Spoilers follow for The Silent Sea.
There are many mysteries at the heart of The Silent Sea, the South Korean sci-fi miniseries that dropped on Netflix on December 24. Why is humanity so selfish that it allowed the world to plunge into environmental devastation? What help could space exploration, specifically the resources found on the moon, provide? Is there a future for humankind?
And, most important: What is up with Gong Yoo’s neck tattoo?
Gong has been a mainstay of Korean TV and cinema for 20 years; in K-dramas Big and Guardian: The Lonely and Great God, in the kinetic zombie thriller Train to Busan, and in the capitalism-as-trauma series Squid Game. (You want Gong Yoo to slap you? So do we all!) Now the actor, who once played a magician despite not needing any tricks to look like that, leads the ensemble cast of The Silent Sea, which follows a group of South Korean scientists, engineers, and astronauts traveling to the country’s Balhae Lunar Research Station on the moon. Five years ago, dozens of crew members at the research station died — because of a radiation leak, according to the government — and their work was never made public. The Space and Aeronautics Administration is now sending another team, led by Gong’s Captain Han Yoon-jae, to retrieve a capsule sample of something from the station before they destroy it. Captain Han is a rules follower, and he often butts heads with Dr. Song Ji-an (Bae Doona), who suspects the SAA is keeping an array of secrets about what’s being done on the moon.
The Silent Sea director Choi Hang-yong, adapting his own short film The Sea of Tranquility, and writer Park Eun-kyo evoke Aliens and The Road in their depiction of an Earth with scarce water. Gross-out body humor actually serves a narrative purpose, with Choi transforming revolting vomit scenes into pensive ruminations on the transient nature of bodies. And Bae, whose work with Bong Joon Ho, the Wachowskis, and Kim Eun-hee has made her a genre mainstay, grounds the series as the unapologetically intelligent, quietly yearning Dr. Song.
But is this analysis of the series’ strengths what you’re here for? Probably not. You want to talk about Gong Yoo’s neck tattoo, and you probably have that old Aziz Ansari line running through your head: “If he has a neck tattoo, I’m gonna lick it.” So, what is this black-and-gray rendering on the left side of Gong’s neck, and what does it signify? Let’s figure it out together.
The tattoo first appears 70 seconds into the premiere episode, “Balhae Lunar Research Station,” after the team’s ship crashes on the moon. Gravity has everyone flipped and floating, but what is really most important to consider is how far down the Captain’s tattoo goes. Are we talking about a collarbone situation? You’ll have to use your imagination for this, since there are no Gong Yoo shirtless scenes in this series. I apologize; please direct all complaints to Netflix.
We get a greater sense of what the tattoo depicts with another glimpse later in that same episode. Does it look like a circuit board? Whatever it is, it exudes authority and efficacy. I would follow this man anywhere, my captain, my king!
When the team gets to the research station, things get weird. “Uncertainty is everywhere, in space and on Earth,” the team realizes, and Captain Han tries to guide them through it in third episode “Cause of Death.” When Captain Han meets with Dr. Song and the team’s other doctor, Dr. Hong Ga-Young (Kim Sun-young), in the station’s main research laboratory, he’s exhausted, weary, and wearing what looks like a white Tyvek suit that contrasts well with the dark ink of his body art. Also in this shot, maybe a clue: Does the symbol on the Captain’s earpiece look a bit like the tattoo beneath it?
The tattoo is all the more intriguing (cough, fantasy inducing) because of how little we see of it. But then, finally, in fourth episode “The Truth Comes Out,” the truth does, in fact, come out. And by that I mean that sure, The Silent Sea confirms some of the shady stuff that was going on at Balhae, but more important, we get to see the captain’s tattoo in its nearly full glory.
Gaze upon it! It is in fact a re-creation of his unit’s interlocking triangle insignia, with additional lines and angular flourishes! And it perhaps explains why at the end of the series, instead of the Captain returning to Earth to reunite with his ill daughter, he sacrifices himself to save Dr. Song, Dr. Hong, and Luna (Kim Si-a), a young girl and clone upon whom the scientists at Balhae had been experimenting. His loyalty to his squad, and his hope that they might return to Earth and build a better world for his child, is his primary motivation.
That’s very selfless and noble! But it is also a tragedy, because it means that Gong’s Captain Han dies on the moon, and if there were a second season or sequel to The Silent Sea, he theoretically would not be in it. His loss is an addition to the sad-space sci-fi subgenre that is basically as devastating as, say, Ad Astra. I am only being slightly hyperbolic!
— gong yoo doing things (@gongyoothings) December 22, 2021
Thank you for your service, Gong Yoo. We’ll salute that tattoo, and treasure the life-ruining face attached to it, forever.