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(News Focus) Crossing borders and genres, 'Descendants of the Sun' wows viewers

All Headlines 18:05 March 07, 2016

By Lee Haye-ah

SEOUL, March 7 (Yonhap) -- For the increasingly globe-trotting viewers here and elsewhere, the new TV series "Descendants of the Sun" offers sceneries they can identify with and a storyline they would love to claim as their own.

It isn't the first series to provide that combo, but its unexpected popularity has got producers and TV critics analyzing what set the show apart from its predecessors. By its fourth episode on Thursday, 24.1 percent of viewers were tuning in to the show, a huge proportion given that few series in the same time slot have crossed the 10 percent line in recent years.

The series begins in the thick overgrown fields of the two Koreas' demilitarized border zone before taking the two lead protagonists to a fictional war-torn country called Uruk. There, against the backdrop of sandy beaches and the sparkling Mediterranean Sea, a special forces soldier and a doctor fall in love while fighting to save lives.

Some may call it corny, but the tension in the characters' lines and physical surroundings creates a blend of action and melodrama in just the right proportions.

Behind that mix are the writers -- Kim Eun-sook, known as the Queen of Rom-Coms, and Kim Won-seok, known for his work on action and "masculine" productions.

"Kim Eun-sook hit it off (with Kim Won-seok) and her unique color clearly rubbed off," said chief producer Bae Kyung-soo.

At a press conference last month, Kim Eun-sook echoed those remarks.

"I often heard that I was copying myself, so I tried to get away from that," she said. "When I added my colors to Kim Won-seok's rather heavy frame, it became very entertaining."

As with all big-scale productions, budget issues and technical aspects are also thought to have contributed to the series' success.

Unlike other South Korean dramas, the series was entirely pre-recorded in order to allow for its simultaneous broadcasting in China, a huge market for Korean pop culture.

Industry experts estimate that the show was sold for between US$250,000 and $300,000 per episode to the Chinese online video platform iQiyi. Although the series' broadcaster KBS has not revealed the exact price, under that estimate, more than a third of the production cost would have been covered by so-called "China money."

"There were pre-recorded dramas in the past, but they were filmed without the guarantee of being aired, and in most cases, the cast and writers were weak," Bae said. "'Descendants of the Sun' was different from those productions from the start because it was the first pre-recorded drama that targeted the Chinese market. It was born out of a change in the market environment."

A total of 13 billion won ($10.8 million) went into the series' production, which comes down to about 800 million won per episode in the 16-part series. That far exceeds the average 400 million won spent on similar mini-series in recent years.

Production officials say about 65 percent of the drama was set overseas, so a significant portion of the budget went into actual filming in Greece and creating a film set depicting Uruk in the mountains of South Korea's Gangwon Province.

Computer graphics also took up a sizable portion of the costs, as the drama later involves an earthquake and rescue operations in the aftermath, according to Bae.

Cost-wise, it's hard not to mention the fact that Song Joong-ki, who plays the Army captain, and Song Hye-kyo, the outspoken doctor, are some of the highest-paid actors.

Of course, it's early to say whether "Descendants of the Sun" will continue its upward climb, given that other series that started strong have often fizzled out toward the end.

A good indicator of its future could be the number of viewer clicks it receives on the Chinese video platform, but no data has been released yet.

"Descendants of the Sun" airs on KBS 2 TV on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 10 p.m.

hague@yna.co.kr
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