I had mixed feelings about this premiere: It wasn’t as good as I was hoping, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared.

I can see where some viewers had issues with it, and I share those concerns. But I think it started to find its groove later on — almost too late, really — and will hold onto that hope going into Episode 2.

SONG OF THE DAY

G.NA – “키스해줄래” (Will you kiss me?) from the Playful Kiss OST. [ Download ]

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CHARACTERS

Our heroine is OH HA-NI (Jung So-min), a not-so-bright student in her last year of high school, who’s in the last-place class (seventh of seven) of her year. She grew up with a loving father who runs a noodle restaurant (her mother died when she was a child), and the two have an affectionate relationship. Prone to daydreaming, Ha-ni’s fantasies center around Seung-jo, a boy at school on whom she harbors a pretty strong crush.

Ha-ni’s best friends, also in the last-place class, are DOKKO MIN-AH (Yoon Seung-ah) and JUNG JU-RI (Hong Yoon-hwa). Together, the trio is a little bumbling, but good-hearted and loyal to one another.

BAEK SEUNG-JO (Kim Hyun-joong), on the other hand, is the complete opposite. He’s in the No. 1 class and isn’t merely the best student, but positively perfect. In fact, in the most recent exams, he scored a 500 out of 500. Alas, that intellectual perfection doesn’t come with a gracious personality. He’s not just the cold, logical type a la Mr. Darcy but quite condescending to boot, looking down his nose at everyone, not bothering to hide that he finds them inferior. Whatta prince.

His parents are perfectly friendly people, though, and his mother (GEUM-HEE, played by Jung Hye-young) will figure largely in our plot. For now, all we know is that she’s a welcoming, cheerful mother with a lively sense of curiosity about her son’s life.

The guy with the retro flipped-up hair is BONG JOON-GU (Lee Tae-sung), a Busan boy with the thick accent to prove it. He can usually be seen traveling en masse with his posse, the foursome played by rock band Bye Bye Sea who are identified simply as “Bong Joon-gu’s Boys.”

Joon-gu and the boys are also residents of Class 7. While the boys can often be found jamming on musical instruments in between classes, Joon-gu spends a lot of his energies following Ha-ni around, trying to win her affections. She remains firmly fixated on Seung-jo, however, and doesn’t spare Joon-gu much thought.

 
EPISODE 1 RECAP

We open on a fantasy sequence, set in what looks like an enchanted meadow in a fairy tale. The CG is exaggerated, but it has that overtly whimsical sensibility of Pushing Daisies or Big Fish — dreamy, romantic, and girlish.

In the daydream, a handsome young man dressed all in white comes upon a sleeping girl, kisses her lightly, then walks away. When the girl wakes, she sees a white horse and follows it through the forest to another meadow, where the horse turns back into her mystery man.

He approaches her and leans in. This time, she anticipates the kiss and purses her lips in readiness…

Which is when she wakes up. At school. Late for class. Oh Ha-ni, waking from her latest crush-induced fantasy, races off as the bell rings.

The dream sequence is admittedly very pretty to look at, but since we know it’s a fantasy from the very get-go, it does go on and on. My feelings on the opening went from “This is lovely” to “Hm, I wonder where they’re going with this” to “GRAHH, WHY ARE YOU SO SLOW.”

In class, Ha-ni’s teacher attempts to exert some authority over her sluggish pupils, but this ain’t the last-place class without a reason. Students nap, zone out, and generally slack off. Ha-ni and her friends aren’t worried about their latest grades, though — they’re always at the bottom, so what else is new?

While Ha-ni, Ju-ri, and Min-ah hang out in the lounge, a student comes by and loses a coin in the soda machine. She’s HONG JANG-MI (Jang Ah-young), who’s basically a Mean Girl, despite being younger than Ha-ni.

With a flourish, Ha-ni steps in and kicks the machine to get the soda to pop out, and enjoys basking in the moment. Particularly since it momentarily puts a cork in Jang-mi’s superior act.

Ha-ni moons all over Seung-jo, which seems to be a pretty common occurrence. Her friends are used to it, and only shake their heads when Ha-ni shares her daydream and calls him a spirit of the forest. She goes into raptures over his perfection, saying that now she understands how vampires feel — such is his beauty that it makes her want to bite right into him.

