South Korean Netflix series shoots for the moon
These people think they are safe. They are inside, where the air is shared and mixed. Tiny airborne particles travel through the vents, traveling through the ducts in gaseous silence before reaching an enclosed space where groups of people unknowingly breathe them in. Disease traveling in invisible droplets doesn’t reveal itself until it’s too late, at which point all people can do is hope for the best but expect the worst.
Watching this simple sequence of events becomes even more eerily terrifying thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and its years of anxiety over mask-wearing, apnea and hand sanitizing; when it is represented in The silent sea, the public reaction is obviously grim. There are several similar reference points, but that’s the problem with the new Netflix show – people have seen this story and events unfold before, and yet they take on a dark new meaning in 2022.
Freak Out in a Moonage Daydream
The South Korean sci-fi drama taps into a variety of existential anxieties that have consumed the culture of late. The silent sea doesn’t reinvent the wheel (or the moonbase), but it draws on so many prevalent elements of contemporary fears that it spins the wheel and sends it over a jagged edge. Distrust of government, climate-related catastrophe, corporate misdeeds, social inequality, invisible diseases and panicked conspiracies – all of this nightmarish fuel has been fueling humanity’s engines of collective anxiety for a few years now and driving this Korean drama through a relevant trip of white joint tension.
As mentioned, the eight-episode first season of The silent sea piggybacks on many classic sci-fi tropes, but does so in a fresh and uplifting way. There is the assembly of an elite team sent into space during a disastrous time for the planet; the group (of predictable archetypal characters) are tasked by the government to recover something valuable left over from an unresponsive space base, but lies and secrecy shroud their mission. Of course, the mission is emotionally personal for the protagonists who get the most screen time, and obviously everything starts to go wrong, with the astronaut crew encountering something that kills them one by one.
Still, this new series has a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score from critics for good reason, having become something more than the sum of its simple, referential parts. It opens with an immediate sense of danger and chaos, with the spacecraft crashing shortly after the Balhae lunar research station it was supposed to reach. The characters greet the audience in a state of confused shock and painful nervousness, a perfect introduction for a series that then follows them in ever-increasing anxiety over a very short period of time.
Although the contemporary action is strictly lunar, the series returns before the mission in each episode, slowly revealing the characters’ motivations and narrative mysteries. The situation in The silent sea is dark and presumptuous, detailing an overheated world where resources (especially water) are running out and citizens depend on sociopolitical and economic status to survive in the manner of credit card-like transactions. Elite superiors carry coveted gold cards, ensuring the tap is always on for them, but most aren’t so lucky with the flow of their water supply.
Song sung in silence
Astrobiologist Dr. Song Ji-an is one such figure, but not for the same reasons as government officials and the business elite. Doctor Song’s sister died in the “accident” on the Balhae moon base, and the government expressed condolences with a shiny gold card. Song thinks there’s more to the story than just a “radiation leak”, thanks to encrypted and secret documents from his sister. Clearly there are deeply personal and possibly political (as if the two could ever be separated) reasons for the astrobiologist to undertake this treacherous journey, but Song is playing his cards very close to the chest. She doesn’t let her fellow space travelers understand much about her, and she does the same with the public.
Song is a fascinating character, starting the show already in a depression and carrying a silent but heavy burden with her wherever she goes. Doona Bae plays the role perfectly, proving why she is one of the best South Korean actresses working today. She was loved by Bong Joon-ho, who helped her create wonderful performances in Barking dogs never bite and The host, and was a favorite of the Wachowski sisters, who tapped into her particular brand of cool (first expressed as a hip anarchist in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) with their projects Sense8, Jupiter’s Ascendancy, and cloud atlas (where she perfectly plays five roles). She brings her impassive freshness to The silent sea as well but infuses it with a deeper melancholy and grief than usual, and the result is captivating.
Another excellent performance came from Yoo Gong, who became a talented and reliable presence on South Korean television in the 2000s before breaking into the international scene with gripping and totally committed performances in Train to Busan and squid game. He is one of many South Korean actors who are currently getting a lot of attention in North America, a sign of a new trend that is seeing Western culture embracing Korean drama. While the non-English films of Park Chan-wook and the aforementioned Bong Joon-ho have certainly received critical acclaim from Western critics over the past two decades, this developing trend didn’t completely take off until quite recently.
Just west of South Korea
Credit it, maybe, with Parasite not only winning the Oscars for Best International Feature Film and Best Director in 2020, but also Best Picture, becoming the first non-English language film to do so in the awards’ 92-year history at the time. This prompted Hollywood producer Janet Yang to tell TIME magazine, “It’s a huge break in a psychological barrier. This wall that we built, in which non-English language films were limited not only in release or box office, but in people’s minds, is being cracked. Since then, Youn Yuh-jung has become the first Korean actor to win an Oscar, for Best Picture nominated. Minari. Her acceptance speech went viral and was nothing short of joyful.
Then, of course, there is squid game, perhaps the most talked-about TV series of the last couple of years, though it’s certainly not the only one garnering a ton of ratings and acclaim in the United States. From Kingdom eagerly awaited we are all dead, Korean Zombie TV Becomes Extremely Popular; Korean romantic television is flourishing, with Bachelor’s Hell becoming the first South Korean show to make it into Netflix’s top ten most-watched series worldwide. Hell, sweet home, My name, and the next Money theft are all talking about them. With Netflix providing dubbed versions of these shows in a variety of languages, and the same language variation with subtitles, it seems like the line between “international” and “domestic” is blurring. With the disappearance of these lines of demarcation, a fascinating cultural dialogue takes place between the American and Korean media.
The silent sea quietly entered the conversation, perhaps overshadowed by larger, adjacent releases like the popular fantasy adaptation the witcher or an airy romance Emily in Paris, but stands out with its perfect Rotten Tomatoes score and rave reviews. The initial episode is arguably the worst of the eight, which is a shame; it’s not exactly bad, but it doesn’t prepare the audience for the quality of the series. The CGI and visual effects actually seem to improve, going from looking like a mid-2000s video game in the first and second episodes to actually realistic and often incredibly impressive visuals. Halfway through the third episode, in what would become infamous as the “water vomit” stage name, audiences may realize they’ve been hooked, caught up in this new thing about old things. , infected by his contagious drama.
Space to breathe (but not)
Creator and Director Choi Hang-Yong Makes a Bold Choice to Shoot His 2014 Short Film The Sea of Tranquility (referring to the lunar “Mare Tranquillitatis”, the very first off-planet location humanity ever landed on) in a full television series. Going from 37 minutes to around seven hours is a big step up and is often unwarranted at the start of the show, with more sequences walking down the halls than an Aaron Sorkin drama. However, it proves to be a wise choice over time, leaving room for the characters to come into their own and for the tension to skyrocket. What begins as a chillingly fast-paced mystery becomes a full-on thriller halfway through, and hardly lets anything go. Viewers may find themselves involuntarily holding their breath, the way characters sometimes have to avoid infection.
Well played, often beautifully shot, with extremely tense music and disturbingly relevant themes, The silent sea worth watching after its first episode to catch a glimpse of sci-fi realizing some of its full potential. Instead of being worn down by its well-known tropes and familiar plot mechanics, the series uses these elements to craft something urgent, dramatic, and timely, slowly perfecting the standard stories in the process. This is an excellent series for a fascinating cultural moment, a moment in which people both stay home and away from the silent onslaught of disease, but also somehow engage in productive cultural dialogue with nations and peoples around the world. The silent sea continues the dialogue and deserves to be heard.
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