Title: Descendants of the Sun
Country of Origin: South Korea
Original Run: February 24-April 14 2016
Length of each episode: 1 hour
Director: Lee Eung-bok
Starring: Song Joong-ki, Song Hye-kyo, Jin Goo, Kim Ji-Won
When I first started watching Descendants of the Sun sometime last week, I had no idea how popular it was. During its original run in South Korea, it broke record ratings with a 28.5 percent viewership surpassing another insanely popular kdrama from two years ago called My Love From Another Star (that one was so popular, there’s going to be an American remake, although I don’t know what happened with that project) in only six episodes. It then continued to surpass its own ratings as the show went on. It currently has over 440 million views in China on legal and not-so-legal streaming sites and has been sold to 27 countries and translated into 32 languages. Even the prime minister of Thailand encouraged people to watch it. I should have known because it was getting a lot of buzz even outside of the sphere of kdrama lovers. It was on all of my friends’ snapchats and a lot of people I knew had at least heard of it even if they didn’t like kdramas.
I was skeptical at best mostly because I’m just not a kdrama person. My mom is so I’m familiar with a lot of them and I didn’t really think anything could equal Reply 1997 in my head.
But I watched the first episode and at about maybe 20 minutes into the first episode, I had fallen head-over-heels in love.
The funny thing is, the synopsis is not one I would immediately be drawn to. It’s a romantic drama following a soldier (Yoo Shi Jin) and a surgeon (Mo Yeon) who fall in love. Because of circumstances, they are separated for 8 months. They meet again in a war-torn country called Uruk where Mo Yeon is heading a medical mission and Shi Jin is stationed. Trouble and chaos ensue.
And the other funny thing is, it’s a show with glaring faults and usually I can’t look past those. A lot of the dramatic events end way too early for there to be an emotional punch; they are convoluted and random and the plot has basically no sense of realism. There are some questionable medical practices (STOP GOING INTO THE QUARANTINE, THERE ARE INFECTED PEOPLE IN THERE; WHY ARE YOU PUTTING AN IV IN HIM WITHOUT STERILIZING IT FIRST), I would have liked more backstory for Mo Yeon, also the transitions are very confusing and maybe more a little more depth to its themes would have been appreciated..
Wait, wait, hold up, Carolyn, you literally just said you had fallen in love with this drama. Why are you starting the damn review with what you didn’t like about it?
Because you know what, I didn’t really care about all stuff when I was watching it, for once, it allowed me to mute the critiquing side of my brain, which is actually becoming increasingly hard for me to do and just be swept up in a love story between two people. It allowed me to revel in a touching story. A story that’s full of action, drama and humor. And that’s really the highest praise I can give it.
The best thing about this drama are the characters. You love all of these characters almost from the get go and the actors have such natural chemistry with each other that you love all their friendships and interactions as well. But there’s also a layered complexity to the characters and outstanding character development especially from Mo Yeon. In a lot of ways, she is the main character.
She starts off as an idealistic doctor who believes in saving a human life no matter what. However after being passed up for promotion by other doctors because of connections, she becomes discouraged in pursuing her dreams of opening her own clinic. Her love interest, Shi Jin, on the other hand, kills people for a living and believes in the power of patriotism and commands yet hides his insecurities about his past through sarcasm and jokes. But aside from the magnetic power of the main leads, I also equally adored the side characters. The tough and assertive military surgeon, Myung Joo and her stoic love interest, Dae Young. I love Mo Yeon’s medical team ensemble, pretty boy, Lee Chi-Hoon, sassy and no nonsense nurse, Ha Ja-Ae, and the cynical yet humorous doctor, Song Sang-Hyun to name a few. Their easy rapport with each other is helped by the fabulous character writing and the brilliant actors who know about the art of subtlety down to a T. I loved them all so much that however melodramatic and cheesy it got, I never minded, which is a testament to these characters. And it is the characters that make you stay till the very end through the absurd plot from unrealistic mafia gang fights and random natural disasters, the viral epidemics and earthquake aftershocks, evil bad guys and creepy hospital managers.
Speaking of the characters, can we please just talk about the romance? I know, I know people are going to be turned off because it’s a romance. But don’t forget that romance is about more than the angst and the cutesy (although if I got even half a penny for how many times I died when Shi Jin looked at Mo Yeon with loving eyes, I could have taken over Apple and Microsoft. Twice. And have some left over to bribe Trump not to continue the presidential campaign..someone’s gotta stop him)
Anyways romance is about revealing more of the character and who they are. I am so, so happy that a couple that I love so much has one of the least problematic relationships in a kdrama I’ve seen. Between the hair grabs (Master’s Son) and the forceful, stiff kissing (Heartstrings, Gentleman’s Dignity), and all around lack of female agency and deleting of female personality, a plethora of assholey main love interests and sexist tropes that saturate many, many kdramas, I was so worried this one was going to end up with me trying to claw out my eyes. Not so with this couple. I just adored their respect for each other. Even when they’re not together, they still cared about each other and never pushed the other person to accept their point of view. It’s just so refreshing to have two people cut the bullshit and say they like each other and not deny it. Shi Jin is able to believe in the value of life because of Mo Yeon and Mo Yeon learns to believe in her ideals again. And omigosh, the girls are sometimes the ones initiating the kisses and the hugs? Omigosh what is this the 21st century?? It is so shamelessly romantic. There are so many cute scenes of witty back-and-forth, boundless flirting, and loving glances against the backdrop of a setting sun. But it never, ever forgets that these two characters are individuals in their own right. It actually physically hurts how cute the two main couples in this show are. And hey, hey, don’t forget the equally cute bromance and girl friendship. It just makes you want to cry. And a side note: all these people are so good-looking, it’s actually a crime. Just putting that out there.
All these interactions are wrapped in stunning cinematography and gorgeous lighting. And it is a very stylized drama portraying violence like in the movie Gangster Squad where the focus is on the slow motion of a bullet instead of the grittiness of war. I mean, just look at the damn poster. I think it elevated this drama to new heights since this drama is so reliant on the actor’s subtle expressions and in any other actors’ hands, it would not have been half as good as it is. Some of the shots are just so beautiful you can’t help but feel swept up in the moment and it does give a little edge to the engaging albeit weak plot as well. There’s no spinning of the camera and a surprising lack of medium shots focusing mainly on close up shots that really highlight the emotion of the scene combined with the gorgeous use of landscape and space. The use of space especially when the two characters are in a room just makes you so aware of their every little gesture and I think the details add so much to the characters.
And to cap it all, I adore the soundtrack too. My favorite one is K. Will’s Talk Love which has been on repeat for the past hour.
But in the end, all I know is that I loved these characters so, so much and I haven’t come across a show that has made me so unabashedly excited and fangirly (the obsessive tumblr kind) in a very, very long time. Let me know if you’ve seen this drama, what you thought of it, if you’re going to watch it, what your favorite Korean dramas are. Tropes that you’re sick of ? And also if you just want to fangirl, don’t even hesitate to comment because I’m still squealing.
Also, I realize this is a sudden departure from book-related posts but when I feel passionate about something, I just have to write about it.