part of the early 2000’s in legal litigation with her manager over contract disputes which caused a nearly half-decade hiatus. Her first album 애송이의 사랑 (Love of the Youth) which is also played in the show became the 2nd best selling album by a solo female artist, only beat by Lee So-Ra’s debut.

HISTORICAL DETAIL: Here’s where the Busan lingo comes into play in a way that subtitles will have a hard time conveying. As you probably already know, yangpa is onion in Korean, something which followed Lee throughout her career (it turns out the moniker was chosen by her manager, but when she tried to change it the fans had already grown accustomed to it, so it was too late). But Yun-Je adds some local flavor to it:

이름이 양파뭐야 양파가? 고마 타마내기라카지.”

“She seriously calls herself Yangpa?! Why… Go for Tamanegi while you’re there.”

That tamanegi is none other than たまねぎ (onion in Japanese). This is one of the many Japanese loanwords you can find in modern Southeastern Korean dialects, sometimes without any actual equivalent “borrowing” in standard Korean. The proximity between Japan and places like Busan (both geographical and cultural) made sure this cultural amalgamation became even stronger than the linguistic vestiges of the country’s colonial past. Other familiar terms are 나와바리 (nawabari, なわば) which gained popularity in Busan due to the interchange between local jopok (gangsters) and Yakuza (sure enough, it’s Yakuza slang for territory), and 시다바리 (shidabari, したばり)  which has much more ancient roots but was essentially used (not only by Yakuza) as slang for minion.

Exhibit 06: Men are from Honam, Women from Youngnam [Episode 03)

Bit of a nebulous  scene for many a foreign viewer, and just comparing it to an east coast democrat arguing with a bleeding-heart, red state republican just wouldn’t cut it. This is because the eternal divide between Honam (North and South Jeolla Province in the southwest of the country) and Youngnam (North and South Gyeongsang Province in the southeast) has roots that go beyond simple matters of political ideology, whatever political analysts might suggest (their theory being that regionalism either began in 1969 or during the 1971 electoral campaign which put Honam’s Kim Dae-Joong against Youngnam’s Park Jung-Hee). I believe this crosses over into the cultural, although of course the clichés people of Gyeongsang and Jeolla province throw at each other are mostly crass generalizations. It deals a lot more with the surprisingly parochial nature of Korean society, almost as if those regions were a sort of cultural lander (the German federal states) which only behaved as a collective whole when it came to matters of national interest. It’s clearly a contradiction, considering how much group mentality dominates the national psyche, but that’s the beauty of mankind.

Exhibit 07: Back When the Internet Wasn’t Only About Pr0n [Episode 03]

That dreaded modem sound you thought you’d never have to hear again…

Korea has now become the worldwide paragon of virtue for what concerns broadband speed, penetration and price, and it’s been the case for over a decade now. If you actually take an objective look at the stats and add Quality of Experience to the mix their numbers don’t look as unquestionably good as you’d think (especially for what concerns speeds outside the country, respect for net neutrality, privacy and data retention, not to mention the copyright and corporate-friendly minefield it has become since the advent of the Lee Myung-Bak junta). But when it comes to pure performance, the only country that could reasonably compete is Sweden. And yet, back in 1997 this was still considered an emerging market, well below what the OECD considered to be broadband speed at the time (a meager 256 kbps). Before the Kim Dae-Joong government began investing massive funds into a complete renovation of the infrastructure in the spring of 1998, Korea was just like any other Internet country. The land of excruciatingly long waits, sudden connection drops, and that strange cacophony only those who’ve been enjoying real broadband for close to fifteen years can look back on with nostalgia.

HISTORICAL DETAIL: While the TCP/IP network was first launched in 1982 via SDN, a 1200 bps connection between Seoul National University’s Department of Science and the Korean Institute of Electronics Technology, the first commercial Internet service was launched by KORNET (which would later be absorbed by KT) in June 1994. DiaCom (future LG U+) and NowNuri followed suit afterwards – Cheollian also entered the market, but until 1995 their service didn’t include WWW access. By 1997, these were the four major players, before 1 Mb/s xDSL (which is later mentioned on the show as the “superfast Internet”) reached Korean shores a year later thanks to Kim Dae-Joong’s Cyber Korea 21 project, which alongside the release of Starcraft and the proliferation of PC bangs marked an epochal change in the TLC history of the country.

Exhibit 08: A Lover’s Concerto [Episode 03]

Director Jang Yoon-Hyeon has slowly become a shadow of his former self with his last few films, but he completely owned the late 1990’s for what concerned stylish and moody commercial films (there was such a thing, back in the glory days of Chungmuro). 접속 (The Contact) still remains one of the most beloved romantic films of the decade, but also a critical darling – with two fabulous central performances by Han Suk-Gyu and Jeon Do-Yeon, not to mention a deliciously subtle soundtrack that ended up becoming a major bestseller even years after the film’s theatrical run. This is a perfect trait d’union between the chatting scene featuring Si-Won and Joon-Hee and the chatting scenes which punctuate the narrative of the film. I don’t know if it was a point Shin consciously wanted to make – after all this was one of the hottest films of 1997 at the box office – but both the noisy Telnet chat and this new brand of storytelling that The Contact introduced were the first few signs of the incoming transition from a predominantly analog world to a perhaps much too quickly digitalized one. Just like certain elements of youth that suddenly vanish once you come of age, those were the last vestiges of a past that would never come back.

