THE SHORT VERDICT:
Even though Descendants of the Sun is not very well-written and far from subtle, there are things to enjoy in this show, if you’re willing to close your eyes to its shortcomings. Things like appealing lead characters (most of them, anyway), character relationships, the romance and the bromance. And not forgetting Song Joong Ki in his most schmexy drama outing to date (ahem).
Flawed, but not without its charms.
THE LONG VERDICT:
Whether you love this show or hate it; whether you think it’s the drama gods’ gift to mankind or the most ludicrous thing to ever grace our screens – heck, whether you even watch kdrama or not – you just can’t ignore it.
The Sunday right after this drama finished its run in Korea, a male friend of mine who doesn’t watch any kdrama whatsoever, but knows that I do, came up to me and asked with a cheeky, knowing grin, “So did you watch Descendants of the Sun?”
Why yes, I did watch it, actually, even though I have little interest in medical &/or military stories. Mostly, I dipped my toes in coz Show was generating so much (seriously, So Much!) buzz even before it aired. The reason I faithfully kept on watching through to the end, though, was mostly coz Song Joong Ki is so darn schmexy in his army fatigues.
I know I might be upsetting some people by saying this, but the bald truth is, this show is far from well-written. The good news is, it’s possible to ignore this show’s weaknesses in order to enjoy its strengths. It might take some excessive eye-rolling and you might need to sometimes (oftentimes?) close both eyes in the process, but it can be done.
Just for the record, here are the things that gave me doubtful pause while I was watching the show.
1. The medical &/or military stuff
The medical and rescue practices in this show are.. dubious at best. Even as a person who has close to zero exposure to actual medical and military practices, some of these bemused me and caused me to raise an eyebrow or two.
One eyebrow-raising instance of strange medical practice, is in episode 7, when Mo Yun (Song Hye Kyo) whacks a patient’s chest repeatedly instead of performing actual CPR. I figure this was Show’s way of making her look cool, but I’m pretty sure that’s not recommended practice.
Another instance that had me scratching my head, is in episode 8, which had an extended arc where Chi Hoon (a very solid performance by Onew) goes into a troubled emotional funk because he abandons survivor Kang Min Jae (Lee Yi Kyung) when the building rubble they are in starts to collapse.
It’s supposed to be a deeply emotional arc exploring the vulnerability and humanity of doctors, but I was distractedly asking myself through it all, why the medical team was even entering the collapsed building to search for survivors to begin with, when in earlier episodes, the soldiers had taken care of that, and then brought the injured to the medical team.
Because the practices felt inconsistent, the execution of the arc felt manufactured and contrived, to me.
2. The logic stuff
Years of watching kdramas have taught me that it’s often necessary to suspend disbelief, in order to enjoy the story that the drama is trying to tell.
In this show’s case, let’s just say that my limits were stretched more than I ever hoped would be required. Sometimes the lack of logic in this story world was so ludicrous that I couldn’t help but sputter audibly and roll my eyes.
There are lots of examples that fit into this category, but I think none takes the cake as much as how Shi Jin (Song Joong Ki) basically comes back from the dead in episode 14, and immediately gets back into the thick of the action, while still bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds. We’re not even talking about normal-people things; he gets into a stand-down with Ahn Jung Joon (Ji Seung Hyun) who’s holding Ja Ae (Seo Jung Yeon) hostage.
Plus, he proceeds to walk around the hospital, and then, while in recovery, he goes on to do sniper things as well. It’s completely unbelievable, but because I wanted to believe that Yoo Shi Jin is that special almost-superhuman sort of person, I just went with it.
But, I must say I rolled my eyes extensively, when Shi Jin flailed in his wheelchair upon his discharge and promptly fell off it, while Mo Yun rushed over to.. fuss over the wheelchair instead of him. I mean, seriously? A guy who could get up after being newly resuscitated to intervene with another patient, and then got up again to be a sniper on some other building’s rooftop, can’t save himself from a runaway wheelchair? Why was he even in a wheelchair, since he was walking around just fine while hospitalized? It’s all kinds of ridiculous, and clearly, just an excuse to have Mo Yun fuss over the wheelchair instead of Shi Jin. Which I found pretty lame, really.
