Series Review: Mr. Sunshine (2018)

The creator of the much-loved K-drama Guardian: The Lonely and Great God, Kim Eun-sook, stands behind this latest K-drama, available for streaming on Netflix. Mr. Sunshine is a sumptuous epic, set at the turn of the century in Seoul, Korea. Although there are no goblins or gods in this tale, there are many internal and external forces at play.

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This is an empire struggling for independent existence, trying to navigate a volatile political climate, which has many powerful countries looking to get a piece of Korea. The Japanese are there. The Russians. The French. The Americans. All are sniffing around, looking to establish greater global holdings. The Koreans are fighting amongst themselves. The empire is still very much a caste system with reigning aristocracy and subjugated peasants and slaves. Yeah, it’s a swirling eddy of political intrigues and fighting factions.

And into this powder keg comes Mr. Sunshine.

Mr. Sunshine

Mr. Sunshine is Eugene Choi (Lee Byung-hun), a decorated Korean-American soldier, a Captain of the US Marine Corps, who has been sent to Joseon (Korea) to be the Acting Consul for the United States. He’s something of a nowhere man, too Korean in America and too American in Korea.

Decades prior, the slave boy Eugene escaped Joseon and its caste brutality after witnessing his parents’ deaths at the hands of their aristocratic owners. He stowed away on an American ship and found purpose and meaning in the democratic melting pot of the United States of America. He has risen through the ranks in the Marines and is a disciplined and principled military man.

But the return to the land of his birth unsettles this stoic, taciturn, disciplined man. Memories of his childhood, of his parents, of the treatment of slaves, flood his thoughts. Anger and resentment and plans for revenge build in him. Hatred for this place blossoms.

And even as his carefully controlled exterior hides the swirling emotions, it all gets even more complicated when he meets a certain woman. Yes, love muddies it all even more.

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Go Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri) meets Eugene on the rooftops of Seoul on a dark night, when they both are out to assassinate the same man. She has been trained as a sniper in the Righteous Army, a rebel group fighting for Korea’s independence. But by day, she is a beautiful, demure noblewoman, raised in luxury and privilege, everything Eugene despises.

Ae-shin is rebelling against the constraints of her noble position, idealistically fighting for the Righteous Army. He’s just there to represent his government’s interests, not to get involved in all these internal intrigues per se. But his apparent aloofness is continually challenged by his own honor and moral code.

Eugene questions Ae-shin’s rebel involvement and apparent idealism: “I was a slave. Regarding the country you’re trying to save, I wonder who is it for? Is there a life for butchers? Is there a life for slaves?” Ae-shin’s rebellion — is it just fighting to preserve the status quo, her own privilege? It’s a question that comes up again and again in the series. Who and what are you fighting for?!

The Love Pentangle

Yeah, so we’ve got our star-crossed, potential lovers. And then we’ve got our love pentangle. Yeah, forget the old love triangle trope. Mr. Sunshine’s got five competing love interests at play.

Ae-shin is betrothed to Kim Hee-sung (Byun Yo-han), an extremely wealthy nobleman, coming from a powerful and influential aristocratic family. The patriarchs have arranged the union. Hee-sung initially sought to get out of it by spending a decade in Japan, but upon his return, he immediately falls for this fiancé of his, who is no longer a girl. Hee-sung is a charming, effusive, smiling lady-slayer.

Goo Dong-mae (Yoo Yeon-seok) is the haunted bad boy, the son of a butcher (the lowest of the low in the caste system except for slaves), who fled to Japan and returned to head up the local chapter of the Yakuza. So, he’s an eccentric and dangerous gang leader, who loves Ae-shin from afar. An act of kindness on her part years prior has endeared her to him for eternity.

And then there’s Kudo Hina (Kim Min-jung), the beautiful and conniving hotel owner (whose old hubby mysteriously kicked the bucket), who’s got her savvy fingers in many pies. She sits like a black widow in her web and finds herself taking a greater personal interest in one US Marine Captain.

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Love in a time of political unrest has many pitfalls. I’ve not seen the whole series yet, but I fear that like many star-crossed lovers before them, it will not end happily ever after for Eugene and Ae-shin. Commitments to causes greater than their individual desires will set love aside. Mr. Sunshine is after all an honorable military man and Ae-shin is the noble assassin. Duties will come first, of that I am sure. Sigh.

An Epic Feast

Mr. Sunshine is beautifully shot, a feast for the eyes. The costumes, the sets, the actors are wonderful. There is great chemistry between all the leads. Lee Byun-hun and Kim Tae-ri’s looks of longing and restraint are the stuff of epic romance. It’s good.

Although not totally historically accurate, Mr. Sunshine sets focus on a time period in Korea’s history which is very interesting. I know nothing of Korean history, so however embellished it may be, Mr. Sunshine is an engaging historical look/fantasy. And the focus is also on the role of women in society, on the traditional restraints and constraints. That is always appealing.

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Mr. Sunshine is epic in its scope, and the first episode is a sort of prequel, the heartbreaking events leading up to Eugene’s fleeing to another land. The series is 24 episodes in length, over an hour each, so it is some epic TV here. And it does feel like it drags at times like they’re stretching it, milking it for all its worth. But you can use the time to figure out just who everyone is and how it all fits together. Yes, it’s initially rather confusing just figuring out who belongs to whom and who’s that and on it goes.

But once you’re in, it keeps you.

Where to Watch: Netflix.

Content Note: There are some disturbing scenes of violence, including battle scenes and slaves being beaten. There is some blood, but no gore and nothing too graphic. Other than that, there is nothing to come after.


Photo Credit: Netflix.

OVERALL RATING

Four and a half corset rating

“You had me at hello.”

ROMANCE RATING

Five heart rating

“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope.

I have loved none but you.”

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