Mr. Sunshine

Overall Rating: A-
Subtitles: The subtitles for this on Netflix were top notch, which I think is to be expected since this was a co-production (I believe).
Brief Synopsis: As the Japanese occupation of Korea becomes an increasing reality, a Korean noblewoman, a Korean born American solider, a Korean born leader of a Japanese gang, and a Japanese educated Korean aristocrat are thrown together in a city under political siege and forced to analyze their own identities and make life-changing decisions about what it is they believe in. Watch it on Netflix here.

**Full show spoilers below the image. If you do not wish to be spoiled, do not proceed**

Ending Type: If you like it when literally everyone dies in the end you’ll love this one. If you are a normal human and don’t enjoy that, we’ll call this a tragic ending. But not a normal tragic, not just like, “Some of then die some of them live,” this is like a “we bring supposedly dead characters back just to kill them again in front of your face” tragic ending.
Characters: Ah, my children. Mr. Sunshine was one of my first K Dramas and it still stands out to me as a masterful work of art, and the heart of that is the characters. The five lead characters of the series are Eugene Choi/Choi Yu Jin (Lee Byung Hun)–born in Korea to slave parents who are brutally murdered in front of him, Eugene escapes to America and only returns to Korea as an American soldier as foreign powers vie for control of the weak Joseon, Ko Ae Shin (Kim Tae Ri)–the granddaughter of the region’s most beloved Lord and secret sniper for the resistance movement, Goo Dong Mae (Yoo Yeon Seok)–the son of a butcher whose life was saved by Ae Shin who escaped to Japan and returned to Korea as a Japanese gang leader, Kim Hee Sung (Byun Yo Han)–the son of a wealthy Korean landowner who studied for many years in Japan and returns to Korea to see his betrothal to Ae Shin through, and Kudo Hina (Kim Min Jung)–the Korean-born widow of a wealthy Japanese man and the owner of the hotel where all the action happens. Sidenote: if you are trying to learn Korean, just listen to Kim Min Jung speak. Her diction is crystal clear and her voice is amazing.
This was a wild and wildly different cast of characters that were written with an intensity and a gravitas that really stood out for a K Drama. Even in historicals or serious shows there is usually a level of ridiculousness or silliness to many of the characters or situations, but Mr. Sunshine acted more like a Western melodrama with some situational humor and moments of levity but overall a very heavy feel with a very darkly magnificent cast of characters. The main five are tied together by the two women–Dong Mae is obsessed with Ae Shin as his lifesaver, Hee Sung falls in love with Ae Shin the moment he sees her and is determined to see their betrothal through, and Eugene (our main love interest) falls for Ae Shin after a series of incidents related to her sniping and his secret revenge agenda bring them together. Hee Sung and Eugene are also staying at Hina’s hotel, which Dong Mae and his gang protect. It creates an amazing dynamic as the five become entangled in the struggle between the failing Joseon and the Japanese army that history tells us will eventually dominate.
They were all wonderfully realized, with intense back stories (except for maybe Hee Sung who then appropriately had the most growing to do) and a fantastic interplay with each other, from Ae Shin’s cool standoffishness to Eugene’s internal conflict to Dong Mae’s rarely suppressed rage and angst to Hee Sun’s I-have-never-had-anything-go-wrong attitude to Hina’s calm and calculating badassery. It is impossible not to care deeply about all of them, and it makes their complex relationships with each other tantalizing and extremely dramatic.
P.S. there were a lot of truly excellent side characters here as well but ain’t nobody got time for that in a review that’s already about 3x as long as intended.
Relationships: Where to begin? Let’s do the Ae Shin love quadrangle first, in order of when and how they know each other.
Ae Shin and Dong Mae first meet as children. Dong Mae, the son of a butcher (basically the equivalent of an untouchable at this point in history), is fleeing for his life after his parents are brutally murder and Ae Shin hides him in her palanquin until he gets to safety. He then grows up in Japan and returns to Korea as the leader of a Japanese gang that commands a lot of power locally. He is as brutal as you would expect, but he has a huge soft spot for Ae Shin, who he remains in love with even if he’s terrible at expressing it. The interplay between the two of them, especially as he discovers that she is a resistance fighter and he has to openly defy everyone who has power over him in order to protect her, is really moving. They don’t actually have that many scenes together throughout the show but each scene is memorable and poignant, and even if I very much wanted to see Dong Mae and Hina get together I did appreciate that his loyalty and devotion to Ae Shin remained consistent to the very end. I knew they had no chance but his constancy does make you root for him despite yourself.
Ae Shin and Eugene are the main couple and love interests and despite how much I loved Dong Mae I was ok with being on this ship. The two meet while both going after the same target for very different reasons and learn to trust and rely on each other very quickly. Their budding romance was adorable and sweet and when shit hit the fan and everything got super real their unyielding devotion to each other was moving. I loved that they were separated for a while as they both remained true to their convictions, and after the time jump when Eugene returned to Korea I got teary-eyed, I’ll admit. I was super ragey that she had to watch him die after all of that, too. But overall I think the respect they had for each other and the firm foundation of their relationship was woven beautifully into the overall story and was really believable and touching.
