Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Favorites: Six Scenes from Answer Me 1997

As always, stolen from the wonderful Drama Queen Tumblr

Although it’s possible to watch and enjoy Answer Me 1997 without a lick of knowledge about Korea in the 90s, this is one of those shows that recaps make a thousand times better: it’s so full of insider details that most Americans are unequipped to fully appreciate it on our own. (That Hak Chan was actually played by a former Sechseis member was a mind-blowing revelation, let me tell you.)

As is so often the case, both Dramabeans and The Vault are great sources of information and discussion about the show. I was especially struck by a comment the Dramabeans recapper made, calling one scene her “favorite thing in a show of favorite things.”  Especially during AM 1997’s first eight episodes, that’s exactly how I felt. It seemed that every scene burrowed its way into my brain as my favorite drama moment ever—only to be immediately supplanted by the one that came next.

So in light of my ongoing obsession, I thought I’d wring one more post out of this show. Thusly, I give you a spoilerific discussion of my six favorite scenes in Answer Me 1997

(P.S.—Spoilers ahoy!)

(P.P.S.—I swear this is my last post about Answer Me 1997 . . . for a while, anyway.)

1. “Tell me not to date her.” (Episode 1, 31:40 in the episode’s Dama Fever running time)
Yoon Jae meets Shi Won on the doorstep of her house, having spent his evening videotaping a television show for her. He tells Shi Won that her best friend asked him out, and pleads with Shi Won to tell him he shouldn’t date the other girl. Eventually, he forks over one of the homemade birthday coupons Shi Won made for him, the one reading “Do anything I want.” “What is your wish?” Shi Won asks. “Tell me not to date her,” Yoon Jae replies.

For viewers my age, this moment is a reminder of the late, great My So-Called Life. That show was full similar scenes almost mystical in their quiet power, each featuring the female lead and her nerdy next-door neighbor chatting on the dark, empty street in front of their houses.

Answer Me 1997’s equivalent is no less amazing: It’s spare and unvarnished and perfectly executed in every way. There’s no Kpop song jangling in the background and no showy overacting, but from the beginning this scene is wistful and lovely and demands a visceral connection from the viewer. It is the stuff of great, era-defining television.

This scene is a marvel for lots of reasons, but perhaps the most amazing are the performances of its teenybop idol stars. Only the tiniest fraction of its story is told in its dialogue; the rest is written on the actors’ faces and effortlessly sketched in their nervous body language. There’s Yoon Jae’s sense of bravery at pushing his relationship to Shi Won into uncharted territory, and his frustration with her for not responding the way he wants. And there’s Shi Won’s reluctance to meet his gaze, as she remains defiantly silent at being asked again and again to do something she’s not sure she’s ready for—or even wants. It’s hard to imagine the most seasoned of drama veterans doing more with so very little.

2. The Kiss (episode 2, 22:42)
Yoon Jae and Shi Won stand in front of their school’s fountain. He’s shirtless and dripping, having just washed up. He catches Shi Won looking at him, and she freezes in place, her gaze trained on the near distance before snapping back to his bare chest. He watches her watch him. 

With his eyes on Shi Won’s face, Yoon Jae takes three slow, purposeful strides until he’s standing directly in front of her. “Confirm,” he says, and leans in to kiss her. After taking a minute to consider the situation, Shi Won kicks him in the shin, hard.

This intense little scene is the backdrop for some insightful voiceover from Yoon Jae. He isolates exactly the problem that will plague his relationship with Shi Won for the foreseeable future: “The law of maturity. A boy becomes a man, and a girl becomes a woman. But if he becomes a man while she is still becoming a woman, the problem lies in that age gap.” In the moment, though, there is essentially no dialogue: It’s another scene that rests almost entirely on the strength of the actor’s faces and body language, and it succeeds spectacularly.

As far as I’m concerned, the ending is what makes this scene truly special. Shi Won isn’t treated as just some faceless Kdrama heroine, waiting for a hero to come along and sweep her off her feet. Instead, she’s an actual person, a human being with her own motivations and desires. The writers gifted this character not only with a great love story, but a rich interior life that exists independently of her relationships with the men in her life.

Like the best moments of Answer Me 1997, this is a scene that’s just as much about the slow, tentative process of coming of age as it’s about romance.