Speak of the devil: Seung-jo makes his appearance, calm and cool as you please, blithely ignoring the squealing of girls who ooh over his entrance.

Ha-ni freezes as Seung-jo approaches, victim to the vicissitudes of adolescent infatuation, and her heart thumps wildly. Jang-mi flutters over to him offers her soda instead, chattering on as though they’re close friends. Apparently their mothers are friends, and Seung-mi tries to use this to ingratiate herself, fawning all over him.

Seung-jo ignores her, but when his coin also gets stuck in the machine, Jang-mi calls out to Ha-ni to employ her fix again. She particularly enjoys putting Ha-ni on the spot, making the latter reluctant to comply but also reluctant to refuse.

So Ha-ni goes up to the machine, studiously avoiding his gaze, and delivers a kick. Afterward she cringes in embarrassment, not wanting this to be his impression of her, but I say there’s something satisfying in the way Seung-jo gapes; he’s not exactly impressed, but eliciting any reaction at all from his stone-faced demeanor is probably an accomplishment.

Seung-jo turns to leave, and Ju-ri, trying to help her friend, calls out her name loudly so that he’ll hear it. Seung-jo turns and starts walking back toward them, and Ha-ni readies herself in anticipation — surely he’ll thank her, or say something? But no, he retrieves his change from the machine.

Her friends urge Ha-ni to confess her feelings, since they’ll graduate soon enough. Despite her earlier embarrassment, Ha-ni bounces right back and clings to the new hope that perhaps Seung-jo isn’t expressing his feelings for her because he doesn’t know hers, and decides a confession is just the thing. But how?

To prove her utter lack of common sense, Ha-ni likes Ju-ri’s joke suggestion about dressing as Gollum and addressing Seung-jo as “My precious.” Min-ah’s suggestion is better, but not by much: a mating dance, like animals.

This leads us into another fantasy, wherein Ha-ni dances in Swan Lake, joined by Seung-jo. Again this goes longer than necessary, but at least the punchline saves it (sort of): Seung-jo partners Ha-ni, lifts her in the air, and then tosses her aside.

Poor girl. Even in her own daydreams she can’t catch a break.

Next up is drawing class, and Joon-gu (whom I’ve taken to calling Duckie in my head) is tapped as figure model. Anyone with half a brain would be totally onto how very much he’s in love with Ha-ni (or at least in grand infatuation), but I suppose half her brain is perpetually fixated on Seung-jo, so she brushes his attentions aside.

That means all his efforts to look cool are wasted, although he doesn’t know it. As the pose becomes harder and harder to maintain, sweat beads drip from his forehead but Joon-gu vows to stick with it, since Ha-ni is looking at him.

Ha-ni does draw, but in a mechanical way as she doodles the words “Confess… mating dance… Gollum…”

Adding salt to the wound is when Joon-gu peers at the drawing at the end of class — to see that she has drawn his body with Seung-jo’s face.

We don’t see much of the teachers in Episode 1, but I suspect they’ll have their own storyline, so let’s introduce ’em: At left is SONG KANG-YI (Hwang Hyo-eun), and Kang Doo plays the Class 1 teacher SONG JI-OH. Both are “Teacher Song,” but are polar opposites — kind of like Ha-ni and Seung-jo, in fact.

I wonder if their storyline will mimic our main one, since it appears Kang-yi may have a crush on Ji-oh, who is just as cool and superior as his star student.

Ha-ni becomes engrossed in thought, trying to figure out how to confess her feelings to Seung-jo. Dad picks up on it, and understands that she’s got a crush on a boy even though she describes it as the situation of “a friend,” and shares how he made his confession to her mother. (Stealing, by the way, a famous line from I’m Sorry, I Love You.)

So that launches Ha-ni into another reverie — really, drama? Number 3 already? — wherein she corners Seung-jo with her motorcycle gang, looking like a bad girl out of Grease while a pale imitation of “Beat It” serves as background music.

(Gah, these extended fantasies that never end! I love you, director Hwang, but you could really do to watch some episodes of Scrubs. ‘s all I’m sayin’.)

