Four things I liked and one I didn’t about Descendants of the Sun

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Oh my goodness, I can’t believe I am actually posting again, finally! To the maybe two people who are reading this and/or were following my blog originally, I’m so sorry for the long silence! In the time between this post and the last one, I finished my undergrad, packed up seven years of life and moved from Canada back to the U.S., had a major, life-threatening relapse of the illness that I’d been struggling with for the last decade or so and am only now finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, watch dramas again, and most importantly write again. So I’m both very exhausted and very grateful these days.

So what better way to jump back into the Korean drama blogosphere than with a listicle-type review of the latest worldwide sensation that is Descendants of the Sun? (Baby steps.)

I’ll be honest: I started this very late and with major reservations considering the recent track record of megastar writer Kim Eun-sook. But for what it is – a fluffy romantic drama, masquerading as a melo but showing its marshmallow stuffing at the most cursory second look – I was able to enjoy it. It was a fun, stress-free watch for the most part, cringeworthy at times but in a way that was fun to mock rather than just being painful, and it provided me with some hours of diversion.

THINGS I LIKED

The friendship between Captain Yoo and Sergeant Seo

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How much do I love these two? For me they were the real OTP of this show. Their care and concern for each other, their gruff teasing that conceals genuine concern, the way they jump into the fray to defend each other at the first indication of danger; the easy frankness with which they confide in each other, which is a marked contrast from their silence and lack of communication with their respective love interests at times. I mean, they even had a flashback meet-cute under an umbrella, complete with bromantic slo-mo and sugary background music. I loved that moment so much.

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In fact, as lovely as the sweeping romantic moments were in this show, emotionally I was much more engaged in the relationship between these two brothers-in-arms, by the way they had such an equal relationship despite Shi-jin being Dae-young’s superior, the way they always keep their promises to each other, the way they miss each other when they’re apart.

In a kdrama world where the male lead and his best friend and/or brother are so often in a love triangle that completely wrecks their friendship, it was refreshing to see this forced ‘love triangle’ between the two of them and Myung-joo as the joke it was, and, as we see in a late scene in the drama, never an obstacle to their friendship – it was, in fact, the reason they met in the first place.

The earthquake and its aftermath

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The military stuff was often hokey and sometimes cringe-inducingly nationalistic, but the staging of the earthquake and the resulting destruction and rescue efforts was well done, convincing in scale, and had a poignant balance of storylines that really showcased both the Korean cast and the locals who were affected by the disaster. For the most part the non-Korean cast in this drama was pretty painful to watch (it took me many episodes to realize they were speaking Arabic – a language I’ve been hearing my whole life), but in this section their small stories were well-acted, poignant and really quite touching. Maybe the fact that there was very little dialogue helped. I loved how each of these stories was not just a source of the episode’s conflict, but a human encounter that played a significant role in the development of that particular doctor.

For example, the pregnant mother who stopped young doctor Lee Chi-hoon from giving her anesthetic because she was worried about the baby, and the bond they developed based on that despite the fact that they couldn’t communicate – especially when juxtaposed with his heartbreaking loss of his very first patient, and the grief he felt when he was forced to admit he couldn’t save him. I loved that scene, both for the maturing Chi-hoon did right before our eyes, and for probably my favorite of Doctor Song’s occasional Awesome Sunbae moments, where he broke through his usual jokey awkwardness and showed that he’s actually a really smart, compassionate and tough doctor that you’d want having your back. I also felt like this was a perfect “You’ve become a real doctor” moment for Chi-hoon, which is why I hated his later nonsensical arc of depression and guilt with the whiny Korean construction worker so much. (And I must say – I’ve always loved Onew for his melted-chocolate voice, but I was really impressed with his acting here.)

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I think my favorite subplot in the entire earthquake arc was what I call Mo-yeon’s Shoes. From her immediate assessment of the situation and the fact that her high heels were completely inappropriate for a rescue operation, breaking the heels off with a couple of good whacks; the silent thanks of one of the earthquake victims with an offer of his boots to replace her now-bloodied sandals; the scene where Mo-yeon and Shi-jin give each other a little bit of courage before they have to start fighting again, him bending to tie her overlarge boots; the fact that she went back to that patient and returned his boots to him, with thanks.

