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[Review] Looking Back at "Reply 1997" and "Reply 1994"

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Warning: Contains Spoilers

1. Introduction

Last year, tvN scored a smash hit with "Reply 1997,” transporting us to a much simpler decade infused with nostalgia, growing pains, 90s pop culture and fan girls. The drama premiered with little hype, but gained recognition through word of mouth, becoming a sensation and breaking the 6% ratings barrier, considered to be high for a cable drama, and that’s not even counting the rebroadcasts. In fact, Episodes 15 and 16 of “Reply 1997” was broadcast on tvN, Olive, Mnet, OCN, Onstyle and Ongamenet simultaneously. Set in 1997 Busan, "Reply 1997" was the coming-of-age story of a group of high schoolers who grow through their own share of teenage troubles. Set in high school, the kids were faced with teenage problems such as the hopes and dreams for the future, the mystery of girls and the era of first loves. 

Plot in short: Our female protagonist Sung Shi Won (A Pink's Jung Eun Ji) is a foul-mouthed H.O.T/Tony Ahn fan girl, while best friend Yoon Yoon Jae (Seo In Guk) likes her but can't say it. The love triangle forms when Yoon Jae's brother decides he likes Shi Won as well, and confesses first. Yoon Jae's best friend, Joon Hee (Infinite's Hoya), likes him, but never reveals it to him directly. Her best friend Yoo Jung (Shin So Yool) likes Yoon Jae at first, but ends up with Hak Chan (Eun Ji Won).

"Reply 1997" Poster


"Reply 1994"

Seoul vs. Busan

Buoyed by the success of its predecessor, "Reply 1994" quickly gained a massive following, yet it was a totally different creature from "Reply 1997." 1994 returned with a bigger, somehow younger-looking cast, and a college setting that many in tvN's target audience (teenager females and twenty- and thirty-somethings) would easily be able to identify with. They gave us a scenario in which everyone could logically live together in the form of the boarding house, bringing back the lovely parents from 1997, along with Mom's cooking habits. They also uprooted from Busan to the heart of Seoul, yet retained an unaffected charm with the provincial transplants.

The drama took us back to 1994, incorporating plenty of heart and humor and paying painstaking attention to detail in recreating the 90s. The drama had initially gone with a basketball theme, but basketball ended up having a low-key presence compared to baseball, which dominated with Dad as a baseball coach once again, and Chil Bong going pro. Pop culture played a big role, with Seo Taiji and Boys featuring heavily as Yoon Jin's obsession.

Communication through the years has gone from the phonebooth to the pager, to that brick of a cellphone, to today's smartphones and tablet devices. We've seen the birth of email and social networking ("I Love School"), and watched floppy disks turn to CDs, walkmans turn to CD players, cassette tapes and VCRs give way to the digital era and watched 1994's Dad obsessed with new technology in the form of his mobile phone that would only work within distance of a phone booth and marvel at the digital camera, his eyes almost popping out at the new-fangled device.

1994 was also incidentally the year in which PD Shin Won Ho went to university, and the college setting meant that we got to see a lot more cultural elements compared to 1997. The show brought us through college culture, with MTs (membership training sessions) and group dating, and included a dose of army humor as well. While "Reply 1997" took a jump from 1999 to 2005, "Reply 1994"'s episodes spanned the years in between 1994 and 2002, making it a slice-of-life drama with a heavy dose of reality. Relationship issues and dialogue were worked into the issues of their time, making the drama believable and easier to identify with.

Also, it is always funny when the parents comment on stars who are famous now and say they’ll never make it. Dad totally dissed Apple back in the day. Ah, the power of hindsight when used in meta makes for such good comedy.

"Reply 1994" Poster

2. Cast: Convincing performances for many, Different images

Who needs villains when you’ve got friends? The series proved that you can have a drama revolve around endearing characters without the need for scheming and manipulative secondary characters.

