THE SHORT VERDICT:
Despite its flaws and indulgent streaks, Answer Me 1994 is a lovely little show that’s peopled by likable, bubbly characters that not only feel real, but also feel like they’re real friends with one another.
The characters and their relationships are the shining jewels crowning this show, and together, they shine so brightly that it’s not hard to overlook the occasional uneven writing, the consistently bloated episodes and the dreaded Who’s The Hubs game that Show inherited from its predecessor Answer Me 1997.
Far from perfect, but still So Lovable.
THE LONG VERDICT:
Those of you who’ve read my review of Answer Me, 1997 would know that I liked it a whole lot, but didn’t have the OMG-that’s-my-life love for it that so many other viewers seemed to.
Let the record show that I’m happily surprised to feel much more engaged, much more captivated and, to be honest, much more nostalgic, even, with my Answer Me, 1994 experience than I’d ever expected to be.
No, it’s not perfect by any means, and there are definitely flaws that grated on my nerves and marred the viewing experience for me (more on that real soon).
But this show, despite taking a couple of episodes to grow on me, managed to get under – and stay under – my skin in a way that AM1997 didn’t quite manage to.
Even though lots of people found the pace of this show a little too meandering, and the long episodes too protracted, the pace actually grew on me. It worked, for the most part.
This show is slice-of-life, and I believe that’s why the beats are allowed to go on for as long as they are. Sometimes, scenes seem to go on longer than necessary, but I feel like this is done with purpose.
Let’s take an awkward scene as an example. The uneasy beat is allowed to stay on our screens longer than most other dramas would allow, and the atmosphere starts to feel more than a little uncomfortable. Most dramas avoid that, with the intention of keeping everything as concise as possible. Not this drama, though.
This drama revels in allowing us to see the discomfort pan out, and allowing us to experience that moment stretch out awkwardly, so that it really feels like we are living life with our characters. And in the context of this show, it works (most of the time). Coz, life isn’t edited to fit in a convenient amount of screen-time. Life does take time, and life does meander awkwardly, and you just have to wait for the important moments to come, on their own time.
Which is why, even though many viewers took issue with the long episodes and the indulgent pace, it worked for me (again, for the most part).
It made me feel like I was truly a fly on the characters’ collective walls, watching them live life. And that made them feel all the more real for it.
OST ALBUM: FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE
Here’s the OST album, in case you’d like to listen to it while you read the review.
WHAT I DIDN’T LOVE SO MUCH
To be sure, there are things in this drama that simply didn’t work for me. Here are the 3 main offenders in this category, for me.
1. Who’s The Hubs
To put it bluntly, this was a Big Thorn in my side, all series long.
It was bad enough that AM1997 teased us throughout its entire run, about who the hubs was, for main character Shi Won (Jung Eun Ji). It frustrated me (quite a lot, actually) that AM1994 decided to play the Exact. Same. Game. AGAIN.
What makes it worse, is that we are also forced to endure the the longest wedding video, possibly in the history of wedding videos, since it stretches out over all 21 episodes.
Besides my personal distaste for Who’s The Hubs and the wedding video, The Game’s very existence actually interfered with story arcs. So many things were tweaked in the writing in order to accommodate Who’s The Hubs. Information was regularly withheld, and character perspective was also regularly kept vague, all in the name of serving “the mystery.”
To its credit, Show did manage to get through some episodes without emphasizing Who’s The Hubs &/or The Wedding Video too much. Still, I found this concept way too stale by as early as episode 6, and basically endured it for the sake of the stuff in the show that I did enjoy.
I actually think that Show would have done way better with a more straightforward storytelling style rather than this coy back-and-forth oops-can’t-let-you-see-that-yet sort of thing. I mean, there’re so many other things to love about this world and its characters, that Show really didn’t need a mystery as a crutch to keep people coming back, y’know?
2. Stolen Parents
I am quite possibly in the minority on this one, and it’s not a Huge Deal, but I felt it was kinda weird to have Sung Dong Il and Lee Il Hwa reprise the role of the parents in this iteration of the Answer Me series.
Not only are they cast as the parents, both parents act in ways that are uncannily reminiscent of their characters in AM1997 too. Dad has the same occupation, and the same propensity for mis-predicting the future, while Mom is still a cook of thousands.
I get that it’s supposed to bring back AM1997 feels, but this just feels like Na Jeong (Go Ara) stole Shi Won’s parents, and that’s just weird.
Eventually I managed to come to terms with it, but every now and again, weirdness associated with this casting popped up.
Like how Sung Dong Il’s AM1997 character actually shows up in one of the later episodes of the show, and the two shows’ universes collide.
Yes, it’s played for laughs and is supposed to be amusing, but I really did think they could’ve treated this plot point differently. Like, if you really just had to have Sung Dong Il and Lee Il Hwa as this show’s parents, then maybe make these parents twins of the other parents or something. That could’ve worked, right?
3. Manipulative Writing
Partly because of the Who’s The Hubs set-up, and partly coz it feels like Show just likes messing with us, there are distinct times in the series when it feels like Show is purposely leading us on, as viewers.
There were more than a few occasions when the not-quite-a-fakeout was pulled on us, where Show used false leads and their associated implications to lead us in one direction, only to have the story eventually go in a another direction.
Sometimes this bothered me more than other times, and it really depended on just how manipulated I felt, and also, where the story actually eventually landed.
