Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Time Traveler’s Drama: A Chronological Map of Answer Me 1997

The best time slip drama of 2012 wasn’t about Joseon scholars traveling to the modern world, or doctors going back in time to Korea’s Goryeo period. Instead, it focused on a single decade in the lives of six young people from Busan.

Answer Me 1997 is one of those shows that has it all: lovable characters, a compelling storyline, and perfect direction. But what makes it truly stand out from the competition is its innovative puzzle-box narrative. Rather than following the traditional structure of a beginning, middle, and end that all occur in one unbroken chronological sequence, its plot is built like human memory, constructed of countless fragments of life strung together thematically at the whim of the person at their center. Like AM 1997’s script, our perception of the world doesn’t always obey the sequential logic of storytelling: Although effect often follows cause, in our minds the two sometimes occur the other way around. In the world of Answer Me 1997, we the viewers are time travelers, slowly uncovering big-picture reality as we journey from one strange, unimagined era to another—from family dinners during high school and teenage nights on the doorstep of a pop star, to ten-year reunions and the moment when a woman becomes a mother.

This looping storyline might have existed as a cold narrative experiment, but Answer Me 1997 uses the ability to time-skip as a way to fully explore the depths of its characters. By the end of the show, we know them just as they know themselves: frontwards and backwards and side to side, from childhood to adulthood, from beginning to ending and through all the points in between. This is why Answer Me 1997 feels like such a revelation: It weaves its characters from a never-ending supply of life experiences, just as we weave our personal narratives through the curation of our own memories.

Answer Me 1997’s first few episodes are true marvels, deftly carrying the viewer along as they bounce from time period to time period. But as the show continued, the storytelling edged toward the traditional—making the later episodes feel merely above average rather than extraordinary.

and now.
Partly because I’m so reluctant to give up this show, and partly as an excuse to pull apart its house-of-cards construction, I rewatched the first two episodes and created a chronological map—a boiled down recap that focuses on only the sequence of the most important events. Looking at the map, it’s easy to appreciate this drama’s densely woven structure. Just like in life, the present day is made up of thousands of past days, all vying for our attention as we go about the business of living.

Thanks to all this dizzy time slipping, Answer Me 1997 is a one-of-a-kind unicorn of a drama: it’s a supremely relatable show about how then becomes now, and how now—with the help of our memories and old friends—can become then.

Throughout the map, flashbacks have been marked with dashes—what’s usually seen as the show’s “present day” is flush left, with every subsequent level of flashback marked by a single dash. (In fact, if I were to do this for the whole show, the dash structure would be even more involved—by episode 16 we realize that the true present day is actually February 2013. And then there are the flashbacks to the parents’ teen years in the 1960s . . . !)

Character List
Shi Won = SW
Yoon Yoon Jae = YYJ
Tae Wong = TW
Yoo Jung = YYJ

Episode 1—[Untitled?]
2012/July: Character introductions at the reunion; “Today, at this table, one couple will announce that they’re getting married.”
—1997/April: Character introductions
—1997/April 29: YYJ’s 18th birthday
— —1994/April 29: YYJ’s 15th birthday
— —1995/April 29: YYJ’s 16th birthday
— —1996/April 29: YYJ’s 17th birthday
—1997/April 29: SW gives YYJ coupons for this 18th birthday
— —1990: The funeral of YYJ’s parents
— —1995: YYJ and SW’s middle school graduations
—1997/April 29: TW punishes YYJ at school; SW travels to Daegu to see H.O.T.; the tape and t-shirt fiascos

Episode 2—Things Are Beginning to Change
(Note: * indicates a hypothetical time or date that’s been inserted to make following the sequence easier)

