‘Like Flowers in Sand’ Is Your New K-Drama Obsession

Netflix’s new K-drama, Like Flowers in Sand, is a series without waste — a deliberate, consoling dive into ssireum, a traditional form of South Korean wrestling, set in an unassuming Geosan town reflected perfectly in Jang Dong-yoon’s earnest and unrefined Kim Baek-doo. The series begins as Baek-doo’s ssireum career ostensibly ends. A former childhood prodigy, the 33-year-old has failed to win a senior championship. As a scion of a family of winners, in a town defined by ssireum, no one can explain his failure. After getting blackout drunk, Baek-doo vows to his coach that if he does not win his next championship, he’ll retire. “What’s the point of continuing something I’m horrible at?” he yells into the phone. 

Sure enough, after a spirited first-round defeat to a fellow Geosan wrestler, he steps away. But Baek-doo’s poor performance isn’t the only mystery in Geosan. His opponent’s coach is inexplicably disappointed in his wrestler’s win. And when he disappears, only to be found dead in a field, Like Flowers in Sand shifts from a promising sports show to an understated, complex thriller.

None of which matters to Baek-doo. Aimless after walking away from a sport that defines him, his life is further rocked when his childhood friend, Oh Doo-sik (Lee Ju-myoung), suddenly returns to Geosan. She claims to be someone else, feigning ignorance of Baek-doo, but as the two slowly reconnect, Baek-doo finds himself lost in a mystery that finally grants him the motivation to win.

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The measured rhythms of ssireum are the perfect cipher for the drama that unfolds around Baek-doo and Doo-sik — careful examination and slow circling before the explosive attack. Like Flowers in Sand refuses to rush things, preferring to lay out small clues to its match-fixing mystery.

As Baek-doo and Doo-sik work to bring the secrets of Geosan’s ssireum underbelly to light — while shouting at each other about it, since Doo-sik is not the best undercover cop — Like Flowers in Sand becomes, like the best K-dramas, a heady mix of genres, effortlessly blending sports, police procedural, and romance into a captivating package that plays like South Korea’s less bombastic answer to Friday Night Lights.

That Like Flowers in Sand can do this in so short a time is down, in large part, to its robust and inescapable sense of place. Much as the seminal My Mister’s Hoogye-dong was brought to life by its rich cast of lived-in characters, so too does Geosan in Like Flowers in Sand. Characters feel like community fixtures, from the gaggle of ex-ssireum wrestlers gossiping all day while their wives work to the police force stuck chasing an escaped dog while a murder investigation unfolds around them. Baek-doo’s taciturn father, former ssireum star Kim Tae-baek (Choi Moo-sung), exists in the background, but edges forward as he wrestles with his son’s changing relationship with the sport that’s defined both of their lives. The enigmatic Joo Mi-ran (Kim Bo-ra) evolves from an intriguing minor figure as the owner of the local cafe into one with secrets of her own, playing both sides of the mystery. In its cast of talented character actors, one gets the sense of a community that’s stood unchanged for years, now rocked by the cracks that have formed.


Lee Ju-myoung is pitch perfect as an undercover detective keen to prove herself who’s rattled by Baek-doo’s sense of selflessness. But it’s Jang Dong-yoon, as Baek-doo, who shines brightest. He is utterly convincing as both a weary lost soul and as an intense ssireum sportsman.

Both make for a relatable pair as they bicker and apologize in record time. You feel as though these two have known each other for years. 


Yet their chemistry is only part of what makes Like Flowers in Sand a rare series in which all its parts work together in perfect harmony. It’s beautifully shot — never more so than in the visceral ssireum bouts. Woo Yoo-jung’s exquisite script turns on a dime from riveting thriller to philosophical inquiry of dreams unrealized, as Kim Jin-woo’s camera lingers on moments, letting them sink in. In a landscape populated by exaggerated dramas, it’s a welcome change of pace.

Moreover, Like Flowers in Sand never feels sluggish. It moves carefully, but guides you through a fully-realized world propelled by a quiet energy lurking within each shot — a muscular saga with plenty of heart.