One example of when I felt Show was a little heavy-handed with the not-quite-a-fakeout is in episode 17, when the false implication technique gets used many times, including when Na Jeong disappears and we all assume she’s gone back to Seoul.
There were many accumulated beats in this particular arc, where it appeared the story was going in a particular (negative) direction. We’d survive one loop with relief, only to be faced with another.
First, Na Jeong disappearing without a word, and the accompanying logical conclusion that she’s gone back to Seoul (Ack). Then, Na Jeong showing up with Trash’s mom (Phew). Then, another downward loop, with Trash’s preamble to Na Jeong sounding like the beginning of a breakup speech (Nonono! Ack!). Then, the proposal (Phew. And, yay!)
I honestly felt like I was on tenterhooks the whole time, barely teetering on the edge of my seat. By the time Trash actually proposed and everyone was happy (including me), I felt like I’d been on a serious emotional rollercoaster ride.
Sure, I get that teasing your audience is a Thing, and I also get that lowering audience expectations also makes the unexpected unleashing of Happy a much bigger emotional jump for the audience.
Plus, I concede that I was mollified greatly that this scene ended happily on all fronts.
At the same time, I did feel like Show had toyed with my feelings a leettle more than necessary. Y’know how it is when friendly teasing goes a little overboard and then starts to feel a little mean? Yeah, just like that.
1. The (Toilet) Humor
If you’ve been watching kdrama for a while, you’d know that Korea has a peculiar penchant for toilet humor.
AM1994 is no exception, and sometimes even seems to revel in it.
If you are particularly sensitive to toilet humor, let this be considered fair warning.
Episode 3 stands out as a distinct example, since Na Jeong’s dad spends practically the entire episode needing to either poo or pee. It got increasingly uncomfortable to watch him do his best to hold it all in as he searched frantically for an available bathroom.
In the meantime, we see Chilbongie (Yoo Yeon Suk) finally pluck up his courage to call his mom from a phone booth and leave a message on her pager. His message to her is long, heartfelt and sincere, and it’s a really sweet moment.
Chilbongie’s somewhat sheepish and shy, rather rambling message is so genuine, and so distinctly tinged with embarrassment and sheepish angst, that your heart just melts a little as you realize that you just can’t help but like this boy.
…And then, without warning, the heartwarming moment gets completely undercut by the camera panning out to reveal that Na Jeong’s dad is peeing in the phone booth next to him, and has eavesdropped on the whole message.
Pfft. It’s funny, yes, but you gotta be ready to handle that kind of humor, coz that’s just how this show rolls.
2. The Uneven Writing
I’ve already mentioned that I was generally pretty happy with the show’s meandering style and long episodes. Aside from the times when the writing felt manipulative, I was also generally happy with the quality of the writing and the treatment of our story.
Sadly, though, there is a stretch in the later episodes when I felt that the writers either lost their way for a bit, or got very drunk and kept writing anyway.
It felt like we as an audience were on a bicycle and pedaling hard, but not getting anywhere. Worse, it also felt like while we were pedaling hard on what we hadn’t realized was a stationary bike, that random weird items were tossed at us, and we were expected to make sense of them all.
I spent those times feeling very bemused indeed.
In my books, episode 18 is the major offender in this category.
To be honest, episode 18 felt quite.. nonsensical, to me. First, Dad going quite literally nutso over his investment gone bad. I mean, seriously. The way Show portrayed it, it was really as if Dad hadn’t just lost his money, but all his marbles as well. He felt like a completely different, very weird, and very crazy person.
On top of that, there’s the extended sequence of Haitai (Sohn Ho Jun) and his repeated failed dates, complete with poorly inserted, overly protracted random cameos.
I felt like I was just being led from one one-trick-pony joke to another, and I just didn’t find it funny nor entertaining nor engaging in any way. In that moment, for me, Show lost its charm.
Add on all the economic and historical context that also got served up in that episode, and it felt like Show had become a history show with illustrations, rather than a story that just happened to be set in that particular point in history. That imbalance made the world of difference, and I felt it keenly.
Although I appreciated the chance to learn more about the recent history of Korea, I have to admit that this (also very long) episode was particularly hard to watch, and in this case, I felt the fault lay with the writing.
With a show like AM1994, the core of which is to celebrate nostalgia and the good ol’ days, it’s pretty much a given that cameos would be scattered throughout this show from beginning to end.
The tricky thing about cameos, though, is that they have to work seamlessly within the show’s narrative, and not disrupt the story nor the audience experience, whether the audience gets the significance of the cameo in question or not.
This is where AM1994’s success was rather uneven. Some cameos were pretty great, while some were.. decidedly not.
An example of a cameo that really worked for me, is the appearance of Na Young Seok – better affectionately known as Na PD – in episode 2 (above). Having made his name as the genius behind the success of long-running variety show 1 Night 2 Days, it was hilarious to see him cameo as a short-staying college-aged boarder at the boarding house.
His line, where he protests, “It’s only been 1 Night 2 Days,” was just so full of meta awesome. HAHA. I loved it.
More importantly, his cameo didn’t interfere with the show’s story, and while viewers in the know would’ve found it extra funny, viewers not in the know wouldn’t have felt like there was any hiccup in the narrative either.
What didn’t work
The cameos by the AM1997 cast (from left: Jung Eun Ji, Seo In Guk, Hoya, Shin So Yool, and Lee Si Eon) in episode 16 was great in concept. I mean, this was potential gold for fans of the Answer Me series.
