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‘Reply 1988’: Nostalgic K-Dramas and the Art of Looking Back

By Isabella B. Cho, Contributing Writer

The year is 1988 in Seoul, South Korea. This is the era of choppy bobs, imported Walkmans, and an insatiable obsession with denim, a time when adolescents commiserating over college entrance exams fawned over American actors like Lindsay Wagner and Pierce Brosnan. The world trained its eyes on South Korea as it prepared for the 1988 Summer Olympics. A grinning cartoon tiger danced below the five Olympic rings on t-shirts, magazines, and banners across the country. This was it: the time for the nation to demonstrate its transformation from a war-torn geopolitical proxy into a paragon of modernity. Citizens everywhere held their breath, vaguely aware that they were on the precipice of something monumental.

I’m sprawled on the basement couch of my home in the suburbs of Chicago, eating tangerines with my family as we watch the Korean drama “Reply 1988.” Transported to a time when cell phones were revolutionary and people still used charcoal to start their stoves, I feel deeply nostalgic for an era I never experienced.

During the past years, Korean dramas have expanded into something so much more than a trivial pastime, taking on a cultural and commercial currency of their own. Dramas including “My Love From Another Star,” “Descendents of the Sun,” “Goblin,” and “Crash Landing on You” have catapulted to international stardom, garnering dedicated fans from New York to Brazil to Jakarta. Among these behemoths rises one show that has arguably topped them all in managing to pull mercilessly at the heartstrings of viewers across generations: “Reply 1988.”

“Reply 1988” revolves around five teenagers who have known each other since childhood, chronicling their achingly familiar transition to adulthood. The middle-class neighborhood called Ssangmun-dong, where the majority of the story takes place, meticulously foregrounds the show. From the ancient jeweler’s shop at the street corner to the giant house of the brusque yet warm-hearted Jung-Hwan (Ryoo Joon-Yeol) under which the female protagonist Duk-Sun (Hyeri) lives, each place is engineered to serve a certain purpose that becomes clear as the show progresses. Every small detail — from textbooks and crumbled chip bags to the plastic trophies arranged on dusty cabinets — imbues the characters’ homes with a chaotic, believable immediacy.

What “Reply 1988” does so astoundingly well is to construct a cinematic framework that allows characters — and, by extension, viewers — to engage in dynamic, unpredictable conversation with the past. Though the story begins with the quintet on the cusp of adulthood, the 16-episode series follows their progress through college and, for some, marriage. The show’s linear development is punctuated with video recordings in which the characters, now in their mid-forties, ruminate on their adolescence. The addicting yet maddening aspect of these flash-forwards is that the characters’ nostalgic recollections are kept intentionally vague. As the love triangle between Duk-Sun and two others from the quintet develops, viewers are placed in a state of continual anticipation, scrutinizing the potential meaning behind every gesture.

As portrayed so masterfully in “Reply 1988,” being in conversation with the past is an inevitable part of being human. Whether it be to enlightening or traumatizing effect, people are constantly narrativizing the past, distorting what was into what could have been. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has altered every element of our lives, the most radical change has arguably been its influence on our relationships with the past. The quarantine has forced us to accommodate double lives. Activities that were once exceedingly ordinary have grown to take on profound meaning. Retrospecting from the confines of our homes confers new significance to simpler times when we were ignorant of what was to come. The jarring disruption that is COVID-19 promotes not just retrospection but also, inevitably, nostalgia— an intense longing for the unrealized plans, the stymied resolutions, the spontaneous interactions that were snuffed out before they could even begin.

To contemplate the past is neither inherently good nor bad — it is simply an intrinsic part of attempting to more intimately understand ourselves. What is admirable about “Reply 1988” is its exercise of cinematic restraint. The show extends no specific argument about the function of the retrospective gaze in the construction of identity. Rather, it simply underscores the importance of memory in remembering and creating who we are. Whether the act of looking back is beneficial or destructive, expansive or confining, is a choice reserved for the viewer alone. The show’s reflections on memory as a source of warmth, perspective, and dynamic introspection are an apt reminder in a time when we can’t help but collectively look back at what was and what might have been.

—Isabella B. Cho ’24’s column “Ulterior Visions” explores how the histories and affective complexities embodied in East Asian literature and cinema interact with personal and global notions of time, crisis, and “otherness.”

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