응답하라 1994 (Reply 1994)

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tvN – 21 Episodes
A tvN Production
a.k.a: Answer Me 1994
Timeslot: Friday and Saturday Evening, 08:40 PM
Genre: Trendy Drama
Format: 1080i Dolby Digital 2.0 – 80 Minutes
Ran from: 2013/Oct/18~Dec/28

WITH 고아라 (Go Ah-Ra) as Sung Na-Jung; 정우 (Jung Woo) as Trash; 유연석 (Yoo Yeon-Seok) as Chil-Bong; 김성균 (Kim Seong-Gyun) as Kim Seong-Gyun; 손호준 (Son Ho-Joon) as Hae-Tae; 도희 (Do Hee) as Jo Yoon-Jin; 바로 (Baro) as Bing Geu-Re; 성동일 (Sung Dong-Il) as Sung Dong-Il; 이일화 (Lee Il-Hwa) as Lee Il-Hwa; 육성재 (Yook Sung-Jae) as Seong-Joon; 윤종훈 (Yoon Jong-Hoon) as Kim Gi-Tae; 연준석 (Yeon Joon-Seok) as Kim Dong-Woo;

CREW Production Director 신원호 (Shin Won-Ho) Main Writer 이우정 (Lee Woo-Jeong) 이선혜 (Lee Seon-Hye) 김란주 (Kim Ran-Joo) Planning 이명한 (Lee Myung-Han) Director of Photography 오세호 (Oh Se-Ho) Lighting 최명근 (Choi Myeong-Geun) Editor 신원호 (Shin Won-Ho) Art Director 서명혜 (Seo Myung-Hye) Music 김한조 (Kim Han-Jo) Assistant Producer 길소진 (Gil So-Jin)

RATINGS
AGB Nielsen Nationwide
HIGHEST: 11.9% (12/28 - E21)
LOWEST: 2.3% (10/19 - E02)
AVERAGE: 7.37%

OFFICIAL WEBSITE

Reply 1994 Poster
Photo ⓒ tvN, CJ E&M

WHERE TO WATCH

Dramafever

viki

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SYNOPSIS

Set in 1994, six university students from various provincial areas of South Korea (Jeolla Province, Chungcheong Province, and Gyeongsang Province) live together at a boarding house in Sinchon, Seoul, which is run by a couple with a daughter named Na-jung. Like its predecessor, Reply 1997, it follows a non-linear story telling where it shifts between the past in 1994 and the present in 2013, making the viewers guess who will become Na-jung's husband among the male characters. The series follows the pop culture events that happened between 1994 and the years that follow, including the emergence of seminal K-pop group Seo Taiji and Boys and the Korean Basketball League. [Wikipedia]

FIRST LOOK

Who knows if there ever will be a honest sequel.

I often feel they are like the equivalent of going back to a relationship that was long over – one that ended on a somewhat high note, without burning emotional bridges in the process. You try to take the same steps that made you feel good in the past, but suddenly find out that both of you have since moved on. That you might not like the same things, that your tastes and outlook on life might have changed. And that you might have changed as well. Then every tentative to relive the past almost vicariously through this empty shell of a relationship becomes an agonizing, counterproductive exercise in futility.

Or in maximizing returns in an industry that doesn’t really care about relationships anymore – the sincere ones that should animate its creative offspring’s characters, or that with its main customers. Which is us. Or, well, not exactly us… But you get the point. Shit, I’m rusty. I need a beer.

