I'm a bit late the party, but I decided to catch up on most Ariel Lin dramas. I got started when I first saw In Time With You from a recommended list of well-written Asian dramas and I became a fan of Ariel forever after that. So far, I've seen Legend of Condor Heroes, Prince of Lan Ling, Tokyo Juliet (despite her and Wu Chun making the pair likable, that was a real chore to sit through and gosh the actual attempted rapes that the main character forgives makes Xiang Qin seem like a feminist hero), Love Contract, and I Will Never Let You Go. Needless to say, I'm a huge fan of hers and I think she's one of the best actors on screen working today. I'm including all actors from all countries I've seen in that group.
I just finished by It Started with a Kiss and They Kiss Again after hearing so much about them. I was a bit familiar with the material as I started the Japanese version Mischievous Kiss on Netflix some years ago. I couldn't finish that one because I think it was meant for viewers a bit younger than myself but I did make it to the part where she joined the Tennis Club. The whole thing seemed so cartoony (especially the mom's acting). I also watched a bit of the Korean Playful Kiss just to compare it. So after my first experience, I was sort of not looking forward to this, but I'm glad I finished it. It's still a story geared more towards the younger crowd, but the difference between this version and the other ones is that I felt the director went for a more natural feel (as natural as one can be with a story based on a manga like this manga) and allowed the actors to seem like they were ab-libbing to get a more familial mood between the characters. I thought They Kiss Again was even better than It Started with a Kiss.
I have to say after reading some reviews on other websites, I'm surprised more viewers aren't more impressed with Ariel Lin did here. Out of all the takes of Kotoku/Xiang Qin, I think Ariel bravely plays the character fully as is, even when she's being the most "dumb" and annoying. I think in order to truly get it right, you have to play her like that to make the juxtaposition between Kotoku/Xiang Qin and Irie/Zhi Shu right. She has to be all-the-way in order to truly make her truly different from any other non-honor student/emotional girl, and make up for the "10 percent" that Irie/Zhi Shu lacks. Plus, with all the situations she finds herself in AND the way she loses her temper but still allows herself to take a lot of verbal and emotional abuse from many characters, she has to be missing something in her brain to process those things like the regular viewer would. And yet, despite that, Ariel makes Xiang Qin so real and quirky and good-natured, that she becomes someone you root and feel for.
I think it would have been easy for any actress to scale this character back a bit to make her more relatable and sympathetic to the mostly female viewer who obviously projects themselves into the part, but I prefer the way this version doesn't shy away from it but also doesn't shy away from the message that just because a character can annoy you (make one's feminist heart or any functional working adult squirm) and be really thick at almost all times, she's still worthy of dignity and even respect when her actions show she deserves it. I think she did a phenomenal job there though I could have used one or a few less overwrought crying scenes just to make the impact bigger. After a while, it's like we know Ariel is a master of crying all the way on cue.
I'm not sure how I feel about Joe Cheng's portrayal just because I think for some reason they decided to not make him so mechanical/cold. It's as if they were too afraid to do that and instead Cheng would smirk, smile, or whatever like a normal person at times that it kind of makes it harder to buy that he is truly missing a lot of things "normal" people have in terms of emotion and only Kotoku/Xiang Qin could bring them out. I think Furukawa Yuki's portrayal is probably closer to how Irie is supposed to be though he was downright scary in parts when he was screaming and being physical with Kotoku but seems like someone who is lacking something in his brain to empathize with other people's emotions/norms and reacts out of frustration would be like). At parts, it was hard for me to buy Joe Cheng as someone every female would fall in love with on the surface level (and on paper), but it's just one of those impossible tasks. I think he did make Zhi Shu someone I liked watched see grow and mature as the series went on and because he wasn't so cold, you got to see a lot hints that he enjoyed being with Xiang Qin even if he himself didn't realize it. I do think that sort of makes one a bit more confused as to how cognizant Zhi Shu was over his feelings because his facial expressions make it seem that he did recognize it at the time but then later on he says he didn't know what he was feeling until later.
There were some clunkiness (I liked Christine's relationship with Xiang Qin and how playful she was in the drunk scene but my gosh she was not a natural English-speaking actress and the man who played her father had to work with some horrific dialogue AND he didn't even try a posh British accent) and some draggy parts to both series, but I love the natural feel of the scenes and some creativity the director had with making the scenes come alive on screen. One of my favorite scenes is Jiro Wang as Ah Jin fantasizing singing to Xiang Qin at the graduation party. I thought that whole sequence was well-done. I also loved after making us suffer in limbo for so many episodes, when Xiang Qin is told by the head nurse she can transfer to Matsu, the way Ariel was filmed walking and being utterly giddy with that song playing made us feel the euphoria she was feeling.
I know people go on about the chemistry between Ariel and Joe, and I agree they have real chemistry together, but Ariel has chemistry with all of her male co-stars that I've seen. IMO, nothing yet matches the sheer raw chemistry and passion between her and Mike He in Love Contract. That show had its issues, but one thing it really captured that I think is so rare in almost everything I've seen (I'm including American and European television and films as well) is that youthful passion that can happen between two people experiencing their first deep romance and relationship. Ariel and Mike really had something that I don't think either of them or most actors have captured since.