…Which brings me to the next section, quite nicely.
3. The humor &/or the cutesy
Whether or not you enjoy Show’s Intended Funny really depends on your personal taste, since humor’s subjective and all. Personally, I felt like most of the time, Show tried too hard to be funny, and the humor was too broad for my taste, generally speaking.
For example, all the sped-up footage of the soldiers preparing for the Commander’s visit in episode 9 was supposed to be funny, but I wasn’t particularly amused. Also, all the repeated double dating cutesy featuring our lead couples was just ok, for me. I mostly didn’t find it all that entertaining, but sometimes, if I squinted just right, it was.. ok.
Episode 14 stands out for me, as an example where Show tries hard to serve up a lot of Funny, but none of it landed well, for me. Nasty Doc getting her hair pulled by Chi Hoon’s wife while she goes into labor; Mo Yun talking smack about the Commander while the room’s bugged, and then trying to backpedal; the supposed comedy around Mo Yun having to pay for the hospital windows; the supposed funny around Dae Young (Jin Goo) and Shi Jin trying to pull a fast one on Mo Yun. I found all of these distinctly heavy-handed, rather clunky, and not very amusing at all, I’m afraid.
4. The storytelling
Like the Intended Funny in this show, there is nothing subtle about the storytelling. A good amount of the time, it feels like stuff is put in place purely to facilitate a particular plot point.
I get that this technique is employed in (probably) every drama out there, but I hafta say, this connect-the-dots type of writing was really obvious in this show. [SPOILER] Like in episode 13, where Mo Yun tries to quit her job. This arc results in her being sent to the ER, which results in the Dramatic Moment where she receives Shi Jin’s motionless body, when he’s rushed to the hospital with multiple gunshot wounds. [END SPOILER]
5. The musical cues
Like the writing, the musical cues in this show are far from subtle. From the love ballads declaring “I love youuuu~..” when our lead couple had just met and barely knew each other, to the boppy instrumentals that informed us we were witnessing a Funny Scene, the music in this show was applied with a heavy hand.
It often felt like the music was used to help compensate for any weaknesses in the writing, so that audiences would know how they were supposed to feel at any given point in time.
Unfortunately, this tended to have the opposite effect on me. [MINOR SPOILER] In episode 10, there was a whole lotta big music around the missing narcotics arc, and to be honest, I really didn’t – couldn’t – care. Which made the disengagement I felt with the writing all the more glaring to me, unfortunately. [END SPOILER]
…in spite of all of Show’s flaws (and I wasn’t even being that thorough in this section, really), I found enough to enjoy, and enough to keep me coming back for another episode, and then another, all the way through to the very end.
Sure, the hook was stronger for me in the earlier episodes than in the later ones, but we can talk about that later. 😉
STUFF I LIKED
Song Joong Ki as Yoo Shi Jin
Let me state unabashedly for the record, that Song Joong Ki (Pure Pretty post here!) as Yoo Shi Jin was the thing that I enjoyed the most, in this show.
The superficial stuff
Let’s just say that Shirtless Song Joong Ki completely and utterly exceeded my expectations. I mean, I’ve long had affection for him as an actor (he is so delightful in Sungkyunkwan Scandal!), but I’d never thought of him as the buff type.
Well, it’s true that the military taketh away, but the military clearly also giveth back, coz – woah Nelly! – post-MS Song Joong Ki is altogether quite mesmerizing. Guh. The veins down his arms; the sculpted shoulders. I could hardly look away, seriously.
Plus, you already know that I find him completely schmexy in his army fatigues.
Song Joong Ki wears it all with just the right amount of swag; enough to make it seem like coolness is oozing out of his pores, but not so much that he feels overbearing.
The way he walks, the way he stands, the way he habitually puts his hands on his artillery belt, the way he squints into the sun and talks with a slight downturn of his lips, while putting strength into his jaw. All that, plus the hotness of the sculpted muscle, and the use of the lower registers of his voice. It just all comes together in a perfect package of sexy. <3
The less superficial stuff
Over and above the superficial pretty, I also felt very drawn to Shi Jin as a character.