Exhibit 09: Triumph in Tokyo [Episode 04]

A look at the historical rivalry between Korea and Japan in the field of soccer will reveal that the former still has the advantage in terms of overall numbers, but that’s only because Korea has a much stronger tradition when it comes to this sport: from the first meeting in 1954 all the way to their last on August 2011 (sans various Olympic Games matches and U-20/U-17 ones), Korea has won 40 games, tied 22 and lost 13, but it’s a much closer fight if you begin counting from the 1990’s onwards. By the time this game took place (September 28, 1997), Korea was only second to the UAE in the Group B of the AFC World Cup Qualifiers, with a game to play. It was still early days in the qualifiers so a loss wouldn’t have necessarily compromised their World Cup qualification, but only the top team could qualify directly without going through the playoffs, so winning was of course crucial. Particularly because their previous three meetings (in the 1995 Dynasty Cup and a friendly in the spring of 1997) all ended in a draw, and they had only won one of their previous seven encounters.

The match is legendary not so much for the impact of the result (Korea would go on to win the group with six wins out of eight games, so this was hardly decisive), but for the manner in which it came. After an own goal by Korea late in the game, the team managed to turn the tide in a matter of minutes with goals from Seo Jung-Won and Lee Min-Sung, in what was probably the most dramatic national team game before the exploits of the 2002 World Cup against Portugal, Italy and Spain.

But more than anything this scene highlights one important fact about soccer in Korea, the fact that it’s only been an occasional attraction that captures the attention of the public only for this kind of game (be it against Japan or in the case of a World Cup). Although it ended up producing International talents like Park Ji-Sung, Lee Young-Pyo, Park Chu-Young and Ahn Jung-Hwan, the K-league never really managed to make a mark in worldwide soccer, and still struggles to do so today, perhaps because of the Korean people’s approach to the sport.

Exhibit 10: Just Another Day in Paradise [Episode 05]

Okay, I’m just using a 20 second insert dealing with a theme that is barely mentioned to point out something that’s too important to omit. Then again, you get the feeling Shin and his writers didn’t want to let the gloomy specter of the late 1990’s IMF crisis weigh on the proceedings – not to mention that not every single Korean family suffered financial difficulties during the period, and it’s made clear from day one that Tae-Woong and Yun-Je were left a significant inheritance by their parents, along with the pretty decent salary a baseball coach like Dong-Il would have enjoyed. Still, considering how influential this crisis was in the life of Koreans in 1997 and 1998 – in every facet of life, from the unemployment rate all the way to the collapsing chaebol, investments brutally slowing down and so on – and how meticulously researched this show was in almost every respect, it was a little disappointing to see it barely mentioned. So other than Il-Hwa suggesting that Dong-Il’s salary was cut in half because of the IMF, all we get is that momentous announcement from November 11, 1997.

HISTORICAL DETAIL: It was 10 o’clock in the evening on a Friday, so not exactly the best timing you could think of. Newly proclaimed Minister of Economy Im Chang-Ryeol took to the stage and announced the government’s intention to ask the International Monetary Fund for a rescue package, with all the ominous quid pro quo which would ensue.  The country’s S&P rating had gone from AA- on October 24 to A- a month later (it would eventually tank all the way to BBB-), major chaebol like Hanbo Group had gone belly up and even Kia was about to go bankrupt, and to buy a dollar you needed close to 1,900 won. The advertising sector on TV was in shambles, to the point that what was once a flourishing golden age for the TV drama industry pretty much ended abruptly, with SBS suffering the biggest blow – going from the most eclectic of the big 3 to an empty corporate vessel whose only editorial slant was the pursuit of money.

Pretty harsh times, but we only got a moment. I keep forgetting this is still a trendy drama, after all.

Exhibit 11: Virtual Mamas & Papas [Episode 07]

I honestly never cared for it – not because I’m a contrarian asshat who must always swim against the current, although there’s a strong possibility it might have been one of the reasons, at least subconsciously. It’s just that I detest kids and the only pet I’ve ever tolerated is my cat, so why would I ever bother carrying some tiny device that simulated what I would never want to become? A parent… Moi? Pfft. But this infernal little toy managed to invade the world with the speed and disarming reach of the Borg. By the mid-to-late 1990’s, you’d see at least a couple in every single class, and in New York they managed to sell 30,000 of those little buggers in a three day span when they were first released. Tamagotchi, a combination of the words egg (たまご)  and the Japanese romanization for watch (ウオッチ), ended up selling over 70 million units in a little over 15 years, and I still haven’t even farted in its direction. I’m sure Maita Aki of Bandai won’t mind…

Exhibit 12: Sex, Lies and Videotapes [Episode 08]

The 1990s saw the advent of a generation with an explosive interest in cinema. I’m not just talking about the spectacular rise in theater admissions, the skyrocketing climb up the ranks the domestic share of films experienced from 1994 onwards, or the slow but steady expansion abroad. A lot of young cinemagoers knew the stars, the directors… hell, even movie critics. You go in the streets of Chicago and Jonathan Rosenbaum (I needn’t explain who he is, I hope?) passes by, nobody notices. But back then, if you saw someone like Kim Young-Jin, Oh Dong-Jin or Jung Sung-Il around a theater, there was a good chance someone would stop them and ask for their autographs. Sure enough, the VHS market was flourishing as well (or better, it had been flourishing for quite some years, ever since several chaebol entered the film industry and began producing cheap flicks to put something on the VHS tapes they sold). The problem with the Home Video market, though, was the rather conservative approach to sexuality the media rating board used in dealing with foreign films. Not only sexuality, but also violence or anything else deemed inappropriate. This didn’t necessarily happen on the big screen, but if you pick up old VHS tapes of the Korean version of films like Pulp Fiction, you’ll see the butchery at play.