Ae Shin and Hee Sung had the least interaction/romance despite the fact that they were betrothed. They had a couple really meaningful scenes (shoutout to the writers and to Kim Tae Ri for making you root for every single ship in this sea when Ae Shin has a scene with one of her three dudes) but overall the point of their whole shebang was to draw Hee Sung to Eugene and Dong Mae and to give his previously meaningless playboy life new meaning. His personal growth, driven entirely by his fascination with Ae Shin’s convictions, was a stand out part of the show. A good use of a love story that would ultimately go nowhere, in my opinion.
Hina and Dong Mae and Hina and Ae Shin also deserve some love. Even though Dong Mae was dense af and didn’t realize Hina cared about him until she confessed while literally dying in his arms, the friendship and partnership between the two of them was awesome. They were both people who did not have any support growing up and had to go to extreme lengths to make their way in the world, which gives them both an edge and ads a great deal of meaning to the trust they place in each other, even if they are extremely realistic with their expectations. How well they knew each other, and how well they worked together was really cool to see, especially since Hina was an unattached female in a historical K Drama. The power she was allowed to have in this show, and the grace with which she navigated a very male world without once becoming a sex object was amazing. I also loved that the the story allowed Hina and Ae Shin to become allies, even if Hina felt some jealousy related to Dong Mae’s devotion to Ae Shin. When it came to the important things, though, Hina always came through for the younger woman, and seeing the two of them work together, even reluctantly, was really powerful.
Last but not least we have our bromance, which I was frankly more invested in than any romance plot (which is saying a lot because I was INTO the romance in this one). But watching Eugene, Hee Sung, and Dong Mae shift from enemies fighting over the same woman into a very reluctant friendship and partnership was pure gold. Most of the comedy in the show comes from the three of them doing their nightly drinking and pretending that drinking and talking together every night does not make them friends. When they start to show up for each other and rely on each other I got real feelings, folks. It was beautiful. And it was great that even when their loyalty to each other was established they did not lose the initial bite of their relationship, especially with Dong Mae’s disdain for Hee Sung who blithely ignores it at every turn. Happily the users of the internet were just as into this bromance as me and there are just fantastic fanvids on compilations all over YouTube dedicated to this fantastic trio. Truly a bromance for the ages.
High Points: The world, the characters, the story, the production. This was a really masterful show, high quality to its core. Really engaging and compelling in a very difficult period of history with rich, complex characters, great relationships, top notch production elements, and excellent, consistent writing. I can’t rave about it enough.
Low Points: The freaking ending. Honestly this would be a top K Drama for me if it wasn’t for the ending. No one was expecting a happy ending–it was about freedom fighters in Joseon in the early 1900s. We all know that the Japanese occupation happened and persisted until the end of WWII. Going into the show you know that the Japanese are going to prevail and our ragtag resistance movement will fail. But the way they took the story was just harsh, to be honest. They had a choice to end it on a high note, or even a bittersweet moment. The story, in many ways, was about Koreans from different walks of life finding meaning in their identity and homeland. It could have ended with those who chose to fight banding together and resolving to keep fighting. That would have been a happy version. In the bittersweet version you get some people dying, some people living on. In the truly tragic version everyone dies at once, together, in a final grand stand. We get…. none of that. Instead characters who were presumed dead come back to die again and most characters you know and love die in a grand stand while Ae Shin and Eugene are on a train to Manchuria with some other resistance members and then Eugene dies in front of Ae Shin FOR NO REASON. Literally there were…. so many ways he could have gotten out of that it honestly felt like a slap in the face just the writers saying, “NO HAPPY ENDINGS FOR YOU BEYOTCHES.” And Ae Shin alone lives so she can train other fighters who…. die. Like it’s 30+ years from the end of the story until the end of the occupation and even then it’s fifteen to twenty more years until Korea was really independent and at peace so Ae Shin doesn’t get to live to see that anyway. Let her die with Eugene or let them live together, idk. I watched this with a friend of mine and we stayed up until 3 am to finish the season and we were both very upset and felt super betrayed by the way the ending played out. I was just not about it.
Final comments: This was a beautiful and fantastic historical that really checked all the boxes for me. If nothing else, watch it for the bromance. Or Yoo Yeon Seok’s phenomenal transformation into a shaggy and cocky Japanese badass. And then stop watching like 2/3 of the way through the final episode and tell yourself they all get to Manchuria. Maybe even stop before the Dong Mae/ Hina double death scene and tell yourself they found a way to a peaceful life together. But seriously, I absolutely recommend watching just…. prepare yourself for the ending.

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