"Reply 1997": Jung Eun Ji as Sung Shi Won, Seo In Guk as Yoon Yoon Jae, Shin So Yool as Mo Yoo Jung, Hoya as Kang Joon Hee, Eun Ji Won as Do Hak Chan, Lee Shi Un as Bang Sung Jae, Song Jong Ho as Yoon Tae Woong

"Reply 1994": Go Ara as Sung Na Jung, Jung Woo as Trash/Kim Jae Joon, Yoo Yeon Seok as Chil Bong/Kim Sun Joon, Baro as Binggeurae, Kim Sung Kyun as Sam Cheon Po, Do Hee as Jo Yoon Jin, Son Ho Joon as Haitai

Sung Dong Il and Lee Il Hwa play themselves in both dramas.

Jung Eun Ji made her acting debut in “Reply 1997” and received a lot of love for her Shi Won, winning the Best New Actress Award at the "2013 Baeksang Arts Awards." Seo In Guk took home the Best New Actor Award at the "2012 Korea Drama Awards." Their duet track, "All For You," also won a number of awards. “Reply 1994” was a breakout drama for Go Ara, who brought Sung Na Jung to life with her inspired performance. The show didn't ride on its idol stars' fame but put them in in roles that just might give them a foothold into the acting field. It has catapulted its stars into fame, more for the 1994 cast, but none more so than 1994's male leads Jung Woo and Yoo Yeon Seok, who have received and been cast in multiple film roles since the series picked up.

 3. Love, friendship and family

Once Trash got his issues out of the way, he was able to reunite with Na Jung and they eventually got married. What began as a sibling relationship, turned into an adult relationship that was very similar to Na Jung's parents' relationship. They cared deeply for one another, and never wavered, despite all the red herrings the drama dropped on us.

Na Jung’s cool personality and Chil Bong’s patience meant that the Chil Bong-Na Jung relationship was handled in a very drama-free manner. Na Jung was always there for Chil Bong, and she was pretty clear about where the line was. Chil Bong's loneliness and vulnerability was clearly exhibited in the final episodes, where without his family to turn to, the boarding house family had become his family, and Na Jung was the object that he thought would fill the void. While it was heartbreaking to watch Chil Bong's love remain unrequited, it was nice to see that their relationship remained intact and never awkward. She wanted friendship, and he learned to accept it.

Shi Won and Yoon Jae shared a relationship similar to Trash and Na Jung, growing up almost like siblings. One day, Yoon Jae discovered that she was a woman in his eyes, and he fell in love. He gave way to his older brother, thinking that Tae Woong would have done the same, only to realize much later on that such was not the case. Confessing to Shi Won before he left for college, he wouldn't meet her again for another 6 years, where they would meet by accident and begin their relationship proper.

 Tae Woong never stood a chance with Shi Won, even though he confessed more than once. She didn't accept him in 1999, and certainly not in 2005. The use of the "Truth Chair" was a convenient way for multiple revelations to be made, one of which was Tae Woong finding out about Shi Won and Yoon Jae. He ended up making the sacrifice that he said he wouldn't make, giving up Shi Won to Yoon Jae.

Sam Cheon Po and Yoon Jin, Hak Chan and Yoo Jung, and Mom and Dad were the other sweet relationships that took up quite a bit of screen time. Besides romantic relationships, there were also the bonds of friendship and kinship. While our husband mystery unraveled slowly, these other relationships were developing in their own ways.

A Sam Cheon Po-style proposal...

Dad tells Trash that he is part of the family:

4. Comparisons between "Reply 94" and "Reply 97"

Both dramas shared some parallels, including...

  • Shi Won used to scratch Yoon Jae's chin like a puppy, which Trash did to Binggeurae as well.
  • Mom and Dad's cat-and-dog fighting followed by kiss-and-makeup behavior was reflected in Shi Won and Yoon Jae’s and Trash and Na Jung’s relationships.
  • Can't be without a fangirl in a drama set at the inception of the idol groups - Shi Won spends a night camping outside Tony Ahn’s house, Yoon Jin camped outside Seo Taiji’s house more than once.
  • Both Sung families were unfortunate enough to lose a family member, Song Joo in 1997 and Na Jung’s brother in 1994, but rather than the family breaking down, there was room for new members to move in.
  • Sung Jae and Sam Cheon Po - the casting of obviously older-looking actors to play younger parts.

