“Descendants of the Sun” (태양의 후예)

DescendantsoftheSun top

By Jae-Ha Kim
jaehakim.com
April 26, 2016

3 stars

Captain Yoo Shi-Jin (played by Song Joong-Ki)
Dr. Kang Mo-Yeon (played by Song Hye-Kyo)
 First Lieutenant Yoon Myung-Ju (played by Kim Ji-Won)
Sergeant Major Seo Dae-Young (played by Jin Goo)

A beautifully-filmed series with attractive leads, “Descendants of the Sun” is essentially a love story set in a military backdrop.

The Korean drama begins with Captain Yoo Shi-Jin and Sergeant Major Seo Dae-Young apprehending a low-level thief. Through their interactions, we see that the two are best friends, funny and much more skilled than your average military officers. They are, in fact, part of Korea’s elite Alpha Team.

Shi-Jin’s love interest is Dr. Kang Mo-Yeon, a hard-working physician who is cynical and somewhat childish when it comes to relationships. Dae-Young’s complicated alliance is with First Lieutenant Yoon Myung-Ju, who is an Army physician. She is the daughter of a three-star general, who respects Dae-Young as a soldier, but doesn’t think he’s worthy of marrying his daughter.

Descandants of the Sun couple

Production on the epic series began just three months after Song Joong-Ki finished his mandatory two-year military duty in Korea. He displays an easygoing flair in the role of the charismatic leader of the Alpha Team. Even bulked up (for him), Song is slight of build and baby faced. At times, I wondered whether someone like So Ji-Sub would’ve been better cast in the role. But, what he lacks in brawn, Song makes up with magnetism. He has one of those faces that the camera loves.

Portraying his love interest, Song Hye-Kyo had a more thankless role. Though Mo-Yeon is a brilliant doctor, she often came across as immature. The actress essentially was stuck in the girlfriend role.

Descandants of the Sun gun

Filmed in South Korea and Greece, which stood in for the fictional war-torn Urek, the series also includes several white characters, who are supposed to be Americans, Eastern Europeans and Urekians. I’ve touched on this in some of my previous reviews, but some of the most unfortunate acting in Kdramas comes via non-Korean “actors,” who are hired primarily because they don’t look Asian. The two young women hired to play a sexy barmaid and a teenager about to be trafficked are undoubtably beautiful, but they couldn’t act their way out of a box. The same for most of the men who portrayed mercenaries. Their acting is so bad that, by comparison, Hayden Christensen shoud’ve won an Academy Award for his wooden performance in the “Star Wars” trilogy.

It’s a sad commentary on the state of cinema in the U.S. when a tiny country like Korea — which has almost no non-Korean actors living there — goes out of its way to include Western faces into their productions. And the U.S. — which has a wealth of talented American actors of Asian ethnicity — is still reticent to include Asian-American characters into films.

Descendants of the Sun_sunglasses

To me, the bromance between Shi-Jin and Dae-Young was much more layered and interesting than the romances. Hell, I found Shi-Jin’s interactions with a North Korean soldier more moving than most of the time he spent with Mo-Yeon.

But, when the men infiltrated various underworld international crime rings, I was on the edge of my seat. Similarly, when the women were in the operating room, I was pulling for them to save (most of) the patients.

The Korean Arm Grab:

Long-time readers of my K-drama reviews know that I can’t stand the Korean Arm Grab. This occurs often, when a woman is walking away. Instead of saying, “Oh, hey…” the man forcefully grabs the woman’s arm to restrain her. WTF?  Anyhow, my favorite moment in this 16-hour series occurs halfway through Episode 4, when Dae-Young tries to end a conversation with Myung-Joo by walking away. She is his military superior and shows her rank by doing the Korean Arm Grab on him, forcing him to turn around. I. Loved. It!

Descendants of the sun _ arm grab

American accents:

Most of us who speak English as a primary language should thank our lucky stars that we happen to speak a language that opens doors for us internationally. We can go teach English overseas without knowing any other language. We will find people who know our language in major cities across the ocean. We can travel comfortably without feeling “lost” in many situations, because we can communicate simply by speaking English.