Badass Ha-ni confronts Seung-jo, who backs away meekly, and she recites her line, which offers him the choice to either be with her or die.

And even in her fantasy, Seung-jo picks the coffin. Aw! There’s something really endearing about Ha-ni in this.

Thankfully Dad has more practical advice than her friends, and suggests that a sincere love letter might just work best. Ha-ni decides he’s right, and delivers a letter to his locker, then waits nervously for his response.

When he walks by the lounge and shows Ha-ni no recognition at all, Ju-ri shouts her name loudly, determined to make her friend known. Min-ah joins her, and this time, they have a reaction.

Seung-jo asks, “Are you Oh Ha-ni?” He makes his way back to them, and holds out a letter to her. Students gather round curiously, and Ha-ni barely contains her excitement as she opens it, telling him she hadn’t dared hope for a reply.

Yet as soon as she starts to read, her excitement fades, replaced by crushing disappointment.

Jang-mi has to live up to her designation as Mean Girl, so she swipes the letter from Ha-ni’s grasp, then crows about its contents. Seung-jo hadn’t written her a reply — he’d graded hers! The letter has been marked up in red pen, and he’d given her a D-.

(For what it’s worth, I think this moment would have been better had I not seen it done more cutely in Will It Snow For Christmas.)

Jang-mi positively exults and talks about it loudly for all to hear, while Ha-ni can only stand there, humiliated. Meanwhile, Seung-jo just stands there and tells her, “I’m sorry to say this, but I hate dumb girls.”

Joon-gu — bless him — comes late to the party but has sized up the situation, and confronts Seung-jo for his rudeness. He demands that Seung-jo apologize, to which Seung-jo smirks, “For what, correcting her mistakes?”

Joon-gu retorts, “Do you only see the mistakes? Don’t look at the letters, look at the contents!” (Aw. You’ve officially won me over, ridiculous hair-boy!)

He challenges Seung-jo to fight and takes a swing, but the latter swiftly evades the punch — cool as you please, his hands not even moving from his pockets.

The vice principal interrupts, and as Seung-jo is the golden child, he is dismissed while Joon-gu is called in for disciplining.

Finally, Seung-jo deigns to speak and levels a finger at the board that has been posted of the recent test results — Ha-ni and her friends occupy the lowest status of the school. He points to a second sign, which marks the 50 top students who are admitted to a special study hall each month.

Turning his scorn to Ha-ni, he calls her thoughtless for choosing to waste her time rather than caring about more important things: “I hate thoughtless, impudent girls.”

Ha-ni is devastated. Worst of all is probably the fact that he’s not wrong — she IS the lowest scoring student. Still, she hardly deserves such a drubbing from him.

She takes out her frustration by running around the school, exhausted and stumbling by the time she reaches lap 34. Her friends urge her to stop, but she insists on running two more laps. In a lovely moment of solidarity, they stand up to give her a hand (literally) and support her through her last lap.

Word of Ha-ni’s encounter with Seung-jo spreads through the school, making her the laughingstock. Is it worse to be mocked by your peers, or pitied by the cafeteria and cleaning ladies? Thankfully we’ll probably never have to know, but Ha-ni has to endure.

As she and Dad settle into their newly remodeled house, unpacking their things, he notices her glumness and guesses that the confessing didn’t go so well. He tries to cheer her up, and in the unpacking process he finds an old plaque that had been made when she was a baby — it bears the handprint of her parents, as well as her baby hand and footprint.

Ju-ri, Min-ah, and Joon-gu come over and marvel at the spacious digs and the newly built second floor. They sit down for a delicious meal prepared by Dad, who sighs that Ha-ni didn’t take after him in the cooking-skills department. Joon-gu takes that as his cue to assure Dad not to worry, since he’ll take care of the both of them.

The others laugh at Joon-gu’s over-the-top declaration and tease him, which makes him cry out in an exaggerated gesture and bang his head into the wall. Which sets of a series of creaks… and rumbles…

…and leads to the house crumbling down.

It’s not Joon-gu’s head-butt that causes the damage, but a small earthquake that shakes up the neighborhood. However, where all the other houses experience no more than mild rocking, Ha-ni’s house has inexplicably caved in on itself.

