Playful Kiss: Seung-jo's morbid relationship with his mother. (1500 words)
Playful Kiss is based on the manga Itazura Na Kiss by Tada Kaoru. It was adapted in quite a few countries, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Thailand if I understand well.
I watched the South Korean version twice and saw a few episodes of the Taiwanese version.
Its main plot isn’t entirely inviting. Playful Kiss tells the story of Oh Ha-ni, a highschool girl with an abysmal level who is in love with Baek Seung-jo, best pupil of the school. She’s smiley, full of life and enthusiasm, but clumsy and (supposedly) ugly. He’s handsome, confident, successful in everything, admired by everybody, but condescending, moody and dull.
Oh Ha-ni remains in love with him for four long years this without managing to get Baek Seung-jo to pay any attention to her. Her house is destroyed in a mysterious accident and she and her dad have to go and live at friends’ of his who will happen to be Seung-jo’s parents.
Now that they are living together, interactions between Seung-jo and Ha-ni become unavoidable and a relationship starts building itself.
Of course, all this will evolve into flirting, dating and eventually, marrying.
What makes the story so peculiar is that Seung-jo, particularly in the South Korean adaption, remains extremely harsh, cold and condescending towards Ha-ni. Every step he takes towards her is followed by a strong humiliation or rejection.
That’s the reason why the first time I watched the dolama I thought it was borderline morbid because it encouraged girls to pursue men that treated them badly, that which is already a problem in general, and it looked to me like Seung-jo was a narcissist who enjoyed hurting Ha-ni.
But I don’t think that’s the case anymore. Early enough in the show, an explanation is given to Seung-jo’s behavior : he was traumatized by his mother as kid, she dressed him up like a girl until people realized he wasn’t. When he was 5 years old. That’s probably also the time when he realized that he wasn’t a girl.
The audience isn’t reminded of this horrific experience very often and its psychological consequences aren’t explicitly explained. These two facts tend to make the dynamics of the plot of Playful Kiss quite hermetic. The taiwanese version is a lot more accessible.
I have an hypothesis that I do not think I will be able to check because I don’t think I’ll ever watch Playful Kiss again. 16 1 hour episodes is a lot.
I think that the main variables that guides Seung-jo’s desires are :
- He needs the seriousness of his trauma to be acknowledged. It never was. His parents act as if nothing happened. His desires are not taken seriously. I agree with René Girard’s « Desires are the core of the individual ».
- The trauma actually made him incapable of knowing what he wants. It can happen when someone is so deeply violated.
- As a consequence of both of the above facts, he is under the constant threat of rebellious self-destructive urges. His mother is still as intrusive, disrespectful of his intimacy as before and she still allows herself to choose the objects of his desires for him. For this reason, he renounces these objects.
- Seung-jo has a strong need for intimacy, privacy. He wants to protect himself from his mother. Sadly Ha-ni behaves stupidly on that level.
And so, all these variables resulting from Seung-jo’s horrible trauma have a serious impact on everything that happens in playful kiss while never being clearly explicited.
To put it in a different way, there’s always two Seung-jos : the persona he creates to fight against his mother, to escape her, to prevent her from obtaining satisfaction when she only deserves to be shamed and silenced, and there’s the real Seung-jo who is terribly lost and despaired, and who likes Ha-Ni because she’s so full of life and seems to be able to desire things strongly.
My point here is that Seung-jo’s anger and condescension is, in my opinion, always a result of these dynamics that aren’t made obvious. What stroke me, is that even I, who suffered from similar intrusive aggressions, couldn’t understand the young man’s motivations and suffering.
I didn’t realize how hard it can be to « read » someone’s behaviour and how hard anger is an emotion that easily makes you misunderstood.
When Seung-jo and Ha-ni’s honeymoon starts, the young man shows himself under a very disagreeable light.
He is cold and in a sulky mood. They just got married and he dares ruin everything. It’s hard not judge him, not to think he’s going too far whatever his reason is.
The thing is, he is the victim. He is the one who shouldn’t be asked to adept to others in this situation, to understand and forgive. His anger is entirely legitimate.
