Thursday, February 14, 2013

Drama Review: It Started with a Kiss (2005)

(Note: I think I may have finally fallen under the spell of Tumblr. Every time I go there, it’s like the best party ever—people only talk about things I want to hear about, and I can attend in my pajamas. Sometimes I even post things, if you want to visit.)

Grade: B-

Category: Taiwanese Romantic comedy

What it’s about
A sweet-hearted girl who’s awful at everything follows her dismissive crush—a total babe who’s perfect in every way—through high school and college. The fact that her dad is best friends with his parents makes it all the easier to stalk him (especially when they move into his house).

First impression
It may not be fashionable to admit this, but I really liked Playful Kiss, the Korean version of this drama. This may have something to do with the fact that it was either the second or third Kdrama I ever watched, but at the time I found it simple but sweet, with a clarity of purpose that was almost reminiscent of fan fiction. In retrospect, it was also an anti-feminist mess. So far the Taiwanese show is more of the same—a slow-boil love story between a girl who’s all emotion and a boy who’s all logic (except for a nasty streak of vanity). The stories seem almost identical, but ISWAK’s male lead is a touch more sympathetic thanks to Joe Cheng’s textured performance and his barely suppressed chemistry with Ariel Lin.

Final verdict
Like Playful Kiss, ISWAK demands a lot of its viewers: You need to overlook the fact that the male lead is almost always a complete jerk, and also that the female lead makes your average doormat seem opinionated and dynamic. What it gives in exchange is a cozy universe filled with likable supporting characters, cute lead actors, and lots of I Love Lucy-style slapstick antics.

If you’re choosing between the Korean and Taiwanese versions of this show, I suggest going with Taiwan. Both shows low-key and amusing, but ISWAK gets right the one thing Playful Kiss really, really botches: the male lead’s transformation from a conceited, judgmental creep into an adoring husband (who happens to be a touch judgmental).

One of the most interesting things both these shows have to offer is their perspective on family life in east Asia. Multi-generational households are common, and success at school is treated as a sacred responsibility of every student. They also feature a pair of delightfully meddling moms, who decide to take a hands-on role in finding their son a wife. (Many Kdrama romances hinge on the disapproval of a lead’s mother, so it’s nice to see the opposite happen for a change.)

Unfortunately the female lead is the greatest failing in both dramas. Each actress does a fine job with the role, but the character they’re saddled with never manages to grow beyond tiresomely inept. Early on, it’s cute that she’s so hapless. She’s an every-girl teenager, empty-headed and big-hearted, who fixates with laser-like intensity on her crush. But as the years pass and she fails to develop any skills or interests not related to stalking him, her utter uselessness becomes increasingly frustrating.

In spite of their many problems, I enjoyed watching both versions of this show. They’re the comfort food of dramas: sweet and tasty, but totally devoid of actual nutrition. I even look forward to watching They Kiss Again, ISWAK’s the sequel. The future looks bright—TKA is based on the same material that inspired my favorite part of Playful Kiss, the series of specials that aired on YouTube after the show wrapped up.

Random thoughts
Episode 3. These shows make me feel like such a stupid layabout. I went to an average American public school for the standard 6 or 7 hours a day, and literally studied once in my entire academic career. It’s not that I’m a genius, either—it’s just that I didn’t really care about school, and neither did my parents. (Or my school.) When college rolled around, I tried a bit harder, but even there never made it beyond consumer math, a class in which an entire month was spent figuring out how to equitably split a pizza when not everyone involved liked all the toppings. Foolish liberal arts education, should I bless you or curse you? On the other hand, this show demonstrates the danger inherent in tracking kids: everyone in class F is doomed to fail because both their inept teacher and the world’s expectations are major strikes against them.

Episode 4. Actually, saving her from Chester the Molester on the bus is the bare minimum the male lead could possibly do and still come off as a human being. He should have followed it up by saying, “Next time, knee him you-know-where and your problems will be solved.” Apparently that route never occurred to the female lead. (See what I mean? Doormat.)

Episode 5. Like the Korean version, this show is making me feel really bad for the male lead. His parents have decided who he should marry and how he’ll live before he’s even graduated from high school, and all without consulting him. It’s taking away his chance to experience the world as a young adult in control of his own destiny. This might be thinking like an American, though—multigenerational households are rare here, and it’s expected that most middle-class kids will finish high school, move out of their family’s house to go to college, and then find a home of their own. The next time many of us live with our parents is when they’re much older and need help, and even that’s unusual. It seems much different in Asia—possibly for the best, when you consider the down sides of family members being dispersed around the country as a matter of course.

Episode 13. Asia does so much right when it comes to food, but one of the things that eludes it is a decent cake. And this drama tries really hard on that front—one character or another eats cake in pretty much every episode. But why are they messing up a fabulous, high-calorie dessert by putting fruit on it? Everyone knows the best kind of cake is chocolate with chocolate frosting.