2012/July: The reunion, more hints about the soon-to-be-wed couple and talk about YJ’s impending boob job
— —1997/February: YYJ’s circumcision
—1997/April, 8 pm*: The card game; SW has run away from home
— —1997/April, 6 pm*: SW’s report card arrived; fight with dad (2 hours earlier)
—1997/April, 8 pm*: Back at the card game
— — 1997/April, 11 am*: At school, YYJ makes a bet (9 hours earlier)
—1997/May: YYJ loses the bet
— —1997/April, 11 am*: SW blames YYJ for taking her biology book; YYJ denies it (9 hours earlier)
— —1997/April, 1 pm*: SW and YYJ fight at lunch (7 hours earlier)
— —1997/April, 4 pm*: SW torments YYJ with the frog (4 hours earlier)
—1997/April, 8 pm*: Card game; SW discovers YJ’s poster collection
—Spring of 1997: The kiss
— —Childhood: Flashback montage
—Spring of 1997: The kiss; SW punches YYJ
2012/July: The reunion still more hints about the couple, and discussion of SW and YJ’s friendship

(P.S.: Due to a temporary brain malfunction, some readers got a glimpse of an unedited version of next week’s post this morning. [So embarrassing!] If you’re wondering where that other post went, come back next Tuesday.)


  1. I'm really going to have to get around to watching this show eventually...

    You said 2:00 for our Saturday drama chat right? 2:00 works for me :). I'm stoked!!

    1. I can't decide if you'll love it or hate it—its low-key vibe is a little similar to Shut Up: Flower Boy Band, but on the other hand, it's literally my second favorite drama ever after Coffee Prince, which we both loved. I'll be interested to hear what you think if you ever get around to watching it.

      And 2 EST would be great for me, if it work for you and Sara. Shall we meet over Skype again?

    2. Hmm.. Amanda says it's like SUFBB and Coffee Prince... seriously, if you lead me astray, we are done. Done, I tell you!


      See you gals Saturday at 1 CST!

    3. I don't know why I could never get into SUFBB, I just couldn't get emotionally attached to the characters for some reason. But Answer Me 1997 sounds interesting.

      Skype is okay for me.

    4. Does this mean I'm going to have to remember my pw for Skype? Lol I haven't used it since last time we dramathoned!

    5. Ha ha. I use mine all the time to talk to my brother in China.

      So Amanda, I read that that the rumor is that YEH turned down that role, but I haven't read anything that was from an official source yet. I'm a little relieved even though I would love to see her in a drama soon, I was kind of nervous about it being Mickey Yoochun and the whole premise of the drama. I want her to do a drama with the main guy from Padam, Padam lol. That guy was one of the best kdrama actors I've ever seen. I had read and interview of her over the summer where she said she was doing to choose a project in the later part of this year. Maybe she'll pop up in a drama in the winter.

    6. Ahhhh!! I watched the first 2 episodes of Answer Me 1997 and I am already in love with it. It seems really different from SUFBB to me.

    7. I don't know when I'll even get around to this one anymore. I've been a complete bum today. Meaning - I haven't even watched a single drama episode. Been on the MDL forums for the last 3 days practically, and spent most of the past 2 days just listening to music lol.

    8. I just finished Hana Kimi 2007 and I decided I needed to have something to watch along with the 2011 version so I don't get bored from watching different variations of the same thing 3 times in a row lol.

    9. Hmmm....Skype password. Guess I'd better get on figuring that out ;) (My stupid work e-mail requires that I change my password every six months, and all this variety is *killing* me. I'm used to reusing the same old password everywhere. Which may be stupid, but is soooo easy.)

      I'd love to see YEH back on screen, but I'd love it even more if she would wait to accept a role until she finds one as good as Eun Chan. (Is there such a thing?) I also don't think Yoochin would be a good costar for her—when she's working with someone who's dull, she comes off as dull, too. And what's Yoochin as an actor if not dull? =X

      As for Answer Me 1997, I'm so glad you like it, Julie! I'm still totally obsessed and have one more swooning post about it all ready to go. I think the only real comparison with SUFBB is that it's got a gritty, realistic vibe; its characters don't live in dramaland the way the people on most shows do. Maybe it's partially the difference between something set in Busan and something set in Seoul, though.

  2. And LOLs at your random thought about "Holy crap did you break a rib or something?" HAHAHAHA!!!

    1. Seriously! Based on dramas, secretly cross-dressing is like a national pastime in Korea. So maybe people there always have an eye out for the signs of a girl masquerading as a boy? ;)

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