Descendants of the Sun Episode 1

 

The highly anticipated warzone-melodrama-romance (and Song Joong-ki’s army comeback!) drama Descended From the Sun premiered today to a strong start, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned into a runaway hit. Ratings were very good (14.3%, making it the highest premiere in two years for a mid-week miniseries; Come Back, Ajusshi’s premiere logged a 6.6% and One More Happy Ending a 5%), and the drama is making a case for pre-produced series with seriously well-filmed cinematography and high production values.

The chemistry is sparking, the supporting actors are solid, Song Joong-ki is magnetic, and the dialogue is witty. Storywise… well, it’s a bit early to decide anything, but while I was entertained and found the first hour an easy watch, I really don’t think this is a drama I’ll be watching for the story. I’m not totally sold on the show yet, but I do think it’s one where I’d be able to enjoy the more I turned off my brain. At least with so much pretty to look at, it won’t be too hard to find other distractions.

EPISODE 1 RECAP

Nighttime at the DMZ.

At the military headquarters control center, a meeting of army brass is held to deal with a volatile developing situation: Three North Korean soldiers have crossed the border and taken a couple of South Korean soldiers hostage. No gunfire has been exchanged, but tensions are high; they interpret this as a bold ploy to provoke the South into making the first act of aggression.

The South can’t have that, and their best option to avoid a political firestorm is to let the North Koreans go quietly. To that end, they’ve sent in a team of special forces agents to defuse the situation.

The special forces team arrive at the front line of the standoff, outside a small bunker taken over by the North Koreans. Their leader identifies himself as Alpha Team’s Captain YOO SHI-JIN (Song Joong-ki) and declares that they’ll be taking over the situation from the unit currently in charge.

Shi-jin and his second-in-command, SEO DAE-YOUNG (Jin Gu), approach the bunker with hands raised in the open. They’re allowed inside at gunpoint, the air thick with tension, while the troops stationed outside prepare explosives to use as a last resort.

The North Korean leader gives up his gun, but pulls out a dagger, saying that he can’t just leave without giving the Southerners a fight. Shi-jin pulls out his own knife and agrees to one.

After a tension-filled stare-down, the soldiers launch into a fierce knife fight, with Shi-jin battling the North Korean leader and his comrade Dae-young juggling the other two enemy soldiers. They’re in tight quarters and the action is fast and powerful, with both sides seemingly matched.

The fight swings back and forth as both sides gain the advantage and lose it; everybody attacks amidst an air of supreme calm and concentration, no fear in sight. Everybody gets in some good blows, but the main fight between Shi-jin and his quarry remains tight.

At one point the alarm button gets hit and sirens start to blare, but nobody breaks focus. The intensity of the action mounts, and Shi-jin and the Northern leader end up outside, still locked in close combat.

That’s when Shi-jin gets slashed in the abdomen, though he barely betrays feeling it. He’s got his own knife at the North Korean’s neck, but the man rightly notes that Shi-jin can’t shoot first; his hands are tied politically. But, he says, soldiers from the North are different—and a gun cocks and points at Shi-jin’s head.

Shi-jin doesn’t flinch. He corrects the North Korean leader, saying that the South can shoot, if it’s to keep the peace. In the distance a South Korean sniper aims his rifle, and a red dot shows up on the North Korean gunman’s face. Everyone stills. Holds their breaths. Waits.

Then the North Korean leader calls off his man, easing the tension and saying it was nice to meet Shi-jin. Shi-jin replies that he’d prefer not to meet again, and both men drop their knives. The North Koreans walk away, and crisis is averted.

Some time later, Shi-jin and Dae-young are on leave from duty, shooting toy guns (badly) and wondering at their faulty aim. The arcade manager (Lee Kwang-soo in a cameo) tsk-tsks like the “ajusshis” don’t know what they’re doing, chiding that they’ll break the guns.

Outside, a disturbance breaks out when a young thief steals someone’s motorcycle and zooms off. Shi-jin and Dae-young borrow the toy guns and station themselves in the street, positioning themselves in the thief’s path. He barrels recklessly toward them, at which point the soldiers let loose a barrage of toy pellets, striking him in the face, distracting him into crashing off the bike.

