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Why Crash Landing on You had us hooked

Crash Landing on You - main image

What a preposterous scenario for a drama. A chaebol heiress goes paragliding, gets swept away by a freak tornado and lands north of the DMZ, where she is discovered by a North Korean soldier and ends up getting emotionally entangled.

I loved it.

Of course, the scenario is a lot more complicated than that. How could a drama last for over 24 hours of screen time without the plot having a few twists and turns? And of course, it helps that the leading couple, the handsome Hyun Bin (as prize-winning pianist turned soldier Captain Ri Jeong-hyeok) and Son Ye-jin, queen of the romantic drama from The Classic to Be With You (as successful businesswoman Yoon Se-ri), both look gorgeous. And the secondary couple, Seo Ji-Hye as Seo Dan and Kim Jung-Hyun as Gu Seung-Jung, don’t look bad together either. In fact having seen Son Ye-jin and Hyun Bin together in this drama, I think I might have to track down the 2018 movie Negotiation in which they share the billing.

Each of the two leads have their own private battles to contend with, even as Captain Ri Jeong-hyeok tries to get Yoon Se-ri back to Seoul where she belongs. The super-competent, super-elegant Yoon Se-ri has just been chosen by her father to take over the family’s sprawling business empire, in preference to her elder brothers, who despite being incompetent and at times unethical feel entitled, as males, to inherit the crown. They will do anything to discredit Se-ri and get her out of the way (or worse). Her unexpected absence up North presents numerous opportunities for their scheming. Se-ri isn’t even confident that her own mother has her back.

Oh Man-seok as Cho Cheol-gang
Oh Man-seok must have undergone hours of specialist training to get his facial muscles disciplined enough to perfect that sneer

Meanwhile, Captain Ri Jeong-hyeok is battling with the forces of corruption in the North Korean Army. His nemesis is arch-villain Cho Cheol-gang (played by Oh Man-Seok), a man with a permanent sneer on his face. Cho, who has come from a humble background, is building his own powerbase by running various shady money-making operations, using the proceeds to buy influence not least with a senior officer who plans to depose Jeong-hyeok’s father, who is head of the General Political Department. Cho will stop at nothing to discredit Jeong-hyeok, both to damage his father and also in self defence, because Jeong-hyeok insists on investigating Cho’s operations, which leave a trail of dead bodies of those who get in Cho’s way.

Adding to the complexity of the storyline is the secondary couple: Gu Seung-Jung, who was once a potential husband for Se-ri, but is now trying to scam her family; and Seo Dan, a super-elegant cellist from the Pyongyang elite who is betrothed to Jeong-hyeok, and who is thus Se-ri’s love rival. And there’s enough back-story to each of the various protagonists to give a rich menu of reveals as you get into the meat of the series.

The minor characters provide variety and light relief. Sometimes in addition they move the plot forward, like minor characters in a Shakespeare play; at other times they simply provide a forum to amplify the thoughts of one of the major characters or ruminate on the current situation, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. The four members of Jeong-hyeok’s troop, who are always mysteriously gathered at his house, and the four main village women whom Se-ri eventually manages to gather around her, are a constant support to the two main characters. It’s also nice to catch familiar faces among the other supporting cast: Park Myoung-hoon, the man in the Parasite basement, as Deo Dan’s uncle, and Bang Eun-jin, star of 301/302 and director of Princess Aurora, as Se-ri’s mother. And was it intentional that the more competent of Se-ri’s brothers played by Park Hyoung-soo is made to look like Samsung Electronics boss Lee Jae-yong?

So the storyline has elements of romance, crime thriller and business thriller. There are some fast-paced action scenes, in which the former pianist proves himself more than a match for a dozen beweaponed thugs. By contrast, the romance is slow-burn, as you might expect, and in some of the best traditions of Korean drama there is a formidable obstacle to a permanent union: in this instance, the division of the Korean peninsula. Both Jeong-hyeok and Se-ri are firmly embedded in the establishment of their respective nations; their only chance of being together without having to hide from hostile forces is in neutral territory: Switzerland, where some of the leading characters’ paths have crossed many years earlier. The on-location filming in the Swiss mountains and lakes provide some wonderful eye-candy.

Crash Landing in Switzerland
On location in Switzerland

Finally, the cross-border border aspects of the story line give plenty of scope for interest and entertainment which is sensitively executed. It’s refreshing that we are presented with elements of conspicuous wealth in Pyongyang (though do they really have Range Rovers north of the border?), and daily life outside the metropolis – the jangmadang market where you can get illicit supplies of South Korean cosmetics, the traditional methods of storing kimchi, which from an ultra-modern Seoulite’s perspective can be thought of as both sustainable and organic – is laid before us in ways which fall short of patronising. Similarly, when Jeong-hyeok’s men come south of the border the fish-out-of-water comedy is genial rather than groan-inducing.

