“Swallow the Sun” (Series Review)

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.

SwallowTheSun poster

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.

swallow the sun ep 2 confrontation large

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.  

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19 thoughts on ““Swallow the Sun” (Series Review)

  1. When I tried to watch this drama a few years ago, I had a hard time getting past the first ep so never continued. Also, the Cirque du Soleil angle seemed liked a big product placement which was boring to me. The only good thing was the OST which I still listen to frequently.

    • Thanks for posting! Truly, the first episode is one of the most unwatchable I’ve ever seen. If I’d tuned in before I was a confirmed Ji Sung fan, I would have made it about 15 minutes into the first ep and then dropped the whole thing. It’s so disappointing they couldn’t handle it differently. The first episode has none of the charms (or characters or themes) of the other 24 eps. The Cirque is totally PPL, but very pretty. It appears in a couple episodes. Mercifully, this series doesn’t have any of the PPLs that drive me truly crazy, the ones for sports drinks, appliances, and California almonds. Sigh, PPL.

  2. Thanks for your review of Swallow the Sun. I’m on the same path as you in watching all of Ji Sung’s older work since Kill Me Heal me wrapped. I enjoyed Swallow the Sun for the most part, although I’ll never understand the point of the switch to Africa! That part of the story was like a graft that didn’t take in my opinion. But, maybe the producers of this show just wanted to add to the visual beauty. There are certainly some breathtaking locations and as a result beautiful shots in this series! I thought that, overall, this was a very good story about human relationships, and in particular, friendship from childhood through adulthood. This is what made the twisty plot about corruption hang together and ultimately be about friendship. The love story – pretty much unimportant and could have been left out, in my opinion. In fact, none of the female characters were fully fleshed out or important to the story. Strong performances from most of the actors and fast-paced plot make this one watchable.

    What are you watching next? I’m starting on The Great Seer.

    • Omo, that whole desert car chase! I think someone grew up watching American TV and dreamed of filming a crazy Nevada car chase. A few of the stunts defy the laws of physics completely. The Africa stuff is silly, but it did make sense to me as part of the narrative. There’s nothing like a stint as a mercenary to get your hero to grow up fast. It was like those old novels where people disappear into the French foreign legion for awhile. It’s too bad they actually had the budget to go to Africa. If they’d had a smaller budget, we would’ve just seen the guys leave for Africa and then return looking meaner. The series might have been stronger. Ditto for the romance–would be a stronger series without it, because then we’d really be focused on the good stuff, all those friendships and quasi-friendships. Or if only Lee Wan could act! He looks so confused most of the time.

      I just remembered the one memorable thing about Africa: Jimmy the treacherous gay mercenary. Definitely the first treacherous gay mercenary to appear in K-drama. He even gets a story arc and returns to play an important role later. By contrast, the female characters weren’t nearly as dynamic as this guy or any of the minor male characters. I think the weak actresses are part of that, because even when the women do stuff, it’s hard to tell they’re doing stuff. I did like the hometown girl who was sleeping with Sec. Park and stealing info. She had a better understanding of Park than the men and teaches Jung-Woo some stuff. I got mad when her guy friends were jerks to her, but she sure didn’t let it phase her. She’s a bit tougher on paper than with the weak actress who plays her, though. I think she’ll get together with the young detective who worked for detective Hyun. She deserves a good guy.

      I don’t know what’s next! I face the Sageuk Dilemma. I have this difficulty watching sageuks, because for mysterious cultural reasons it doesn’t bother me when Errol Flynn shows up in tights in Robin Hood, but I start giggling when I see men wearing those silly Joseon-era hats. I’d like to be more mature, but oh my, those hats are sooooo goofy! At the same time, I’d be missing some good JS if I don’t give it a shot. I’m thinking the hats in The Great Seer will be Goryeo-era, which don’t make me laugh as much. And Kim So-Yeon is also in The Great Seer–love her. How are the hats in the Great Seer?

      • now now no need to be hating on the silly hats. And they are indeed silly. But they are not straw boater hats so all is good. I also presume they are historically accurate so learn to embrace them.

        • Thank God they aren’t boater hats! Intellectually, I’m ready to embrace the hats, it’s just an involuntary giggle reflex that I need to learn to suppress. If I had a sageuk I was really into, I’d get used to them quick. But then I’d have even more shows I want to watch! A frightening thought.

