The military romance Descendants of the Sun left me with one question. How can commando gunfights, car wrecks, natural disasters, gangsters, North Korean spies and a CIA-backed military coup be this boring?
When Descendants of the Sun wrapped up on April 14, its ratings in Korea topped 40%. The show’s popularity in China has made it a phenomenon across Asia. If Naver is to be believed, Descendants of the Sun has had twice as many views in China as the 2014 mega-hit My Love from the Stars. The Chinese government has even complained about the show’s popularity (to the delight of Koreans).
It’s a surprise that a weekday drama can still earn ratings this high, in the days of internet streaming and DVRs. This makes Descendants of the Sun significant. Unfortunately, it isn’t particularly good.
The 16-episode series about a romance between a doctor and a soldier deserves credit for its ambition. It broke with K-drama convention by filming in advance, leaving nothing to chance. And—very unusual for Korean television—the majority of the episodes are set overseas, in the fictional “war-torn country of Uruk.”
(Aside: Early episodes tell us Uruk is in the Balkans. The stunning landscapes—it was partially filmed in Greece—could indeed belong to the Dalmatian Coast. It is thus odd that the residents speak Arabic. Bad Arabic, but still recognizable Arabic. It’s also weird how many Russians are floating around. Maybe writer Kim Eun-Sook got the Balkans confused with somewhere else? Not surprisingly, the best plot line in the entire series is the one concerning North Korea, because the geography actually makes sense.)
This isn’t the first time a K-drama has gone big-budget and filmed in Europe. (In 2009, IRIS brought us those jaw-dropping action sequences from Budapest.) But it’s the first time Korean television has tried to take on such topical issues.
With hero Yoo Si-Jin (Song Joong-Ki) an army captain on a UN peace-keeping mission and heroine Kang Mo-Yeon (Song Hye-Kyo) a surgeon on a medical relief project, there’s no shortage of crises for narrative fodder. And the series seamlessly combines the footage shot overseas with the scenes shot on a set in Korea’s Gangwon Province. (The set is already a Korean tourist destination.)
The ripped-from-the-headlines plots include a high-magnitude earthquake, an outbreak of viral hemorrhagic fever, and a confusing, unresolved coup attempt involving the American CIA. It should be exciting.
Unfortunately, when high-level disasters hit twice per episode, they cease to feel dangerous. By the time the earthquake hit, I was surprising bored. A subsequent outbreak of an Ebola-like virus should have had me on the edge of my seat, but instead I was doing the modern equivalent of looking at my watch—checking my cats on Neko Atsume.
In the final thirty seconds of the last episode, the show acknowledges its own absurdity and deliberately switches gears into self-parody. But the unexpected joke can’t make up for the fact that the danger in Descendants of the Sun feels fake and manipulative.
To be clear: plausibility on its own isn’t that important in Korean television. K-drama’s beloved characters include women disguised as men, a 400-year old space alien, and more than one wealthy heir with multiple personalities. Plausibility may actually be a drawback for a K-drama.
But the best K-dramas make us believe in their absurdity. We’re genuinely afraid the heroine will be unmasked, or that the hero will disappear forever through a worm hole in time and space.
Descendants of the Sun never convinced me to worry. By the time the final episodes raised the stakes even higher, I was exhausted from strenuous eye-rolling. If a character who suffers a cardiac arrest can return to doing martial arts thirty seconds later, clearly cardiac arrest has lost its meaning. So many deceased people are brought back to life on this show that it’s like the Korean edition of The Walking Dead.
This writer and director have done better work in the past. Kim Eun-Sook has written ten dramas over the years, including the highly-rated body-switch comedy Secret Garden. Her ideas about romantic relationships are irritatingly old-fashioned—and her scripts lack that undefinable quality known as “heart”—but she knows how to write a memorable scene.
And though director Lee Eung-Bok has been slightly less prolific than writer Kim, he has made entertaining, trendy hits like Dream High, School 2013 and the Ji Sung/Hwang Jung-Eum melodrama Secret. In Secret, he managed to build suspense even though the title secret was revealed in episode one.
So why does Descendants of the Sun feel so sluggish? The first two episodes move along well. They set up convincing chemistry between the leads—and an interesting relationship problem. Do you want to fall for someone who keeps disappearing on dangerous secret missions? It looks really cool—extremely, heart-stoppingly cool—when a helicopter carries your new boyfriend away to save the world, but damn, girl, is looking heart-stoppingly cool all that matters?
