Before my obsession began, I had probably seen tens of thousands of kisses on television and in movies. But those were mostly casual, American-style kisses, ones that fit into the plot but didn’t mean much of anything in the relationship being presented. They were usually understood to be the first step toward a more physical relationship, not the culmination of a love story.
Kdrama kisses are something else entirely: They’re serious, soul-stirring events that have real meaning and profound significance to the characters involved. They’re the main attraction, not a relationship stage to move beyond. They’re at the heart of every kdrama romance, the scene you eagerly anticipate for five, ten, or even twenty episodes. Kdrama kisses are never blasé or offhand. And they’re about as rare as unicorns, which makes them even more special.
They do, however, come in some standard varieties.
As seen in: Flower Boy Next Door, episode 16
Natural habitat: Shows in need of a ratings bump
Distinguishing features: Spinning camera work, surging strings, and open-mouthed intensity
In Korean dramas, a kiss is never just a kiss. It’s an opportunity for the show’s creators to indulge in all sorts of flashy cinematography—rapid cuts, slow-motion pans, and close ups so incredibly close you can actually count the pores on Lee Min Ho’s nose. The Swirlie is the king of all these showy techniques: complicated and time-consuming to film, it encourages maximum fangirl insanity by capturing the kiss at every possible angle.
The lip press
As seen in: Boys over Flowers, episode 9
Natural habitat: Dramas intended for younger audiences
Distinguishing features: Extreme brevity, closed mouths, utter stillness of both parties
In recent years, the Kdrama lip press has become an increasingly endangered species. Once the centerpiece of every love story on Korean television (see, for example, Autumn in My Heart), it is now primarily found in grown-up approved shows intended for tweens and teens.
The accidental kiss
As seen in: You’re Beautiful, episode 1
Natural habitat: Trendy rom-coms
Distinguishing characteristics: Accident-prone heroines; utter lack of intent followed by absurd levels of seriousness
We’ve established that it’s impossible to fall in Korea without landing on someone else’s lips. This explains why dramas are always featuring accidental lip-brushes, but it doesn’t really address why these faux-pas are actually considered to be real kisses. I’m sure it would be pretty awkward to suddenly find yourself pressed face-to-face against your crush, but that’s a little different from deciding to kiss him or her.
The near-miss kiss
As seen in: I Miss You, episode 8
Natural habitat: Shows that like to tease (and/or torture)
Distinguishing characteristics: Exquisite buildup, lack of consummation, screaming viewers
The cruelest of all Kdrama kisses, the near-miss kiss is an excruciating study in frustration. More than any other kind of drama skinship, its success requires a perfectly established mood of intimacy and inevitability. And just when you’re sure the kiss is finally, finally, going to happen, just when your breath catches in the back of your throat with anticipation, the phone rings. Or the wacky sageuk headgear gets in the way. Or somebody backs out. Whatever their cause, there should be a law against these abortive kisses.
The light as a feather, stiff as a board kiss
As seen in: Heartstrings, episode 15
Natural habitat: Any show starring youthful actors who have yet to figure out this whole “kissing” thing, possibly on either a professional or personal level
Distinguishing characteristics: pursed lips, stick-straight bodies, expressions tinged with fear and/or discomfort
While Kdrama males are generally the initiators of kisses, it takes two to tango. Even the most skilled on-screen kisser can be thwarted by a female lead who can’t drum up any enthusiasm for the proceedings, as is amply reflected in nearly every Park Shin Hye drama. (Although the final Flower Boy Next Door kiss saw improvement on this front, she still seems too terrified to move whenever she has the enviable task of being close to her male lead.)
The theme kiss
As seen in: That Winter, the Wind Blows, episode 4
Natural habitat: Romances that want press coverage
Distinguishing characteristics: A buzz-worthy hook, memorable props
Whether the game is over, the cola has hit the fan, or the damn cotton candy is in the way, these kisses are tailor-made for entertainment journalists looking for an easy score. They are to dramas what sound bites are to political campaigns: repeatable calling cards that stick in people’s minds.
The cable kiss
As seen in: I Need Romance 2012, episode 3
Natural habitat: Cable, where rules are bent and modesty goes out the window
Distinguishing characteristic: A clear awareness of the existence of sex
Some of Korea’s cable channels are using kisses to set themselves apart from the traditional networks. While sixteen episodes of a mainstream drama might pass by with nothing more than a peck, cable shows are prone to open with hot makeout sessions up against the front door in the female lead’s house. Thanks to steamy locales (finally, someone realized you can do more than just brood in the shower!), racy undercurrents, and mature execution, their kisses are raising the bar for Kdrama skinship.
The “I’ll eat you up” kiss
As seen in: Me too, Flower, episode 6
Natural habitat: Rom coms that fancy themselves edgy
Distinguishing characteristics: Tongue, desperation verging on violence
Known for its ferocity and visceral passion, this kiss is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the lip press. Only a few specialist actors are able to channel the required degree of wild abandon on film—among the younger drama set, its official spokespeople are Yoon Si Yoon and Yoon Eun Hye, whose on-screen kisses are known for leaving viewers woozy and overheated. (Here’s hoping that they never star in a drama together; their kisses would probably be hot enough to unleash apocalyptic climate change.)
Bystanders wanting to avoid being splattered with slobber are encouraged to don rain gear.
The forehead kiss
As seen in: Nice Guy, episode 5
Natural habitat: All dramas depicting relationships between men and women
Distinguishing characteristics: Tender adoration, take-charge guys
In the Western hemisphere this kiss is largely reserved for parent-child interactions. In the East, however, it’s a romantic gesture intended to convey how much a woman is cherished by her suitor. Sweet, but as far as I’m concerned it’s also the kiss equivalent of a Kdrama wrist grab: it’s fully initiated and controlled by one party, rather than being a mutual sign of affection.
(P.S.: I was thinking of including video clips of each kiss that I’ve scavenged from YouTube, but that’s a lot of work with Blogger. With Tumblr, on the other hand, it’s easy peasy. So I’ll be posting one clip per day there, if you want to check them out.)