K-Drama Review : Crash Landing on You

This review contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.
K-Drama Review : Crash Landing on YouCrash Landing on You Published by Netflix on December 14, 2019 – February 16, 2020
Genres: Contemporary, Love & Romance, Romance, Social Issues
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three-half-stars

A paragliding mishap drops a South Korean heiress in North Korea - and into the life of an army officer, who decides he will help her hide.

Crash Landing on You tells the story of two star-crossed lovers, Yoon Se-ri (Son Ye-jin), a South Korean fashion entrepreneur with her company Se-ri's Choice, and Ri Jeong-hyeok (Hyun Bin), a member of the North Korean elite and a Captain in the North Korean Special Police Force.

Crash Landing on You has a little bit of everything—forbidden romance, family drama, political strife, car chases, and comedy. The show boasts a large cast of characters, but stars Yon Se-jin as Yoon Seri, a South Korean Heiress and businesswoman, and Hyun Bin as Ri Jeong-hyoek, a Captain of the North Korean Special Police. Seri quite literally crash lands into Jeong-hyoek’s life, and the drama deals with the many, many complications that arise from a South Korean being hidden in North Korea. Surprisingly, my favorite parts of the K-drama were actually spent in North Korea. Unfortunately, I found it was a little too hard to suspend my disbelief in the parts that took place in South Korea and Switzerland. Despite this, the acting was solid and sells the emotional story, which highlights the disparities between these two countries.

 

Seri literally crash lands into North Korea and Captain Ri’s life.


I was really expecting to not like the parts of the K-drama which took part in North Korea. But Crash Landing on You does a great job of humanizing the residents of the country and their own unique plights. I was equally as shocked by the life there as the main character Seri was. Sure, I knew that North Korea is a bit behind the times, but seeing all Captain Ri Jeong-hyoek had to go through just to make a simple cup of coffee for the formerly spoiled heiress was mind-blowing. Perhaps most telling was when a character was apartment shopping in North Korea, and found that a refrigerator was used as a closet or storage, as due to the rolling blackouts in the area, electricity could not be relied on to power the fridge.  The show does a really great job of demonstrating the differences between the countries, and really highlights everything viewers watching the Netflix show take for granted on a daily basis. 

 

Seri makes friends with the other members of Jeong-Hyeok’s unit and a man formerly known as “Rat.”

 

This difference in attitudes and lifestyles is most apparent when shown Seri’s awful family. Seri has two older half-brothers, who are fighting (and supported by their ambitious wives), to be their father’s successor of the conglomerate. As before Seri disappeared, her father named her successor, the two brothers and their wives are hoping she doesn’t come back. Seri’s mother, it turns out, is not her birth mother and has a lot of complicated feelings about her missing daughter and her son’s battle for inheritance. Though the media often portrays North Koreans as evil, brainwashed, or indoctrinated communists, it quickly becomes apparent that the real evil is in Seri’s South Korean family. As Seri spends more time in North Korea, she is eventually welcomed and befriended by the quirky and caring women of the neighborhood and also befriends all of the soldiers under Jeong-hyeok’s command. Even someone who should have been despicable and is even called “Rat” by the villagers, as he eavesdrops for a living, is extremely sympathetic and kind-hearted. Seri doesn’t quite know what to do with all of these people, who should be afraid of her or hate her, but show her more kindness than her own family.

 

The main villain of the show.

This kindness is amazing, as the men of Captain Ri’s unit risk their very lives hiding Seri in North Korea until they can surreptitiously spirit her back home. These men deal with espionage, the fear for their livelihoods and for their families if they are found out, and the increasing suspicion of a corrupt higher up officer, Jo Cheol Gang. Cheol Gang has a personal vendetta against Jeong-hyeok and will stop at nothing to ruin his life and that of his family’s. Unfortunately, Seri finds herself as the best tool for his sinister job. Though Crash Landing on You is mainly a romantic comedy, don’t be fooled, there’s plenty of action—fight scenes, car chases, gun-fights, hints of torture, and lots of other high tension moments. In this K-drama, everyone in the cast of characters has so much to lose, and all are willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want. Make sure to clear your schedule for binging, because you won’t be able to stop watching with all the tension.

