The middle child of the Reply franchise also deserves a lot of love.
Creating a follow-up series from their sleeper hit drama Reply 1997 must have been a daunting task for the now-well-loved duo of Director Shin Won-ho and writer Lee Woo-jung. But it seems like they have taken the challenge seriously and crafted another youth series filled with nostalgia and growing up pains.
Although they brought back their a-game in producing realistic 90s set, the main difference of Reply 1994 from the other installments in the franchise is its collegiate setting. Their decision to use the characters’ college years as the introductory background was a smart move for me. It gave more freedom for the writer to explore life experiences not often tackled by other youth dramas set in high school. And so we’ve got characters in their 20s – a phase in our lives when we’re not considered a child anymore but we’re also not yet considered as a real adult.
In Reply 1994, we were introduced to a group country bumpkins who become the first (and last) boarders of the Sinchon Boardinghouse manned by our favorite Reply couple Sung Dong-il and Lee Il-hwa. And yep, it’s the only Reply installment where they used “real” cohabitation as a trope.
The series started in the present timeline with Sung Na-jung (Go Ara) and Jo Yoon-jin (Min Do-hee) reminiscing the past by watching Na-jung’s wedding video. Thus, officially kicking off the “who’s-the-husband” guessing game. But of course, before they delve into that, they introduced the “candidates” first by presenting us with their different quirks; quirks that became the starting point of their journey to adulthood.
Na-jung, the daughter of a baseball coach, was a die-hard Yonsei Basketball Team supporter. I’m not sure if she’s there to support the sport itself or it’s just really for the hot players (I felt attacked while writing this line haha). Jo Yoon-jin (Min Do-hee) was a big Seo Taiji and Boys fangirl. She seems like a recluse but she just actually prefers the company of her idols.
These two lovely young ladies had to “endure” their male dorm mates whose misadventures and antics supplied doses of good laughs throughout the series. Let’s start with the sunbaenim of the group, Trash or Sseureki (Jung Woo). He’s not the usual heart-eyes-inducing male lead (at least not yet on the first few episodes). Of course, we all now know that it was intentional. They want us to first see him as the older brother figure to Na-jung before draping him with the romantic male lead cape.
Next to be introduced was Haitai (Son Ho-jun). He was the typical outgoing college guy who wants to make the most out of his time in Seoul. This Suncheon native’s personality seemed to clash with his roommate, the Leslie Cheung of South Gyeongsang Province, Samcheonpo (Kim Sung-kyun). The series’ premiere episode ended with these two then-strangers sharing a boardinghouse room in the middle of a cold frightening city. It was the perfect picture to start the story of these young people traversing their way into the real harsh world.
I had to wait until Episode 2 to finally meet the rest of the Sincheon Boardinghouse squad. Binggeurae (Baro), as his nickname implied, was a kind and smiley medical student. Trash, despite his atypical façade, took this shy boy from Chungcheong under his wing. But who could resist Binggeurae’s fake maknae charm though? I, myself, would have wanted to be a supportive and protective sunbae to him.
The last one to be introduced was Chilbong (Yoo Yeon-seok), Binggeurae’s cousin who grew up in Seoul and was also a freshman in Yonsei University. Unlike our ordinary country bumpkins, who were still trying to figure out what they wanted to do in life, Chilbong’s future was already settled. He was a sports superstar in the making. Despite his quite huge difference to them, Chilbong still became part of our beloved Sincheon Boardinghouse squad.
I must say that the Reply 1994 Gang had the funniest scenes in this franchise. It was as if the Shin-Lee duo dumped all the comedy know-how they’ve learned from their variety show background. They didn’t hold back when it came to giving us hilarious scenes. The actors should also be commended for not caring about looking ugly in camera. They gave their all and dropped all those funny punch lines at the right moment.
Of course, it’s not a Reply series without those warmhearted, sometimes heart-wrenching, plot twists. The versatility of Go Ara, Jung Woo, Yoo Yeon-seok, Son Ho-jun, Baro, Kim Sung-kyun, and Min Do-hee was put into tests on scenes where they had to show internal changes to their respective characters. They had to act on point and with few dialogues because that’s how it always has been in a Shin-Lee production. The good news was they all delivered.
As the story reached its final arc, our characters faced inescapable changes in their lives. It was also at this point where I realized the series has successfully reeled me in and I’ve grown attached to each character.
Who would have thought the dog-cat-like banters between Samcheonpo and Yoon-jin would turn into a second couple romance I never thought I needed. Samcheonpo, whose real name in the series turned out to be Kim Sung-kyun (haha), was an adoring boyfriend to the frank and sometimes grumpy Yoon-jin. What I like about their story was that they’ve shown us that one decision could change the trajectory of our lives forever. And sometimes, we judge someone based on our existing prejudices and wrong impressions.
