Korean television dramas have always been popular across Asia, but the region may have hit peak K-drama fever with military romance Descendants of the Sun.
“This show satisfies all my fantasies,” 35-year-old Beijing fan Ms Dai said. “It reminds me of the feeling you have in a romantic relationship.”
Seoul’s latest offering chronicles the star-crossed relationship between a soldier and surgeon. It has won millions of fans across the region, but also caused alarm from some authorities.
The 16-episode show began airing on South Korean television in February. It is also being simulcast online in China and streamed on other websites – not always legally – watched by South East Asian fans.
It has all the familiar ingredients of a K-drama: a convoluted plot, A-list actors and an exotic location – in this case Greece, standing in as the fictional war-torn Mediterranean country Uruk.
But one unique feature of Descendants of the Sun is its military setting – it is often not fate that gets in the way of the main characters’ happiness, but the urgencies of war.
The show is mostly set in Uruk where a special forces captain played by Song Joong-ki juggles peacekeeping duties with wooing an army surgeon played by Song Hye-kyo – rather inconveniently, he often has to leave her at crucial moments to save lives or go on mysterious missions.
The military theme has resonated because the armed forces play a big part in South Korean society, with the constant looming threat of war with the North, and where conscription is mandatory for male citizens.
An editorial carried by the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily praised it as “an excellent advertisement for conscription” showcasing South Korea’s “national spirit” and “communitarian culture”, and suggested China create a similar soap opera.
At home, the drama has broken viewership records and won plaudits from even the likes of President Park Geun-hye, who said it could help spread South Korean culture and boost tourism.
The city of Taekbaek, where some of the filming took place, is now planning to rebuild the film set because of intense interest from tourists, reports the Korea Times.
But its main fan base lies overseas, particularly China, where so far it has been viewed more than 440 million times on popular video-streaming site iQiyi.com. China has strict rules on broadcasting foreign dramas, but relaxed them for Descendants of the Sun, whose production was reportedly partly funded by Chinese investors.
The show has been sold to 27 countries including the UK and translated into 32 different languages, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
But fandom has its costs. There were panicky reports in Chinese media earlier this month of a woman who nearly went blind binge-watching the show and another drama, when her 18-hour marathon session triggered acute glaucoma, according to BBC.