How Sun and Jin's relationship went from problematic to transcendent on Lost
The way that Lost stars Yunjin Kim and Daniel Dae Kim first met sounds like the beginning of a great rom-com. Before they knew they would star on the fan-favorite ABC series together as husband and wife, they actually were introduced by a mutual friend and went out to dinner in Los Angeles. Since Yunjin is allergic to alcohol, she accidentally got too drunk and Daniel came to her rescue. "I remember getting really drunk on like my second drink, and Daniel took me home because my friend was a little drunk too and he said he was the most sober one out of the three of us," she tells EW with a laugh. "That was when I first met Daniel, and then I saw him on Lost and we were like, 'Wow, oh my god, hi! I know you!' It was such a great reunion." That chance encounter turned into a long-lasting friendship that included more nights out in Koreatown, lively karaoke performances, and so much more in the years since. But Yunjin and Daniel's onscreen romance on Lost was a lot more dramatic — and ultimately tragic — than how their real-life friendship unfolded.
The actors played married South Korean castaways Sun and Jin throughout all six seasons of the supernatural sci-fi drama, and while Lost isn't exactly the first show that typically comes to mind when you think of swoonworthy television couples, the way their underrated love story evolved over the course the series earned them the top spot in EW's ranking of the 100 best TV romances of all time.
Sure, you may be thinking, "What about Jack and Kate? Or Kate and Sawyer? Or Charlie and Claire or Penny and Desmond or any other iconic Lost couple?" But there's no competition — from Lost or any other series. Sun and Jin crossed time (literally) and space (repeatedly) to find their way back to each other, no matter what. They triumphed over the show's enduring "live together, die alone" theme when Jin ultimately chose to drown with Sun in the final season rather than survive on his own. Theirs was the only love story to span the entire series — against all odds, smoke monster or otherwise. And it also managed to subvert problematic Asian stereotypes along the way.
"I'd never seen a relationship like that on television before: two nonwhite characters, speaking predominantly in a language that was not English, on prime-time TV, and having that be something the average American could get behind and ship," Daniel tells EW. "Jin and Sun became the heart of Lost. But I think if people were to watch the pilot, they would never have expected for this relationship to have lasted let alone be one that was memorable."
No kidding. When Lost premiered in 2004, Sun and Jin originally appeared to be minor characters in a large ensemble of plane crash survivors, and their relationship was hardly the stuff of great romance. The couple mainly kept to themselves on the island in the beginning, seemingly because of the language barrier — they both appeared to only speak Korean, although Sun secretly knew English — and because of Jin's overprotective and controlling attitude towards his wife. This wasn't exactly a couple to root for, and that worried both Daniel and Yunjin. While co-creator J.J. Abrams promised the actors at the beginning of filming that the couple would eventually grow into an epic romance and out of the "domineering Asian husband and subservient Asian wife archetypes" they portrayed in the series' initial episodes, they feared Lost would be canceled before that happened.
"I was worried about representing the Asian community because it was a sensitive topic," Yunjin says. "Back in 2004, believe it or not, I was told we were the first two Asian series regulars on an American show." And Daniel says filming the first season was "really hard," adding, "For a long time, Jin didn't exist outside of that relationship — my entire character was created to be a foil, to service Sun's storyline. Jin was a secondary character to a secondary character, and he was this heavily xenophobic individual who was mean to his wife. The first scenes, where I'm telling her to button up her blouse, being someone who had been acutely aware of how many stereotypes had been in our media, it really was hard to say those lines and be that guy in those moments. My greatest fear was if we never got a chance to show that growth and if the only example of an Asian male on this show was one that was misogynistic."
Lost lasted six seasons but their fears almost came true regardless — early on, there were talks of killing off Jin as well as linking Sun romantically with another castaway, Michael (Harold Perrineau), instead. "I expected us to break up at some point," Daniel admits. It wasn't until the season 1 finale, when Jin and Sun passionately kiss goodbye on the beach as he prepares to leave the island in one of the show's most romantic scenes, that the actors truly realized they were on the cusp of something meaningful and big. "That was really one of the first times that we got to show unbridled love and passion as two characters," he says. "That was pretty special. It really opened up the possibilities of where these characters could go, where this relationship could go."
It's also the scene that convinced Yunjin to buy a home in Hawaii, where Lost filmed, instead of continuing to rent — she and Daniel even helped each other out in their individual house hunting. "I had a feeling we were going to stay until the end after that," she says of the pivotal moment. "It sealed our fate for the rest of the run." But filming the goodbye scene was anything but a fairytale on set, since it got too late in the day to finish both of Yunjin and Daniel's close-up angles. They had to pause and return the next day, coming in cold yet somehow still needing to get right back into the same, heavy emotional headspace for Daniel's coverage.
