“Yesterday seemed like a distant past, today felt unfamiliar and tomorrow was terrifying. It was a time of turbulence. All of us, each in their own way, were living through the rapidly changing Joseon.”
For the “Little Gang.” 🌸[Note: I was careful not to include any significant spoilers here, but only to discuss the characters as they are introduced early on ~ with a warning.]
In the midst of a rewatch of my first K-drama, My Mister, my brother and I started the 2018 historical drama, Mr. Sunshine (미스터 션샤인) and were shortly after joined by several others, including Dana. We really have the “Little Gang” on twitter to thank for it ~ and especially our dear “Raven”, leader of #TeamDongmae ~ and my friend Elliott, all of whom occasionally posted tantalizing photos from what looked to be a stunningly beautiful series in its cinematography. (Laura ~ #TeamHuiseong ~ was watching it mostly simultaneously, though she was ahead, and Connie ~ #TeamEugene ~ had already seen it. Their restraint in discussing it was truly heroic.) Their praise of the show kept us moving forward in spite of a difficult first episode.
And I am so glad we did.
Here are a few images which can do better justice than any words can, as to why it is not to be missed (click on each image to see enlarged):
The series takes place around the time of the Japan-Korean Treaty of 1905, in Hanseong (current day Seoul, South Korea), during the end of Korea’s approximately 500-year-long Joseon dynasty. The Joseon military had been all but wiped out by the Americans during the Battle of Ganghwa in 1871 (which is referenced in the story, particularly in relation to one of the characters who becomes a leader in the Righteous Army of Joseon, and trainer to our young heroine). The Japanese government had been insinuating itself into the ruling of Joseon; caught between the American military on one hand and the Japanese on the other, the Joseon people found themselves with uncomfortable bedfellows. Japan’s takeover would be complete by 1910, and would last until 1945.
“Between an American and a Japanese I die every day.”
The story centers around a young noblewoman, three leading men who all become fascinated by her and what she represents to them, and a hotel owner who has a part to play in bringing them all together. The individuals in this unlikely ensemble of five couldn’t be more different, representative as they are of the divided political, societal, and cultural forces within and without turn-of-the-century Joseon.
Eugene Choi (Lee Byung-hun), Captain in the U.S. Marine Corps, has been stationed with his friend and senior officer, Kyle Moore (David Lee McInnis), in his native Joseon, from which the 9-year-old Eugene, born into slavery, had fled under the most tragic circumstances. He quickly becomes intrigued by the beautiful Go Ae-shin, daughter of one of Joseon’s great noble families.
Go Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri) is the young noblewoman who haunts three of our leading men. But she herself is haunted, and by an unlikely source: the harsh words uttered to her years ago, that she is little more than “a noble fool who lives in luxury.” Hating the idea of a life bound to needlework and ignorance, restless for knowledge of the world and the forces pushing into her country, she finds an unlikely means of being of service, and a secret identity.
Kim Hui-seong, her intended fiancé, is a young nobleman just returned from a long period studying in Japan to try to make something of what he considers to be a wasted, dissolute life. Played irresistibly by Byun Yo-han who has a smile that could light up a room, we soon come to wonder whether there is more to this “handsome-Joseon man” than first meets the eye. He knows that his family has done some secret wrong, and he cannot rest until he discovers more.
Another character who becomes ever more and more fascinating is Eugene’s shadowy foil ~ and my favorite character ~ the ruthless Joseon-born butcher’s son who had, like Eugene, fled his native land. Now Gu Dong-mae has the whole of Hanseong in fear of him and of his “gang,” the Musin Society of Japan. Ever an enigma, haunted by his past and by the unattainable woman he loves ~ or, perhaps, who represents to him the almost unbearable possibility of hope ~ Dong-mae is portrayed with a thrilling intensity and bitter melancholy by the brilliant Yoo Yeon-seok, who absolutely commands the screen at every moment.
“I intend to become a man of use for you from now on.”
The most interesting female character, for me, was Lee Yang-hwa (known by her Japanese name, Kudo Hina, in Hanseong), a wealthy widow who runs the Glory Hotel. She too has an enigmatic past, having been married off by her father, Lee Wan-ik ~ one of the most despicable villains onscreen ~ to an older, rich Japanese man. (She reminds others, as needed, that her husband had died under mysterious circumstances.) She now has the wealth and influence to have an effect, one way or another, on Joseon’s fate. Kim Min-jung is fabulous in the role, a uniquely sardonic portrayal of a powerful woman who might be difficult to warm up to at first, but whose unlikely actions and arc, however enigmatic, make her irresistible.
“Be careful when you take a lady’s hand. We don’t always carry rainbows and sunshine.”
All of them will have to take a side, eventually, in the long, almost inevitably dark doom of Joseon.
Mr. Sunshine, directed by Lee Eung-bok and written by Kim Eun-sook, manages to blend old-fashioned adventure, romance, relentless beauty – one might say, ideals of another age, which prove to be eternal after all ~ strong and unlikely friendships, humor, and tragedy in one epic drama. And it has one of the great, unlikely bromances ~ a trio, in fact ~ and an amazing ensemble cast with minor characters you’ll come to love. It also has some of the strongest female characters you’ll find in a drama. I won’t say more, as to the plot, as it is a series whose secrets unfold gradually, which is one of its great strengths.
I’d already become fascinated by the Korean language and culture with My Mister and the glorious voice of Lee Sun-kyun, but Mr. Sunshine has taken the fascination to another level. (I’m working on sounding out Hangul like a kid learning her ABCs, and I’m now taking language lessons from a teacher in South Korea! He is far more patient ~ and less strict ~ than Eugene’s little teacher, the adorable Domi.) And I’m not the only one from our Mr. Sunshine-loving gang to be studying Korean now, and two of them are working on essays about favorite characters. That’s part of the beauty of this show ~ it captures the imagination.
I will warn sensitive viewers that the first episode is hard to take ~ and it is not always an easy go in general. On the contrary. I say this, however, with the intent to encourage you to move forward with it. The show takes its time; it might leave you hesitant and uncertain for a while. Unobtrusively but irreversibly, however, it will hook you in, its sad and glorious beauty, like the too-transient cherry blossoms, is a beauty worth risking one’s heart over.