A grumpy (and ungrateful) ajusshi retrieves his motorcycle from the scene, and Shi-jin turns his attention to splinting the thief’s injured leg.

After sending him off in an ambulance, the soldiers chat in a cafe, and Dae-young expresses sympathy for the young delinquent-in-the-making. It strikes a chord with his own youth, when he’d engaged in gangster activity before turning things around, and he sighs that while there’s not a lot of difference between them, this guy is set to become a criminal.

Shi-jin gets a call from someone in the army who’s not from their unit, and the name on his phone reads YOON MYUNG-JOO. Dae-young leaps to prevent him from taking the call, throwing out a whole string of bribes, like dinner and expensive liquor and a date with his cousin.

But when Dae-young reaches for his phone to show pictures, he realizes that the thief pocketed his phone while he was being treated. All of a sudden he’s full of swears, which Shi-jin notes is ironic given his earlier sympathy.

Young Thief is brought to the hospital, and a nurse picks up Dae-young’s stolen phone when it falls to the ground. A call comes in from the same person who’d called Shi-jin, Yoon Myung-joo, and the nurse answers and tells Myung-joo that the phone’s owner is at the hospital following an accident.

Inside, we meet Dr. KANG MO-YEON (Song Hye-gyo), who assesses Young Thief’s injuries, aided by the diagnostic notes Shi-jin had written on his arm. Among them: “THIEF: Administer treatment as painfully as possible.” The thief protests loudly to be let go, and the second he’s left alone, he strips off the splint and hobbles away.

Mo-yeon speaks with a senior doctor about a position she’s up for, but gets distracted to see the thief off in the distance making his getaway. She excuses herself and goes after him, and wheels him back inside against his protests.

He wants to be let go, arguing that his hyungnims will be sending him to the morgue next. But Mo-yeon and the nurses are a tough bunch and refuse to budge until he grudgingly agrees to stay. He leaves a phone with Mo-yeon to prove he won’t run away…

And then runs away again, of course, talking on his other phone. Dae-young and Shi-jin pull up at the hospital right as a crowd of gangsters strolls by, and head inside a second too soon to see the thief slipping out.

Shi-jin continues calling Dae-young’s phone without getting an answer, until finally Dr. Mo-yeon picks up. She’s sitting just feet away from him, and scoffs to see the name: “Big Boss.”

Given the circumstances, she interprets this to mean gangster boss, so when Shi-jin motions to her, she regards him coldly and tells him to wait outside. He tries to explain that she’s got the wrong idea, but she’s firm, and the two soldiers are pushed aside while she finishes treating a patient.

Dae-young figures the thief skipped out and suggests going to look for him, though Shi-jin isn’t in any hurry to leave the pretty doctor he’s clearly smitten with. When Dae-young shoots him a look, Shi-jin suddenly fakes appendix pain (poorly, on the wrong side) before agreeing to head out.

On Dae-young’s hunch, they look for the gangsters they’d encountered earlier and find them brutally beating up the wayward thief. Shi-jin is reluctant to get involved, but his buddy is stern and determined to step in.

So the two soldiers call out to the gangsters, who laugh at them for butting in. The badly beaten thief—Ki-bum—begs Dae-young to save him, and his friend explains that Ki-bum wants out of the gang, but has to come up with an exorbitant “exit fee” (5 million won, just over 4,000 USD), which is why he’s been stealing.

The gangsters jeer, asking sarcastically if Dae-young will take on the burden—but Dae-young readily replies that he will, and that he’s Ki-bum’s hyung. Aww.

Dae-young holds out his wallet, saying that he’s got plenty of cash. Offering it to anybody who can snatch it from him, he invites the gangsters to go for it.

A couple of guys launch themselves at him with fists and switchblades, though they’re more nuisance than threat. We’ve already seen Dae-young fighting at his best, so no surprise that he hardly breaks a sweat knocking around the first two who come at him.

Shi-jin sees they’re using switchblades and goads everyone to pull out their weapons now and go for it… though he’s a little taken aback when no less than ten knives come out. He takes a teeny step behind Dae-young and says that at least there are no guns.