What happened, though, is that Koreans were too in love with cinema to let that become a problem, so they’d just opt for bootleg versions – often smuggled in via secret “pacts” between local gangsters and Yakuza, or from other familiar venues (Vladivostok, Shenzhen). These were the real deal: original versions with rudimentary Korean subs plastered on, sold on the cheap at places like Insa-Dong and treated as an inevitable answer to anachronistic censorship or legitimate venues not understanding their customers’ needs.

HISTORICAL DETAIL: The lion’s share of those bootlegs were of course video “nasties” from Japan and Europe. The two films Seong-Jae mentions are Bigas Luna’s 1992 erotic comedy Jamón Jamón (starring Penelope Cruz in her first role) and erotic schlockmeister Tinto Brass’ Monella, both with full frontal nudity from male and/or female actors, so you can imagine the culture shock upon seeing this kind of films. See? Even the mighty jjaga had their purpose.

Exhibit 13: Seek Not to Bar Our Way, For We Shall Win Through [Episode 08]

For most countries, StarCraft was just a game. Yeah, a popular and influential one, maybe incredibly so. But in Korea, it became a sort of religion.

For starters, statistically: of the 11+ million copies sold worldwide since March 1998, Korea alone covers over 40% of the total, with 4.5 million copies sold. But consider this: the first edition of the game sold by LG Soft wasn’t even localized in Korean, and until 2001 Korean users couldn’t in-game chat in their mother language (although later Blizzard obviously fixed this with an update). This didn’t stop them from buying the game in droves, and almost single-handedly jump-starting two other industries, that of the PC bang (which did first appear in the late 80s as I mentioned, but wasn’t really much of an entity until 1998) and professional gaming. If you now see three-four channels on cable TV completely dedicated to live broadcasts of televised multiplayer battles, you can blame Protoss and Zerg. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that pro-gamers in Korea are celebrities of the caliber of TV and movie stars, but the top names make really good money (think low-to-mid nine figures a year in Korean currency), and are recognized at least on the Internet and by the younger generations.

What’s fascinating is that at the beginning Starcraft wasn’t really that popular a game, even in Korea. It was this dualism between the advent of Battle.net and the possibility to finally do some serious multi-player gaming on those PC bang that moved it from a curiosity to cult status, and eventually to the highest selling game in Korean history.

Exhibit 14: And the Oscar Goes to… [Episode 10]

Some people say it’s one of the two professions where you can make a career out of sucking, but sometimes you wonder how certain actors manage to last in this industry as long as they do. You’d be surprised to know how bad an actor Shin Sung-Il, the biggest film star of the record-breaking 1960’s, really was. You can see it now in his sporadic TV appearances, without the aid of all the voice actors who camouflaged his fallacies for decades. You’d also wonder how and why people like Kang Seok-Woo and Lee Young-Ha managed to retain a job for so many years, considering their rather elusive thespian skills. But at least some of those people realize how lucky they’ve been, looking back at their career with a healthy dose of irony.

If Eun Ji-Won hadn’t repeatedly re-invented himself (first as a rapper, then a variety mainstay), he probably wouldn’t have a career today. But it’s nice to see he actually accepts the fact he was a terrible actor in this gag, where he criticizes his own self acting in that sorry excuse for a film known as 세븐틴 (Seventeen). This was one of many failed attempts at reviving the “angry youth” canon (which produced some of the most captivating K-films of all time up to the late 80s), which went from the monstrously derivative but tolerable – Yang Yoon-Ho’s 짱 (Zzang), which had least had real actors, and 질주 (Rush), starring Nam Sang-Ah from  the eternal darlings of the Hongdae music scene, 3rd Line Butterfly – and the almost tragicomic, namely the aforementioned 1998 film (which had the nerve to cast all of Sechskies’ members, with the results you see on screen) and 2000’s 평화의 시대 (Age of Peace), a 3D SF short film which cost 7 billion won starring the members of H.O.T. – which I’m surprised they didn’t make fun of, considering its limitless potential for unintentional comedy.

Needless to say, Eun Ji-Won was pretty much the lone survivor of that hilariously incompetent waste of film stock. The rest of Sechskies included.

Exhibit 15: The Korean OK Corral [Episode 11]

When you look at today’s Golden Disk Award, pretty much an excuse to throw some extra publicity at your token girl group or boy band of the year, you just treat it as another few hours of bad music and phony speeches pestering the airwaves. But Golden Disk ceremonies back in the day were actually contested affairs, In the sense that they combined album sales (60%) from an era when they were actually significant numbers and fan voting. The Golden Disk Award of 1998 (the 13th) looked to many people to be a two-horse race, considering the fanbases of both Sechskies and HOT – the two group sold a combined 2.5 million albums that year – and the possibility of an onslaught of fan voting. Even the hall where the event was televised was an ocean of yellow (Daeseong Planning’s Sechskies) and white (SM Entertainment’s HOT). What I like about this scene is not so much the re-enactment of the diatribe between rival fanclubs – parodying a scene from 인정사정 볼것 없다 (Nowhere to Hide) – but actually the way the reaction to the winner’s announcement is composed, editing and frame-wise.

If you pay attention, Il-Hwa is not surprised of Kim Jong-Hwan’s win in the slightest, and just sings along, while both fans of the boybands are literally shocked. Seen from the girls’ perspective, this was as if Roseanne beat Obama and Romney at the elections (free pot for everyone!). But Il-Hwa’s reaction tells a whole different story: ever since one of his songs ended up on the soundtrack of insane 1996 hit 첫사랑 (First Love), Kim Jong-Hwan had gone from almost complete anonymity to selling albums in the hundreds of thousand with his 4th effort 사랑을 위하여 (For Love). Sure enough, his audience was mostly made of females aged 30 and over. And although it was an odd choice considering how youth-oriented the music industry was starting to become, that was still an era when such surprises weren’t exactly out of the question.

