North Korea, the totalitarian “Hermit Kingdom” doesn’t often get a cinematic treatment in Western media. If consumers of Hollywood films were to comb their memories for a film with North Korea as a backdrop, they’d inevitably arrive at the 2014 screwball Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy, “The Interview”. The 2019 South Korean drama “Crash Landing on You” mines the divide between North and South Korea deeper than parody, stereotype and caricature, however, and finds humor and humanity in its characters on both sides of the DMZ.
“Crash Landing On You” stars South Korean actress Son Ye Jin, a prominent and popular “KDrama” star, as Yoon Se Ri, a spoiled heiress and businesswoman who accidentally hang-glides across the border into North Korea in a publicity stunt for her cosmetics company gone terribly awry. She comes under the protection of military captain Ri Jeong Hyeok and his unit, and humor and bonding ensue as their respective cultures clash.
A Nuanced Portrayal
North and South Korea’s shared history and language diverged upon the end of armed conflict in the Korean War, with no reunion in sight and a physically and politically reinforced divide between the two countries. “CLOY” presents a fairly reality based portrayal of the nuances of life in North Korea. While the West is used to images and tales of prison camps, starvation, and enforced obeisance to the Kim dynasty and its current leader, Kim Jong Un, “CLOY” tackles little seen details of daily life like the jangmadangs, or black markets, where women buy contraband beauty products, and differences in the Northern and Southern Korean dialects.
While it doesn’t shy away from the hungry orphans and oppressive political climate, ‘CLOY’ also depicts middling Communist party officials who are henpecked by their relatives, concerned for their children, grieving their losses, and trying to impress their peers in society-a whiff of Jane Austen’s cheeky humanism touches characters that in the West would inevitably be portrayed as downtrodden or villainous.
A Reunification Fairy Tale
Se Ri bonds with her new North Korean acquaintances over matters of the heart, shared meals, and shared concerns. As the series winds down, reunion and separation emerge as a prominent subtext. When Se Ri returns to Seoul, her North Korean friends wonder if she can feel them thinking of her. Typical of the genre, there’s plenty of longing between Se Ri and love interest Jeong Hyeok, but with the weight of decades of stalemate between, and a border patrolled by the respective militaries of, their two countries.
The bonds that Se Ri forms with her North Korean friends and lover have greater weight than the ties that bind in other KDramas – they carry the subtext of the hope of reunification between two halves of what was long one nation, now divided-although that is a topic that many South Koreans meet with mixed emotions. So, too, do the separations and reunions of ‘CLOY’ carry an extra emotional heft than KDrama’s usual melodramatic excesses, because they allude to the generations of Korean families divided by geopolitical forces greater than themselves, and the reunions that are only possible at great cost and great risk.
Se Ri and Jeong Hyeok have their eventual reunion, fittingly on neutral ground: Switzerland. Privilege and twists of fate only possible in a drama determined to end on a note of happily ever after render Se Ri’s journey a fairy tale of reunification.
Crash Landing on You Summary:
10/10 – Streamed on Netflix, “CLOY” achieved international popularity and its impact is still being felt. The drama, and their recent real life engagement, have made Son and her co-star, Hyun Bin, international household names. The appeal of “CLOY” lies in its balance of realism and wish fulfillment, and subtext of division and reunification, a recipe for pathos.
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