Thief Ki-bum’s supposed guardian arrives thinking Dae-young is the patient, and Yoon Myung-joo turns out to be a woman in army uniform (Kim Ji-won). Moreover, she and Mo-yeon know each other, although there’s no love lost between them. Mo-yeon even jokes that there’s always a man involved when they meet, which, groan. Can we not go thirty minutes without failing the Bechdel test?

Myung-joo’s also a doctor and she demands to see the chart, calling the patient “important to me.” Mo-yeon simply tells Myung-joo to pay the patient’s bill, which he skipped out on, and says that the hospital has done its duty in trying to treat him twice.

Mo-yeon informs a mutual colleague of Myung-joo’s arrival—that rude but pretty army doctor they interned with who stole away Mo-yeon’s crush. Mo-yeon huffs jealously that Myung-joo’s not even that pretty, and she didn’t actually date that sunbae. She also calls Myung-joo crazy for dating someone now who’s maybe twenty at most.

But her colleague corrects her, since it’s well-known that Myung-joo, the daughter of a three-star general and an officer in her own right, is dating an army officer. That’s news to Mo-yeon, who wonders what the deal is with Ki-bum, who left his phone with her.

Shi-jin and Dae-young return to the hospital with Ki-bum, who’s now in much worse shape. While nurses rush to take care of him, Dae-young stands stock-still upon seeing Myung-joo, who looks at him with accusing eyes and orders him to follow her. Huh, no jondae speech even.

Mo-yeon tends to Ki-bum’s wounds and asks if it was Shi-jin who did this to him. The kid insists that Shi-jin was his rescuer, but she doesn’t believe him, thinking he’s saying it out of fear. All the while, Shi-jin just sort of smiles down at her flirtatiously, though she either doesn’t notice or ignores it.

He chases Mo-yeon out to set her straight about his character, explaining the whole story about getting the cell phone stolen, coming to retrieve it, and saving Ki-bum from his gangster hyungs. She expresses exactly zero interest in his explanation and starts to call the police to report the patient’s assault.

Shi-jin leans in and, with a flick of his finger, knocks the phone out of her hand. Saying that involving the police would be a problem for him only supports the misunderstanding that he’s a gangster, even though he tells her that he’s a soldier on leave, and that getting into a tangle with the law would be a headache. He supposes that showing her his dog tags or army ID won’t convince her when she’s determined to believe he’s lying.

But then he asks if she went to a certain medical school and knows Myung-joo. That makes her connect some dots, asking if he’s “that” officer. Shi-jin must know she means Dae-young and says no, but assures her that Myung-joo can confirm his identity.

Myung-joo confronts a stoic Dae-young with frustration and hurt, asking how long he means to keep avoiding her. She demands that he tell her why, saying that it’s not that she doesn’t know the reason, but that she wants to hear him.

“It’s not the reason you think,” he says stiffly. He asks her not to jump to conclusions about leaving for her sake, and says that his feelings have changed, that’s all. Ah, she must think he’s being pressured to leave her, and tearfully says she doesn’t believe him.

Dae-young walks away, ignoring her pleas to stop until she pulls rank—ever the soldier, he has to stop then to give a formal salute. She orders him to stand there like that all night, until he dies.

That’s when Shi-jin joins them to request that Myung-joo identify them to the skeptical Mo-yeon. Coldly, Myung-joo tells her, “Report them to the police. They’re AWOL soldiers.” A woman scorned, I guess.

Still, Mo-yeon’s seen enough to accept their identity, though she’s not ready to absolve them of the assault and insists on checking the security footage.

While they wait outside security, Shi-jin stands next to her against the wall, and when his fingers brush hers, she visibly jumps. She asks how he knows Myung-joo, and replies that they’re sunbae-hoobae from military academy. He asks if it’s really necessary to see the footage, assuring her that he looks like someone who can’t lie. She replies that killers are often likable.

He tells her not to worry, since it’s his rule to protect children, the elderly, and the beautiful. She quips that it’s good to be one of the three, he banters that she’s not, and she retorts that she means the elderly.

It’s only now that she thinks to ask his name, and gives him hers.

