There are only very few instances when I feel good enough about K-drama to wish to tell the creators that they’ve actually done a pretty decent job. However, curiously and despite its potential flaws, Reply 1994 seems to be one such drama. I think they’ve done a pretty good job with this story.
In short, I would say that Reply 1994 is a curious case of “I have your typical Korean drama elements but I am not exactly your typical Korean drama fare”. All the typical k-drama elements are somewhat there but they are executed in a slightly more subdued, if not plausible, manner. Oh and yes Reply 1994 will definitely go into one of my “Likeable Characters” posts. The entire drama is made up of likeable characters. I have tried really hard not to give the game away in this post.
One thing to note:
I have not seen Reply 1997. It does not really seem to matter but I think it’s fair to say that if you watch Reply 1994 first, you may get a bit of a spoiler for Reply 1997 as one of the episodes connects to 1997 in a very straight-forward way and it will be obvious even to someone who haven’t seen the 1997 drama. Now if you watch 1997 after seeing te episode of 1994 in question, I think there is fair chance that you will have the guessing game for 1997 spoiled. So if you don’t want spoilers for 1997, I think it may be better to start with 1997 first. I personally don’t mind. Spoilers for Korean dramas are hardly ever spoilers because everything is a cliche or a trope that has been done before anyway, at least 90% of the time.
It’s interesting that I am now inclined to think so positively about it, seeing that I was the first one to protest when news of 1994 came out. I thought it was going to be a mere sequel and I tend to dislike sequels with a passion because a lot of them do nothing else but milk the franchise. One of the reasons I do like Asian soaps is that once the story is complete, it is COMPLETE. They do not prolong the series to no end; neither do they offer countless pointless follow-up seasons. They make stories that are finished, stories that we may either take or leave as they are. This applies especially to pre-produced Japanese dramas. Korean dramas are often filmed as they air…which affects the story as it may be changed during the broadcast in order to reflect or otherwise influence the ratings. I don’t like this practice at all as I find that it may be a compromise of the writer’s creativity and integrity of the story itself. But this is a topic for an entirely different post.
The world of Korean dramas is mostly inhabited by pretty cliches and artificially created dramatic twists for the sake of drama. So when a story like Reply 1994 comes along, it becomes a breath of fresh air. I would say that Reply 1994 is a Korean drama that does slice of life pretty well and that it does well by putting the slice of life over cliched plotline.
The drama’s strongest suit are its characters. We follow the trajectory of a group of people living in the same house and we see how they deal with their personal challenges in the 1990s. There is the caring, serious-minded and dedicated Thrash, the nagging NaJeong, the serious Sung Gyun, the fangirl YooJin, among others. I felt strongest about these characters as well as the mother and father who take care of this group of struggling 20s.
We witness how they struggle with their life and professional ambitions and how they develop the strong mind and dedication to pursue their dreams. At least some of them. We also see their dillemas and how they try to tackle and grow up. And they have to grow up both into adulthood and new times that bring about changes and problems and fears. The stakes for some of these characters are high; the dilemmas rather deeply felt.
I really did like all the characters. The actors brought out the hearts of these people and really made them very much alive. Sometimes with a lot of Korean dramas you get the sense that characters are all wooden, inscrutable or otherwise glamorous dolls, who are all pretty and rich as well as snobbish and rich or otherwise all women are either impossibly noble or intolerably malicious. Building characters that are ever slightly more normal or relatable is not the strongest suit of K-dramas overall. This was not the case here. Any Korean drama that can offer more rounded characters is a little more refreshing than the standard fare big stations dish out. The drama also builds up this tangible nostalgic mood. It’s a nostalgia for the 1990s or for the more innocent and more carefree times of young adulthood perhaps. There is a sense of bonding between everyone involved. It’s also this sense of natural bonding or rather easing into strong family relations and friendship, that seems absent from a lot of Korean dramas. Bonding, friendship, team spirit- these elements are always more perceiveable in Japanese productions. This is why when they do appear in Korean dramas, they seem stronger and serve to make the drama fresher.
I was really quite impressed with Thrash. I am not very famialir with the actor’s previous work: I have not seen him before, though I hear he’s quite the rage? Maybe that’s one thing that drew me in so much. But all things aside, he gave such a heartfelt performance; he inhabited the role and had such a strong presence that I couldn’t help but develop a little crush here. He played a very serious-minded and dedicated character and I sincerely love such types the most. Plus, he was not unrealistic. Some of his motivations were dictated by fear but at the heart of that fear lay a sense of deep caring and love for his family and his friends. That made him very substantial to me. Very substantial indeed. The stakes for this character are high: he may either lose all he has and hurt everyone else or win much more. I sympathised with the sort of “to say or not to say” problems he faces. Thrash is a nickname and it’s a good nickname for several reasons, though it gives ground to think about some stereotyping here too. I’d be interested in seeing more main roles from this one. I hope he can prove to be a versatile actor. There were moments in this drama that he reminded me partly of Lee Sung Gyun, partly of Micky Yoochun and sometimes even of Uhm Tae Woong.