Speaking of wrong impressions, I’ve got it all wrong with Binggeurae’s story arc. I thought it would go the same route as Kang Joon-hee in Reply 1997. I was already preparing for his heartbreaking confession to Trash but it turned out Binggeurae has a different ending. The series never confirmed if Binggeurae really adores Trash more than a sunbae-hoobae manner but, for me, it was really implied he contemplated on having feelings for Trash. At first, though, giving him a new love interest in the latter part of the series felt like a rush move but I soon realized that Binggeurae or Kim Dong-jun’s arc was intended to be that way. He was the kind of character made to show how hard it was to know our real selves; and that process always took a long time to happen. Just like how Binggeurae took a long time to know what he likes and what he wants in life.
Among the Sincheon Boardinghouse squad, I feel like Haitai was underappreciated. He might be the goofiest and most laid back in the group but he has his shining moments in the series. And that, for me, was his friendship with Na-jung. They’ve become solid pals sharpened by their straightforwardness and life mishaps. One of my favorite scenes in this series was when Haitai said Na-jung was a likable person. He said it matter-of-factly and without any romantic notion. That was the moment I realized he was more of Na-jung’s friend rather than Trash’s. I love it how he stood proudly next to Na-jung in that wedding photo. My only soft-rant, though, about his story arc was the lack of screen time about how he and his first love Ae-jung got their second chance.
Since I’m already ranting, let’s now go to the “who’s-the-husband” guessing game that always elicited fan wars and rants from the losing side. The individual character arcs of Trash, Na-jung, and Chilbong were interconnected because of the said game. So I couldn’t discuss their character arcs without tackling how they tried to trick us the whole time.
Trash or Kim Jae-joon, as I’ve said, was an unconventional male lead. But as the story progresses, we saw that he might look and act silly but he has loyal and caring traits that Na-jung couldn’t help but fall in love with. Na-jung, for her part, grew up from the passionate basketball-loving college freshman to a still passionate yet grounded new adult. She knew what she wants and stays loyal for a long time. Her feelings for Trash didn’t waver at all despite the strong attempts of the latecomer Chilbong. Emphasis on the word: latecomer. Because you see, Chilbong was trying to compete with someone who shared a lot of life experiences with Na-jung. That was the main reason I stood by my guess that Trash and Na-jung would end up together.
It was hard for Chilbong to infiltrate Na-jung’s heart when Trash occupied pretty much all of its space. They’ve shared the grief of losing someone important to them. They’ve grown up in the same town called Masan. They’ve shared experiences and emotions that Chilbong would never understand. And this’s where it hurts the most. Because just like Na-jung said, Chilbong was an amazing man who deserved to be loved as well.
Chilbong was the kind of character one couldn’t help but fall in love with. He’s the lonely prince a lot of us wanted to comfort. I smiled every time he’s with Na-jung and the rest of the squad because I knew how he yearned to have such a warm companion. He found a family in them. Although I believed Trash would be the husband, that didn’t mean my heart wasn’t crushed during his finale scene with Na-jung.
I always thought that I wasn’t that attached to Chilbong and that even though I would have wanted him to end up with Na-jung, I’ve already accepted that Trash was so ahead of the race. But I was surprised by my reaction to that Episode 21 hug scene. I cried a lot (more like I wailed) when Na-jung rejected him for one last time *insert more loud cries*. It felt like all the emotions I’ve been suppressing for Chilbong exploded in one go when Na-jung thanked him for liking her and said that it would always be a beautiful memory for her. It was a sad yet beautiful rejection. At least though, Chilbong wasn’t left to suffer alone as other second leads in K-dramaland. He didn’t end up with Na-jung but he gained friends who stuck with him through thick and thin.
A friendship that was bonded inside the Sincheon Boardinghouse. The closing scene for Reply 1994 used the boardinghouse’s closure as a metaphor to show that everyone has moved on. That it served its purpose already and that it was time to start a new era in their lives. A fitting ending for a show that promised us to bring us back in time to our memorable 20s.
Reply 1994 felt like a transition between an experimental theme (Reply 1997) and a much more confident and concise storytelling (Reply 1988). The Shin-Lee tandem has successfully used the tried-and-tested combination of a nostalgic background and a relatable narrative. Although it was not perfect, one should not ignore the fact that Reply 1994 paved the way to an improved version of this kind of formula as seen with its successors.
Reply 1994 was filled with lots of hilarious sequences, ordinary-turned-romantic moments, and touching stories that would make you smile and sometimes give you a good cry.
-I love their OST especially Lim Kim’s Happy Me and Feeling Only You by Jung Woo, Yoo Yeon-seok, and Son Ho-jun!
-We have a baby looking Yook Sung-jae here!
-Please hear out my ridiculous theory: Trash is somewhat a compensation for Reply 1997’s Tae-woong while Reply 1988’s Taek is our compensation for Chilbong. Okay, forget I actually said that.
-I’m hoping Jung Woo would have a cameo on Hospital Playlist Season 2 as Neurosurgeon Kim Jae-joon. Dramagenies, please make this crossover happen!
-While we’re at it, can we also have a Son Ho-jun cameo, please?
-Best platonic relationship? hahaha
-Excuse me while I drown myself with this alternate ending