Note: There will be spoilers.
Sisyphus: The Myth is JTBC’s 10th anniversary K-drama. For this landmark project, there’s of course no way the producers were going to settle for the ordinary fare of good-looking boys, a typical romance, or an obvious, predictable plot.
No, Sisyphus was pitched as an exciting story about an engineer who was too intelligent for his own good. Because of his brains, his ego balloons, resulting in the downfall of himself and the whole of South Korea.
As the finale episode aired on 8 April, now’s probably the best time for a review.
I’d like to caution again that this article contains spoilers.
Sci-fi in K-dramas
Technological advancements and changes to audience viewing trends have pushed Korean producers to develop their craft to keep K-drama fans satisfied. Riding on the success of the “classic” romance K-dramas, producers have ventured into developing high-budget TV series. While some decided to do high-adrenaline action, thrillers or zombie/monster K-dramas, a handful chose the path less travelled: Time travel.
Fantasy narratives are a complex beast that few have been able to tame even in Western media. Yes, high budgets can help studios attain a high visual aesthetic quality. But there seems to be a diminished guarantee of success when it comes to sci-fi.
Broadly speaking, I have identified two elements that make sci-fi a difficult genre to write:
- There’s little wiggleroom for “benefit of the doubt”
On top of the regular stuff like good characters, interesting/unique narratives and a rounded conclusion, sci-fi has the added complexity of needing logical cause and effect.
- There needs to be some “control” elements
It could be an object, or conditions to be met to help weave events together in a coherent manner.
What are the conditions to meet in order to time travel? In The King: Eternal Monarch, the “control” is the flute; for Signal, the old fashioned walkie talkie dictates when the main characters can communicate. The “control” for romance-driven dramas however can be as simple as being in the presence of water (Splash Splash Love), being in danger (Queen In-hyun’s Man), and for Tomorrow With You, I guess someone’s a special snowflake because the entire subway is his time travel machine.
Sci-fi can be convoluted.
To manage the viewers expectations, K-drama producers have decidedly put in place some safeguards to ensure their dramas are not entirely a flop.
What were Sisyphus’ safeguards?
This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. After all, the two main characters have had several intimate moments together throughout the drama. There’s even one timeline where Tae-sul and Seo-hae get married.
Not to say that introducing romance into the plot is bad. K-dramas did rise to fame by showing the world how the romance genre should be done. With their arsenal of clean-looking, sweet guys and inconceivably heart-fluttering scenarios in K-dramas, life and love, as we knew it, would never be the same again.
K-dramas built up a reputation from the romance genre, and naturally it’s the genre they return to when exploring time travel. When romance is the more dominant theme in a sci-fi narrative, it exposes how the writers opted to divert the audience away from dried up funding, writer’s block, or inadequate research.
In such instances, audiences are not so much concerned about time travelling more than they are about the characters’ relationship.
Sisyphus however did not use romance decoratively, nor did it overpower the whole narrative. It seemed to be cultivated within reason.
It is natural that people cultivate feelings for one another when they face and overcome problems together. Finding out that Sigma was playing matchmaker was a gripping plot twist. We knew from the start that Sigma was manipulative, but to think that even the personal, intimate emotions that Tae-sul and Seo-hae shared were for his benefit?
That’s pretty messed up, but also great function for romantic elements.
#2. Upbeat, action-packed sequences
Overusing scientific calculations and complicated theories may cause audiences to lose interest. As such, writers seem to favour using action and crime to complement time travel genre tropes. Evidenced in dramas such as Signal (2016), Tunnel (2017), The King: Eternal Monarch (2020), and Alice (2020), writers favour using high action sequences to break the potentially erroneous nerd talk.
But that’s not to say that Sisyphus’ action sequences were the best. While Sigma does reveal at the end that he kept them both alive on purpose, it was difficult to see how almost every gunshot misses. Sigma’s explanation for what I thought was poor action choreography was unfulfilling, so Sisyphus could have improved on that plot point.
#3. Fancy Iron Man gadgets and science-y talk
Unlike earlier K-dramas that put all their eggs in the romance basket, Sisyphus very courageously puts the “science” in sci-fi. Through Tae-sul, audiences are enthralled by a mix of Iron Man-esque gadgets and native wit.
You have to admit that the premise of Sisyphus makes the sequences of events leading up to the finale pretty plausible. Not only did Sigma more or less cover the bases regarding plot holes, the idea of time travel being made possible through an engineering/ physics prodigy helped integrate my watching experience into an otherwise incredulous “too good to be true” diegesis.
While bordering on cliche, the science-y babble gives the sci-fi drama an air of authenticity. Not because I have faith that all our physics and engineering friends are able to wire up crashing planes on the fly, but rather the complicated terms are elusive. The common response when we don’t understand what they’re saying is to gloss through the scene and accept things at face value. To make things better, the narrative is also self-reflexive, as though acknowledging the pitfalls of whatever logic they just threw at us.
In doing so, we unwittingly buy into the diegesis and this aids in the suspension of disbelief.
