Ah, the eternal kdrama conundrum. Go for the perfect meanie who needs to be convinced of your worth, or the loyal lackey who already knows it?
And of course, the answer (in a drama) is always the opposite of the one we’d advocate in real life. Funny how television can romanticize the unromantic, and vice versa.
SONG OF THE DAY
Lee Seung-hwan with Park Shin-hye – “Wonderful Day” [ Download ]
After Ha-ni surprises everyone with her high test score, the students (led by teacher Kang-yi) chant for Seung-jo to live up to his promise of carrying her around the school. The two had privately agreed to nullify that bet, but can’t explain that to the others without revealing that they’re living together.
Ha-ni mutters to Seung-jo not to misunderstand — she had nothing to do with this. He grumbles that she’s a public menace, but sighs and tells her to go ahead and claim her piggyback ride. If everyone’s going to assume he’s a flake, he’d rather just get it over with.
Three-year crush notwithstanding, being called a public menace can go a long way in quashing the warm fuzzies, and Ha-ni refuses. He grabs her wrist (oy), and protective Joon-gu arrives on the scene at just this moment, seeing Ha-ni struggling against Seung-jo’s grasp.
Joon-gu steps in and offers the piggyback ride instead, and while Seung-jo hadn’t been eager to carry her, damned if he’ll be upstaged by this guy. What ensues is a double-wrist-grab competition of whose back she’ll climb on. Oh, that we all had such problems.
Joon-gu’s more aggressive, and (literally) sweeps Ha-ni off her feet to carry her outside. Ju-ri and Min-ah reproach him for interfering, and he’s so dense that he thought he was being helpful.
Now he asks suspiciously if Ha-ni still likes Seung-jo, to which she blurts that she doesn’t. He’s cold and mean and lacks any spark of humanity. She totally hates him now.
Suuure. That totally explains her fit of jealousy in special study hall when another girl tries to flirt with Seung-jo, right?
Ha-ni’s the odd duck out in study hall, where we hammer in the stereotypes inherent in this drama: that all humble, average-brained folks are nice and friendly, while smart people are rich snobs. But how does that explain all the dumb snobs I’ve met? And poor jackasses?
Ha-ni is cheered when Seung-jo rejects the girl’s offer of a soda. You’d think she would have a little bit of sympathy for this predicament, but she hasn’t learned the lesson from her own humiliation and bursts out laughing at the other girl, even pointing a finger literally as she guffaws. Wait, drama, aren’t we supposed to like her?
Ha-ni’s presence in the study hall is such an anomaly that you can practically hear the minds being blown as people try to figure out how she got there. One such example: the vice principal, who takes great pride in Seung-jo as the school’s star pupil and therefore can’t understand how Ha-ni squeaked through.
He asks Class 7’s teacher Kang-yi if she finds that odd, but she answers simply that hard work can yield good results. The other teachers are unconvinced, however, particularly the pretty teacher (whom I suspect will be Kang-yi’s rival, or at least her foil) and Class 1 teacher Ji-oh. They even go so far as to speculate about cheating, though they make no accusations.
Each class has an upcoming outing planned, and Classes 1 and 7 get stuck in an athletic competition at Kang-yi’s suggestion, because she’s determined to prove that her class can beat the snooty Class 1-ers at something. Class 7 isn’t terribly enthusiastic, but are won over with Kang-yi’s bribe of pizza if they win all three events.
Motivated by pizza — and yeah, beating Class 1, although mostly the pizza — the class practices for the competition, performing drills and running through relay simulations. It’s pretty cute how enthusiastic they are, so of course haughty Seung-jo has to rain on their parade by sniffing at how silly they look.
He says indifferently that Class 7 is sure to win, because his class just doesn’t care. Riiiight. You care so little that you have to announce just how little you care, in case they thought you cared. (I sorta love how Seung-jo tries to pretend he’s so superior to Ha-ni, but he can’t resist poking and prodding at her, when a truly indifferent person wouldn’t bother.)
