Reply 1988 (2015) tells the story of five families living on Ssangmun-dong street and it is the best Korean drama I have ever watched in my life. Ever.
Reply 1988 is the third installment of tvN’s Reply series, where viewers are transported back in time to 1997, 1994, and 1988 in South Korea. The format of the drama switches between present time and the past, with the finale revealing who the female protagonist’s husband is. Each series focuses on adolescence, as well as large cultural shifts during these times such as the rise of K-pop and the Korean Basketball League, technological advancements, fashion, entertainment and advertisements, and civil laws. Specifically, Reply 1988 shines light into a time and place when communities were close-knit and family was the most important. Out of all three series, Reply 1988 is by far the most touching and heart-warming one, and I bawled in every single episode.
Family and Love
“Although it was a half-basement house, I received so much love and if I’m ever reborn, I want to be reborn as your daughter.”
Family is one of the biggest themes in Reply 1988 and there are so many dimensions of family life that are portrayed through the five different families. It shows sibling dynamics and the different struggles each one faces in being the eldest, middle, and youngest. It shows parent dynamics, how to take care of each other as you age together and your children leave the nest. It shows parent-child dynamics, the love and awkwardness between sons and fathers, daughters and mothers, and everybody mixed together. It shows how death impacts a family, how single parents raise children and how they can still find love again later on in life. It shows how money plays a major role in good and bad ways, whether you have a lot of it or not. The endless portrayals of family life are beautifully weaved together again and again, making me feel like I grew up in each household.
We have the father who loans all his money to friends and buys useless stuff. Another father who makes horrible dad jokes all the time. Another father who is bad at expressing his love. We a mother who can’t cook but tries to anyways, a mother who wants her frugal husband to spend more, a mother who can’t win in an argument against her eldest. A son who hates to see his widowed mother clean bathhouses to buy him new sneakers, a son who has been trying to get accepted into university for six years, a son who fools around and gets in trouble, a son who never talks about his day. There are so many characters and not only are they wonderfully acted out by a great cast, the development for each character makes it so easy for any viewer to connect with one of them. The character I found most relatable was Bora, the eldest daughter in a family of five. Her apprehensive affection hidden under a cold attitude, selfishness buried under selflessness, and strong but quiet ambitions were characteristics that made my heart tug for her. But even so, all the characters and the ups and downs of their lives made me laugh and shed tears all the way through.
Community and Friendship
“People I’m used to and am comfortable with… who have been my people for a long time are people I cannot help but love.”
In a time when people only had one landline, spending time together is what made a real community. All five families were close to each other, helping in times of need and being there in times of struggle, which is endearing and lovely to see. From this theme, viewers are reminded of the strong bonds that can be formed between neighbours and how there is no shame in asking for help or relying on others.
I wasn’t alive in 1988, but watching how these families live and interact together makes me envious of life back then. I am envious of how they can walk into each other’s homes without prior notice and eat meals together or give each other homemade food. I am envious of how the dads go drink together after work and how the moms gossip and throw shade about their husbands while their kids are at school. I am envious at how the kids grow up together and as teenagers, leave their house and walk two minutes meet up to eat instant noodles and watch American films. Everybody lived in such close proximity and there were basically no secrets, but it really made the neighbourhood feel alive.
Youth and Nostalgia
“I could not return to my youth or that street either. Time always flows. Everything passes by and ages. That might be why youth is beautiful. Because it shines, blindingly bright at a brilliant short moment. But you can never go back. The reason I miss that time and that street isn’t only because I miss my younger self. It is because my parents’ youth, my friends’ youth – the youth of everything I loved was in that place. I regret not bidding a final farewell to the surrounding of my youth that can never be brought back together again. To the things that have already gone, to the time I can’t return to… I bid my belated farewell. Goodbye, my youth. Goodbye, Ssangmun-dong.”
Reply 1988’s main characters are five kids who grow up together. The series shows their at times embarrassing youth, from silly fashion trends to ambiguous career aspirations to ship-sinking first loves. It shows the radiance of youth drenched in nostalgia. I laughed at their hilarious antics, the pranks that didn’t succeed, the trivial fights, and nodded in agreement to their worries about finding a life passion or repaying their parents for all they’ve done. I sat with them as they studied in class or fell asleep together after hanging out all night. I felt lonely when they each grew up and saw each other less, and rejoiced when they reunited to talk about the old times that didn’t seem that long ago.
As a person who also has a group of close childhood friends to grow up together with, this drama resonated with me in all the ways I thought a single drama could never accomplish. If I really think about it, this drama and all its messages and lessons go beyond 1988. The important parts are still relevant to today. I think back to when I was a kid playing on my street, my parents friendly with our neighbours. I think about the future when I get married and live off on my own, or the huge fights my sister and I get in sometimes, but how we are there for each other in the end of it all. I think about my friends, staying up all night to be together, but also how we won’t always be together forever.
And just like how these five kids can never return to the Ssangmun-dong street they remembers it to be, my youth is also passing by to a place where I can not go back. Every time I think about this – about the people I care about and about the places I go to, I am blinded by both the brilliance of it all as well as the upcoming loneliness.
One day, I will also miss hearing the sound of my mother’s voice calling me for dinner. And I will miss having to grudgingly leave my friend’s house to go home. And I will miss the me of today. And my parents of today. And my home of today.