The series kept the guessing game of ‘who is the husband’ till the very end, and episodes became longer and longer as writers couldn’t cut interesting issues out of episodes. The original 1997 drama was only 16 half-hour episodes, aired back-to-back on Thursdays, except for the final two episodes which were 1-hour episodes aired separately. 1994 couldn’t help but add 5 more episodes to the drama to flesh out the story more, airing one & a half hour episodes every Friday and Saturday.

In 1997, there was a time jump of 6 years before Shi Won reunited with Yoon Jae and the two finally got together. There wasn’t such a huge jump in 1994, as the drama worked through the years episode by episode, and the friendships remained close throughout the whole time. Na Jung never wavered; for her, it was Trash right from the beginning.

In that sense, Chil Bong's unrequited love for Na Jung was like Joon Hee's for Yoon Jae, but Joon Hee was never a main contender. 

 5. '97 Cameo

Our 1994ers are Seoul college students, while the 1997ers were high school students living in Busan. How was it plausible to squeeze in a cameo or two? The timelines intersected when Trash went over to Busan for a one-year residency and revealed his maturity level by getting into a fight with Shi Won on a bus over H.O.T music. Trash also gave us his opinion on each of the 97ers who were riding the bus with Shi Won. Later on, Shi Won played a crucial role in picking Na Jung’s ring, flatly rejecting Trash’s choice of the gaudiest ring in the shop. But where was Eun Ji Won? He turned up at the end of the episode, a shy student being tutored by Na Jung.

6. Parents, meeting in 1994

Sung Dong Il and Lee Il Hwa reprised their role as Mom and Dad in the 1994 series, but the boarding house situation meant that they got to play something like foster parents to a house full of college students. Sung Dong Il met his "Reply 1997" counterpart who shared the same name, in this scene in Episode 17:

 7. Music

Set in the 90s, both dramas made use of the music symbolic of their era. Referencing original idol groups such as Seo Taiji and Boys, H.O.T, Sechs Kies, S.E.S, Fin.K.L, right up to TVXQ, the series was like a primer to old-school K-Pop. But besides idol group music, what better way to introduce older hits from the 90s than for today’s pop artists to remake them? The popularity of the drama, plus the effect of nostalgia, meant that any remake song put out hovered on music charts for ages after their release.

Playlist for 1997:

Playlist for 1994:

8. Conclusion

"Reply 1997" was tightly-paced, wrapping up with the theme of first love and innocence. While family was as important as friendship, it wasn’t as central a part of the drama as in 1994. Despite having only 16 (shorter) episodes, the writers were able to tell the story they wanted to. Ultimately, 1997 was a story about the teenage years, of growing up and first loves, of innocence and passion, cruelty and recklessness, dramatic and a passing phase, a lifelong scar, of hopes and dreams.

"Reply 1994" was a sprawling slice-of-life story, unhurried in pace, sweet and mellow, with first loves triumphing. Some might complain that it’s not as tightly written as 1997. Go Ara was a blessing to watch as Na Jung. The side characters were more fully fleshed out cf 1997. Compared to 1997, it honestly felt like less of the husband mystery than the process and friendships and the years in between. Our main couple’s feelings remained unchanged through the whole drama. The show emphasized the importance of friendship and family, as we witness a touching and emotional reunion in 2002, when the whole gang turned up to watch the 2002 World Cup.

And it turns out that tvN’s “Reply 1994” was able to attract an audience of all ages, making it the highest rated cable drama of all time.

What did you guys think of the "Reply" series? Did you enjoy it as much as I did?

Meltedd used to be crazy about Korean dramas and K-Pop, but now watches the occasional drama (but still reads all the recaps) and listens to all sorts of Korean music. Despite its flaws, she really, really, really liked "Reply 1994."

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