You know that hope that I mentioned at the very end of my last post, that Playful Kiss would get better?
It's still an intrinsically low-key drama, without most of the high-maintenance conflicts and soap-opera-ey developments that characterize higher-concept trendy dramas, but after a slow (very slow) start, it materializes into an absolutely adorable, wildly addicting little romance.
My reaction to Playful Kiss
went something like this:
Episodes 1-2: "meh", Episodes 3-4: "hmm", Episodes 5-6: "YES!!", Episodes 7-8: "LOVE"
I've been trying to put my finger on a Kdrama that Playful Kiss
reminds me of, but in the end, I decided that what it really is most like is a very well-done Twdrama. Taiwanese dramas tend to have simpler, more linear storylines that Kdramas - the focus is very much on the main couple and their relationship, and much more of the onscreen time is taken up by the main couple's interactions, as opposed to Kdramas where supporting characters often take up a great deal of screen-time and story space.
In Playful Kiss
, Baek Seung Jo and Oh Ha Ni spend relatively little time together in the first few episodes - Ha Ni sighs after him but they barely actually talk/interact. This, combined with the problems I mentioned in my first post - bad directing, slow pace, and less-than-stellar acting on Kim Hyun Joong's part - meant that the first two episodes of this drama were dull and unimpressive, while episodes three and four were better but not exceptional.
And then episode five happened, and, as Javabeans mentions in her recap
of this episode, it's as if Playful Kiss
finally figured out how to tell a story. Stuff actually happened
, y'all - for the first time, the episode moved along quickly, transitioning with ease from scene to scene and hitting both plot points (Ha Ni applying for college, going to the interview, Seung Jo taking the test) and emotional beats (Seung Jo/Ha Ni's conversation about college, his acceptance of her gift to him, the "date", the accident and Ha Ni's reaction to it). For the first time, Seung Jo and Ha Ni start to interact like actual human beings instead of two squabbling kids - they have conversations
about things that matter to both of them. Ha Ni sees that Seung Jo might have a chink in his cold, perfect armor, while Seung Jo begins to realize that Ha Ni might not have his academic skills, but she's got him beat on emotional maturity and general life approach.(Also, this episode had some genuinely funny moments-Seung Jo's "I must really be a genius" on getting his test results back? Hilarious!) It's as if the drama finally figured out how to bring them onscreen together in a cohesive and effective way.
As a result of all this, the actors' chemistry, fairly nascent up until this point, finally explodes into full bloom, and from here on out (I've now seen through episode eight), as the romance amps up, their chemistry also increases. The directing is significantly better in episode five, but as much as I liked episode five, I have to say that it was really episode six that owned my heart. Ha Ni tries to run away, and Seung Jo stops her, and we get, not just the first iota of clear, real warmth he's ever shown toward her, but in his own messed-up way, we get a whole bucketload of warmth -he's clearly going to that Place that Shall Not be Named-Because-of-Spoilers because of her, and for now, that's enough for me.
(from here on out I'm basically giving a brief summary of highlights of episodes six to eight)
ALSO, in episode six, we finally got a Moment of Sizzling Jealousy on Seung Jo's part when Joon Gu grabs Ha Ni's hand - that glare you shot him was very cold and distant and logical indeed hmm Mr. Robot? This
is the stuff I live by. And then we get the end of the episode with its famous, famous kiss scene, and frankly, I like this one much better than the ISWAK one. The ISWAK kiss is often included in drama MVs of famous kisses, but I've always thought it was very awkward - the camera angles are so weird, particularly when it pans out and then back in to focus on Ariel Lin's wide-open eyes bugging out, and ugh, it was all just so clinical and staged and awkward. The Playful Kiss
one is equally staged (try saying "Playful Kiss
kiss" three times in a row)- as it's meant to be at this point - but it was much more natural and there were actual sparks of chemistry shooting between them, for however brief a period, because Ha Ni, unlike Xiang Qin, does not react like a frozen icicle.
Javabeans felt that episode six returned to the looser, less-cohesive storytelling of the first few episodes, but while this is true, I thought that it was necessary, because in many ways, everything that happens to Seung Jo and Ha Ni prior to college is a prequel, a set-up for when the real story starts when they're in college. I think this is another characteristic of the manga, since ISWAK also amped everything up when the characters got to college. The story really begins, appropriately enough, when the "playful kiss" of the drama/manga's title happens - and it's almost a pity that both drama adaptations of this have gone through the entire high school sequence without cutting out much, because the story takes on much fuller and more convincing dimensions post-high school (the high school interactions are cute and a necessary basis for the future relationship, but it would've been nice if they could've been cut down to perhaps 2 or 3 episodes instead of 5 in the Kdrama - something it could have legitimately done because it's so much shorter than the Twdrama). All of which is to say, I really didn't mind when episode six whizzed us through all that's left of high school and straight to the doors of college, because it felt as if the writers/director, having been experimenting through episode five, finally realized where their strengths where and where the strongest story was and so got us to it as quickly as possible.
