Sun Rising Up: ‘Lost’ and Asian Women on TV

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The sixth episode of Lost was the first Sun episode. “House of the Rising Sun”, which originally aired on October 27, 2004, is one of the best episodes of the show’s first season, and it has stuck with me as the moment when Sun became a fully-formed and truly fascinating character, which she would remain until the end of the series.

Let’s talk about how rare this is. Sun is played by Yunjin Kim, a Korean actress who moved to the United States when she was 10, got some decent acting work, moved back to South Korea to star in films like Shiri (considered South Korea’s first blockbuster), and then was cast in Lost. In terms of representation on television, female Asian characters are hugely underserved, and Kim was one of the most consistently present Asian actresses on American TV for six seasons on Lost and now two seasons on Mistresses.

As Sandra Oh, star of Grey’s Anatomy, once said, “People ask me… about stand-up. ‘No, that’s Margaret Cho.’ I really think there is this kind of glomming, that they think we are somehow all the same person.” This is partly because there are so few Asian women with anything resembling a substantive position in popular culture, let alone on television. When Hettienne Park’s character was written off of Hannibal, viewers were understandably upset, beyond reacting to how she left — that’s one less Asian woman on our TVs every week.

Lost was a massive ensemble drama series that aired 121 episodes over six or so years, almost each one focusing on one character through flashbacks (and, later, flash-forwards and flash-sideways). This genius narrative style, never before executed on such a scale for such a prolonged period, allowed the writers to delve again and again into certain characters, revealing new layers over time that inform their current-day decisions and add context to what we know them to be. It wasn’t always successful, but there were undoubtedly more hits than misses.

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When one charts the character arcs of women on Lost, things get rather messy, beyond the convoluted plot. Kate Austen, played by Evangeline Lilly, is introduced as someone who can take care of herself, a fighter and a clever innovator. This was true at first, but soon enough her character became reduced to being involved in a standard love triangle, with Jack (Matthew Fox) and Sawyer (Josh Holloway). This is especially depressing knowing that she was originally meant to be the main character. In the end, her character became even more sidelined once she ends up mothering another woman’s child. Other female characters throughout the show’s run either end up dead–especially those that display real agency (Ana Lucia, Juliet, Shannon, Rousseau)–or only exist to serve male characters (including, to some degree, Kate, Juliet, Shannon, Claire, Libby…).

This is always tricky because on an ensemble show in particular, every character exists in some form to serve other characters, no matter their gender, and people die all the time on Lost. Many of these women also exhibit great agency and complexity (while alive), even if they are eventually punished for it. And yet, it’s still true that the women are almost always secondary to the main plot, which is driven by characters like Jack, Ben and Locke.

Which brings me back to Sun. Sun is a badass. In “House of the Rising Sun”, the first episode centered on her, it is revealed that she can speak English, information she has been keeping secret from everyone, including her husband, Jin. We learn that Sun felt like a prisoner in her marriage and wanted to escape to another country, a process that included learning English, though she eventually decides not to go through with it. Then their plane crashes. We watch in this episode as Sun changes our perception of her completely. Until now, we saw her as a passive character, taking part in a traditional, old-fashioned Korean marriage, with little agency of her own. That changes here and only grows through the series.

A caveat: Sun is a character often defined by her relationship with Jin, and the real drama for their characters in the last couple of seasons is whether they’ll ever be reunited. However, this is easily forgiven once you factor in how much choice Sun has, and how complicated and badass she is proven to be. This, too, is to say nothing of how effective the story of their relationship is (especially when compared with other relationships on the show). Their coupling is the one with the most passion, the strongest moments. From the second in “House of the Rising Sun” when Sun is about to make her decision to leave and Jin holds up a flower while waiting in line, such a tiny gesture hinting at so much more, it was clear this was a relationship worth losing yourself to. And, of course, in the end, we did.

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As the show went on, Sun showed agency time and time again (not to overuse that term, but it’s an important one). At one point, a pregnant Sun and Juliet sneak off in the night to conduct an ultrasound at an old Dharma station, screw the risks. She shoots Colleen, an Other, in an act of self-defense (though it was a bit of an accident). After leaving the island as part of the Oceanic Six, she returns with the group, determined to find Jin. She’s going to do whatever she has to in order to make that happen, reaching into hidden parts of her we haven’t really seen before, like when she knocks out Ben with an oar without hesitation. Her growth between the pilot and the final season is unmatched by anyone else on the show.

Sun was one of Lost’s most consistently compelling characters, and her arc was perhaps the most well-defined and easiest to root for. If anyone on Lost deserved a happy ending, it was Sun and Jin, which makes their story the show’s most tragic. The importance of Sun on a cultural level is far from tragic, however. In an industry where Asian women are marginalized and used as props, jokes, or background, it matters what roles these women are offered and how their characters are treated. In the 2012-2013 TV season, only 5% of TV characters were played by Asian-Pacific Islander actors, and can you think of any leads other than Mindy Kaling or Lucy Liu? This is why it matters, and this is why Sun is such a stirring and powerful character.

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