Episode 1: “Eighteen”
July 2012, Seoul. A mother and father are dancing and singing to an old Korean ballad at a noraebang (Korean karaoke) while their daughter is crouched by the machine, frantically looking for a song to sing before time runs out on their reservation. The father instructs the daughter to pick a “good” song with a palatable melody; none of that English-infused gibberish. He laments- “Old songs were so good.” Unfortunately, “old” doesn’t mean the same thing for his daughter. She picks a song from her youth, “Candy” by the 1990s K-Pop idol group, H.O.T. Fangirl Lesson 1: Always sing your favorite group’s song at noraebang.
The girl is our heroine, Sung Shi-Won (Jung Eun-Ji), 33 years-old and a television writer, going on ten years. She narrates that despite the ten years, she’s actually done very little writing; most of the time she is busy sucking up to her superiors and gathering various props for variety shows. However, she is not unhappy with this kind of life. There are small moments of happiness, such as when she hears a song from her youth.
Sung Shi-Won enters a restaurant, narrating that while she can’t physically go back into the 1990s, she can do it spiritually. Inside, Shi-Won is greeted by her high school friends- this is a reunion in Seoul for Busan Kwang-Ahn High School graduates. Shi-Won noticeably still speaks with a Busan-dialect accent while her friends seems to have adopted the Seoul-speak fully.
Shi-Won sits across a girl named Jang Dan-Ji. She was a fangirl of H.O.T.’s leader, Moon Hee Jun. Shi-Won asks Dan-Ji if she is tired of that hairstyle. The parted-bangs-slicked-down-the-side-of-your-face look is something that Moon Hee Jun was known for, a style he still pursues till this day. While Dan-Ji’s bias was Moon Hee Jun, Shi-Won was a “Ahn Seung Bu In,” a designation for fans of Tony Ahn, another member of H.O.T. (“Bu In” means wife and Ahn Seung-Ho was Tony Ahn’s real name.)
Another girl comes in and sits next to Shi-Won. It is Mo Yoo-Jung (Shin So-Yool), Shi-Won’s best friend from high school. Yoo-Jung comments, like Jang Dan-Ji, that it looks like Shi-Won gained some weight. Oh Koreans and their culturally different standard of socially acceptable commentary. Shi-Won tells us in a voice over that Yoo-Jung is a “Ship-Sa-Bba” (an acronym for the phrase that means her fangirl biases changes easily and quickly.) Three months ago, Yoo-Jung was in love with Kim Soo Hyun; one month ago with Park Yoochun; and now with Infinite. Ha! This girl sounds like a popularity gauge. The person she is in love with is the celebrity most hot at that moment. Fangirl Lesson 2: Don’t worry about your biases changing. Just know that if you’re gonna fangirl, fangirl hard.
In comes four boys, all dressed in black and walking like they are F4, sans the glittery backlight- The subtle/delicate Kang Joon-Hee (Hoya), the talking Bang Sung-Jae (Lee Shi-Un), the charismatic Do Hak-Chan (Eun Ji-Won) and the prickly Yoon Yoon-Jae (Seo In-Gook). Fangirl Lesson 3: Make sure you pay attention to your real surroundings. There could be a hottie secretly in love with you. Turns out the boys are color coordinated because they all went to a funeral for one of their teachers.
Yoon-Jae looks over to Shi-Won and asks, “Did you gain weight?” Shi-Won gives him the stink eye. Sung-Jae wants a group picture so they all pose. Shi-Won lets us know in a voice-over that one couple at this reunion will announce their engagement that night.
We see an old desktop with the ancient blue command screen. The words “Answer Me 1997” are typed in as a command.
