*BIG SPOILERS if you haven't seen Reply 1997 or Reply 1994!*
Two high school boys are sitting near a basketball court on a summer night somewhere in Busan, South Korea, in 1997.
“There’s someone else I like,” confesses Kang Junhee, turning to the boy next to him. “It’s you.”
By this point, anyone watching Reply 1997 has fallen for Junhee’s charms, and is also aware that Junhee is not like the rest of the boys. He is not going to betray his friendship by falling in love with his best friend’s crush Shi Won. On the contrary, he’s going to fall in love with his best friend.
Kang Junhee’s character is one of the most important characters of modern Korean dramas. In the midst of a changing cultural attitude towards homosexuality, his role shines an entirely new light on the image of gay men in Korea.
I. Infinite Influence
Hoya, of the idol group Infinite was a perfect choice for Kang Junhee.
Hoya’s casting as Junhee was not only brilliant because of his surprisingly good acting skills (pardon my little faith in idols-turned-actors) but because of everything he brings with him to the role. To be honest, he was the reason I payed attention to this drama in the first place.
Hoya has a strong fanbase and his group Infinite has endorsed everything from ice cream to chicken to school uniforms. With relatively few “cute” concepts, Infinite is one of the manlier boy bands in Korea, with Hoya fitting right in with his masculine image.
Hoya has no damaging scandals tied to his name, and has risked everything for the life as an artist that he now lives. He followed his dreams of performing and has risen to a level of stardom that makes his parents proud. He is one of K-pop’s golden boys.
Almost all of this fanbase will support his character without question, regardless of sexual orientation or personality. He has the incredible power of influence. If Hoya says something is acceptable, there is a large group of people that will undoubtably agree. This is the most important quality he brought with him to Reply 1997.
II. The Perfection of Kang Junhee
Hoya’s masculinity carries over to Junhee, an all around athlete who also happens to be fashionable, a great cook, and an even better dancer. The writers of this drama make him out to be the ideal man.
Gay stereotypes in Korea are similar to the basic Western take on stereotypes. Gay men are portrayed as feminine and weak, often with higher pitched voices and limp wrists. How could Junhee, with all of his manly talents, possibly be a gay man?
Junhee contains every character trait that an ideal Korean boy should have. He is intelligent and goes on to become a successful doctor. He is polite and charming to his elders. He is loyal, honest, and insightful, making him the best friend to have in tough situations. He is a good listener, puts others before himself, and gives fantastic advice. There is not a malicious bone in this boy’s body. His perfection seems too good to be true, and it is. He has one fatal flaw according to the Confucian society around him. He likes boys.
While Junhee does seem more comfortable being in the kitchen and bonding with Shi Won’s mother over skin care advice, he is never made out to be an overly feminine or 'wussy' character. He is more mature than the other boys at school and seems to contain a wisdom far beyond his years. He is shown as the loyal and clear thinking friend. His sexuality isn’t the most important thing about him, it is overshadowed by his other fantastic characteristics.
The script writers of Reply 1997 avoid falling into another stereotype for gay characters, which is over-sexualization. Junhee never tries to embrace Yunjae; he actually seems to avoid any physical contact. Their relationship is purely that of friends, although Yunjae hangs onto Junhee as if he is his personal plaything.
Eventually, Junhee moves on, separating himself from his one-sided love.
Junhee’s innocence makes him even more endearing to the audience. The only trait that someone could criticize Junhee for would be that he is far too nice, because we all know that the nice guy never wins in a Korean drama.
Simply stated, Junhee does not have the qualities of a stereotypical gay man. This is why Bingrae, or Kim Dongjun, of Reply 1994 is so important.
III. Bingrae: The Letdown?
In Reply 1994, Baro plays the role of Kim Dongjun, who is known as Bingrae for most of the drama.
Bingrae is a young boy from a farming family who has come to the big city to pursue a career as a doctor. He is enrolled in one of the best medical schools in the country, and has an instant group of friends in his boarding house.
Even with all of these good things going for him, Bingrae stays in his room quietly reading anime or listening to cassettes. He doesn’t have a strong relationship with any of the people he lives with, and only seems comfortable around his cousin or food. He is nowhere near being an ideal man like Kang Junhee.
Bingrae eventually drops out of school without telling anyone, and picks up part time jobs all over the city. This is where his storyline takes a turn, and throws him into the love octagon that is found in most Korean dramas.
Sseuregi, or “Trash,” is the eldest boy in the boarding house. Although his personal hygiene is questionable at best, he is the perfect role model for Bingrae. Trash is on route to become a successful doctor and is completely comfortable with who he is. Bingrae, who already is uncomfortable and jumpy with others, can’t bring himself to treat Trash as a friend. He calls him sunbaenim, which is even more honorific than hyung. During these four years at the boarding house, Bingrae struggles to understand his feelings for the older boy.