 

Seo Dan finding her fiancé at a hotel with another woman.

 

And this tension doesn’t just come from family or political drama, it also comes from the very entangled romances of Crash Landing on You. Shockingly to me, I didn’t hate the second female lead of the K-drama even though she was engaged to the leading man and Seri’s love interest, Captain Ri Jeong-hyoek. In fact, there were many times when I admired Seo Dan more than Seri. I felt a lot for Dan, as she’s waited over ten years for the wedding arranged by their parents to actually happen, accepting that her fiancé was not ready to be married after the untimely (and very suspicious), death of his older brother. Though the marriage is arranged, Dan has had a crush on Jeong-hyeok since high school. Unfortunately, he never returned her feelings and only agreed to the impending nuptials out of respect for his parents. In what has to be a first for second female leads everywhere, Dan does not jump to conclusions when she spots her fiancé in a hotel with another woman. Instead, she believes the best in him and calmly does damage control on both her reputation and relationship to her family and friends without trying to sabotage Seri. This is a strong, independent woman folks, and she’s not even an heiress like Seri. 

 

Seo Dan and Seung-jun stole the show, if you ask me.

 So I was beyond livid when this poised, confident woman has her heart broken again in the ending. Dan falls for a con-man and Seri’s ex-betrothed of all people, named Gu Seung-jun or known by his alias Alberto Gu. Seung-jun meets Dan as he is hiding in North Korea after stealing an ungodly amount of money from Seri’s most despicable brother. Talk about a tangled web, am I right?  Though Seri and Jeong-hyeok’s love story is the main one, I quickly found myself more interested in the reluctant friendship formed between Seung-jun and Dan. Dan seems to loathe the smooth-talking Seung-jun on sight, and he, on the other hand, loves the challenge of her. The two slowly turn their begrudging rapport into an unlikely friendship and eventually, a relationship. To my utter amazement, the two spend most of their time not trying to team up and sabotage the main leads, but listening to one another and supporting one another. This is pretty dang rare in K-dramas, and I really came to root for these two to have a happy ending. Sadly, Dan is kidnapped as a pawn to get to her paramour (an awful trend in this show), and Seung-jun does the one right thing in his life, and saves the woman he loves. To my anger, he dies in the very last episode saving the woman he loves!

 

I am so tired of shows portraying these great conflicted men, who finally have a change of heart due to love, and then killing them off for the shock value. Portraying that the only thing these conflicted male characters have to offer as atonement for their past misdeeds is their deaths is both toxic and harmful.  It is not shameful for men to have a change of heart or to get in touch with their feelings. It should not mean that they have to die. It would have been so much more interesting if Seung-jun had lived and had to figure out a way to make amends for all the wrongs he committed in his life. It also would have been very interesting to watch him try to figure out how to be with Dan, as not only is she a North Korean, but the niece of a One Star General who is aware that Seung-jun was not who he said he was. 

 

But my greatest upset at this loss was for Dan, who spent most of her life waiting for Jeong-hyeok, only to vow never to love again after the death of Seung-jun. She deserved so much more than this ending, which makes her a martyr to her love. Her choice to remain single for the rest of her life didn’t feel empowering, it felt truly disheartening and I hate that Crash Landing on You  made these decisions for their second leads, which I came to love even more than the main characters of Seri and Jeong-hyeok. It seemed really unfair. Surely if Seri can paraglide into North Korea and travel back safely to South Korea, resurrect herself from being proclaimed dead and continue her business enterprises, Dan can have even a smidgen of happy ending?

 

Seri showing up at her own funeral alive and well.


Dan’s ending was even worse in light of the fact that Captain Ri Jeong-hyeok and all of his men got off scot-free for everything they did. As if harboring a South Korean and aiding her in getting back home wouldn’t be a death sentence already, the men all temporarily defect to South Korea, to protect that same South Korean from a very dangerous and wanted defector, Cheol Gang. You can’t tell me that it’s realistic that they all walked away from this little trip unscathed, but they do. And that’s my main problem with Crash Landing on You—the show requires too much suspension of disbelief. The second Seri ends up back in South Korea, and these North Korean men follow her to protect her, the show simply becomes unbelievable. I also couldn’t believe that any of these men would willingly want to go back to North Korea after living in the South, but all five of them are more than happy to go home despite the threat of possible torture or death waiting for them at home. And even more outrageously, the South Korean authorities are only too kind to help them go home. But the icing on the cake for me was the Captain Ri Jeong-hyoek was allowed to leave North Korea again after all of this—something that is already extremely hard to do for even upstanding North Korean citizens—to be with Seri in Switzerland, where they had their first of many “fated” encounters. 