It’s April 1997 in Busan. Our core group of friends, minus Hak-Chan, are at Shi-Won’s house, playing Dance Dance Revolution. Shi-Won abruptly shuts off the game to record the an episode of “Star Docu(mentary)” which is showing a tour of Tony Ahn’s room. Shi-Won is ecstatic to see that Tony has received her teddy-bear gift. She definitely knows it’s hers because she had stitched the initials “TN <3 SW.” While Yoo-Jung squeals with her, the three boys watch in grumpy silence. Fangirl Lesson 4: Watch everything your favorite celebrity is on. Who knows, they might actually sleep with the gift you sent them.
Shi-Won’s dad enters the house and starts berating her daughter for wasting her time fangirling someone who looks like a monkey. Shi-Won angrily denies that her oppa looks like a monkey. Fangirl Lesson 5: Defend your oppa’s integrity. No one shall make fun of your oppa. Not even the people who feed, clothe, and house you.
It’s the morning of April 29 and Yoon-Jae finds a gift box on the coffee table in the living room. The message on the card simply reads, “Happy Birthday, Yoon Yoon-Jae” without any indication of who the gift is from. The gift itself is a Guess shirt. Yoon-Jae is happy at first, but then he remembers all the other birthdays in which he received “name brand” clothing and back bags that always fell short of, you know, actually being name brand.
Yoon-Jae wears the shirt cautiously under his uniform but his doubt is abated when Shi-Won confirms that it is the real thing. It seems like Shi-Won’s house is like Yoon-Jae’s second home as he comfortably enters and sits at the Sung household’s breakfast table. Shi-Won’s mother has made seaweed soup for breakfast, as it is tradition to eat the soup on your birthday in Korea. Shi-Won’s dad complains about the soup stock being made of fish; in fact, a fish head is floating in his soup. Shi-Won’s mom explains that this is how you make it in Busan; he should be grateful that he and Yoon-Jae share the same birthday, otherwise there would have been nothing.
Mom calls for Shi-Won to come eat breakfast but Shi-Won refuses to come out of her Tony Ahn poster plastered bedroom to eat with someone she doesn’t know. It looks like Shi-Won still hasn’t gotten over the fact that her dad called her oppa a monkey. Shi-Won addresses her dad as “ajusshi”- a stranger undeserving of filial recognition. Fangirl Lesson 6: Deny thy father; Deny thy mother; Deny all those that dare to make fun of your oppa.
Shi-Won eventually comes out of her room and hands over a perforated piece of paper to Yoon-Jae. It’s his birthday gift and like every year, it’s eight “coupons” that Yoon-Jae can use on Shi-Won anytime during the year. In the past he had used to have her make him laugh when both his parents died, borrow her parents for his junior high school graduation, and use her poop to bring for a medical examination. (Can someone tell me what medical test requires poop?)
This year, there is a theme to the coupons. It “unconditionality.” Shi-Won has to unconditionally:
- Provide a piggy-back ride.
- Not be angry at him.
- Let him borrow.
- Say “Yes.”
- Grant him a wish.
Damn, those are some awesome “coupons.” Wish I had those.
This is the era of cassette tapes and Shi-Won’s classmates are listening to their Walkmans, while doing their homework, and chatting. Shi-Won and her friends are sitting around and talking yesterdays “Star Docu.” Outside the classroom window behind Shi-Won are Yoon-Jae and Yoo-Jung sitting a bench. Yoo-Jung looks embarrassed while Yoon-Jae sits quietly.
It’s lunchtime and the five friends are all sitting together eating instant ramyun, except everyone has their own style. Shi-Won is adding chips into her ramyun, Yoo-Jung is adding milk, Sung-Jae is cracking an egg, and Jun-Hee puts tuna in his ramyun. They each offer Yoon-Jae their additional ingredient but Yoon-Jae begs, “Can we please just eat this normally?” Shi-Won asks if Yoon-Jae is “PMS-ing” but he, in a display of how close they are, just uses his saliva to wipe off a stain on her cheek.