When I was younger, there were very few U.S. programs that showed Asians or Asian Americans. When “MASH” was on, I remember my parents and I chuckled at the Asian American actors who were phonetically speaking Korean. To us — as Americans who spoke both English and Korean —  their Korean sounded ridiculous. But, to my friends who didn’t speak Korean, they didn’t think anything of it.

Which made me wonder, do native Korean speakers (who aren’t fluent in English) care that the white people in these shows — who are supposed to be native English speakers — do a horrible job of speaking English? Or, because they’re hearing a language they’re not familiar with, do they just read the subtitles and go with the flow?

And on the same train of thought, do they care that the Korean actors speaking English often don’t sound like they learned to speak English overseas?

On another one of my posts, a reader and I were commenting back and forth about some of the Korean characters in this series and how they didn’t seem convincing when speaking in English. Mo-Yeon makes fun of her language abilities, saying that she wishes the English-speaking person she was speaking with would learn Korean, so that she wouldn’t have to continue speaking to her in “broken English.” But Shi-Jin had studied in the U.S., since he graduated first in his class from West Point.

The general consensus is that the older you are when you learn a new language, the more difficult it will be to speak like a native speaker. This is one reason why so many Koreans try to send their children to English-speaking countries — it’s not enough to speak English, but there’s more prestige in being able to speak it without a Korean accent. For the majority of Koreans, this isn’t feasible, since it is cost-prohibitive to send a child (and usually the mom) to Australia, England or the U.S. for several years.

I thought that the actors did a good enough job reciting their lines in English and that Song Joong-Ki got his emotions across. However, instead of having the Korean actors speak English to the foreigners, I think it’d be more effective to have the non-Korean actors speak in Korean. Yes, their Korean will be poor, but in most cases, so is their acting — so would it even matter? And with subtitles in hangul underneath, Korean viewers will understand what is being said in “broken Korean.”

After all, these are fictional dramas where all the soldiers are handsome and buff and don’t die even after being blown up by bombs. Why is it implausible, then, that a random foreigner could speak passable Korean?

What do you all think?

Airdates:

KBS2 aired this 16-part series in Korea from February 24 to April 14, 2016. Three specials (basically recaps with some interviews thrown in) aired from April 20 through the 22nd.

Spoiler alert:

In Episode 15, it appears that Shi-Jin and Dae-Young die. No doubt, viewers were pissed off that there wouldn’t be a happy ending for the primary couples. Have no fear! It is explained in the final episode that they were “saved” by enemies, who then tortured them for a year to try to extract information from them. Of course, our heroes didn’t crack.

All the people who seem like they should couple up do. And the ending is satisfying and romantic.

@2016 Jae-Ha Kim | All Rights Reserved

Comments (37)

  1. Nhi Tong says:

    It is a fun show! 🙂
    Unlike · Reply · Message · 2 · April 13 at 10:39am

  2. Totally agree. It makes me embarrassed to watch their attempts at acting. However, I must also add that when I hear Korean actors attempt to casually speak English lines since their character lived in America or for some reason they are supposed to know English, it is just as cringeworthy.

    • Jae-Ha Kim says:

      I was going to go into that in my caption (on my Facebook post), but didn’t for a variety of reasons. I agree that as an English speaker, I can tell right away that there is no way that the characters spent the majority of their lives overseas. (Just as incredulous is the fact that they move to Korea for a few years and are fluent in Korean… e.g. So Ji-sub’s character in “I’m Sorry I Love You.” He played an adoptee raised in Australia, but learned to speak Korean like a native in just a few years.)

      But, the difference is that even though the Korean actors are speaking poor English (though they are supposed to be completely bilingual), their acting is still good. To use So JiSub again (ahem! tongue emoticon ha!), even when he was speaking accented-English, he conveyed the emotion of what he was saying. Same thing here in “She Was Pretty.” Choi Siwon (whose English is really quite good) and Park Seo Joon – 박서준 International didn’t speak English like it was their primary language. But, their emotions rang through.

      That wasn’t the case with any of the white actors in this series. They were reading the words correctly, but they could not act their way out of a box.

      Part of the problem is that Korea is a small country and there aren’t a lot of white actors living there.

