I finally found a chance to watch the first few episodes of Playful Kiss, which if you read this blog, you should know that I’ve been hotly anticipating for some time, mostly for the Kim Hyun Joong quotient. Playful Kiss, with its well-known storyline (based on a famous manga which has already been adapted into a popular Taiwanese drama) and idol star (Kim Hyun Joong), generated huge buzz before its debut, and seemed like a high-profile drama guaranteed to draw in at least decent ratings. Imagine my shock then when it drew in a staggeringly low 3.5% for its premiere episode, and even lower ratings for the next few episodes. I lay the blame for this mostly at the feet of the intensely competitive field into which it debuted – I realize that production companies must debut their dramas as scheduled, but really, they were dooming Playful Kiss to failure almost from the start by having it debut in the same time slot as Baker King and My Girlfriend is a Gumiho. Baker King, a very good, sometimes even fantastic, drama, has been a veritable juggernaut ratings-wise – add the well-performing My Girlfriend is a Gumiho on top of that and any drama debuting right now had its work cut out for it. For a drama to hold its own against those two, it should have had pizzazz – snap and flair and a driving storyline which immediately captures a viewer’s attention. Playful Kiss, however, is not that kind of drama, nor is it meant to be. Four episodes in, I’m finding Playful Kiss a very enjoyable drama, but also a quiet one. In fact, in my opinion the marketing for the drama, which portrayed it as a Boys-Over-Flowers-esque, high-profile trendy drama, did it a distinct disservice. Playful Kiss is not a high-concept drama, big star or no – it’s set in high school (and partially college) and its conflicts and problems fall within that dimension. Goong and Boys Over Flowers, both smash hits, are the two dramas this has most often been compared to, but neither of these were really, when it came down to it, high school dramas - both had other elements that quickly took over and submerged the teenage storyline. In Goong, it was the palace life/contract marriage that most of the drama centered on. In Boys Over Flowers, it was the dog-eat-dog world of the very wealthy, complete with its scheming families, class struggles, and Romeo-and-Juliet-type romance. p No such higher-stakes world is present in Playful Kiss; while Ha Ni’s house does collapse early in the drama, she doesn’t have to worry about poverty or homelessness, because she and her family are quickly taken in by family friends. The rest of her concerns are the typical worries of a high-school girl – an intense crush on a good-looking boy, a desire to raise her grades in order to be more on his level, and struggles with high school rivals and enemies. This is not inherent in the drama’s writing – rather this limitation is inherent in the manga itself, and also characterized the Taiwanese adaptation. Playful Kiss isn’t a  “trendy” romance like Goong or Boys Over Flowers – rather it’s a fairly simple, sweet, straightforward story of two high school-kids who fall in love and don’t know how to deal with it – and in that realm it works very well. However, as such, it was always more likely to appeal to only a certain audience. i You might ask then why the Taiwanese drama so popular, if it had the same themes and limitations. Easy – in part because ISWAK had much less competition than Playful Kiss does, but mostly because Ariel Lin and Joe Cheng were not only excellent actors, but had chemistry to burn, and lifted the drama above its source material. They took the limited, slightly childish themes of the drama and gave them a very adult resonance and emotional depth. I’m not a particular fan of either of the two as actors, but I can admit that I’ve rarely seen an onscreen couple with such intense, sparkling chemistry. Playful Kiss, obviously, doesn’t have this component. Kim Hyun Joong, as we all know, is no great shakes as an actor; I love the boy, and he has absolutely improved since BOF, but he is definitely lacking the extra spark of charisma that could light up his arrogant character.  Jung So Min on the other hand is good – adorable, easy to watch, and possessed of a multitude of impish faces when things don’t go her way. As Ha Ni, a character rather difficult to play, she is very, very endearing, and improves even as the drama goes on. The directing, at least initially, is the biggest problem here however. Director Hwang In Roe is famous for directing Goong, but at least in the first few episodes there's no spark of the same magic here. Many people have complained that the feel and set-up are too similar to Goong, with the school setting and the closing credits featuring teddy bears, but even if that is the case (it's been too long since I saw Goong), whatever worked for that drama is not working here. I searched for words to describe the directing - was it uneven? Clunky? and finally landed on uninspired. The directing is just dull -  noticeably so. I've said before that this is a low-key drama, but the directing slows it down even more with lingering camera shots, awkward transitions between scenes, and a tendency to extend what should have lasted only a moment into an entire scene (I'm thinking particularly of that scene at the school when Ha Ni has stayed late to study and is wandering around staring at the whiteboard just before Seung Jo passes by). Worst of all is the music however - even-toned, boring instrumental stuff that is downright distracting during some of the slower scenes, because it drags them down even more. It's certainly not awful directing -most of the problems are confined to the school scenes rather than the home scenes, and  everything at least makes logical sense, but I've seen far, far better. isAnd now for a digression: I must admit to some confusion about why both the Taiwanese and the Korean adaptations have followed the manga so closely. Boys Over Flowers was an adaptation of Japanese manga Hana Yori Dango, but took so many liberties with the storyline that at times you couldn’t even recognize it. Taiwanese dramas also often change the stories to one extent or another when adapting from mangas. What is it about this particular manga that led both the Taiwanese and Korean makers to conclude that they must follow the manga closely when adapting it for television? Is it just that it’s so popular? /End Digression As far as comparisons between the Taiwanese adaptation and this one go, however, I would say that both have their strengths and weaknesses, but the Korean one is gradually becoming my favorite. ISWAK, for all the power of its leads, was an intensely polarizing drama for its sexist/chauvinistic elements – the female lead, Xiang Qin, is almost the ultimate representation of a woman whose entire life revolves around a man. She spends much of her life single-mindedly pursuing her crush, even as he ignores and despises her, and makes most of her decisions based on her feelings for him. As a result, most viewers either loved it or despised it, with little in between. I myself have mixed feelings – on the one hand, I fall in the camp that views Xiang Qin on principle as a disgrace to the female race, but on the other hand Ariel Lin made the character miraculously sympathetic and likable. Ultimately it wasn’t the relationship between Xiang Qin and Zhi Shu that I found most troubling, but rather the drama’s (brief but intensely disturbing) portrayal of sexual molestation and how that was handled within the context of the story (in a word: horribly). But more on that another day.  ISWAK was also, at 30 episodes, far too long. The Korean adaptation thus far at least has toned down the overt sexism – Ha Ni is not overloaded with brains, but she’s not stupid either, and her world doesn’t revolve around Seung Jo in quite the same desperate, intense way that Xiang Qin‘s did in ISWAK. And at 16 episodes the plot should end up being a lot tighter than ISWAK’s. And now that I've officially ripped the first few episodes apart on a critical level,  I would like to just say that Playful Kiss is really, really adorable. There may be no deep emotional stakes or societal commentary in this story, but there’s a reason that the manga and even the Taiwanese adaptation became so popular – there’s a lot of fun in watching this upbeat, determined, normal girl and this closed-off, arrogant genius clash, fight, look out for each other, and gradually draw closer together in a story that’s all about the fluff and what it feels like to be in high school and college. In tone, Playful Kiss feels a little more like a daily drama than a serial – it’s the kind you sit down to watch for an hour or two of fun, romantic shenanigans. There’s a warm, likable vibe to it, and Kim Hyun Joong and Jung So Min are insanely pretty onscreen together, and I hold out hope that the drama may up the stakes and become better as it goes along. There may not be much to get obsessed about, but there’s very little to dislike either. Playful Kiss is a drama that doesn’t necessarily lift itself above or distinguish itself from its source material, but it is thoroughly enjoyable despite its flaws. Continue reading Part Two!