“Crazy Rich Asians,” “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” and its sequel gained well-deserved applause for increasing Asian American representation in the media. However, I can’t say that these movies are highly regarded solely based on the merits of their content, which leads me to question whether representation has needed to come at the cost of artistic quality.
Then I found “Crash Landing on You.” I had heard my Chinese aunts and stepmom gush over K-pop stars and sometimes K-beauty products, but had never gotten into either myself. In the past couple months, however, the Facebook group “subtle asian traits” had been increasingly populated by memes based on a Korean drama commonly referred to as “Crash Landing,” eventually convincing me, in all of my quarantine boredom, to check it out on Netflix.
The romantic comedy, which achieved the second highest ratings in Korean cable television history, follows Yoon Se-ri, a South Korean conglomerate heiress who finds herself stranded in North Korea after a paragliding accident. She eventually falls in love with a North Korean Special Forces captain named Ri Jeong-hyeok, who helps her return home, while intersecting storylines ensue and viewers pull apart the past that shaped the protagonists into the complex characters that they are now.
Undoubtedly, the show presents some plot holes: Where did Seung-joon get the rifle that he used to save Dan? In their Swiss reunion, how did Ri Jeong-hyeok know that Se-ri would land on that cliff? It also leads into clichés common in K-dramas — the guy protecting the girl, kissing on the boat to deter a stressful situation and a seemingly static villain who molds much of the storyline yet lacks any real humanity in the character of Cho Choel-gang — but effective lampshading mitigates most of their injury.
Then there’s the unexpected: a glimpse into North Korean life, as partially told by Kwak Moon-wan, a North Korean defector who served as one of the writers; the idea that you could’ve met someone in a past life, slowly pieced together through the Swiss storyline; the surprising redemption of Dan’s mom, an embarrassingly brash Pyongyang elite who at the end of the day, simply wants her daughter to be happy, and is willing to move heaven and Earth to make it happen.
Each component of the show — romance, comedy, drama, action and suspense — was given the space to flourish, never leaving viewers wanting. I had belly-hugging laughs and shed, admittedly, more tears in the 36-hour period of binge-watching the series than I did in the same amount of time following my cancer diagnosis (albeit the latter caused me far more long-term pain). The best part of enjoying the production was that I consumed much-needed Asian onscreen representation without even thinking about it.
Seeing representation on screen is like taking your iron supplements. You didn’t even realize how badly you needed it, but once it reaches your system, you feel so much better — you begin to understand that the prettiest women don’t have to be blonde, “Asian men aren’t attractive” is a big fat (racist) lie and Asian characters can be as multi-dimensional as any role Meryl Streep has ever played.
“Crash Landing on You” has opened my door to other brilliant East Asian dramas, making me realize how odd it is to grow up exclusively watching white people move through the world. Thanks to different streaming services, I can connect to language, culture and art from other parts of the world more than I ever have before. International cinema from any continent helps to remind us that America is but one country, and we would gain from importing at least half as much art and pop culture as we export.
As “Parasite” director Bong Joon-ho said in his Oscar acceptance speech, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” (“Parasite” fans will be pleased to recognize the crazed man living in the underground bunker in “Crashing Landing on You.”)
Nonetheless, Asian American cinema is a niche that desperately needs to be filled, because contrary to what our parents think, Asian American is its own unique identity, rather than a diluted, adulterated shade of our ancestors. The work would also be vital in bridging the gap of understanding between a deeply complex community whose history has been largely ignored and the rest of America. But until such a glorious day, I will be resting my head on Hyun Bin’s broad shoulders.
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