 

Seri hearing Jeong-hyeok playing the piano in Switzerland.

 

And don’t even get me started on these sickeningly sweet fated encounters. The first serendipitous meeting between the two I could almost believe, but Crash Landing on You keeps constantly piling on more of them! Not only do Seri and Jeong-hyeok meet once in Switzerland, but multiple times. They meet on a bridge, she hears him playing the piano, they sit near each other on a train, she takes a picture of Jeong-hyeok and Dan, she runs into Dan in a shop, and then of course, they run into each other again at the end in Switzerland. Where Jeong-hyeok somehow stumbles upon her when she crash lands again. It’s sweet that the ending comes full circle, but all of these countless other coincidences really cheapen this final one at the end. 

 

Hyun Bin as Captain Ri Jeong-hyeok

 

Thankfully, most of the acting in Crash Landing on You sells this very emotional story. I found Son Ye Jin as Seri and Seo Ji-hye as Dan completely compelling. The rest of the cast of characters is very solid too, down to the smallest role. Kim Young-min, as Jong Man Bok, the wire-tapper known as “Rat” had me on the verge of tears several times. His story, which unlike Seung-jun’s, was a full story of redemption complete with life after his atonement, was so compelling that I cared more about what happened to “Rat” than I did about what happened to Hyun Bin’s Captain Jeong-hyeok. Though Hyun Bin is a solid crier, I found the rest of his performance strained. I do recognize that he is portraying a reticent military man, but I found his performance to be rather frozen most of the time, even when his love for Seri thawed the character’s heart. Though he is believable as Jeong-hyeok I definitely do not feel that he became the character, as was the case with the rest of the cast. Sadly, his performance lacked their intricacies of the craft and subtleties of expressions. Perhaps that is why I just couldn’t love Jeong-hyeok (despite how swoon-worthy he looked), as much as the other characters.

 


Despite this flaw and the others—the sad endings for the side characters, the constant coincidences, and the Herculean suspension of disbelief needed to watch the show—Crash Landing on You is a standout K-drama with a lot of rewatch value due to its many layers. It’s got a little something for everyone—action, romance, politics, family ties, comedy—and does an amazing job humanizing North Koreans and showing viewers what’s really important in life.  I really enjoyed the modern twist on star-crossed lovers, and the more non-traditional romance of the second leads. I could easily see someone who’s never watched a K-Drama getting absolutely hooked on them after watching Crash Landing on You. I would recommend this show for anyone, whether or not they are a fan of K-dramas, because it is simply just that entertaining. 

 

three-half-stars
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K-Drama Review : Crash Landing on You - Blogging with Dragons

Posted October 16, 2020 in K-Dramas, Watch

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One response to “K-Drama Review : Crash Landing on You

  1. Anne M Goetz

    Wait. Don’t give up. Pray desperately: ‘Crash Landing on You’ and justice / change in North Korea

    Soe Ji-Hye, in her role as Soe Dan, the thwarted North Korean fiancée in ‘Crash Landing on You’ You’ – a 16-part South Korean comedy/love story – has done a lot to revive barrette-wearing by adult women. The precision of her barretting is one of dozens of bullseye moves and pleasurable moments in this affecting – and feminist — story of impossible, unrealizable love.

    I have never watched a K-drama before, and I dread making mis-steps with this sincere appreciation of ‘Crash Landing on You’ (‘CLOY’ for short, and appropriately). But the series had me gripped to the point of tears, not my norm. Was it the story? Or the many losses of COVID, or the way COVID has made us all reflect on other losses, other missed chances, roads not taken? Or could it be a reaction to the stark tragedy of the divide between North and South Korea?

