This is my inaugural First Impression review. So do bear with me if I stumble through some rough patches. What’s my definition of a First Impression review, and why does this review qualify as such? It’s where the reviewer is basing his or her critique on an incomplete set of information. Perhaps the reviewer intends to continue with the piece of work, and merely has a desire to share some preliminary thoughts. Or maybe the reviewer has given up on the piece of work, but feels there is some merit in sharing the rationale for the decision.
Regardless of the reason, the reviewer has provided the context up front: “I’ve only seen X amount of the work, and here are my thoughts.” I don’t believe that only reviews based on a completed viewing ought to be written, as long as the basis for the review is disclosed to the reader. You have been duly forewarned, so read on at your own peril. This is a First Impression review because I have only watched 12.5 episodes of the drama I am about to discuss.
Cake v. Romantic Comedies:
Of the recent batch of Wednesday-Thursday dramas which aired during the Spring of 2010, the only one I was inclined to watch was Personal Taste, also known as Personal Preference (“PT”). I did not base my decision on any pre-judgment of quality amongst the three dramas. PT was simply the one I was in the mood for when the dramas debuted. The trailers made it seem like an airy romantic comedy with a dash of melancholy.
I adore romantic comedies. These dramas are like cake to me. I love cake, I can eat cake anytime. It needn’t be the best cake in the world; if I see cake, I will want to try it. I still remember the best cake I ever had. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the cakes I ate didn’t bring me pleasure and fond memories.
Just because I’ll eat every piece of cake I encounter doesn’t mean I’ll finish said cake. Mr. Koala thinks I’m a waster, trying cakes and then throw it away when it’s not very good. I think Mr. Koala is a cake-Nazi. How would I know if the cake is good if I don’t try it? If I try it, why do I have to finish it? Mr. Koala suffers from indigestion from his urge to finish food for the sake of not wasting. I suffer from no such ailment. My stomach and I are friends because I refuse to turn it into a human garbage can.
Bringing the cake analogy back to romantic comedy dramas – I watch them all, but I don’t finish them all. I used to feel guilty, like I was ditching a friend at a party when I got bored and wanted to leave. I no longer feel any guilt. My friend will undoubtedly meet other folks at the party and have lots of fun. It’s a win-win situation.
Was Personal Taste a Yummy Piece of Cake?:
I started watching PT with an open and happy mind. Not only was it right up my alley and I was in the mood for it – I also adore Son Ye Jin as an actress and enjoyed Lee Min Ho’s performance in Boys Before Flowers. The stars were aligned. Only a thunderstorm could spoil the party, a thunderstorm in the form of bad writing or bad directing.
Little did I know a storm was brewing on the horizon. I was too busy oogling the behind of Jeon Jin Ho (played by Lee Min Ho) to let the little missed beats here and there permanently lodge in my consciousness. I was too preoccupied with the adorableness of Son Ye Jin as Park Kae In to look carefully at the miniscule cracks in the drama façade.
I at my PT cake happily, slowing down when I got to a bite that was too sweet, then speeding up again when I got to a bite that was delicious beyond belief. But I was starting to get a chalky aftertaste in my mouth. The PT cake was yummy to eat, but I could no longer ignore the realization that it wasn’t a superior piece of cake. By bite number 12, I could only eat half a bite before I put the fork down, and never got the urge to pick it back up.
I Really Want to Like You, I Really Really Want to Like You:
I changed my mind about this drama so many times I nearly gave myself whiplash vacillating between love and not-love (don’t worry, I never go anywhere near hate). This show made me throw out my preconceptions about first impressions, second impressions, hell, tenth impressions – because each episode was like a seesaw of quality, up and down the drama fluctuated.
When the story was interesting, it was very engaging. When it wasn’t interesting, it was downright snooze-inducingly boring. The same thing is true for the directing. When it was good (which was rarely), it sustained the mood and propelled the story fluidly. When it wasn’t so good (which was frequently), it was like someone flipping the light switch on and off, distracting and jarring. The only consistency in PT was the acting. The ensemble cast performed admirably, creating performances more than the paper-thin caricatures they were handed.
At the end of the day, PT didn’t provide the sense of joy and utter happiness a well-made romantic comedy can elicit from me. Nor did it fail so abysmally I want to chuck it into the tree-grinder and pretend it never existed. I don’t have a rating system, but PT would probably fall somewhere between average to good (I also like my steaks medium well, in case you want to know).
