Su-Hyun is bland, but she has an interesting ambition—to work behind the scenes for the Cirque du Soleil. This career takes her to Las Vegas and around the world. It also makes for lively scenes of the Cirque du Soleil’s acrobatics shows, which are more entertaining than the usual K-drama product placements.
Jeon Kwang-Ryul (left) and Yoo Oh-Sung (right)
But the meat and bones of Swallow the Sun are the collisions between Jung-Woo and Chairman Jang. Jung-Woo is developing into Jang’s equal in the conniving department. The two men find a dozen ways to betray, trick and bamboozle each other and others on the island, for higher and higher stakes.
Through their rivalry, we see Jung-Woo transform from cute local boy to impassive businessman. His rise is a series of moral dilemmas. Will he kill for his goals? Betray others? The answer is yes—a qualified yes. He weighs each life carefully (with the notable exception of during his days in Africa).
The cast includes a horde of veteran character actors who make their scenes count. Along with the magnificent Jeon Kwang-Ryul, we have Jung Ho-Bin (Boys over Flowers, Gangnam Blues) as slick Secretary Park and Yoo Oh-Sung (Faith, Joseon Gunman) as a professional gambler and mercenary—looking as handsome and hard-bitten as young James Coburn in an old Western. Among Jung-Woo’s hometown acquaintances, we have a favorite of mine, Ma Dong-Suk (Shut Up Flower Boy Band, Bad Guys), and the sad-eyed Lee Jae-Young (of almost every historical K-drama ever).
Each character has a distinctive face—sarcastic, melancholy, merry—as if the director combed South Korea for the most unusual features on the peninsula. In shows with large casts, it’s sometimes hard to tell characters apart. Not here.
These guys bring energy and complexity to an ensemble of two-bit criminals, unlucky gamblers and soju-drinking locals. While the relationship between Jung-Woo and Chairman Jang is the story’s center, the relationships between Jung-Woo and his friends are also dynamic. As in one of my favorite Dumas novels, Twenty Years After, old friends are sometimes pitted against each other and have to negotiate conflicted loyalties.
Thanks to these great characters, the first half of the series occasionally feels like a slice-of-life drama, a portrait of Jeju Island during the economy’s shift from fishing toward tourism. We get to know the landscape well, better than in most K-dramas, where Jeju typically appears just for one or two hotel scenes. Because Swallow the Sun shows these scenes of daily life, the series initially doesn’t move as quickly as some may expect. With each episode we gather momentum, though.
The cast unfortunately isn’t uniformly strong. Sung Yoo-Ri, who plays female lead Su-Hyun, and Lee Wan, who plays Tae-Hyuk, don’t offer much besides pretty faces. They can’t keep up with Ji Sung’s intensity or ability to convey mixed emotions.
The romance storyline is okay, but lacks chemistry. The lovers spend a lot of time apart, and Jung-Woo puts the romance on hold for a while to pursue revenge. (Admittedly, vengeance-seeking is a full-time job. Workaholics everywhere are behind you, Jung-Woo.) But the relationship is sweet when it has a chance. Su-Hyun is one of the few people Jung-Woo lets down his guard with. In their scenes we have a chance to see the human being underneath the stoic mask.
Lee Wan (left) and Sung Yoo-Ri (right)
Fortunately, none of the five young female characters are bitchy or mean. A side romance between tough guy Jackson (Yoo Oh-Sung) and “Amy,” a chaebol-daughter-turned-exotic-Vegas-dancer (I’m not making this up), is particularly memorable. And humor enters into the story from time to time, especially during the episodes featuring a gambling addicted mobster who looks strangely like British comedian Steve Coogan impersonating a Korean mobster.
Swallow the Sun is at its weakest during the two episodes in Africa, far from the real villain of the series, Chairman Jang. But when it returns to Jeju Island, it shifts into high gear. The last third of the series is a thriller about cut-throat competition between hotel and casino owners. The story keeps its sense of place, however. We never forget who’s from the mainland and who’s local. In one nice detail, the hero’s darkest secrets spread quickly through the community of islanders, but the mainlanders on the island remain in the dark.
The ending piles up the dramatic ironies. The denouement is satisfying intellectually as well as emotionally, and leaves open to debate whether Jung-Woo’s fight was worth it.
The English word “melodrama” originally meant “a play with music,” and Swallow the Sun uses a lot of evocative tunes. Early episodes often use a piece resembling Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony. The melancholy sound goes well with the shots of Jeju’s rugged coastline. It’s amusing how often the characters feel the necessity to stand in a picturesque spot and gaze out to sea, hair and clothing blowing in the wind, but these shots are beautiful and build a melancholy atmosphere. Less successful is that one Frank Sinatra track they keep playing, which made me want to scream. If you like his late career stuff, you’ll be okay.
One major caveat: the first episode is lousy. I was tempted to give up the series almost before starting. Like so many multi-generational K-dramas, the opening throws us into the tribulations of the parents’ generation before we’ve even met our hero. In Swallow the Sun, this means we spend much of the first episode in a forced labor camp. We see a lot of beatings, blood and threats, but don’t learn much about the characters, except perhaps Mi-Yeon—Jung-Woo’s mother, one of Jeju’s famously tough shellfish divers.
The first five minutes of the first episode in particular are intriguing but overambitious. The series opens with a confusing montage of present-day action. We cut back and forth between a Cirque du Soleil performance and a gunfight on the African savannah. This opening creates suspense as to how these two things are connected, but doesn’t have any clear narrative purpose. I recommend watching the first few minutes for atmosphere, and then skipping to the second episode. You can always go back to the first episode later if you’re interested. (See a quick recap below.)