Exploring Korean Drama: Answer Me 1997

answer me 1997 90s poster

Answer Me 1997 made me do something I never do: download an app on my phone.  It was the Tamagotchi Life app, and yes, it ended up being boring enough that I uninstalled it about 30 minutes later (what does it say about me now that I have less patience for a virtual pet than I did when I was 12?).  The point stands: this kdrama speaks to the soul of every child of the 90s.

answer me 1997 90s pose

The cast in their awesome 90s pose.

I might not recognize the pop culture references from the drama, but much of it still felt so familiar: the fashion, the tech; even the music sounded the same, even if I didn’t know specific songs.  The show was clearly created by people who lived through and love the 90s, and even if its heady nostalgia were all it had going for it, it’d still be a recommended watch.

But there’s so much more to Answer Me 1997.  Its narrative is a breath of fresh air.  Other standout shows like City Hunter or Queen In Hyun’s Man might have more unique or original stories, but Answer Me is structured like no other kdrama I’ve seen.  We don’t have a meet cute (or hate), circumstances throwing the characters together, a hookup, or something dramatic keeping them apart.  Instead we have a mystery, and a story that bounces back and forth through time.

In 2012, a group meets up in Seoul for a high school reunion.  It’s revealed that two of the attendees will announce their engagement that night.  Then we flash back to Busan in 1997 to really meet our cast of characters, and thus our suspects for the future engagement.  The primary contenders are as follows:

Sung Shi Won: Our female lead and the show’s biggest boy band fangirl.  Her family is the heart of the show.

Yoon Yoon Jae: Male lead and Shi Won’s childhood best friend.  His parents died in an accident when he was young, and although he doesn’t live with them, he’s more or less been adopted by Shi Won’s parents.

Mo Yoo Jung: Shi Won’s female best friend and another huge fangirl.  She starts off the show with a crush on Yoon Jae.

Kang Joon Hee: Yoon Jae’s male best friend.  He’s the kdrama’s quiet, adorable sweetheart.

Do Hak Chan: The new kid.  He moves from Seoul to Busan in 1997.  He’s really awkward around girls.  In a fantastic move that totally floored me when I found out (and thank goodness for recap sites like Dramabeans, because I wouldn’t get half of the lovely meta references without them), he’s played by Eun Ji Won, a former Sechs Kies member.  Clips of his 90s movies and music videos are even played in the show.

Bang Sung Jae: The last member of the high school group.  He’s the loud, fast-talking one.

Yoon Tae Woong: Yoon Jae’s older brother.  He has a bright future, but he stayed behind in Busan to take care of Yoon Jae.  He teaches at Yoon Jae’s school, but it’s revealed that in 2012, he’s a presidential candidate.

answer me 1997 90s tech

Check out the pager and the fabulous chunky phone.

This is a big cast for a kdrama, and just by reading the names of the characters it’s hard to keep them all straight.  I had no problem with that while watching, however, because it’s a true ensemble piece.  Each character gets a moment to shine and doesn’t seem to stand out too much more than the other characters.  Answer Me 1997 might have its mystery to give it some forward movement, but in practice it’s a deep-feeling high school dramedy about friends, family, and growing up.

Answer Me 1997 really is a hang-out show.  It doesn’t have much in the way of traditional forward plot movement.  Each episode deepens the question of who’s getting married, and the end of every one jumps forward to 2012 to give us more clues, but we don’t really move along much in terms of plot.  Not every story needs to be told that way, and we’re kept rapt and entertained by just spending time with these characters and experiencing life along with them.  We like hanging around with them, be it for little everyday happenings or more impactful life events.

I really love the heart with which all of the characters are written.  It’s necessary, because this is also a somewhat realistic high school show: most of the actors might not be close to high school in age, but their acting makes them totally believable as teenagers.  Shi Won and Yoo Jung’s obsession, particularly how much it impacts Shi Won’s life, is the best example.

Shi Won and Yoo Jung are diehard H.O.T. fans.  This makes them bitter enemies of Sechs Kies fans.  These were real bands, but you don’t need to be familiar with them to relate.  Replace H.O.T. and Sechs Kies with The Backstreet Boys and ‘NSYNC, and you’ll understand exactly what’s going on, hysteria and rivalry and all.

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