K-drama fans around the world have a new love and he, unlike Prof Do, is no alien from another star. Rather, he is the very human and very hot Captain Yoo Si Jin from the South Korean army, Planet Earth.
Since Descendants Of The Sun - a Korean romance starring Song Joong Ki as Captain Yoo and Song Hye Kyo as the doctor he is wooing - premiered in South Korea, China, Singapore, the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere last month, it has been fast displacing the 2013 hit drama My Love From The Star in viewers' affections. Descendants has a total of 16 episodes.
In Seoul, where episodes seven and eight aired last Wednesday and Thursday, Descendants has been reaching ratings above the 30 per cent share of the audience and has long surpassed My Love's highest numbers.
In China, where My Love - which starred Kim Soo Hyun as Prof Do - was a huge hit, the growing popularity of Descendants became official when the Chinese Ministry of Public Security issued a tongue- in-cheek warning on Weibo, cautioning against an unhealthy obsession with Song Joong Ki.
But the warning came too late for a 20-year-old Chinese woman, who was reported to have been diagnosed with acute glaucoma after she binge-watched 16 episodes of the K-drama Cheese In The Trap and two episodes of Descendants.
Six episodes into the drama and he has already saved the female lead from a car dangling off a cliff. It was really romantic and exciting.
MS LEE MEIYAN, an undergraduate, on actor Song Joong Ki in Descendants Of The Sun
The Chinese video platform iQiyi is releasing Descendants exclusively in the country and at the same time as in South Korea.
In Hong Kong and Singapore, Descendants is the most-watched show on Viu, the K-drama streaming site and app. It declines to give viewership figures. The drama also airs in Singapore on KBS World (StarHub TV Channel 815), the international channel of major Korean network KBS.
Singapore viewers are being left breathless by the fast-paced romance between the two Songs and the thrilling action in picturesque Greece, which stands in for a fictional war-torn country called Urk in the series.
Song Joong Ki's Captain Yoo goes to Urk on a peacekeeping mission and his love interest, Dr Kang Mo Yeon, played by Song Hye Kyo, also lands there soon afterwards as a medical volunteer.
Azure skies, pristine beaches and lovely ruins form a backdrop to the will-they-won't-they couple's flirtation and narrow escapes from death.
Self-professed K-drama lover Sylvia Goh, 48, started watching Descendants for the leading lady, but was soon drawn to the boyish leading man.
She says: "I like Song Hye Kyo. I remember watching her in past dramas Autumn In My Heart (2000) and Full House (2004). Song Joong Ki is cute. I'm looking forward to more touching moments between them and if she accepts him."
Undergraduate Lee Meiyan, 23, is unabashed in her appreciation of the actor. "On top of the interesting plot, he is really charming. Six episodes into the drama and he has already saved the female lead from a car dangling off a cliff. It was really romantic and exciting. After his military service, he has definitely become more man, more mature-looking and muscular."
Male viewer Eugene Quek cannot deny Song Joong Ki's appeal after watching him in the 2012 melodrama The Innocent Man and Descendants.
The 17-year-old polytechnic student says: "The Innocent Man was a big hit in Korea. After Song entered the army, fans have been waiting to watch him again."
Some discerning fans also give screenwriter Kim Eun Sook credit for the swoonworthy Descendants. Kim, who has created hit dramas including The Inheritors (2013), Secret Garden (2010), On Air (2008) and Lovers In Paris (2004), is famous for her buzzy shows and punchy dialogue.
For South Korean housewife Oh Jung Yun, Kim's name alone was enough to draw her attention.
Madam Oh, who is in her 30s and lives in Singapore, says: "Secret Garden showed me the charm of a romantic comedy. The Inheritors was a bit disappointing. Still, hearing Kim's name made me anticipate the drama."
She recalls how Kim's lines lifted a solemn scene in Descendants, where Dr Kang has reservations about dating Captain Yoo because his job might get him killed any time.
The soldier then asks the doctor if she would be more likely to accept him as a boyfriend if he were "an ordinary man from a rich family".
Dr Kang says: "No, it sounds too ordinary to me."
Which is when Captain Yoo wins smiles from her and from viewers when he says: "I know I should have said 'a handsome man from a rich family'."
Publishing coordinator Geraldine Koh, 27, says: "The couple's banter makes the drama lighthearted and fun to watch. They are very direct with each other, sometimes to the point of making viewers blush."
There is no draggy second- guessing in this courtship. From the get-go, Captain Yoo identifies his target, Dr Kang, in the hospital, goes in for the kill and scores a date - all within the first episode.
Administrative service executive Angelina Ong, 25, says: "That's what I find so refreshing about this show - the way they are so straightforward with each other.
"The romance blossoms in the first episode, then they break up in the second episode. It breaks the norm of how K-drama romances usually unfold. So it keeps you wondering if the leads will end up together."
Madam Oh may be in Singapore, but she chats about the drama with her mother in South Korea and her sister in the United States on a daily basis on a text-messaging app. They discuss the latest developments in the show and also debate over which K-drama actor is more charming.
She says: "I asked my mother which K-drama male lead she prefers - Do Min Joon or Yoo Si Jin.
"Her answer is Yoo Si Jin. Because Do Min Joon is from a star, he can't be real in this world.
"Maybe it's possible to find someone like Yoo Si Jin because there are so many soldiers in Korea."
