SPOILER ALERT Major plot elements are discussed. Also, this review probably won’t make a lot of sense unless you’ve already seen the show.
Upon the recommendation of a friend, I recently watched 응답하라 1988 (translated either as Reply 1988 or Answer Me 1988), a Korean television drama that was originally broadcast on the cable station tvN from November, 2015 to January, 2016. It is the third in the Reply franchise series (the others being Reply 1997 and Reply 1994), and many consider it the best of the three (I, personally, have not watched the other two).
The Reply franchise also represents a particular trend in the evolution of kdramas, namely the rise of what is being called hyper-realism (an unfortunate coinage, given that there seems nothing much hyper about it). Another example of a hyper-realistic kdrama would be 미생 (Miseng – alternatively translated as Incomplete Life or Unfinished Life, although I think I would have preferred Unresolved Life). Both Reply 1988 and Miseng represent a welcome respite from the squawkbox melodramas and the silly comedies that typify the genre.
(A word of warning to anyone thinking about watching Reply 1988: Like most kdramas, this one requires a considerable time investment (20 episodes multiplied by 1.5 hours per episode equals a fairly large chunk of your life). And once you get sucked into that black hole, the escape velocity might prove more than you can provide.)
I have always felt that Koreans do nostalgia very well. I’m still undecided as to whether this is merely a personal affinity for a time and a place that represents my own childhood and reflects my own experience; or whether there is something in the Korean temperament or culture that is particularly amenable to remembering the past. Two movies come to mind – both imperfect, but both full of meticulous representations of the physical and emotional details of years gone by. One is 이중간첩 (Double Agent) and the other is 말죽거리 잔혹사 (curiously translated as Once Upon a Time in High School: The Spirit of Jeet Kune Do).
In the same vein, Reply 1988 is a fabulous trip back to an earlier – and clearly a simpler – time, but also one that was cruder, uglier and more desperate. It begins in 1988 – on the cusp of the Seoul Olympics – and weaves the personal stories of four families (and a fifth, more tangential, one) who all live on the same street at a time when larger, cultural, changes that are occurring in Korea. Politics is generally off the table – no mention of the summer of 1987 and rise of the necktie army, although that was merely a year prior. There is, however, a nod to Chun Doo Hwan in one (less than successful) comic moment that is reminiscent of Forrest Gump (Episode 9). In fact, Reply 1988 pays homage to that movie several times, including a pivotal scene near the end. And speaking of less-than-successful comic moments, there was this:
This scene is bizarre and the Noel character simply ridiculous, and we could have done quite well without it, thank you very much. On the other hand, one scene that actually was very funny was the one where Dong Ryong tries out for a song contest and is met with stiff competition:
A singular miracle of this series is that it dispenses with the usual narrative tropes that are almost obligatory in kdramas. This includes the cardboard villain. There is none. The closest is Sun Woo’s grandmother (Sun Young’s mother-in-law) who only appears in one short scene. Even among the three adult women – where you would think conflict would be central to the plot – it does not exist. This is a story about good people trying to live decent lives – and that alone makes it a miracle in the world of kdrama. Most of the conflict is to be found in one’s circumstances – the mundane problems of near-poverty, of school, intra-familial disputes and, of course, love.
Sibling disputes – especially between Duk Sun and her older sister Bora are played with great, often comic, effect. Consider this scene where Bora is trying to teach Duk Sun some basic math. Anyone with an older sibling would sympathize:
“That thing that’s stuck to your neck – your head. Why do you carry that around?” asks Bora.
As one might imagine, the details of the mid-1980s are lovingly recreated. Of course, the music – from 김완선, 이문세, 동물원, 박남정 to 임병수’s long forgotten 아이스크림 사랑 – to the props; from VHS tapes of 영웅본색 (A Better Tomorrow – a movie that made John Woo and Chow Yun Fat household names in Asia, and brought real awareness of the Hong Kong film industry to Koreans), to the Samsung 마이마이 (Mymy) cassette player, to the horrors of 연탄 (charcoal briquettes used to heat older homes). And it is clear that great effort was taken to acquire authentic 1980s appliances – including the primitive washing machine and the rather odd-looking portable stove. If this TV franchise continues to go back in time, one wonders how it will ever manage to maintain its vaunted “hyper-realism” as it reaches back into the early 1980s and perhaps even into the 1970s.
(Speaking of music – 김완선 is, in 2016, still performing, still looking fabulous and still dancing like it’s 1989; and 이승철 seems to be as relevant as ever. Also, check out this show-related performance by 이문세 at the tvN Awards dinner).