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This whole arc just underscores everything I liked about Mo-yeon’s character, and why I ended up finishing the show despite starting to lose interest in the lackluster and somewhat nonsensical third act. Her willingness to forgo her (considerable) vanity when there is work to be done and patients to help, the way she treats everyone she comes into contact with equally, regardless of their status in relation to her, and her independence and toughness are all reasons I really like her as a leading lady, and why she’s so refreshing after a long string of Kim Eun-sook heroines with disappearing backbones. I also really love how all the people who lost their lives or had them turned upside-down by the earthquake were treated like complete, real people and not plot devices that existed solely for the sake of making our Korean cast look good.

The supporting Korean cast

How much did I love the medical team and Captain Yoo’s Alpha team, with their wry commentary and their running bets on the progress of our main couple’s relationship? Harry Potter and Piccolo and the rest gave a peek into the camaraderie and black humor that exists between brothers in arms. The medical team was a small family unit, especially once they were transplanted to Uruk and only had each other to rely on in sometimes very unsettling circumstances. I also really liked how their closeness remained once they went home to Seoul, and they were a bit apart from everyone else at the hospital, changed by what they had done and seen.

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Doctor Song and Nurse Ha were my favorite romantic couple in the drama – our leads have the relationship angst and the sweep-you-off-your-feet gestures, but these two have over thirty years of history, and a friendship that has survived knowing the worst things about each other. I mean, their friendship has survived lending each other money, and they have a wordless rapport that means despite the silliness and the teasing, their love is rock solid and you know it’s going to last.

Although Kim Eun-sook wrote what for a long time was my favorite drama of all time, City Hall, I’ve had increasing issues with every successive drama since then, and after Heirs, I lost any faith in her writing and honestly went into Descendants with very low expectations, which may have allowed me to enjoy it more than I would have otherwise. One thing I have always loved about Kim’s dramas, however, which I think she still does well, is to create funny, well-rounded supporting characters who don’t exist solely as foils and sounding boards for the main OTP. They do provide comic relief, but they also feel like real people with their own concerns and lives.

I find this even with her (admittedly predictable) two-main-couple setup for every drama, where we see the very rough outlines of a love triangle or square, but which always ends up being the story of two relationships. I like that the real drama is character driven, and we end up with two couples at the end rather than one couple plus an insane, vengeful, possibly suicidal ex-girlfriend and a heartbroken too-perfect second male lead. The presence of the latter two has added a sour taste to many a romcom ending, and I enjoy that in Kim’s dramas even the second leads have their own story and their own history together. In a way we get two love stories for the price of one, usually ending up as a new group of friends who enjoy lovingly snarking at each other. It may be a bit pat, but it puts a smile on my face.

Song Joong-ki as Yoo Shi-jin

I thought about what I could say on this topic, and it would have been many pages long, and still incomplete. It’s also been said already, thoroughly and enthusiastically. So instead I will just leave this here:

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

A Light War Drama

I had a lot of reservations about this drama, and didn’t even start it until it was almost over, because I had serious doubts about Kim Eun-sook’s ability to carry of something this ambitious and dealing with such potentially fraught subject matter. But I heard from friends that it was worth the watch if you went into it with the proper expectations, that it was pretty and fluffy and romantic and carried for the most part by its talented cast and its dazzling moments. And I was in the mood for something stress-free and fun so I started it – and enjoyed it quite a bit for a while, despite its numerous flaws. The terrible acting by non-Korean actors, the stilted English dialogue, the shockingly bad medicine; all that was on par with my expectations to be honest, and I was able to overcome it with the strength of the things I liked, listed above.

What began to bother me more and more about this drama, and which became increasingly difficult to ignore as I watched, was its treatment of military intervention as some kind of heroic endeavor without real consequences, its shallow exploration of the cost of military violence in the places where it happens, and the way the soldiers and the entire military apparatus were portrayed as unfailingly noble, self-sacrificing heroes who occasionally made tiny mistakes, aw-shucks, but never anything with serious costs. Nor was there any counter-narrative for the cloyingly thick and naively idealistic nationalism that overlay many of the storylines, especially those that took place in the fictional land of Uruk. Even the creation of fictional countries in an unspecified part of the Middle East allows the writer to reinforce harmful stereotypes about that region and portray the Korean army as unequivocal saviors in a way that would probably cause some pushback if they set the drama in a real place.