Episode 18. Is math the only subject they teach in Taiwan? How come nobody ever has a question about earth sciences or history or Chinese? Or are they just doing this to make me feel stupid, as I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do that third-grade word problem, either?

Episode 20. I don’t remember an openly gay guy hitting on the male lead in the Korean version of this drama. Oh, that’s right—it never happened, because Korea won’t stand for that kind of stuff.

Episode 26. This might be the funniest episode of any Asian drama I’ve seen—getting Xiang Qin, Zi Yu, and a caterpillar together on a mission to sabotage a matchmaking date was a stroke of genius. It’s the perfect combination of sincerity, snark, and creepy-crawlies. (Did she actually have to do that?!?)

• Episode 27. If this show had been filmed in America, the entire budget would have gone to the insurance needs of this one episode. Two of your lead actors touch a hippo, and then sit on a crocodile? That's a recipe for a horrifying snuff film, not a rom-com.

• Episode 29. I just realized that hardly any cell phones appear in this drama. It makes the show feel even older than it actually is, but is a refreshing change from the text-mad Kdramas (and American shows!) I’ve been watching lately.

• Episode 29. Do they still make smelling salts? If so, I could use some after that kiss. Yowza!

Watch it

You might also like
Playful Kiss, the Korean take on this story
Boys over Flowers, for the male variant of this obsessive high-school crush


  1. I'll join you in the unfashinable side - I also thoroughly enjoyed Playful Kiss, though on front do I think it was an awesome drama. Hehe.

    I might get around to this one sometime soon, but I only watched Playful Kiss a few months ago. I think some more time between the two will make it all better.

    1. I was considering rewatching Playful Kiss to do a more detailed comparison of the two versions, but I couldn't even make it through the first episode the second time around. I may have to go revisionist on my feelings about it. Once the sparkly newness wore off, it was hard to remember what I liked about it. (BoF much?)

      You could always skip right to They Kissed Again... (Although I think it must cover some of the same material as Playful Kiss. The first season of the Taiwanese drama didn't follow them into medical school.)

    2. I'm trying to figure out what exactly i wrote above^ Lol.. I meant to type "though in NO WAY do I think it was an awesome drama."

      I would feel bad skipping to the 2nd one.. hehe. My conscience wouldn't allow it. I'd like to see how the Taiwanese cast handles it from the beginning.

  2. I watched this recently, after loving Ariel in ITWY, and I was torn. I giggled like a school girl when the boy did anything remotely nice, but then I side-eyed Xiang Qin throughout because, well, girl power and whatnot and then rolled my eyes at myself for giggling. I was a mess, trying to act haughty with myself.

    I need to stop watching dramas that make me feel like a hypocrite. But, really, isn't that the lure of them?

  3. Playful Kiss is one of those dramas that I watched, but just didn't understand. The most disturbingly backward compliment I've ever received from another woman was, "You're so capable! How are you ever going to find a man?" So...yeah, I just don't understand the character, and more than that, I don't understand him either. What does he get from the relationship, (aside from the fact that she reminds him of his mother)? He's basically a parent to her. Anyhoo, what I DID like about Playful Kiss (and what kept me watching) were all of the other characters. Their friends and family, like Bong Joon-Gu. Love that guy (and thought the actor, Lee Tae-sung, looked SMOKIN' in Rooftop Prince.) I thought it was really funny that after seeing these characters spend ages and ages letting someone slooowwwly know that they were interested in them, the western character is all like, "Me Like You. Me Want You Babies. Make Happen." (okay, so not quite like that, but close). No confessional notes, no elaborate plans. I think it's hilarious that's the impression of western foreigners. They're straight to the point.

  4. I can't wait until you watch They Kiss Again so I can read your thoughts on it! They grow even more loveable in the sequel and they do a great job with coming of age themes.

  5. I've actually never watched neither ISWAK from start to finish, only parts of it. Its thirty hour-long episodes were just too much for me (especially when Ariel's character is mostly just too embarassing to watch), so I used to just watch those parts where something important happened.
    But I agree that the chemistry between the leads and the hero's transformation from a jerk into a decent guy is better than in Playful Kiss, where Jung So Min was pretty much doing the acting for the hero too (no offence, Kim Hyun Joong fans).
    I doubt I'll ever watch ISWAK from start to finish without skipping anything, but now I feel like might try it again sometime. I definitely don't remember anything about that catepillar date, and I'm curious now..