THE CAST

The only way to break out of a vicious cycle is by thinking outside the box, and leaving all age-old assumptions at bay.

He might not have ended up with the kind of popular acclaim Reply 1997 benefited from, but that is exactly what Kwak Jung-Hwan did with his landmark debut 한성별곡- (Conspiracy in the Court). On the surface, you have a seemingly inevitable decision: the show had a total budget of less than 100 million won per episode, so they were in no position to attract name stars to begin with. But PD Kwak made a philosophy out of it: if you cast lesser known actors, they won’t subject you to their demands (not only monetary, but also in terms of creative control). This is actually what sealed 도망자 (Fugitive – Plan B)’s fate: Jung Ji-Hoon never played Ji-Woo, he just played himself – or better, his star persona. Same goes for Bae Yong-Joon in Hur Jin-Ho’s 외출 (April Snow). It’s hard to create character trajectories when you have to deal day in and day out with such a dominating persona, regardless of actual talent. Don’t fool yourself into thinking Bae or Jung couldn’t do better. They just decide not to, as compromising their core image would do the kind of damage that being praised for an alleged transformation would never compensate for.

But I found it fascinating that PD Shin first tried to cast people with name value for this project. Perhaps as a variety mainstay with a large network of acquaintances he thought they’d be willing to compromise and take a risk, by starring in a much less remunerative cable drama – although the hybrids are now paying cachets on par with or even superior to normal network dramas. If CJ E&M’s recent slant vis-à-vis their recent rebranding efforts taught us anything, it’s that they usually try to push the drama’s concept as the real star of the show, rather than just banking on the name value of a few stars. So you wonder why he would bother trying to swim against the current for a project that needed everything but name stars.

In that light, the casting of people like Seo In-Guk, Jung Eun-Ji and Hoya is fascinating. Fascinating because the last ten years of music-to-acting crossovers have taught us to expect the worst — not necessarily because they’re all horrible, but more because it’s like using streetballers to play European-style basketball, based on zone defense and teamwork rather than isolation and a few outstanding star players. The way they’re brought up by the music industry teaches them fundamentals (particularly when it comes to emoting on stage) that are the almost complete antithesis of what’s required on TV and the big screen. That is why unless you teach him those fundamentals from scratch, someone like Lee Seung-Gi will never become a decent actor, let alone a good one.

We have witnessed dozens and dozens of stars groomed by the music industry debut on TV over the last ten years, and yet you can count the successful transitions on one hand – and they’re people like Shim Eun-Jin, who are taking their new career seriously and slowly paying their dues. But letting three or four of them take over an entire drama which wasn’t even about singers of some kind, that’s either very ballsy or completely insane. I think more than anything the rather dumbfounding shock of seeing Jung Eun-Ji give a performance of this level only reinforces that logic: this is the proverbial exception confirming the rule. And if anything, it shows Jung herself might have made a fortuitous but fateful crossover, as she is a much better actress than a singer, if you want to define the overproduced fluff she performs as music.

But this show broke out of yet another vicious cycle, that of the now patterned casting structure (and hence its resulting storytelling trajectories) of the quintessential trendy drama. We’re so used to the four-lead equation that dramas letting their entire world revolve around them doesn’t even seem to matter anymore. By making their drama debut, what these variety mainstays brought to the table was their lack of experience in dealing with such patterns. That they used the same kind of characterization and character interplay that dominates today’s new age variety shows is not much of a surprise, but the sole fact they approached this genre that way made Reply 1997 unique before it even moved into gear and started telling its story.

SEONG DONG-IL (Seong Dong-Il): It was Seong who suggested they should go with a father from Jeolla Province, and not only because of the age old regionalism card: you could argue that Jeolla Province dialect saved his career, despite the fact he’s from Incheon. After a decade spent acting in theater, he entered the first talent contest SBS organized on its foundation in 1991 (something the other two stations had been doing annually for decades), but for the better part of the 1990s he just went from one bit role to another. And mind you, most of them were serious – like in the cult action sageuk 홍길동 (Hong Gil-Dong) from 1998. But the role of his career came that same year via 은실이 (Eunshil), a period drama written by super-veteran Lee Geum-Rim. Seong was initially cast as Yang Jeong-Pal, an eccentric ajeosshi wearing red socks all the time – not to mention an unhealthy amount of hair gel, enough that he looked like a matinee idol from the 1920s. On paper this was another bit role, a fugacious appearance that was planned to last 4-5 episodes at best. But Seong’s dialectal prowess made him as popular as the leads, to the point that he went from an afterthought to a recurring character in the 70 episode drama.

It would be reductive to only single out his dialect acting – because he’s shown more than once that he’s got really solid fundamentals, as his more dramatic scenes in this show can prove – but his most memorable characters certainly deal with it, particularly his magnificent turn as Cheon Ji-Ho in 추노 (Slave Hunters). His saturi is a little too pungent and punctuated to be realistic (although if you go deeper into Jeolla Province, you’ll find similar inflections), and yet it has such a charming cadence that you fall for it hook, line and sinker. That’s not even what makes Dong-Il the character so interesting. I’ve mentioned that sense of “parochiality” when talking about regionalism, and he projects it almost perfectly. Go watch a few gangster comedies set in the area and you’ll see how one too many directors and writers (predominantly from Seoul) have made a mockery out of that feeling over the years by exaggerating every peculiar trait of people in the provinces. But Seong’s acting maintains an almost perfect balance: he’s a totally balls-to-the-wall Jeolla Province ajeosshi, and yet you can find the humanity pulsating behind all that hilarious banter.

