Call it superficial thinking, but most self-respecting South Korean pop culture fans will tell you that it’s all about “The Visual” – that standard of beauty that hooks your attention by way of ridiculously good-looking people or other strikingly attractive attributes.
Talk-of-the-town K-drama Descendants Of The Sun puts that surface-deep template to good use. From the gorgeous cast to the lovely locations and beautiful cinematography, everything on screen satiates a viewer’s innate need for all things alluring.
But perhaps “The Visual” doesn’t get any bigger than the magnetic pairing of flower boy Song Joong-ki and perpetually ethereal Song Hye-kyo. Individually, both A-listers provide a feast for the eyes in their own right.
Together, they are pure fashion editorial-worthy magic.
The fact that the show gets by on aesthetic merit alone is an enviable feat. And directors Lee Eung-bok (Secrets, Dream High) and Baek Sang-hoon (Who Are You: School 2015) take every opportunity to highlight the actors’ flawless features. In many instances, you’ll find that the camera lingers a little too long on that drop-dead gorgeous face like a skincare commercial.
In its pursuit of beauty, though, you can’t help but guess at the substance behind all that sheen. But then again, the series’ unabashed sense of lookism alone doesn’t warrant criticism.
So here’s one: Descendants Of The Sun is kind of boring.
Which makes the fan frenzy surrounding this 16-episode offering even more baffling. The best way to describe the show is that it’s sort of like Grey’s Anatomy meets Saving Private Ryan. In other words, there hasn’t been anything quite like it in the K-drama realm.
“If I wasn’t a soldier, but a third -generation chaebol. Would it have been easier for us?” the male lead cryptically asks in a scene, a subtle jab at the oversaturation of frothy romantic comedies involving impossibly wealthy characters.
Fresh from completing his mandatory two-year military service, Joong-ki returns to the small screen as Special Forces officer Yoo Si-jin. Through a convoluted plot development, our hero soon meets trauma surgeon Kang Mo-yeon (played by the demure Hye-kyo) in a hospital emergency room.
Gazes lock, he asks her out and then stands her up for some top secret mission. Eight months later, the star-crossed lovers reunite in the fictional war-torn country of Urk.
Descendants Of The Sun bears all the hallmarks of a blockbuster. For starters, it’s entirely pre-produced – an ambitious trait that’s still relatively foreign in the K-drama circuit, which prefers to make sudden script changes through a live-shoot system.
The cinematography doesn’t come close to the luscious cinematic palette of the similarly pre-produced That Winter, The Wind Blows (the modern fauxcest classic which also stars Hye-kyo). But it’s a valiant effort – boasting thoughtful camera cuts and impeccably coordinated audio.
The drama also benefits from the writing by Kim Eun-sook and Kim Won-seok. Eun-sook is notable for crafting smashes such as Secret Garden and The Heirs. Both scribes excel at bringing forth frictionless, witty dialogue in tense, nervy settings.
Make no mistake, Descendants Of The Sun has its fair share of edge-of-your-seat tension. This is exemplified by a scene from an early episode which, through split screens, shows the parallels of danger in an operating theatre and during a combat operation. If anything, that nail-biting sequence is testament to brilliant screenwriting.
However, such moments are a rarity. And for the most part, viewers are left with a storyline that unravels at a yawn-inducing pace. You could argue that the leisurely unfolding provides a lot of room for character development. But it also stifles the show’s momentum.
That aside, you won’t find fault in the acting, which is top-notch. I had initial reservations about Joong-ki’s capability as a leading man, but the boyish actor knocks it out of the park here. He’s at once confident, conflicted and charismatic. And heavenly Hye-kyo is absolute sensory bliss in all her scenes.
But much like its military setting, navigating through the languid storyline can be a battlefield. Chances are, casual viewers would be mesmerised by the various shades of beauty on screen. It’s a crafty tactic, one that distracts from the bigger picture. But hey, all’s fair in love, war and K-drama.
Descendants Of The Sun airs every Wednesday and Thursday at 8.55pm on KBS World (Astro Ch 391) and is also available on Viu.