Everybody and their grandmothers have been asking me to watch Comrades. This is not a review of Comrades, because I have not started to watch Comrades. I plan to watch it (I promise, pinky swear), but right now my attention is squarely on bright, fluffy, candy-coated sugary drama confections. In particular, Playful Kiss or Mischievous Kiss (“PK”), is my current flavor of the month.
I make no concessions to taste or selection when it comes to drama watching – I watch the poignantly meaningful with the mindlessly cheerful alike. It all depends on mood and craving, and lately I have been craving romance and sweetness by the bushels. With that said, I’ve rarely felt so squarely in the minority, whether in the greater dramaverse or in my own small drama friendverse.
Amongst my friends, it appears I am the only one watching PK AND generally enjoying it way too much. But it’s not a rabid enjoyment whereby I am running around like a headless koala telling everyone they’ve simply got to watch it. The enjoyment I get is a sense of deep contentment in my belly, the feeling you get when you eat a bowl of hot, delicious noodles that warms your soul as well as sates your hunger.
If you are enjoying PK, fret not about the abysmal ratings and bristle not at the folks who think its crap. Neither side is right or wrong, Don’t feel the urge to defend PK or your love for it. Be happy that you are watching something that brings you happiness, and let everything else wash over you. Liking PK does not mean that you have bad taste, or that your judgment is suspect. Not liking PK does not mean you are heartless, or that you hate on cute kittens.
This is a First Impression review of PK, through episode 4. I am here to say that PK is a good drama, generally well-made and well-acted. It will likely not devolve into the mockworthy, nor will it evolve into the exceptionally memorable. Let me see if I can explain why I am loving PK so much. Feel free to disagree, or feel comforted that someone out there is content this drama has been made.
How Do You Fall In Love?
PK is a story with no overarching plot driver. It is about two dissimilar people, who meet in high school and fall in love over the years they spend together. It’s not a realistic portrayal of that love, with the nitty gritty of daily life super-imposed on what we see. Rather, it’s a slightly idealized vision from the perspective of someone re-telling their love story.
Oh Ha Ni is a senior in high school, and she has been in love for the past three years with Baek Seung Jo, the resident genius cum heartthrob. Too bad Seung Jo doesn’t even know Ha Ni exists (well, he pretty much doesn’t notice anyone else at school either). Ha Ni is dimmer than your average student, partially because she spends all her time daydreaming about Seung Jo and doesn’t devote that time or effort to studying.
Ha Ni confesses her love to Seung Jo via your standard high school girl crush love letter, and is rudely and publicly rejected by Seung Jo. Not only does Seung Jo grade and correct the mistakes in Ha Ni’s letter, he tells her he hates stupid girls. In front of pretty much the entire school. Ouch. And what a jackass move.
Ha Ni’s no simpering pushover, and her pride is hurt by this cruel rejoinder. Seung Jo states that if Ha Ni can score in the top 50 in the next exam and enter the self-study classroom, he will piggyback her around the school yard. This is a new one in the piggyback lexicon – piggyback by bet. Too bad before Ha Ni can start studying to win her bet, a freak housing accident causes the Oh house to collapse into a heap of rubble.
Luckily, Ha Ni’s dad has a kind and generous old chum who offers to let him and Ha Ni live with his family. Ha Ni moves in only to discover said old chum is Seung Jo’s dad, and that she will be co-habiting with her crush/nemesis. Seung Jo is not only a stuck-up cold statue at home as well, he has a mini-me little brother Eun Jo who is fast become Seung Jo v.2.
Ha Ni is ignored by the brothers Baek, but embraced instantaneously by Seung Jo’s mom, who has always longed for a daughter to bond with. She not only dotes on Ha Ni, she immediately sees a way to make her dream come true to have a daughter of her own, by pairing Seung Jo and Ha Ni up. Hee, Mom is too adorable for words.
Seung Jo warns Ha Ni not to divulge their co-habitation to the school, but Ha Ni only wants to score higher on the test and uses an embarrassing childhood picture of Seung Jo to blackmail him into tutoring her. Seung Jo reluctantly agrees, and Ha Ni does in fact make it onto the top 50 list in the next exam. These two butt heads, with Ha Ni loving and loathing Seung Jo, and Seung Jo increasingly noticing Ha Ni in his orderly and structured life.