Chill Bong is nice but don’t get me wrong he was more like a summer breeze to me. The analogy strikes me as rather adequate because Chill Bong may represent all those youthful dreams and fangirlish, perhaps sometimes opinion-altering crushes we may all experience at some point. Still, he developed over the course of the drama and learned a thing or two. He was essential for the story and he was very likeable. There are more things to say about him. There are also more things to say about the other characters and their quirky, lovable natures but I will leave it for another time; besides I am really trying to avoid saying too much.
The one thing I felt was missing was that NaJeong was perhaps a little too one-track minded throughout the drama I really didn’t see her develop much professional ambition and she didn’t seem to care until reality hit her like a wake up call. It was a bit of a plot contrivance to me; as if the writer needed a motive to continue the guessing game before the resolution in episode 21. Even so, the resolution came and the ending was saved like that. And it made sense.
However, the fact that throughout the series NaJeong really didn’t think much about her career or what she wants can be a little problematic because Korean dramas have this tendency to preserve a certain stereotypical image of a woman and here the wake-up call, as I said, seemed to serve only as a plot contrivance. There are of course different paths to pursuing happiness and happiness means different things to different people but if there is one qualm I can have with this drama then it’s definitely it.
You’d think with the length of the episodes they would give more space to NaJeong’s other ambitions… But again, the focus was very strongly placed on interactions with people and between people. I think, then, this was perhaps more of an inadeverent omission than anything else; or rather it didn’t fit with the character of the story. Moreover, NaJeong is energetic, likeable, intelligent and strong-minded enough to make me think that she will be able to make the most out of her life. However, I think her character may bring to mind the image of a “nagging housewife”. I think it may be a little bothersome, though none of the characters ever treat her that way. I also think we may have to consider the specificity of the 1990s. In any case, both females in the drama seem to end up doing rather vague office jobs, whereas most of their friends pursue more ambitious professions. It may well be a case of “I don’t know what do in life”, but there is always some “but” to keep in mind with stories like this.
I do like how the story is structured- the main narrative is set up in the 2013 Seoul but it constantly goes back in time to reveal different memories the characters share and recollect in their reunion. It worked very well. It gave the viewers a chance to go”into” various memories of different characters and their perspectives. It showed how the characters remembered the events. It also provided the frame for the guessing game: who does the lead girl end up with?
I do have a problem with this guessing game. For one, it dragged too much. Moreover, perhaps this prolonged guessing game toyed with some viewers too much, especially, I think, those who hoped, rather surpriginsly, for something that was never coming. For me, it was never, not for a single moment, a triangle drama in the typical sense. The story was focused on building a strong relationship between a couple. “Rival” was there to help make some decisions and make some realizations. And besides, the “rivals” were always rather honest with each other and good friends as well. It was a supportive “rivarly. To my mind, then, the drama makes the case that it’s healthy to have some rivalry to push you further and give you courage. Those characters who viewers consider to be love rivals needed each other but otherwise I thought that throughout there was a rather clear focus on a clear pairing that needed to grow stronger and wiser; the what ifs stayed in the realm of a fond memory; the what ifs were, I think, meant to give such memories and they were, if anything, a part of growing up. It’s a little hard to explain without spoiling some of the details.
Before I watched the drama, the ongoing and tiresome shipping wars taking place on the Internet made it seem like it’s all about some sort of push-pull love triangle. How wrong I was to get such an impression. I was relieved to find out that shipping wars made things seem far worse than they really are, that contrary to all those coflicting viewer preferences and hopes the drama is far more charming than the usual Korean fare. Moreover, it does not really have very substantial or contrived triangles or squares or other geometrical figures that k-dramas so love. In the final episodes preceding the conclusion all this started to get really tiresome. They could have used the time to develop other things a little better but I think they also did not want to give too much away before the finale so they had to keep up the game all the way through. In other words, they largely capitalised on the guessing game to keep the interest. It is is this part that seems to be a hit with some and a miss with others because of personal preferences. And this is this part that I find a little problematic having seen how the story was constructed. I felt even though the narrative wanted to keep us guessing, it also did not want to be ambiguous. Hence I feel that who was endgame with whom was never really an issue in the first place.
However, everything happened rather calmly and without all the usual overreactions and cliched plot resolutions. The characters never really behaved in a ridiculous manner. They were all friends, no matter what other tensions and hopes they experienced and the drama really did well with building up these close bonds.
The story does have a heart, in short.
And I ended up with a character crush. A Crush on Thrash.