I admit I wasn’t entirely sure what was the point of producing a sequel to 응답하라 1997 (Reply 1997), beyond the obvious bottom line – and this being a CJ E&M product (emphasis on product, not project), you can be sure that that was the predominant raison d‘être behind the return of a show that was already beginning to lose steam towards the end of its energetic, irreverent first run last year. PD Shin Won-Ho’s drama debut wasn’t a worthwhile experience because it played with audience expectation down to the end, when the whodunit revolving around the identity of Seong Si-Won’s husband had long overstayed its welcome. It was a refreshing change of pace because for a significant portion of its running time it freed itself from the chains of a canon – the trendy drama – that had long been on its last legs, unable to convey anything meaningful in over a decade. Because it oozed the kind of painstakingly but lovingly researched ambiance that resembled the zeal with which Bong Joon-Ho approaches period detail in his films. And yes, why not, because it had revelations like Jung Eun-Ji – who might turn out to be much too limited in terms of technique to really make a mark, but who also showed that there is always an exception confirming the rule, thankfully rendering generalizations useless.

It’s no wonder, then, that I was not the only one who felt lukewarm towards 응답하라 1994 (Reply 1994). Sequels in the realm of Korean TV have a pretty nefarious reputation, given their track record, and this was unlikely to change that. Yes, it was penned and produced by the same people, and even brought back the explosive Seong Dong-Il/Lee Il-Hwa couple – who in many ways carried the original show on their shoulders, even when the romantic shenanigans were beginning to run their course. But was there really a reason to go back and revisit 1994 in a similar light? And what would be next, another prequel set in the 80s? (Maybe even featuring the aforementioned couple in their romancing teenage version, as they battle through monstrously bad hair days, Jo Yong-Pil’s insane battalion of groupies and the turmoil of Korea’s fight for democratization.)

Uhh… Actually that sounds pretty good. I want royalties if you make it. Or my cat will have to appear on the show.

The point here is not the formula. It’s a winning concept, that is something that even the most oblivious of simpletons will grasp. You could virtually make a “Reply XXXX” every two-three years and find enough material to appeal to different generations for, well, generations. Think of 2002 and the World Cup, 1988 and the Olympics, and maybe in ten years even 2012 and Gangnam Style.

Oh boy…

The point is honesty. At least for a while, until the gimmicks you’d most frequently associate with the canon this show tried to escape from reared their ugly head, Reply 1997 had an underlying realism and honesty that was nowhere to be found in any other trendy drama since the last few classics of the early 2000’s – hell, maybe we could even mention the Godfather of them all, 네 멋대로 해라 (Ruler of Your Own World). For this sequel to work, that honesty and vitality would have to once again manifest itself, something that from the beginning looked like a tall order. And mind you, the idea wasn’t so bad on paper: in many ways, 1994 was a lot more culturally eventful than 1997, what with the craze around college basketball, the advent of Seo Taiji and Boys and the tremendous impact they had on K-pop, and the explosion of trendy dramas – which historically began in 1992 with 질투 (Jealousy), but didn’t really gain steam as a genre until a couple of years later – not to mention pearls of vintage writing like 서울의 달 (The Moon of Seoul).

See… that’s kind of my problem with this incipit. The tracking shots meticulously showing all those pieces of a contextual puzzle that tries to recreate the past – they’re all way too in-your-face to blend in with the rest. The stock country bumpkin character (obviously modeled after Choi Min-Shik’s character in Kim Woon-Kyung’s masterpiece), Lee Sang-Min’s groupies and the glorious battles between rival college and semi-professional teams, Seo Taiji’s hairdo and choice of apparel and the youngsters trying to mimic it… it all stands out way too much, in a way that doesn’t complement the storytelling, but instead becomes the leit motif of the show. And that’s a big difference.

It’s a bit like what Kim Young-Hyeon was doing with her sageuk with Lee Byung-Hoon before she went into a lucrative partnership with Park Sang-Yeon and began making a mockery out of the genre: you can’t just throw historical details at the screen as if they were spaghetti al dente, hoping something will stick and give people the idea you’ve been cooking something substantial. You can’t research a period properly unless you first have period awareness, the ability to systematically single out what defines an era. And what we get here are sparse moments of historical detail that never really gel together, even though the writers might try – think of the theme of provincial folks trying to adapt to life in Seoul which runs through the first two episodes, a bit too hamfisted to truly resonate. What all these elements feel like is sketches of a variety show, something which betrays the provenience and background of both PD and writers. There is nothing here that feels cohesive and organic, it’s just a whole lot of details – perhaps too many – thrown inside a bowl and cooked just like that, paella style. It doesn’t feel like a world, but an artificial rendition of what that world might have been, filtered through the marketing demands of a franchise in the making.

