Warning: This review contains spoilers from the first six episodes from Answer Me 1997, so if you haven’t seen them, and don’t like spoilers, avert your eyes.
As summer winds down, broadcasting stations are still coming out with a new crop of dramas as early summer hits draw to a close. While others might follow the latest dramas to come out of broadcasting giants SBS, MBC, and KBS, my eyes are glued to the latest drama to come out of TvN, Answer Me 1997.
I’ll admit that I’m extremely picky when it comes to K-dramas, and impatient, so if a story doesn’t hook me by the first or second episodes, I drop it immediately. As a result, I don’t watch a lot of K-dramas, and usually resort to watching K-films, which in my opinion, are way better done, production-wise and writing-wise, than K-dramas, until I started watching dramas from TvN.
Granted, the only dramas I’ve watched so far from TvN have been Shut Up: Flower Boy Band and Queen In-hyun’s Man, but these two dramas are probably the best dramas to air on Korean TV this year, and dare I say, in a long time. It seems just like in North America, Korean basic cable channels a la Showtime and HBO are trumping national channels in terms of providing quality television. TvN follows up on Queen Inhyun’s Man with Answer Me 1997, a drama based on the real-life trials and tribulations of a H.O.T. fangirl. At first, when I heard the story’s premise, I didn’t know if the show was right for me, seeing as I was only four in 1997 and was too busy with Pokemon and Digimon to even think of North American idol groups, let alone their Korean counterparts, but this drama takes its premise and becomes a wonderfully written coming-of-age drama.
A Pink’s Eunji stars as Sung Shi-won, who plays the H.O.T fangirl, and the show moves back and forth between the years 2012 and 1997, and is centred around the lives of Shi-won and her high school classmates and friends. The first episode opens in 2012 at a noraebang with the main character, Sung Shi-won singing along while her parents look on. Her father demands her to put an oldie and Shi-won does a little smirk and puts her idea of an oldie on–H.O.T’s “Candy.” Despite her father’s complaints, Shi-won sings along happily.
Hints like this show that Shi-won still hasn’t put her past as a H.O.T. fangirl completely behind her, with the signature H.O.T. song and Tony Ahn gracing the wallpaper of her cellphone. She leaves the noraebang and heads off to meet her high school classmates for a reunion. Once Shi-won enters the restaurant, her friends and she pick up right where they left off, referring to each other by the old nicknames and teasing each other, everyone asking Shi-won if she gained weight, Shi-won scoffing at her best friend Yoo-jung‘s flavour of the month. Shi-won and Yoo-jung take a photo with their four best guy friends, played by Seo In-guk, Infinite’s Hoya, former Sechskies member Eun Ji-won, and Lee Shi-un, who strutted into the reunion like sexy mofos coming from a funeral, and cue the flashback to 1997, right when Shi-won drops that one of them will be announcing that they’re getting married.
The reunion becomes a nice framing device to tell the story of Shi-won’s teenage years, setting the pace of the story and giving clues as how 1997 will play out and lead to the events currently happening in 2012. It also gives us piece-of-mind that everyone in 1997 survives until 2012, but at the same time leaves us curious as to how everything did play out for the six of them, and their teacher, Yoon-jae’s brother, Tae-woong. Just like in Shut Up: Flower Boy Band, the character dynamics are all interesting and well-developed, except for, like in Shut Up: Flower Boy Band, there is still a character that I feel drags the story a little down. For Shut Up: Flower Boy Band, it was Su-ah, and for Anwser Me 1997, it’s Tae-woong. But luckily he didn’t have much of a presence in the first six episodes, except for his parts with his past girlfriend, which bored me to tears, so he wasn’t much of a problem.
Nonetheless, this story has amazing characterization, and the storylines of each character feels so relatable and reminiscent of the pains, that might seem so frivolous now, of adolescence. The acting is really good, but its writing is the best part of the drama, with the quirky humour being entertaining and well-timed, and the emotional, sad scenes were writtten heartbreakingly and beautifully. Major themes of struggling to grow up, parental conflicts, and unrequited love are played both in a humourous but bittersweet way, with Shi-won coming in conflict with her father over her love for H.O.T and Tony, who he views as monkeys who need to shipped off to the military immediately, to Shi-won feeling betrayed by Yoo-jung when it’s revealed that Yoo-jung likes Sechskies, the band who should never be named. It’s interesting to watch how such simple things can mean so much in a greater context. The relationships between Shi-won and her family and friends are always fun to watch, especially between Shi-won and her best friend since childhood Yoon-jae, who is endlessly cock-blocked by Shi-won’s love for H.O.T, and subsequently, her inability to grow up or perhaps, come to terms with the changes in the dynamics between them.
