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Netflix’s ‘The Silent Sea’ is a proof of concept for Korea’s sci-fi might

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In the Netflix sci-fi series “The Silent Sea,” the world grapples with an apocalyptic drought. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX

“The Silent Sea” proposes a horrifying world that is ruled by water. Climate change finally destroys the earth’s ecosystem and causes massive drought, making water the most important resource to be had. In Korea, it’s treated as a marker of status and a form of currency: the amount of water you are allowed to collect is based on your professional rank. A revolt is on the brink, as angry citizens clamor to abolish this caste system. Seoul is presented here as a barren city, with the mighty Han River dried up as gleaming high rises crowd the skyline.

This is the world that astrobiologist Dr. Song Jian (Bae Doona) inhabits, and the series kicks off as she is called by the Korean Space and Aeronautics Administration to join a mission on the moon. Led by captain Han Yunjae (Gong Yoo), the team heads to the abandoned Balhae Lunar Research Station after a radiation leak killed 117 crew members five years before. They’re given 24 hours to retrieve samples of the research left behind. After their spaceship makes a perilous crash landing, they soon realize that this retrieval mission is a lot more than they bargained for.

"A Silent Sea" is the first Korean sci-fi drama set in space, featuring a truly star-studded cast. From L-R: Lee Moo Saeng, Kim Sun-Young, Bae Doona, Gong Yoo, and Lee Joon. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX

The series is adapted from director Choi Hang-yong’s 2014 short film “The Sea of Tranquility,” and has been touted as a landmark endeavor in many ways: it’s the first Korean sci-fi drama set in space, featuring a truly star-studded cast of Bae Doona (a Netflix regular with “Sense8” and “Kingdom”), Gong Yoo (“Train to Busan,” “Guardian: The Lonely and Great God”), and Lee Joon (former idol by way of second-gen boy group MBLAQ, “My Father is Strange”). Beloved actor Jung Woo-sung (called by the show’s cast as an “artist’s artist”) assumes an executive producer role for the first time. Series writer Park Eun Kyo is best known for co-writing the 2009 film “Mother” by director Bong Joon Ho.

Realizing all the stellar CVs padding every surface of this series, I was anxious about watching “The Silent Sea.” With everything in the right place, the odds are decidedly in favor of the show. Netflix has also had tremendous success with its recent Korean productions: 2019 zombie series “Kingdom” became a genre hit while “Squid Game” became the platform’s most watched series as of November 2021. But Netflix productions, on the whole, can be like hit or miss. “The Silent Sea” felt like watching a free kick that could potentially be a hat trick, and I’m the nervous wreck sitting at home, hoping for another goal. I am also wearing a jersey that says “Bae Doona” at the back.

The series is visually arresting. Balhae Research Station is a claustrophobic labyrinthe but wonderfully retro, evoking mid century modern aesthetic with rounded window corners and the varying shades of beige. No amount was spared as far as the set design was concerned, and the support of a global entity like Netflix allowed director Choi to employ virtual production techniques using LED walls and visual effects work. Instead of acting against green screens, the crew was able to bring realistic images to the screen. Gong Yoo said in the production interview “[t]hat tremendously helped our acting. These efforts, big and small, define the details of our work.”

No amount was spared as far as the set design was concerned, and the support of a global entity like Netflix allowed director Choi the opportunity to employ virtual production techniques using LED walls and visual effects work. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX

The acting, more than anything, is what carries the entire series through. It was an ensemble effort, with Bae delivering a strong, stoic performance as a scientist with many questions and just as many secrets. Gong Yoo reprises his role as the nation’s kind DILF-slash-unproblematic straight man. Kim Sun-Young (“Crash Landing on You,” “Her Private Life”) proves her mettle as a dramatic actress, but also provided a complementary levity to Bae’s austere role. While the rest of the crew isn’t given enough backstories for me to emotionally invest in, the show gave a lot of room for physical acting — there’s a painful sequence of the lunar crew walking on the moon’s surface in the first episode, and you can feel every labored step on their faces.

The series is a lean eight episodes with the pilot running the longest at just 51 minutes, relatively short for K-dramas that are typically 16 episodes that average at 90 minutes per episode. It certainly makes for a bingeable watch, but the refreshing pace fails to pick up on personal cues that make an audience root for the characters. The lack of an emotional connection also made certain plot reveals less satisfying; why should I care about this random dude on the moon? While we learn about the motivations and histories of the main characters, the supporting cast fades into the background — and it doesn’t help that everyone is wearing the same thing for most of the series.

The thinness of the character development reveals the hidden seams within the scriptwriting. Writer Park shared during the production interview that “The Silent Sea” was originally intended to be a feature film, but Netflix offered for a series instead. “I figured a series would give us room to present these stories in a relaxed way while preserving the feel of the original,” Park said.

The acting, more than anything, is what carries the entire series through. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX

Yet that’s exactly what the series feels like: a show that would have worked well as a really long movie. The show’s indulgent visual sequences in space do, quite literally, feel like they exist in a vacuum. For a story hinged on water scarcity, “The Silent Sea” is surprisingly apolitical. Previous Korean blockbusters like “Parasite” and even “Squid Game” were blatant criticisms on the dangers and hypocrisy of capitalism, and “The Silent Sea” attempted to make an equally strong statement. But very little time was devoted to the social constructs ruling this version of the earth (e.g. the true nature of the water caste system, if paper money still exists) and so what then is the true price of venturing into space?

It’s possible that Choi and Park are deliberately withholding this context for a planned second season. Despite my misgivings about the script, “The Silent Sea” was a captivating watch, and proves that with the right hands, a science fiction blockbuster about the moon can offer something new. It’s a painful foreshadowing of a terrible future that looms, and shows how even in the most dire circumstances, humanity will go on desperate lengths to ensure its survival.

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“The Silent Sea” is streaming on Netflix beginning Dec. 24.