Altogether you have a recipe for a very varied and enjoyable 24 hours of viewing.

Cross references and clichés

As I mentioned when writing about SKY Castle, I’m pretty much a TV drama virgin: this is only the second K-drama I’ve watched from start to finish. I’m therefore wary about making generalisations. But one of the things that struck me about Crash Landing is what I’m guessing is the insane amount of cross-references to other dramas and movies. I only picked up on two specific cross-references, and the fact that I missed probably scores of others didn’t impact my enjoyment of the drama at all. Spotting just those two references made me feel part of an exclusive club, able to share in the in-jokes, rather like one does when watching the E J-yong mockumentaries Actresses and Behind the Camera. No doubt others will relish the myriad of other references, such as the plots of South Korean dramas that were avidly followed by one of Captain Ri’s troop. And incidentally, it was a lovely touch to have Choi Ji-woo make a cameo appearance.

Here are the two explicit cross references I noted:

Celebrity tutors

Kim Seo-hyung as Coach Kim
Is this what the celebrity tutor from Kim Il Sung University might look like? Kim Seo-hyung as Coach Kim from SKY Castle

Towards the end of episode 8, we see that the mothers in the North Korean village are just as competitive about their children’s exam results as a typical South Korean parent. One of them has hired a much sought-after private tutor, who is so much in demand that she only accepts one student a year. Sound familiar? It can’t be a coincidence that the in-demand tutor is called Kim Ju-young, exactly the same name as the formidable coach in SKY Castle, which screened a year prior to Crash Landing. The North Korean Coach Kim, though, is not so successful, or her student is not as single-mindedly focused on success as the insufferably smug Kang Ye-seo in SKY Castle: the child gets 100 marks for his exams, but only by virtue of adding up the sub-par scores from four different papers.

Eccentric sleeper agents in the South

Goofy sleeper agent
Kim Soo-hyun reprises his role as sleeper agent

The second explicit cross-reference is when Captain Ri’s troop arrive in Seoul in episode 10: they come across a North Korean sleeper agent who is the spitting image of the sleeper agent in the 2013 movie Secretly, Greatly (은밀하게 위대하게). In fact on researching further I discovered it was the same actor, reprising his role as the super-agent disguised as a goofy restaurant delivery boy wearing a bright green tracksuit. The movie did quite well when it was released, reaching #6 in the domestic box office chart for 2013, but is not particularly memorable, and it’s a bit of a puzzle as to why this cameo was chosen other than to build on the fish-out-of-water comedy that is created around the North Koreans in Seoul.

Other observations:

Fashion and conspicuous consumption

It’s only natural that Yoon Se-ri, as boss of a fashion and cosmetics company, is usually seen looking immaculate. Even when North of the border, bearing in mind that she arrived wearing a mauve paragliding jumpsuit and naturally did not come with any luggage, she’s got some lovely knitwear to show off.

When she’s in her native territory back in Seoul, she power dresses with the best of them. Balmain, Bottega Veneta and Rochas all form part of her everyday wardrobe, with accessories by Chanel, Hermes and Valentino. Her love rival Seo Dan is similarly stunningly dressed (despite being based in Pyongyang), as are Se-ri’s evil sisters-in-law. A little bit of internet searching will take you to countless web pages (such as this one) monitoring the fashion worn by the stars in this and other dramas, while other sites (such as this one) specialise in recreating some of the garments worn.

Social Distancing

Jeong-hyeok and Se-ri meet for the first time
The first, and most awkward, physical encounter

It is a rare romantic drama in which the leading couple fall into each other’s arms in the first episode. But after that unintended physical contact it takes a long while for the two come together emotionally and physically. And the length of time it takes is part of the pleasure of the genre, as two people who initially seem so unsuited to each other gradually form a lasting bond as they share experiences both trivial and tense.

I have to say that the anticipation of the first and subsequent romantic kisses is sweeter than than the reality. Their mouth-to-mouth contact has much less chemistry than the yearning and longing that is evident when they in the same scene but physically separated.

Jeong-hyeok and Se-ri at a safe distance
At a safe distance – somehow more romantic than a close-quarters kiss

Jeong-hyeok’s and Se-ri’s relationship is chaste. Perish the thought that they should share a bed: wherever possible they have separate rooms (maybe, as both are wont to sleep in their luxury knitwear, sharing a bed would be uncomfortably hot). And, I suppose, chaste it must remain given the division of the peninsula.

Playing the piano in impractical places

At least Hyun Bin wasn’t at risk of getting his shoes wet when playing at the lakeside in Switzerland. One wonders whether Kwon Sang-woo was carried to and from his piano stool when filming this scene from Stairway to Heaven.