I love that Shi Jin is far from being a jerky male lead (a phenomenon that is way too common in dramaland, sadly). I admit that there are times that Shi Jin comes across as a little high-handed, [MINOR SPOILER] like the time in episode 1 where he knocks the phone out of Mo Yun’s hand while she’s got it raised to her ear. That did make me raise my eyebrows a little [END SPOILER].
Still, I rationalize that Shi Jin’s high-handed touch is at least partly a product of his military environment. It doesn’t excuse the behavior, but at least I sort of get where it’s coming from. Additionally, the fact that Shi Jin comes across as a decent kind of guy otherwise, counts for a lot in my books.
One of my favorite things about Shi Jin, is that he’s straightforward and frank about his feelings. He doesn’t shy away from admitting his attraction to Mo Yun, and when it comes up in conversation, he faces it head-on instead of avoiding it. [SPOILER] Like in episode 3, when Mo Yun asks if he’s ever been bewitched, and he just levels his gaze at her and answers that he has, and that she should know about it. And when she asks him why they’re going to the beach when he’d said it was far away, and he matter-of-factly answers that it’s because he wants to spend a long time with her. [END SPOILER] So straightforward and unabashed; I love it.
I also love Shi Jin’s decisive streak, and his matter-of-fact way of facing all the consequences of his decisions. He doesn’t blame anyone, and doesn’t regret his actions – not because he’s too full of himself, but because he’d weighed his decision thoroughly, even in the split seconds that he was given, and he’s at peace with his choices. There’s something impressive and alluring and very sexy about that quality in him.
Add on Shi Jin’s strong loyal streak, his good humor, and the fact that he’s a total badass who’s very, very good at his job, and he just adds up to a really appealing package overall. Likey muchey. <3
Jin Goo as Seo Dae Young
I love Jin Goo as Dae Young, So Much. <3
I really enjoyed Dae Young’s stoic vibe, and the fact that his gruff exterior can’t hide the sweet, kind, loyal, selfless and caring marshmallow that he is on the inside.
Each time we got to see some of that good-hearted sweetness at play, I liked Dae Young more. [SPOILER] Like the time Dae Young took troublemaker Kim Ki Bum (Kim Min Suk) under his wing and paid for his hospital bills even though he didn’t even know the kid. Or the time he worked so hard in order to be able to attend his ex-girlfriend’s wedding, purely to give her comfort that he was ok. Just, wow. [END SPOILER]
Of course, I also love that Dae Young – like Shi Jin – is very much a capable, focused badass who’s very good at his job.
Kim Ji Won as Yoon Myung Joo
I really liked Kim Ji Won in her role as Myung Joo. Even though Myung Joo is written with a distinct prickly streak, Kim Ji Won makes her feel likable and real.
More than that, I respect that Myung Joo is written as a strong, capable woman who is not only crystal clear about what she wants, but isn’t afraid to make a stand for it. Even if it means stepping outside of her comfort zone; even if it means making the first move; even if it means going head-to-head with her father and Commanding Officer.
She chooses to be brave even when she doesn’t feel brave – [SPOILER] like when Dae Young is uncontactable in the midst of the rubble post-quake, for example [END SPOILER] – and I can’t help but respect her for that.
The bromance between Shi Jin and Dae Young was definitely one of the highlights of the show, for me.
On the surface, they regularly take delight in ribbing and trolling each other, with Dae Young being the strait-laced foil to Shi Jin’s wisecracking prankster. But beyond that, there is a great depth of loyalty, trust and respect between them; a fact that I appreciated very much.
I love that even though Myung Joo’s father (Kang Shin Il) makes it clear that he prefers Shi Jin as potential son-in-law material (which has got to deepen the sting from Dae Young being rejected as said potential son-in-law), that it doesn’t affect the friendship between Dae Young and Shi Jin.
I also love that these two miss each other when they aren’t together, and regularly call each other, even long distance. Or drop in on each other, like Shi Jin does (below) in episode 6, heh.