During the celebration organised for the marriage, pictures of young Seung-jo and young Ha-ni are showed to the audience. Hwang Geum-hee (Seung-jo’s mother) provided several ones of Seung-jo disguised as a girl from when she dressed him as such. She shamelessly states « I can finally lift this weight off my shoulders. I dislike keeping secrets. » and even goes as far as advising her traumatized son to « live a more carefree life too. »
A few obvious problems here are entirely dismissed :
1-The fact that Seung-jo might still experience a lot of difficulties in his life because of his mother’s crazy behavior. He cannot reach for help as long as she pretends that nothing serious, nothing truly harmful happened.
2-The fact that it isn’t hers to decide that she shouldn’t feel bad about it anymore but Seung-jo who should forgive her if he wants to.
3-Showing these pictures at his marriage is an extreme aggression. It proves that she still thinks more about herself than about her son’s mental well being. She’s doing exactly what brings people to rebellious self-destruction (including suicide). She uses the fact that he is doing well (in appearance) as an argument against the idea that what she inflicted him was serious and that she doesn’t have the right to pretend otherwise. « How could I be a bad mother when my son is Baek Seung-jo ? What I did can’t be that serious as he’s become a very balanced and successful individual. »
The more Baek Seung-jo tries to recover from how he was abused and be happy, the more he allows his mother to think she’s great and did nothing wrong. This dynamic already makes things hard, but the idiotic Hwang Geum-hee carries on meddling in his life, that which constantly creates psychological dead ends for Seung-jo. He doesn’t want to live the life that will satisfy her, he wants to escape from the rails that she pushes him on.
One of the things that necessarily attracts him in Ha-Ni is that she’s looking for his acknowledgement. Her desire for him is gigantic but entirely submitted to his own. It’s reassuring for Seung-jo, Ha-ni is always trying to win his approval, she never forces him because it means so much to her that he should consent to do anything with her.
And so when she forcefully kisses him when they marry, not only is he shocked but it’s also the worst thing that Ha-ni could have done to him. On this day when he wants to be acknowledged as a man, both his mother and bride deprive him of the symbols that should allow him to feel and look like one. Worse, his mother uses the event as a tool to invalidate Seung-jo’s trauma in the eyes of everybody.
It really is disgusting and it is very easy not to realize how much normal, understandable and legitimate Seung-jo’s coldness can be. To put it simply, he is scared of people who have an interest in him, because he’s scared of seeing his desires getting high-jacked and thus maintains them at a distance through condescension.
So, the hypothesis I will not try to demonstrate here because the show is sixteen episodes long, is that every unexpectedly harsh beheviour of Seung-jo’s is deeply understandable and the result of his mother’s aggressions. It is made far more obvious in the Taiwanese version of the story, but I think it is far more realistic in the Korean one. And that’s why I was interested in this, because Seung-jo can very often look dislikeable and harsh when truly, it’s the characters around who treat him without consideration. Or without the opportunity to understand what’s truly going on.
For example, Yoon Hae-ra will destroy every single chance she had with Seung-jo by trying to arrange their marriage. She’s not truly trying to force Seung-jo into a marriage with her, she just wants to bring the idea about, to create a situation where Seung-jo has an excuse to marry her. He wouldn’t have to admit that he has feelings for her but they still would end up together. The problem is that, by trying to give him an opportunity not to have to confess his feelings, Hae-ra creates a situation where it looks like she wants to control his desires and Seung-jo would rather die than accept this.
Poor Yoon Hae-Ra and Bong Joon-Gu both end up making huge mistakes because Seung-jo and Han-Ni’s relationship pushes them to their limits.
Seung-jo and Ha-ni’s honeymoon comes close to becoming an absolute failure. He keeps on humiliating her and the couple seems to be followed by a crazy woman who has put into her head to seduce the young man.
Things will end on a positive note though as Seung-jo will finally make love to Ha-ni when their respective genders are acknowledged in the most obvious manner :
But truly, Ha-ni fails to understand the scale of the gravity of the problem.
One thing that interests me in this story is that it is a good example of how people who wants to be nice to everybody are never supportive of victims of abuse.
Here, Seung-jo would need someone to blame his mother, to dislike her, to point at the fact that she’s not a good person and doesn’t deserve respect or love or at least shouldn’t be allowed to have her voice be heard on an equal foot as his. But Seung-jo’s is surrounded by cowards who can’t deal with tension and conflict. In that kind of environment, victims always end up having to pretend that nothing happened and everything’s fine and aggressors can carry on tormenting them.