Through a series of funny, charming, and endearing little situations in the lives of these two high school students, Seung Jo and Ha Ni find themselves spending time together and getting to know each other better. Would it be a spoiler to state that Seung Jo and Ha Ni end up falling deeply in love, getting married, and living happily ever after? No, it’s no spoiler, but a glimpse of what we are watching this drama to get to, a simply wonderful ending.
Manga vs Drama
Playful Kiss is a live-action adaptation of a popular Japanese manga, Itazura na Kiss. The manga has already been adapted to great success by the TW drama It Started With A Kiss, and its sequel They Kiss Again. I’ve seen both TW dramas, and have enjoyed them for the most part (I liked the original much better than its sequel).
I can watch PK without over-analyzing the K-version by constantly comparing it to its various predecessors. I think PK starts off exceedingly slow, with lots of unnecessary and over-used set-up scenes. But from episode 2 onward, the drama moves along at a nice pace, taking us for a cute ride and showing the couple changing and communicating in little ways.
PK doesn’t end in cliffhangers, hinge its story on twist and turns of fate and the heart, or drive its characters by events. Rather, the characters drive the what little actual story it has, tied together by watching Seung Jo and Ha Ni grow as people and fall in love. In that respect, PK stays true to its manga roots and resembles a J-dorama with only smatterings of K-drama stylings.
That can be boring for some viewers, and underwhelming for others. But that is the source material of PK, and what we are seeing is both exceedingly mellow yet delicately moving. Yes, I do see moments where the writer and PD Hwang In Roi could raise the bar a notch, but they never waste time on throwaway scenes.
What happens in PK is as if a camera captured the daily lives of Seung Jo and Ha Ni, and then cut the scenes to only show the more significant and/or amusing moments. With that said, I would have toned down the excessive Goong-esque touches and do away with the teddy bear closing montage lifted straight from Goong. I don’t believe I’ve seen one drama copy so many elements from another drama before. While it remains cute in PK, it does strip PK of some of its unique identity.
Acting, Acting, On The Wall
If PK goes down in history as a flop (which, judging by its early ratings and future prospects, looks to be the case), at least it will leave some positive takeaways from it. The most significant thing to emerge from PK is the leading actress arrival of Jung So Min. She is Oh Ha Ni. She is Oh Ha Ni more than we can picture, imagine, or dream the character of Oh Ha Ni.
I watched Jung So Min make her debut in Bad Guy, and as much as her performance there was eye-catching, I hated that character she played so much I wished she’d just fall into a ditch and stay there. So when Jung So Min was cast in PK, I knew she would do fine, but I wasn’t looking forward to seeing her. Something about her face was still imprinted with the character of Hong Mo Nae for me to be excited to watch her so soon onscreen again.
Within minutes of watching her in PK, all the images of her in Bad Guy slowly disappeared. Until what is left today is that I have no strong recollection of her in Bad Guy, and I only see Oh Ha Ni on screen. Jung So Min is the real deal, using exquisitely honest and purposeful acting to embody a character so completely she leaves no traces of previous characters she played, or even her real life personality. In that respect, she is just like Ariel Lin, who played the same character in It Started With A Kiss. Comparing Jung So Min to Ariel Lin is heady praise indeed.
For everyone’s early wailing about Kim Hyun Joong being cast in PK (no lie, I wailed, too), rest assured that while he still may not be the best choice to play Baek Seung Jo, he is doing a good job so far and looks to continue to improve in his performance. I found his acting debut in Boys Before Flowers so awful I would cringe each him he appeared in a scene.
Thankfully, Kim Hyun Joong has indeed improved in his acting (but still doesn’t have the natural camera-loving connection), and he’s proven another corollary for me. A digression: I have now determined that the character of Hanazawa Rui/Hua Ze Lei/Yoon Ji Woo is just a giant charisma suck and an acting black hole. I have hated all three versions of said character, and wrote off Oguri Shun/Zai Zai/Kim Hyun Joong when each played said character.