The character is certainly well written, but Seong adds a fourth dimension to it, intangibles you couldn’t possibly teach, or perhaps even put into words – it’s not just ad-lib, it goes all the way to intonation, his using his whole body while emoting, and projecting the kind of aura that makes you feel as if you’ve known this character for as long as his daughter has. And this is one of his most memorable performances, and one of the very best of 2012.

LEE IL-HWA (Lee Il-Hwa): Curious that she was cast alongside Seong Dong-Il as his wife, considering they debuted the same year through the very same talent contest. Lee is one of those cases who end up finding a voice later on in their careers, after years of rather anonymous performances. Actually, she did make a mark almost right away in Son Young-Mok’s 바람의 아들 (Sons of the Wind) as Lee Byung-Heon’s hyper girlfriend, but for well over a decade afterwards it was almost as if she had disappeared into semi-obscurity with an almost endless succession of bit roles – or more significant ones, but in dramas that barely registered a blip. Saying this is the highlight of her career is debatable, considering she’s been in much more popular dramas before. But this is without a doubt her most distinctive role to date.

A lot of the touches you can associate with Il-Hwa are certainly fruit of the solid characterization, which punctuates the narrative from time to time with certain personality traits (such as her penchant for having a peculiar concept of quantity, especially when dealing with food). But it wouldn’t have worked without this strong a performance. Take a good look and you’ll see a teenager still refusing to grow up in her, which is exactly how you’d expect such a vivacious mother to be. Those subtle details work a lot better than any flashback in defining this character, something a lot of writers could learn from.

At times as silly as her daughter, at times wonderfully mature and caring, and at times sexy and playful, Lee breathes life into Il-Hwa and together with Seong forms the most winning couple of this show, whatever kids with their OTP shenanigans might have to say about that.

DO HAK-CHAN (Eun Ji-Won): The character is certainly a cliché, a sort of spiced up version of Lee Si-Eon’s character from 친구, 우리들의 전설 (Friend, Our Legend). And of course I wouldn’t call what he does here acting, as it was the least demanding of all characters. Still, set aside the obvious recurring gag of him being compared with “Sechskies’ Eun Ji-Won,” his stoic aplomb mostly works – at least until the show asks him to show a modicum of emotions or go beyond a few syllables of dialogue. Considering the kind of acting he used us to in his previous acting experiences, I’d say he was much more palatable here.

KANG JOON-HEE (Hoya): I find it slightly annoying to see people still treat gay characters as some kind of momentous challenge for any actor – as if this was as demanding a portrayal as certain gay characters in recent indie flicks have used us to. Are we supposed to accept that effeminate kids projecting metrosexual vibes while prancing about on stage singing boytoy muzak are “macho,” but playing this kind of character is more challenging just because it blurs some edges? Again, this is mostly a case of smart characterization covering the performer’s own lack of technique by almost never exposing him. Hoya is a Changwon native so pretty much as close to Busan as you can get, and he certainly looked the part. In this case, the fact he was groomed by the K-pop machine helps, because having little dialogue at his disposal and being forced to emote through facial expressions better fits what he essentially does for a living (emote with his whole body and eye contact). This is how you should cast idols, if you really must: protect them as much as you can, masking their weaknesses and trying to take advantage of what they bring to the table. Done this way, inexperienced people like Hoya who would otherwise have a hard time even grasping the basics can do a relatively decent job, and won’t stick out like a sore thumb.

BANG SEONG-JAE (Lee Si-Eon): People like Lee usually face two scenarios: 1) they end up being typecast because of their peculiarities (in his case, his explosive comic timing and screen presence), which can mean a future a la Park Cheol-Min, playing the same character so often you end up tiring people out, or 2) they become like a Seong Dong-Il – or if he’s lucky enough later on in his career, even a Song Kang-Ho. When Song shocked everyone with his cult performance in 넘버 3 (No. 3), I doubt people expected him to be starring in films by Park Chan-Wook and Bong Joon-Ho a few years down the line. And it’s pretty obvious what Song or Seong do best, but you can’t say they’re being typecast. They just manage to project a little bit of themselves into every character they play. There might seem to be a fine line between what Park Cheol-Min and they do, but it’s the approach that makes all the difference. The former is continuously replicating successful formulas to the point that they lose their effectiveness in the long run, the latter just add a little bit of personal color to every role, be it dramatic or comic. Again, it’s very similar to what he’s done in other shows, like Friend, Our Legend. And yet it feels slightly different. This kid has potential, so we’ll just have to see how he fares in more dramatic fare down the line.

MO YU-JEONG (Shin So-Yul): I admit I was a little worried about her, and not just because she was one of the few members of the cast not to come from South Gyeongsang Province. She’s shown a lot of energy in all her roles over the last few years, but technique was severely lacking. Like in Hoya’s case, PD Shin and his crew did a fine job masking her shortcomings (except a few brief scenes of more dramatic acting she shared with Eun Ji-Won), so at the end of the day what really stood out was what’s always been her forte: energy. And her dialect was pretty good as well.