If someone asked me for a recommendation of a nice romantic drama, PT would not be the first one to come to mind. But if some asked me whether they should consider watching PT, I would say yes. At a crisp sixteen hours, it’s not a complete waste of time. I don’t think anyone involved with PT should feel like they picked a bad project. PT simply never elevated itself beyond a run-of-the-mill K-drama romance.
This review is taking me longer to write than other reviews ten-times longer, because PT failed to make an impact with me, positive or negative. It wasn’t so good I was going to be all giddy with excitement feverishly penning an ode to its magnificence. It wasn’t so bad that I was going to be all seething with anger furiously slashing a diatribe to its crapitude. PT simply “was”, and that is so very hard to inspire me to write about it.
I’m not a very discriminating viewer. I do want to write about PT partially out of curiosity over why certain aspects were so good and others so bad. But what to do about this lack of motivation? Then, bingo, I hit upon the right candied carrot to dangle in front of me – my love of pretty things.
I’m writing this review (1) to have a forum to post delicious and yummy screen caps of PT (this drama was very pretty to look at), and (2) to salute the drama that transformed Lee Min Ho from a sweet boy into a delicious man. Now those are reasons I can get behind!
This Seems Like A Perfect Slice of Cake:
From the very first frame, you immediately get the sense that Personal Taste aims to achieve an easy, breezy, summer-wind-through-the-beach-cottage vibe. We’re introduced to our main leads via their could-not-be-more-different approach to beginning their day. Jeon Jin Ho is structured, organized and efficient, cool without being robotic. Park Kae In is scattered, mussed and hurried, energetic without being coordinated. PT is the classic opposites attract scenario, and the opening sequence makes me curious and interested to see how this will play out.
The first few episodes set up the central premise of this story. Jin Ho is an architect looking to land a lucrative museum design project. Kae In is an interior designer who lives in a house designed by her famous architect father. A series of events leads to Kae In needing a new roommate, for her to wrongly assume that Jin Ho is gay, and for Jin Ho to become Kae In’s roommate in an effort to study the architecture of the Park abode, named Sangojae.
The early bunch of PT contrivances and plot devices are not terribly annoying (this sentiment will not be sustained, however). We put up with these and much more in every romance production. It’s how to deliver the goods beyond the set-up that matters. I have no problems with Kae In’s character construct. Yes, she’s a tad too naïve, a dash too slobby, a smidgeon too trusting. But she’s also likeable enough that she doesn’t cross the delicate line between endearing and annoying.
I also thoroughly enjoy Jin Ho’s cardboard cut-out dashing male lead: he’s aloof with a kind heart underneath, got it! We’re not going for an existential dissection of human psyche here. Simple, but effective, characters work in this type of situational romantic comedy setting. Jin Ho comes off as a decent guy who may be a tad uptight, but with no glaring flaws to speak of.
Once Kae In and Jin Ho begin to cohabit, the relationship quickly moves beyond simply roommates. Jin Ho agrees to assist Kae In in a revenge makeover to assuage her broken heart. Kae In will become a “real woman” (whatever that means) and make her ex-boyfriend, the foppish and false Chang Ryul, regret cheating on Kae In with her best friend In Hee. The romance junkie in me loves this Pygmalion crossed with Mean Girls set-up. And we’re off to the races!
Dude, Where’s My Drama? (That Was Promised Me):
I found the first four or so episodes of PT rather clunky and awkward. All the interesting premise I just laid out above never quite worked as presented by the PD. Each scene felt a tad off, like the timing was all wrong, ending too soon or dragging on too long. The transitions between scenes were no better, leaving me bored more often than not.
Oh, I was curious still about how this story that sounded so promising was going to play out, but what was being delivered to me just wasn’t very good. Does that make sense? I was getting the inkling that this was one drama I should just read the recap of rather than watch it. The only two things keeping me watching week after week was the presence of Son Ye Jin and Lee Min Ho.
Individually, they each brought a light touch to their characters, subtly infusing Kae In and Jin Ho with a coating of the essence of real life. Their characters are a tad unrealistic, but it never bothered me because Son Ye Jin and Lee Min Ho did a wonderful job of making them seem grounded and heartfelt. As a couple, they collectively played off each other and created a strong connection that elevated this drama for me.