Shi-Won asks Yoon-Jae to record the last episode of “Star In My Heart” for her. She has to go the city of Daegu tonight to attend the recording of the radio show “Byul Bam” in which H.O.T. is making a guest appearance. Yoon-Jung doesn’t know whom to choose; it’s between seeing Kangta, the lead singer of H.O.T., or Ahn Jae Wook, the hero of “Star in My Heart.” I know how you feel girl. For me it was choosing between a magazine with Ahn Jae Wook or H.O.T. on the cover. Can you guess who won?
While Sung-Jae makes fun of Yoo-Jung, our delicate Joon-Hee comments that he finds Choi Jin-Shil very cute in “Star in My Heart.” Aw, he watches dramas too! Joon-Hee wants to know what Shi-Won is going to do about the mandatory late-night study period. She assures him that she has it all figured out.
Cut to Shi-Won asking her the male teacher in charge of monitoring the late night study period, Yoon Tae-Woong (Song Jong Ho), if he knows what it feels like to have a period. It’s like something is scratching her uterus. Tae-Woong, looking very uncomfortable, just tells her to go home.
It’s late night study period and the boys are anything but studying quietly. Tae-Woong comes in and yells at them to be quiet. When he leaves, Yoon-Jae’s friends start to talk about Tae-Woong. Apparently, he’s only nice to girl class and he himself thinks he is good looking. Yoon-Jae think Tae-Woong looks like a girl. Sung-Jae says that rumor has it that the Tae-Woong was Busan’s top-student back in the day. But look at him now, he’s only a high school teacher instead of a lawyer or judge. The other guy adds that his mom told him it was because Tae-Woong’s family couldn’t afford to send him to Seoul.
Shi-Won and Yoo-Jung are at the broadcast studio dressed in the official H.O.T. fanclub white coats with the fanclub name stamped on the back, “Club H.O.T.”
Sung-Jae is annoying Yoon-Jae when Joon-Hee notices the Guess T-shirt that Yoon-Jae is wearing. Sung-Jae asks if the shirt real and Yoon-Jae proudly shows off his shirt. Unfortunately, Shi-Won was wrong. The Guess logo has a question mark on it, not an exclamation mark. Yoon-Jae is completely embarrassed.
The boys are kicking up a fuss when Tae-Woong enters the room, angry at the continued ruckus. He calls out for the class president, which is revealed to be Yoon-Jae, and informs him that as a leader, Yoon-Jae should have been keeping his fellow classmates quiet. The teacher asks how many hits Yoon-Jae wants and proceeds to beat him ten times like Yoon-Jae said. Unfortunately, this was quiet common in Korean schools back then, so famously H.O.T. released a song that criticized corporal punishment in schools, called “We Are the Future.” A lot of idol groups back then released similar types of songs as they were trying to establish themselves as the voices of youth.
Shi-Won and fangirls are screaming their heads off at the radio show while H.O.T. is dancing off-screen to their debut song, “Warrior’s Descendant” (which was about bullying in school). Shi-Won has the whole choreography down, alternating between crying, screaming, dancing, and singing along. Fangirl Lesson 7: Master the art of multi-tasking as you will be required to scream, babble, type, sing, cry, dance, and take pictures all at the same time when you fangirl.
Yoon-Jae is at Shi-Won’s house, ready to record “Star in My Heart.” (Seriously, I scream as I hear the opening song to that drama. Oh my god, the nostalgia.) Shi-Won’s mom brings out a tub of kimchi-jeon (Korean kimchi pizza) batter that looks like it will feed a few dozen families, except it’s meant just for the Sung household.
Poor Yoon-Jae is stuck watching Shi-Won’s mom fangirl over Ahn Jae Wook singing “Forever.” (Hee. I always sing this song at noraebang.) Shi-Won, on the other hand, is having the time of her life answering every trivia question about Tony Ahn at the radio show and winning gift certificates. Unfortunately, she gets the last question wrong because she didn’t finish listening to the question and loses out on getting Tony Ahn’s T-shirt perfumed with his sweat.. Instead, Yoo-Jung wins the prize.
