“Swallow the Sun” (Series Review)

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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. ♥

swallow the sun episode 1 convict 420 x 280
The convict who is the main character of episode 1 is played by the relatively sympathetic Jin Goo, but it has a lot of brutal scenes in the Jeju labor camp.

Ratings:

  • Overall: 7/10
  • Writing: 7/10 (some credit goes to the writer of the original novel)
  • Acting: 7/10
  • Production & Directing: 7/10

Full cast information at Asian Wiki and Drama Wiki.

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.

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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