3. At Tony An’s House (episode 3, 2:00)
Shi Won arrives at her idol’s house and finally sees him up close. He tells the horde of girls gathered around his front door to go home; he won’t be coming out again soon. Shi Won doesn’t hear, so of course decides to stick it out on the sidewalk until she can see him again. Cut to a funny montage of her sufferings, with Shi Won becoming sloppier and more exhausted looking with each passing scene: She’s bitten by mosquitoes, spends the night inside a giant cardboard box on the side of the road, is reduced to washing her face the next morning with a wet-nap, and eats ramen for lunch standing in a convenience store. The next night, frustrated at having traveled so far and waited so long, Shi Won breaks down and scales the wall around Tony’s house.

She creeps toward the open front door and peeks inside. Tony’s dog appears, soon followed by its owner. Shi Won is beside herself, and pleads as Tony tries to close the door in her face: “But I came all the way from Busan!” Tony is unimpressed and closes the door, leaving Shi Won alone in the dark. After an initial wave of annoyance, Shi Won begins to blame herself for freaking Tony out by showing up at his door. She disintegrates into self-loathing and tears.

But it seems that Tony isn’t so hard-hearted after all. “Hey, Busan!” He calls, and offers to sign her t-shirt. After discouraging future visits, he makes sure she has bus fare to get home.

“Oppa, I love you,” Shi Won replies, chin to her chest and unable to meet his gaze. Tony affectionately pats her on the head, clearly sympathetic with her plight. Shi Won only sobs pathetically in response.

Shi Won wasn’t the only one who couldn’t make it out of this scene without crying. Like so much about Answer Me 1997, this sequence of events started out as funny but ended up gripping and evocative. And as an added bonus, it doesn’t resort to ridicule for laughs: instead, it emphasizes with both Shi Won and her idol.

Most reviewers point out that AM 1997 feels like something written by someone who genuinely experienced the emotions it portrays, and for me this scene is exhibit A. After you’ve watched enough of them, every Kdrama can start feeling like the same show—they often feature identical, regurgitated scenes and star the same few stock characters. But the moment in Tony An’s garden was something utterly new and different: it was a drama scene that replicated real life, not another drama scene.

To a civilian, Shi Won’s breakdown at finally talking with her idol probably seems bizarre. But as someone who’s been Shi Won, it’s clearly the most natural reaction ever: Human being just aren’t designed to contain that much emotion without cracking. Shi Won cried because she was tired and dirty and far from home, and also because she’d just invaded her beloved’s personal space, something she knew was wrong but absolutely could not stop herself from doing. More importantly, though, she cried because for that one moment, her two worlds were colliding: The interior one where she lived as “Tony’s wife,” and the exterior one where she was nothing more than a rank-and-file member of H.O.T.’s Busan fanclub.

This deftly observed scene from a fangirl’s life is a prime example of what’s so great about the first half of Answer Me 1997. It’s a show about a specific time and place, but it’s also a show about every time and place. It doesn’t matter if their boyband of choice was H.O.T. or the Backstreet Boys or the Beatles—for thousands of girls from every walk of life in every country, Shi Won’s experience of desperate, unattainable love is as familiar as her own childhood home.

4. “At first I was so desperate I couldn’t breathe.” (Episode 6, 38:00)
Shi Won’s mother has ducked out of her husband’s hospital room, where he awaits news about his recent cancer diagnosis and surgery. She goes to the payphone, where she places her second call to writer of the drama that the patients in the cancer ward were obsessed with—until it took a turn for the tragic, and the male lead was diagnosed with cancer. 

Shi Won’s mom explains her family’s situation to the writer’s answering machine, but acknowledges that even in this horrible time in her life, a television show could still make her laugh. “Miss writer,” she says, tears glistening in her eyes. “Do you know how powerful you are? Some patients receive cancer treatments for five hours. Others have terminal cancer. But when your drama is on they all gather around to watch it. . . . But when he got cancer, all the laughter disappeared from our ward. Miss Writer. . . . Don’t see it as a crazy woman’s request. Couldn’t you save his life just once? Couldn’t you show people that they can get over cancer? That they can live happily ever after?”

Wonderfully staged and acted, this is a scene of real depth and insight, a grace note in a drama full of perfect moments. No matter what country it’s filmed in, shows that are intended for a specific audience often lose sight of the rest of the human experience. In teenage love stories, grownups become bad guys and obstacles to overcome. But just like its American predecessor My So-Called Life, Answer Me 1997 allows its adults to be characters just as fully formed as its young leads, with their own personalities and flaws and gifts. A good drama would have used the illness of Shi Won’s dad as an opportunity to explore their relationship as father and daughter. This great drama did that and more—it made time to turn a sympathetic eye toward the suffering of Shi Won’s mom.