"Daniel was really, really upset because he was like, 'I've got to do my part, my only close-up, when we come back tomorrow?!'" Yunjin remembers. "That was a huge burden because as an actor, when you're in it, you want to get it done. You're so emotionally charged. And I was like, 'Don't worry, I got you.' I was with him and he was with me and we were both crying — I wasn't even on camera! But that's how we worked all the time."
Both Yunjin and Daniel knew how important that scene was, which only added to the pressure they were under to get it right. "It was such a rare opportunity, because I think it was the first romantic kiss [on mainstream American TV] for two Asian characters; it was a special moment, not just for us but for the Asian community," she says. "We knew the weight of it and that just brought us together even more, cheering each other on, so we can bring this passion and love onscreen."
It was a drive that the actors felt for much of the first half of the series as Sun and Jin's relationship continued to grow, albeit very slowly, from their problematic beginning. "There was a time when I would see my friends who are Asian American and I would brace myself for criticism," Daniel remembers. "And I guess sometime in seasons 3 or 4, right around that time, I would find myself bracing and then discovering that people were ready to give me compliments for the first time. That's when things started to change." Daniel was proud to hear the response to his character go from, "Man, I hate your character," to the past tense, "I hated your character so much, but now I'm rooting for him," and, "This character makes me proud to be an Asian man," he says. "The character had really started to make a positive impact. You had stereotypes or tropes that were overturned by great writing and an exploration of humanity as opposed to the low-hanging fruit of cliche and caricature."
Daniel and Yunjin applaud the Lost creative team of Abrams, Damon Lindelof, and Carlton Cuse for finally making their dreams for the characters become reality. "I would also give major credit to some of the writers that came on board like Monica Macer and Christina [M.] Kim," Daniel says. "It's important to have authenticity in the writers room to tell stories of characters who are not straight down the middle, especially back in 2004. Right now, there's an emphasis on authenticity both in front of and behind the camera, but there wasn't back then so writers like Monica and Christina were crucial to developing our stories."
As the series entered its final few seasons, the actors became pleasantly surprised and proud to see how Sun and Jin had actually evolved into "the emotional core of Lost," Yunjin says. "Our emotional journey took the whole series and took the sci-fi side of Lost out of the equation and really just made people fall in love with our characters and our [relationship]." She adds that Sun and Jin's unfortunate penchant for getting separated physically only added to that, as each emotional reunion just made people root for them more and more, right up until their devastating death just a few episodes before the series finale.
"It was so heartbreaking, and I know there was a lot of controversy with our ending but I thought it was done beautifully," Yunjin says. Daniel adds he considers that their death scene their most iconic moment. "Where he says, 'I'll never leave you,' that sealed it. That was almost Shakespearean," he says, before laughing and adding, "Oh gosh, I don't mean to compare Lost to Shakespeare, but he literally gave his life for her. He made a choice, that it was her over everything and everyone else, including their daughter — which actually was a subject of some criticism after the fact too. But it was one of those love over everything else kinds of stories, and that is the epitome of romance."
But again, bringing that scene to life wasn't easy. First, the news had to be broken to the actors that they were being killed off before the series finale. "All of us cast members dreaded getting the call because if you knew that there was a call coming from Damon and Carlton, you were most likely getting killed off the show," Daniel says with a laugh. "I got the call, but I took it well — I thought to myself, 'Well, at least I made it to the final season.'"
In season 6, episode 14, "The Candidate," Sun gets pinned in a sinking submarine after a bomb detonates in the underwater vessel, and Jin chooses to stay with her instead of swimming to safety, holding hands and kissing each other as the water level rises and ends their story (at least, in the island storyline — they both appear in the series finale flash-sideways church ending). Their death scene was shot in a giant water tank built on set, and the level of danger for the actors wasn't just fictional. "I remember swimming around the water tank and cutting my hand open because under the water there were nails sticking out," Daniel says. "I thought to myself, 'This is a fitting souvenir to this experience,' because I thought I was going to scar. I ended up going to the emergency room for a little while to get it taken care of and looked at to make sure it wasn't going to get infected."
Daniel is actually grateful for the injury, because he used the physical pain to inform the emotional pain Jin feels in the moment. "It helped ground the character," he says. "On set the mood was always generally upbeat but on this day it was not. It was very quiet behind the cameras and and I appreciated the respect that my co-workers had given us in that scene. I remember that when we were finished shooting there were some tears shed, not just in front of the camera but behind it by some of the crew members, and that felt good. It let me know that our work and our characters were having an impact."
Looking back on his time on Lost, Daniel now thinks of Jin as one of the most important roles of his entire career — which is ironic considering his initial feelings of the character. "It became the barometer through which I measured every other project since: Is it as good as Lost?" he says. "People people throw the phrase around but literally, Lost was life-changing for me."
All the best love stories usually are.
A version of this story appears in the March issue of Entertainment Weekly, available on newsstands Feb. 18. Read more from EW's celebration of TV's best romances of all time.