Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Apples and Oranges: Korean and Taiwanese Drama

Playful kissing in Taiwan...
...and Korea

When I first fell down the rabbit hole of Kdrama, I never expected that my viewing habits would expand. One country at a time, I thought when I found myself faced with literally a hemisphere worth of shows to catch up on. But I kept hearing about dramas from other countries that were too good to miss, and adding them to my queue anyway.

At this point I’ve only watched a handful of Japanese and Taiwanese dramas. I’ve enjoyed them all, but like my early days of watching Korean drama, I’ve started off with the cream of the crop—the shows that are good enough to make people remember them and talk about them years after they air. They’re the Coffee Princes and Autumn’s Concertos and Nobuta wo Produces.

At first, I expected dramas from around Asia to be alike in the same way programs produced in America and Canada are alike. I watched the entire pilot episode of the show Rookie Blue without even realizing that it was set, filmed, and produced in Canada. And no matter how many times I watch Property Virgins, I can never guess if the ongoing house hunt is taking place in Chicago or Toronto. Thanks to hundreds of years of close proximity and shared history, television shows made in Canada and America are pretty much interchangeable.

By extension, it seemed to me that thousands of years of co-existence would mean that Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese shows would also be similar. In some ways, they are: most Asian dramas have short, finite running times, unlike shows in the West. The love triangle is king. And raw materials regularly cross national borders to find new audiences. Since its release in the early 1990s, the Japanese manga Itazura na Kiss has been the basis for four live-action dramas in three different countries: Japan’s Itazura na Kiss, Taiwan’s It Started with a Kiss (and its sequel, They Kiss Again), and Korea’s Playful Kiss.

The differences between shows from different Asian countries are even more significant than their similarities, though. Japanese dramas seem to downplay over-the-top romance in favor of profound friendship; Korean dramas tend toward cozy, homey storytelling that revolves around the dinner table; and Taiwanese dramas often incorporate zany comedic elements. And even when content is borrowed from another country, the settings, details, and names are always replaced with local equivalents.

I can’t imagine that any other national television will eclipse my love for Korean shows. They specialize in all my favorite themes—swoony romance, insane melodrama, and character-driven stories that focus on people in all their fallible wonder. Taiwanese dramas have their own appeal, though: they feel more organic, and the relationships they depict are often less formal than those in Kdramas. They also have a way of telling longitudinal stories that take advantage of the passage of time to keep shows feeling fresh from beginning to end. (Korean time-skips, on the other hand, rarely have an impact on the plot beyond providing an epilogue.) Taiwanese dramas even present believable kissing and skinship, in contrast to the more modest approach to relationships taken by Korea’s network shows. And it’s always interesting to see Asian dramas that treat actors who on the heavy side as characters rather than freaks. 

The three Taiwanese dramas I’ve watched actually have parallel Korean versions, whether the similarities are intentional or not.


Fated to Love You (Taiwan, 2008)
I Do, I Do (Korea, 2012)

Both these shows revolve around single women who find themselves pregnant after a chemical-fueled one-night stand. (The Korean couple was loosened up by drinking too much soju, while the Taiwanese pair had cold medicine and some sort of homemade viagra to blame.) Both dramas have their failings: I Do, I Do focuses on its go-nowhere workplace setting too much, and Fated to Love You is plagued with broad, improbably cartoony humor.

I Do, I Do’s biggest selling point is its slick production, which made for a crisply shot show full of expensive-looking designer shoes and grand sets. But all the money in the world couldn’t save it from a boring script with a listless plot—the female lead doesn’t even realize she’s pregnant until episode 5, and then proceeds to waste the rest of the show hiding the fact from the father instead of actually engaging with what’s happened to her.

On the other hand, the Fated to Love You has rock-bottom production values—the male lead wears one of two outfits for essentially the entire show—but its story feels bigger and less claustrophobic. Instead of focusing on one person in one situation for its entire run, like I Do, I Do, it actually dares to insert serious, life-changing plot developments in nearly every episode. The female lead even hits the reset button on the entire show by moving to mainland China at the drama’s midpoint, thereby incorporating new settings, characters, and plot arcs.

Sure, the Taiwanese version was obviously made on the cheap, but I Do, I Do is proof that it takes more than a big budget to make a show worth watching.

It Started with a Kiss (Taiwan, 2005)
Playful Kiss (Korea, 2010)

Who would have guessed that a girl with no spine and a boy with no heart would be such a perfect couple? Both these dramas revolve around a bumbling, ambitionless girl chasing her dreamboy crush through their high school and college years. As is the way with Asian drama, she eventually catches him—but only after he calls her stupid about 300 times and spends entire episodes avoiding all contact with her. (Wouldn’t it have been revolutionary if she realized her beloved was kind of a dick and moved on to someone who would have treated her well?)

