Special Forces captain Yoo Si-Jin (Song Joong-Ki) meets Kang Mo-Yeon (Song Hye-Kyo), a surgeon from Doctors Without Borders.
I spend 12 hours a day in surgery fighting to keep people alive. That’s what I do. I fight for life. But your fight is to protect others through death.
We sure waited a long time for this one, with constant teasers by the production in the form of stills featuring freshly returned actor Song Joong-Ki (Nice Guy/Innocent Man) striding along a tarmac in uniform. Like pretty much everyone, I couldn’t start watching fast enough.
Descendants of the Sun starts hard and fast, with a fantastic knife fight to give the audience a good idea of who the male leads are and what their skill set is all about, while also breaching deep topics like the difficulty of having a relationship with a soldier who gets dispatched halfway across the world for months on end, on top secret missions he obviously can’t talk about, and the moral conflict between soldiers and medical personnel.
Song Joong-Ki and his partner Song Hye-Kyo have nice chemistry together, and it’s easy to be pulled in by their instant attraction, and the love between this hard-working surgeon who never gets her promotion, and this elite soldier who, in spite of everything he’s seen and done, hasn’t lost any of his optimism and bright nature. I especially liked the straightforward aspect of their relationship. Instead of beating around the bush, sneaking glances at each other, and endlessly hesitating instead of confessing, they go for it right away. They like each other, they know it, they flirt, they go to the movies, the restaurant. And then, of course, they run into trouble, or there wouldn’t be a story. But no love triangles of any sort, and isn’t that brilliant!
My favorite couple, though, was anything but romantic. Instead, it was the bromance between Sergeant Seo Dae-Young and Captain Yoo Si-Jin, who always manage to get themselves stuck in unbelievable situations, only to get out through just as hairbrained schemes. Those two are hilarious and carry pretty much all of the drama’s comedic aspect.
Visually, the first two episodes of Descendants of the Sun are gorgeous, with beautifully shot scenes such as the knife fight from episode 1, or the one when Mo-Yeon fights to save a patient’s life while Si-Jin, halfway across the world, leads an entirely different struggle against ISIS soldiers. However, I got the feeling pretty quickly that, while the production hadn’t pulled any punches in the first few episodes, they just sat back and relaxed once they got the audience hooked, and that just rubs me the wrong way.
It wasn’t only a problem with the visuals either. By episode 8, there was something really off with the overall pacing of the show which, at its midpoint, was still stuck with basic romantic plot and one big external disaster, while the bad guys had barely been introduced and the screenwriters passed straight by a huge opportunity to raise the stakes and make those characters actual human beings. As it was, I felt that they just didn’t want to make their characters suffer and take them out of their comfort zone.
One glaring instance of that was when one of them takes two rounds to the chest, goes into cardiac arrest for two whole minutes, and then is up and walking within the next ten minutes with only a cast to a previously uninjured arm to show for it. I mean, “suspended disbelief” does have its limits, and this is well past ridiculous.
They’re in a war zone. Three of them are military (and why, why is Myung-Ju, the only female soldier in the show, a surgeon? Why couldn’t she be part of the Alpha team and a fighter? Why are the active soldiers all male?), two of whom belong to black ops, and the fourth is a talented surgeon also located in hostile territory. Where’s the fighting? Why do the soldiers get out of every single situation with barely a scratch to show for it? What does this garrison do, apart from running around camp bare-chested every morning? Where’s the conflict?
Descendants of the Sun could have been so captivating had they just used the mini-plot from episodes 13 and 14 as the narrative throughline of the entire show. Instead, by episode 16, I was so frustrated and jaded by the catastrophic amount of missed opportunities and general letdowns of the show that I just laughed real hard at the writers’ last-ditch attempt to make me fear for clearly immortal characters. Sure, the episode I’m thinking of was pretty moving, but the thought didn’t even cross my mind that anyone could be in real danger of being killed off. In fact, I was plain bored, and just wondering what in the world they were going to put in the three specials, because the entire show is so hollow it’s a miracle they managed to fill sixteen hours with utter nothingness. Overall, the plot twists involve cars breaking down and the characters coming and going so repetitively just thinking about it makes me yawn all over again (like episode 8, with two full scenes of Mo-Yeon standing there feeling sorry for herself, bawling her eyes out, while Si-Jin watches her from behind).