#4. Technology and VFX
The great thing about living in 2021 is that whatever cinematic magic that previous generations of filmmakers dreamt of, we get to experience it now. Back in the day, Star Wars used visual effects to give the illusion of lightsabers “powering up”; Jurassic Park and Godzilla included animatronics and scaled-down sets.
As Han Tae-sul would say, the future is already here.
To support the science talk, producers have access to digital and visual effects to make “time travel” come to life. For majority of us watching Sisyphus, the writers purposefully make characters exchange jargon and fill the screen with flashy technology and drones and lights in order to present time travel as futuristic — which if you’ve seen the behind the scenes, you would know Sisyphus had accomplished spectacularly.
Sisyphus: A flop?
While I found Sisyphus quite engaging, there are aspects of the k-drama that I wished they’d done better. For instance:
- Seo-hae’s diary.
It is revered as something of a prophesy limited to Seo-hae’s experiences. The narrative was explicit about the existence of alternate timelines (albeit later on in the drama), and so when Tae-sul gifts her a new one, it indicates the events occurring in the old diary had come to pass or did not happen. So diary has fulfilled its duty and can retire, right?
Given the prominence of the diary in the first arc of Sisyphus, the way it fades out of the narrative is problematic. There should have been some explanation about why Seo-hae wasn’t religiously writing in it.
2. Sigma’s backstory.
Sigma is that kid who plucks off all the legs of an ant, letting it die a slow painful death.
Sigma has a semi-tragic backstory, where he is abused as a child and is frowned upon as a scruffy-looking artist wannabe. And so the audience is supposed to feel injustice upon Sigma when Tae-sul buys one of his artworks just to find out where he lives, insults his artwork and threatens to kill him for reasons unknown to Sigma (which is reminiscent of the bullies in school and how they picked on kid Sigma).
The problem is that due to a lack of interaction, Sigma’s motivations for taking things so far appealed as an overused sob elementary bully story that pushed the acceleration from 0 to 100. In fact, Eddie Kim’s self-pity story actually got more sympathy from me, because we do see his journey with Tae-sul and Seo-jin and how his ugly green monster reared its head.
3. How does Sigma take over the world?
How does he survive a nuclear attack? Even if Sigma lived in a basement apartment and he taped up his windows. Even if this was meant to be a play on “fate is cruel”, because the only person who didn’t want live ends up surviving.
How does Sigma time travel to the past? He wasn’t smart enough to get his artwork to sell, so how did he concoct such a devious plan to ruin Tae-sul?
4. To end the drama or gun for season 2?
I’ll level with you — the conclusion ended weirdly. The sudden outburst from Eddie/ Seung-bok occurred when we expected Seo-hae to fade into nonexistence— an outcome that the drama had hinted about repeatedly, but highly mistimed. I get that it’s because Tae-sul is destined to die and the writer intended to pull out a final plot twist, but it was an awkward re-appearance.
Then again, most K-dramas end awkwardly.
So I guess they’re not too good with goodbyes?
Today’s audiences want to be convinced.
They want to think that the tensions surrounding the protagonist happened for good reasons. There’s always displeasure about how the plot progresses, or about how the intricacies of time-space continuum are “too confusing to follow”.
Movie magic used to be about a train entering the train station, but today’s audiences today are exposed to so diverse a range of media that perhaps we are becoming difficult to please.
Time travel is difficult
Many who were disappointed watched Sisyphus with specific expectations of the narrative and genre in mind. I argue however that Sisyphus might be one of the best put-together K-dramas that handled elements of time travel, action and romance better than other dramas of the same genre.
As for the confusing, open-ended ending on the plane, some have taken to online forums to rage about it. The final shot of Sigma appeared as though beckoning audiences to petition for a season 2 as well, fuelling the flames of disappointment among viewers of the drama.
But that’s precisely it: everyone’s dissatisfied with the ending, but we seem to neglect the most obvious reasoning for the way Sisyphus concludes. As a comment on “thereviewgeek” writes:
As the name suggests, Sisyphus’ ending [indicates a] cycle (acc. to tale of sisyphus [where] he again and again had to push the Rock and so his punishment never ended). So, now the original Sigma will [once] again find a way to destroy him…
The drama’s events were not made to conclude. The title, “Sisyphus”, indicates the looping, unending nature of Tae-sul’s tribulations and Sigma’s “punishment”.
We have only seen one timeline of several. Since Sigma is positioned as inherently “evil”, the ending suggests that he will continue to seek ways to destroy Han Tae-sul, branching the diegesis out into new alternate timelines.
Stop hatin’ on Sisyphus
The writers managed to juggle plot progression and character growth; casting was good; visual effects did not look cheap, and the opening sequence and OST nicely set the tone for the drama.
So all in all, I’d say Sisyphus is worthy to be JTBC’s 10th anniversary event.
While I may not be aware of what a “perfect” time travel drama is, I appreciate how Sisyphus explores new visual aesthetics and storytelling techniques. Many have trashed the drama online, but as a long-time K-drama watcher, I can attest that Sisyphus brings a semblance of “quality” to an industry sorely lacking.