YOON TAE-WOONG (Song Jong-Ho): It’s pretty obvious this character was at least partly based on Ahn Cheol-Soo’s life – the Busan native who went on to create Korea’s first antivirus software, and ended up becoming a venture capital CEO, eventually announcing his candidacy for the next presidential elections just last week. That is to say that stories like that of Tae-Woong, while far-fetched, are not necessarily unrealistic. The problem I had with him had a lot more to do with the Daddy Longlegs part of his characterization, which smelled of having your cake and eating it. From day one, Tae-Woong always lacked that extra 2% of warts that makes even the most accomplished and talented of people a little more realistic. He always felt like nothing more than a catalyst for the crew’s over-indulgence on the big denouement, a make-shift obstacle in the fateful couple’s way. It’s not that this “mystery” lacked suspense from day one because the intricate narrative jump cuts didn’t do their job. It’s just that he was too insipid to ever compare with Yunje, so it was just a matter of waiting for the mechanical routine of connecting the dots. As for Song Jong-Ho, he’s been showing signs of improvement ever since 공주의 남자 (The Princess’ Man), and this is yet another decent performance. They’re not great strides and he’s still pretty limited, but the effort is certainly there.

YOON YUN-JE (Seo In-Guk): Who would have ever thought that Seo, who auditioned for Seong-Jae’s role because he thought he wouldn’t be good enough for anything more significant, would end up doing such a good job? It’s not like he showed any signs of potential in 사랑비 (Love Rain), after all. And even the character itself felt like someone straight out of a shoujo manga. What made him a lot more charming was this self-deprecating air of selective inflexibility that sort of melted within more familiar confines (such as when he was with Si-Won or her family). This is the kind of trait you find in a lot of Busan males, who still retain that 1980’s macho aplomb that is mostly passé in youth from the capital – hence my frequent mentioning of that “parochial” quality. It’s not machismo of the ostentatious kind, but something akin to the innate attributes of many a male from the south of the United States. You know, the kind of boy who would kick your teeth down your throat but still call every lady in town “Ma’am.” There are similar vibes in a lot of 30-40 something males from South Gyeongsang, and it’s something that Seo gets right down to a T.

It’s also a surprisingly nuanced performance, because the real trick when playing this kind of characters is making the “softer” side of their personality believable. Seo does this better than anyone since – believe it or not – the formidable Hyun Bin/Kim Min-Joon duo from Friend, Our Legend – two  actors who weren’t exactly known for their acting prowess, but did a phenomenal job by meeting the role of their careers. Something similar happens to Seo here. He doesn’t have the best of technique, great delivery or even screen presence that matches the kind of charisma his character required. But he makes you believe it, creating a realistic aura via facial expressions, and a confidence oozing from his eyes that is not easily found in actors his age.

Sure enough, he’s not doing as well in his new show, the weekend drama 아들 녀석들 (My Sons), just like Kim Min-Joon and Hyun Bin struggled after the 2009 masterpiece. But what’s important is that he found his dimension by playing Yun-Je. If he doesn’t end up reaching the kind of stardom that makes you believe you needn’t improve any longer (like a Kim Soo-Hyun, for instance), he’s a couple of meatier roles away from becoming a pretty decent performer, I’d say.

SEONG SI-WON (Jung Eun-Ji): In my 21 years of watching K-dramas, I’ve seen all sorts of cross-overs. You had people like Eom Jung-Hwa and Ahn Jae-Wook, who sort of did a bit of both (singing and acting); cases like Im Chang-Jung and Kim Min-Jong, who added singing after beginning as actors. Beloved and tremendously influential pioneers like Kim Chang-Wan, who one day just suddenly started acting, and almost out of nowhere showed they actually had talent. But you’ll agree that most of the K-pop invasion has left us with slim pickings. Even those who quit their singing career to completely concentrate on acting (like Yoon Eun-Hye and later Eugene) have never really made a mark, be it either because of a lack of effort or talent (sometimes even both). There are exceptions confirming the rule, and this might just be one of them… but sometimes you need surprises like these.

You need them, because without this drama, neither we nor Jung Eun-Ji herself would have ever found out how good she could be. There’s no doubt that she’s rough around the edges, that her being a Busan native and being protected almost completely erased all the little flaws you could point out. But it’s pretty evident that she’s got plenty of raw talent which could be seriously be capitalized on. And that’s the real shame about all this: who knows whether she realizes this should be her day job, and not shaking her behind in painfully manufactured K-pop tripe. I’d even argue that since she’s not exactly the kind of incredible beauty (natural or surgically enhanced) that would make a career out of it, acting is the perfect venue for her. She’s just one of the very few K-pop starlets who look like a real girl, and not just some doll gyrating for the pleasure of horny geezers and oblivious teenagers.

Si-Won herself is a marvelous character, a nearly perfect balance of everything that makes the bbasuni culture questionable, but also the vitality and realistic intangibles to make her feel alive. Equally effective when being as silly as a 3 year old kid or a young woman much more mature that you’d believe her to be, this is one of the most impressive performances of 2012. Now here’s hoping it won’t be her last, and that the rest of her career won’t be commodified as a mere launching pad for lucrative CF contracts, like so many of her fellow K-pop colleagues have done before her.

IN CLOSING

There are generally two kinds of nostalgia when dealing with films and TV dramas: one that is predominantly motivated by commercial goals, and a more personal, almost autobiographical kind. In a Korean environment, the former often ends up becoming a direct consequence of the success experienced by the latter: the film 친구 (Friend) by Kwak Kyung-Taek was a very personal project, to the point that he even used people he knew as a model for some of the characters in the film. The industry immediately responded with a healthy number of nostalgia pieces – like the dorky 해적, 디스코왕 되다 (Bet on My Disco) and even Kwak’s own 챔피언 (Champion) – almost making a genre out of it. This nostalgia craze has always been a rather profitable format over the years for both Chungmuro and TV industry, as you had the added benefit of being able to change the factors (the decade or years you covered) without compromising the result. And, sure enough, after 써니 (Sunny) brought the glorious 80s back to the limelight, 건축학개론 (Architecture 101) did the same for the following decade, making sure that it would only be a matter of time before K-dramas would follow suit.

