THE HIDDEN MESSAGES IN “DESCENDANTS OF THE SUN”
This show feels like military propaganda.
Being the partner of a person in the military is hard. There are a lot of stories of spouses being separated from their significant others for long periods of time and some even report being constantly afraid that they might not return. Generally, a lot of people know about these kinds of issues, but for those who don’t, “Descendants of the Sun” offers an idealized introduction to the lifestyle of a military family and gives a bit of an enhanced image into what it looks like to be a soldier. Actually, the show feels a bit like propaganda.
It’s true, “Descendants of the Sun” is old (it was released in 2016), and avid Korean drama fans have discovered, mused, and moved on long ago to other K-dramas but it’s still worth remembering. The story was so popular when it was released that the 10th episode garnered a 31 per cent viewership over another popular K-drama “My Love from the Star”.
The plot is a simple. It follows the romance between Captain Yoo Si-jin (Song Joong-ki) of a South Korean special forces unit called the Alpha team and Doctor Kang Mo-Yeon (Song Hye Kyo). Yoo meets Kang at her hospital to retrieve a stolen phone for his comrade Seo Dae-Young (Jin Goo) and immediately becomes smitten. So, he attempts to begin a relationship with Kang multiple times but because of his job, he is never able to actually finish a date with her. So when he finally confesses his feelings to Kang, she rejects him repeatedly until they are reunited in Uruk for a peacekeeping mission where she leads a team of physicians in providing medical assistance to the soldiers and locals.
They face a lot of problems throughout their relationship. For one, Yoo’s job is so dangerous that at times Kang’s life is put at risk, and he’s unable to relay information to her due to regulations in the army. So, they often have to surpass a distance created by this barrier in their communication before they can connect. But just when their relationship is prospering, there’s terrible news that separates them for over a year, leading Kang to lose hope. (Their reunion is hilarious.)
Screenwriters Kim Eun-Sook and Kim Won-Suk did a brillant job with the screenplay for the show. They are able to maintain a feeling of lightness throughout the series with the addition of humour and yet inject a soberness to the writing, aiming at hinting to the hardships that both soldiers and their partners face. There is a strong romantic narrative in the story but it’s balanced by sprinkles of reality that really make you think.
In particular, the fact that Yoo and Seo juxtapose each other is a reminder of the bitterness in their positions. In the series, their colleagues die, Yoo and Seo are tortured, lost, and overworked but still they maintain a passion for their jobs. This highlighted the idea that high-level soldiers like Yoo and Seo can really be described as work-a-holics because majority of the time that are working strenuously and they have little moments in between to be with their family. So essentially Yoo and Seo live for their job and their families are a secondary factor for them. Of course the show doesn’t give too much attention to this detail, instead it’s glossed over often with shocking moments that call for heroic actions.
Nonetheless, there’s also the unethical components of their job that Kang spotlighted as a concern when rejecting Yoo. Her concerns gave me pause. Yoo and Seo are often peacemakers, but in order to achieve peace, they kill people. Although the writers use that dark perspective as a tool to unite Yoo and Kang, it’s still important to consider the real moral implications they attempt to overlook. Is it right for Yoo or Seo to blindly follow orders to kill people or let them die even when they disagree with the orders they’ve been given? In “Descendants of the Sun” Yoo often disregarded orders in favor of his morals but how realistic is that really?
We can gather that Yoo is good but remember Agus (David McInnis)? He wasn’t so great. Despite the many soldiers with good intentions behind their decisions to enter military service, it also attracts questionable characters. Of course, people who have stepped up to defend their country are admirable and brave but a simple Google search with the terms “crimes in the military” will show you an array of news articles pointing to how some people abuse their power. Those who are opportunistic offenders span far and are even hidden in organizations that are meant to help people.
Even so, Yoo and Kang tell great jokes and so do the supporting characters so, “Descendants of the Sun” isn’t meant to be taken heavily. But if we really taken a moment to consider why Kang would reject Yoo repeatedly without disregarding her concerns by saying she was playing hard-to-get then maybe we would see that there is value in her hesitation.
Again, one of the pointed reasons why Kang was initially against dating Yoo was because she was concerned about the type of man he was and what his job actually entailed. There may be some merit in her unease. Take for instance news about the actions of Edward R. Gallagher, a retired United States Navy SEAL Special Warfare Operator, which has been sidelined. Gallagher was accused of war crimes (which included murder) by his colleagues but instead of being held accountable for his actions, he was absolved of any real consequences by President Trump. In his place, Rear Adm. Collin Green, commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command, left his position. It’s important to note that Green wanted to reform the unit which faced criticisms for allegations of criminal charges and he also wanted to discipline Gallagher. This news, and other stories which demonstrate appalling abuse of power and public trust are important. It’s also equally important to think about the reports about domestic violence among cops and military men. Considering all this, was Kang really wrong when she hesitated?
Though, on the whole, “Descendants of the Sun” rightfully earned its awards in 2016 for its fantastically enjoyable narrative. (So for newcomers to the story, it’s definitely worth a watch if not for the plot, then at least for the humour.) But it’s also accomplished in highlighting a discussion about what it means to be a partner of someone in the military and poignantly, the arrays of people the organization harbours.
Had Kang rejected Yoo solely based off her discomfort with the idea of being in a long distance relationship, it would still be well-founded. However, since a major point of worry for her was also about the ethics behind his position and how it strongly opposes her job in many ways, it’s useful to also look at how this narrative may be applied. After-all, the show really felt like almost an advertisement for joining the army, since they made Yoo and Seo look so cool. If we are going to glorify them, we need to examine the implications of doing so.