Of course, there is a cost to be had with all this attention to period authenticity, and the fact is that the narrative structure of Reply 1988 is a bit of a mess. As the show progresses, it feels weighed down by its historical limitations, its massive set and its ensemble cast. And soon enough, the ugly machinery of kdrama romance and romantic triangles begins to grind through in its normal way. The early episodes, however, are very strong, where the characters are not tied down by romantic entanglements. Each episode is thematically cohesive and well-thought out, driven by character but pulling in strands from the culture at large. Note for instance how masterfully the ‘88 Olympics is weaved into the narrative of the first episode. So, it is somewhat disappointing when the show begins to lose steam. The Sun Woo-Bora romance seems perfunctory, and we never even see the Duk Sun-Taek relationship revealed to the families. The friendship between Taek and Jung Hwan could also have been explored in more detail. This is especially unforgivable given that one whole episode was essentially filler (Episode 17).
But in the end, forgive Reply 1988 we must. It is not a show driven by the story. It is, as all nostalgic reminiscences must be, full of moments. One of my favorites is when all the kids come over to commiserate with Taek after his losing an important baduk match. Unlike the adults and his colleagues, they do not sugarcoat his failure. They give it to him straight, as all real friends must. There are two additional, subtle moments, in this scene. The fact that Taek’s father tries to deter the kids from seeing Taek, except for Sun Woo; and the look of sympathy that Jung Hwang gives Taek before sticking it to him.
Another wonderful scene – this time at school – speaks to Duk Sun’s loveliness and generosity of spirit in the way she deals with the class president – a sensitive and intelligent girl who suffers from seizures.
헤리 (Hyeri) who plays Duk Sun is a kpop idol (she is a member of Girl’s Day). Her acting skills are limited, but she is a brave soul who is willing to put herself out there. Note how silly and unattractive she looks in this scene (at 0:29):
And yet that is the quality that endears her to us, and keeps her in our memory. A fact that any actor ought to think about.
Sitting back now and thinking about the show with a little perspective, I am struck by how much the four central families operate as a single unit – a meta-family. The kids all flow in and out of each other’s houses without much consideration of boundaries – especially Taek’s house where there is no mother around to bother them, and whose room serves as their de facto club house. The parents know everything that is happening in each other’s lives, and without a thought to the idea that they might be intruding. Not only is there no privacy, there isn’t even really the concept of privacy. But what you get in return for forsaking privacy is incredible support. In this respect, the chief beneficiaries of this arrangement are Taek and Sun Woo who both live in single-parent homes, but who – as in this scene – quite literally receive the fruits of this meta-family’s love and kindness.
Sun Woo – the child of a single mother with little economic means – should count his blessings. The threat of losing his home – which almost happens in Episode 9 – devastates his mother, given that it is not only her house she is losing, but her support system, and the support system for her son. Apparently, it takes a village – or at least a small street in Sangmundong – to raise a Seoul National University medical student.
All in all, this was a magnificent TV show. A chance to revisit Korea in the 1980s. And unlike Taek, I do miss it so.
Addendum: For non-Korean viewers, there may have been a few scenes that did not quite make sense. Here are a few examples and some brief explanations.
In Episode 1, Duk Sun is standing in the yard at night wearing a white hanbok and carrying a picket sign. Each of the three boys sees her and they all freak out. Why do they freak out?
This is an old Korean trope where ghosts appear at night in the shape of a woman wearing a hanbok. Korean children are fed a steady diet of these stories – women in a funeral white hanbok, with long free-flowing black hair and wielding a kitchen knife. The boys look like they’ve seen a ghost because that’s exactly what they’re thinking. And that is why they are so annoyed when they realize it is just Duk Sun.
In Episode 4, there is a scene where Jung Hwan has leg cramps. He tells Duk Sun to do something, and she begins to meow like a cat. Why?
This is a pun. The word 쥐 (jui) means “cramps” but it can also mean “mouse.” So when Jung Hwan says, “I have cramps in my leg,” Duk Sun jokingly interprets this to mean, “I have a mouse in my leg.” So she tries to scare the mouse by pretending to be a cat. A lovely scene.
Also in Episode 4, prior to the kids meeting in Taek’s room and dancing to “Ice Cream Love”, there is a small scene (sorry, no video) where Taek, who is on a losing streak in baduk, is greeted by Duk Sun’s parents. Her mother invites him over for seaweed soup. After he leaves, her husband admonishes her for mentioning seaweed soup. Why?
There is an association between seaweed and failure. For instance, it is considered bad luck to eat seaweed soup before an exam. I have read various explanations as to how seaweed came to represent failure. The most common one seems to be that seaweed is slippery, and hence might cause someone to “slip up” during a test.