Most of all, though, I love the moment in episode 4, when Dae Young visits Shi Jin in the detention area, and tells him, “Today.. every call my superior officer made was right and justified. And today, every call my superior officer made.. was honorable.” Dae Young’s so stoic in that moment, and yet, so quietly supportive, while communicating his respect for Shi Jin’s courage. How much those words mean to Shi Jin is also clear, just from the gaze that they exchange. These two admire and respect each other deeply, and it shows, and I love it. <3
The secondary romance
Right away from episode 1, and all the way through the end of the show, I felt invested in the loveline between Dae Young and Myung Joo.
Even before we became acquainted with the obstacles in the way of their love, their connection felt rich and robust with meaningful angst, and I really believed that Dae Young and Myung Joo loved each other deeply, whether they were together or not. Almost every scene they shared was full of meaning and emotion, even if everything on the surface was played with stoic restraint. More than anything, I loved how steadfast, how unwavering, and how unhesitatingly and decisively I-choose-you they were, about each other.
Such believable, heartfelt deliveries from both Jin Goo and Kim Ji Won, and such consistently palpable chemistry between them too.
Augh. So good.
While this relationship had a good number of melty moments (how about that reverse wrist-grab in episode 4 which resulted in that wonderfully stoic-yet-emotional hug (below)? So melty <3 ), it was their depth of selfless care for each other that moved me.
That he’s willing to consider leaving the military in order to be with her; that she loves him just as he is, and is happy for him to stay in the military; that when she’s infected with a highly dangerous, infectious virus, his first instinct is to make straight for her and hold her close, with no thought to his own safety. It’s all so thoroughly poignant and so very beautiful.
Through it all, I felt that the conflict in their relationship was well-developed and well-played. It always felt real, and their decisions in the face of the conflict always felt motivated by love and a desire to honor the other person. I was totally on board this ship, and rooted for them all series long.
Quick shout-outs to:
The other secondary couple: Sang Hyun & Ja Ae
I thought the loveline between Sang Hyun (Lee Seung Joon) and Ja Ae was amusing and really cute. Not only did they bring the show moments of levity, at the heart of it, they sincerely cared about each other, and I liked that very much.
The other bromance: Dae Young & Ki Bum
This bromance took me a little bit by surprise, and I found myself really liking the bond between Dae Young and Ki Bum. I love that Ki Bum cleaves to Dae Young like an adoring duckling to its mother, and that underneath the gruff surface, Ki Bum brings out Dae Young’s nurturing side.
Just, so adorable and so endearing, these two. <3
Ahn Jung Joon
For a minor character, Ahn Jung Joon sure left a deep impression on me. So full of intensity and unspoken angst that I found his character intriguing enough to merit his own show. A movie, maybe.
STUFF THAT ADDED UP TO NEUTRAL
Song Hye Kyo as Kim Mo Yun
I know this might not be a popular opinion, but Song Hye Kyo as Mo Yun was rather uneven, for me.
Part of it is in the writing – I acknowledge that it is hard to write a female lead who’s very flawed and yet likable. In terms of the writing, I got the flawed part. The likable part was.. a bit slow in the coming. But I will say that I eventually warmed to Mo Yun as a character. I never loved her, but eventually, I stopped disliking her and felt that she was pretty alright, if sometimes bemusing.
The other part of it, is in the delivery – I also acknowledge that it’s hard to deliver a female lead who’s very flawed and yet likable. I’d say that overall, Song Hye Kyo’s delivery as Mo Yun was rather patchy, for me. I felt she did best when Mo Yun was grieved. I believed her sorrow, and those moments were the ones where I felt most engaged by her as a character.
At other times, though, like when Mo Yun was being funny, cutesy or prickly, I didn’t feel very convinced by Song Hye Kyo in character, I’m afraid. At times, it almost felt like she wasn’t convinced of the lines that she had to deliver either. Plus, there’s an intermittent vacuity in her gaze that I found bemusing. Added up, I just generally found it hard to connect with her as Mo Yun, quite a lot of the time.
In spite of these, I found myself eventually softening towards Mo Yun, which is why I’ve placed her in the neutral zone.
Since the romance is the main draw of this show for a lot of folks, I know this is probably also an unpopular opinion. Still, I’m gonna just come out and say it: I didn’t think that Song Joong Ki and Song Hye Kyo had great chemistry as our OTP, sadly.
