“Sometimes the wrong train takes you to the right station”
– Indian Proverb
The Netflix Series Crash Landing on You (Korean: 사랑의 불시착, Sarang-ŭi pulshich’ak, literally translated: Love’s Emergency Landing) is a South Korean Drama which was released in December 2019. It follows the journey of Yoon Se-ri (played by Son Ye-Jin), a successful businesswoman and South Korean Chaebol¹ heiress who lands in the North Korean section of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) after a paragliding accident caused by an unexpected storm. There she meets Ri Jeong Hyeok (played by Hyun Bin), a captain in the Korean People’s Army, and a whirlwind of adventures ensues. We follow his and his four loyal soldiers’ attempt to return Yoon Se-ri to South Korea and experience the remarkable contrast between Se-ri and Jeong Hyeok’s worlds – and the aftermath of their collision.
The story follows a large cast of characters, all with their own amusing and tragic stories on both sides of the 38th parallel. This includes the North Korean village women, as well as Gu Seung-Jun, a South Korean con man who is hiding in North Korea to avoid criminal prosecution for his deeds, and Seo Dan, the daughter of a department store owner in Pyongyang, whose fates we learn are intertwined with our main characters.
Crash Landing on You is a heart-warming drama with just the right amount of action, comedy, and romance. It is especially good for viewers who have never seen a K-Drama before, as it details aspects of North as well as South Korean culture. But beware! This show may trigger an unexpected love affair with other K-dramas!
Having seen other South Korean dramas, Crash Landing on You remains my favourite for various reasons:
1) Great Characters with Depth
Despite their origins, all characters on this show are believable and relatable. Se-ri’s fear upon seeing the strange actions and behaviour of North Korean villagers for the first time is palpable and learning about Jeong Hyeok’s tragic past can leave one close to tears. Many emotions surface in this drama, from love and hate to deeper feelings of jealousy, greed, and resentment. The viewer can even sympathize with the main antagonist, Cho Cheol Gang, whose wicked actions seem psychopathic and treacherous at first glance. However, upon closer inspection, his nefarious actions towards Jeong Hyeok’s family are not an attempt to acquire more power, but to level the playing field, having grown up as a struggling orphan with nothing and no one. Nearly all the main characters in this drama have a story which is cleverly and neatly cultivated throughout the series, and whose loose ends are skillfully tied up by the end.
2) North vs South
What I especially enjoyed about this series is its neutral depiction of both North and South Korean cultures, leaving it up to the viewers to shape opinions on each society. Disparities in each culture are akin to stepping into a parallel universe. Despite this, at the human level, these differences are not as big as they seem. Not only do both cultures have a shared language, history, and even some similar customs –- but feelings of fear, love, power, and greed, we observe, are universal human attributes that permeate all borders. While North and South Korea have opposing political ideologies at their core, we learn that neither can create the perfect human experience.
While the North Koreans in Crash Landing on You experience extreme control by the state, there is a comradery between people of the military village where Se-ri ends up, depicted primarily by the village women. They do laundry together (by hand!), make Kimchi together, but most importantly – they protect each other from unknown outsiders. Jeong Hyeok’s soldiers are also loyal to a fault, refusing to rat each other out to the State Security Department by using clever tricks – “If you’re asking me it means no one else told you anything – I don’t know either.”
In contrast, South Korea is a place with unlimited choice – hundreds of varieties of rice and ramyeon², the freedom to pursue one’s dreams and acquire as much wealth as possible, but there is a caveat – this individualism can be quite lonely, if not completely isolating – and the competition can be soul-crushing. Se-ri, who grew up in an ultra-rich family and lacked for nothing, experienced overwhelming anxiety and, at a point, even wished to end her own life. She and her brothers were pitted against one another since birth, with the ultimate goal of inheriting their father’s company. As their father himself states: “A rich man has heirs but no sons.”
The writing of this show was assisted by North Korean Defector Kwak Moon-wan, who served with the elite security force which protects the ruling Kim family until 2004 when he defected to South Korea. After rebuilding his life in the South, he started working as an advisor and screenwriter in the South Korean entertainment industry, helping in particular with projects dealing with North Korea. The knowledge from his past contributed enormously to the making of Crash Landing on You and adds credibility to the series³.
There are so many themes present in this show. We have already explored the clear contrast between North and South Korea, but Switzerland, where both Jeong Hyeok and Se-ri had previously and unknowingly met, is used as a symbol for a kind of “neutral” territory.
Food is also a huge theme in the series, where characters in both countries are often seen eating together. Yoon Se-ri, who describes herself as eating “only three bites” of food at any fancy restaurant and having unusually picky tastes, would eat abundantly in the presence of Jeong Hyeok and his comrades.
Lastly, the importance of parenthood can be seen throughout the series, from the role a parent plays in a child’s life to the impact the absence of parents has on orphan children. This ties into death and the fear of dying alone; in one of the last scenes of the series, homeless orphan children are seen wandering around the marketplace in the North Korean village singing, “I’m a poor orphan. When I die and go back to nature, who will bury me? Who will tuck me in? Who will pour three cups of liquor on me?” This relates to two of the main characters who are orphans themselves. Themes of death, loneliness, friendship, and family recur throughout the series.
1) Glamourising North Korea
Though many things presented in this drama were indeed accurate, from blackouts that can last for days to constant control by the state and the presence of the black market, this drama can be accused of glamourising North Korean life. The villagers are shown having access to an abundance of food when in reality, food shortages are a common problem in North Korea. Furthermore, the series shows the typical feel-good “happy ending” for most characters in the series, implying that North Korean punishment or entrapment is not all that severe when in reality, most of the main characters likely would not have survived if caught.
2) The Elite and their Privileges
The only reason this story can actually work is that both Se-ri and Jeong Hyeok represent the top tier of their respective societies. Se-ri owns her own fashion empire and comes from a rich family, while Jeong Hyeok is the son of the Director of the General Political Bureau, one of North Korea’s highest-ranking officials. Without their respective circumstances, it is almost a guarantee that Se-ri (and possibly other characters) would not have survived.
Should I watch this show?
Answer: A resounding yes!
If you’re up for a whirlwind of adventure packed with comedy and romance and don’t mind reading subtitles (unless of course, you understand Korean), then I highly recommend this series! Comprising 16 episodes and over 20 hours of content (more than enough time to delve deep into various storylines, subplots, and character development), this series does not disappoint.
In the end, what I believe the show is trying to convey is that political ideologies are secondary to human connection and friendship. It shows how North and South Koreans are misinformed about one another due to the clashes of their respective states, given that both countries are technically still at war. That being said – North and South Koreans are still one people divided by politics, and Crash Landing on You reminds us of this. It makes us hope for a reunification, however far off that may be.
¹ (in South Korea) a large family-owned business conglomerate.
² Instant Noodles