Unfortunately, when the setting changes to “Uruk,” the script abandons its promising flirtation with character-driven drama. We never learn much more about these personalities. The script keeps the characters so one-dimensional, and the director hurries so quickly to the next disaster, that I never have time to care.
A weird apathy came over me a few episodes in, as the heroine was dangling in a car over a cliff. I’ve seen heroines dangling off cliffs before. In fact, I’ve seen heroines dangling off cliffs in shows starring Song Joong-Ki. (Though in Innocent Man, the accident-prone heroine was traveling by motorbike, not car.)
Song Hye-Kyo follows the script and acts hysterical as she teeters toward the brink. But the accident occurs out-of-the-blue and is resolved just as quickly. The scene didn’t add anything new to the wide world of heroines dangling off cliffs. It felt like it was simply Kim Eun-Sook’s latest choice of plot device, something to fill the space between product placements for Snickers bars and choco-pies.
And where was the director? Why does this literal cliff-hanger feel so cursory?
A number of the show’s sequences are carelessly constructed. It’s possible director Lee was too busy with the show’s challenging logistics—all those helicopters, all those gunfights, all those scenes in English to subtitle!—to pay attention to the editing. As a result, Descendants of the Sun relies on the disasters to create their own drama. But good editing is the difference between a car crash that makes our hearts race and one that makes us yawn.
Descendants of the Sun survives its plotting and editing problems thanks to the extraordinary charisma of its stars. Song Hye-Kyo is not just an actress with a highly bankable name, but she has experience making incoherent characters work. In Descendants of the Sun, she plays one of the most resourceful heroines Kim Eun-Sook has written to date. Her character suffers occasional fits of incompetence, as required by the script, but Song Hye-Kyo still succeeds in giving her dignity.
And Song Joong-Ki!
Song Joong-Ki already proved in 2012’s Innocent Man (aka Nice Guy) that he could carry a serious melodrama, despite the delicacy of his looks. In Descendants of the Sun, his role is less challenging, but he again plays a tough guy concealed behind a youthful, flower-boy face. Song Joong-Ki capitalizes on this incongruity, bringing out subtle emotions in action-heavy scenes. (The fact that the actor recently finished his two years’ service in the Korean army also adds a touch of the real world to his military swagger.)
Like all of Kim Eun-Sook’s heroes, Captain Yoo does have a tendency toward pathological jealousy and tasteless jokes. But, thanks perhaps to Song Joong-Ki’s sweet face, he’s the most likable Kim Eun-Sook hero I’ve seen.
The second leads also deserve mention. Jin Goo’s sergeant-at-arms is stoic but never robotic. Kim Ji-Won’s female army surgeon is emotional, but never crosses into whininess. Together the two make an excellent pairing. And the bromance between the two male leads—comrades at arms with an adorable “meet cute”—is a treat.
Unfortunately, the secondary characters appear simply as further padding for those product placements. The script doesn’t try very hard to make us care about their side stories. If you’re going to tackle this show, you won’t miss anything by skipping the secondary “narratives,” such as they are.
So what does it mean that the show’s a hit, despite an incoherent plot, simplistic characters and choppy editing?
Maybe it means with stars this likable, the lack of characterization can actually be an asset. These heroes and heroines leave more room for the imagination than three-dimensional characters. Captain Yoo is ready-made for fan fiction.
By contrast, the most intelligent K-dramas depict vivid personalities. Viewers disagree over whether to love or hate them. But it’s impossible to dislike the characters in Descendants of the Sun. These characters aren’t believable enough to inspire dislike.
They are designed to be bland, inoffensive paragons of virtue (that is to say, conservative nineteenth-century virtues). The men are brave, the women are beautiful. The men shoot guns. The women get kidnapped and need rescuing.
Descendants of the Sun’s success may lead to future K-dramas that avoid live shooting, or that tackle international topics. It will certainly mean we get to see more of Song Joong-Ki. These are all a win.
But the main point of this drama is to sell vitamin drinks, instant coffee and cellphones. (Not to mention those damn choco-pies.) And judged by that goal, Descendants of the Sun appears to have succeeded beyond even Anthony Kim’s wildest dreams. ♥
Disclaimer: Kim Eun-Sook is perhaps K-drama’s most prolific writer next to the Hong Sisters, and I’ve only managed to watch three of her series all the way to the end (including this one). That’s less than a third of her output, so there’s a lot I don’t know about her work. If you can add anything, please share!