But the real question is, was 응답하라 1997 (Reply 1997) the former (a commercial gimmick), or the latter (a very personal show)? I’d venture to say a little bit of both.

When the project was greenlit around last September, both PD Shin Won-Ho and his roster of writers (all mainstays of the variety circuit who made the big jump to CJ E&M along with Shin) had planned to focus on 1994, the year they graduated. He then commented all over the news that the casting of Eun Ji-Won convinced him to move the story to 1997, right as the rivalry between HOT and Sechskies began intensifying. And it all sounds very plausible, except for the fact that Eun didn’t exactly knock at the producers’ door out of the blue, or joined any audition. He was cast. By them.

Remember that this show was planned and produced by CJ E&M, which over the last two years have quickly established themselves as the kings of brand marketing in the TV industry. With tvN mostly being marketed to teenagers via shows like 닥치고 꽃미남밴드 (Shut Up and Let’s Go) and 인현왕후의 男子 (The Queen and I), what was more likely to appeal to their core demographics? Kim Geon-Mo, Seo Taiji & Boys, Shin Seung-Hoon and Jo Gwan-Woo (with a sprinkling of Buhwal, 015B, and the like), or the battle between bbasuni gunning for their beloved oppa, right as boy bands were beginning to dominate the music industry? Yes, that’s a rhetorical question.

And of course there’s the added value of setting this in Busan. Narratively speaking, it wouldn’t have really changed that much even if they set it in Gwangju (the cultural mecca of the other side of the country), but culturally speaking that area has been a lot more associated with the early 1980’s and the democratization process – so you got to hear Park Cheol-Min overact in Jeolla dialect in 화려한 휴가 (May 18), or the customary portrayal of the Gwangju Massacre in many a drama and film. Setting your show in very culturally distinctive and historically stereotyped provinces (like country bumpkins up in Gangwon Province, right-wing macho freaks in the east and left-wing cursing machines in the west) not only has the added benefit of giving the audience much more effective period pointers (because Seoul always evolved at its own pace, as a sort of cultural vacuum dissociated from the rest of the country), but also give your story an air of familiarity and warmth, what in Korean is called 친근함.

The show was first entitled 박순이 가족 (Park Sun-Yi Family) – a word play on the word bbasuni itself, and one the tendencies of many a netizen to elude the often banned search term with similar sounding nouns or even names, like Park Sun-Hee or the aforementioned rendition – and was just a family sitcom, which would have been much more in line with what you’d expect from a former variety producer. But it’s likely that when the decision was made to tie this to the nostalgia angle, they also moved towards a full-fledged drama– simply because if you’re already using the nostalgia and bbasuni setting as part of your narrative gimmick, might as well go all the way and make a trendy drama out of this – complete with love triangles, secrets of birth and all the intangibles that appeal to CJ E&M’s chosen demographics for tvN. It was starting in November of 2011 that Shin and writer Lee Woo-Jeong, Kim Ran-Joo and Lee Seon-Hye began their extensive research, which would eventually become one of the most charming aspect of their show. Reply 1997 was beginning to move its first steps.

If you really think about it, a trendy drama – at least if sticking to the genre’s old fundamentals – is actually the closest narrative setup to what Shin and his writers had been doing on TV, which weren’t exactly ordinary variety shows. These scripted novelties were always based on trying to recreate a certain atmosphere, a sense of simulated realism that had been absent from most of this industry’s output – call it variety verite, if you will. So you mostly had three factors at play: spontaneity, realism and chemistry. You knew it was all scripted, somewhat manufactured and carefully edited to achieve the intended effect. But the point was that you could suspend your disbelief.

Isn’t that how trendy dramas work? At least the good ones.

Trendies are never really about the kind of storytelling you’d get from a home drama or a sageuk: they’re based on a simple three-act structure whereby you first establish setting (the more realistic, the merrier, since you do have to evoke some trends after all) and characters, generate a certain conflict in the second act, and move to the resolution in the third. All around this basic structure should be a sense of spontaneity, a charming atmosphere that pulls you in without necessarily having to bank on ingenious twists and turns like a 자이언트 (Giant) would do – or incredibly deep character introspection, like most of Jung Ha-Yeon’s dramas. No, there really isn’t much to it: realism, chemistry, atmosphere.

If you take those three fundamentals, then Reply 1997 is definitely a resounding success. The fact we’re dealing with variety mainstays means they’ll know how to extrapolate every single character’s idiosyncrasies and use them at the right moment with an uncanny sense of timing. This makes sure that in every single scene, even characters that appear for a few minutes throughout the entire show will still have a clear personality and history of their own. It’s not your average modern trendy where the world is made of 4 people and a dozen non-playing zombies whose lives revolve around them. No, this is a whole different game: from the grannies at the hospital in Dong-Il’s ward down to the snarky history professor, everyone here, no matter how short their contribution to the whole might be, is someone. That is one element which had been forgotten by one too many writers and producers approaching this genre. It’s nothing but the basics, really, but getting those right is half the job.

