'XO, Kitty' is a coming-of-age Korean rom-dramedy with heart
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AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
The hit young adult book and movie franchise "To All The Boys I've Loved Before" is back. "XO, Kitty" is a spinoff series that follows the messy misadventures of teenage matchmaker Kitty Song-Covey. When Kitty moves across the globe to be with her long-distance boyfriend in Korea, she quickly realizes adjusting to her new environment won't be easy. The show is a mashup of genres, including rom-coms, Korean dramas and coming-of-age tales. I'm Aisha Harris, and today we're talking about the Netflix series "XO, Kitty" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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HARRIS: Joining me today is Regina Kim. She's a freelance writer focusing on Korean pop culture and AAPI issues. Welcome back to the show, Regina.
REGINA KIM: Thanks for having me again.
HARRIS: And also with us is Kristen Meinzer. She co-hosts the podcast "The Daily Fail," and she's the co-author of "How To Be Fine." Welcome back to you, too, Kristen.
KRISTEN MEINZER: Great to be back. Thanks, Aisha.
HARRIS: Well, in "XO, Kitty," Anna Cathcart returns to her breakout role of Kitty Song-Covey, a teenager with a penchant for matchmaking. Kitty met her boyfriend, Dae, played by Minyeong Choi, while visiting Seoul with her family. Frustrated with being long distance, she secretly applies to Dae's high school, the Korean Independent School of Seoul - aka KISS, get it? - and is accepted. She also hopes to learn more about her late mother, who was once a student at KISS. But when Kitty arrives on campus, things don't go quite as planned.
Now, this is a twisty rom-dramedy with an abundance of characters and convoluted plot lines. We'll get into some of those in a bit, but the major players to know are Gia Kim as Yuri, a wealthy and prominent classmate who is secretly queer and Yunjin Kim as Jina, Yuri's mom and the principal of KISS. We also meet a professor played by Michael K. Lee. There's also Dae's roommates and best friends, Min Ho, a posh snob played by Sang Heon Lee, and Q, a student athlete played by Anthony Keyvan. "XO, Kitty" was created by Jenny Han and is a spinoff of Han's successful book and movie franchise, "To All The Boys I've Loved Before." It's streaming on Netflix, and we're going to be talking about the whole series.
So, Kristen, let's start with you. What did you think of "XO, Kitty"?
MEINZER: Well, I have got to say, as the youngest sister in my own family, I really enjoyed being able to see Kitty take center stage. Up until now, she's just been, you know, the wisecracking comic relief to her older sister Lara Jean in "To All The Boys" films. But here she gets to be her own person. She has her own quirks. She has her own desires, her own adventures. I also like that the story takes place outside of Oregon. It's in Seoul. And I think this was definitely to the story's benefit, so it didn't just feel like another copy of "To All The Boys." It's an international school with a whole new cast of people, and that cast of people includes characters we don't always see very much of in the Asian American diaspora, including adopted people, like me. And I always am happy when I get to see different kinds of representation of Asian people in the world. So that made me happy.
And also, I just think the format of the series works really well for what they're trying to do here. This is not a 90-minute movie and then another 90-minute movie and another 90-minute movie. This is a full series of episodes where there are cliffhangers, where there are more opportunities and more space for the characters to grow and to do different kinds of things. Sometimes those things are quite convoluted, as you already alluded to, Aisha. But it is fun to see this different kind of format. And I do think, again, it's to the series' benefit that it is doing things differently, so it doesn't just feel like this is "To All The Boys" 2.0.
HARRIS: Yeah, yeah. Regina, how about you? Where are you coming at this series and with the franchise as a whole?
KIM: So I will say that I, too, liked it overall. Like, I thought it was better than I expected. I mean, for starters, like, I found it very refreshing to see an Asian actor play the male romantic lead for once. Because, you know, oftentimes we see, in a lot of Hollywood TV shows and films, like, oftentimes, they have the Asian woman being paired with a white guy. But in this show, like, we see, you know, Kitty being paired with a Korean guy, which, you know, is wonderful to see, I think. And I know that Jenny Han, who is one of the show's co-creators, like, she faced some criticism in the past for not including any Asian male love interests in her stories. And so I felt like maybe this show was kind of her way of trying to address and rectify that.
I also loved the fact that this show has a lot of queer representation, which is, you know, still very rare to see in a lot of shows that are set in Korea or that take place in Korea, namely K-dramas. Still, like, South Korea is pretty conservative when it comes to LGBTQ rights. So I think it would be very interesting to see how this show is received in Korea and whether, you know, it might spark additional conversations around LGBTQ rights and issues in Korea. And I will say that, you know, I didn't realize that, like, most of the show was going to, you know, be taking place in Korea, like, at an international school in Korea.
And so when I saw all these, like, Korean cultural references and hearing so much of the dialogue being spoken in Korean, like, all that, for me, as a Korean American, like, felt like a nice surprise. And I really appreciated how the show, like, really tried to promote different things about Korea, I think, but in a subtle manner. However, I will say that for any K-drama fans out there who are planning to watch this show, please don't go into it expecting that it will be like a K-drama. I mean, yes, it does poke fun at a lot of K-drama tropes, but it feels totally different from a K-drama, at least in my opinion.