    To start, it is an irresistible story: a South Korean young gorgeous lonely miserable badass bosswoman gets herself, improbably, stuck in north Korea (swooshed there when her paraglider is diverted by a tornado – a moment that neatly fits in an Oz-like flying tractor that doesn’t seem so out of place). An endearingly innocent tall dark handsome earnest honorable and highly self-contained border guard (Captain Ri) finds and hides her and helps her to get home. Of course they fall in love. Of course they don’t know it at first and there are an awful lot of missed signals and misunderstandings. There is also no hint of sex in spite of electrifying (because so extremely overdue) film noir-style kisses – a point (the sexlessness) that is reinforced in a late scene where the hero Ri Jeong Hyeok (Hyun Bin) consoles the heroine Yoon Se-ri (Son Ye-Jin) over a large scar left from a bullet wound by showing her a number of scars on his own torso. Really? You haven’t seen that gash on his side or the divot on his back yet? And you have been hiding him in your apartment in Seoul for more than a few weeks?

    I can’t adequately summarize the plot stretching over 16 episodes. Half of the story unfolds in a surprisingly idyllic and mostly rustic North Korea; the rest in Seoul after Yoon Se-ri makes it back but (thank heavens) Captain Ri has to follow her there to stop the ubiquitous villain from hurting her. Spoiler alert but this bad guy murdered Ri Jeong Hyeok’s brother seven years earlier. This is why Ri had to give up his promising concert piano career and become a soldier, following his high level military dad.

    There are sub-plots. Ri, a captain in the army, has four trusted squaddies who provide comic relief as well as protection, balanced by four village women who stock Ri’s kimchi cellar and salted meat crock, and are also valued providers of counter-surveillance. These are all apparently seasoned K-drama figures, and they do a terrific job of relaxing the high tensions in the story. There is a second love dynamic – Soe Dan, Ri’s arranged fiancée, ignores the fact that Ri loves the interloper, and insists on marriage. But an unlikely cad and rogue, the boy-faced Gu Seung-Hoon (Kim Jung-Hyn), who had defrauded Yoon Se-ri’s youngest brother of millions, and has just arrived for a period of hiding in north Korea for ten years, wins her heart – in spite of his own self-contempt and her obsession with making Ri pay for rejecting her. Finally, Yoon Se-ri’s family, managers of a South Korean chaebol, have clearly engaged in plenty of perfidy to get to where they are. Her dad, the chairman of their corporation, prefers her as his successor over her two older step-brothers. The eldest is a simpleminded bungler with an entertainingly evangelical wife who uses elite prayer meetings to support her husband’s career. The youngest is a murderer who wants Se-ri dead and is supported in this by his calculating Lady Macbeth wife.

    Meanwhile, Yoon Se-ri wins the hearts not just of his squad but of the critical, highly observant village women. She shocks them to the core by refusing to engage in the annual kimchi-making ritual. They adapt to her eccentricities and at one point entertainingly console her (once they find out that Ri is engaged to someone else) with beer and dried fish. The village women and the squaddies navigate with great care the contradictions of North Korean life. When the village’s senior colonel, husband of the most important village woman, is arrested, the others debate how to bring her food without consequences for associating with someone in the regime’s bad books. Another one’s husband, ‘the Rat’, who everyone knows listens into every conversation, and who works for the bad guy, is in anguish because he is forced to report on Captain Ri’s activities – he had been forced to help trap Ri’s brother in the car accident that killed him. ‘Don’t you think it’s too cruel?’ he asks his wife, who consoles him by saying he is only doing his job. But doing his job requires that love and loyalty be extinguished, an intolerable price in the end even for some of the most hardened members of the regime.