On the way home, Yoo-Jung offers Shi-Won the T-shirt; after-all she is Moon Hee Jun’s fangirl, not Tony’s. Shi-Won is happily sniffing the T-shirt when Yoo-Jung informs her that she confessed to Yoon-Jae that morning. Although Yoon-Jae didn’t give her an answer yet, Yoo-Jung wants to know if it’s okay with Shi-Won if they date. Shi-Won doesn’t know why Yoo-Jung would think she would be bothered; and wasn’t Yoo-Jung in love with their teacher the day before yesterday? Yoo-Jung explains that the teacher is too old but Yoon-Jae is perfect; he’s smart, mature, and athletic. “Really?” Shi-Won asks. She doesn’t see that.
Shi-Won meets Yoon-Jae coming out of her house. Yoon-Jae informs her that Yoo-Jung confessed to him. He asks what he should do. Yoon-Jae asks, “Should I not date her?” but Shi-Won just answers with her own question, “Why are you asking me?” So Yoon-Jae just asks once again, twice again, “Should I not date her?”
Shi-Won can’t answer. Yoon-Jae tears off a birthday coupon and hands it to Shi-Won. This one reads, “Unconditionally grant a wish.”
Shi-Won: “What’s your wish?”
Yoon-Jae: “Tell me not to date her.”
Shi-Won’s mom places the huge stack of kimchi-jeon on the table. Shi-Won asks for soy sauce as she turns on the recording of “Star in My Heart.” When Mom brings in a large dish of soy sauce, Shi-Won hilariously complains, with the huge stack of kimchi-jeon in the background, “Don’t you know how to control the amount?”
Yoon-Jae comes home and grumpily runs into Tae-Woong, who turns out to be Yoon-Jae’s older brother, coming out of the shower. In stark contrast to the authoritative teacher figure in school, at home Tae-Woong is gentle lamb who is scared of his own younger brother. He tries to apologize for the beating at school but Yoon-Jae doesn’t want to hear any of it. He angrily stomps into his room but quickly comes out again to yell at Tae-Woong for not even knowing the difference between a question mark and an exclamation point.
Shi-Won and Mom are finishing up the final episode of “Star In My Heart” and Mom comments that Ahn Jae Wook’s career is going to rocket off with this drama while Cha In-Pyo fades. Which was exactly what happened. Shi-Won is about to shut off the VCR when the screen fuzzes in and out to reveal that Yoon-Jae had copied over the recording of “Star Docu” that showed Tony Ahn with Shi-Won’s gift. Shi-Won lets out a feral scream. Yoon-Jae is going to die, isn’t he? Fangirl Lesson 8: Hell hath no fury like a fangirl deprived of her oppa.
Yoon-Jae is crying underneath the pillows while his brother is outside his bedroom door, trying to apologize for hitting him. He didn’t know Yoon-Jae was the president of that class.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, Yoon-Jae doesn’t realize his beeper is going off with Shi-Won’s death threat. The beeper message alternately reads “18181818” and “4444444.” (Eighteen in Korean sounds very close to a curse word and four in Korean is read as “sa,” which is how you read the Hanja for “death.” So basically “44444444” means “Die.”)
Shi-Won narrates, “The butt that got hit for the first time by his older brother. My torn heart that is like the broken video tape.”
Yoo-Jung, lovelorn at her end, is listening continuously to Yoon-Jae voice through the prompt on his beeper.
Shi-Won sits in her living room crying as her future self narrates, “The age when it seemed like you could love anyone and you would risk everything for the smallest thing. Eighteen. Adults often say that our age is when we would even laugh at a leaf blowing by, but at that age, we were serious, intense, and our lives were as difficult as any adult’s. 1997, our eighteen years of age was starting that way.”
Shi-Won wakes up, happy-face, a night’s rest washing away the troubles of yesterday until she see that her mom has washed Tony Ahn’s shirt. “Oppa’s smell of sweat!” Her face is a hideous mess again as the teenager throws a temper, also wearing a fake Guess shirt.