I’m sure that my less-than-enthusiastic reaction to Song Hye Kyo’s delivery of Mo Yun as a character had some part to play in my perception of the OTP’s chemistry or lack thereof. But there it is.
All the melty moments weren’t wasted on me, however, since I very much enjoyed watching Shi Jin giving melty gazes, and generally doing swoony romantic leading-man things.
I did appreciate that our OTP spent time coming to terms with their very different philosophies and ways of life. I like that Mo Yun eventually comes to appreciate how honorable Shi Jin’s job is, in spite of the constant danger, and that she chooses him anyway. I love that in not-quite-kdrama-tradition, Mo Yun gets to make a love declaration to Shi Jin, which we see in episode 12. I love that she gets to tell him honestly how awesome he is, and I like that she does it in such a matter-of-fact manner.
On Shi Jin’s side, I really liked the moment in episode 7, when Shi Jin tells Mo Yun how he feels about her, as she tends to his wounds. It’s a moment that’s quiet, serious, perfectly muted, and completely sincere.
Amid the abundance of cutesy, bickering &/or swoony between our OTP, these moments of honesty were the ones that resonated with me the most.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
Honestly, this show’s ending was a mixed bag, for me.
The upside: Shi Jin and Dae Young are alive, woot! I would’ve been rather sad if Show had left them as dead, since this never struck me as that kind of melo.
Additionally, I really liked that Ahn Jung Joon turns out to be our boys’ rescuer. It’s a great callback to how they keep paying one another back for naengmyeon and other small favors, with these big life-saving acts. I felt really pleased to see Ahn as their rescuer, also because it deepens my impression of him as a good guy. Plus, it shows that he’s alive, which is always a good thing to be.
I also liked Mo Yun’s all-over-the-place reaction to Shi Jin being alive. It made sense that her emotions would be leaping from one extreme to another, and I liked being able to witness that.
On the downside, I couldn’t help feeling rather bemused during the reunion scene between Shi Jin and Mo Yun in the desert. Seriously, Shi Jin’s a capable guy and everything, but how could he know which way she was facing, so that he could tell her to turn around? And, why did she look around, instead of reaching for the walkie, which was the source of the sound of his voice? A lot of things felt quite illogical about this scene, which took me out of the moment.
Back on the upside, I felt Dae Young’s reunion with Myung Joo was sweet, even though I cringed a little at the flailing fists. And I loved the reunions between the boys and their comrades. The hug that Commander gave; the cries of joy from their team; Ki Bum’s tears at seeing Dae Young. Loved all of that, so much.
The gag of the doctors and nurses assuming that they saw Shi Jin’s ghost was also well-played. I genuinely found that funny, and laughed out loud.
On the (other) downside, some of the rest of the stuff really was rather cringeworthy. Like the fishing trip and the supposedly flirty conversation between Shi Jin and Mo Yun. And the boys getting all excited and fanboying to Red Velvet. And the parallel interrogative conversations between the boys and their girlfriends, which was supposed to be funny. I.. found it all mostly pretty lame and very cheesy. Seriously, I could see the callbacks and cheesy lines coming from a mile away, and I found myself actually bracing for impact. The romantic dialogue, the bickering, the breaking of the fourth wall, and the ending where a volcano erupts (heh).
The last few minutes were over-the-top, eye-rolling and ridiculous, which I didn’t prefer, but it was an ultimately harmless cheese-fest, and I can see how that might appeal to some viewers.
When all is said and done, I clearly didn’t love Descendants of the Sun as much as some viewers did, but neither did I dislike it like some did, either.
Sure, the whole medical/military set-up is basically set dressing, and the romance was always meant to be the Main Event. Yet, in spite of my head often telling me that all this stuff was overly melodramatic, and that there was way too much PPL in place, there were a good number of times that I couldn’t help but swoon anyway.
Which is a solid accomplishment, whichever way I look at it.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Cheesy, predictable and illogical, yet quite pleasant, in spite of it all. There are moments of fun and swoon to be had, if you’re able to switch off the ol’ brain.
FINAL GRADE: B