Updated, March 2015
Elements of K-Drama Style: Getting Deep about Screen Kissing—
It’s easy to complain when television shows repeat familiar stuff, but repetition isn’t necessarily a bad thing: take the Korean drama kiss. When the central couple finally kiss in a K-drama, no one complains. We expect it, and if a romantic couple don’t kiss by the end of episode 16, we write thousands of words on online forums wondering why not. And if the kisses are good, a show qualifies for major hit status.
But repeated elements are just a step away from clichés—and a good show has to make a kiss feel original. As a film-making exercise, it’s tough. It’s easier to leave romance out of a story completely than to come up with yet another way of showing a kiss. Even in the real world, kisses can become clichés over time. Lovers in long-term relationships have to get creative so it doesn’t get dull.
So how do K-drama directors and actors deliver good kiss scenes? And why does it take them so long? (The relative conservatism is only one of the many differences between Korean and English-language television.) K-drama fans are resigned to the fact that some romance series never deliver a single good kiss, yet we keep watching, hoping for one of those sexy scenes we’ll talk about for years afterwards.
I was thinking about K-dramas when I read this essay on movie kisses in the New York Times. (I guess if you’re the Paper of Record you have to cover everything.)
The world is full of good actors. But actors and actresses who are good at screen kisses are something else. Since the turn of the millennium, films and television here in the States seem to be ditching romance completely. I’m a little worried Hollywood will forget how to make a good screen kiss.
(I have high standards for a good screen kiss, thanks to the English directors Merchant & Ivory’s definitive example in 1985 Room with a View. It’s as gorgeous as it is unexpected and Puccini will never sound the same to you again. The kiss itself is short and the camera films it from a distance. But the directors create an intensely romantic mood, making this scene a cinema classic.)
East Asia is picking up the slack, though, with plenty of awesome screen kisses. They’ve figured out how to give a PG-rated kiss the impact of an R-rated sex scene. (And their R-rated sex scenes are a hundred times steamier than anything coming out of Hollywood. You’ve been warned.)
Delivering a good screen kiss—like a good kiss in the real world—requires more than a pretty face and a positive attitude. It requires paying attention to the moment and learning what works and what doesn’t. But if in real life we want a lover who pays attention only to us, on screen we want lovers who remember where the camera is.
If Hollywood ever wants to film a romance again, what lessons can they learn from Korean television? Long before they get to the nitty-gritty of whose lips go where, there are a few bigger story-telling issues to consider.
1. Don’t show how kissing looks, show how it feels.
No matter how much film-makers try to fool us into thinking it’s “real,” reality has problems. A realistic kiss on film or video obscures the faces of the highly-paid megastars.
Believable is better than realistic. We’d like to see a kiss full of convincing emotion, but we also want the camera to give us insider privileges. We want a glimpse of that gorgeous and inaccessible profile at the moment of tenderness. We want to feel an echo of the characters’ emotions.
Our brains do strange things with stories. Even though we know a TV story is fiction, we want to crawl inside the story anyway. We’re dreamers who choose to be dreaming. Kisses dance on the borderline between real and fake. When we watch a zombie movie, we’re sure the zombies are stuntmen in stage makeup. Is it the same with kisses? You can’t make a kiss with special effects, trick lighting or body doubles.
In the Times, Scott says the movie kiss “marked that tantalizing moment when cinematic pretending became literal. Everybody knew that everything on-screen was, to some extent or another, fake. The city street was a standing set on a studio back lot. The cowboy was a stuntman. The bullets were blanks. The car-stomping monster was 18 inches high. But the man and the woman were really kissing. They might have hated each other’s guts or the smell of each other’s breath — or, for that matter, they might have been sleeping with each other’s spouses, or each other, or the director. But the kiss between them was nothing but the truth.”
The best stage kisses have to do two things: convince us the feelings are genuine, and make us forget we’re staring. One way to ease the sense of intruding is to use melodramatic conventions like music, beautiful settings, tears, and those passionate, coherent confessions of love that sound exactly like what we wish we’d said, when we later realize how incoherent we actually sounded. Conventions like romantic music are cues that a private scene is coming, but we’re among the guests invited.
If the music is too insistent, it backfires and pushes us away. (Heirs conditioned me to shudder when I hear the words “love” or “moment.”) But when the conventions are used well, they keep us wrapped up in the shadows on the screen. A K-drama is always artificial, like all film and video, but it aims to evoke real emotions.