Overall, I love almost every single character in this drama. Shi-won is lovable and exciting as a strong female lead, even when she’s being a stubbon, obsessive fangirl. Eunji plays her well, especially the comedic aspects of the character, her temper tantrums are even hilarious to watch. She could have easily been an annoying character, with how brash and obnoxious she can be, but what should make her unbearable, makes her a colourful and vibrant character. She’s feisty, cheeky, and doesn’t take crap from people who disrepects her oppas–but can also be sweet and a good friend. The male lead, Yoon-jae, is slow-witted as he is endearing, and they play off each other nicely, although Shi-won does treat him like her mule, they aren’t your stereotypical strong-willed female, castrated male dynamic and they act like your typical old friends. Even though the development of their relationship might seem like the average straight boys can never be just friends with straight girls love line, the sweetness and sincerity in his love for her makes up for the cliche.
Each side character are fully fleshed out when they could have easily fallen into stock character territory, although Sung-jae is slowly getting on my nerves, even though he has his funny moments. Hoya is adorable as the perfect husband material, but closeted Jung-hee, and his unrequited love for Yoon-jae is sweet as it is tragic. As much as I like Yoon-jae and Shi-won together, I can’t help myself with rooting for Jung-hee to end up with Yoon-jae, even if it is highly unlikely. I’m a sucker for tragic OTPs and the writers just had to make a love triangle where I can’t decide which ship I like better. (Jungjae fighting!) Eun Ji-won plays the cool but girl-phobic Hak-chan and is absolutely adorable with Yoo-jung. The scene where Hak-chan throws a basketball at Yoon-jae after he unknowingly breaks Yoo-jung’s heart made me fall for him and their relationship. I love you, Yoon-jae, but you’re just so ignorant sometimes. Yoo-jung is a good foil for the abrasive Shi-won, demure, cute and fickle, but she doesn’t delve into stereotypical passive side-kick territory, which is a blessing.
This drama has the emotional aspects of adolescence and young love down pat, and can pull at your heartstrings without a moment’s notice. It’s also not afraid to talk openly about seemingly taboo Korean subjects like masturbation and homosexuality, which are completely normalized within the drama. Everything is realistic, even the quirkier aspects of the drama. The ability of tvN to produce such realistic portrayals of teenagers and their stories from Shut Up: Flower Boy Band to Anwser Me 1997 is so refreshing and a great contrast to the sea of vapid and flat teen dramas getting churned out of national stations.
However, as I’m watching this drama, I can’t help but notice how obsessive Shi-won is over H.O.T and how it consumes her life. Although she still manages to go to school, hang out with her friends, and her parents, the extent of Shi-won’s obsession over H.O.T is unnerving, as she tends to circle her life around H.O.T, and associate herself with people who accept H.O.T. A lot of the drama plays her obsession up for laughs, and I’ll admit I do find them amusing–Eunji plays a mean fangirl–but the things that Shi-won does as a fan are worrisome and borderline sasaeng territory, such as spending hours in front of Tony’s house and pricking her finger to write a sign professing her love for Tony with blood.
Her love of H.O.T seems to override her decisions in her own life, with almost ending her friendship with Yoo-jung just because she likes Sechskies, or putting her obsession above the well-being of others and herself, like skipping school to see H.O.T perform live or taking away a raincoat from her father because it was an H.O.T raincoat. But with her obsessive behaviour comes good moments like her sobbing at the announcement that her father has stomach cancer and making birthday coupons for Yoon-jae, and making up with Yoo-jung. I think although Shi-won does have sasaeng fan tendencies, it doesn’t detract from who she is as a person. I like the realistic approach to the fandom, showing that sasaeng fans, and people committing sasaeng behaviour, are humans, not the demons people paint them to be. No one just suddenly becomes a sasaeng fan, so I’ll be interested to see how far the writers will take Shi-won’s obsession with H.O.T and if it’ll have any serious implications in the near future.
So far, I’ve only watched the first six episodes, and the wait for hard subs is killing me. With that level of obsession for the drama that could rival Shi-won’s obsession with all things Tony Ahn, so far, so very good for this drama. If the momentum continues as the major issues begin to unfold, this drama will definitely be yet another classic for TvN. The first six episodes alone are highly recommended, they’re hilarious, heart-warming and perfect for the ’90s nostalgic, and hopefully the subsequent episodes will be as well.