Panning opening scenes of South Korean high-rises and spaghetti highways to the lush hills of North Korea, Crash Landing on You’s cinematography draws the viewer in before a human character appears.
The South Korean drama, released last year on Netflix, was a cultural phenomenon in its home country, becoming the second-highest-rated cable drama in South Korea, with a nationwide average viewership of 21.7 percent—translating to 6.3 million views, according to Nielsen Korea. It was only beaten by 2018’s TV series SKY Castle.
Crash Landing on You follows a wealthy South Korean woman who ends up in the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea after being carried over the border by a tornado while paragliding. Yoon Se-ri (played by Son Ye-jin) owns her own fashion brand and is also a chaebol heiress. She disappears a day after her father chooses her to be his successor, taking over a sprawling business empire. With Se-ri presumed dead, her incompetent brothers and their wives climb over each other for the chairmanship.
Across the border in North Korea, another drama is unfolding: Se-ri is discovered by Captain Ri Jeong-hyeok (Hyun Bin). The captain hides her with the help of his subordinates whose inattention at their border posting resulted in her escape further into the country. While trying to avoid the attention of a corrupt officer and curious neighbors, Se-ri has to learn to survive in reduced circumstances and without the luxuries to which she is accustomed. North Korea’s authoritarian regime is presented in the slogans on buildings and street poles. Electricity is infrequent and the villagers use coupons to buy food. While the contrasting realities of North and South are presented, the commonalities of both countries are shown. In the absence of leadership, North Korea is seen as a place where communities, like the village women who befriend Se-ri, must help each other and look out for one another. The portrayal of the country was handled delicately and deftly by the producers, who chose to highlight the humanity of its citizens and the day-to-day living of an imagined North Korea.
As with most Korean dramas, the two main characters initially repel each other before recognizing their shared love. The more the viewer learns about the couple’s lives, the more we realize they are well-suited. Captain Ri, we discover, has his own complicated family history, hailing from a military-elite family whose position would be threatened if Se-ri’s presence and identity is known. After his brother died in suspicious circumstances, Captain Ri abandoned his dream of becoming a world-renowned pianist, leaving Switzerland and returning to North Korea to serve in the military. He is also engaged to be married to Seo Dan (Seo Ji-hy) a department store heiress. Theirs is an arranged marriage and with the appearance of Se-ri, tension and conflict arise in the love triangle. Another subplot involves Gu Seung-jun (Kim Jung-hyun), a con artist who escapes to North Korea after swindling Se-ri’s brother. We learn that he once dated Se-ri and later falls for Seo Dan, complicating matters considerably.
Crash Landing on You’s popularity is owed largely to the chemistry between its two striking leads, Son Ye-jin and Hyun Bin, whose sweeping romance is communicated via a medley of longing looks and very light friction (in many ways, it’s a foil to the randy Bridgerton). Son Ye-jin’s nimbleness, toggling from carefree and comedic to serious and anguished, is perfectly matched by Hyun Bin’s captivating portrait of the emotionally-repressed soldier who will risk life and family to save the woman he cherishes.
Fans of the show, who had shipped the actors for months, were pleased to learn that on Jan. 1, the couple confirmed they are in a real-life relationship. (They’d previously starred together in the 2018 drama The Negotiation). And Son Ye-jin, one of the shining stars of the so-called Korean Wave (or Hallyu), is on the cusp of crossing over into Hollywood, with a feature role opposite Sam Worthington in the upcoming sci-fi film The Cross, helmed by Andrew Niccol (Gattaca).
The expansive show, comprised of 16 hour-long episodes, is rounded out by a strong cast of supporting characters, from the colorful soldiers under Captain Ri’s command, to the selfish brothers and the village women, to sinister military leaders and a rogue wiretapper. There’s also a rather clever metanarrative involving a soldier who loses himself in South Korean dramas. While Crash Landing on You has provided a much-needed respite for KDrama fans during lockdown, it hasn’t caught on so much stateside. Which is a shame, because once you get lost in the saga of Yoon Se-ri and Captain Ri, it’s almost impossible to stop.