[Warning: The following contains spoilers for The Boys Presents: Diabolical episode, "John and Sun-Hee". Read at your own risk!]
The first moments of "John and Sun-Hee"show a faded photo of a couple in front of a pavilion. But it's not just any pavilion that's behind them, it's Gyeonghoeru Pavilion in Gyeongbokgung — the royal palace located in Seoul first built in 1395. Pictured here are John and Sun-Hee, the main characters of this episode from The Boys Presents: Diabolical written by Andy Samberg. When director Steve In Chang Ahn, 39, first read the script, the ethnicity of the elderly couple was not specified. But he requested for the characters to be Korean immigrants. "It makes them more on the edge as a hero and it makes them more desperate," Ahn told TV Guide. The photo in the opening scene shows the couple in the capital city of their country of birth. "They started from Korea, they got married in Korea, and then they immigrated to the U.S.," Ahn said. "The story is about the last chapter of their life."
"John and Sun-Hee" follows Sun-Hee (voiced by Yuh-Jung Youn), a woman on the brink of death from pancreatic cancer, and her husband John (voiced by Randall Duk Kim), who makes a dangerous decision in a last-ditch attempt to save her — one that results in the emergence of a deadly monster. The episode is one of eight in The Boys Presents: Diabolical, an animated spin-off series of the superhero satire The Boyson Amazon Prime Video. The show premiered on March 4 and, in addition to Samberg, features stories from Awkwafina, Garth Ennis, Eliot Glazer and Ilana Glazer, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, Simon Racioppa, Justin Roiland and Ben Bayouth, and Aisha Tyler.
The events of each episode take place in the world of The Boys, and, just like in the live-action series, are startlingly morbid and darkly humorous. "John and Sun-Hee," which leaves behind the comedic tone signature to the show, is undoubtedly the most stirring of the bunch. It's made all the more emotional through references to Korean culture and language that are deliberately specific, poignant voice acting performances, and a vivid musical score.
An earlier version of "John and Sun-Hee" leaned into the horror genre. "But when I read it I think the drama was stronger than the horror in this episode," Ahn said. "Instead of focusing on the monster, I think John and Sun-Hee's story was more significant to me." One particular kind of emotion stood out to him: the feelings from a farewell. "Personally, I left Korea when I was a teenager," Ahn said, "I said goodbye to my grandparents." Both of his grandparents have passed away, and the director drew on that experience for his character design. "When I draw, I need a reference to draw," he explained. "Saying goodbye to grandparents: I have a feeling, an emotion, a farewell in my memory. So I was able to bring that to this piece."
The drama element became more complex when the lead characters were turned into a Korean American couple, and when Ahn — who was born in Korea and moved to the U.S. when he was 14 — brought elements of his heritage into the episode. "As soon as we brought [a] Korean-American layer to it, it became more than just an old couple fighting a monster," he said.
It started with the names: "John is kind of a common name among first-generation Korean-American immigrants," he explained. And Sun-Hee is the name he picked for John's partner. "In Korean words, it contains purity in pronunciation. And I thought that name reflects well who this grandma is," Ahn said. In the episode, while John is bent on saving his beloved at all costs, Sun-Hee struggles to turn away from the harms caused by their decisions.
Another reference to Korean culture in "John and Sun-Hee" is the repeated imagery of gaenari, a yellow flower also known as Korean forsythia that blooms in the spring and is the official flower of Seoul. "Coincidentally, Andy wrote [the episode] with a yellow flower," Ahn said. "I was thinking, how can we make it as a symbol for Sun-Hee and how can we bring more subtext to this." He decided to incorporate gaenari as a representation of the elderly woman's life. "That's why in the hospital, gaenari leaves are falling," he said. The flower first appears in the episode when a lone petal from a withering plant falls next to a bedridden Sun-Hee. But at the end, as she makes the decision to leave John and fight the monster, the couple is enveloped by a glowing, golden forest of the flower. It was a scene of "celebrating her life through reblooming gaenari," Ahn said. "Even though it was a rough, immigration life, there was a beauty to it."
The director said that Sun-Hee and John represent first-generation immigrants. "A lot of Korean American first-generation, they came for American dream," he said, adding that he thinks second-generation and third-generation immigrants are more often the ones who fulfill their dreams. "Usually the first generation kind of fade away, doing all the work and jobs they didn't mean to have," Ahn said. In the episode, John works as a cleaner at Vought, the giant corporation that employs superheroes. Working as a cleaner was not uncommon for Koreans who moved to the U.S. between the '70s and the '90s, Ahn said.