I was also so very disappointed by what happened to Agus’ character, whose bad guy potential was so repeatedly stomped on that it makes my heart break a little. There were so many opportunities for this character, for his development and his impact over the plot and characters, but nope! Forget his training and background which could have made him into a twisted, truly evil and terrifying opponent for Si-Jin. Instead, they gave him something like a grand total of thirty minutes of screen time, and limited his evilness to a couple threats in English (he’s the only one with a decent accent, by the way), some duct tape on Kang Mo-Yeon’s mouth, and bye-bye Bad Guy! Shaking in my slippers here, seriously.
Speaking of accents, the show is plagued by an astronomical amount of awkward English dialogue and foreign actors with terrible English and even worse acting. It’s unfortunately common practice in KDramas (the first example that comes to mind being the otherwise fantastic King 2 Hearts, with talented Ha Ji-Won and Lee Seung-Gi), and… Honestly, people. Is it that difficult to recruit actual actors? I do understand that the circumstances of this particular drama make it normal to have ESL speakers all over the place, but at least make sure they can act!
It took me a while to put my finger on what was truly bothering me with this show: the utter lack of an actual plot. The “plot” is just a bunch of isolated incidents, some of which would have made a good narrative throughline, such as North-Korean lieutenant Ahn Jung-Joon’s mission and his friendship with Yoo Si-Jin. Both men being special forces, there was a gold mine of potential here for a common mission with North Korea like in King 2 Hearts. If not, why open the drama with Ahn Jung-Joon and Yoo Si-Jin’s explosive meeting? Why bother making them friends at all?
Descendants of the Sun had everything to succeed, and there’s no doubt it did ratings-wise. To me, it’s a spectacular failure. The general plot doesn’t go beyond an expected “will Si-Jin and Mo-Yeon end up together?” which remains boring because there’s just no doubt that they will. This weak foundation makes the overall structure crumble as we get through the episodes with only a couple random incidents to keep us fed (or starved, as the case may be). The second leads’ romance would have made for a much stronger plot if only because the lingering sadness of their story makes every tiny success and failure that much more poignant, and we do have doubts regarding whether or not they will end up together.
Second male lead Jin Goo wasn’t very expressive, but at least there was an actual obstacle to his character’s relationship with army surgeon Myung-Ju, while Si-Jin and Mo-Yeon’s problems remain confined to the “I save lives, you take them” issue which gets old after five episodes. Yet, when the captain does indeed end up taking a life right under his beloved’s nose, no one mentions it.
At least, SHINEE member Onew was pretty good in his role as doctor Lee Chi-Hoon, maybe one of the best characters of the show. While Mo-Yeon sulks in her female lead corner, Chi-Hoon deals with the guilt of a young, inexperienced doctor who, stuck in a terrifying situation, made a choice and then has to live with its consequences, although, once more, nobody died, thus taking away the edge of the entire thing. Yet another missed opportunity in the script lies in the way Lee Chi-Hoon, after at least three episodes of crying and angsting over his choice, goes right back to his bright and smiling self, which is painfully symptomatic of the utter lack of character development in the show. The characters remain themselves from beginning to end, with no change at all, be it in their beliefs or personality.
One good thing: the music was pretty good. The main theme, “Mission Part 1” is magical, “Military Dignity” is, for lack of a better word, epic, and the first three songs (“ALWAYS,” “This Love” and “You Are My Everything”), really good.
A frustrating disappointment.
Country: South Korea
Cast: Song Joon-Ki, Song Hye-Kyo, Jin Goo, Kim Ji-Won
Aired: 02/24/2016 au 04/14/2016
Number of Episodes: 16
Genres: Military, Medical, Romance.