Descendants of the Sun: the Korean military romance sweeping Asia

By Tessa Wong
BBC News

  • Published
Screengrab of KBS' website for Korean drama Descendants of the SunImage source, KBS
Image caption,
The drama tells the story of thwarted love on the battlefield of a foreign land

Korean television dramas have always been popular across Asia, but the region may have hit peak K-drama fever with military romance Descendants of the Sun.

"This show satisfies all my fantasies," 35-year-old Beijing fan Ms Dai tells the BBC. "It reminds me of the feeling you have in a romantic relationship."

Seoul's latest offering chronicles the star-crossed relationship between a soldier and surgeon. It has won millions of fans across the region, but also caused alarm from some authorities.

Love is a battlefield

The 16-episode show began airing on South Korean television in February. It is also being simulcast online in China and streamed on other websites - not always legally - watched by South East Asian fans.

It has all the familiar ingredients of a K-drama: a convoluted plot, A-list actors and an exotic location - in this case Greece, standing in as the fictional war-torn Mediterranean country Uruk.

But one unique feature of Descendants of the Sun is its military setting - it is often not fate that gets in the way of the main characters' happiness, but the urgencies of war.

The show is mostly set in Uruk where a special forces captain played by Song Joong-ki juggles peacekeeping duties with wooing an army surgeon played by Song Hye-kyo - rather inconveniently, he often has to leave her at crucial moments to save lives or go on mysterious missions.

Image source, KBS
Image caption,
Song Joong-ki (left) and Song Hye-kyo (right) are two of South Korea's A-list actors

"The surgeon is a woman with a First World problem in a five-star package. She has a mystery man who is totally into her but who keeps leaving. Yet the drama also keeps reuniting them in airbrushed, beautified real-world circumstances," was how one Singaporean newspaper review summed up its premise.

The military theme has resonated because the armed forces play a big part in South Korean society, with the constant looming threat of war with the North, and where conscription is mandatory for male citizens.

An editorial carried by the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily praised it as "an excellent advertisement for conscription" showcasing South Korea's "national spirit" and "communitarian culture", and suggested China create a similar soap opera.

Image source, Facebook
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The show has spawned several fan pages on Facebook, each with tens of thousands of followers

International appeal

At home, the drama has broken viewership records and won plaudits from even the likes of President Park Geun-hye, who said it could help spread South Korean culture and boost tourism.

What fans are saying

  • "The military theme does not appear frequently in TV shows so combined with the romantic theme, this is not like other Korean soap operas," Ms Gao, 24, Beijing resident
  • "Unlike most Korean dramas which are about a rich guy who falls in love with a poor, golden-hearted girl, the story feels more like the love story of two evenly-matched adults." - Chen Yuanni, 32, Beijing resident
  • "(Song Joong-ki) is very good looking with a boyish look. In real life a captain must shoulder a lot of burden and would look older." - Prayuth Chan-ocha, prime minister of Thailand

The city of Taekbaek, where some of the filming took place, is now planning to rebuild the film set because of intense interest from tourists, reports the Korea Times.

But its main fan base lies overseas, particularly China, where so far it has been viewed more than 440 million times on popular video-streaming site China has strict rules on broadcasting foreign dramas, but relaxed them for Descendants of the Sun, whose production was reportedly partly funded by Chinese investors.

It was a move seen by some as a sign of warming relations with South Korea, though others have pointed out that one scene depicting a fight with North Korea - China's ally - was censored in the Chinese broadcast.

Even Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha - an army general who took power in a military coup - is a fan, urging his countrymen last week to watch it as it promotes "patriotism, sacrifice, obeying orders and being a dutiful citizen".

The show has been sold to 27 countries including the UK and translated into 32 different languages, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency.

Image source, IQiyi
Image caption,
Descendants of the Sun is one of the top shows on Chinese streaming site iQiyi

But fandom has its costs. There were panicky reports in Chinese media earlier this month of a woman who nearly went blind binge-watching the show and another drama, when her 18-hour marathon session triggered acute glaucoma.

Chinese authorities have warned of the dangers of watching Korean dramas, which it said could lead to marital trouble and criminal behaviour.

Image source, Weibo
Image caption,
Chinese authorities issued an advisory on "the right way to watch Korean dramas" like Descendants of the Sun

Earlier this month, Chinese tabloids carried a bizarre story of a young man who was so jealous of his wife's obsession with Song Joong-ki that one night he drunkenly stormed into a photography studio and demanded that the shop owner take pictures to "make him look like Song". The owner eventually called the police.

China's public security ministry highlighted this incident in an advisory on its Weibo social media account two weeks ago.

"When chasing male or female stars, do not become too infatuated with them. Because sometimes your casual words could end up hurting those who really care for you," it said.

It also cautioned citizens against imitating the more melodramatic aspects of K-dramas, such as "forcibly kissing women" and slapping one another during lovers' tiffs.

"This sort of behaviour may seem romantic, but this kind of romance is not acceptable to everyone... it becomes wrong when you justify criminal behaviour as romance," it said.

In the latest episode, the show's protagonists temporarily put aside their romantic angst to fend off the twin threats of a villainous arms dealer and a viral disease spreading through the barracks.

Will love overcome all? Come 14 April, the day the finale will air, millions across Asia will be tuning in to find out.

Additional reporting by Wei Zhou, Zoe Chen and Lily Lee