And it was great, at first, to have Trash (Jung Woo) board the same bus they were on, so that we could see the ol’ gang interact with one another all over again.
But then, the scene turns into something completely illogical and bemusing as Trash and Shi Won (Jung Eun Ji) get into an actual hair-pulling all-out fight over whether or not the bus driver ahjusshi should turn up the volume of the H.O.T. song that’s playing over the radio.
Because I’ve seen AM1997, I get what the writers are gunning for, which is to give us as much screentime with our alumni Answer Me cast as possible.
I hafta say, though, that even as a viewer who’s seen AM1997, I felt the treatment of this cameo was not in the best interest of our story. I can only imagine how viewers who’d not seen AM1997 felt about this very random-feeling scene.
I feel that it would’ve been better if the cameo had been cut down to just allowing us to see the old gang interact with one another on the bus, just like they always used to. That would’ve been enough of an “Eee!!” moment for viewers in the know, without distracting the focus from our main story.
Similarly with the cameos of singers Jeon Hyun Moo and Yoon Min Soo in episode 18, which I’ve made reference to above. It was a sudden, tangential, protracted arc, and because it wasn’t integrated into the narrative in a way that made actual sense, I felt bemused instead of amused.
What was alright
As a saving grace, the crossover from AM1997 was much better in episode 17’s 2013 timeline, where we get to see Shi Won and Yoon Jae happily married, with a baby in tow.
Yes, the fact that the two dads were both Sung Dong Il was still weird, but at least the show made them distant cousins, to at least sort of explain the doppelgänger thing.
Basically, not all the cameos worked as well as they could’ve in the show, and I feel like Show was especially indulgent in terms of the cameos, and could’ve afforded to streamline a lot more.
WHAT I LOVED
Alright then, enough about all the things in this show that didn’t work for me, or fell into neutral territory for me. Coz, I really did enjoy this show a lot, and it’s time to give credit where credit’s due.
1. The Retro
Maybe it’s coz 1994 is further back in time than 1997, and so the nostalgia is more pronounced. Maybe it’s coz I felt like I could personally identify with more of these characters’ struggles and foibles. Maybe it’s a combination of both of these things.
I just loved the retro world that the production team created for AM1994. So much effort was put into recreating every little detail from that era, and the effort totally showed.
Just look at these old magazine issues the production team dug up. And those computer diskettes!
This 1994 world that the production team created felt so real in all of its details, and so whole, that it literally felt like time-traveling back to 1994.
The little details worked into the story, such as Na Jeong waiting for a page that never comes – that’s something that brings back memories of when I had a pager too.
No, Na Jeong’s life was nothing like my life when I was her age, but these little details just made the retro feel so matter-of-fact and so gloriously true to life that I couldn’t help but love it.
2. The Funny
Aside from the toilet humor and a fairly generous sprinkling of sight gags, a lot of the funny in the show comes through in organic, genuinely amusing ways. Many times, the hilarity stems from the small-town born and raised characters’ unfamiliarity with Seoul, which is a rich source to mine.
This is the kind of humor that I enjoyed best in the show, and I’m pleased to say that there’s quite a lot of it to be had too.
One of my favorite instances of funny is in episode 2, when Haitai and Samcheonpo (Kim Sung Kyun) go on a “blind date” meeting to KFC, and do their darndest best to look cool while placing their orders without letting on that they have no idea what they’re doing.
When the two girls call out from their table to ask the boys if they can have biscuits too, Haitai and Samcheonpo decide not to appear stingy, and order 40 biscuits to go with their meal.
HAHA! 40 biscuits! OMG.
I laughed so hard at this scene, and loved that the humor was so organic in its construction and execution too.
3. Some Love for Mom
In a show that’s so much about young people, and growing up, and falling in love, and dealing with all the accompanying challenges of young adulthood, I found it refreshing that Show took the time to give Mom (Lee Il Hwa) some love too.
In an arc that felt so diametrically opposite to all the growing pains experienced by most of our young characters, I loved that the writers took time to consider the experience and feelings of Supermom, who takes care of them all, from cooking, to cleaning, to laundry and everything else in between.
That we got to see her vulnerability and fears around the changes that she was experiencing physically and emotionally, and to see how her husband stepped up to comfort and care for her, was one of the most heartwarming moments of the show, for me.
The eventual reveal that Mom was actually preggers instead of going through menopause, was just icing on the cake.
Probably because of the dynamic of having everyone live under one roof, and probably because of the fantastic deliveries by our actors pretty much across the board, these characters leaped off my screen and felt very much like living, breathing Real People with real lives and real relationships.
I couldn’t just talk about my favorites – and really, it’s hard to leave anyone out, when picking favorites in this motley crew – so here’s a shout-out to each of the young residents at our favorite boarding house.
Go Ara as Sung Na Jeong
To be honest, AM1994 is the first time I watched Go Ara on my screen.
And Go Ara came across so completely naturally as Na Jeong, that I had no idea, until watching the AM1994 Epilogue episodes, that she’d actually badly wanted to change her image. And no wonder too, considering that she’d played the same character Lee Ok Rim over 2 seasons of Sharp, between 2003 and 2005, for over 100 episodes. Wow.
Extra mad props to Go Ara, then, coz she completely shook off that image, and made Na Jeong come to life in an admirably full-on, all-in manner that was completely devoid of vanity. She basically tore off all the trappings of Pretty and Genteel, and took on ugly mop hair, shapeless clothes, and a rambunctious personality in their place. And she did so, so well.
