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What I Like About Reply Me 1997

4 Aug

Recently, I’ve had a sudden interest in watching Korean cable dramas because I found that they bear some semblance to the  cable dramas that air here in the States. While strict laws set by the FCC have limited the stories that broadcast TV shows can make, they don’t apply to cable dramas where nudity is much more common and violence is much more common. While nothing like that has ever appeared on cable dramas in Korea (not that I’m an expert or anything), the quality of the storytelling is markedly better in cable shows. Also, they’re easier to digest because their running time is at least 15 minutes shorter than normal broadcast dramas (trust me, those 15 mins take up a lot of time!). As a result, the writing is usually tighter and there are less filler episodes. This year alone, I’ve watched three cable dramas that rank among my favorite of the year: Queen In Hyun’s ManShut Up Flower Boy Band, and I Need Romance 2. Last week, the new TVN drama Reply 1997 or Answer Me 1997 made its debut and I have to say I have very high hopes for this drama.

I’ve seen four episodes of this new drama and from what I’ve seen, I’m already knee-deep in love and fascination. The story is up my block since I was born in the 90s and had siblings who were teenagers during that time. While I am not Korean and did not experience that original idol obsession, I do understand a different kind of boy-band obsession: My sisters were both in love with pretty boy bands like Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Savage Garden, 98 Degrees, etc. So, while the bands were different between what the show depicts and what I’ve experience, there’s so much commonality between the two that it still leaves feeling nostalgic.

The story is seen from the point of view of a group of friends in 2012 during their high school reunion. Sung Shi-won (A Pink’s Jung Eunji) is a hardcore H.O.T. fan and swears that she will marry Tony Anh in the future. Despite her admirable fandom, she’s so lost in her obsession that her studies have lagged behind. Her childhood friend Yoon Yoon-jae (Seo In Gook) lost his parents at a young age and ever since has been welcomed by Shi-won’s family like a surrogate child. He’s very popular in class and he’s a top student too but early on we understand that he is in love with Shi-won, who seems to be indifferent to this. Both of these leads have their best friends: Shi won’s is Mo Yoo Jung (Shin So-yool) who falls in love easily whether it be an idol or a real boy. She seemingly obsesses over HOT as much as Shi-won but she also likes Yoon-jae. On the other hand, Yoon-jae’s best friend Kang Joon-hee (Hoya) is sweetly affectionate towards girls all the while harboring a secret. The rest of the troupe includes the talkative Bang Sung-jae (Lee Shi-un) and the charismatic Do Hak Chan (Eun Ji-won) who turns out to have zero game when it comes to girls.

There are so many things to like about this drama, starting with the writing: the writers show a confident approach to storytelling, with all the references it makes to 1997 without beating the audience over with needless exposition. They trust the audience enough to understand all the events, people and songs that they talk about. There’s a lot of playful period-specific jokes that do not feel manipulative at all and harkens back to that period without feeling forceful: the brand obsessions, the knock-offs, Dance Dance Revolution, Kim Hee-sun, and of course the idols themselves are all nostalgically written about but never are they mere props just to say “OMG they had this in the 90s!” Instead, they help detail the lives of the teenagers in the story.

Then there is the actual storyline. I love that the heroes are reminiscing about their past from the present, as if to contrast the difference between their mature selves and their childish adolescence of 1997. It also has a touch of How I Met Your Mother-style motif because during the reunion, someone will announce their marriage. The writers throw enough clues, twists, and loops that hint at who the couple is going to be but never once (or at least not yet) does it get tiring. Every turn that the show makes is a genuine surprise.

Furthermore, I love the characterizations here. Sure, the writing helps a lot but the actors do a lot to make every dialogue feel authentic and every scene real. Jung Eun Ji especially does a lot to make this obsessive girl’s diehard fandom exceedingly charming and adorable without condescending to her. She’s straightforward, crass, and even hints at Shi-won’s impetuous attitude without making her feel remote. She’s far more endearing than what Suzy did to Ma Ri’s similarly obsessive characteristics in Big recently. Whereas Mari felt like a cartoon since the beginning, Shi-won feels so real despite her abundant energy and sometimes frustratingly childish behavior. Seo In Gook is heartbreaking and hilarious as Yoon-jae. He believably goes through the foibles of a teenager like harboring secret crushes, making an impression with a new brand-item, or feeling humiliated by an older brother. He does this all while cluing in on what Yoon-jae thinks with just a glance or a smirk. I admit I love Hoya because of Infinite but doesn’t mean I can’t be impartial (I love L too but that didn’t deter me from calling him out on his meh acting in Shut Up Flower Boy Band–he rested too much on pretty, in my opinion). So far, I like what he’s doing here, cluing in on his secret without broadcasting it live but at the same time, he generously provides subtle character details, a few key glances, and lightheartedness that serves as a mighty introduction for his role. His one key scene, brief as it is, while chatting with Shi-won feels so honest, remarkable, and subtly played that the impact surprises the audience.

Elsewhere, the art direction and cinematography are quite impressive. I love the filter that they use to shoot the film, giving that dated look to the show but also providing a nice visual tone without being distracting. If anything, it aids to the drama’s environment rather than distract from it, similar to how the bluish cold lighting made the harsh winter weather in Shut Up Flower Boy Band feel like a character in the story.

This drama is gearing up to be a stunner when all is said and done and I’m holding my breath hoping that it does come through with this initial promise.

Clarence

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