This automatically creates atmosphere, because you feel like you’ve known these characters for a few decades, so a get together for the big Korea-Japan game doesn’t just feel like a bunch of characters thrown together. It’s a network of acquaintances (with all their peculiarities) coming together and forming a sense of familiar, pleasant déjà vu. Tell me you’ve never experienced that kind of situation before: the small talk before the game, the collective tension, that air of fatigue towards the end of the game. All this is recreated almost perfectly, exactly because we know how each character will react to this. And no, this is not lazy or predictable characterization. It’s realism, folks.

So you’ve got realism and atmosphere, and all that is left to create is chemistry. You do that with expert casting, for starters. Putting together Seong Dong-Il and Lee Il-Hwa gave us perhaps the couple of the year, and not so much because they gave incredible performances (although they’re both fantastic). It’s just that they feel like a couple, perfectly complementing each other, and adding layers of complexity to their performance that help us understand the kind of past these characters had. It’s perhaps a much too complicated concept, but it makes all the difference when you’re in the pursuit of realism: most characters you see in K-dramas todays feel unrealistic simply because they look like people who had no history outside of their characterization. Sure, some shows will give us a perfunctory introduction via childhood portions, but that’s not what I mean.

What you get here is a slice of life, as you’re thrown right in the middle of theirs. There is no beginning and end, just a little bit of what happens in between. So Il-Hwa isn’t just a pretty ajumma in her late 30s. She’s the teenager we see in the flashback scenes, with a little bit of added maturity but the same vibrant flair. This also happens for the “kids,” although of course their performances aren’t as layered as those of Seong and Lee. It’s not that you don’t see enough of a maturation in 2012 Si-Won and Yun-Je: they’re still the same people, with the same personality. It’s just that 15 years of vicissitudes have blurred the edges a bit. There’s a little more maturity, a little more awareness of their social surroundings and of how relationships work. But it’s the same people, really.

The incredible sense of chemistry which pervades this show was born exactly out of that sense of realism. I see people throw the word chemistry around when discussing trendy dramas all the time, but it rarely has anything to do with that kind of empirical “affinity meter” they seem to employ. Chemistry can be created by drawing realistic characters put in compelling, plausible situations and acted with just the right amount of poise and effective interplay. Virtually anyone, even people you think could never look good together, will have chemistry when you supply those three basic, crucial fundamentals. Why, know anyone who thought Yang Dong-Geun and Lee Na-Young would have good chemistry? You really think it’s something innate those two actors just had, and not the fruit of everything that surrounded them, including their performances?

In other words, on a macroscopic thematic level, this drama pretty much got all the fundamentals right. But things get a little more complicated if you cut through the surface and explore the inner mechanics a little deeper.

Since we were dealing with variety mainstays, it was inevitable they’d feel more at ease with short mini stories slowly connecting the dots leading to the big picture. This big picture happened to be a succession of narrative jump-cuts which plunged us into 2012, brought us back to 1997 and if needed even in the 80’s. This carefully constructed labyrinth of storytelling might have been charming at the beginning, but like a few other aspects of the show started feeling like a gimmick in the long run — another one being the increasingly self-referential use of music. It doesn’t matter how well something is working. Indulge too much on it, and you’ll end up overstaying your welcome.

This happened in the second act, where the show created a sort of artificial cushion (from 1999 to 2004) – with Si-Won away from Yun-Je and her beloved HOT. This is where the quintessential pitfalls of the genre began eroding those three basic fundamentals the show had been so effectively focusing on: by spending more and more time on the big mystery denouement (which wasn’t a mystery at all, exactly because the characters were never drawn to sustain a love triangle to begin with) and on exposition, Reply 1997 began to let go of everything that made those first 8-10 episodes work so marvelously.

Suddenly we found ourselves waiting for characters to find out the truth we already knew, as the show spent more time trying to tie all the loose ends, when all it needed was to organically continue with that spontaneous “slice of life” atmosphere without any unnecessary jump cuts. The result is that while the connection between 1997 and 2012 might feel seamless from a logical standpoint, it doesn’t feel so emotionally. It’s almost as if they shoved the Rubix Cube’s winning combination down our throat, when all we wanted to see where all those colors. This is perhaps to be blamed on our crew’s variety roots, where you feel you always have to capture the viewers’ attention every step of the way, without ever leaving them any space to breathe.

So yes, it’s a flawed show with a questionable finale — particularly as it pretty much reneged on the detached sense of maturity it approached its characters’ history with, and all for the sake of giving us a happy ending, albeit with the added caveat of seeing in Yun-Je and Si-Won the same feisty vibes we saw in Il-Hwa and Dong-Il. It’s perhaps a sign that Shin and company were never bold enough to sacrifice the whims of their audience for the sake of creating something a lot more meaningful artistically speaking – like any variety mainstay would do, since in that neck of the woods the customer is always right.

But still, let’s be honest. It was a joy to watch Reply 1997, and those few caveats are something I only mentioned because the show had the potential to be much better. What we’ve got in our hands is the first trendy dramas in many years to feel like the classics of yore, where the joie de vivre and attention to detail is just as important as ad revenues, rating reports and how much money Japanese investors will throw on the table. That’s the spirit writers and producers need to learn again.

Make something fun, and have fun doing it. Isn’t that the point of this all?

ACTING GRADES

87 성동일 (Sung Dong-Il)
85 이일화 (Lee Il-Hwa)
75 이시언 (Lee Si-Eon)
74 정은지 (Jung Eun-Ji)
68 서인국 (Seo In-Guk)
67 송종호 (Song Jong-Ho)
61 신소율 (Shin So-Yool)
60 호야 (Hoya)
57 은지원 (Eun Ji-Won)

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