Her phone calls to the nameless, faceless drama writer are the acts of a powerless woman who’s terrified to lose her husband. In asking for a reprieve for the drama’s sick lead character, Shi Won’s mom is doing more than just looking for a way to cheer up the cancer ward. In the absence of a direct line to God, she’s asking the most all-powerful being she can reach to change the story, to make it end happily instead of with tragedy. This is not the standard Kdrama cancer porn; instead it’s a genuine exploration of human emotion.

I have to say that I wasn’t delighted when Shi Won’s dad fell ill. Cancer diagnoses are a dime a dozen in Korean dramas, and they’re hardly ever used as something other than a cheap ploy for tears. (I was glad that the show had at least already established he would live by showing him in the opening scene set in 2012.) But Answer Me 1997 didn’t dwell on the illness of this key character, or use it toward mawkish ends. Instead, it was a chance to flesh out all the drama’s characters, and yet another beautifully drawn step on Shi Won’s reluctant journey to adulthood.

5. Porn Kingpins (episode 8, 1:00)
“This is no ordinary VHS tape,” Sung Jae boasts to his classmate during study hall, trying to seal the deal on some contraband porn. Hak Chan sits behind him casually flipping through a girlie magazine. Sung Jae does the hard sell: “[This tape contains] sixty minutes, fifty-one seconds that will drive young men crazy . . .  without unnecessary interruptions!” Cut to Hak Chan at home, painstakingly cueing up naughty scenes on a video, pulling out the tape, and hand-cutting the film to edit out the boring plot parts.

Ah, youthful entrepreneurship! This is a lighthearted moment played for laughs, which also happens to function as an ode to the low-tech world of 1997. Beyond that, though, it’s an exercise in character building. Lesser comedies might make a nod toward less-than-savory boyish pastimes, but Answer Me 1997 goes all out. Porn doesn’t just act as a punchline, and it doesn’t occur in a vacuum—it’s depicted as an undercurrent running through teenage life throughout the show, adding depth and nuance to the characterizations of its secondary players. Hak Chan spends his time alone manufacturing porn bombs, so of course he’s awkward and uncomfortable around real girls. And Sung Jae, ever the talker, will go on to use the skills he’s honing in this scene to sell insurance. This level of real-life detail and consistency is yet another thing that makes Answer Me 1997 so special. (For an interesting counterpoint, read the review of this show at Daily KTJ Drama.)

6. The Hug (episode 16, 35:00)
After handing the last of his stuff to a mover, Joon Hee returns to the apartment he shared with Yoon Jae for one final look to be sure that he hadn’t left anything behind. Yoon Jae catches him unaware, walking up to quietly say, “So what if you leave something? I can bring it to you.” “Do well on your test,” Joon Hee replies. It’s an awkward moment, filled with things unsaid on both sides. Joon Hee reaches out to put an encouraging hand on Yoon Jae’s shoulder. “Bye.” As he turns to walk away, Yoon Jae calls Joon Hee’s name and walks to his side, cautiously wrapping an arm around his neck, a silent acknowledgment of everything they’d shared.

Like most of this drama’s greatest moments, this scene is quiet, tender, and slow. It doesn’t rely on showy acting or makjang plot twists, and it’s all the more powerful for its understated, real-life vibe. When Yoon Jae wraps his arms around Joon Hee, it’s another version of the scene with Shi Won and her dad on the bus to Seoul. The hug is more than a sign of affection—it’s also a gesture of protection. It’s as if Yoon Jae wants to shield his friend from the world outside, where he might not be seen and appreciated for who he is.

In a lot of ways, the most wrenching relationship in Answer Me 1997 is the one between Yoon Jae and Joon Hee. This show’s primary love triangle follows Kdrama tradition, with one twist: the center angle is a boy, and so is the second lead who vies for his affections. (This means, of course, that cantankerous Shi Won is the equivalent of the standard male lead—nasty, but still the obvious winner from the beginning.)

Paired with the mysterious sports car toward the end of episode 16, this scene shows AM 1997’s open-minded willingness to accept loves of all stripes, even when they’re not considered socially acceptable. Yoon Jae never acts disgusted by his friend’s unrequited love, and never mocks him or makes light of his mislaid affection. Instead, he supports Joon Hee, seemingly appreciating just what a hard path Joon Hee has in front of him. It’s a beautiful moment of friendship and brotherhood, one that it’s hard to imagine most dramas finding time to include.

Whether Joon Hee is actually gay is never resolved, maybe as a way to avoid the negative opinions many Koreans still seem to have about homosexuality. But Answer Me 1997 is too big-hearted and generous not to give him his own happy ending: there’s someone driving that red car in the finale, after all. I’m hoping it’s the love of his life, whichever gender the driver may be.