Yes, marketing demands, because if you thought a tvN show wouldn’t eventually go back to the thematic tenets that have long defined its brand image, you’d be fooling yourself. I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, but let’s just say that what looked like a compelling portrayal of the tough love between two siblings is quickly turned into a “shocking” romantic shootout, in which Cupid will have way too many targets to potentially aim at. And we’re back to a ugly duckling having to choose between Princes Charming, fostered by the dumbfounding notion that there is truly any mystery in what her ultimate choice will be. But surely they will milk it until the very last second, complete with misguiding cliffhangers and narrative promises that are never kept.

It’s canon, of course. The trendy drama canon. This is a trendy drama, and inevitably it will have to stick to its horses. But this mentality is exactly what killed the horror genre in Korean cinema – the idea that horror was only made of visceral thrills and young damsels in white robes with herniated discs. There are times when a certain ambiance, that air of realism and honesty that this franchise has often been able to display, can be a lot more effective in getting to the core message of a genre that no longer has anything left to say. Because what are we doing here, seriously? Are we spending 16 hours with these people, cyphers dressed up like puppets from an era long gone by, just for the privilege of seeing yet another shoujo manga-inspired romantic epiphany? Then what does that make of all the historical salad surrounding this main course, if not a huge empty bowl of nothing?

It sounds like I’m completely panning this show, but far from it. It’s still a pretty comfortable place to be for 60 odd minutes, most likely because of the nostalgia factor (which might be thematically loose but does work from a purely visceral standpoint). Or perhaps because PD Shin has a way of drawing something out of these stock characters that doesn’t feel as stiff and emotionally constrained as what you generally see on Korean network TV. Yes, they’re walking cliches, but there’s something about them that adds a little layer of verisimilitude to the proceedings. Too bad they’re wasted walking on a path that leads to ennui.

What is also pretty clear, set aside the predictably fine performances from the usual suspects (Seong Dong-Il is just pure gold), is that Jung Woo is finally starting to be acknowledged for what he is: one of this industry’s best kept secrets. He yet has to offer a breakthrough performance a la Lee Cheon-Hee in 한성별곡(Conspiracy in the Court), but that is only because his performances have been of the big fish in the small pond kind. If this and his recent stint in the realm of weekend drama can help him obtain a modicum of popularity, he’s got enough potential to make it huge. Go Ah-Ra is also fine, starting off on the wrong foot (too hyper, too eager to show off her saturi prowess) but slowly settling down and finding her footing. It’s a pretty nice cast, really. No major complaints.

But what will become of this show, I’m not all that optimistic about. Yes… It will likely be a lot better than the tripe that’s infesting the airwaves on network TV, and the Go Ah-Ra/Jung Woo couple is infinitely better than Jung Eun-Ji and Seo In-Guk. But what’s the point? Are we getting another round of weekly whodunit shenanigans up to the end? Will we continue mistaking the building blocks of a marketing franchise for true, honest storytelling?

I don’t know. It’s like looking at an old love story I have no interest in revisiting. It felt good then, now it feels just like an inferior copy of memories you’d rather leave in the past….

ACTING GRADES

85 정우 (Jung Woo)
77 김성균 (Kim Seong-Gyun)
76 성동일 (Sung Dong-Il)
73 이일화 (Lee Il-Hwa)
72 고아라 (Go Ah-Ra)
67 유연석 (Yoo Yeon-Seok)
66 손호준 (Son Ho-Joon)
61 연준석 (Yeon Joon-Seok)
60 도희 (Do Hee)
60 윤종훈 (Yoon Jong-Hoon)
56 바로 (Baro)

61
~ Last Update: 2015/06/15

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