It is only when these three actors moved on to other characters did I realize (1) these are three hot men, and (2) these are three men who don’t suck donkey balls at acting. Anyways, back to Kim Hyun Joong as Baek Seung Jo – he’s doing fine and has a great simmering chemistry with Jung So Min. It’s not just Jung So Min’s great acting generating all the chemistry, little gestures and expressions from Seung Jo really pull us into his character and create a connection with the viewer and with Ha Ni.
The other secondary characters are all wonderful – from Kang Nam Gil as Ha Ni’s loving father, to Jung Hye Young as the kind and playful Mom, to Lee Tae Sung as Ha Ni’s buffoonish but devoted classmate Bong Joon Gu. Joon Gu is the most cartoonish of all the characters in PK, but his character was always a ham in manga and all previous drama versions.
If you’ve watched Lee Tae Sung’s other works, you can see that he can channel any type of character, but his physical presence is quite commanding and sometimes he gives off an exceedingly strong vibe on screen. In PK, this comes across as OTT, but I find his performance so endearing and his character so caring about Ha Ni that it doesn’t annoy me.
After four episodes of PK, at least I can breathe a giant sigh of relief that bad-, over-, and lack of- acting in PK will not be an issue. The characters in PK are centered around Ha Ni and Seung Jo, and then radiate outwards, to the Baek and Oh family, then to rivals for Seung Jo and Ha Ni’s affections, and finally to their friends and classmates in various institutions. We’re here for Seung Jo and Ha Ni’s story, so don’t get grumbly if the other characters are not as well developed.
Grade: Expectations Exceeded
I went into PK with very low (I mean very very low) expectations. And I’ve emerge with a happy outlook and my drama-cravings satisfied by PK. I am in the mood for a low-key, slightly idealized love story, and PK fits the bill. The only thing I can state definitively about PK is that it is NOT a bad drama, not by a long shot.
It has a lovely albeit simplistic story, good-to-wonderful acting, deft and steady directing, and oodles of chemistry between the leads and the entire cast. Don’t get angry when some people hate PK or find it mind-deadening fluff. Dramas come in all shapes, sizes, and fits, and there is no such thing as one-size-fits all.
I usually only dislike dramas when the acting is bad, or the plot makes no sense or runs in circles, or when I feel the purpose of the story is pointless. PK doesn’t fit any of these three situations, and in fact I venture to say that the purpose of the love story in PK is the opposite of pointless. Whether we are young (yet to experience love in all its magnificent and/or heartbreaking glory) or we are old (having enduring highs and lows, and have found a permanent residence in which to park our hearts), PK reminds us that the simplest rendition of love is truly special to watch.
As we take the journey with Ha Ni and Seung Jo, seeing them grow to love one another, in charming, clumsy, exasperating, and silly ways, is a wonderful way to salute love. Love needn’t be dramatic, life-altering, universe-rending, or even fraught with unnecessary melodrama. It can be a joy to watch two people fall in love in the most ordinary way possible – by getting to know other another.
I can safely bet my abode that tension and momentum of PK will continue to get better and better, and that the first few episodes are likely the weakest episodes in the drama. I think the entire production is still gelling and finding its footing, but it’s about to settle into a confident groove. If PK sounds like a delicious piece of cake to you, too, then join me in partaking of a slice.
PK is going to be a twenty episode drama, and if MBC cuts it like it did to Tamra the Island, I am going to go berserk like a Hulk Koala and go smack some heads. I don’t think that will happen, because unlike Tamra, PK has a rabid and rather large online and overseas interest even now. I think PK’s ridiculously low ratings reflect a confluence of factors: tough competition, the manga-adaption genre being not so popular at the moment, and it’s production releasing too much spoilery goodness about the drama.
I think teen-targeted dramas are at a nadir right now in Korean drama consumption, based on the drama trending I see. Regardless of its target audience, PK is written with lots of heart, and performed with lots of grace. As a middle-aged koala, I am enjoying it without feeling secret shame or defensiveness. I cannot wait to watch how PK deals with various heart-stopping aspects of the source material.
For those of you bemoaning how some of your favorite OTPs never get satisfying closure at the end of some dramas – rest assured that this story has perhaps the most satisfying OTP ending in any drama I have ever watched. I watch PK with a constant smile on my face, and I think you might as well if you check it out. If PK doesn’t grab your interest, at least it won’t make you gnash your teeth and bash your head. And it’ll likely make you laugh out loud at least once or twice.