The Korean version of the story is gorgeous. From its snazzy logo to its good-looking cast to the colorful cascades of noodles at drying at a restaurant, every episode of Playful Kiss is a visual treat. Unfortunately, the storytelling isn’t quite as wonderful. It overlooks one major component in any great love story: characters that like each other. A wooden actor and unfortunate direction make it difficult to believe that the male lead doesn’t actively loathe the female lead until the final episode. His character has only one consistent, observable trait: disdain for her.

Playful Kiss was one of the first Korean dramas I watched, back when I could never manage to remember anyone’s name. This show was an exception, though: Oh Ha Ni was both the female lead’s name and what I said every time she appeared on screen.

The male lead in the Taiwanese version isn’t much better. He’s aloof and abrupt and eager to point out how dim the female lead is. He’s never quite as bad as the Korean lead, though—he memorizes a love letter he’s not meant to see, while his Korean counterpart uses a red pen to mark errors in said letter. As the show progresses, the Taiwanese lead slowly comes around and the chemistry between the two leads turns from one-sided to sizzling.

It’s the little details that make this happen. He starts smiling at her when she’s not looking, and eventually kisses her out of sheer terror that she might really decide to get over him. While the Kdrama version of this kiss is pretty sexy (picture Kim Hyung Joon leaning above you, all intense eyes and knowing smirk), I came away from it thinking his character was too busy manipulating the female lead’s emotions to have any of his own.

The Taiwanese kiss provides just the humanizing moment the character needed. After, he stands perfectly still, staring at her in something like disbelief. Finally deciding to pretend nothing happened, he spitefully sticks out his tongue and stalks away. This male lead is a little boy who doesn’t know what to do with his emotions, not a heartless seducer of young girls.

Playful Kiss was cute enough, but It Started with a Kiss gave us a lead couple worth rooting for.

In Time with You (Taiwan, 2011)
Coffee Prince (Korea 2007)

These dramas have very little in common, other than being practically perfect in every way: One focuses on the relationship between a career woman and her male best friend. The other is about a girl pretending to be a boy in order to earn money for her family (and spend time with her hot boss, of course). But there are some similarities, if you look a little more closely. They’re gorgeously shot and staged. Both feel homey, with their huge casts of characters connected by wonderful, warm friendships and loving family ties. Their female leads are each independent-minded caretakers who earn the respect of the people around them with kindness. And their love stories are sweet, tender explorations of what happens when friends become something more.

In Time with You and Coffee Prince are as good as television gets, as far as I’m concerned. Wherever they were made, whatever language their characters speak, these dramas are some of the best television the world has to offer.

(Oh. And about that poll on the upper right side of this page: If more people answer yes than no, I will post some brief, quippy notes about the possible prowess of some of my favorite male Kdrama characters. It will be naughty with a lowercase n, rather than Naughty. (Because I have to live with myself after posting it, you see.) It just occurred to me as something fun to write about, but I couldn’t decide if it was too trashy for a town this size. So I leave it up to you, dear readers. What to do?)


  1. Unlike you, Amanda, after almost 3 years of this addiction I still only watch Korean dramas as I figure they will take my life time to see. However, you do make a very good case for In Time With You since you are comparing it to Coffee Prince, so I may just have to break down and watch that one.

    As for the poll, I am all for it. I can just imagine the discussions we will have!

    1. I really think the Taiwanese dramas are worth trying out—they offer some fun variety, but are still quite similar to Korean shows. And there's no way any of us will live long enough to watch all Kdrama ever made anyway, so I'm all for picking the shows I really want to see and letting the rest disappear into the mists of the internet. (Oohlala Couple much?)

      In Time with You is so, so, so wonderful. You should really give it a try. If you like melo, Autumn's Concerto is great, too.

      It looks like more people want the naughty post than don't =X On the one hand, it's embarrassingly lame, but on the other hand I think it could be really funny.

    2. Elaine, I watched it based on her recommendation and I loved it. It's definitely worth your while.

    3. Thanks, I will give it a try but I am fiercely loyal to my K-dramas. Having visited SK last April I feel a real connection with the country and the people. I just finished up Sweet 18 which was really cute and now I'm watching Level 7 Civil Servant. Was not very impressed with episode 1. I'm also going to watch Lovers, which is part of the Lovers trilogy (Lovers in Paris, Lovers in Prague). Saw Lovers in Paris first and it was wonderful.

  2. *feels embarrassed* I still haven't watched any of these Taiwanese dramas yet.. Been on a Jdrama kick (expect rants soon), and now I've finally started the insanity also known as Bridal Mask. I promise, the next thing I watch will be Taiwanese. !!