None of the secondary or ancillary characters made an impression other than serving a plot-related purpose. Well, other than Ryu Seung Ryong’s Museum Director Choi Do Bin. As the token gay character in a drama with a comedy premised on gay misunderstandings and stereotypes, Director Choi is ripe to be sacrificed at the altar of juvenile gay jokes.
Except the script doesn’t ever go there with him (the gay jokes are instead at the expense of the straight Jin Ho and his equally as straight business partner Sang Joon). Ryu Seung Ryong’s performance was full of warmth, sincerity, and depth.
I wanted Director Choi to have his happy ending, in some ways more than I wanted my OTP to have their happy ending. The reason was because I knew my OTP was going to get their happy ending, but Director Choi had become so real to me, it hurt that he was not going to make an emotional connection in this drama. C’est la vie. PT isn’t aiming to shatter any gay stereotypes or challenge any gay barriers in Korea. By at least treating the subject matter with an attempt at decency and matter-of-factness, for that I give a PT a pat on the back.
The same can’t be said for the Demonic Duo – Kae In’s ex-boyfriend Chang Ryul and her ex-friend In Hee. If Director Choi was a step forward in creating three dimensional interesting characters, Chang Ryul and In Hee were seven steps backwards. By seven I’m alluding to seven years backward (an eternity in drama evolution) to the Hallyu dramas of the early-to-mid 2000s where secondary leads were manipulative, evil, whiny, and above all else, cartoonish caricatures. Oh PT, why’d you have to go there?
I hate, repeat, I hate the characters of Chang Ryul and In Hee. Not because they are slimy and selfish, but because their slimy and selfish ways never felt even remotely possible to me. In a drama that aims to show growth and maturation, you can’t start off with certain characters being so one-note and expect me to grow to care about them. I don’t, and the same goes for Hye Mi, Jin Ho’s childhood friend who is predictably shrill and clingy.
I thought Kim Ji Suk did a credible job of mining Chang Ryul for some depth, some nuance. In the later episodes, I did grow to appreciate the (little) bit of emotional development Chang Ryul evinces. But it was too late, I had pretty much written his character off by then as a plot device. He was neither a genuine threat to our OTP or an interesting enough antagonist that I would be curious how his character shakes out in the end.
Wang Ji Hye’s In Hee was even worse for me. I had not seen her act before, and I just flat out detested her I’m-an-evil-bitch-just-because character, and her cold fish acting. After first making her acquaintance in PT, I am currently watching her play the leading lady in Friends, Our Legend. She is so marvelous in FOL I get choked up by her luminous acting. Which makes me doubly pissed, that Wang Ji Hye would follow up a career-making turn in FOL with a career-limiting turn as In Hee in PT. This is a thankless role, which no amount of great acting can make either interesting or remotely relatable to me other than to view as target practice.
If All Else Fails, More Lee-Min-Ho-My-God! Please:
I just spent paragraphs complaining that, while the story was interesting, the execution was pretty bad and the characters were a hit and miss (oh, and the soundtrack was quite forgettable as well). So what prompted me to keep watching? That would be a certain young lad by the name of Lee Min Ho. After Boys Before Flowers, I both conceded his hotness and affirmed his potential as a leading man with natural charisma and acting talent. He did not send me into fits of hysteria or inspire me to download picture after picture of his toothsome visage (that would be My I Lub You and My Pi, respectively). But he piqued my interest.
Starting around episode 5 onwards, Lee Min Ho’s performance as Jin Ho grew progressively more and more intriguing to me. I loved his tightly coiled personality, and I was fascinated by his growing attraction to Kae In. (Let me just get this out of the way: I think Son Ye Jin is one of the best actresses of her generation in Korea, and I have LOVED every performance I’ve seen her do, even in dreck like Summer Scent. She performed admirably in PT, but her character was just didn’t push my right buttons, and I never grew to really connect with her. So I will not really talk that much about Kae In, but it’s a testament to how the character was written rather than Son Ye Jin’s performance, which felt effortless and sincere).
While the middle episodes were supposedly about Kae In’s transformation and/or maturation, it was Jin Ho’s emotional development that really hooked me in PT. I loved his friendship with Kae In. I loved his attempts to figure out his feelings. I loved his disgust at the pond scum that is Chang Ryul and In Hee. It doesn’t hurt that Lee Min Ho looked so handsome with a dash of vulnerability, just the right recipe to tickle my girly bone.