That’s one more reason for Ha-ni to become the focus of unwanted attention at school, and as she walks with her friends the next morning, they catch sight of a strange woman snapping photos of her. And for some reason, passing students keep looking at her and whispering.

The reason becomes clear moments later as they hear Joon-gu on a megaphone, who has taken up a spot at the school’s entrance calling for donations for a needy student. He means well, but one hardly wants to be called pathetic and a charity case in front of her peers, so the girls slink away in mortification.

Alas, Joon-gu spies Ha-in and drags her into the circle, continuing his appeals for donations — just as Seung-jo walks by. She’d like to ignore him, but misguided chivalry drives Joon-gu to engage, and he blames Seung-jo for being the cause of all of Ha-ni’s troubles.

Seung-jo points out that it was the earthquake that felled her house, and Joon-gu sputters in reply, saying that while that’s true, Seung-jo’s guilty of an “earthquake of the heart,” and for hurting Ha-ni.

Seung-jo shrugs and offers to contribute, then, and pulls out his wallet. He starts to put in 20,000 won (about $15), which is when Ha-ni finally speaks up. Indignantly, she tells him to put his money away — she wouldn’t accept his help even if she were a beggar under a bridge.

That affects him not at all, and he starts to leave. But now Ha-ni’s really worked up and she bursts out again:

Ha-ni: “Who are you to look down on people like that? I bet to you, all the kids here just look like idiots, huh? You think you can just mock us. Are you so great? So you have a high IQ? You’re a good student? So you have a good-looking face and you’re tall!”

Uh, that statement took a turn, and Ha-ni realizes she’s started to lose ground here. So she fumbles for a suitable retort, and insists that she CAN study. It’s just that she hasn’t bothered to!

Seung-jo tells her to prove it. What does she propose, and how will she show it?

Gulp. Ha-ni can’t back down now, so she says she’ll score high enough in the next exam to score one of those seats in special study hall. Clearly not believing she can do it, Seung-jo agrees to carry her piggyback for one lap around school if she succeeds.

Internally, Ha-ni does a little giddy dance at the prospect of being carried on his back, then tamps that down to coolly agree.

Thanks to the news broadcast about the earthquake wrecking their house, Dad’s old friend had seen him on TV and called him to offer his house while the Ohs figure out what to do. Dad is thrilled to be reuniting with his old best friend, with whom he’d lost contact after they’d moved to Seoul.

When they arrive, Ha-ni marvels at the grand house; his friend must be a rich man.

Dad (Ki-dong)’s friend is Su-chang, who is married to Geum-hee, both of whom are very friendly and give Ha-ni a warm welcome. When Su-chang notes that she’s “even prettier in person,” Geum-hee has to fess up that she was so curious about her that she couldn’t wait and sought her out at school this morning. Ha-ni recognizes her as the mysterious photographer outside the school.

Geum-hee offers the services of her son to bring their luggage in, and sends him outside to the car where Ha-ni is gathering her things.

And really, it’s no surprise at all when the two kiddos discover just who they’re about to spend the next days, weeks, months, living with.

 
COMMENTS

A random trivia bit:

Playful Kiss is airing against My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho, having started about a month behind it. One of director Hwang In-roi’s previous dramas, as I am sure many of you know, was Goong, which started in January 2006 — a month behind My Girl, which is one of the Gumiho writers’ previous dramas. (I’d always thought My Girl and Goong should have gotten higher ratings, but they were up against each other and no doubt shared much of the same audience.)

On to this drama:

There’s good and bad. When I was first watching it, I thought it was rather ho-hum. The more I watched, and toward the end in particular, I started to like it more and more. I don’t feel that emotional connection yet and the story isn’t as compelling as I’d like, but I am actually pretty hopeful about the show.

One huge detractor is that the first episode seemed like a collection of vignettes describing Ha-ni’s world — it wasn’t driven by a central plotline. I don’t think it’s a bad tactic in theory, but in a competitive television market you really need to establish your premise strongly and quickly, rather than lingering in the mundane moments. The drama doesn’t have to be high-concept like Gumiho, but it would benefit from higher-concept. (I know Playful Kiss is based on a manhwa/drama, which dictates the storyline. However, there are always ways to inject a hook or a catchy plot without dishonoring its source material.)