Trash decides to make Bingrae his dongsaeng, confiding in Bingrae that he has always wanted a little brother. Drinking games lead to a kiss between Trash and Bingrae, and Trash is constantly giving him special attention. Trash picks him up from work, buys him food, and pets him like a dog, even going so far as to call him Puppy throughout the drama.
This unlikely couple had lots of fans, and many viewers were rooting for their success. With Bingrae’s uncertainty and shyness and Trash’s girlfriends, however, this pairing seemed doomed.
Although they both struggled with understanding their love life, this mysterious and oftentimes withdrawn character is nothing like the confident Junhee of Reply 1997.
IV. Why Bingrae Couldn’t Be Gay
I have heard many fans of this drama complain about how Bingrae’s storyline ended in Reply 1994. An anonymous fan on Tumblr called it a great let down, and confessed that they never finished the drama because they were so upset.
The reality is, if the writers had made Bingrae gay for the sake of having a gay character, they would have destroyed everything they had built with Junhee in Reply 1997.
Bingrae is confused and unsure about every aspect of his life. He is unsure of what he wants to do in the future, of who his friends are, and especially of his own sexuality. He drops out of school, lies to his parents, and has no outstanding talents.
Junhee is confident and comfortable with who he is. He has to hide his feelings from his friends and family, but he never questions them. He is hardworking, naturally talented, and undeniably charming.
The ending that upset many fans of the Bingrae and Trash couple was very well thought out. In the episode that finally reveals Bingrae’s sexuality, the audience gets a sense of déjà vu. Bingrae steps out from the reunion party to meet a mysterious someone. As he waits at the curb for a car to pull up, the audience remembers the final episode of Reply 1997.
After the reunion party as Junhee and the original gang of characters start to head home, Yunjae’s wife and Junhee’s childhood friend Shi Won offers him a ride home. Junhee smiles and declines, explaining that someone is coming for him.
Junhee waits at the curb and gets into the flashy red sports car that comes to pick him up. The script writers kept the identity, and gender, of the driver completely ambiguous. There was never any confirmation of whether Junhee ends up with a man or woman.
The audience finds itself blinded by headlights again in Reply 1994 as Bingrae stares down the street waiting for his special someone. Suddenly, the red sports car appears. The audience remembers where they have seen this scene before.
As the sports car zooms past him, we are given an explanation of not only his sexuality, but of Junhee’s as well.
V. The Key is in the Car
Although Reply 1997 fans had to wait until the end of Reply 1994 for an answer, I loved the way the writers subtly tell the audience that Junhee was in fact, gay.
The car that Junhee hops in at the end of Reply 1997 signifies his homosexuality, and it speeds by Bingrae as his wife pulls up in another car. The writers never had to say anything about Junhee’s relationships and that is what makes it so important.
If Bingrae did not end up in a heterosexual relationship at the end of Reply 1994, the writers would not have been able to give this insight into Junhee’s life.
With the sports car as a metaphor for homosexuality, the writers make being gay a completely normal way of life. The car passes Bingrae without causing a fuss and there is no dramatic music or lighting as Junhee gets in his sports car.
Being gay is as natural as the cars passing you on the street and is not something that needs to be made into a big deal.
That car, or that sexual orientation, simply was not for Bingrae, and saying this in such a natural, subtle way is incredibly important for the gay community.
VI. Korean Attitude
The gay community is still very much underground in Korea. In an Ipsos poll, 79% of South Korean participants said that they do not have a family member, friend, or coworker that is gay, bisexual, or transgender.
Reply 1997 had an incredible following, with its last episode having the highest viewer rating ever for a drama produced by a cable network. The audience was mostly made up of men and women from their teens to their 40s, showing that the show had a wide range of viewers.
The timing of these dramas was absolutely crucial. Just before the airing of Reply 1994, Korea experienced its first same-sex marriage. Legally, South Korea does not recognize marriage between same-sex couples, but that did not stop Kim Jo Gwang Su from marrying his long time partner Kim Seunghwan on May 15, 2013. The wedding was purely ceremonial, and their request to register for marriage was denied.
The marriage opened up country-wide discussions about gay rights in Korea, and new legislation is being proposed by facets of the Korean government.
The good news is, from 2007 to 2013, South Korea is the nation with the most significant change in opinion on the matter of gay rights. According to a poll through Pew Research, the belief that homosexuality should be accepted jumped 21% in six years. The same poll reports that 71% of South Koreans from 18 to 29 years of age support gay rights, showing a positive shift in society.
With the open discussions and diverse viewership of dramas such as Reply 1997 and Reply 1994, I have faith that South Korea will continue in a positive direction towards equality for all sexual orientations.
The work of the scriptwriters for these two dramas made their characters real, relatable, and relevant. It may be completely unconscious, but the Korean audience is being exposed to gay men not as forbidden lovers, but as friends, sons, and students.
They are portrayed as human beings.
Kang Junhee and Kim Bingrae are indispensable to Korea’s fight for gay rights.