    1. I look forward to Jdrama rants and Bridal Mask talk!

      I've just recently realized that there are good, non-dramacrazy streaming sites out there that handle both Taiwanese and Japanese dramas, so I'll definitely be branching out more in the future. (I found it super easy to watch It Started with a Kiss on Sugideas, for example. It never shut down mid-clip, like Dramacrazy always does.)

  3. My main pet peeve with SOME Taiwanese and Japanese dramas, is the almost slapstick form of comedy that they inject in their stories. I feel that I get the K-drama humor more than any other asian drama. Another thing is the overacting or in some cases, underacting of the actors. At least in most Korean dramas, the ensemble as a whole delivers a solid performance. Although, I have to admit that there have been a few gems in both T and J-dramas.

    Hmmm...I really enjoyed Playful Kiss. I wonder if I should give the Taiwanese version a chance?

    1. I'm not crazy about slapstick or cartoony humor, either. That's what sank Fated to Love You, as far as I'm concerned. And I was almost turned off Japanese drama forever by watching about ten minutes of the live-action show based on the Wallflower magna—it was insane. And not in a good way. But just like Korea, I think the shows from Taiwan and Japan have good things to offer. You just have to figure out how to avoid the things you don't want.

      A.E. Hall over at Daily KTJ Drama recommended that people who saw and liked Playful Kiss skip right to the Taiwanese sequel. The original really is a lot like Playful Kiss—just the details are different. You might give that a try. As an obsessive completist, I had to start at the beginning ;)

  4. I watched It Started With a Kiss before my whole hearted obsession over Asian dramas started. I loved the heart of the show, which I think is the main thing the Korean version lacked. And it helped that ISWAK had better actors than Playful Kiss. I'm sorry, Kim Hyung Joon, you may be a cutie patootie, but you are stiff as a cardboard. There was one scene in ISWAK that i loved, it came later on in the series, maybe episode 25, where Guy says he's going to date Other Girl and Girl drops bowls in shock. I remember being able to feel heartbreak all around, but the Korean version never made me feeeeeel.

    I wasn't able to get into Jdramas until watching a little gem called Sprout last year. It had and airy, innocent, indie vibe, which I really like. And since it was 12 episodes of about 20 minutes each, the commitment-phobe in me wasn't apprehensive. You should check it out! I love reading your sidebar thoughts!

    1. "Kim Hyung Joon, you may be a cutie patootie, but you are stiff as a cardboard."

      No kidding. In some ways, he's another Suzy. He was good in Boys over Flowers because the woodeness was part of his character—as an actor he's only capable of displaying one emotion at a time, and when all the character needed was quiet longing, Kim Hyung Joon was okay. But when the character needs to display conflicting emotions he's just out of his league. Still cute, though. (I wonder if any of this has to do with the demise of CIty Conquest.)

    2. agree with you anonymous.. :) t-dramas has something that will really touch your heart and can't see that in other asian novelas.. honestly, i've seen hundred of asian novelas in my past 10 years and still no one replace my love for taiwanese and chinese.. really like their comedic sides i think that interest me most.. t-drama also offers variety of emotions such as you will cry in a minute then laugh then scared again , you will get angry at the same time then happy again and take note their is action haha.. so funny how they play your emotions and after experiencing that it will make you realize something lesson in life.. you relate what you've watch.. so brilliant' best depicted in started with a kiss and tka, my lucky star, drunken to love you etc... no one can beat their kissing scenes also tell me who's korean couple can do what ariel lin and joseph cheng did in tka.. the best and the most natural on screen couple i've ever seen in my entire life!!! another one taiwanese best on screen couples collaborate not only once in drama but twice or even thrice which really makes my heart flutter.. unlike in korea they only act once.. but honestly i liked korean dramas also like reply 1997,greatest love, princesses man, giant, etc. love the lovey dovey scenes, very unique in story line which is different compare to taiwan that is simple and very common to all, and you fall in love with that story BUT YOU KNOW AFTER WATCHING K-DRAMA the feeling didn't last long.., as months and years passed by you forgot it already but in t-drama even 10 years passed, the feeling is still the same.. it excites you every now and then..

  5. Amanda! Have you tried Nagareboshi? (sorry, that came out of the blue. I *was* blurting it out)

    I watched all 3 of the TW-dramas you put up, and that's almost all of the TW-dramas I've seen. lol. I heart ITWY though. It was just so lovely to live-watch and bittersweet to share LiDaRen's pain.