But seriously…

In keeping with the general trend of things Korean entering into the mainstream in the West, this particular drama has been covered in serious organs such as The Guardian and The Washington PostThis BBC article talks about the care that was taken in researching the North Korean aspects of the drama. A key consultant on the film was Kwak Moon-wan, a defector who formerly served in the “security force which protects North Korea’s ruling Kim family, [and who] was so trusted that he was assigned to work overseas too, for a North Korean trade company in Moscow which was bringing in much needed foreign currency.” Kwak has worked on several films since arriving in South Korea. Maybe he is the connection with Secretly, Greatly noted above.

And for those who want to explore the various themes in more depth, particularly in relation to the representation of North Korea in South Korean popular culture, Stephen Epstein and Christopher Green collaborate in an 8,000 paper on the drama in the Asia Pacific Journal.

In conclusion

I started watching this drama in parallel with SKY Castle. After episode 2, which I found a little slow, I decided to focus my time on the compelling viewing on offer from the latter drama. But I returned to Crash Landing as work pressures eased, as they often do in August, and soon found myself binge watching. There’s romance, intrigue, violence, and more romance. It’s addictive viewing. Any thoughts about what I should try next?

Crash Landing on You
사랑의 불시착 / Love’s emergency landing
Director: Lee Jung-hyo
Screenwriter: Park Ji-eun
TvN, December 14, 2019 – February 16, 2020

Further reading

11 thoughts on “Why Crash Landing on You had us hooked

  1. One member of Captain Ri’s troop who’s a fan of South Korea dramas believes that amnesia is very common most South Koreans. I was a bit bothered by the North Korean characters using quite a few English words in their conversations. As a (rather heavier) follow-up I can recommend The World of the Married, which was broadcast earlier this year. The BBC series from which it was adapted, Dr. Foster, has just been shown on Korean TV.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation Michael.

      I missed the reference to amnesia. I can imagine that amnesia might be a common theme in romantic dramas (does it feature in Winter Sonata? – I started watching that one years ago, and ran out of steam…). It’s a gentle lesson that there are limits to the amount one can “learn” about a country by consuming its cultural contents!

      Yes, I noticed the use of English among the North Koreans, but I took it to be part of the comedy: isn’t it Seo Dan’s pretentious mother that uses English more than anyone else?

      I never watched Dr Foster. You’re saying that the actual BBC series was broadcast in Korea?

      1. Yes, Dr. Foster was shown after Crash Landing, I guess by popular demand. I only caught one episode, so I can’t say how tight or loose the adaptation was. And I remember one critic describing amnesia as dramas’ equivalent of the common cold. (Sorry for the lateness of this reply, though at least it hasn’t taken since 1988.)

    1. Thanks for the recommendation Cristiana. I’ll check it out. I was also considering one of the Reply … series, because I’ve heard they’re good. Which one of the Reply series do you think is best?

  2. Great post 🙂 I wasn’t quite as taken with this as you, and I think the last couple of episodes, especially the showdown in Pyongyang where the second lead suddenly became handy with a gun, let the series down a little. I loved this extended look at it all, though, and I had no idea about the story behind the Kim Soo-hyun cameo.

    As for recommendations, ‘Reply 1988’, ‘Mister Sunshine’, ‘Misaeng/An Incomplete Life’, ‘My Mister’ and ‘Radiant/Dazzling’ are the dramas I’ve awarded ten out of ten in my private ratings 🙂

    1. Thanks for the tip Tony. (One day, btw, I’ll upgrade this home-coded theme to do “threaded” replies so that replies appear under the comment to which they relate…)
      I had forgotten about Misaeng/An Incomplete Life – other people have recommended that one to me too.
      Too much to watch (and of course read…). Too little time.

      Next on the reading list is Law of Lines, as Sora is giving a talk on it next month. Probably at a horribly uncivilised time for Melbourne.

  3. I think the chasteness of the relationship between Yoon Seri and Captain Ri gives the series its appeal. I found it so refreshing, and illustrative of the strength and sincerity of the relationship, particularly when compared to the Western view of love, which ultimately seems to mean ‘bed’. I’d say that the cultural aspects of respect for one another and the strict societal moral code, particularly in regards to North Korean expectations, are well portrayed and illustrative of the strong Confucian influences on social and moral behaviour in the Korean countries.

    I would strongly recommend ‘Heaven’s Garden’ which is mostly set in a village about 2 hours away from Seoul. It gives another perspective about life and living outside of the Seoul city ‘bubble,’ and illustrates the strong pressure families can exert, alongside a portrayal of the role, expectations and views about women. One of the main characters is also an academic in real life.

    1. Yes I agree the chasteness is part of the appeal.

      Thanks for stopping by, Bridget. I’ll check out Heaven’s Garden – though I see it’s quite an investment of time at 30 episodes of an hour each!

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