KIM: So just, you know, try to enjoy it for what it is. Like, that would be my recommendation, especially for K-drama fans.
HARRIS: Yeah. I'm glad you made that note because I am not from a K-drama background. I did see the first "To All The Boys I've Loved Before" film, so I had some familiarity with this world and this character and having watched plenty of rom-coms and also plenty of Netflix-produced rom-coms and young adult fare, I kind of knew or I thought I knew what I was going to expect. But it's interesting because it did feel in many ways familiar to me in terms of how a lot of characters you find out are queer. And I'm like, oh, this is just, like - this is what we do now. There's always going to be at least a couple queer characters, and one of them is probably not going to be out to their parents, and it's going to be a thing. But I think after reading a little bit more about how this diverges from what we usually see in Korean representation, it made me appreciate it even more because it really it doesn't even just, like, dip its toe in the queerness, like, it's all - like, it's fully in there. And I think that that's something that I think is important to put into perspective for me as the, like, American who has not entered into that world.
I also think that Anna Cathcart is just really winsome and, like, really good at delivering this sort of character who doesn't necessarily think she knows everything, but definitely feels, like, confident in what skills she does have. And that's, of course, matchmaking. I think that part of the series to me is just kind of very fun. She's almost kind of like a sorceress in ways in how easy it is for her to just, like, pair people up. And sometimes it blows up in her face, but usually she is actually right. And I love those little moments where she's just like, I'm going to switch seats with this person in class so they can be partners with them instead. And I'm like, this is fun.
I did find it hard, though, at times to sort of keep track of everyone. And I do wonder if the show might have benefited from having, like, maybe one or two less of those things, or even - not that I necessarily needed more episodes. But I do think when I think about the world of soap operas, often there's just, like, so much more time to have all of these things play out, all of these different romantic liaisons and secrets and children who didn't know who they were - like, you know? But overall, I enjoyed it. I don't know if I would - I'm going to go and, like, seek out a second season necessarily. But I think that anyone who naturally gravitates toward this kind of genre will definitely, probably enjoy it.
I do want to touch on the adoption portion of this because that is a big part of it. One of the characters, Alex, who is a teacher at the school, and he's played by Peter Thurnwald, we've learned that he's adopted by Australian parents, white parents. And I'm curious - you know, we're kind of in this moment where we're having a lot of Asian adoption stories from the point of view of the Asian adoptees. So there was "Return To Seoul," which actually, Kristen, you and I did an episode on for PCHH a little while back, and we also have the forthcoming "Joy Ride," which kind of has that as the premise as well. And I'm curious where you feel "XO, Kitty" kind of fits in in this moment. We're getting more perspectives of Asian adoptees who were adopted by non-Asian parents in particular.
MEINZER: Yeah, well, I was happy to see it and happy to see that not everybody says the right thing or does the right thing when they learn these things, you know?
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ANNA CATHCART: (As Kitty) Have you always known you were adopted?
PETER THURNWALD: (As Alex Finnerty) Yeah, it was kind of obvious.
CATHCART: (As Kitty) Right. Duh. Do you ever see people on the street and think like, oh, my gosh, that person has the same shaped ears as me? Maybe they're my mom, or they could be my dad.
MEINZER: I thought they did a good job of very quickly, without disrupting the story, just throwing in little bits and pieces there of, you know, sometimes we don't use the right language when we talk about these things. And this is the right language. This is another way to talk about it. And the fact is, over 200,000 children were adopted out of Korea to white parents in the last few decades. And so it makes sense to have some of these stories out there - makes sense, in my opinion, to have some of that representation. Not everybody's Asian American story is my parents or my grandparents immigrated to the States. In a lot of cases, adoption is the way that happened.
And now more than ever, adoption is being talked about more openly in real life, too, and not just in movies. And I think it makes sense within the storyline because the storyline is trying to be multigenerational. It's trying to be Kitty learning about her mother's background, and her mother's background does overlap with this adoption story. I won't explain how. And it makes sense that because it's multigenerational and because it's about different versions of being Korean in the world, to me it works. I thought it was pretty well done.
KIM: Yeah, I mean, I agree that I think it's a great thing that Alex's story is kind of in there, although I feel like they kind of, like, glossed over it or they would just kind of like, you know, briefly touch on his story, like, throughout this show. You know, I do realize that, you know, you can't have, like, five or 10 more episodes. There's only so much that you can squeeze into a 10-episode show. But again, I just felt like everything was kind of, like, rushed in a sense. So for me at least - and maybe it's because - I mean, I don't know. Like, I'm not adopted, and so I don't have that, like, personal experience. And, again, like, I personally would have loved to kind of see more of that from his perspective. But, again, I just feel like the series just kind of, like, briefly touched on it.