Dae-young has guessed that Ki-bum was once an athlete, and it’s another commonality between them. Dae-young practiced judo in high school, presumably before he went astray; he recognizes that Ki-bum learned to be hit like an athlete, where taking a blow is part of the training.

Asked why he just took it, Ki-bum replies that it would be over faster that way. He admits to practicing taekwondo, even winning gold medals.

When the nurse asks for his guardian, Ki-bum insists he doesn’t have one. Dae-young contradicts him, which, aww.

Watching the CCTV footage, Mo-yeon gives good reaction to seeing Shi-jin and Dae-young kicking some serious butt. She gets adorably caught up in the proceedings like she’s watching them live, calling out instructions: “Do that! Good job!”

Misunderstanding cleared, Mo-yeon apologizes for misjudging Shi-jin. He replies that she can repay him by treating his pain, which sounds like a glib pick-up line. So she doesn’t believe him when he points to his side, or when he doubles over in pain when she pokes it. But when he lifts his shirt, she gasps to see the blood-soaked bandage.

The fight tore his stitches, and as she redoes them, she recognizes his other scar as a gunshot wound. He’s surprised since she isn’t likely to run into gunshot wounds in Korea, but she explains seeing them in her volunteer work in Africa.

Shi-jin adopts a cheeky air and says he got the wound in Normandy while rescuing a comrade amidst a hail of gunfire. She asks wryly if the friend’s name was Private Ryan, and he smiles at her. The obtrusive pop soundtrack informs us this is A Moment.

Mo-yeon instructs Shi-jin to disinfect his wound through the week, after which he can have the stitches removed. He asks if he can come back here every day to do it, and whether she can be his assigned doctor. She banters along when he says a doctor’s looks are an important factor, and agrees to see him during the week.

Then he leans waaay in and says, “As a doctor, you probably don’t have a boyfriend, since you’re so busy.” She replies in kind, saying he probably doesn’t have a girlfriend as a soldier, and he just asks, “Who knows what the answer will be?”

Back at barracks, Shi-jin enlists his unit’s opinions in deciding which of two identical uniforms looks better for his trip to the hospital. The others wonder why he’d travel so far just to disinfect an injury, until Dae-young informs them that the doc is pretty. Ahhh.

Shi-jin points out that none of the army docs is pretty, and Dae-young argues. A clueless soldier pipes up that Myung-joo is hot, but that she supposedly just got dumped really badly, and it takes the rest of the unit to shut him up.

Dae-young goes to the hospital too, to pay Ki-bum’s bill for him. Guh, I just love his stoic care for the wayward soul, and it makes Ki-bum feel both grateful and awkward.

Ki-bum says he can’t pay him back and says a bit defensively that he doesn’t want a lecture about his life, but Dae-young doesn’t expect payment and just tells him to take care of himself. Then Ki-bum asks how Dae-young got out of his gangster past, since being beaten and paying up haven’t worked.

“I ran away to a place they could never follow me,” Dae-young replies.

In the lobby, Shi-jin spots Mo-yeon caught up in an emergency situation, kneeling on a gurney to stanch a patient’s bloody wound. He joins the entourage of medics and helps push the gurney faster, his eyes fixed on her the whole time, though he goes wholly unnoticed by her.

He waits outside the operating room for hours, but when she finally emerges, he’s gone.

He’s working out that night (obligatory army abs scene!) when she calls, which makes him smile. He notes that she’s scored his number, and she tells him to save hers. Like you have to tell him twice.

“I’d really like to see you tomorrow,” he says, which makes her laugh at his boldness. He says in a deadpan voice that he meant for treatment, and her face falls and she quickly says that’s what she meant too.

She asks what time he’d like to come in tomorrow, and he asks if she’d like to meet now instead. She doesn’t reply right away, and he asks, for the first time a little hesitantly, “You don’t want to?”

She replies, “No, I don’t dislike it. Come.”

So he heads over to the hospital again, decked out in civilian clothing while she primps with her PPL makeup. He waits for her in the lobby… and then his eyes land on the breaking news report showing on TV about the kidnapping of two UN staffers.