Now, I can’t look at her and not see her as Na Jeong. Oopsie?
Seriously, though, I really enjoyed Na Jeong as a character. Headstrong, stubborn and outspoken on the outside, and yet completely vulnerable and compassionate and even kinda shy beneath the surface, Na Jeong was easy to love.
In some ways I identified with Na Jeong. Melting over a boy doing something really well (sports for her, musical instruments for me, heh), nursing a crush on someone, waiting and hoping for the page or call that may or may not come, and trying to figure out life and growing up, through it all. I identified with all of those things.
In other ways, I admired the kind of girl that Na Jeong was; the kind of girl who was able to pluck up her courage to wear her heart on her sleeve, in spite of her fears, and whether she was certain of the outcome or not.
Ultimately I loved Na Jeong so much that I honestly just wanted her to be happy, whether she picked Trash, or Chilbongie, or no one at all. I just wanted her to remain true to herself, and do what she felt was right for her, and that she might be happy and content with her choices.
Of course, I did root for one of the boys, but I’ll get into that in a (short) bit.
Jung Woo as Trash Oppa
As with Go Ara, I first set my eyes on Jung Woo in this show, and was completely blown away.
I love Trash Oppa, and I love Jung Woo as Trash Oppa. In my head, they are one and the same person, and I can’t imagine anyone else in the role now.
I liked that Trash comes across as very straightforward, uncomplicated, and sweet at heart. Every single thing about him is matter-of-fact. The way he stands, breathes, talks, nags, scolds, or even demonstrates affection, is all matter-of-fact, and for some inexplicable reason, I find that extremely swoony.
Throughout the show, we get to see Trash doing nice things for the people around him, often at some kind of cost or expense to himself, whether in terms of money, time or effort. And he consistently does it all so matter-of-factly, without ever showing a shadow of a thought, that he should be praised for it, or that he should receive something in return. I think that’s one of the reasons I found Trash so swoony.
Even his shirtless scenes are matter-of-fact. There’s no build-up, no slo-mo camera panning across his bare chest. He simply takes off his shirts as a matter of course, of living his life.
He’s completely casual and offhanded about it, like it’s no big deal. Which, really, just ups the sexy.
Unlike some actors who are obviously coiffed, groomed and buffed up for the camera, there’s a very distinct unpremeditated, unguarded, un-vain, offhandedness about Jung Woo that I really dig. He appears hawt just by being.
There are a whole bunch of Trash Oppa things &/or scenes that I really liked, to be honest.
Like the time in episode 4 when he waited in a long line to use the payphone to keep calling Na Jeong, coz it was her brother’s memorial day and he was worried about her. And the fact that he bought her a stuffed seal, even though he hadn’t heard her asking Mom about it, while thinking of her brother.
Or the time in episode 5 when he talks to the terminally ill patient who’s heartbroken over how to break the news to her two little boys, and shows her how to tell them, and love them, and let them see her face.
Or the fact that he’s so offhandedly really smart in class, which is really kinda hot.
If I had to pick one thing that is my favorite about Trash, though, it’s the casual way he takes care of Na Jeong.
Like the way he offhandedly peels fish for her in episode 5, while talking to everyone else. It’s like taking care of her is simply an extension of himself, which, swoon.
One of the key moments when Trash left a deep impression on me in this respect, though, is in episode 2, when Na Jeong’s hurt her back and has been admitted to hospital.
He checks in on her while doing his rounds, and when he sees that she’s in a lot of pain, he wordlessly peels off his duty coat, tosses it on a chair, and climbs into bed with her to hold her, just like that.
He barely says a word during the whole process, but his actions speak so audibly and clearly, of his caring heart.
I think I might’ve fallen for him, then and there.
Yoo Yeon Suk as Chilbongie
Aw, sweet Chilbongie. To be honest, if Trash Oppa weren’t such a formidable opponent, I would’ve happily joined Team Chilbongie.
Yoo Yeon Suk is pitch (hur) perfect as Chilbongie, giving him large strokes of sweet, shy, patient and earnest, and underlaying that with shades of angst and a steely inner mettle that is very attractive indeed.
Combine all of that with Yoo Yeon Suk’s very good-looking features, and just how delish he looks without his shirt, and I can totally see why there were so many fans in Team Chilbongie.
Given how sweet Chilbongie is, I actually think he might’ve stood a very good chance of winning Na Jeong’s heart, if she hadn’t already given her heart to Trash Oppa.
That moment in episode 7 when Chilbongie kept his eyes on Na Jeong long after the game was over, then threw her the victory ball?
That was so sweet that even I wavered.
One of the things I love about Chilbongie is how patient and unwavering he is, in his love for Na Jeong. It broke my heart to see his heart bleed for Na Jeong in all the little moments when she doesn’t look his way and only has eyes for Trash Oppa. Yet, his steadfastness in his love for Na Jeong, in the face of so much discouragement, moved me.
Even though, past a certain point, I felt that it was hurting Chilbongie more to hold on than to let go of his feelings for Na Jeong, I had to admire that determination that’s built into his hard-wiring; that giving up is just not the way he rolls.
One of my favorite Chilbongie moments is this one in episode 19, when, as a hotshot major league player, he gets approached by a reporter after watching a movie with Na Jeong. The reporter prods for information about Na Jeong, and asks if she’s Chilbongie’s girlfriend.
I just love Chilbongie’s earnest response to the reporter, “She’s not, yet… It’s just me liking her. If… we become official, I will tell you first. So, I’m asking you for your discretion today.”