I know, I know – I’m expecting far too much from what has been described as “a light war drama” – but that very description boggles the mind. As I wrote above, the natural disaster scenes were actually pretty well done despite the questionable medical stuff, and treated the rescue and treatment of the survivors as well as the physical and emotional impact of the ordeal on the Korean team in a nuanced and compassionate way. The military storylines, however, were hokey, ridiculously unrealistic, and lacked follow-through on the initially intriguing issues they raised.

For example, there was the running theme throughout the drama of the honor of a soldier, and how one can reconcile the killing of human beings as a job with the idea of defending freedom and justice and one’s country. And while there were dramatic gestures by Captain Yoo showing that he was willing to disobey orders in order to preserve his own personal idea of honor, there were ultimately no serious consequences for him, at least not at the level there would be in a real military situation. Nor was the reality addressed that sometimes one’s country does incredibly unjust things in the name of high ideals, and a soldier has no say in it and usually no recourse to stop it. I was also taken aback by the way certain soldiers, who had spent months as hostages undergoing torture, were suddenly completely fine as soon as they returned to society. No maimed soldiers with PTSD here, only returning heroes ready to jump back into the lives they left behind.

It might seem like I’m being nitpicky about this, but the reason it bothers me so much is that the drama is being disingenuous by asking these sorts of questions and then failing to truly address them in a real way – I would have less of a problem with it if it was straightforwardly nationalist propaganda, because that would be so clear and far less effective. But in a climate where there are so many people living in the aftermath of war and facing problems that cannot be solved by a pretty Korean doctor coming to your village and telling you to wash your hands (really?), the tone of this drama leaves me with an uneasy feeling that isn’t quite banished by the gorgeousness of its leads or their swoony declarations.

I can’t quite ignore that this drama is massively popular all over the world, and has in fact been praised by the Thai Prime Minister (a man who seized power in a military coup in 2014) as promoting “a sense of patriotism, sacrifice, obeying orders and being a dutiful citizen,” and encouraged Thai people to watch it and love their government officials more. I can’t really describe a drama that produces this kind of reaction as totally harmless. Nor can it be denied that the South Korean military probably should give this production team money if they haven’t already, considering how bad their image has been lately and how much they needed the boost.

In the end I have to admit that I am probably one of only a few people who are bothered by or even noticed this, and that most people just wanted to watch Song Joong-ki’s beautiful face and acting for sixteen hours. I can in no way blame them. But I do wish that there had been a more in-depth, nuanced exploration of issues that were often teased with a throwaway line and then never addressed again. The Kim Eun-sook that wrote City Hall has the ability to do this – I just feel like her success has made her lazy and complacent, in that she no longer needs to spend the time thinking and doing research about meaningful themes in her work when she knows she can get the ratings with her Old Reliable formula. And it’s a shame, really. Especially considering the abilities of this wonderful cast.

Overall Rating: 3/5 stars

 

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3 thoughts on “Four things I liked and one I didn’t about Descendants of the Sun

  1. First of all: Yes, yes, yes, and yes! I totally agree with all of your points.
    But the last one I definitely have strong feelings about. I was even thinking about writing a “how it should have ended” post on my own (long-dead (RIP)) blog, because I’m appalled at just how badly KES dropped the ball on this one. And she had even written the beginnings of a framework that would have tied the ending together with the beginning, and given everything way more meaning (and made more sense)!

    But returning to the point: I ONLY tuned in to watch SJK on my screen for 16 hours. After three years of my ILU being so far — so far! — away from me, it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d been doing jumping jacks or reading a book the whole time, I would have watched it. And I really liked the middle arc of this show, due entirely to the things about the earthquake that you mentioned. If the show had ended at episode 12, I would have even thought it pretty inoffensive (from a quality standpoint, I mean) — but it’s like KES thought to herself, “Hmmm, how can I make this last arc be as irrelevant and stupid as possible?” It’s one thing to treat serious subjects with a sense of humor — there’s a long history of that — but it’s quite another to never really address the serious questions that you, yourself, in your OWN DRAMA, have brought up!

