Playful Kiss (MBC 2010): First Impressions

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. :-D

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51 thoughts on “Playful Kiss (MBC 2010): First Impressions

  1. Hi ockoala, i LOVE reading your kdrama reviews :)) and this one makes me wanna watch PK. Watched the taiwanese version and japanese version. Loved the dorama ones. the taiwanese versions were too slow that i most of the time FF-ed the DVDs =/..hope this one turns out an ok drama for me :)

  2. Oh wow, everyone has been so kind and effusive in your comments! I don’t even know where to start responding. I normally try to respond to each comment, but I think all the comments have pretty much the sentiment (which I also share): PK makes us happy, we are not silly mindless teenagers devouring empty fluff, PK is well-done and its ratings don’t reflect that, and at the end of the day, we are happy PK exists and we appreciate it.
    :-D You guys are the best! Thanks for the comments, and for letting me know there is a world of PK-lovers out there like me.

  3. I really love reading your insight to PK, ockoala. I’ve been in a bit of dilemma whether to watch this one, because I’ve watched the Taiwanese version and its sequel and I really loved it. What was amazing about the T-version was the heartwarming journey of the two main characters and how they grow to love each other – and how the girl cluelessly inspires the boy and makes him fall for her. I’m apprehensive about PK because I’m not sure if this drama can embody the journey as well as the T-version did. And having Kim Hyunjoong as the lead doesn’t give much reassurance either. But having read your post, I’m gonna give it a shot – see if it has the magic in it. :)

  4. Thank you for this excellent review…I started watching INK a couple of years ago but couldn’t stand it. But I like KHJ so I plan to watch this but with the low ratings report I kind of lost interest. But after your review I get a general idea of how the story will unfold so will definitely watch it now…

    Hmmm… “piggy back by bet” got me thinking about..

    piggy back by drunk – HanGyul by EunChan… Coffee Prince
    piggy back by broken ankle – Hong SuAh by Park HaeJin…By Land and Sky
    piggy back by sheer bliss – YEH by JJH …Goong/ Palace
    piggy back by broken shoe – Jandi/JiHoo…BBF
    piggy back by self induced fainting – SeungMi by Hwan…Brilliant Legacy

  5. I read so much hate comments about this drama and feel like I want to hug you for this warm review :). I totally agree with what you said about JSM. When I was watching PK, I totally forget that she was the girl that I hate in Bad Guy. She’s the main star for PK and really lovable. For KHJ, since he is my biased and the main reason why I want to watch this drama, I think his acting is acceptable here compare with his role in BOF. He may not the perfect role for Seung Jo in term of acting but I enjoy watching him acting as Seung Jo :)

  6. Thundie! I ventured over here to your blog with the tiniest hope that you’d be covering PK and, god forbid, delight in it as much as I do, and what a reward I’ve found! Your post, as well as the show, make me exceedingly happy. I shall come visit again soon – thanks!! (this and my gf is a gumiho are my 1st dramas since YB)

  7. ockoala, i think mbc already decided that the drama will be only until 16 episodes…boohooo i think its bcoz of the poor rating! ok guys, time to run for our lives…HULK KOALA will be on the loose soon! kyaaahhh!!!

  8. First of all, thanks for writing such a detailed and insightful review! I have read the manga, watched ISWAK, AND the anime. So yes, I am indeed devoted to this story. lol
    So far, I’m enjoying the simple, sweet atmosphere in PK. ^^ a similar story, but completely different feeling, albeit good ones. I think KHJ managed to portray a gentler version of the main character, just softer around the edges in comparison to Zhi Shu/Irie. Although he’s supposedly a walking statue, his passionate and caring side is consistently peeking through. As for Oh Ha Ni, I love her! I do believe Ariel Lin is the better and more versatile actress on the overall scale, BUT Xiang Qin annoyed the hell outta me. Ha Ni is definitely not as whiny AND I think she’s got a higher EQ. I still remember her little album comment, “Life is the same. Something this light could be so heavy.” That’s some insight, really impressed me.
    Okay, to end my rant, I’m very comfotable with the pace of the story, and am looking foward to how rest of the series unfolds.

  9. ockoala, this must be the fourth or fifth i’m reading your review! i really really enjoy it. and how very true to how i feel too!

  10. Actually, I like the show. Granted, the first episode was unusual, but by the end of the 2nd, you know why the characters are the way they are. As for the over-acting and under-acting that was mentioned on other forums, it’s become clear it’s the personality of the characters themselves. It’s innocent and very day dream-ish. If you remember how you were when you were a kid – and if you can remember how to be a kid -, then you will appreciate it. I’m seeing a story line that allows the viewer to grow up with the characters. It’s not like any other show I’ve seen. I honestly feel it’s wonderful family programming geared for teens and preteens a like. I just watched episode 7 on Hulu – No sex, no violence, no cursing, no mouthing off to elders…. The stations here in the US should take a hint.

  11. This is incredibly well written.
    Thank you so much, I very much enjoyed reading this!
    I wish you’d do episodes recap for this drama :-)

  12. To be honest, I came into this w/o much expectation. I honestly didn’t expect anything good from this drama since I thought that nothing could top the Taiwanese version. [Note: I have watched all the other versions before this one.] So as I was watching this drama, I did compared it to the Taiwanese version. But by the 3rd episode I was hooked~ I loved the casting [don’t know any of the actors/actresses] and the various differences in the drama were endearing. Though at times I cringed at Oh Ha Ni’s various dramatic antics, over all it was a good drama. I loved watching howo the love between the two characters progressed. The two leads sure have chemistry together.<3

  13. I must be the only person in the world who thinks this show is garbage!! It’s very annoying and pathetic. Oh ha ni is sad and pathetic. She has no self worth!! She was borderline retarded. She follows Seung jo like a dumb dog. What kind of person could fall for such a 5 class clinger/stalker. Through out the whole show I wanted to just shake and punch her. Also I felt the person who played seung jo I forget his name was too good for this trash show. Maybe I’m used to j/k dramas where the man chase after the strong level headed women.

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