    Sketched out like this, it is hard to see why the series is so effective and so moving. Some of the episodes are awfully long, You can’t binge-watch it overnight. Beyond the story, each episode is packed with entertaining extras, the country versus city shots, the little glimpses into Pyongyang high society, the makeovers (she, made over into frumpiness in the North, he, made over into her dashing bodyguard in the South), and above all, the food. From washing cabbage for kimchi in the sea to Captain Ri’s meticulous noodle-making from scratch, to the miserable formal dinners between Ri’s family and his fiancée and her mother (no-one touches a morsel) and the joyful face-stuffing of the squad or the village women at moments when they are reunited, food is vital to the story. There is an exuberant extended train journey (a two hour trip takes 17 because of a blackout, resulting in a night under the stars, with provisions of blankets, potatoes, corn on the cob and firewood from eager nearby villagers – but before all of that, the pleasing art deco train interior hosts an improbably sweet and musical sales pitch from the train snacks team with little to sell beyond fizzy orange soda and boiled eggs). There is some blatant product placement for a South Korean fried chicken chain (which will be my first stop if I ever get to travel there) and for a popular chocolate bar. Food plays a role as a social emollient, a salve and restorative, a means of communicating, an expression of love. Not touching it is a sign that there is some humanity missing.

    There is always huge satisfaction and a cathartic sadness about requited but forbidden love finding a way. There is no question that the lead, Hyun Bin, deepens his appeal with displays of old-school chivalry, restraint and kindness, not to mention the supreme self-control and restraint of matinee idols of my mothers’ generation like Clark Gable. But that doesn’t explain why it works so well. Beyond the fact that it is a terrific story, has plenty of jeopardy, given the geopolitical dynamics, and has brilliant casting and acting, there is something else. It is a feminist story that gently centers female desire, stripping away gratuitous sexual display, in a way that comes across as appealingly sincere.

    The writer is Park Ji Eun, with a string of successful TV shows under her belt. She brings a combination of feminist themes and matters that matter to women, feminist or not: who does the dishes, will he do the cooking (yes, and wonderfully), can you all stop pressuring me to get married, where can I get decent face cream in an isolated command economy without being arrested for smuggling? There are some scenes that are surely intended as eye candy for female viewers (I did not turn away): fitting Hyun Bin for a suit (in which he is nakedly objectified by the store attendant and is clearly uncomfortable about the female gaze), fitting all of his squad for suits just before a fight scene (from which they emerged unruffled in spite of the impracticality of their outfits), and the village women surprising the second lead Gu Seung-Hoon on a home visit right after he had taken a steamy bucket bath.

    That covers the female sensibility in the writing. But it is feminist too. No-one ends up married, no woman is not pursuing her ambition. The female leads, North and South, have talent, renown, interests. The village women run everything behind the façade of incompetent male relatives and leaders. This picture is at odds with what we know about women’s power and equality both North and South, but it shows a determined alternative narrative that presumably either makes sense domestically or is intended to inspire change.

    CLOY reserves a special spotlight for mothers and their conflicted roles in guiding their children towards love, against calculations of financial or political advantage. In the end, they all want their children to find happy companionship, even if it does not pay off in terms of family political/economic advantage. The most calculating of all the mothers is the funny Jang Hye Jin, who readers might know as the mother figure in the down at luck family that insinuates itself to the high society household in the 2020 Oscar best picture-winning film Parasite. She, a department store heiress (is that amount of gaudy leopard skin print even allowed in North Korea?) and her one-star general brother (Park Myung Hoon, the basement guy from Parasite) members of the Pyongyang elite, at first push hard to secure the long-promised, long-overdue and advantageous for everyone arranged marriage between Soe Dan and Ri Jeong Hyeok. But she is the first, long before her daughter, to recognize that her daughter loves someone else – the reformable cad, Gu Seung-Hoon (Kim Jung-Hyn). And she does the unthinkable – she ends a wildly beneficial arranged marriage promise between her rich (department store) and Ri Jeong Hyeok’s influential (highly placed in the regime) families. This late scene is extraordinary. She bows in a request for advance forgiveness to Ri Jeong Hyeok’s kind and quiet mother. The one-down display isn’t needed. They understand each other and they understand their children, and neither wants them trapped in a loveless marriage. The other important mother is Yoon Se-ri’s stepmother, wife of a chaebol kingpin, and she does not play for laughs. Her deeply affecting face, stark as a Modigliani, has pain written all over it. We never find out what, besides having an unfaithful husband, caused this anguish, except that in an existential crisis she abandons her unwanted stepdaughter on a beach all night – a formative moment for them both. She shifts from reflexively defending her two sons’ rights to inheriting corporate leadership to backing Se-ri as the next CEO of the corporation and, much more importantly, helping her understand that she really needs to get through Seoul‘s traffic to the border of the DMZ to take one last look at her love before he is forcibly transferred back into the obscurity of North Korea.

