Monday, May 30, 2016

'Descendants of the Sun' Could Have Been Awesome If the Rest of the Series Mirrored Its One Great Arc

Descendants of the Sun – also alternately known as The Sun’s Descendants and Descended from the Sun – is the biggest K-drama in years.  It’s a massive hit, not only in Korea, but internationally as well. In fact, due to its popularity, it has been projected by the Export-Import Bank of Korea that it’ll generate around one trillion KRW increase in revenue from its licensing (there are currently 32 countries – including the Philippines, of course – that have imported the show) as well as its indirect impact on the economy like surge in tourism, consumption of drama-related goods, and ads.

The 16-episode series centers on Captain Yoo Si-jin a.k.a. “Big Boss” (Song Joong-ki), leader of “Team Alpha”, an elite South Korean Special Forces unit often sent to conduct covert missions on foreign soil.  One day, during a furlough, he meets a doctor named Kang Mo-yeon (Song Hye-kyo) and they start dating.  However, they realize that their professions make it difficult for a relationship to blossom, and they broke up.

Sometime later, Dr. Kang is sent by her hospital to lead a medical mission to Uruk (a fictional country, but shot in Greece in real life).  There, she is reunited with Captain Yoo, whose “Team Alpha” has been recently attached to a regular South Korean army battalion serving as UN peacekeepers in the area.  In that foreign land, the two get the chance to rekindle their love.

The romance between Si-jin and Mo-yeon is the main focus of the series.  But the series also has another significant romantic arc involving the characters of Sergeant Major Seo Dae-young a.k.a “Wolf” (Jin Goo), Si-jin’s second-in-command and best friend, and First Lieutenant Yoon Myeong-joo (Kim Ji-won), an army doctor and daughter of the Special Forces commander.  Personally, I find the development of this love story more complex and interesting than the main one.
Anyway, here’s the thing: I’m not as impressed of Descendants of the Sun as most are.  Don’t get me wrong.  I didn’t hate it.  I did have fun with this series.  But, in my opinion, it’s not that great.

My main issue about Descendants is that the writing isn’t really cohesive.  Plotlines and subplots are all over the place.  It’s as if the script is being written on the fly.  Thus, it gives the series an uneven story, and a murky sense of purpose.  The premise is actually fresh (for a K-drama) and fascinating.  But I feel that the narrative does not do justice to the potential.  There are attempts to be thoughtful and divergent – and there are times that it does succeed in provoking reflection and delivering spins – but it also has a lot of by-the-numbers stuff going for it, which makes the aforementioned attempts seemingly intended to hide these.  It ends up feeling more hokey than clever, and somewhat makes it pretentious.  Several times, I heard myself mutter “Well, that’s dumb” or “That’s so predictable” while watching it.  I don’t know… maybe I’m just having sort of a “K-drama burn out” that I’m beginning to be more sensitive to sloppy storytelling and clichés, or that I held it with a higher standard than the previous Koreanovelas I’ve watched.
That said, it also has good points.  It’s amply entertaining, especially if you become tolerant of its flaws – something I found myself being.  To start, it has plenty of amusing K-drama humor.  I particularly love the hilarious bromance of Si-jin and Dae-young.

It also does a fine job deconstructing what makes a soldier and what makes a doctor through presenting situations that effectively illustrate the parallels of the two vocations though they are driven by essentially opposite philosophies.  And doing this by featuring a couple is pretty nice.  The formula of Si-jin and Mo-yeon’s romance is something I’ve seen a million times already, but it’s not completely hackneyed due to this.

The characters are all likable and fun.  And the cast did well in providing the required performances.  Well, at least, the main and supporting cast.  The non-Korean extras (especially those playing the Uruk children) on the other hand are just ridiculously bad.
But clearly, the best thing about Descendants is everything relating to North Korean Special Forces Senior Lieutenant Ahn Jung-joon (Ji Seung-hyun).  Heck, though he didn’t have significant screen time, his story arc still turned out being, in my opinion, the best executed in the series.  Its promising start has him on the center of it.  Then he fades after the opening, and is forgotten.  Late in the series, he pops back again in a delightful sequence that culminates in a lunch between North and South soldiers.  Then he fades again.  Then he returns once more, this time with an entire subplot dedicated to him.  And that ends.  But just when we think we’re never going to see him again, he comes back in a critical moment.  During these times in which the character is involved, things seem to improve in the show – the directing, the stakes, the tone, the theme, the tension, the action, the characterizations, the twists, etc.  If the rest of Descendants had been executed with the same quality as Senior Lieutenant Ahn’s arc, it would have been an awesome series.

In the end, I didn’t like Descendants of the Sun as much as most.  It was okay at best.  I enjoyed it to a degree, for sure, but I also find it riddled with flaws that prevented me from fully loving it.

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