      Of course, this draws attention to the fact that the U.S. is a large country with a lot of Asian actors, who still don’t get cast in roles.
      Like · Reply · 5 · Commented on by 김재하 · April 13 at 11:32am

      That wasn’t the case with any of the white actors in this series. They were reading the words correctly, but they could not act their way out of a box.

      Part of the problem is that Korea is a small country and there aren’t a lot of white actors living there.

      Of course, this draws attention to the fact that the U.S. is a large country with a lot of Asian actors, who still don’t get cast in roles.

      • Robin Seabloom Kim says:

        I absolutely agree with you. You make great points.

        However, I must say, that for the first time (that I can think of), I’m watching Korean actors speaking English and it’s not working as well- they aren’t conveying the feelings that they should be for how dramatic the situation is. I’m watching Descendants of the Sun and the two main leads (excellent actors) are supposedly bilingual, but they’re obviously not.

        However, they are still very easy to watch (and forgive) in comparison to fluent English speakers pretending to be actors in K-dramas. I cringe when I watch them act (and feel completely embarrassed on their behalf).
        Unlike · Reply · Message · 2 · April 13 at 11:42am

        • Jae-Ha Kim says:

          Interesting! I haven’t watched that one yet. I’m waiting for the series to end so that I can binge watch it at leisure. I tend to watch in spurts, and I get impatient waiting for the next episodes if the series is good. ?

          I wonder how non-English speaking people feel about the acting (of non-Korean speaking people “acting”). Since these series are aimed at Koreans, do they notice the bad acting, or do they not pay attention and just read the subtitles at that point? 😛

          p.s. I think there are non-Korean celebrities living in Korea — who aren’t necessarily actors, but they are very engaging when I see them on Korean reality shows — who could do a good job in some of these dramas. For instance, Sam Hammington could probably play a convincing American, even though he’s Australian. 🙂

          • Robin Seabloom says:

            I’ve wondered the same thing. Do Koreans not realize that these English-speaking “actors” are really horrible (despite the fact that they can speak English)?

            I agree with the non-Korean celebrities that could be actors. I wonder if they can’t cross over into acting from reality tv because their personas are now to ingrained as a tv personalities. Hmmmm–
            Unlike · Reply · Message · 1 · April 13 at 12:40pm

            • Jae-Ha Kim says:

              I doubt that, because I’ve seen Korean comedians make cameos in KDramas. Maybe it’s just cheaper to pay a small fee to a non actor vs. having to pay scale or higher to a known personality…

              • Robin Seabloom Kim says:

                Or maybe Sam Hemmington knows he can’t act! Ha!

                You’re probably right. It’s a money thing.
                Unlike · Reply · Message · 1 · April 13 at 1:15pm

    • Pat Lewis says:

      Jae-Ha Kim (Journalist) : Really interesting thread. I wonder if adding white people is to give the show an international flair. But I do agree that there have got to be beter white actors they could use on these shows. They were particularly bad in this series!!

    • Jae-Ha Kim says:

      I just started watching Descendants of the Sun and am about 4 episodes in. Do they say later that they’re supposed to be bilingual, ’cause that hasn’t been discussed yet and I didn’t get that impression. Maybe because I grew up with bilingual (actually trilingual) parents who spoke English in a similar manner, their English doesn’t bother me. To me, the leads sound like Koreans who learned English in Korea (but not Koreans who learned to speak English who were raised in America).

      What I do know is that the older you are when you learn a new language, the less authentic you will sound. So even if these characters were supposed to have spent a few years in high school or college studying in America (which I don’t think is their background in this series), they would still have accents.

      I’ve been fairly impressed with the non-Korean “actors” in this series so far. They all have ambiguous accents, so it seems they’re all an even-footing. When they speak English, it’s clear that it’s not the native language for any of them. I know that they filmed a good chunk of these series in Greece, so perhaps they used Greek locals to fill in as Arab/European/American characters…

      • Robin Seabloom says:

        No, I don’t think the main actors are supposed to be bilingual, exactly. It’s just that they act as if English is not a big deal and can switch into it whenever there is a need. So, to me, there seems to be an assumption that they speak English (as a second language). Plus, Song Joong Ki is supposed to have a long-standing relationship with “Argus” (I think that’s the character’s name) and they communicate through English. To me, the English just doesn’t seem fluid enough for the Korean characters to be able to converse that easily. That’s really all I meant when I commented previously.

