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’.

 

hot-candy‘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.

Eunji as ShiwonAs 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.

in guk hoyaThe 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.

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  • Guest

    I agree with everything you said! I tend not to watch too many dramas in general as they are completely soul-sucking (haha), but I couldn’t not stay away from Reply 1997, the response was just so good… and I absolutely was not disappointed. Pretty much the entire cast was excellent in their roles, and I really have to give it up to the writers for their incredible attention to detail and being able to tie everything back together throughout the whole drama.

    I think my only gripe was that Hoya was just a tad bit awkward in his role… he looked pretty uncomfortable sometimes, but I’ll give him a pass. I was actually sort of disappointed that we never got to see the gender of the person who picked him up, though. That said, considering that the majority of Koreans still seem to not be so accepting of LGBT individuals, it may have been for the best. I do hope that there will be more mainstream LGBT portrayals in the future, and not just based on stereotypes! Joonhee was incredibly well-written.

  • emjay

    I agree with everything you said! I tend not to watch too many dramas in general as they are completely soul-sucking (haha), but I couldn’t stay away from Reply 1997, the response was just so good… and I absolutely was not disappointed. Pretty much the entire cast was excellent in their roles, and I really have to give it up to the writers for their incredible attention to detail and being able to tie everything back together throughout the whole drama.

    I think my only gripe was that Hoya was just a tad bit awkward in his role… he looked pretty uncomfortable sometimes, but I’ll give him a pass. I was actually sort of disappointed that we never got to see the gender of the person who picked him up, though. That said, considering that the majority of Koreans still seem to not be so accepting of LGBT individuals, it may have been for the best. I do hope that there will be more mainstream LGBT portrayals in the future, and not just based on stereotypes! Joonhee was incredibly well-written.

    • beyondhallyu

      Thanks for your comment! I agree that he could be quite awkward although I was glad he was played by such a popular boy bad member. I think that was really important, even in the West I think, a lot of male celebrities with big female fanbases might not take on this kind of role.

      I think attitudes are changing, especially among young people, which is definitely a good thing!

      Definitely going to be keeping an eye out for any future dramas from the same writers!

      Lizzie

  • millie102685

    I’m not going to lie, I decided to watch Reply 1997 because I am an Inspirit and Hoya was going to be in it but it went above and beyond my expectations as a drama.
    One thing that upset me in the drama was we don’t know who Junhee got into the car with.
    It could have been one of his eight sisters (am I the only one that thought it was odd that we have never seen his twin sister?), a coworker, or any other friend that he made in Seoul.
    I felt cheated and I cried.
    But, all in all, it was an enjoyable drama.
    I even convinced my niece to watch it and she fell in love with it too. She had no idea that the Shiwon’s character was played by a rookie.

    • beyondhallyu

      Yes, it was a shame. I think it was set up to make you believe it was a male love interest but it would’ve been nice to see him.

      I’m really impressed by Eunji as a performer in general, I hope she gets more drama roles in future.

  • SS501jjang

    “If you haven’t seen I suggest you go watch it. Go on. Do it now.”

    I suggest you really do it. I’ll bet my life on this drama. One of the best Korean dramas of all time!

  • billiondollarbabe

    past year i started watching Big, Procecutor Princess, Love Rain and Protect The Boss but I dropped all of them sooner or later>.> At first i loved Kdramas cause it was smth new and different to me. But when i really got into them they started making me bored cause they became predictable. But this one “Reply97″ I loved it! it was different and I loved how the girl acted so freely and not tryin to be pretty or doing aegyo^^~ And I’m happy I saw a different place (Busan) cause uasually dramas take part in Seoul.Really enjoyable^___^ Another one i loved this year was “A Gentleman’s Dignity”~

    • beyondhallyu

      I think you were right to drop ‘Big’, it had a ridiculous ending! Can’t speak for the others although I thought Love Rain was okay but nothing special.

      She was a really interesting character, very different from most other female leads in K-Dramas. I really enjoyed watching a drama not set in Seoul as well. It was interesting to hear the difference in Busan dialect.

  • Carrie

    Love your articles! I was so frustrated from the lack of thorough and critical analysis of Korean culture on the web – very glad to have found this blog and some others like it. Keep it up please!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001430085442 Nilly I’ly

    I think its the best drama for 2012. im a very big fan of korean drama and its my habit that if i watched the first episode, ill watch it till last. TheMoonThatEmbracesTheSun is also one of the best drama last year bfoz of all the mysteries and how wicked some of the character is. As for Reply1997, I only watched it last month bcoz i asked my friend to download it for me. I finished it within 2days and the after effect was so big that it made School2013 looks like mehhhhh. It didnt have a big mystery or anything special, but the fact that it keeps going back and forth from 97 and 12 makes the story so good with tension and questions about who will bcome ShiWon husband. The first few episodes makes people wonder who is announcing their marriage and makes them want to watch more. Of course rhe awkward sheep sound was a very good catch and makes us laugh everytime. As for JoonHee, I think he got himself a new lover because a woman wouldnt drive a car like that.

  • http://twitter.com/lilian_sg Lilian Loke

    In my article I also wrote the Reply 1997 is my fav for 2012! http://liliansg.hubpages.com/hub/Top-Korean-Dramas-2012-End Till the end, she was still a big fan of Tony…haha!

  • kpophabits24/7

    Glad to find out that someone adore this drama too!!! My friends were not interested enough to watch but i found myself have fallen into the plot which is just incredibly smart from the very first episode.
    Actually i’ve been enjoying this blog from last year, but this is my first comment.*sorry hehe*
    Thanks for such a smart writing!

    *sorry again for my bad english*