He’s just so vulnerable, honest and sweet in this moment; how can we not love him?
Kim Sung Kyun as Samcheonpo
Tee hee. I just loved Kim Sung Kyun as Samcheonpo.
His brand of awkward dorkiness, grumpy pettiness and complete cluelessness made for some of the biggest laughs in the show.
Plus, casting Kim Sung Kyun to be a college-age student who just happens to look way older than his age was a stroke of brilliance, seriously.
Kim Sung Kyun approached the role with gusto and did a fabulous job making us believe that he’s just a country boy trying to make good in the big city.
Sohn Ho Jun as Haitai
Sohn Ho Jun as Haitai was another source of regular amusement in this show, what with his petty pride, his misplaced confidence in his fashion sense and knowledge of “cool,” and his penchant for pretty girls.
With his chatty, gossipy tendencies, I also felt like Haitai was the glue that helped to keep the group together. For that, I consider him a bit of an unsung hero, since the group together was one of the best things about this show.
Thank you, Haitai. You’re a good dude.
Baro as Binggeure
Binggeure was a fairly understated character in the overall scheme of things, but as with each character, he had his own special niche to fill as well.
With AM1994 being Baro’s acting debut, I did wonder whether Binggeure’s slightly deadpan treatment was due to actor inexperience or an intentional direction for the character.
Still, given the scope that he had to play with, Baro managed to make Binggeure sweet, earnest and ultimately likable.
As early as episode 5, we see that Binggeure appears to have a crush on Trash.
With no context nor explanation given to us till much later in the show, I tend to think that one of the reasons Binggeure is played rather deadpan, is to keep us guessing in terms of whether or not Binggeure is really gay and in love with Trash.
In principle, I like the treatment of Binggeure’s arc, as it’s so true to life that a young adult may go through phases of confusion with regard to his or her sexuality. And it’s also true that not every confused young man turns out to be gay. In that sense, I thought Binggeure’s arc was resolved well.
In execution, however, I feel like the writers, in wanting to keep the answer to Binggeure’s sexuality as mysterious as possible for as long as possible, didn’t give Baro enough room to show us more of Binggeure’s inner journey as he figured things out for himself.
It’s a pity, too, because I feel that this decision forced a bit of a barrier between Binggeure and us as viewers. Among our characters, I felt most disconnected from him, because for the most part, I felt like I had no access to what he was really thinking and feeling.
As a consolation, once that mystery got cleared up, I felt better connected to Binggeure’s character than before. Not as much as I would’ve liked to have been, but better than not at all, right?
Min Do Hee as Yoon Jin
In our local vernacular, there is a term “chilli padi,” which refers to a variety of red peppers which are really tiny in size, but once bitten into, are flaming, help-I’m-on-fire hot on the tongue. That’s exactly what I think of, when I think of Yoon Jin.
She’s the most petite of the group, and for a good stretch in the beginning, barely says a word too. But we soon learn that she’s a lot fiercer, tougher, and more opinionated than she looks.
Once Yoon Jin found her niche in the group, it was funny and quite refreshing to see her swearing up a storm like a sailor when she got riled up, and even take the boys in hand – sometimes literally.
As a character, Yoon Jin added a really nice spot of spice and spark to the overall group dynamic, and despite this being Min Do Hee’s acting debut, I thought she brought Yoon Jin to life quite nicely indeed.
Truth be told, it’s the relationships that are the heart of this show.
I mean, yes, the characters are great in and of themselves, and I love ’em all. But it’s in their relationships that these characters shine the brightest, and it’s the relationships that bring out the best in them. Which means that, for me, the relationships were literally the Best Thing about this show.
[SPOILERS THROUGH THE END OF THE REVIEW]
Na Jeong & Trash Oppa
The rocky start
To be honest, I started the show feeling rather disturbed by the dynamic between Na Jeong and Trash Oppa.
In episode 1, we see him handle all her bras and panties, which is kinda weird enough. But then she goes and strips him. Naked. And then jumps on him while he’s naked under the covers. Ack.
At this point, we’re still not told that they’re not actually brother and sister, even though it’s not hard to deduce that they’re not actual siblings since he becomes one of the potential husbands in this story.
Either way – and maybe this is just me – I found it super weird to be all underwear-handling and naked-jumping between a “brother” who’s 25 and a “sister” who’s 20. They aren’t 5 and 3, is what I’m saying. Between two grown “siblings” who should be completely sexually aware, this gave me disturbing fauxcest vibes even stronger than the ones I got in That Winter. At least in That Winter, we knew one of them knew he wasn’t really her oppa.
The non-romantic melty care & skinship
Thankfully, this disturbing fauxcest vibe got toned down a lot after episode 1. By episode 2, the sibling fighting is much more toned down, we finally get the facts straight that Trash isn’t Na Jeong’s real oppa, and he’s sweet to her in a non-creepy way, which I liked.
I think it was at about this point, that I started falling for the caring, touchy-feely dynamic between these two faux-siblings.
I loved the moment in episode 4, when Trash wraps his arms around Na Jeong while he’s at the sink her with her.
Not gonna lie; I swooned.
At the same time, I really, really liked the fact that Na Jeong doesn’t turn into a completely different person around Trash even though she likes him. There are moments of hyper-awareness, like the scene where he nonchalantly lies down with his head on her bare thigh and you can just see her practically implode from the intimacy. But otherwise, she yells at him and hangs up on him the same, and I really like that about her.