        (I don’t want you to think their accents bother me. I’m married to a first-generation Korean immigrant. He has an accent and it grows stronger the older he gets. 😉 )
        Unlike · Reply · Message · 1 · April 21 at 2:25pm · Edited

        • Jae-Ha Kim says:

          HAHAAH!! No, no, I didn’t think you thought that about the accents. I was trying to figure out the backstory of the characters and wondered if I missed their U.S. studies/etc.

          David Lee McInnis plays Argus and is a really good actor. I’m enjoying disliking him! tongue emoticon I think they converse in English because he doesn’t speak Korean.

          When they were in the operating room in Uruk, the doctor and the bodyguards spoke in English, because the Arabs didn’t speak Korean and the Koreans didn’t speak Arabic–but they all knew enough English to converse. Just like pilots in airspace have to communicate in English, regardless of what their native language is. So it seemed like it was more of a situation of having to find a way of communicating.

          But, yes, you’re right that their English dialogue isn’t as natural as their Korean.

        • Jae-Ha Kim says:

          OK, in episode 8, Big Boss says that he was the top student at West Point and can speak English fluently. smile emoticon That said, I will say that I have a Korean cousin who is bilingual and even taught at a university in England — but he speaks with an accent.

  3. Jessica Walker Daniel says:

    We always laugh around here at the robot like nature of almost all white characters (actors) in Korean dramas…. It’s as if the only requirement for the part was that their skin was the right tone and they can memorize a line in English…. (Because, heaven forbid the white person could A. Act; or B. speak Korean….)….
    Unlike · Reply · Message · 2 · April 13 at 2:36pm

  4. Todd Fulton says:

    Todd Fulton When I lived in Seoul (mid 80’s), I was approached occasionally with offers to ‘act’ in TV and movies. Never took them seriously… but if the producers were scouring Myong Dong and I Tae Won for ‘actors,’ they mustn’t have been too serious either, haha!
    Unlike · Reply · Message · 3 · April 13 at 3:02pm

  5. Jessica Gant says:

    I also wonder if they get poor or confusing direction which could be even harder for inexperienced actors. Have you seen The Host? It’s been so long I can’t even remember the whites guys role but I’m gonna say scientist. He seemed like he could actually act but his delivery was so awkward. I am convinced he was told to slow down so Koreans could understand his English. He delivered the lines well (the feeling, as you said) but it was not quite fast enough to be normal speech.
    Unlike · Reply · Message · 1 · April 13 at 4:40pm

  6. Sam Hammington says:

  7. Tiara Dian Pertiwi says:

    Watch descendants of the sun?

  8. Peter says:

    The accent/English thing was really interesting to read. I wonder if native Koreans pick up on how ridiculous these white people sound or if it goes unnoticed.

  9. Anna says:

    I love Song Joong Kim and I love this series! I’m watching it for the second time already and I just adore them! I agree that the bromance was strong, but I still really liked the couples! 🙂

  10. Peter Ardito says:

    I watched this series with my wife and we enjoyed the love story greatly. The Koreans speaking English didn’t bother us at all, but we laughed out loud at the “American” actors’ accents. Wooden is a great description! 🙂

    Keep up the great work. We enjoy your writing immensely and have been readeres since your rock critic days!

  11. Marcus says:

  12. “It’s a sad commentary on the state of cinema in the U.S. when a tiny country like Korea — which has almost no non-Korean actors living there — goes out of its way to include Western faces into their productions.”
    Very good point. Setting aside quality issues, they certainly have the quantity issues in the front of mind.

  13. As an adult seeking to learn Korean, I can attest to how hard it is to lose your accent… My children, who don’t understand the grammar as well as I do, speak much more clearly than I. I count it a blessing when native Korean speakers understand me. 🙂

    Personally, accented English is dramas doesn’t bug me. It’s the poor acting of white characters and the implication that someone was raised speaking English, but really doesn’t, that makes it hard to believe a story and stay “in” the drama.