  1. I loved all of those scenes, but I especially loved "The Hug." That is a real friendship. Like you said, instead of acting uncomfortable and avoiding him he recognizes how difficult it has been for him and shows him that he still cares for him deeply. This scene made me cry. I just adored Joon Hee!!

    1. I loved him, too. But then again, I loved *everyone* in this cast. So you must have finished watching the show if you've seen the hug—did you like? I look forward to reading your review.

      (And why is it that I always want to type "the huge"? Very weird.)

  2. I was never a fangirl of a boy group, so I couldn't connect as deeply to Shi-won as a character as you did, but the drama was so awesome I ended up loving everyone anyways. My favorite scenes:

    * Yoon-jae and Shi-won's first kiss and her subsequent beatdown: you've pretty much covered everything except--Seo In Guk shirtless and dripping wet. Eye candy ftw.

    * The entirety of the "Shi-won uses H.O.T slashfic to get into college" storyline. From the awkwardness of her teacher reading the fic aloud in class, to Tae-woong and Yoon-jae reading it to Shi-won trying to take off Yoon-jae's pants for good luck ,to Shi-won rereading her old fic as an adult and finding them atrocious. I laughed so hard.

    * Yoo-jung cutting off her hair to match Shi-won after their fight. Can I say how much I love that despite all the love triangles, none of the parties were catty or mean?

    * Shi-won's parent's reluctantly sending her off on the bus to college (and adulthood). Such a simple scene, no dramatics or people dying or anything, but it had me in tears.

    * Shi-won's total support for Joon-hee after his coming out. I loved them becoming even closer friends, her sneakily setting Joon-hee and Yoon-jae up on a date, apologizing for the love triangle mess in the hospital stairwell. As immature and obsessive as Shi-won can be, she is great at those things that matter.

    ...and I can think of so many other great scenes, but the list is getting long. *goes off for a rewatch*

    1. I love your list of favorites, and a number of them almost showed up on my list, too—especially Yoo-jung's haircut and the fanfic business. I spent most of 1997 writing smutty bandfic, so that was another aspect of myself I saw in Shi Won. I was pretty resentful about the college thing, though! I think the fan fiction community made me a better writer and a more confident person, but it sure didn't get me into college. Or on the New York Times bestseller list, unlike some people. (Damn you, Fifty Shades of Gray.)

      Also, I'm pretty sure it's against international law for someone as old as me to drool over someone as young as Seo In Guk. So I left that bit out, lest I get arrested ;)

      I think it's telling, though, that most people's favorite scenes come from early in the show.

  3. Just for the record, Amanda: I hope you don't get over your passion for this show for a long while yet.. because... Then what am I going to do???? I really should have watched this sooner. And so many times this week I planned on finishing it, and life just.. intruded. Grrrr.

    I love all these scenes. The first one you mentioned especially. It was about 1am, and I'd just downed an entire (and very large) glass of wine because I'm weird.. and have insomnia unless I do something it.. but insead of going to sleep, I pulled out my ipad and started this show... I actually stopped it in the middle of that scene, after the third "You should I date her?" and sat there staring at the screen thinking to myself, "What on earth has this show done to me..!" I'm a wreck after only 30 minutes!! I actually put it away right then, and went to sleep because I thought if I kept going I would stay up all night.

    And so began the love affair. I do think you're right in that the second half was a tad bit slower and less cohesive as a whole. The myriad of love triangles, though cliche, were at least so well done that I can forgive just about anything.

    I can barely even talk about YoonJae/JoonHee... I know we Kdrama fans love our bromances, but their relationship was soo much more than that. I had chills during the scene where Yoon Jae overheard Shi Won talking on the phone, and all the following scenes with him reminiscing on all the times Joon Hee apparently loved him, or was trying to tell him. Yoon Jae's expression that is part astonishment, part agony over the pain he's obviously been causing Joon Hee all these years had me sobbing, quite loudly too.

    As for the more standard love triangle, I was initially annoyed over it. I was frankly shocked when Shi Won actually started dating Tae Woong in high school, and heartbroken that Yoon Jae gave up so easily. His confession scene though in the noraebang took the wind out of me.. twice! (I had to rewind as I'd been interrupted mid-scene), particularly in how they ended up. Most dramas use scenes like that (when you EVER GET a phenomenal scene that like) as a catalyst to either making out or fits of tears and hysterics. What I most liked about it: the quietness; YoonJae slowly breaking down, and his sheer honesty, everything he's been bottling up for years; Shi Win's stone cold face, that in any other actress in any other drama I would say was a lack of acting ability, but in AM 1997 is actually a mark of how much her character is freaking out inside; her insistence on remaining friends, and his line: "When a man, to his first love, is pathetically pouring out his heart, it means he never wants to see her again." Followed up with.. 6 years of separation. As painful to me as that separation is, I can't believe the show actually let Yoonjae do what he was planning on doing at that moment, which is to let her go and never actually see her.. PHew.