The directing also gets much, much better - again, there was a sense of hesitancy about it in the first few episodes, or of not really trying, but in episode five, much of six and seven, and especially eight, it's much, much more assured, even as the writing also picks up speed. In direct contrast to the noticeably awkward school scene I mentioned in my last post, there's a scene in episode seven that is noticeably well-directed/well-shot - namely the one toward the end when the camera focuses on Ha Ni sitting droopy at her window after deciding to move out, and then moves over to Seung Jo standing in his room looking over at her room, and then panning out to show both of them. Delicious
. A lovely visual underscoring of the emotional moment.
In general, the end of episode six provides the first turning point of the series, and then the end of episode seven the second with Ha Ni moving out, all of which is to say that these two work together, and this is a deliciously angsty turning point of the story, when our Cool Indifferent Greek God begins to realize that a certain warm, scatterbrained girl who was always there isn't there anymore, and that perhaps human women do have the power to touch him.
Episode eight then, as if to make up for all the time it took to get there, all the unflagging coldness Seung Jo showed toward Ha Ni, and all the screentime they didn't share, is one long episode of pure romantic gold
. All that time we waited makes the final warming-of-the-Seung-Jo-iceberg infinitely more satisfying, but far more than that, the romantic scenes we got in this one were actually good. All context aside, they would have been well-written and perhaps even giddiness-inducing in any drama. What I especially loved was how it took a number of cliched romantic scenes we've seen in other dramas - the guy teaching the girl how to do something, the girl getting hurt, etc - and did perhaps the best rendition of them I've seen. I have seen more versions of the guy piggybacking the girl than I care to count - it's a minor drama trope which means it's in almost every Korean drama I can think of - and this was hands-down one of my very favorite versions of the scene, perhaps even the best rendition. It was just so deliciously handled - so quietly led up to, the emotion so ever-present but gradually building so that it reached a small climax during that scene, and the absolute, utter warmth Kim Hyun Joong was able to convey in that scene.
I've often wondered if Kim Hyun Joong, who has been typecast as the cool, reserved figure due to his Ji-hoo turn in Boys Over Flowers, has been mis-typecast (that's a mouthful, but you get my point). The rare times, mostly toward the end, of Boys Over Flowers, when he was allowed to be warm and natural and happy, around Jandi, were the times when he was by far and away the most compelling, and I don't believe it was simply that during those times he was playing an archetypal romantic figure and was therefore by default a more attractive figure. Hyun Joong in real life has an outgoing, sometimes even brash persona, or at least that's what he projects onstage as the leader of SS501, and I've always wondered if he'd be a better and more convincing actor if they'd let him portray someone more like himself.
And I think I was right, because as soon as the director/writers allow Seung Jo's icy exterior to crack and allow him to show approval and warmth toward someone, Hyun Joong also snaps into his character much more - all the stiffness disappears, he starts to own the camera with ease, and then, at the end of the episode, he absolutely lights up the screen when they allow him to fully smile for the first time (seriously drama Powers-That-Be - why cast someone with a smile that amazing and then never let him smile? Million-watt just about covers it).
And how amazing was that moment?? Whatever kind of drama Playful Kiss
ends up being - whether it keeps improving or whether it falls back to its original awkwardness, I will always remember that perfect, lovely scene at the end of episode eight as stellar. It was all just so perfect - Seung Jo's casual, easy indifference to what anyone else thought as long as he was able to help Ha Ni, her wonder and pleasure as she clings to him, and the way we finally get to see Seung Jo's commanding/independent personality, so often a flaw of his, manifest as a strength, as he refuses to let Ha Ni be pressured into playing the match.
In summary, I'm not saying just that Playful Kiss
is a much better drama than I originally thought and that it vastly improves as it goes on, but also that by this point it's a genuinely good drama in its own right, with the potential to become very good. It is still relatively low-key, but just delicious in its slow-building, slow-burning buildup of affection between two people.
Watch Playful Kiss on DramaFever.