      • Well, I have finished 2 episodes of the Great Seer and I’m pretty confused. In typical drama fashion, the first episode is set in current time, and the 2nd episode goes into the past. I’m having some technical problems watching it on Drama Fever so switched to Viki where the subtitles have been a little iffy. Or, maybe the dialog is actually that bad! Anyhow, about hats. So far, there are none of the hats you fear. But – wait for it – in the 2nd episode many of the characters are wearing animal skull and fur hats! Is that less or more scary than the traditional hats that make you giggle? Between the makeup and the animal skulls, I couldn’t pay any attention to the story. Hopefully ep 3 will catch up quickly, but I fear that the total number of episodes is pointing to a long drawn-out back story before our Ji Sung re-appears.

    • Just checked out the info on JS sageuks, and Kim Su Ro (2010) has Yu Oh-Seong in it, the guy who plays Jackson in Swallow the Sun. That guy is intense and it would be fun to see him and JS on screen together again. Some other good folks in KSR also, esp Bae Chong-Ok, who I like (Spy, That Winter the Wind Blows). But it all hinges on the hats. 🙂

      • So those animal hats take the cake. But I sense that there is an article waiting to be written, or a poll at the very least on, favourite/least favourite hats.

        Perhaps you need to embrace the giggling? The very first K-drama I watched was Moon Embracing the Sun and I loved it and also giggled at it a lot. Here is what I wrote my daughter about it right after I watched it and before I had seen any other k-dramas:
        ” It has a little bit of everything you know and love in Asian cinema. ninja assassins, martial arts, sword fighting, magic, period costumes, tragic love, sibling rivalry, hidden identity, political machinations, fake blood and just enough corny acting to make you giggle but not enough to make you cringe. plus i cried at the end.”

        Now that I have seen more k-dramas I wonder if I will still be able to just enjoy the simple pleasure of giggling at these elements.

        • Erin, I surrendered to the sageuk! I’ve been down with the flu for the past three days, and your list totally got me. I love ninja assassins! So when I’m not sleeping, I’ve been watching some of The Great Seer. I went renegade, though, and did something I’ve never done–skip a lot of episodes. The first episode had me thoroughly confused within minutes, and I knew episode 2 would feature guys in animal skins. And really, I want to see Ji Sung. So I did a radical experiment, by skipping the first ten episodes and starting in the middle. This was confusing, but less confusing than trying to understand the first episode. By episode 11, they’ve warmed up nicely. I’ve also skipped a fair number of conversations between generals. But with judicious skipping, I’ve kept myself entertained for a couple days with female ninjas, murder by poison, secret chambers, a mysterious one-eyed man, and some really silly geomancy. It’s a fun part for Ji Sung, and Kim So-Yeon’s in it–I like her, even if she acts about as Goryeo-era as I do.

          My fever has gone down, and I may have discovered a new love for silly hats.

  3. Oh, how could I not leave a comment about the action scene of driving a stretch limo in the desert at high speed while firing a gun out the window with one hand? Sometimes this show seemed to want to be a pretty good action movie, didn’t it?

  4. Glad to hear your fever is down and that you got into the fun of the hats. I’m not quite sure I could skip episodes but I certainly understand the appeal. I wanted to watch “Scandal: A Socking and Wrongful Incident” but I was finding the early episodes too hard to watch so gave up. Although I then opted for “Rosy Lovers” which I am currently trudging through to my great annoyance. So perhaps I made the wrong choice.

    • There are no wrong choices in K-dramas! At least if you’re enjoying something. I’ve never been a Skipper, but when I skipped episodes this week it felt liberating. Especially when a show has a ton of episodes, I might give it more of a chance if I skip sometimes (like Rosy Lovers–lots of episodes!). One of the appeals of K-drama is not having to take it too seriously, and that means No Trudging. The Great Seer is pretty mediocre when it comes to dialogue and plot, and the first eight episodes focus on the hero’s childhood, which is bleak and awful, to judge by the flashbacks. By jumping in midway, I was able to avoid the torture and murder of children and get to the less bleak and more fun stuff (Ji Sung in silly hats, of course).