The director wanted the couple's challenges to be reflected in the art style, too. Each of the episodes in The Boys Presents: Diabolical has a different aesthetic, and "John and Sun-Hee" is markedly more subdued in its palette. "John and Sun-Hee, even their colors are a little bit faded away," Ahn said, "kind of portraying how their American Dream has been rough for them and they're fighting till the end of their life." This message is conveyed through the lines drawn, too. "Nothing is perfect, we didn't even use a ruler to draw anything in the animation to bring raw representation of these two characters," Ahn explained. "In contrast, if you look at Vought or the monster their colors and lines are more beautiful."
The voices of John and Sun-Hee were also carefully thought out. Ahn knew he wanted to bring a Korean cast to the show. "There are a few Korean animated characters, but usually they are played by non-Korean voice actors," he said. Randall Duk Kim was cast as voice John, and Yuh-Jung Youn as Sun-Hee. "After we cast [Youn], we heard the news that she got nominated for an Oscar," Ahn said, referring to the seasoned performer's nod for her role in Minari. And her recording day for The Boys Presents: Diabolical came right after the weekend in April 2021 when she became the first Korean actress to win an Academy Award. "It brought a lot of pressure to us to meet a new fresh Oscar winner," Ahn said. He described weeping behind the monitor, along with other crew members, upon listening to the recordings from Youn and Kim. "Their voice color already carries the duration of the life," he said, adding that their acting brought out the emotions of the characters.
Youn and Kim's voices were not the only sonic element that conveyed John and Sun-Hee's feelings. Hyesu Wiedmann, 41, composed music for the episode and wanted it sounds to follow the couple's emotional journey. "There's a solo cello throughout the score," she told TV Guide. "We had two different ranges in the cello — lower register representing John's voice and higher register representing Sun-Hee's voice." Widemann aimed for the two melodic lines to convey John and Sun-Hee's feelings that were not expressed in words.
The supervising director of the episode, Giancarlo Volpe, had reached out to Wiedmann in the process of finding a composer of Korean descent for the music in "John and Sun-Hee." "I only knew very, very basic information about the project. That it's about [a] Korean couple, and things go in a way that is very unexpected," Wiedmann said. "The big question of the episode is, how far can you go for your loved ones?"
Wiedmann was born in Korea, moved to the U.S. for college, and now lives in Los Angeles. Upon hearing the episode's theme, she immediately thought of "Arirang," a popular Korean folk song thought to be more than six centuries old. "One of the producers told me that's exactly what Steve [In Chang Ahn] thought," she said. Though there are many versions of the song, the themes of separating from a loved one and longing for a reunion appear regularly. "I arranged it in a style that I thought would be most fitting for John and Sun-Hee saying goodbye," Wiedmann explained. "That's the version that you will hear over our end credit."
The final words that Sun-Hee says to John in this goodbye scene are also packed with meaning. "Gwaenchanayo," Sun-Hee tells John, the Korean word meaning "it's okay." "Don't forget to eat on time. Don't skip meals just because I'm not there," she says in Korean before launching into an attack against the monster. "Just saying goodbye, I thought it wasn't strong enough to hit that emotion," Ahn said of the scene. "We were thinking, what if there are Korean lines that have a meaning of farewell." Phrases about eating were the answer. "A lot of foreigners, when they travel to Korea, they ask why so many Koreans ask them if they've had lunch or dinner," Ahn explained. "It's kind of a generous way of saying, 'How are you doing?'" He said that when it comes to goodbyes, people in his community often share reminders about meals instead of explicitly saying farewell. "We share love and concern and care through asking, confirming the meal," Ahn said. Because of this, the last moments between Sun-Hee and John felt perfect to him.
Ahn has worked in animation for 15 years and said it's his first time working on Korean characters as heroes. "This is still happening in The Boys world, but I thought it was a great opportunity to bring some Korean-American and Asian American representation in animation," he said. "I took it more personally than just a job."
"I definitely want to be one of those Asian directors who can bring more voice[s] of Asian community," Ahn said. "We need more representation, especially in animation." While the director has seen more diversity in live-action stories, he said he feels that more Asian voices could be heard in animation.
"Personally, I never knew I would be introducing 'John and Sun-Hee,' such an emotional piece, to this world. It's very different," he laughed, referring to the diabolical world of The Boys. "If the audience can feel the emotion that is coming from the victory of these two unsung heroes, then I think I succeeded."
All eight episodes of The Boys Presents: Diabolical are available to stream.