“Swallow the Sun” (Series Review)

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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 FlowersGangnam 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.

swallow the sun episode 2 local color large
The small town slice-of-life atmosphere distinguishes “Swallow the Sun” from melodramas with less sense of place. Visible here, Ji Sung and Ma Song-Duk.

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.

swallow the sun episode 5 staring out to sea large
“Swallow the Sun” specializes in artistic images of people staring out to sea. This is high-quality brooding at its best.

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.)

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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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