Is Reply 1997 the best drama of the year?
I have to say I haven’t watched a huge number of dramas from this year but I was disappointed by a few that I did see. ‘Big’, despite two talented and likeable lead actors and a fairly strong performance from Miss A’s Suzy, was predictable and unconvincing and though my expectations for ‘To the Beautiful You’ were incredibly low, the SM produced, SM idol-studded, SM music-filled drama managed to both bore and irritate me even more that I had imagined. Aside from ‘Love Rain’, which I have to say I enjoyed, mainly because of the good chemistry between the leads and the beautiful cinematography although it was slow and predictable in parts, the dramas I saw from 2012 I found disappointing.
That is apart from ‘Reply 1997’.
‘Reply 1997’ is a high school comedy drama set in 1997 during the frenzied heights of late 90s K-pop in the southern city of Busan which jumps around in time and space before ending up eventually at a school reunion in 2012 Seoul. It follows the life of Sung Shiwon,a straight-forward, opinionated teenager who is obsessed with K-pop group H.O.T, close family friend Yoon Yoonje, a top-of-his-class overachiever and their group of close friends. The drama follows their lives through high school, after university and into their early thirties.
I was initially sceptical of this drama, mainly due to it’s inexperienced idol cast, but the premise intrigued me, particularly the Busan location and I hoped to gain more of an insight into the first wave of K-pop. The cast soon proved my initial doubts to be unmerited and the lead actors were both convincing and engaging. All the main cast offered nuanced and endearing performances bringing the audience into their world by showing the complexity of their characters while still making them likeable and relatable.
As grating as she could be at times, it was nice to see a genuinely strong female lead in the form of Shiwon (played by A Pink’s Eunji). I was particularly drawn to her honesty, straightforwardness and willingness to be the driving force in her own romantic life. Although she still faced her fair share of confusion in the face of understanding and balancing both her own feelings and the expectations placed on her by others. This created a more accurate representation of the intense pressure put on young women, in particular, to create the life that they want while trying to please their loved ones and society in general. This is also one of the only K-Dramas I’ve ever seen where the female lead never gives up a fundamental part of who she is for love and overall manages to create a strong yet likeable female lead, thanks in no small part to the performance of Jung Eunji.
The main reason the drama stood out to me, however, is the writing. Watching K-dramas I often finding myself enjoying the shows despite the script rather than because of it. Without a doubt, this is the most well-written drama I have ever seen. The attention to detail in it’s rendering of 90s tech-boom Korea, fan culture, teenage love and friendship, family and regional identity made it relatable and educational. The characters, presented flaws and all, were both likeable and infuriating, just like real friends. Not to mention the constant self-referencing, cameos and in-jokes that added another layer of depth. I particularly enjoyed the constant references to Yoojung (Shiwon’s best friend) as Eun-bunny due to her obsession with K-pop star Eun Jiwon, while no one ever seemed to notice that her boyfriend looked strikingly like him, as he was in fact played by former the Sech Kies member.
Important and very real issues were brought to the front in this drama. There is a constant background issue of regional identity throughout. Set in southern Busan, there is the recurring idea that all the best people go to Seoul and it is explored by Shiwon deciding to keep her regional accent rather than adopting the more respected Seoul one, as most of her peers do. This tension in identity explores an aspect of Korean culture, somehow both unique and universal, that most Hallyu fans would be unaware of, in a way which is subtle yet engaging.
The portrayal of K-pop fan culture was very interesting touching on fan-fiction and it’s merits, the politics of fanclubs and the real negative aspects of the culture as well as showing it’s sweet, innocent side.
The most interesting aspect of the drama however, for me, was it’s fairly frank and matter-of-fact portrayal of LGBT(although admittedly only really the G part) issues and identity in modern Korea. The best part was that the gay character, Joonhee, played by INFINITE’s Hoya, was portrayed for as a normal guy who just happened to be gay. He had close and well-functioning relationships with male and female friends, a successful career and, despite a long-standing crush on his best friend, maintained a balanced mindset and was a source good advice to other characters throughout. They even gave him what appeared to be a happy ending, although the producers shied away from showing this clearly as he was shown getting into a car with an unknown person of unspecified gender. The fact this character was played by a popular member of a popular boy band is a revelation and can only be a good sign for the future of LGBT representation in Korean media in the future.
All-in-all Reply 1997 is a well-written, engaging and funny drama which has something for everyone. It covers several important and even controversial issues including regional identity, LGBT identity and pre-marital sex in a way that is likeable and universally relatable. Most importantly it is a whole lot of fun which a great cast of characters that feel almost like friends by the end of the series.
With the last episode reaching the highest rating for a cable drama ever and it is clear that ‘Reply 1997’ has wide appeal within Korea but I think even outside this drama holds something of value for anyone interested in Korean culture in any way (not just it’s pop music) as well as being great entertainment. If you haven’t seen I suggest you go watch it. Go on. Do it now.
Personally, I hope 2013 brings more dramas following this fantastic example.
Tell us what you think, is Reply 1997 the best drama of 2012? You can let us know in the comments or in our Facebook poll.