The thing I loved most of all, in this non-romantic phase of their relationship, is the nonchalant skinship between them. It’s so intimate and cozy, yet so casual and off-handed; it feels like a rhythm so deep-seated and so ingrained in both of them, that they don’t even need to think about it.
They’re that deeply in rhythm with each other, and I find that pretty sexy. At those times, like when Trash is lying on her lap, I half expect him to prop himself up on his elbow and just kiss her. With lots of tongue. Ahem.
After multiple episodes of Na Jeong trying to curb her feelings for Trash, and Trash waking up to and coming to terms with his feelings for Na Jeong, we finally get romance, in episode 13. Squee!
Na Jeong goes to the hospital to demonstrate her 5-second squat to Trash, as they’d previously agreed and bet on, and by this time, they’re each individually practically imploding from the feelings that they have for each other.
I just love the look of unadulterated joy in Trash’s eyes when he sets eyes on Na Jeong from across the street, and I love how Na Jeong spontaneously throws all her careful plans – and all caution! – to the wind, and just opens her arms wide for a hug, even though she has no idea how Trash is going to respond.
I also love how Trash closes the distance between them with just a few long strides (such long legs!), and wastes no time grabbing her face with both hands and kissing her.
And OMG I LOVE the look in Trash’s eyes; the expression on his face. He’s impatient to kiss her. And when he does, he drinks it all in. The way he looks at her, the way he kisses her, and then smiles and kisses her again.
Augh. Swoon. Thud.
I also really liked the very realistic post-kiss touch, of the silent squees that Na Jeong practically explodes from, while talking to Oppa on the phone afterwards.
After being separated for months, Na Jeong makes the trip to Busan to spend time with Trash on her birthday. By this point, doubts have been planted in her head and heart, about how secure their relationship is, what with his busy schedule, and him spending so much time with a particular female colleague.
Na Jeong gets to see Trash briefly, with only enough time to start cooking him a meal, before he gets called away for work. Na Jeong waits and waits, while cleaning Trash’s apartment. And Trash gets snowed under by more and more work, and by the time he rushes back to the apartment, Na Jeong’s gone. Oh noes.
Thankfully, Na Jeong hasn’t left for Seoul, and instead has thoughtfully gone to pick up Trash’s mom from the station.
While Mom is getting her check-up, Na Jeong prods Oppa to take a nap coz he looks awful, and Trash persuades Na Jeong to nap with him.
With the disappointment of the previous day still hanging over them both, Na Jeong allows Trash to tuck her into bed. Silently, he gets into bed with her, and wraps his arms around Na Jeong in the same casual, natural manner as always.
The cuddle looks as comfortable and cozy and sweet as ever. At the same time, Trash’s weariness as he sinks into this embrace, definitely also tugs at my heartstrings.
It’s like he’s finally settling into a place that feels like home, and I just find that so sweetly poignant.
When Na Jeong finally wakes from her nap, she finds Oppa already awake, watching over her.
Quietly, and in measured tones, Oppa kneels in front the bed where Na Jeong’s still sitting, and begins to apologize, “Did you sleep well? You must have not been able to sleep last night because of me. I’m sorry. I wasn’t even able to stay with you on your birthday… I wasn’t able to come back home either…”
Na Jeong doesn’t hesitate to wave off his apology with a smile, “It’s okay. It wasn’t because you were playing around. It can happen when you work.”
But Oppa remains serious, “But Jeong-ah… Oppa… may do this again next time. No matter how hard I try, I may give you a hard time again.” Again, Na Jeong smiles, “I know. It’s really okay with me.”
Pausing, Oppa says slowly and deliberately, “It’s not okay with me.”
(Ack. This is when I thought he was about to break up with her!)
But Oppa comes through. He stands up, takes a ring box out of his duty coat pocket, and gets down on one knee (Eee!!). Still as measured and still as quiet, he asks, “Jeong-ah… My Jeong-ie… Would you marry me?”
Oppa continues, “Will you marry me? ‘Oppa will…’ ‘Oppa will be really good to you.’ I can’t say that, but if we live together, I won’t be anxious like this.”
Na Jeong gapes at him in shock and doesn’t say a word.
Oppa searches her face, “You haven’t replied yet. What? You don’t want to marry me?”
Na Jeong smiles tearfully at Oppa, then reaches out without a word, for a hug.
After a good long hug, they finally pull apart to look into each other’s eyes.
Oppa is the first to put his hands on her face, and they simultaneously draw close to each other for a kiss, then another, and then another.
Ahhh! So much tenderness and love, in this moment.
Like I said, I was sorta expecting Oppa to break it off with Na Jeong, and in a sense, I tsk at Show for deliberately messing with me.
But aw. The way Oppa looked at her, just so gentle, so appreciative, so grateful, and so loving. Oof. Plus, the kisses. So.. hungry and tender and grateful, on both sides.
Na Jeong & Chilbongie
Although it was Chilbongie’s destiny in this show to not get the girl, I felt that his arc with Na Jeong felt extremely sincere. I loved that beyond the one-sided love, there was a genuine care for each other, on both sides.
My heart lurched in episode 10, when Chilbongie made his official love confession to Na Jeong and gave her a New Year kiss.
It was such a sweet, and yet at the same time, such a heartbreaking moment.
It took such courage on Chilbongie’s part, to confess his love, and to kiss her. And yet, it also felt so futile, in the moment, since Na Jeong’s heart was beating for Trash.
