Motherly Love: The exploration of womanhood in Reply 1994
The roles of mothers in K-Dramas, particularly in the romance/romantic comedy genre that Reply 1994 vaguely falls into, are usually very limited. Generally they fall into three categories. First is the domineering chaebol mother who cares more about power than her family and is usually determined to break up her son’s relationship with his unworthy love interest. The second is the selfless housewife mother who devotes her life to looking after her family with third being a similar character who struggles to provide for her family in some way.
These characters rarely have any real depth or storylines of their own but exist mainly to complement or influence the storyline of the lead characters. In the case of the chaebol mother, by providing conflict in the storyline of the classic poor-girl-meets-rich-boy-who-she-hates-initially-but-grows-to-love-after-seeing-his-softer-side as the mother-in-law who refuses to accept the unworthy female lead into her family. Or in the case of the contrasting “good mother” who is a more sympathetic character, often dependent on the female lead in particular to provide for the family, by contrasting with the despicable rich mother as the provider of a stable and loving home or acting as a form as comic relief (often alongside an equally lovable but clueless father figure).
What is very rare in this kind of drama is to find a mother character who has any kind of notable inner life or meaningful storyline of her own which showcase her thoughts and feelings to the audience.
Reply 1994, however, marks itself out as a show that really manages to engage the audience with the mother not just as a periphery character whose actions affect the main characters but as an individual in her own right who faces her own challenges and has her own set of emotions and life experiences.
Her initial storyline focusses on her struggle to fit in with big city life which is mainly played for laughs as she tries to make her country bumpkin family fit in with the locals but by the fourth episode the true complexity of her character starts to show through.
Both parents travel back to their hometown, Masan, to commemorate the untimely death of their son. While observing the town as they drive through the streets of Masan, mother spots a young couple walking down the street and mourns aloud her son’s dates that would never be wishing the visit was in order to celebrate his birthday before finishing with the truly heartbreaking line, “I thought it would get better as time passed. But the older I get, I miss you so much I could die”. The tragedy of the dialogue is highlighted by the hijinks of characters Haetae and Samcheonpo, which the scene interrupts, exactly the kind of capers of youth which she is lamenting. Later in the episode, we see her struggle to balance what she sees as her duty as a mother with her own personal pain, apologising for not cooking for the gang and trying to comfort her daughter while being extremely upset herself.
This is not the end of her role in the drama however as two episodes later we see her go through another identity crisis. After noticing her sudden extreme mood swings and odd behaviours, Trash and the father character begin to suspect that she may be going through menopause. Meanwhile we see the kids of the boarding house take advantage of her hard work around the house and her clearly hurt reaction. At this point there is an insight into the difficulties of fulfilling the traditional role of mother as daughter Najung muses about her mother’s experiences in a voice over:
“We’ve all gotten friendlier, closer, more familiar. By the same degree, apologies have become less important and gratitude more hazy. And Mom has become taken for granted. The early summer of 1994 scratched at Mom cruelly. Mom was hurting.”
Shortly after her distress at the prospect at menopause becomes clear as she frets about what she views to be the end of her womanhood: “I’ve received my death sentence. God has seen me and told me to stop being a woman.” This leads to a touching scene between husband and wife which ends with his line: “Is it such a sad thing to hear the word menopause? In my eyes, you’re forever my woman.” It sat uncomfortably with me that no one actually challenged the idea that she is no longer a woman but simply accepted her anyway but it was a sweet scene nonetheless.
Her identity is then flipped on it once more as she finds out her mood swings were cause not by menopause but by a surprise pregnancy. I was slightly disappointed by this as it meant the exploration of her perception of her changing role in society as a menopausal woman must come to an end but after watching her struggle in previous episodes it was hard to resent the character’s second attempt to raise the son she lost.
What is so interesting about this portrayal of womanhood and motherhood is that it explores in-depth the difficulties faced by a woman who in many ways seems to embody traditional (and some more modern) ideas of what a woman should be. She was a beautiful young woman who became a loving and dutiful wife and mother dedicating her whole life to her family and yet she still faces many personal struggles with loss, identity and difficulty in living up to the impossible model of the completely selfless mother.
There are definitely some problematic elements in the portrayal. She is often shown as helpless and requiring constant care (literally and emotionally) particularly after the pregnancy revelation. At points it seems to almost glorify the role of selfless mother and I worry that some of the character development may be undermined now that she seems to have been sidelined as the comedic kooky pregnant lady who is always demanding strange things of her husband.
However I think despite this, the drama explores the roles of mothers and middle age women within dramas, and to some extent society as a whole, in a way that is rare in K-Drama. A large part of the success of the portrayal lies in the skilful acting of drama veteran Lee Il-hwa and it’s great to see a slightly older female drama actor get a role which is not just a tired trope but a challenging supporting character with her own story to tell. A sight all too rare in Korean dramas.