Korean Title: “Eungdabhara 1997” (direct translation)
# of episodes: 16
Jung Eun Ji as Sung Shi Won
Seo In Guk as Yoon Yoon Je
Shin So Yool as Mo Yoo Jung
Hoya as Kang Joon Hee
Eun Ji Won as Do Hak Chan
Song Jong Ho as Yoon Tae Woong (Yoon Jae's brother)
Lee Shi Un as Bang Sung Jae
Sung Dong Il as Sung Dong Il (Shi Won's father)
Lee Il Hwa as Lee Il Hwa (Shi Won's mother)
Worth the hype and then some. Nostalgic, heartfelt, and hysterical to boot, the only thing between this drama and perfection for me is if H.O.T. was replaced by the Backstreet Boys. Oh, to be 18 again.
I heart this drama. With nothing new to its name aside from its cast, Answer Me 1997 succeeds where most coming-of-age (a.k.a. all) dramas have not – it is universal and touches you right there. In other words, it gut-wrenchingly tugs at your heartstrings while simultaneously making you laugh your head off. Whereas most youth dramas these days have been lifted from manga plots, this series is a sweet letter to all that good stuff in real life: first loves, best friends, coming of age, and that most priceless of all things -- family. Taking a routine premise and spinning surprising gold, the dramedy goes for emotional highs and lows, accented by perfectly nostalgic touches. Dance Dance Revolution, dial-up internet, floppy disks, the pain of realizing a family member accidentally recorded something else on your video tape, and carefully ripping out pictures of your favourite celebrity from magazines with a ruler… it’s as if this drama stole these moments in my adolescent life and plopped them on film.
Superficial references aside, this drama was a master at showing all the emotions, angst, and excitement associated with adolescence, and none of it feels manufactured. Anyone who has ever been a teenager will relate to at least one thing in this drama, and for me, the characters, the conflicts, and the emotions hit me in all the right places. Girls will relate to the days when their idol oppa meant everything, when it was perfectly rational to refuse to go to school after an unfortunate haircut, and how easy it was to fight and make up just as quickly with your BFF. Guys will relate to the moment Yoon-jae hides in the bathroom to wash his underwear in the morning (and getting caught by his older brother, no less – watching this was one of the few times I’m glad I’m a girl), getting caught trying to download porn by a weapon-wielding dad, and liking your best friend who has no effin’ clue your heart goes thump-thump whenever she (or he) is around. In short, this is youth drama at its finest.
Part of what makes these themes so affecting is the execution: assured storytelling in the format of a mystery, with gradual, meaningful flashbacks, character beats and reveals (Tae-woong is Yoon-jae’s older brother, Joon-su is gay and in love with his best friend, Hak-chan watches porn but freezes whenever a girl is nearby in real life). It was a clever writing gimmick that kept the audience vested in sticking with the series.
The love triangles make me dizzy but none drive me crazy, which is a supreme feat and goes to show just how much I grew up love and care about all of the characters in the show. For once, I didn’t care who ended up with whom, I just didn’t want anyone to get hurt… but I knew that was inevitable. I loved how Joon-hee and Yoon-jae ended up being roomies in their adult life despite Joon-hee’s crush. I equally love how Shi-won considered his feelings for Yoon-jae as equal and apologized for getting together with Yoon-jae at the end. These kids may be young, but they know more about what truly matters than some adults today.
And of course, the concept of family was conveyed so well here: imperfect, but inclusive and full of love. I love how Yoon-jae bought a car for his surrogate parents (and future in-laws) with his first paycheck, while he himself continued driving a car whose wipers would go off randomly, whose driver car door didn’t open. I love how all the kids gather at Shi-won’s house to watch soccer with her parents and they bicker but thump each other on their backs when their team won. I cried with Shi-won when she found out her dad has stomach cancer, bawled when her dad tried to stay on the bus as long as possible when she left for Seoul. But through my tears, I also cracked up at how her dad referred to her as a gangster, marveled at Yoon-jae’s bravery for having the guts to marry Shi-won, and many of the friendship moments among the high school buddies.
The series earns much of its points from its leading lady – Jung Eun-ji, whose Busan accent (which is real, by the way) gives much of this series a heavy dose of local love. She is the definition of sass and it is her natural, winning performance as the brutally honest Shi-won that anchors the show. She has killer chemistry with Seo In-gook, who is angsty, romantic and funny as her first and last love. And perhaps even more than Yoon-jae’s relationship was Shi-won, I was more taken by the relationship Yoon-jae had with his brother Tae-woong, portrayed by Song Jong-ho. As an older child, I identified a lot with Tae-woong, and Song’s performance as the quietly loving hyung really fleshed out the character.
Hoya is a sweetheart as the gentle Joon-hee. It isn’t easy to portray a gay teenager, especially in a debut performance, but he is quietly affecting and heartbreakingly sincere in the role. The glances he steals toward Yong-jae, the awkwardness with which he shrugs off his hugs are some of the best and most touching moments in the drama. One thing this drama proves is that idol singers can act (Hoya is of boy band Infinite, Jung Eun-ji is from girl group A Pink, and Eun Ji-won is from Sechs Kies – yes, the very group that is mocked mercilessly by Shi-won as H.O.T. biters), and Hoya is a big reason why Joon-hee is my favourite character in Answer. There was something so bittersweet but fitting in the scene in the finale where Joon-hee is the last to leave the reunion, and just watching him standing quietly in the rain and the soft smile as he got into the mysterious car... I nearly burst into tears. Joon-hee, my heart bleeds for you!
I recognized Shin So-yul instantly from her guest appearance on variety show We Got Married, and she doesn't disappoint here as the cute and smiley sidekick to Shi-won. Her best moment was during Yong-ju’s dad’s funeral, when she turned around and gave a small, sad smile to her best buddies who had made the trek back to Busan. My heart also warmed at the scene where she takes off her hat to reveal a (bad) haircut styled in solidarity with Shi-won’s new cut that was a punishment from her father for being too idol-obsessed. However, her character’s crush on Yoon-jae raises one of the very few debits of this series, which is the fact that the writers never dealt with how Shi-won manages her feelings for Yoon-jae given Yong-ju’s feelings. Shi-won acknowledges Joon-hee’s feelings, but the series never goes down the path of her dealing with knowing her best friend likes the same guy.
Eun Ji-won is the weak link acting-wise in the cast, but benefits from having one of the funnier characters and his performance works for the role. The meta jokes in the series referring to him as a Ji-won lookalike also help his performance. Sung Dong Il was fantastic as Shi-won’s father, masterfully balancing the role of a frustrated but loving father along with some great chemistry with Jung Eun-ji. Lee Il Hwa made a good pairing with him as well, and Korean drama fans will get a kick out of the post-cancer plot that has Lee yelling at scriptwriters for killing off their main characters via terminal disease. One thing this series does very well is poke fun at itself.
A rare gem, Answer Me 1997 is a series that makes love and everlasting friendship seem absolutely, wondrously possible. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll call up your best friend or family just to tell them you love them. This drama is pretty much what I always wanted someone to make – and now that it’s over, I’m once again reminded that all good things must come to an end… just like my teenage years.