One of my favorite Chilbongie-Na Jeong scenes, though, is what I consider a pivotal scene in episode 12, when Na Jeong promptly bursts into tears and hugs Chilbongie coz he’s ok and not trapped in the collapsed mall where she was supposed to meet him.
Chilbongie’s face is just priceless in this scene. So much surprise, confusion and disbelief is written all over his face, that Na Jeong, the one whom he loves, is crying and so relieved because of him. That she cares this much, for him.
I could feel the overwhelming mix of emotions engulfing Chilbongie in the moment. And while I was sad for him that Na Jeong never did reciprocate his romantic feelings, I felt that this moment solidified her genuine care for him in a much more meaningful way. That, beneath the question of romance, the love she had for him was pure and true. She loved him as a friend, as family, as a person.
In Chilbongie’s world where he is disconnected from his immediate family, with the exception of cousin Binggeure, I felt like having a strong assurance that someone really, truly cared deeply about whether he lived or died, was needful, comforting and strengthening.
It’s true that Chilbongie took a lot longer to let go of his one-sided love for Na Jeong than I felt was really healthy for him, but hey, that’s life, right?
You can’t help whom you love, and the heart takes as long as it needs to take, to come to terms, and let go, and grow, and mature. In the end, I feel that Chilbongie’s heart did manage to achieve all of those things, in its own time, and on its own terms. And that’s definitely a good thing.
Yoon Jin & Samcheonpo
Tee hee. Yoon Jin and Samcheonpo as a couple. It’s truly one of the most adorable things in this show.
With characters who are as different as chalk and cheese, I thought Show did a fantastic job of connecting them on a level that felt real and genuine, so that their couplehood also came across as believable.
The big breakthrough moments, I felt, were how they each witnessed the other being kind to their moms.
In episode 8, when Yoon Jin’s mom, who can’t speak, gets stuck waiting at the bus station for hours for Yoon Jin, it’s Samcheonpo who comes to the rescue, in his dorky cycling gear and all, and writes notes to her assuring her of a place to sleep, while pouring her coffee from his thermos.
So adorkably sweet, right? I bet Yoon Jin’s heart melted right there.
And then in episode 10, when the gang (minus Trash and Chilbongie) go on a trip to visit Samcheonpo’s family, Yoon Jin makes an extra effort to connect with Samcheonpo’s mom, even though Mom is a little frosty due to Yoon Jin’s eat-like-a-bird habits.
I do also love the matter-of-fact method that Yoon Jin chooses, to connect with Mom: by sitting down with her to shuck shellfish, when the rest of the gang’s gone off with Dad.
The reciprocity of how kind Yoon Jin and Samcheonpo are to each other’s moms is so sweet and understated. And it’s just the thing to cut through the noise to get them each decisively and firmly in the heart, yet quietly & without fanfare.
The eventual seal-the-deal kiss on the boat, even in all its dorky, awkward glory, felt like a natural extension of their connection.
Afterwards, it’s amusing to see Yoon Jin and Samcheonpo as a couple, first in the toothache-levels-of-sweet stages:
…and even in the later, more difficult, trying and jaded times.
Through it all, this couple remained down-to-earth and felt so very real in their interactions and relationship.
While Samcheonpo’s desperate effort in episode 15, to comfort a grieving Yoon Jin over the retirement of her beloved Seo Tai Ji oppa – by literally bringing her the toilet bowl from Seo Tai Ji’s house, so that she’d eat and not die of starvation – counts as one of my top moments between this couple, I think my actual favorite scene has to be the proposal scene in episode 19.
After a long stretch of frustration between them, aggravated by the fact that Samcheonpo’s boss insists not only on multiple, long, drunken nights at the noraebang, but that Samcheonpo’s girlfriend has to make an appearance too, things aren’t feeling too rosy nor romantic for our couple.
Despite a bit of a rough evening, Samcheonpo manages to persuade Yoon Jin to give him just 10 minutes of her time, before she goes to bed.
Once in the room, Samcheonpo begins in his usual awkward, dorky way, “Yoon Jin-ah.. I have something to give you. I was going to give it to you later, but I feel like I have to give it today.”
He gets her to close her eyes, and while her eyes are closed, he places the precious items in her hands.
Bemused, Yoon Jin asks, “What’s this?” And Samcheonpo earnestly answers, “What else could it be? It’s my passbooks. Passbooks.”
And then he begins his dorky not-quite-a-proposal spiel:
“Yoon Jin, I… really really like you. Do you know that? I want to propose to you in a cool way like Chang Gyu Sunbae, but I need a plan. I dislike myself too, but what can I do? I’m born like this. Please understand me. If you don’t understand me, who else would? One is a bank account to apply for the apartment application and the other one is a savings account. The last one is the bank account for wedding expenses. This deposit hasn’t matured yet. Once it matures, I will propose to you. Wait until then, okay?”
And then he pulls her in for a hug.
Aw. How cute is it, that Samcheonpo manages to make the inane act of giving the passbooks to Yoon Jin so adorkably sweet?
Haitai & Samcheonpo
Just thinking of Haitai and Samcheonpo together gives me the tickles, they are SO CUTE together.
All series long, even as their relationship went from non-stop bickering, to reluctant truce, to I-love-you-man, theirs continued to be one of the funniest, cutest, most amusing relationships in this show.
From getting into heated disagreements over inane things like when to put out the lights, to trying to be cool enough to get into the hottest hangouts together, to trying to impress girls together, these two never failed to give me a case of the giggles.