Oh the trials and tribulations of fangirling.
A solid first episode. While there is nothing about this drama that is new or narratively exciting, the pace is good and the writing and acting so far is competent. I was looking forward to this drama as soon as I heard that it was going to be about a H.O.T. fangirl as I was one too. While it was touted as a drama about 1990s fan culture, the production staff emphasized in interviews that the drama was also about youth and romance. I think the fan culture will mostly be revealed in the details but won’t have too much narrative relevance to the overall story. I can see this being set up more as a youth drama with all the excitement and heartbreak that only teenagers can experience as some friendship blossoms into love and some are tested by love. And that makes me a happy camper. It’s almost like reading those famous Korean internet novels that were written by young girls, which melo-dramatized high school romance and made me wish that my school was full of hot boys. Except this drama doesn’t have that melo-dramatic tone. It’s actually very light without being superficial, like a slice-of-life drama.
I’m glad that this drama is set in Busan instead of Seoul, like every other drama, and the characters are using Busan dialect. Except it means that some words are lost on me, as Korean dialects differ enough in vocabulary to sometimes make no sense to the unfamiliar. So far though, except the dialect, nothing about this drama marks it as a drama set in Busan. I wonder if the writer just set this is Busan because she is from Busan herself or because if you place your characters in Busan, they have more time for their personal lives because they can’t constantly stalk their oppas or unnies in Seoul. FYI, the writer for this drama was born in 1984, which means she is really writing about the time of her youth. I feel such camaraderie with her even though I wasn’t in Korea during the 1990s.
The most exciting part about this first episode was seeing and hearing all the 1990s references like music in the background, the props, hairstyles, and clothing. I’m excited to see how much about Korean culture during that time we can learn about. I really want to thank my parents for keeping me in touch with Korean culture even though I lived in the U.S., so that I can be nostalgic about both H.O.T. and the Backstreet Boys. Although, my heart was always in Korea…my AOL screename had Tony Ahn’s name in it. Everyone always wondered why a girl had a boy’s name for her web ID.
The funny thing is that I wasn’t a Tony Ahn fangirl to begin with. Kangta was my favorite as a I had a soft spot for lead singers back in the day but when I became friends with a Korean girl who just immigrated from Korea and was a ardent fangirl of Kangta, she informed me that two friends couldn’t like the same guy in the group. As I wasn’t as passionate about the whole thing as she was, with her piles of magazine and video tapes full of H.O.T. singing and dancing on television, I switched to the guy I liked second best, Tony Ahn. Oh, the delicate nature fangirl politics.
A couple of notes:
This series also had an episode zero but it was a character introduction and behind-the-scenes episode that was not part of the overall story so I decided not to recap that episode.
This series will air for eight weeks, once a week on Tuesday, with two episodes playing back to back. As my eyes are about to pop out of their sockets, I only recapped the first episode tonight.
This drama has been circulating the web with various titles such as “Reply 1997” and “Answer to 1997.” I think the Korean title more closely translates to to “Answer me 1997” so I will be using that title instead.
The recap style is slightly different from my recaps for Queen In-Hyun’s Man. Those recaps were closer to transcriptions, like the ones Softy does over at Cadence, and they are just too time-consuming to be continued.
Club H.O.T. arguably started the K-Pop organized fandom culture in which there were official memberships, hierarchy, and organized support. While there were always fandoms, the founding of Club H.O.T. marked a new relationship between fans and the company that produced the idols. Fans became an integral part of the marketing and the public relations of K-Pop groups, and the precarious power-play over the idols’ careers between the production company and the fans really came to the forefront with Club H.O.T. If in the 1970s youth in Korea ran around protesting the military dictatorship, in the 1990s, the youth ran around protesting the denial of their favorite group in a music show appearance. Fandom was the mark of youth identity, the space in which young Korean people could devote their energy to outside of the grueling education system. It was a form of expression, to be wearing white raincoats and screaming along to a K-Pop song.