Over the spring break I was able to catch up with trends on social media and watched smash-hit K-drama Crash Landing on You (CLOY), a Netflix series directed by Lee Jeong-hyo, starring Hyun Bin, Son Ye-jin, Kim Jung-hyun, and Seo Ji-hye.
The hilarious plot begins with Seri, a South Korean chaebol heiress and influencer (think of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop) crash-landing in North Korea and meeting Ri, a handsome North Korean military officer. There’s nothing new about star-crossed lovers, especially in Korean Dramas but the premise of having North and South Korea reunite in an allegorical love story turns out to have a broad appeal from fans of the Korean Wave to academics in the field of entertainment and geopolitics.
After Seri fails to escape back to the South, Ri while suspicious of her true identity, offers her refuge and protection. The first five episodes revolve around Captain Ri helping Seri escape back to the south. Each attempt is often foiled by a scheming villain whose contempt for Ri, is eventually revealed to be rooted in his jealousy towards his privileged birth, being the son of an influential Police Director.
Hyun Bin and Son Ye-jin have great chemistry which familiar audiences might have had a glimpse of in the 2018 film, The Negotiation. As Captain Ri and Seri in CLOY, they draw so much humour by play with stereotypes between North and South Koreans. As a North Korean military officer, Ri has smooth “lotioned” skin, chiseled features and lofty confidence of a “rich man” K-drama male lead. While there is novelty in the characterization, it retains some standard K-drama practice. Ri gradually and reluctantly dotes on Seri—whose endearing feistiness often forces him out of a cynical stoicism.
Another source of humor comes from cultural differences between communist North and capitalist South. Seri copes with the ordeals of living in a small commune where leaders regularly check on homes and depend on each other for protection. Seri is amazed by the ingenuity of North Korean self-reliance which is a hallmark of its communist ideology. The lack of technology makes them rely on folk knowledge to preserve food and make hot showers.
A switch happens in the second half of the series and it is suddenly Ri and his platoon’s turn to experience the “temptations of capitalism”: instant noodles, automatic doors, computer games, and buckets of fried chicken.
Generally praised for its nuanced portrayal of North Koreans, Crash Landing on You is notable for reversing the male-female power dynamic that often relegates the North Korean as a damsel in distress who falls for a South Korean knight-in-shing armor as in the 2012 series Korean Peninsula. In CLOY, the North Korean is not an uncouth ignoramus but is an officer and gentleman who is both a European-educated pianist and an expert martial artist. Seri Yoon is a ruthless lady boss who becomes “just another woman in love” in the arms of Captain Ri. Coming out from the hardships and lessons of living in the North where her wealth means nothing, she emerges from her suicidal life and purposeless money-making to confront treachery within her own family. CLOY is very successful in holding up a mirror, not of real perceptions but of possible scenarios that subvert the underlining political reality of a country divided. The freshness can be attributed to twists rather than wholesale changes in the melodrama formula. The North Korean military officer easily substitutes for the typical kind-hearted gangster that have proven to appeal to female audiences.
Every episode in CLOY begins with a disclaimer that all organizations, events, and personalities are fictional but it has also been praised for its authenticity. Head writer Park Ji-eun is reported to have collaborated with a real-life North Korean defector Kwak Moon-wan.
According to a BBC article, Kwak’s intimate knowledge of how North Korean officials operate meant he was able to contribute ingenious plot devices: “For example, at one point, secret police come across Se-ri hiding in a village. Jeong-hyuk quickly comes up with the line that she is a spy with Division 11, the military unit which works undercover in the South.”
The ruse helps explain her Southern accent, her lack of paperwork and her appearance, and gave the character the freedom to explore the village and interact with others, while refusing to answer their questions about her life on security grounds.
Throughout the show, depictions of life in North Korea are rendered more credible that could only be possible through the insights of someone like Kwak. Trains are shown abruptly stopping because of power cuts, homeless children on the streets, and fridges used to store books and clothes instead of food. Kwak also helped create a subplot in the drama, of another pair of star-crossed lovers from the North and South, Gu Seung-joon and Seo. After embezzling a huge amount of money from Se-ri’s brother, Seung-joon goes on the run, and decides to seek refuge in North Korea. According to Kwak, the lack of Interpol’s jurisdiction in North Korea makes it a haven for corporate criminals.
CLOY also has excellent set design: the old-fashioned provincial shack of Captain Ri, has a “Kimchi Basement”. Exterior shots of Pyongyang landmarks like the Ryugyong Hotel and Juche Tower also dispel the notion of Pyongyang as completely backward. The drama also shows Captain Ri shopping for smuggled consumer goods in a jangmadang, an informal market that has sprouted up over the past decade throughout North Korea. The linguistic divide of North and South which may not be as apparent to foreign audiences is a running gag in the series. Ri’s comrades and Yoon tussle over the correct way of pronouncing “shampoo”. CLOY winks at audiences with its constant reference to popular plot points from phenomenal K-dramas like Stairway to Heaven and Winter Sonata. An unforgettable cameo by Choi Ji Woo has sent fans raving about the series for days.
With the recent win of Parasite in the Oscars and the success of CLOY and other K-dramas on online streaming sites like Netflix, it seems that a revitalized era of the Korean wave is upon us. With a carefully studied use of plot devices and veering away from stereotypes unless necessary, CLOY shows an awareness of North Korea that proves how new media can move forward from antiquated notions inherited from the Cold War. CLOY is a high point in a handful of K-dramas (Joint Security, Spy Myung Wol, Iris, etc.) that portrays North Korea with brand new sensitivity. It makes the whole world root for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. There are many obstacles which have to be sorted out and there has been a significant advance in recent years with the bilateral talks between leaders of both governments. Until then, the success of light-hearted CLOY serves as a poignant reminder that borders between nations are artificial structures that can always be torn down. It happened in 1989 in Berlin and many times before that in history. It also fuels the fantasy for the meantime that unrelenting love can bring together people of different ideologies. There are plenty of examples that illustrate how natural disasters have done this, so why not a paragliding mishap in a storm?