Worse than insulting them is his air of “Oh, we’re so above that,” and Ha-ni has to hold back Joon-gu from launching into a fight. But when Seung-jo goes so far as to call them “pathetic,” she has to speak up: What’s pathetic about working hard? She gives Joon-gu an inadvertent compliment by saying he’s super fast and athletic, which makes his day. She was just saying it to warn Seung-jo not to be so snooty, but Joon-gu is, adorably, thrilled.
What I enjoy about Ha-ni and Seung-jo’s budding dynamic is that Ha-ni knows how to push his buttons right back. She gets a rise out of him by saying the losing chicken makes more noise — effectively calling him both a chicken and a loser. Two birds, one stone.
There’s a cute but ultimately irrelevant scene (which is beginning to be Playful Kiss‘s hallmark) when Ha-ni heads out to the field dressed in a mascot’s costume. She takes advantage of her momentary anonymity to sneak up on a passing Seung-jo and pokes him in the butt. Saucy!
Her brief satisfaction (and getaway) is ruined when she trips. He has to help her up, and flings off her mask to get a good look at the offender.
On to the first event. The two classes line up for a 15-person, 16-legged race, and the smarties (in blue) stumble along badly, since they didn’t bother practicing or figuring out strategy. In contrast, the yellow-vested misfit team marches forward in unity for an easy victory.
Misfit Class erupts in cheers, and Ha-ni and Joon-gu clutch each other in celebration. Seung-jo would very much like not to notice, but he sneers at the sight. Totally what a non-caring person would do, right? I’ll posit that Seung-jo has actually got it pretty bad to be envious (though reluctantly, and in denial) of being hugged by a butternut squash in pigtails.
Seung-jo’s mother arrives during the second event, a team tug of war, taking care to stay out of Seung-jo’s sight. She runs into Jang-mi, who is leading her team of cheerleaders in chants for Seung-jo.
Jang-mi is eager to play up their acquaintance, but Mom’s puzzled reaction shows that Jang-mi hardly registers in her memory. Mom brightens to see that the girl’s cheering for her son, as she was having a hard time deciding who to root for. (This leaves her free to support Ha-ni. Aw.)
The last event is a relay race, which both Seung-jo and Joon-gu are anchoring. Ha-ni is also running a leg, as is her teacher, who enjoys rubbing in her class’s imminent victory to Ji-oh. Although Ji-oh had shared his class’s indifference, he can’t abide Kang-yi’s side bet to call him oppa if he loses. She even teases him about losing on purpose in order to be called oppa, and he shudders at the thought. This gives him new motivation to win this event to prevent such a horrific outcome.
But not without suffering some indignities. Min-ah gives the misfits a nice head start in the first lap, but Ji-oh, determined not to lose, makes up the difference in the next. Kang-yi flails and reaches out as he passes her, accidentally grabbing his pants as she does.
She goes down, and loses precious seconds that she attempts to make up for by throwing the baton at the next runner, Ha-ni. (Impeding an opponent and throwing the baton — nobody’s gonna call cheating? Just sayin’.)
Thankfully, Ha-ni is a fast runner and she blows by her rival, clearing the way for Joon-gu to carry them to victory.
But then, a curious thing happens: Seung-jo smiles directly at her, and this messes with her mind. Suddenly thrown into confusion, the two boys blur together in her mind, and her tunnel vision narrows to one point: Seung-jo.
The sign of an effective bit in a comedy is when it makes you cringe so badly for the heroine’s behalf that it kind of hurts, and you have to pause the video to lessen the impact of the moment. Hypothetically speaking.
With her mind messing with her eyes, Ha-ni misses the hand-off to Joon-gu and instead reaches for Seung-jo. He’s awaiting his own teammate’s baton and doesn’t accept it; as he succeeds in his own hand-off, he thinks, “Idiot.” Ouch. But he’s not wrong.
Seung-jo is the toast of his team, but what warms Mama’s heart is the smile on his face as he takes a moment to bask in the victory.
Ha-ni’s team, on the other hand, is bummed to lose, particularly the pizza. The team clamors for Ha-ni to buy it since she lost the race, at which point Joon-gu totally wins my heart for jumping to her defense. He takes the blame for the race, apologizing to Ha-ni for bungling their hand-off. Aw! Joon-gu, you win one free pass for future boorish behavior with this move. (But just one! That’s one wrist grab or forced back hug — but not both — so use it wisely, buddy.)