I think the thing that sticks in my mind the most about their relationship, is how Samcheonpo used to be super territorial about the special bedding that his mom had prepared for him when he first moved to the city, and then how he’d reluctantly shared it with Haitai simply because of Haitai’s uncontrollable clingy-cuddly sleeping habits.
It was a short beat, but when the time finally came for Haitai to pack his things and move out of the boarding house near the end of the show, I found it really sweet that neither of them could remember who the bedding really belonged to. I found it even sweeter that when Haitai mentioned that he couldn’t sleep on anything else, Samcheonpo, without a hint of hesitation, told him he could keep it.
Oh, what a long, long way these two have come, after grating on each others’ nerves endlessly in the very beginning.
Binggeure & Trash
A review of AM1994 wouldn’t be complete without at least a shout-out to the dynamic between Trash and Binggeure.
As I mentioned earlier, it was clear to us as early as episode 5, that Binggeure appeared to nurse a crush on Trash.
While I don’t think that Trash had a special soft spot for Binggeure, in that I felt that Trash would’ve treated anyone else with the same kindness and warmth, I do really like how the show resolved the relationship between them.
All series long, we see Trash instruct Binggeure to address him as “hyung,” while Binggeure resolutely sticks to the more formal term “sunbae-nim.”
It’s only in episode 17 that Binggeure, having figured out his feelings, makes the late-night trip to Busan to see Trash and asks that “sunbae-nim” buy him a meal.
As they eat their soup and rice, Trash rambles a bit about all the better restaurants that he could’ve taken Binggeure to, if he’d come earlier in the day. Which is when Binggeure begins to say what he came all this way to say, “Sunbaenim. You don’t need to buy me meals from now on.”
Trash doesn’t say a word, and just listens as he eyes Binggeure thoughtfully.
Carefully, and slightly awkwardly, Binggeure continues, “You don’t have to buy meals from now, Sunbaenim… I came here today to get treated for the last time… Next time, just buy me drinks.”
Trash pats Binggeure on the head and tells him simply, “Alright.”
Binggeure keeps his eyes down and focuses on his eating, and the two eat silently for a while. With his eyes still on his food, Binggeure ventures, “Because I have Sunbaenim… Because I have Sunbaenim, I’m so happy.”
After a long pause, he adds, “Hyung.”
Which is when Trash looks at him with new realization in his eyes. Binggeure meets his gaze and smiles slightly.
The two don’t say another word, but it’s clear as day that with that one word, their relationship has finally gone to the next level.
Now, Trash isn’t a sunbae-nim to be respected from a distance; now, he’s Hyung; now, he’s family.
Even without the spoken words, their mutual unspoken acceptance and approval of this closeness was clear as day, and just so heartwarming to witness.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING
In the end, flaws and all, it was The Big Hodge-Podge Family aspect of it all, that really got to me.
As the series wrapped and the lives of the members of our gang had evolved and changed, they remained family through it all. They continued to knit their lives together, whether they were physically living under the same roof or not; little things like geography basically made no difference to them.
They continued to care for one another, and keep tabs on one another, and love one another over the years, and that is really The Thing that got me right in the heart.
That No-Matter-What sentiment is perhaps best epitomized in this scene between Trash and Dad in episode 19, when Dad visits Trash at the hospital to make sure he knows that regardless of the fact that he and Na Jeong had broken up, that Trash was still his son.
How completely heartwarming, that broken engagement or not, emotional baggage or not, that nothing’s going to stop Trash from being Dad’s son?
I love that stoic, fierce, loyal I-love-you-anyway, I-love-you-no-matter-what attitude. And I love how that sentiment carries over to all the relationships among our gang.
In the end, the show leaves us feeling like these characters’ lives will carry on, and that they will continue to hang out together, and bicker together, and love one another, and make memories together, long after the credits stop rolling.
And so, I leave you with Samcheonpo’s thoughtful and thought-provoking narration, from episode 8:
“Sometimes I imagine what would have happened if I hadn’t answered the phone that day, and what would have happened with us if I hadn’t gone to the terminal. Living is all about the choices you make moment by moment. Even if it’s just a log bridge, you must make a choice: Do you go forward? Do you turn around, or do you stop? Where I am now is the result of countless choices made in the past. That day I answered the phone and went to the terminal, and those small choices gathered to make up the present day.
“Whichever path you choose, there are always lingering thoughts of the road not taken. That’s why there are no choices without regrets, and no one right answer to life. All you can do is believe that the road you’ve chosen is the right answer, and turn it into the right answer. The right answer to life is to believe that you don’t regret your past choices and live on.”
“Believing in my past choices without regret and loving them – that is the right answer, and that’s how to grow old with style.”
As we, too, continue to live our lives and make choices, both big and small, that will inevitably shape our lives, may we also make lasting memories that we can cherish for a long, long time, with the people that matter.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A delightful spot of nostalgic goodness, in spite of its flaws.
FINAL GRADE: A-
If you recognize that sort of Magic Eye image, then, y’know, this might just be your kind of show.
For those who’ve seen the show &/or don’t mind spoilers, here’s a lovely MV to revisit the gang.
Roy Kim – Seoul Here
And who can resist seeing a few of our favorite boys rocking out adorably in the studio? Bonus: more scenes of our favorite gang.
Jung Woo, Yoo Yeon Suk & Sohn Ho Jun – Feeling Only You