In my imagination, the paperwork for an official License to Fangirl includes this question: which of the actor’s lesser-known and/or lesser-appreciated works have you seen?
I have an answer for that question now. I’d never heard of Swallow the Sun, a 25-episode drama from 2009, but it stars Ji Sung. Naturally I had to watch it.
I hope someday to be able to return to a normal life that includes a healthy mix of dramas that don’t star Ji Sung. But in the meantime, I have my work cut out for me. In the past 15 years, Ji Sung has made 19 dramas and half a dozen movies. He plays a leading role in most of them, including a few sageuks (historical epics) that run to more than 30 episodes. For the truly foolhardy, his earliest appearances were on daily ensemble dramas with years’ worth of episodes. And many of the older things aren’t subtitled or licensed.
Ji Sung Fandom is not for the faint-hearted.
Swallow the Sun is my first dive into the lesser-discussed works on Ji Sung’s CV. This 25-part melodrama fits into the sub-genre I call “sweeping multi-generational saga.” It makes use of standard makjang “shockers” like birth secrets and first love. Fate is a big theme. Events in the parents’ lives echo a generation later in the lives of their children.
The multi-generational saga isn’t heavy on comedy or romance, so it took me awhile to discover this sub-genre. But I enjoy a good MGS as much as a good romantic comedy. I love dramatic twists and turns. I love characters weighed down by past misdeeds or painful memories. Also, lifelong friends estranged by betrayal—I like that one. And enemies who save each other’s lives, that’s really good. Separated lovers meeting again on a distant continent? Storytelling gold.
Basically, I get my kicks from the formulas of the nineteenth-century picaresque novel—anything by Alexandre Dumas or Charles Dickens. (See also: A. Conan Doyle, Sir Percival Wren, Rafael Sabatini, Anthony Hope.) And Swallow the Sun presents this kind of episodic adventure story with energy and heart.
Because the hero is a poor but resourceful orphan, you can safely assume the plot includes a birth secret and a young man’s struggle to rise in the world. But the story starts in an unlikely place—a combat zone in Africa—and leads toward a conclusion less sunny than we might expect. The last few episodes are a surprisingly taut thriller. One important question remains unanswered until ten minutes before the final credits roll—and then resolves with satisfying finality.
In other important matters, Ji Sung looks really cool, despite a few dubious hair styles. He can’t not look good. He brings a ton of charisma to this role, and that ability to convey lots of emotion with small gestures.
Swallow the Sun has more depth, sophistication and surprises than a similar makjang saga, 2010’s highly-rated Baker King Kim Tak Gu. (Besides reaching a peak rating just over 50 percent, Baker King is also memorable for giving Yoon Shi-Yoon and Joo Won their breakout roles.) Of course one could argue even a rigged Egyptian election has more surprises than Baker King. But the bread saga is a good comparison to illustrate what Swallow the Sun does well.
Both series follow an illegitimate son fighting to succeed in his father’s industry. Both feature a rivalry between half-brothers and star Jeon Kwang-Ryul as the rich patriarch. And their background music even sounds suspiciously similar.
The resemblance to Baker King is superficial, though, because Swallow the Sun has three-dimensional characters, and the story is driven by human desires, not plot contrivances. Compare, for instance, the businessman father in the two dramas, played by Jeon Kwang-Ryul. In Baker King, the talented actor does his best, but the father is a one-dimensional character manipulated by one-dimensional villains. The most interesting thing he does may be to spend a few weeks in bed faking a coma. (Yes, faking a coma. I am not making this up.)
But in Swallow the Sun, Jeon Kwang-Ryul plays the dynamic Jang Min-Ho, the kind of overambitious psychopath Shakespeare would have loved to write about. The first time he encounters our hero Kim Jung-Woo (Ji Sung), he takes a couple shots at him with a rifle (below). He’s a mean and dangerous villain trying to dominate Jeju Island’s profitable hotel and casino industry.
He’s also very human. He has regrets about the past. He worries about his son’s short-comings. And we never know when he’s going to act nice or nasty.
Hero Kim Jung-Woo is also complicated. Jung-Woo starts out looking happy-go-lucky. He’s an orphan who grew up in a charitable home on beautiful, remote Jeju Island. He has a couple close friends, a smile on his face, and a lot of enthusiasm and confidence. The local police detective helps him out as a kind of surrogate father despite his record of petty crime. He seems like a fundamentally nice lad.
But Jung-Woo has ambitions. He wants to succeed for good Confucian reasons—he wants to help his friends get legitimate jobs and stay out of jail. As the years pass, though, and he faces setbacks and difficult truths, he’s increasingly motivated by an old-fashioned desire for revenge.
Jung-Woo takes every opportunity to pull himself up, which can mean strong-arming political protesters or working for blood diamonds. When he’s in action, he’s calm and collected—a guy who knows how to calculate the odds. The role demands subtlety and Ji Sung delivers. Early in the series, Jung-Woo smiles a lot, but not with his eyes, as if he’s smiling simply to disarm others. And as he begins to succeed, his smiles become rare.
Swallow the Sun starts Jung-Woo’s story with his parents’ first meeting, then jumps to his life as a young man. It’s a story full of action. He starts as a hired thug for hotel magnate Chairman Jang, then moves to Seoul to work for Jang’s son Tae-Hyuk (played by Lee Wan). For a couple years, he makes his living as a bodyguard in Las Vegas and a mercenary in Africa. He serves some time in prison.
On his return to Jeju, he fights to be more than a mere hired hand in Jeju’s expanding casino business. He wants to be management—but that might mean managing thugs and hoodlums. Early in the series, he says he’s sold his soul. A big source of suspense is how he’ll get it back.
The story also includes a tepid love triangle between Jung-Woo, heroine Su-Hyun (Sung Yoo-Ri) and wealthy heir Jang Tae-Hyuk (Lee Wan). When Tae-Hyuk orders Jung-Woo to help him win over Su-Hyun, the plot takes a momentary turn towards Cyrano de Bergerac territory.