Swallow the Sun is an entertaining example of the sweeping episodic adventure. The charm of a “birth secret” narrative is to suggest how interconnected people are—even strangers and enemies. This theme comes out strongly here, as do themes of karma and fate.
Melodrama may rely on outrageous circumstances, but it actually presents a very orderly world, in which actions have consequences. We reap what we sow, according to the makers of melodrama. Things aren’t as random as they look, even on a changing island in unpredictable times when everything’s a gamble. ♥
- Overall: 7/10
- Writing: 7/10 (some credit goes to the writer of the original novel)
- Acting: 7/10
- Production & Directing: 7/10
Alternate titles: 태양을 삼켜라, Taeyangeul Samkyeora, All In 2 (The 2001 K-drama hit, All In, shares the same writer and director with Swallow the Sun, and Ji Sung played second lead in All In. Both series concern gambling and have scenes filmed in Jeju and Las Vegas, and the network touted Swallow the Sun as All In 2.
Availability: For some mysterious reason, DramaFever’s version of Swallow the Sun isn’t in the correct aspect ratio. Viki has the proper widescreen, HD version, though a few episodes on Viki are only 99% subtitled.
Culture Note: Jeju Island was often used as a place of exile for political prisoners in the Joseon dynasty. The convicts on Jeju during Park Chung-Hee’s rule from 1962-79 were there primarily to construct the highway system. Today, though, the volcanic island is a tourist destination receiving several million tourists per year, many of them from China. At the same time, the island is a UNICEF world heritage site because of its natural beauty.
Also recommended: Everything with Ji Sung, naturally. Good recent stuff includes Secret, Protect the Boss, and Kill Me, Heal Me, but each is very different. Other well-known and successful gambling-related stories include 2006 film Tazza and 2001 drama All In.
First episode essentials: First we see some footage from the middle of the series, showing a gunfight in Africa and a Cirque du Soleil performance.
We then go back in time three decades. A young woman (Mi-Yeon) is diving for abalone while a ship of convicts docks in the distance. One of the prisoners is Kim Il-Hwan. Officer Lee, in charge of the prisoners, singles him out for special abuse. Kim Il-Hwan escapes from the prison camp.
In the course of escaping, Kim points a gun at the abusive officer (Lee) but when the man begs for his life, Kim spares him. Soldiers pursue Kim to the edge of a cliff and he dives into the water below.
He’s washed up later near Mi-Yeon’s village. She figures out he’s the escapee that soldiers are looking for. She pities him. She hides him in a sea cave for a couple days and brings food and supplies. Supposedly they fall in love, or at least they’re really, really hot for each other.
They sleep together. He asks her if she’ll come with him to the mainland.
But someone has spotted Mi-Yeon going down to the beach at night and makes a report. Soldiers show up and re-arrest Kim, with more general brutality. They accuse Kim of holding Mi-Yeon hostage. Mi-Yeon’s grandmother and the young man with a crush on Mi-Yeon believe she was a hostage. Mi-Yeon screams that she wasn’t.
Afterwards, Mi-Yeon is depressed. Then it turns out she’s pregnant. Her grandmother hides her in a remote cottage until the baby is born. Then the grandmother takes the baby and leaves it at the gate of a small, local orphanage. She tells Mi-Yeon it was stillborn. The young man who likes Mi-Yeon—who has a new job as a policeman—has been looking for Mi-Yeon. He witnesses the grandmother abandoning the baby and figures out what happened.
The first episode is no fun to watch, but it introduces four important motifs: 1) Kim lets abusive officer Lee go, instead of shooting him, 2) Kim was often beaten brutally, and this influences his later behavior towards others, 3) Mi-Yeon’s village is a very simple, modest, old-fashioned place—no resorts here!—and 4) Mi-Yeon and Kim slept together out of desire, but everyone wants to believe Mi-Yeon was raped.
The most interesting thing in episode one is seeing life on Jeju four decades ago. But you can see that by watching a minute or two.