1980s nostalgia and slice of life story drive K-drama hit Reply 1988

Reply 1988, a Korean drama set in the 1990s, is a hit for its slice-of-life plotlines, sense of nostalgia and element of suspense

Korean drama Reply 1988 follows the growing years of five close friends in a Seoul neighbourhood played by (from far left) Lee Hyeri, Ryu Jun Yeol, Park Bo Gum, Lee Dong Hwi and Ko Kyung Pyo.
Korean drama Reply 1988 follows the growing years of five close friends in a Seoul neighbourhood played by (from far left) Lee Hyeri, Ryu Jun Yeol, Park Bo Gum, Lee Dong Hwi and Ko Kyung Pyo.PHOTO: CJ MEDIA
Side characters such as family members, played by (from far left) Sung Dong Il, Lee Il Hwa and Ryu Hye Young, are well fleshed out.
Side characters such as family members, played by (from far left) Sung Dong Il, Lee Il Hwa and Ryu Hye Young, are well fleshed out.PHOTO: CJ MEDIA
Sung Deok Sun.

It has no rich, super-hot, bad-boy male lead waiting to be reformed. No super fashionable female character. No sexy love story.

Instead, Korean drama Reply 1988 features bad hair, high-waisted acid-wash jeans and some old-school family melodrama set in 1980s Seoul.

Bucking the trend, the retro 20-episode television series on cable television channel tvN made Korean television history: Its finale broke records with a rating of 19.6 per cent when it aired in South Korea on Jan 16.

This is a feat for cable TV programmes which usually garner single-digit ratings, especially for tvN, which was set up only 10 years ago.

The series has also become a phenomenon. Its 1980s setting caused a fad for Korean vintage goods, such as the reintroduction of a defunct Crown beer brand, which the characters drank in the show.

In Singapore, the series is airing on cable TV StarHub's VV Drama channel.

While StarHub declined to reveal figures, it said: "Reply 1988 is currently one of the bestperforming titles on VV Drama."

Audiences say they are drawn by the relatable plot about the everyday lives of five middle-class families living in a sleepy Seoul neighbourhood in the 1980s.

Viewer Loh Wanqi, 22, Singapore Institute of Management undergraduate, says: "It's a slice-of-life drama. There are no major events or accidents.

"It isn't easy to make ordinary life interesting, but the director and writer did a brilliant job."

The director is Shin Won Ho and screenwriter Lee Woo Jung, who worked together on two other similar retro drama series.

Reply 1997 (2012) and Reply 1994 (2013) featured different characters and were also set in the past. What they had in common was that audiences were left guessing who the main female character would marry.

Both series were well received and created a following for the Reply franchise.

Nanyang Technological University's Assistant Professor Lee Sang Joon, 42, who has research interest in Korean popular culture, says that Shin and Lee Woo Jung are a golden pairing.

He says: "Lee's unusual background in the field as a variety- show writer - not a trained drama writer - contributed to the trilogy's non-traditional story-telling techniques."

In the past, the screenwriter has worked on hit variety shows such as 2 Days 1 Night and Grandpa Over Flowers.

For the Reply series, Shin and Lee embedded in the trilogy a guessing game that keeps the identity of the female lead's husband under wraps.

Prof Lee adds that because tvN is a relatively new channel, the director also had more room for creativity: "It is a TV drama without a handsome and wealthy heir to a conglomerate."

Indeed, Reply 1988 features an ambitious and addictive plotline that is largely set in the past.

It is packed with red herrings and twists that have left audiences in suspense.

For example, the occasional flashforward shows the adult couple, played by a different set of actors - Lee Mi Yeon and Kim Joo Hyuk.

Fans have scrutinised the adult husband's facial features, mannerisms and interaction with his wife.

Mr Jeremy Nguyen, 21, a student at Lasalle College of the Arts, says: "After each episode, I discuss with my friends. I also go online to discuss with fellow viewers.

"I have been waiting for the ending because the show's plot has been so unexpected."