    All considerations of overly-effusive nationalistic, stereotype-reinforcing writing aside, I was disappointed by the non-resolution of the “I take lives” vs. “I save lives” conflict between YSJ and KMY. And this was after she made promising progress in addressing that conflict in earlier episodes, by showing YSJ stepping in to allow KMY to save the sick guy, Alpha Team helping with disaster relief, and YSJ persuading KMY to help the Bad Guy after he was shot. Yes, KMY dealt with one of her major objections to being with YSJ, that he was going to possibly end up dead, but this conflict — the one they broke up over to begin with! — was never really addressed, and I find that a shame. Whether or not you are a soldier or are involved with one, I think every citizen should grapple with the contradictory role they play — and that goes double for a country with a mandatory military service like Korea.

    But to add to that the almost PPL nature of the portrayal of the military and its actions in the drama? I was actually pleasantly surprised by how KES treated NK and its soldiers (though I guess really only one had any kind of character development). Ultimately I think she wasted one of the best characters and potential plot arcs in the whole drama, though, because she made him into a plot device to wring more angst out of YSJ and KMY’s relationship instead of springboarding off the set-up she’d already created and creating a climactic, compelling, relevant third act. (This is where I really should write “how it should of ended post”, so I can get all my frustration out on that point.) But the “country” she created was not even a two-dimensional backdrop — it basically wasn’t there. It, and its citizens, only existed to give the production an “exotic” and gorgeous backdrop to film their leads against.

    I have a lot more to say about this, but it’s time for me to go home from work, ha.

    • Yay, thank you for your lovely comment! Sorry for the delay in replying, life is so busy right now. Yeah, the ending was so meh. I would love to read your HISHE about this drama – you should write it! If I can revive my blog after three years so can you! 🙂

      There were, like you said, so many things brought up in this drama that were intriguing but left hanging. I kept the post pretty vague to avoid spoilers as much as possible, but there were a few things that really bugged me. One of which is this very conflict you mentioned, which they started to address but then when YSJ comes back alive it’s like she’s so happy to see him that she no longer cares about her moral objection to his job or the fundamental conflict that drove the entire first half of the drama? Urgh.

      Also there was that throwaway line about Argus when Shi-jin tells Dae-young about him – what other job is there for an ex-soldier if not a mercenary or organized crime? And at the time I was like, ooh, we’re going somewhere interesting. Except we didn’t. That was the only time it was mentioned and then he just became a cartoon baddie. It would have been very interesting to have a character who left the Korean during this storyline, and look at what it meant for he or she to be ex-military once they return to civilian life. How they do or don’t adjust. But KES apparently didn’t have the guts or the energy to tackle these really hard questions, so why not just set your drama in a fluffier world? Or even just stick to a Doctors Without Borders disaster relief drama, which she actually did pretty well.

      “But the “country” she created was not even a two-dimensional backdrop — it basically wasn’t there. It, and its citizens, only existed to give the production an “exotic” and gorgeous backdrop to film their leads against.”

      SO agree! It annoyed me that all we see of “Uruk” is dirty children sucking on metal because they’re so hungry, who come from a village called “Blackie” (I’m not even going to comment on that), and picturesque locations of natural beauty.

      So I guess all of this is to say, we totally agree on this one in every way! And I too don’t regret watching it because Song Joong-ki is just that wonderful. 🙂

      • I’d forgotten about that comment YSJ makes, but I was totally thinking the same thing when I heard it! I thought for sure we were going to explore someone’s dark side by the end of the drama — but no. So much potential wasted!

        It kinda puzzles me that there was no overarching storyline to the drama, either. It almost felt like a set of gorgeous vignettes, or a a triptych, in a sense. Weird. SUCH wasted potential! ~sigh~

        I really do need to write that HISHE, only it’ll be more like “how it all should have been”. Why don’t I write dramas? I bet they’d all be epic. And blockbusters. Of course.

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