In light of sensitivity regarding K-Dramas distorting history, Reply 1988 has belatedly come into spotlight. The drama received praise for its “successful portrayal of the student protests” in a light-hearted way that suited the drama without disrespecting the suffering that went into the protests.
In a Twitter thread that has since gone viral amongst Koreans, user @GodWWW__ expresses how the drama managed to include the important event in the drama. As the drama takes place between mid-1980s to early 1990s, the movement was naturally a part of the history during the decade. However, if portrayed in the wrong way, it would bring about much harm to those involved in the historical event.
그나마 학생운동을 가볍게 풀어낸 블랙코미디로써 칭찬받을 작품은 응답하라 1988 5화 에피소드라고 생각함. 초반엔 시위에서 도망치던 청년을 구해주고 밥 사먹으라고 돈까지 쥐어서 보내주던 성동일이, 교대 다니는 자기 딸 몸에서 최루탄 냄새가 나니까 혼내던 그 장면들..
— 백화점쎄일로 싸게! (@GodWWW__) March 27, 2021
I think that a piece of work that is praise-worthy for the way it light-heartedly portrays the student protests as a black comedy would be the fifth episode of Reply 1988. In the first portion, Sung Dong Il saves a student that was running away during the protests and gives him money to buy food while sending him on his way, while he scolded his own daughter after smelling the tear gas on her.
In the mentioned scenes, Sung Dong Il covers for a student protestor as he is chased down the streets by National Security Agency men. Knowing that the protestor would be tortured if he caught, Sung Dong Il pretended he was the father of the protestor and lead him away naturally. His gentle nature towards the protestor was contrasted with his strict scolding towards his daughter, Sung Bo Ra. Bo Ra actively participates in the protests, to her parents’ disappointment.
Sung Dong Il is written as a character that was from Jeolla-do Province, and it is plausible as an inference that he would have already lost family members to the 5.18 movement. Hence, the scenes where he scolds his daughter animatedly saying she would screw up her life and that her family would all die if she continues, despite knowing she was right for participating in the democratic movements is even more meaningful.
The user continues to explain that back then, many parents would have told their children in the Seoul area protests that it was fine as long as they were not in the frontlines of the protest. However, as the most people died in the Gwangju Massacre in Jeolla-do where even people uninvolved in the movements were killed, it was natural that Sung Dong Il would have taken stricter measures with his daughter. Sung Dong Il’s actions were portrayed accurately to history.
Where the drama successfully pulls off black comedy is where Sung Dong Il locks his daughter up in her room and refuses to give her food or water until she promises to back down. This action is akin to the agents who have unfairly locked up, tortured and killed student protestors in order to prevent the spread of democracy. He does so under the impression that he needs to protect her future as a potential professor as well as his family, in addition to the trauma he faced. This is ironic as it is parallel with the way the nation’s officers unfairly treated protestants under the impression and orders that it was what was best for the nation.
At the end, when Sung Dong Il has to pick Bo Ra up from the police station for protesting, he is unable to scold her for he knows deep down that what she did was right. The touching scene when Bora is brought to the police station can be viewed below.