  6. There's a Japanese take on this, Itazura na Kiss Love in Tokyo. I like it better than Playful Kiss. The pace is much faster and the events are more realistic, except how the house collapsed. Also there's more depth to the counterpart of Bong Joon-Gu and the female lead's father. I find Irie Naoki a lot better than Baek Seung Jo as well, but really what can be expected of a cold-blooded genius but boredom... hehehe. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

  7. I'm just getting through ISWAK (thirty episodes! Whoo!) but I have seen both Playful Kiss and the original japanese anime Itzura na Kiss so I already know what happens, I'm just watching to see this take on it. So far I like it, I find myself smiling at the scenes without even realizing it. There was someone above who said that they didn't understand what Jiang Zhi got out of his relationship with Xiang Qin. Here's my understanding of it: Even though he's so smart and good-looking and rich and everyone else seems to think that that is a perfect life and he should have no worries and he's perfect and perfectly happy, he's not. Being good at everything has made him bored with the world because he doesn't have to try at anything. Can you imagine not having to try at ANYTHING? In your whole life? Not having to save up allowance for a game or toy you want or studying really hard and getting that good grade you worked so hard for? Those sorts of accomplished feelings that everyone has in order to be a well rounded individual he never experienced. He never even had to experience liking a girl that doesn't like him back because of his good looks. He looks down on others because he doesn't understand them. He doesn't understand their feelings. He is so book smart he lacks common ground with others. He never had the experiences most of us would think are no big deal. We see this is the result of it, but most people, even spoiled rich people have had a time in their life where things didn't work out and they had to work hard to change it. When he meets Xiang Qin he starts to realize exactly what has him so unhappy and unsettled in his life, She works hard and puts so much effort into getting him to like her and to him, it is pointless because he doesn't get hard work. I suppose in such a person who his whole life has been told "You're so smart and handsome and rich! Perfect!" he is quite arrogant and thinks he's the best thing since sliced bread, it really grinds his gears that there's is something that he doesn't get that that idiot girl does. While she may not be book smart, she has enough people and world sense for both of them. She understands that he doesn't like her but pursues him anyway and she understands the value of hard work and that being smart in school isn't everything. Everybody has one thing they are good at, even if others deem it useless and her one thing is perseverance which Jiang Zhi clearly doesn't any of, when has he ever tried at anything? Through out the series he learns from her and grows to have ambition. He is sad that his life though it seems perfect, is lacking. He wants a challenge, something he can look forward to working hard to get or to understand. He begins to like her because he finds her complex. Like when he ponders (spoiler!) after he sees her working a part time job, why work so hard for so little and only starts to get it when he finds out it was for a present for him. It's strange that such a smart person doesn't understand how much work people put into things for others but that's his fatal flaw. He's the skilled, smart one and she is the one that has all the other nice, gutsy stuff that makes people, people!

    1. In a word, he lacks emotional intelligence. He also lacks humanity, spontaneity and the capacity to be thrilled and enthusiastic.
      He is grateful because she made him feel human feelings, like jealousy, as he explainsi in the cafeteria scene in the Japanese version season 2, where the second lead (the chef) explains to him that the reason for his feeling out of sorts is because he's jealous of Keita, the handsome male nurse. And he clearly says to the male nurse "All these despicable human feelings, you have lots of them. So you don't need Kotoko. I need her, because only when she's at my side I can be fully myself".
      At the end of the Taiwanese version, he says "thank you for bringing to me all the things I lack". He understands that they work as a couple because they complement each other.

  8. Iswak and Tka is the best version. Although I've not yet watched Playful Kiss but try this Taiwanese version, they have passionate kissing and the male and female lead act naturally like making you believe that they are their characters. Also they have undescribable chemistry that even off screen their fans would freak out.

  9. Iswak and Tka is the best version. Although I've not yet watched Playful Kiss but try this Taiwanese version, they have passionate kissing and the male and female lead act naturally like making you believe that they are their characters. Also they have undescribable chemistry that even off screen their fans would freak out.

  10. I've watched ISWAK for a couple of times already, yet it never failed to make my day full of laughter and tears. Compared to Playful Kiss, I believe ISWAK conveyed the message much clearer. Furthermore, their skills made it look natural. The scenes surely got me at the edge of my seat every single time. But ugh there seems to be a lot of irksome scenes concerning Xiang Qin.
    One thing I would like to say to those who are yet to watch ISWAK is that, this drama has its magic. It takes you to places you've never been to, and makes you feel the feelings you thought you'd never experience, just like how the wind manages to get the wind blown away. The more annoying and heartbreaking the scenes are, the more romantic and happy the next scenes would be. It's just a cycle in almost all dramas, but ISWAK made the ordinary feeling an extraordinary one. So much love for ISWAK and the cast. It's almost 2017, but i'm still hoping for a sequel :)IT'S WORTH THE WATCH!

  11. Looking for the Ultimate Dating Site? Join to find your perfect match.

  12. Ever wanted to get free Twitter Re-tweets?
    Did you know you can get these AUTOMATICALLY & TOTALLY FOR FREE by getting an account on Like 4 Like?