Immediately his mood grows serious and he takes a call from a colleague, stepping into the elevator just as Mo-yeon steps out. Arg! Curses, ye olde K-drama Elevator Miss!

Shi-jin calls to tell Mo-yeon he’s here, but has to leave. He mentions he’s on the roof, so she heads up to see him there, and he apologizes for having to stand her up.

A helicopter hovers overhead, which he identifies as his ride. He promises to fill her in later, and asks to meet next weekend. Not for treatment this time, but for a movie date.

The helicopter lands, and he leans in to ask for an answer. Note that what he says could mean “Do you like [the idea] or not?” it could also mean “Do like me or not?”

She answers, “I like [it].” He breaks into a smile and calls it a promise, then jogs over to board the copter, pausing for one look back at Mo-yeon. Then he’s off.

A short time later, Shi-jin’s unit is deployed on their covert mission, which requires them to remove their identifying dog tags in case of capture. “Where are we?” his teammate asks.

“Afghanistan,” Shi-jin replies grimly.

The hatch of their aircraft opens to reveal the landscape below them as they fly toward the fiery warzone.

 
COMMENTS

Descended From the Sun could have swung either way for me, because I do like all of the cast and there is a certain refreshing quality to a story that isn’t placed (mostly) in Korea, set against a backdrop that’s just a bit different. I really like Song Hye-gyo being a no-nonsense professional, and Song Joong-ki is charm incarnate. (He’s really almost too charming that it’s disconcerting. Some of his deeply intense gazes are so intimate as to be uncomfortable, and I found myself thinking that if he weren’t so darned adorable, he could very well be creepy.)

On the positive front, all of the actors are doing their jobs, the characters show flashes of compelling backstory (particularly Jin Gu right now, who is seriously wonderful in this role), and the director has a skilled, assured hand. This drama looks gorgeous. (The music editor could use firing, though—how many Big Musical Cues could you get through before bursting into laughter? What starts out mildly distracting soon becomes unintentionally hilarious the more times we encounter the *stare* *stare* *music* exchanges. And I do believe there were at least seven or eight of them in the first episode.)

Plotwise, I think I’m cautiously optimistic—I like that the couple meet in a relatively low-pressure environment, make a connection, and then presumably reconnect while working in the warzone. It feels a little more like we’ve got something to build on, rather than plopping them down into massive trauma and then engineering some kind of meet-cute. On the other hand, a big fear I have is that the drama will take its rich, dramatic, interesting backdrop and then just steamroller over it with Romance Romance Romance. I kind of hate how this writer has a tendency to reduce all her dramas to a very simplistic romantic throughline, even though she does have a way of tapping into emotions and lovelines that get audiences all excited. But she tends to overplay them to the exclusion of all else, which I find a shame. (Previous drams include Heirs, A Gentleman’s Dignity, Secret Garden, On Air, Lovers in Paris, and Lovers in Prague.)

I’ll admit to having previous issues with this writer, who has never written a woman I could identify with or understand, who also has the habit of injecting all her male leads with a frustratingly domineering alpha-male swagger—men who never saw a boundary they didn’t consider an invitation to cross, who were presented to us as swoonworthy romantic ideals. It’s that darned charm again!

But I do also feel that every drama is its own thing, and wanted to see this one as a separate entity from the rest of her oeuvre. In that respect, it sort of works, it sort of doesn’t. Song Joong-ki totally makes his character click, mixing that glib facade with hints of more intensity underneath, and I really look forward to seeing him reveal layers behind than the facile front he shows to everyone. But I do feel this romantic dynamic is pretty familiar—and super-fast. It’s kind of a Big Bang of instant attraction—one moment it’s nothing, and the next moment it’s already blown into a universe of Feelings. I suppose there are worse things, though! Say, a full drama lacking any romantic tension at all.

I went into Descended From the Sun with as open mind as possible, trying to get a clean first impression. What I come away with is that it’s pretty much what you think it’s going to be—if you like Kim Eun-sook’s dramas and squee over her addictive romances, you’re in luck. If you don’t like her shows for whatever reason, those reasons are still hanging around (she hasn’t changed her style, is what I mean), and it’ll probably be up to you to decide how much that matters.

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