His acceptance of blame means the class wants HIM to buy the pizza, then, and unfortunately he doesn’t have a spare hundred bucks lying around to do that. Saving him from the wrath of a pizza-craving horde, Seung-jo’s mother makes her appearance and offers to treat them. Instead of revealing who her son is, Mom introduces herself simply as “Ha-ni’s fan.”
That night, Seung-jo asks Ha-ni about the baton pass, guessing that she got ragged on by her peers. Even so, Ha-ni’s in a good mood, saying that it was all okay because his mother bought them pizza, which surprises Seung-jo.
He sighs that Mom’s always causing trouble, which he means affectionately. Even so, Ha-ni speaks up to say she really likes her, and that his mother’s presence brought her happiness today. Mom, listening just around the corner, is gratified to hear it.
Ha-ni explains that her own mother never came to her school, since she died so young. Her father and grandmother did, and “I was thankful for that, but I don’t think it was happiness.” Today, it felt like her mother came to school.
Perhaps mention of her mother rouses some sympathy in Seung-jo, or maybe it’s just his growing interest in Ha-ni, but in any case it’s becoming clear his feelings are changing. (Albeit against his will.) Example: Ha-ni says she has to help prepare dinner, and he starts to blurt that she should rest. Catching himself, he amends his words to say that she ought to earn her keep since she’s mooching off his family.
Ha-ni interprets Seung-jo’s comment about her costume as more mocking, since a compliment, even a grudging one, is completely beyond her expectation. Therefore she thinks that he told her “You had no ears” (gwi-ob-da) rather than what he really said: “You were cute” (gwi-yub-da).
Dad comes upon Mom as she’s updating her blog with her new photos, and Mom says with satisfaction, “Since Ha-ni’s been here, it feels like real people live in this house.” She takes particular notice of a photo of Seung-jo after winning his race, because it’s been a long while since he’s has smiled like that.
The two families have dinner at Ha-ni’s father’s restaurant, and as usual, Seung-jo is the sourpuss of the group, with little bro doing his best to be Sourpuss Jr. (I’m convinced that his constant iPod fiddling is just an affectation, so he can pay attention while pretending he doesn’t care. When clearly he cares, YA BIG FAKING FAKER.)
Dad thanks Seung-jo for helping Ha-ni with her test results, and Seung-jo politely plays down the compliment. Mom jumps in and says that it’s more impressive that Ha-ni taught Seung-jo how to study, and the parents engage in a round of Thank-you, oh no, thank YOU.
Everyone has a glass of makgulli to toast Ha-ni’s accomplishment… which means Ha-ni gets tipsy. With her tongue loosened, she reveals that Seung-jo’s a big fat meanie who treats her like she’s nothing and called her a public menace who mooches off his family. The guilty look that flashes across his face is pretty gratifying; put that way, he comes off as quite the bad guy.
Ha-ni slurs, “Even if you’re so great, can you just look down on people like that?” This declaration disappoints Mom, who had thought the kids were well-matched and hadn’t realized that Ha-ni hates Seung-jo so much.
Seung-jo retaliates by reciting Ha-ni’s confession letter, which swiftly turns the tables and mortifies her. She reluctantly admits that it’s true she wrote it, but vows that she’s just wiped out every last bit of lingering affection for him.
Ha-ni’s proclamation is tested immediately when Seung-jo is pressed to carry her home, because the half-cup of rice wine hits her hard.
Seung-jo says sarcastically that she got what she wanted in the end with the piggyback ride. That jolts her out of her tipsy haze and she wants to be put down, but he points out that it shouldn’t bother her to be carried since she’s soooo over him, right?
She hurriedly agrees, but Seung-jo can feel her heart racing against his back and can’t resist commenting on it, which makes her pull back self-consciously.
He also teases her about her “severe condition” — will she be able to nurse when she has babies? Meaning, of course, that her chest is flat. Man, he really knows how to hit a pubescent girl where it hurts.