What really sold Jin Ho for me (oh, can I buy him and take him home, pretty please, where do I pay, credit card is all ready!) were the middle episodes when he’s struggling between so many self-constructed or self-perpetuated misconceptions, while trying to figure out exactly how he feels about Kae In. There is the “I’m gay” untruth, there is the “I just happen to stumble upon your house with a need to rent a room” fib, there is the “I’m just a friend” falsehood, and above all else, there is the “All I care about is winning the museum design project bid” Big Fat Lie he tells himself.
Lee Min Ho’s connected with his character and made me care about Jin Ho’s story and his dilemma, which on paper isn’t anywhere near as ripe for dissection and introspection as the character of Kae In. I do think, however, it’s a testament to his innate charm, more so than a coronation of his acting prowess. I find Lee Min Ho still “works” at acting. He rose to the occasion in PT, but it doesn’t yet feel effortless. Nor does it feel like he’s going for broke, I find he still holds back a bit. But for the character of Jin Ho, he succeeded beyond my expectations, and really was the lynchpin for my interest in PT.
At the end of episode ten, a drama friend anointed him Lee-Min-Ho-My-God, because, well, he fairly took out collective breaths away and then some. By doing what, you ask? Oh, by showing us, and Kae In, Chang Ryul, In Hee, that Jin Ho can kiss like no one’s business, and then kiss some more. I’m still breathless from that kiss.
Who Cares About Plot if There is Kissy Kissy Action:
PT doesn’t really have a lot of plot, and whatever little plot it has are plot devices. There is not a moment where I felt what was happening has a shred a resemblance to real life (like, it’s as likely to happen in real life as the chances of finding a Smurf colony in your backyard). I’m not just talking about all the coincidences that litter every drama landscape (X happens to run into Y at just that moment, whatever the moment may be, which creates the conflict or the resolution). I’m talk about writing a story that has natural forward momentum,
Kae In has her boyfriend stolen by her best friend without a clue, only discovering the betrayal AT THEIR WEDDING. Museum Director Choi’s favorite architect just happens to be Kae In’s father, who designed the house Jin Ho needs to study to win the design bid. In Hee just happens to work for Director Choi (otherwise she has no other reason to pop in and out of the screen to drop some evil now and then). Chang Ryul just happens to be a fellow architect, with prior history with Jin Ho, who is also bidding for the design project. And so on and so forth, you all get my drift.
In the hands of an able PD, these plot points may be packaged in such a natural way that I’d buy it without any compunction. But the PD doesn’t have the feel for elevating the pedestrian material in a way to sell me a used car and make me feel like I got a great deal. I was left leafing through the uninteresting material to get to the good stuff – every interaction between Jin Ho and Kae In.
I loved the build-up of their burgeoning attraction and deepening friendship. It was sweet, and the couple had a mature chemistry that made me warm and smiley inside. The episodes where both of them were fighting their mutual attraction were stellar. For Jin Ho, it’s because he’s got so many lies placed before Kae In. For Kae In, it’s because she thinks Jin Ho isn’t interested in ladies. These episodes delivered the emotional buildup I crave in romance dramas, the intensity, the moments of confusion and anxiety, the how-and-when of the impending confession of love.
And if PT did anything right, it was by delivering one of the best how-and-when love confessions I’ve ever seen. The moment happens at the end of episode ten. Kae In has come to the end of her revenge plans against Chang Ryul, to make him fall for her and regret dumping her. She can go no further, because it no longer matters to her (and probably never did). She cannot pretend her heart is anywhere but with Jin Ho, regardless of where Jin Ho’s heart is.
She tells Chang Ryul that her giving him a second chance was but a pretense so that she can hurt him like he has hurt her. Chang Ryul, in a moment of maturity and sincerity, says that it doesn’t matter, as long as she now agrees to give him a genuine second chance. Kae In tearfully says that she cannot, her heart has gone somewhere else. Listening to this conversation is Jin Ho and In Hee, the former understanding exactly what Kae In is saying, the latter plotting world annihilation.
In a moment worthy of inclusion in the K-drama hall of fame of classic I-love-you-and-I-will-kiss-the-daylights-out-of-you scenes, Jin Ho purposefully walks up to Kae In, grabs her (not wrist grabby, mind you), tells her “Game Over”, and then kisses her. And I mean kisses her! A kiss that was so open-mouth, multiple-angles, hallelujah angels are singing, I dissolved into a puddle on the ground. (In all fairness, I’ve seen many kisses, some hotter, some as hot as Siberia in December, but it was the buildup, the tension release of this kiss, that ranks it up there as one of the best kiss moments in a K-drama).