The problems appear to be both a writing and a directing thing. On the writing front, this episode is very thin on action. What actually happened in Episode 1? SO VERY LITTLE. We spent nearly 45 minutes on a schoolgirl crush. The writer could have condensed a bunch of scenes and would have been better served getting right to the point instead of dawdling.

There were no surprises. We know how this is going to end up — we know she’s going to move in with Seung-jo. So just get there already.

On the directing front, the pacing was sluggish and I don’t blame viewers for checking out quickly. FIVE MINUTES were spent on that intro fantasy when the entire thing could have been just as effective in thirty seconds. Long fantasies would be forgivable if they’re needed to tell a story or flesh out an idea — but as we get the point immediately, there’s no need to drag it out. The drama could have easily shaved 10 to 15 minutes without changing plot.

As for Goong:

The Goong comparisons will probably haunt this show for a good long while, and I suspect that will grow tiresome. So I’ll just say this here and (try to) refrain from belaboring the point in the future.

On the downside, wow there are a lot of tonal similarities between the two dramas. The stories are pretty different, but the execution is, in spots, perplexingly similar. Jung So-min’s styling, the school cliques, the teddy-bear ending frame.

On the other hand, Goong hardly spent any time at the school after the initial setup (which was one thing I missed after the royal stuff got going in earnest), whereas Playful Kiss will be primarily at school. So I don’t mind that similarity so much.

I did enjoy the whimsical feel of Playful Kiss, when it wasn’t veering on overly contemplative. Trendies need more energy than this, and I suspect that PD Hwang’s forte isn’t sassy comedy. Bright side: He has a deft touch with poignant moments, so there’s that.

Goong was elevated by its fusion-fantasy palace concept, and Return of Iljimae as a fusion-sageuk-comic book adaptation, so on paper Hwang should have been the perfect director for fusion manhwa adaptations like this. But I want more zazz, because this has no Big Concept to buoy the mundane school and home scenes. (Mundane isn’t bad — I like this mundane aspect, actually — but it requires more… oomph.)

Goong had pomp and elegance, and therefore it filled that space with its grandeur. Without that, Playful Kiss just has… space. It needs to tap into its energy, and I believe it’s entirely possible. I just hope it comes soon.

Acting:

Jung So-min is ADORABLE. She’s gonna run away with this drama, hands down.

Many of you have noted previously that Jung is very expressive, and that really comes across in the show. That doesn’t just mean she makes exaggerated facial expressions, but that she has a range of them and conveys a lot of subtleties within her various expressions. I’d heard a lot about how this original manga character is super-annoying and was bracing myself for that, but I find Ha-ni quite likable. She’s not smart and she’s a little clumsy, but in an endearing way.

Actually, what I loved most about her character is the way Ha-ni’s infatuation with Seung-jo is depicted. On paper it could be an aggravating premise — a dumb girl chases around a guy who’s out of her league and who dislikes her, wearing him down with her doggedness. However, there’s something very lovely in the way we see her adolescent crush — the heart thumping, the freezing in nervous anticipation, the deluded daydreams that he might like her, the giddy little moments when she thinks he’s about to talk to her. I mean, haven’t we all been there? It totally brought back some memories, and tugged my heartstrings. Boy, I wouldn’t want to be her, but then again, I HAVE been her.

Then there’s Kim Hyun-joong. You know, he doesn’t bother me so much here. I don’t think he was good, but he wasn’t awful, either. He sorta skated by in the middle, not really doing much but doing it in an inoffensive way.

I wonder if it’ll help him to play a guy with a bit of meanness to him, because that’s what makes Seung-jo interesting to me. We’ve seen SO MANY of those misunderstood, cold-on-the-outside, warm-n-fuzzy-on-the-inside heroes that I’m excited just to get something different. Seung-jo isn’t misunderstood — he just doesn’t give a damn about anyone other than himself. I don’t like that on a personal level, but I like that he’s a little different.

ANYWAY. That’s my long-winded way of saying that I had misgivings about the first episode, but I find enough things to like about it to be hopeful for the future, low ratings or not.

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