Descendants Of The Sun airs on KBS World (StarHub TV Channel 815) on Wednesday and Thursday at 8.50pm. The series can also be viewed on K-drama streaming site viu.com and the Viu app, which can be downloaded from the App Store and Google Play Store. New episodes are available as soon as eight hours after the telecasts in South Korea on Wednesday and Thursday.
For K-stars, national service means a dreaded two-year absence from the fickle show business. For Song, his absence seems to have made fans' hearts grow a great deal fonder.
Descendants Of The Sun, his first television drama since his military stint, has proved to be a phenomenal hit in South Korea, China and beyond after its premiere last month.
The stint was useful for his role as a romantic soldier, Captain Yoo Si Jin. Because Song began filming mere weeks after completing national service last year, he was able to switch back to military mode easily for the drama.
"I was already accustomed to the military manner of speech and had a military cut," he said last month, according to Yonhap News Agency.
Long before his forced absence, he had made a name as an actor and as a cast member of the popular variety show Running Man.
He is a playboy in the 2010 period romp Sungkyunkwan Scandal and acts as a revenge-driven ex- boyfriend in the 2012 melodrama The Innocent Man. For the 2012 hit movie A Werewolf Boy, he plays a wild, animal-like teen who is adopted by a human family.
Song, who left the regular cast of Running Man in 2011, remains close friends with his former co-host Lee Kwang Soo. He inscribed a love message to Lee on a rock in Greece, where he was filming Descendants.
Fans can only hope he will at least land on their shores when he begins his fan-meet tour in Asia later this year.
SONG HYE KYO, 34
With her doe-eyed looks and porcelain skin, Song was born to play the damsel in distress in K-dramas.
In the classic series Autumn In My Heart (2000), she starts a doomed relationship with a man she previously thought was her brother, due to a mix-up at birth. She ends up dying of leukaemia.
In melodrama That Winter, The Wind Blows (2013), she plays a blind heiress who is sceptical about love until she lets her guard down and falls in love with a charming con-man.
Fans have been pleasantly surprised by her refreshing turn as the fiesty doctor Kang Mo Yeon in Descendants Of The Sun.
"My previous roles were very reserved, viewers will get to see a new side of me," she says in an interview with infotainment programme Entertainment Weekly.
The spunky Dr Kang trudges on fearlessly in a disaster zone as she gets cuts and grime on her. She does not flinch when blood is splattered across her face during surgery.
Considered one of South Korea's top natural beauties and an A-list actress, Song has starred in many K-dramas and films, as well as Chinese movies such as Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster (2013) and John Woo's two-part disaster romance The Crossing (2014, 2015).
An in-demand brand spokesmodel, she is perhaps best known as spokesman for Korean beauty giant Laneige - a coveted spot she has held since 2008.
Said to be single, she reportedly dated her K-drama male leads - All In (2003) co-star Lee Byung Hun and Worlds Within (2008) co-star Hyun Bin.
Descendants vs My Love
Perfect boyfriends Captain Yoo Si Jin (Song Joong Ki) vs Professor Do Min Joon (Kim Soo Hyun)
The raison d'etre of the K-romance is the perfect boyfriend, who has ripped abs, a superior bone structure and eyes only for his perfect girl.
Professor Do, like a deluxe upgrade, is also tall and so rich that he owns a sizeable chunk of Gangnam, the posh district in Seoul. Plus, he is an alien with superpowers such as actually being able to hear his lady love Cheon Song Yi's cries for help kilometres away.
Unfortunately, he has little immunity against human diseases and has difficulties performing more basic boyfriend duties, such as kissing Cheon without falling sick.
So this round has to go to Captain Yoo. He might not be as tall and rich as Prof Do, but he is more of a natural all-rounder when it comes to pursuing a woman.
Armed with an electrifying gaze, a cheeky smile and loads of brazen confidence, he is capable of pulling off the cheesiest pick-up lines.
And the man is a total multi-tasker. He can cancel a first date with a woman and ask her to commit to a second date, while a helicopter waits to whisk him off to work.
Envy-inducing heroines Doctor Kang Mo Yeon (Song Hye Kyo) vs superstar Cheon Song Yi (Gianna Jun)
When it comes to the female lead, the question is: Who would you, the female viewer, rather be?
Do you want to be superstar Cheon, walking in her Jimmy Choo stiletto heels and effortlessly slipping into her size-zero designer dresses, but living with all her insecurities?
Do you want to be Dr Kang, an intelligent, confident professional who has seriously bad-hair days but whose date thinks she is sexy, even when she has a patient's blood on her face?
Do you want to be a damsel in distress, waiting to be saved by her alien boyfriend? Or do you want to be a woman who saves lives and still gets to go on a hot date afterwards?
Cheon is the escapist choice and Dr Kang is more empowering. She is also a heroine who would belong in a classic romantic comedy, the kind who gives as good as she gets. This round goes to Dr Kang.
The love factor: Descendants Of The Sun vs My Love From The Star
My Love From The Star stresses that it is a story of pre-destined, inter-species love. It tells you this over and over again, and hammers the point home in key romantic scenes by overwhelming you with the theme song titled, of course, My Destiny.
But the drama is actually more frequently propelled by a murder subplot, with Prof Do having to save Cheon from a killer several times.
Descendants Of The Sun wins this round hands down. It is a heady romance, which gives you the vicarious thrill of watching two beautiful people flirt, fall in love and try to date in one impossible scenario after another.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline 'My new love from the Sun'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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