After that kiss, I frankly forgot about all my nits and all my picks about the things in PT that never quite worked properly. I was ready for the final stretch of PT to be its redemption song, to be as good as that kiss foreshadowed. What I was not expecting was that the writer and PD appeared to be foreshadowing not the kiss, but what Jin Ho said before hand. Game Over.
Memo to Drama Writers Everywhere – Never Have Your Main Character Utter the Words “Game Over”:
I’m not so deluded as to think the aftermath of that earth-tilting kiss could result in a sudden uptick in writing and directing quality. What I was unprepared for was that right after that kiss, all the problems I had with the drama come to the forefront to bother me more than ever. Why? Because all the great emotional buildup and tension was finally released by that kiss. Once Jin Ho and Kae In admit they like either other, like a balloon deflating, the rest of the stuff left to separate our OTP was just not very interesting.
Most of the lies get resolved quickly and efficiently. But then the writer throws even more inane obstacles at Jin Ho and Kae In. Jin Ho’s mother disapproves because Kae In used to date Chang Ryul, whose father backstabbed Jin Ho’s father. Kae In’s father disapproves because Jin Ho used a pretext to enter Sangojae to study its blueprints. This might have some merit if Jin Ho’s mom and Kae In’s dad weren’t such throwaway characters (not to mention a lousy parent when it comes to Kae In’s father).
Kae In has subconsciously hidden drama stemming from her mother’s unfortunate death caused by a flaw in the Sangojae design. Jin Ho discovers these family secrets, and then some. Even writing these lame plot obstacles is boring, much less watching it. I’m sure I missed some (okay, a lot) of cute Jin Ho/Kae In moments in the last few episodes because I just got bored with all the shenanigans. I concede that. But when the only tension in the relationship I care about has been resolved, my short attention span kicks in and it’s bye-bye lame plot.
The Chang Ryul and In Hee obstacle isn’t even interesting to begin with, and just feels like a giant time filler in the second half of the drama. Once Jin Ho and Kae In admitted their feelings for each other, which was the only genuine barrier for them, I found myself growing so disinterested with PT that I finally stopped watching in the middle of episode 12. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a prescient decision at that time. In the middle of watching episode 12, I needed to pause to take care of something. When I was done, I simply wasn’t interested in finishing the episode.
The same feeling of ennui continued with the next episode, and the next, until before I knew it, PT was over and I never picked it back up. I did finish reading the marvelous recaps by javabeans and girlfriday, just to get some closure on their journey. But as a drama, the itch to watch never re-emerged. It was Game Over indeed between PT and me. PT ultimately never quite gelled, nor did it fail abysmally. If it was one of the earlier K-dramas I watched, or perhaps if I had the luxury of waiting until it was done airing before watching it in one fell swoop, I may have liked it much more.
Prepare, Plan and Execute – Make Sure To Do All Three Steps:
Drama-making is hard work. When I critique or criticize a drama, it’s not because I take pleasure in cutting something down. I appreciate all the work that goes into making a drama. I highly doubt I could ever write a credible script, direct anything more than telling my daughter to stand over there before I turn on the video camera, or edit anything at all. But I am entitled to like or not like something. What is weird with PT is that I both like and dislike it. Even I am confused by my own reaction.
I think PT succeeded on the charm and chemistry of the OTP, and failed on the execution of both the script and the directing. Yes, I know I barely touched upon the giant elephant in the room – having a gay misunderstanding and a major character be gay in a K-drama – because I think this issue was handled with care, albeit clumsily at times. At the end of the day, it was simply one of many plot drivers in a drama that could have worked with fewer conundrums.
I do plan on finishing it someday, when the Spring breeze brings the first whiff of romance and the first urge to slip on something light and airy. My expectations of PT were never anything higher than curiosity, so its middling production feels just like a wasted opportunity with so much talent involved.
I never had an urge to headdesk myself into oblivion when watching PT. I think that would have been preferable to what I did feel, which was gradual disinterest settling into boredom. Unlike Serendipity’s theory of the Aspirational Gap, I have nothing intellectual to proffer up as to explain my reaction to PT. At the end of the day, what I did like was that PT was a sweet romance, with the occasional comedic moments, and a few heart thumping scenes. And it had Lee-Min-Ho-My-God. That’s good enough for me to enjoy 12.5 episodes of PT cake.