      I also usually give up on a series if the first couple episodes don’t work for me. This could explain why Ji Sung was never on my radar before KMHM. I was really wondering in January, where has this guy been all my life? Or at least, why have I never heard of him? But it turns out most of his shows from the past six years have first episodes that range from run-of-the-mill to awful. And that includes KMHM, which was really a coin toss for me in week 1. Makes me wonder what other good actors and actresses I’m missing by always starting at episode 1.

  5. I’m not really enjoying Rosy Lovers though. Have you seen it? The best thing about it is the running commentary on Viki. I’ve never seen the point of that before but at least now I feel reassured others are as horrified as I am. I will need to find something fun to watch after. Perhaps you have suggestions. I’m not fussy really, but it is probably best if one does not hate *all* the characters.

    I am watching KMHM with my husband but we are only about half way through. It has been almost a fortnight since he felt like watching a show. I have to say it is driving me a bit bonkers. Ji Sung is enjoyable to watch and even my husband is impressed with his ability to change so effectively. I can see why you have gone on a wee Ji Sung bender.

    • KMHM is simultaneously charming and challenging because it’s so different in each episode. Depending on which personalities show up, maybe the next ten minutes will capture your husband’s curiosity. For the first three or four weeks I was unsure whether I’d keep watching. It was all over the place and I would think, “Next week it will go so far off the rails I’ll have to give it up.” But Ji Sung made me care through the madness. I can’t believe I’ve become such a fangirl, but it’s fun to watch his earlier stuff and see how versatile he is. If he didn’t have the leading man looks, he’d be an interesting character actor.

      I haven’t seen Rosy Lovers. Glad to hear I’m not missing anything! Of the weekend dramas, I quickly gave up on “Queen’s Flower,” despite it’s gorgeous poster–no likable characters. I’m curious about “Bluebird’s House,” because Lee Joon-Hyuk is one of those experienced K-drama stalwarts. I’ve been watching “Girl Who Sees Smells,” which is well-done, with stars I like and good characters. But even though I like Park Yoo Chun, I keep thinking, how would Ji Sung play this part? Yes, I’m officially obsessed.

      Two weeks is forever in K-drama time! I hope you get some more KMHM soon.

  6. which episode is it when Jung-Woo & Jang min ho talk as a father and son for the first time? I want to review this scene but I can’t find it

  7. On your recommendation, I watched this. And as it went on I became more addicted as it went along. (It reminded me of Ocean’s 11, the original, or those old movies where there are so many turns and plot twists–I was seriously sweating if he was going to betray Jackson a 2nd time.) I am opposite of you. I started with Sageuks. Kim Su Ro, The Iron King was the first time I saw Ji Sung. (AND I LOVED THAT DRAMA.)
    Thanks for the recommendation. I like a show that will make me forget I’m watching. I’m sorry if this makes no sense, but I like it when I get sucked into a show. The biggest negative I had with Swallow the Sun was that too often, a random character would stare out to the sea. And I’d be annoyed–and remember it was a flawed show and I wasn’t “there.” I don’t think I explained this well. Like in “Kill Me Heal Me” I never thought, “I’m watching Ji Sung pretend to be a different character,” but “this IS a different character.” Or when I read Lord of the Rings I felt like I was there, too.

    (I watched it on Drama Fever and was hoping the extra episode would be bloopers, or information on filming, but it was just one long commercial for the show.)

    • I’m glad you liked it! I get what you mean about all the staring out to sea. It definitely reminds you that it’s a story. I’m really impressed when something can pull me in 100% and make me forget it’s a show. At the same time, I also kind of like it when something that doesn’t meet that standard makes me think, “I can’t believe they’re staring out to sea again! But isn’t it cool that they’re willing to stand out there in the wind yet again to tell this story?” I know objectively speaking the show’s not totally doing its job in scenes like that. But it still makes me want to go to Jejudo and stare out to sea a lot. With sad music playing. That’s why sometimes I love the three-star movies as much as the five-star ones. If that makes sense.

      And speaking of the three-star shows, Kim Soo Ro is totally one of my guilty pleasures. When I finally gave in to my Ji Sung obsession and “broke the sageuk barrier,” I got so much entertainment out of it. It’s like one of those Count of Monte Christo tales, where the hero has to go through so much to return to his rightful place. So many good sword fights! And lots of people jumping on and off of horses! And, of course, lots of Ji Sung. Can’t go wrong!

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