Marcus Goh is a Singapore television scriptwriter. He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. He Tweets/Instagrams at Optimarcus and writes at marcusgohmarcusgoh.com. The views expressed are his own.
Number of episodes: 16 + 3 specials
Episode length: 60 minutes
“Descendants of the Sun” is a Korean drama about the romance between a doctor and a Special Forces soldier. When they’re deployed to Uruk on a peacekeeping mission, love blossoms between the pair. It stars Song Joong-ki (Yoo Si-jin), Song Hye-kyo (Kang Mo-yeon), Kim Ji-won (Yoon Myeong-joo), Jin Goo (Seo Dae-yeong), Park Hoon (Choi Woo-geun), Choi Woong (Gong Cheol-ho), Ahn Bo-hyun (Im Gwang-nam), Onew (Lee Chi-hoon), Lee Sueng-joon (Song Sang-hyun), Seo Jeong-yeon (Ha Ja-ae), and Park Hwan-hee (Choi Min-ji).
“Descendants of the Sun” is so wildly popular that it really needs no introduction. But with 16 one-hour episodes (19 if you count the additional special episodes), it’s the equivalent of a Western drama comprising 24 40-minute episodes, so it’s a significant time commitment. Most of the series takes place in a foreign setting, so if you’re expecting to see more of urban Korean in the series, it’s only at the beginning and end of the series. But part of the appeal is that it takes place in an ostensibly exotic setting (Uruk), so get ready to see many shots of Greece’s landscape.
Si-Jin (Song Joong-ki) gives Mo-yeon (Song Hye-kyo) the cold shoulder in “Descendants of the Sun.” (Han Cinema)
Beautiful shots and setting
There’s really little to quibble about the visuals of the series. Even the most mundane scenes are shot with care, with either interesting or artistic camera angles to give life to the scene. As most of the series was shot in Greece, there are many ruins and ancient buildings in the background, which add character to the setting. It’s a visual feast for the eyes, and that’s not counting the cast yet.
Being a Korean drama, aesthetically appealing actors are virtually mandatory. It helps that the four main cast are at the top of their game. But the supporting actors are also just as good-looking, even the more senior cast. In fact, the senior couple in the story, Sang-hyun (Lee Seung-joon) and Ja-ae (Seo Jeong-yeon) are easier on the eyes than other, younger extras.
Yoo Si-jin’s characterisation
Admittedly, Song Joong-ki’s portrayal of Si-jin is rather endearing. It’s his imperfections and foibles which humanise him more, such as his strange inability to touch raw fish. Because he’s easygoing and playful for much of the series, his one scene where he’s shown to be crying over a former friend is particularly heartbreaking. His charisma comes from character, rather than appearance.
Sang-hyun and Ja-ae’s relationship
Besides the two lead couples, there’s also the romance between Sang-hun and Ja-ae. There’re so comfortable and natural around each other that you can’t help rooting for them to be together. Because they aren’t the stars of the show, they don’t have to go through grand overblown gestures of love to show their attraction for each other. Their relationship grows organically throughout the series, and they’re the underdogs that you can truly empathise with.
Dae-young (Jin Goo) and Myong-joo (Kim Ji-won) in “Descendants of the Sun.” (Han Cinema)
Increasingly ludicrous obstacles
Being a drama, there have to be obstacles that come in the way of the couple, right? And it starts off with fairly plausible conflicts, such as ideological and geographical issues. Then the show starts throwing escalating disasters at them, such as an earthquake, a super virus, and a minefield. It’s like the writers are struggling to find reasons to separate them, when they’ve already earned the right to be together.
Mo-yeon is a nightmare girlfriend
Mo-yeon is shrill, whiny, ungrateful cow. She can turn on Si-jin after he saves her life and break up with him, claiming the perpetual dangerous situations as justification. I can see the attempt to characterise her as a spunky, independent girl, but more often than not she comes off as a spoilt brat. In addition, Mo-yeon gets into so many life-threatening situations that you wonder how she’s managed to live as long as she has. Si-jin deserves better, he really does.
Plot holes and illogic
The implausibility of the situations (and the lack of proper explanations for them) leads to many, many examples of flawed logic in the series. It strains your suspension of disbelief when yet another ridiculous plan (both by the protagonists and antagonists) succeeds. And then there’s the plot holes. Exposition can be completely forgotten twenty minutes later, leading to contradictory actions and scenes within the same episode. Storytelling is definitely not one of the strong points of the series.
Terribly dated music
Everything about the series is modern (or at least, up-to-date), except the music! It’s like the producers went to look for free stock music from the 80s to put into the show. The romantic theme and funny theme, in particular, is so full of loud, corny instruments that it completely distracts you from what’s happening. When was the last time you heard whistling as part of the background music?
Ja-ae (Seo Jeong-yeon) and Sang-hyun (Lee Seung-joon) in “Descendants of the Sun.” (Winter Bubble Tea)
If you watch “Descendants of the Sun,” look out for Sang-hyun and Ja-ae. They’re the best, and most underrated couple of the series.
Should you just watch selected episodes? Yes, the first, last, and another episode in the middle.
Should you watch the entire series? If you really like Korean dramas.
“Descendants on the Sun” is available on Viu.