Netflix’s ‘Crash Landing on You’ humanizes North Korea

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Crash Landing on You cast / NewsInStar / Wikipedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

The cast of "Crash Landing on You" attends a promotional event (from left to right: Hyun Bin (Ri Jeong Hyeok), Son Ye-Jin (Yoon Se-Ri), Seo Ji-Hye (Seo Dan), and Kim Jung-Hyun (Gu Seung-Joon)).

Out of all the k-dramas I’ve seen so far in 2020, Netflix’s 2019 release “Crash Landing on You” is by far the most unique.

The series follows a wealthy heiress named Yoon Se-Ri, who lands in North Korea after a paragliding accident. She is found by Captain Ri Jeong Hyeok of Company 5, the military division which manages the region. He hides her in his house as he and his men attempt to send her back to South Korea, all the while evading North Korean official Jo Cheol-Kang.

But, if I wanted to give you the full plot overview, we would be here for days.

While the drama is based on an extremely unique concept, there is no shortage of confusing plot points, romantic tropes, and unnecessarily drawn out montages that greatly detract from the story. In fact, it’s difficult to classify what genre of television it is, simply because it includes nearly every trope known to K-drama producers: fake engagements, sordid affairs, back-stabbing, gunfights, inter-conglomerate family schemes, murder mysteries, and more.

However, despite the multiple sub-plots, I must give the writers credit for the way it all came together to create an interesting and compelling narrative. While it was difficult to keep track of the seemingly never-ending storylines, they each connected in a way that made logical sense in the end.

Another highlight was the characterization of the people. For having South Koreans write a drama based primarily on North Korean culture and attitudes, not once did I feel that the North Korean characters were one-dimensional or demonized. Sure, some were perhaps more slap-stick than others (like the Company 5 boys, for example), but ultimately, they had their own backstories, narratives, and understandable motivations for their actions that allowed the audience to connect with them. While I wouldn’t call the writing phenomenal by any means, I greatly enjoyed how the show framed Gu Seung-Joon’s transformation, as well as Jeong Man-Bok’s overall character arc. I loved the gossipy village kimchi ladies, laughed with the Company 5 boys, and rooted for Yoon Se-Ri to make it back to South Korea.

With the positives are out of the way, let’s focus on my major gripe with the show: the romance between Yoon Se-Ri and Captain Ri Jeong Hyeok. Not only does it fulfill the biggest cliché in the book, but it also is plagued with jealousy, borderline-unwatchable moments, and antiquated gender roles.

While the actors genuinely have good chemistry together, the hyper-masculine characterization of Jeong Hyeok made it nearly impossible for me to actually enjoy it. He is entirely oblivious to social situations, acts on impulse to seemingly appear macho to Se-Ri, and is easily the most unwatchable character in the show. The moments of extreme jealousy and masculinity that he displays during the show is presented in a way that makes it clear that we, the audience, are supposed to find it deeply attractive.

I did not.

In addition to Jeong Hyeok’s off-putting aggression, I found Se-Ri’s damsel-like characterization ridiculous to the point where it was simply overwhelming. The switch between her confident, independent businesswoman personality and her clingy dependence on Captain Ri Jeong Hyeok almost gave me whiplash, especially as the show progressed.

The one silver lining in this is that the actors manage to somehow almost pull it off in a way that didn’t feel forced. I still rooted for them to end up together and enjoyed some of their cuter moments in the build-up. Ultimately, it suffered mainly from lazy writing and not a lack of effort on the actors’ behalfs.

That’s not to say, however, that clichés inherently ruin romances. In fact, I think that the writers did a great job with the romance between the second leads Gu Seung-Joon, Se-Ri’s ex-fiancé, and Seo Dan, Ri Jeong Hyeok’s arranged fianceé. While it was another relationship that I could see from miles away, the writers didn’t use the cliché as a crutch but rather built on it using the characters’ distinct personalities. For example, Seo Dan is characterized early on as a cold, aloof, but independent woman, while Gu Seung-Joon is a flashy, charismatic con man. Their personalities shaped how they fit into the relationship — Seo Dan’s actions came to define her connection with Seung-Joon while maintaining her cold exterior, while Seung-Joon began to open up to her while remaining as witty as he was at the beginning of the show.

Overall, I did genuinely enjoy “Crash Landing on You.” The writing, barring Yoon Se-Ri and Captain Ri Jeong Hyeok’s relationship, was consistently good for a K-drama, and the action was well-done and believable. While I struggled to get through the initial parts, the show grew on me, and by the finale, I found myself emotionally invested in all the characters, even Se-Ri and Jeong Hyeok’s relationship. Ultimately, although “Crash Landing on You” is by no means a cinematic masterpiece, it is perfect quarantine entertainment material that does a great job in humanizing North Koreans.