Ha-ni remembers that taunt when she wakes in the morning, now painfully aware of her flat chest. An idea seizes her, and she stuffs her bra with socks, pleased with the more robust silhouette this produces. When Seung-jo’s gaze takes note of her newly augmented chest, Ha-ni smiles with satisfaction.
At breakfast, Seung-jo tries to teach his brother how to jump rope for an athletic test at school, because Eun-jo’s having trouble. Ha-ni offers advice, but Eun-jo sneers, loath to take suggestions from such a dimwit. Ha-ni, to her credit, doesn’t take Eun-jo’s constant insults to heart and keeps treating him with friendliness.
Demonstrating how to jump, Ha-ni’s skills earn grudging respect from Eun-jo. Seung-jo, always the Debbie Downer of the group, is reluctant to give Ha-ni any props and sits there with his silent grumpyface. I particularly enjoy the Harrumph expression at below left. Totally the face of someone who doesn’t care at all.
Of course, all this jumping has an unintended side effect, which Seung-jo is the first to notice. Something lies crumpled on the ground, and it looks like… a sock?
Ha-ni looks down at her chest, then squeals in protest as she dives to retrieve the fallen sock before anyone else gets to it.
At school later that morning, the kids hang out before class begins, and Ha-ni reaches for her book, not noticing that a photograph flutters down from inside it. It’s the snapshot that Seung-jo’s mother had stuck in there earlier.
And let’s just say that without any context, it’s pretty incriminating: it shows Ha-ni and Seung-jo asleep at the table during one of their tutoring sessions in the previous episode.
As if that weren’t bad enough, there’s no faster way to attract the rest of the class’s attention than to exclaim loudly, “Why are you sleeping with Baek Seung-jo?”
With the photo posted on Mom’s blog, it takes no time at all for the news to spread through the school. Ha-ni tells her friends the truth, while bratty Jang-mi stews in indignation and Joon-gu nurses a broken heart.
As for Seung-jo? Yeah, he’s not happy either.
I think one of this drama’s charms is also its biggest liability, and that’s the lack of a strong plot from episode to episode. As I noted with Episode 1, this episode is also a loose string of events rather than a plot-driven hour of strong conflict, motivation, and escalation.
There are advantages and disadvantages of this approach. In its defense, I understand that this narrative looseness is the entire point. I haven’t followed shojo anime or manga closely, but I have seen and read enough to appreciate what this drama is doing. As in those types of stories, the overall series is carried by small events collected loosely together in a slice-of-life format, rather than relying on a high-concept hook. That works particularly well in anime with the shorter running times that accommodate smaller conflicts. And in this regard, Playful Kiss feels a lot more like God of Study than Boys Before Flowers.
The interstitial moments with the band Bye Bye Sea also reinforce that vibe, and I find those bits charming.
On the downside, an hour is a lot of time to fill without much conflict. I like vignettes, but I firmly believe that it’s possible to string them together in a way that carries momentum and tells an overall story instead of a ten-minute vignette leading into another ten-minute vignette.
There’s nothing wrong with making an episode around an athletic contest, for instance. It’s okay that the story is a small one — but give it more of an emotional throughline. This is what American television shows do so well. If you have an A, B, and C storyline in every episode, don’t start and finish A, then start and finish B, then start and finish C. You start A, B, and C all at the beginning, then you let them play out over the hour, and hopefully if you’re good enough, the end of the episode will resolve all three points in a surprisingly harmonious way.
Three episodes in, I still don’t know what the plot of this overall drama is. “Guy eventually falls for girl” isn’t a plot, it’s a concept. So what’s the story? I think this lack of momentum is the biggest reason that this drama has failed to pick up an audience, because there’s no urgency. Is Episode 10 going to tell the exact same general story as Episode 1, only in slightly different configurations?
Boys Before Flowers may have been a hot mess in the plotting department, but it did manage to create arcs in its vignettes, and connected episode to episode with an overall story. They didn’t always do it WELL, but I felt like they were heading in a clear direction. I sort of feel like Playful Kiss is paddling in the kiddie pool.
On the upside, this lack of direction can be mitigated by cute interactions, good chemistry, and adorable scenarios. In that regard, I am enjoying watching this drama; it’s not all bad stuff. I just think it could have been so much better.