HARRIS: Yeah. And it does seem like it's angling for a Season 2 the way it ends. It definitely ends on a cliffhanger. So I can imagine...
MEINZER: Oh, yeah, definitely.
HARRIS: ...Perhaps, if they're able to do a Season 2, that we could see more of Alex's relationship now that he, by the end of the series, knows who his biological mother is and figuring all of that stuff out. I'm also curious just about, like - this is mostly set in this, like, independent school in Korea. And I'm curious as to how you feel about the way it handles sort of the fish-out-of-water aspect and the fact that Kitty does not even attempt to learn how to speak Korean or we don't really see this happening. So, like, how does that play for you?
MEINZER: You know, I have a confession here. I've been a study abroad student a few times in my life. And it happens - at least in my experience, it happens oftentimes that if one can just, as an American, speak English and find other English speakers, it is so common to just spend your whole life in another country speaking English. I have friends who have taught in international schools and attended international schools. They say the same thing happens there. It's like, uh-oh. I'm just friends with a bunch of other English speakers. So, I mean, it's not the idealized way to have a study abroad experience. In a perfect world, we would immerse ourselves fully in the culture. We would immerse ourselves in the language and so on. But as much as I hate to say it, I think Kitty is kind of doing it the way a lot of Americans do it when they go abroad. I hate that. I hate it, but I think it's true.
KIM: I mean, yeah, I have to agree because - and also, like, we have to remember that, after all, you know, the story is set at this international school in Korea, and you're surrounded by kids of other expats. And so I feel like it's just very natural. You know, I feel like even today, there are so many expats who are living in Korea who barely know Korean, and yet, you know, they still seem to be fine with it. You know, they're still able to get around. I mean, obviously, like, you know, I'm sure things would be a lot easier for them if they spoke at least a little Korean. But that part, honestly, like, for me, did not, you know, feel, like, out of place or strange. Like, I felt like it was totally - it just made sense that, you know, Kitty would be speaking in English the whole time.
MEINZER: Yeah. And I do appreciate that despite that, there are certain customs that she does learn about and try to participate in. The talent show, which included traditional Korean arts, or chuseok, they celebrate during the first semester of school. So they do try, in certain ways, to make sure that Kitty isn't completely outside of these experiences. But language is one of the ways she's not totally there.
HARRIS: I enjoyed that holiday celebration, in part because she made a dish, and she put dairy in it, and they're like, this is not good for us (laughter). And she had to, like, learn the hard way.
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CATHCART: (As Kitty) They're really good. It's my dad's recipe. The secret ingredient is goat cheese.
MICHAEL K LEE: (As Professor Lee) No, thank you. I'm in the lactose-intolerant majority. It's a commonality among East Asians. I'll just have some more of Min Ho's japchae.
CATHCART: (As Kitty) Oh, I didn't know.
HARRIS: I didn't know this. I've eaten Korean food, but I've just never thought about it. Like, oh. But is that accurate, Regina?
KIM: So honestly, like, before we started this taping, like, I was thinking of, like, you know, were there, like, stereotypes of Koreans in the show? And I was thinking, like, actually, like, I don't remember anything being too cringy. But now that you mentioned this, like, actually, I think that was, like, the one kind of, like, cringy stereotype that I found about this show - was that, like, yes, like, there are, you know, Koreans who are lactose intolerant. But the series just kind of, like, makes it seem like a lot of Koreans are. And, like, at least in my experience, like, I am not lactose intolerant. Like, no one in my family that I know of is. And if you go to Korea, like, you'll see a lot of Koreans eating cheese. Like, they put cheese in almost everything nowadays.
MEINZER: Tteokbokki with melted cheese. Yum. Yes.
KIM: Exactly. Like...
HARRIS: Well, thank you for correcting me 'cause I - like, that wasn't even a stereotype that I knew existed. So then I was like, oh, OK.
KIM: I think they just put that in there for comedic effect.
HARRIS: Yeah, yeah.
KIM: But I remember, like, when I saw this scene, I was like, OK.
MEINZER: I also would like to see, if the series continues, maybe a little bit more creativity in terms of how they move the plot forward. Somebody is about to reveal the truth about a secret, and then somebody interrupts them. Come up with some other way here. Have somebody eavesdrop on the wrong thing. Have somebody intercept some mail. Do something else. But the interrupting is just done over and over again. I'm like - so I would like for maybe some more creative ways to keep and reveal secrets.
HARRIS: I didn't even think about that. But you're right. There are so many other ways.
HARRIS: Well, we want to know what you think about "XO, Kitty." You can find us at facebook.com/pchh. And that brings us to the end of our show. Regina Kim, Kristen Meinzer, thanks so much for being here. This was so much fun.
KIM: Thank you for having me.
MEINZER: Thank you.
HARRIS: This episode is produced by Rommel Wood and edited by Mike Katzif. Our supervising producer is Jessica Reedy. Research was performed by Barclay Walsh, and Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thank you so much for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Aisha Harris, and we'll see you all tomorrow.
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