Actress Eelyn Kok has noticed that her friends are each rooting for his or her favourite candidate online.

Kok, 36, says: "The plot is really well written. One moment you think the female lead likes this guy. Then the next, you start to think otherwise when the drama flashes to the present-day couple."

Another reason viewers are drawn to the series is because of the nostalgia. Period shows set in the 1980s and 1990s are having a moment now, especially by appealing to the childhood memories of the movie-going demographic of 20- and 30somethings.

Last year's Taiwanese blockbuster hit Our Times is a high- school romance set in the 1990s.

Kok, who grew up in the 1980s, says she found the familiarity of the setting in Reply 1988 comforting.

She says: "The teen characters played arcade games and Rubik's Cube. These were all the rage back then.

"I also lived in a small village near the railway tracks at the foot of Bukit Timah Hill. Like the drama's characters, my neighbours were warm and friendly. We didn't lock our doors and visited one another freely."

Scenes showing the "kampung spirit" between the neighbours and family ties were given plenty of airtime in the series.

This has kept the third instalment of the Reply franchise fresh, says staff nurse Denise Chong, 25.

She says: "The previous Reply dramas focused mainly on finding the husband of the female lead and, sometimes, they got really stale."

While Korean idol dramas usually play up the romance between the leads, Reply 1988 screenwriter Lee chose to flesh out the side characters such as family members and neighbours.

Among the more memorable are resident livewire Ra Mi Ran, an auntie who makes no apologies for her loud fashion choices and her voice, and the block's smartest and fiercest kid, Sung Bora, who is actually a softie at heart.

As loyal viewer Ms Loh says: "The writer and director have a way of making the viewers connect with every character. You hear little bits of their stories.

"People complain that the plot is slowing down, but we still watch it because we are so invested in the characters."

As the series draws to an end, viewers are reluctant to bid the neighbourhood goodbye.

Optometrist Marilyn Puah, 28, who has watched all three Reply dramas, is looking forward to a fourth instalment.

She says: "Maybe a Reply 2010? If it is set closer to recent times, we can better relate to it."

•The finale of Reply 1988 airs on VV Drama (StarHub TV Channel 855) this Sunday at 10pm. Reply 1988 will be available on VV Drama on Demand (StarHub TV Channel 857) until Feb 29.

Break Out Stars

Actress Lee Hyeri, 21, who is also a member of K-pop girl group Girl's Day

Reply 1988 character: Sung Deok Sun, thefemale lead whose husband's identity is a mystery.The academically inept high-schooler ends up marrying one of her childhood friends.

It is often hard to distinguish K-popsters that comein a pack. But Lee has made an indelible impression as the bubbly Sung. She has no qualms looking ugly by making funny faces and crying till her mascara runs.

She has not only endeared herself to audiences, but also to advertisers. Since Reply 1988, she has earned six billion won (S$1.19 million) from starring in 13commercials, according to The Korea Times.

Actor Park Bo Gum, 22

Reply 1988 character: Choi Taek, who is the quiet kidwith a soft spot for his childhood friend Sung Deok Sun.He is also the neighbourhood's pride as a championplayer of the traditional board game Baduk.

The bumbling Choi Taek is the dark horse in the raceto be Sung's husband. The awkward lad has eyes onlyfor the Baduk game. He has trouble with simple lifeskills and cannot even tie his own shoelaces.

Yet TV fans cannot get enough of Park.

When the rookie actor held his first fan meet in Seoulearlier this month, more than 3,000 fans showed up.Fans also swamped his homepage till it crashed.

Actor Ryu Jun Yeol, 29

Reply 1988 character: Kim Jung Hwan, who is constantly bickering with Sung Deok Sun. The character's silent charm has grown on viewers andmany are placing their bets on him as the frontrunnerto be Sung's husband.

The role has boosted Ryu's career. He is now seenfronting advertisements for all kinds of products,including bicycles and apparel. He is set to star in a new Korean movie, The King, alongside A-list actor Jo In Sung.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2016, with the headline 'Answer to what audiences want'. Subscribe