    Ok maybe I'm still a wreck about this.. I just, can't believe how awesome it all was..

    1. ::jumps up and down with glee:: You loved it, too!

      Answer Me 1997 was so good and I loved it so much that it actually made me have a moment of panic—what if I had never gotten into Korean drama, and therefore spent the rest of my life without seeing it? Most Kdramas are fun to watch and easy to forget, but these characters are going to be living in my head and heart right along with Eun Chan and Han Gyul from Coffee Prince. Everything about Answer Me 1997 was just so understated and lovely that it makes every other show pale in comparison.

      I was also a little weirded out by Shi Won and Tae Woong dating. It was understandable, though: she was still just a kid on the inside and thought of it as playing around, and to him it was like having a little bit of Shi Won's sister back in his life.

      Here's hoping the new trend in Kdrama is fabulous, insightful writing, great direction, and idol stars who can actually act ;)

    2. Oh my that would be a trend I could get on board with. This show blew so many others out of the water that its hard to tell if it'll be surmountable or a crazy-awesome fluke of nature.

    3. I suspect it's the exception that proves the rule ;)

      On the bright side, though, those cable networks are really doing great things these days. Maybe they've got another Answer Me 1997 up their sleeve.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Hello. I eventually decided to translate this post which, to my understanding, reflects your polished thoughts on the show. So is posted at an 'fan-cafe' of the drama; http://cafe.daum.net/Reply1997/FLxh/58. I have to say that I had a chance to re-watch each scene and to absorb new impression previously overlooked. For instance, 'the Hug' scene approached me with new light emphasizing Yun-jae's sincere regard to his ex-mate. I knew he liked Joon-hee or had least sense of respect, but was not aware of his will to protect him. Besides, the show seems like an endless fountain of meanings; after reading another review it unveils new meanings. So I'll go on to scavenge new ideas around. And definitely I hope to learn from your insight near future again!

    1. I think it's really cool that you translated this post into Korean :) As someone who speaks only English, I'm always impressed by anyone who knows multiple languages well enough to be writing in them.

      One of the best things about this show is that in every scene, every character has their own motivation, even if it's not really a scene "about" them. That really comes out in the Yun-jae hug. You can look at it from either perspective: at the same time, it's a scene about being hugged by your crush and a scene about watching your best friend suffer.

      Thanks so much for translating this, and for sharing!

  6. Nice review! :-)the reply 1997 just got me fever these days...and keep me googling for the news.. i finished watch this drama in two days. though i know i'm too late for such beautiful drama... but u know better late than never...

  7. To be honest, as much as I love this drama, I still can't relate with Shi Won 'cause I'm not as crazy and dumb as her._. Even in real life, there's no way I will befriend a girl like her. And that's why I'm almost skip this drama 'cause I personally think that Shi Won was really annoying. But in the end, I like Eunji's acting and the comedy. I often watch rom-com K-Dramas, but I feel the comedy is so unfunny and corny. But AM 1997 is so awesome! It balanced the comedy, romance, and drama, and friendship & romance. Anyway, nice review :)

  8. How many minutes, does this drama run per episode?

  9. I am sooo late on this, but it's my favourite drama ever (with subsequent every-half-year rewatches), and I've LOVED reading your thoughts on it. I'd add two scenes: Sun Jae changing the grandma's lightbulb, and the moment Yoon Jae and Shiwon meet again. I have NO idea what it is about that scene, in retrospect it isn't particularly brilliant or showy or even spectacularly, touchingly understated as are the rest of the 'big' moments in these characters' lives, but there's just *something* about it that gives me goosebumps that won't go away. The instant she turns her head at the realization -- I'm a goner. Oh, and how could I forget THE Yoon Jae/Shiwon line (and both incredible scenes that accompany it) -- "Friends? Are you kidding me?" The entirety of episode 12 deserves a place in the Kdrama Hall of Fame.

  10. As far as I know, he never actually came out to Yoon. Yoon just shrugs Kang off like he doesn't actually mean "I'm gay and I love you".

    Where did the part about Shiwon setting up the two on a date?

    Also, he's gay because he went to that shop to buy HOT merch.

  11. I love this!!!! The drama was presented differently and as you said a lot of the story was shared through their actions and reactions.

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