    At the heart of this story is a profound tragedy – the separation between North and South Korea, encapsulated in the impossibility of a relationship between these two people, fated to be with each other, yet prevented by politics from being close enough to touch. CLOY is very careful about how it depicts life and politics in the North. Clearly wanting to avoid the fate of The Interview, the Seth Rogan/ James Franco satire about Kim Jong-un that triggered a destructive hack of its SONY distributor, CLOY completely side-steps any discussion of DPRK politics, save for one scene where two protagonists are asked, on an apparently popular bridge promenade in Pyongyang, why they are not wearing the mandatory lapel pins with portraits of the Supreme, Great, and Dear Leaders. Totalitarian admonitions are painted on background buildings :‘Flee and you will Die’, ‘The People’s Paradise’ – and there are references to prisons from which no-one ever emerges alive. But on the whole, the regime is treated like a bad-tempered relative that everyone knows how to work around. We get to see the Pyongyang version of cosmopolitanism, where the elites smatter English terms into their gossip, and compete to procure, illegally, luxury bags and shoes from the West. The father of the central protagonist is the Central Political Director. We are not asked to think about the river of blood on which anyone in this man’s position must have sailed to get to where he is. The clever writing shows us that the process of protecting his one remaining son — and keeping his wife from committing the suicide she threatens if her son is hurt – involves supreme skill in navigating the imperative of putting Dear Leader first. We are expected to be grateful for his humanity in saving our beloved Captain Ri, his own last and only son. This makes you stop. What? It is treason to put your own child before the life and reputation of a corrupt and vicious dictator?

    The series side-steps these ghastly dilemmas that surely have been experienced by cronies of the DPRK leadership. But it leaves us asking: actually, what is going on in the DPRK? What is life like for ordinary people? It is hard to say. The UN’s most recent commission of inquiry into human rights in North Korea conducted interviews with escapees in 2013 and the report gives a central place – unusual in human rights investigations – to the abuses suffered by women and girls in what sounds like a system of patriarchy unrestrained. Accounts of rape of women and girls by regime officials from the top to the bottom, forced abortions, and other forms of extreme yet routine sexual violence, make sickening reading. Particular note is made of the lack of options for young women – denied employment in the public sector yet also prohibited from engaging in market trading:
    “State enforced restrictions that only women over 40 years old could trade on the markets left the majority of young women in a very difficult situation in terms of access to food. This is thought to have driven the increase in prostitution in the country as transactional sex became the sole means of survival for young women, shut out from state-employment and unable to work in the private market.” (Paragraph 557 of the report of the detailed findings of the Commission of Inquiry).

    Trains are actually singled out as spaces for specific horrors for women. As one witness to the Commission testifies:
    “Women were frisked as they entered the station [to check they were not carrying items for sale], I think this is how the sexual violence started happening. Guards also take young girls on the train for sexual acts, including rape. Everyone knows this is happening, it is an open secret.” (paragraph 318 of the detailed findings of the Commission).

    CLOY avoids this and all human rights abuses and political dilemmas but leaves anyone with a conscience wondering if they have done enough to support reunification (probably not), and wondering what they would think if they had been born on the North Korean side of the border. Why didn’t the rest of the world help you? Why leave you subject to the Orwellian insanity of this last completely totalitarian state and the vanity, volatility and vengefulness of its autistic/sadistic boy-emperor? What is wrong with the UN, and multilateralism, that puts the lives of North Koreans so far beyond the reach of human rights institutions or even simple humanitarian help?

    Part one of the answer is: China.

    Part two: Ask your own government about the prospects of UN Security Council expansion, or the prospects of getting rid of great power vetoes on humanitarian interventions, so that the UN can take a more proactive stance on supporting human rights in the DPRK.

    At one of the many points when it seems the romantic leads will never see or hear from each other again, they say to each other: Wait. Don’t give up. Pray desperately. We have to ask ourselves: for the people of North Korea, is that enough?

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