Last weekend, South Koreans either watched or didn’t watch the final episodes of Answer Me 1988, which became the most watched show in Korean cable television history with a whopping 21.6%.
Among that population were two passionate schools of matchmakers waiting impatiently as they ruminated the best husband material for our fair Deok-seon. But they would agree that at the heart of the show is a world of kindness, love, and opportunities for social mobility. Things believed to be absent today but present in a world set almost 30 years ago.
The show creators’ ability to connect to younger viewers lacking first-hand experience or recollection of the decade addressed by the show is remarkable. Gifting people weary of “Hell Joseon” with healthy humor and energy is another feat that other Korean dramas apparently have no idea how to achieve at the moment.
I loved the show and the experience of watching it. The characters played by young, talented actors were extraordinary. The familiar plot of finding out the husband of the female lead left no room for cliffhangers, making the weekly waiting more than manageable. The positive effect of the show is so overwhelming that questioning any aspect of it feels petty. But a blog can be a place for pettiness, right?
There were moments that made me wonder. The first came early on in the show. Bo-ra is a smart young adult who likes to menace her siblings and demand new glasses from her parents but has a golden heart inside.
She criticizes the 1988 Olympics for burdening the poor and reads activist literature. It’s not so serious all the time, however. Bo-ra reprimands the neighborhood teens for consuming American goods. She sings along to a well-known activist tune that kind of freaks out Seon-woo’s mother. Both are delivered in a comical manner. She partakes in an important protest and shocks her parents but then extricates herself when she realizes she would rather be loyal to her mother.
I found the early Bo-ra obnoxious. I think that was because I assumed she represented the student activists from that time period and I couldn’t believe that she, with her angry fits and pretense, could be that young martyr standing and shouting at the forefront for greater causes.
Too bad I am ignorant of the actual people who took lead in those protests and risked their lives. I did not have a stereotype to compare Bo-ra against. Bo-ra, presented as an educated person critical of government initiatives and immersed in progressive literature, quickly assumed that stereotype for me.
It was disappointing that the show chose to highlight the immature and cantankerous side of Bo-ra because this risks leading viewers to generalize such quality to be common to student activists. Were the creators trying to suggest something about the student activists from that time period? Probably not. Of course the student activists are human themselves. Their participation in a protest does not mean that they are responsible and thoughtful in all aspects of life.
It was typical of parents to tell their college-age children to stay out of the political storm even if they believed that the kids were doing the right thing because the repercussions could be grave. For that reason, I don’t think anyone would have blamed Bo-ra if she chose to take on a more passive role.
But the show creators turned her into an important activist who goes out of her way to participate in the occupation of the Minjeong Party headquarters in Episode 5. According to an Ize article, this event was expected to be violent and the participants went in knowing that they would all be arrested. It would have been very unlikely for a female college sophomore to have gone in and come out in one piece. In addition, the event was organized by a group to which Bo-ra’s school Seoul National University did not belong at the time due to an ideological rift. She must have felt very strongly about the event to have joined it on her own and wouldn’t have come back home to hide under a blanket.
Bo-ra would have appeared just as noble without having been a leader whose activist career fizzles out quickly. It is then reasonable to conclude that Bo-ra’s less than realistic activist background was peppered in to hint at the student struggle and the familial concerns of the late 80s rather than capture them in full spectrum. In other words, Bo-ra’s identity as an activist lacks evidence.
But who cares about the veracity of these things anyway? It’s a comedy, not a documentary. At the same time, it’s hard not to wonder about the other student activists, the legitimate ones, and what kind of sister and brother they would have been at home and what had kept them fighting in the front line.
Another moment came toward the end. Even though this drama is about family and giving props to family yada yada yada, at the center of everything is our adorable Deok-seon. It is the voice of Deok-seon that opens and closes the show. But what the heck happened to bringing light to her feelings and thoughts?
Answer Me 1988 goes at length to illuminate Jeong-hwan and Taek’s feelings for Deok-seon. It also documents Deok-seon’s growing interest in Jeong-hwan by getting her to ask him about the blind date, invite him to the Lee Moon-se concert, and give him a pink shirt.
Jeong-hwan’s heartfelt narration in Episode 18 reveals his way of coming to terms with reality. Even though it’s hard to believe, Jeong-hwan seems to have cleared his mind of Deok-seon when he gives Taek a go ahead during their meal in Sacheon. A sense of closure is offered to the boys. But what’s going on in Deok-seon’s mind?
Deok-seon is elated after Taek confesses his love as evidenced by the powerful DS kicks that she showcases in the hotel bed. But at what point does she realize that she also loves Taek? Deok-seon has been kind and motherly to Taek throughout that it is hard to recognize the change in her attitude. I wish the show had let Deok-seon really develop her feelings toward Taek as it did for the boys.
We never find out what Deok-seon thinks about the messy subject of love and friendship that aches the three of them for so long. Deok-seon reveals later that she did not want to ruin her friendship with Taek by bringing up the kiss, so was it at that point in 1989 that Deok-seon starts having feelings for Taek? I am becoming confused myself as I am writing.
While matters of love and feelings are not always clear cut, I wish I knew more about what was going through Deok-seon’s mind all that time, especially between those years not captured by the show. She is special. She is more than just a good friend. More than a good daughter. More than a good wife. More than a cog in a time machine. Even though Deok-seon is not a quiet kid, she grows quieter and more private while the boys get louder and louder. She also appears less vocal than Si-won from 1997 and Na-jeong from 1994.
If I may be petty one last time, I wonder about people whose lives didn’t turn out so well. In the last episode, the five families all move out of Ssangmun-dong, which looks forlorn and will go into redevelopment. We know that the Kims and the Seongs move to Pangyo, rural and affordable then but not anymore now. The kids all have amounted to something socioeconomically. It is such a comfort knowing that these well-meaning ordinary people turned out so well.
But what about the people who didn’t win the lottery? Who didn’t have smart children that married well? Who didn’t save up enough money to buy property in one of the new cities?
Or were they still able to hope for a new opportunity that would lift them out of whatever problem they were having? Maybe yes, maybe no. But no for sure in 2015-2016. A reason that Answer Me 1988 grew to be so dear to many Koreans in the last few months.
Deok-seon, I’m going to miss you and all your buddies and their parents.
Who else is waiting for another addition to the Answer Me/Reply series?