    1. I would have sworn that I'd never even heard of Nagareboshi, but I just found that it was already on my dramalist. I'm so all about the aquarium dramas that I even liked One Fine Day, just because I got to spend a lot of time looking at pretty fish. (And Gong Yoo.) I will definitely get to this one soon—thanks for the rec!

      In fact, Autumn's Concerto is the only Taiwanese drama I've seen that isn't listed here. So it might be a bit premature for me to be making grand generalizations about the genre, but far be it from me to be moderate ;)

      I loved ITWY, but I think I would have died if I tried to live watch it. I went from episode to episode without allowing myself to breathe, let alone wait a week!

  6. First of all- I LOVE LOVE LOVE your blog! Your posts are so awesome and well thought out. This weeks is top notch as always. And, like you, I too think Enrique is a delicious, magical fairy. (Okay, I added the delicious, magical part.) Now, onto my comment for this post: I've almost given up on T-Dramas because of the slap stick. Don't get me wrong. I love a good RomCom. But I feel like T-Dramas take it a little too far, and then they counter all that slap stick with a lot of moping around and feeling sorry for themselves. It's just too much for me. 'Fated To Love You' was one of the few T-Dramas I made it all the way through and I think that was based solely on the strength of the female lead and her ability to not be a complete punching bag. That and the hilariously awesome opening scene of all the rockets shooting off in lieu of them making love. However, now you're saying 'In Time with You' is almost as perfect as 'Coffee Prince'?!? Hold up! Wait a minute! What?! That is one of my all time favorite dramas! That's kind of a big deal! Since I've agreed with pretty much every opinion you've had so far, looks like I'm going to have try another T-Drama. Like now.

    1. Thank you :D

      I would be willing to add "magical" to Enrique's description, too!

      I'm almost totally humorless; it's a rare comedy I like for being funny, instead of in spite of it being funny. In Time with You has funny parts, but they're different from the zany scenes most T-dramas are full of—its laughs feel real and truthful, which is something pretty much impossible for any scene that finds humor in a guy falling from a second-story balcony only to be saved by boxes of toothpaste.

      I can't recommend In Time with You enough, and will probably get around to watching it again at some point. Its plot may be a little slow, but it's totally worth your time.

  7. I too, have hesitantly wandered over to Taiwan and Japan after two years of Korean drama only. I have LOVED some jdramas so much--HIMITSU or The Secret is about a heartbreaking body switch. No silly Hollywood hijinks in this one. And when I discovered Kimura Takuya and Kamenashi Kazuya's sexy hotness and fantastic talent, I went weeks without an Aigoo or Saranghe. I have tried several Tdramas and have been turned off by the production values, but I am in the middle of In Time with You and I am enjoying it in a relaxed way. It's shot beautifully and I can watch an episode, then put it away and then watch again the next week. I watched most of Fated to Love you and then another movie with the sexy lead actor in "Queen" (i think). I have enjoyed your blog and appreciate your recommendations. We Asian drama addicts are an generous bunch, ne? And YES, by all means write the bed antics post.

    1. I saw part of an American movie based on the Secret, and it was icky. David Duchovny being in love with his wife while she's in his daughter's body...? No thanks. I hear the Japanese show is way better, though.

      And it looks like the bed antics post will happen, barring a surge of no votes. (It's a good thing, because I already wrote it!)

  8. Try The Devil Beside You. It's by far my favorite Tdrama, if I had reviewed it yet on my blog, I would direct you there...I haven't yet, but I plan to soon. Really though, I like it even better than it started with a kiss.

    1. Thanks for the rec! I've added it to my drama list, and the next time I'm in the mood for Tdrama it's definitely going to be my pick. It looks great—I love the bad boys.

  9. I went in the other direction. I was first introduced to dramas by watching 1 Litre of Tears, a JDrama. I have often wondered how, after watching the most depressing drama ever made, I ever had the courage to go back for more, but go back I did. And with a vengeance. I watched a ton of JDramas, then moved on to Taiwanese dramas and THEN eventually found my way to the addiction that will last a lifetime, KDramas.
    I agree with your comparison of the two Playful Kisses. Frankly, in both versions, I pretty much just wanted to smack the female lead upside the head and was generally disgusted with her mindset but there's no denying that the story can be cute at times, and downright romantic at others.

  10. Dear Amanda,
    I think that the journey of every Kdrama is similar to yours. I started watching Kdramas thanks to Coffee Prince, and end up, one way or the other, watching not only Jdramas and Tdramas, but also reading manga and watching animes. It seems we have the same taste in terms of dramas, because I have seen all of the dramas that you have analyzed here. I do agree with you that In Time with you is one of the best Taiwanese dramas I have ever seen, and certainly Coffee Prince will always be #1 for me. Thanks for such a great review!

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