    There are some Korean celebrities that I love listen to… I love hearing them transition from one language to the other fluidly. I’ve learned so much from comparing their English and Korean accents… Chief among these, for me, is Tablo. (And, I know he is Canadian so, he was blessed with being raised bilingual.) It’s such a help for me to hear both languages from someone I know speaks both incredibly well… It’s for this reason that I miss his radio show…. I’d listen every morning while getting ready for work. smile emoticon

    Man, I’ve written a novel…..

    • Jae-Ha Kim says:

      It’s so interesting hearing other perspectives like yours and Robin Seabloom Kim’s! It seems (to me) that if you grow up with bilingual people or are around them a lot, you understand their “broken English” better than someone who is only accustomed to hearing English. I never understood why people couldn’t understand my Mother’s English, when I could understand her just fine. wink emoticon

      And YES! to everything Tablo! I love him, too!

  14. Joyce says:

  15. Jae Yoon Kim says:

    “I thought that the actors did a good enough job reciting their lines in English and that Song Joong-Ki got his emotions across. However, instead of having the Korean actors speak English to the foreigners, I think it’d be more effective to have the non-Korean actors speak in Korean. Yes, their Korean will be poor, but in most cases, so is their acting — so would it even matter? And with subtitles in hangul underneath, Korean viewers will understand what is being said in “broken Korean.” ”

    THIS! I agree!

  16. Annette says:

    Fantastic review, Ms. Kim. To be honest I enjoy the writing of your reviews more than the shows themselves. I like how you add insight into what could be a regular review of a regular melodrama. Kudos!

  17. Marlini Ridlis Ismail says:

    I always love your posting! As I aged wisely (trying to make myself feels good hehe), thou English is the medium language that connects almost everyone in the world, I felt that English is not just a language that everyone needs to master. It’s a knowledge and fulfilling to be able to speak other languages aside from English. It makes the other party felt important and known to the world. Traveling definitely open up one’s horizon and not be in a tortoise shell. I enjoyed my daily lifestyle and social circles with my fellow friends whom are Japanese, Korean, French and Chinese. We do not speak only English but instead we spoke in a mix of different languages. To add, despite this everyone of us speaks English fluently but we just do not want to most times. Oh and… DOTS is definitely one of the good Korean dramas that I won’t want to miss, yes especially the eye candy Song Joong Ki! Saranghe!

  18. Kathy Hewett Tsudama says:

    I agree we are truly fortunate to speak a language that is for the most part internationally known and understood. I applaud anyone who can speak another language other than their native tongue. I only know a few words in Japanese. Enough to say thank you, hello, etc. and a tiny bit of Korean due to my Kdrama obsession. It’s my desire to learn the Korean language and much more Japanese. The drama actors ALWAYS speak better English than I ever can speak their native language!

    • Jae-Ha Kim says:

      Good luck to you! You’re very ambitious and I think that’s wonderful! smile emoticon I grew up in a Korean household and it was still so easy to lose a lot of my language skills. I really wish that the U.S. would offer foreign languages in school, starting at a younger age –say kindergarten or first grade. Children are sponges at that age and can pick it up so much quicker than people our age. (Sorry–I lumped you with my age group! hehe!)

      • Kathy Hewett Tsudama says:

        I also wish they offered at least one other foreign language as early as kinder /1st. I teach preschool and you’re right-they’re little sponges! While in Japan last week a woman on our train was speaking English to her toddler as well as her native language (it sounded Dutch possibly), the little one would repeat in English (doggie) and laugh! Then she’d congratulate him in her language. Great to see and hear.

        • Jae-Ha Kim says:

          Yup, when my son was a toddler, I’d tell him something in Korean and his friends would mimic back what I had said in perfect Korean! My son already sounds like an American speaking Korean, and he’s only 8. It’s an uphill battle…

  19. Jessica Gant says:

    I think that in American shows the Non-Native English bad guys will speak in English, even when in the show it’s just them and not logical. Culturally Americans are not big on subtitles and I think that’s why. So yes, they might as well just have the English speakers use broken Korean. You need subtitles either way and as you point out, no one really cares if it’s good English or not.

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