I started watching Mr. Sunshine, or in Korean, Miseuteo Shunshain, because I saw it advertised on Netflix and wanted to learn some history (and maybe because I thought it would be the Downton Abbey of Korea).
I kept watching Mr. Sunshine for the characters. Is it sacrilege to say it’s better than Downton?
(minor spoilers ahead!)
We begin in Korea in 1871. A military battle, murder, suicide, and escaped slave later, we arrive in the United States in the early 1900s. The following 23 episodes of the Netflix-original Korean historical drama, Mr. Sunshine, give us the Korean perspective of the years leading up to the Russo-Japanese War and the fall of the Korean empire to colonization.
Mr. Sunshine follows the life of Eugene Choi, who flees Korea’s last dynasty, Joseon, as a young, enslaved child and gains status in the American military, eventually becoming a captain of the U.S. Marine Corps. As Russian and Japanese presence in Korea intensifies, a corny, British-sounding version of Teddy Roosevelt sends Eugene to Joseon to maintain the U.S.’ diplomatic tie to the region. And so the prodigal son returns, this time as an American immune to the caste system that killed his parents and forced him to flee.
Screenwriter Kim Eun-sook (one of many badass women that make the show a sort of feminist gem), brilliantly uses each character’s unique backstory to approach the complexities of Korea in the early 20th century. Within the first 10 minutes of the pilot, we are shown that national identity is at odds with birthplace, that patriotism is a matter of who belongs and who does not.
Eugene is the embodiment of this: He says to his American friend, Major Kyle Moore, before they deploy to Joseon, “I may have been born in Korea, but America is my homeland. Joseon has never taken me in.” This idea brings Korean history to our global present.
Then we have Lady Go Ae-shin, Eugene’s immediate love interest who was born into Joseon’s elite and disguises herself as a man to be a vigilante sniper for the Korean resistance. Ae-shin becomes still more interesting when she finds herself trapped between wanting to protect her homeland and feeling ashamed of it—Eugene says to her when he finally reveals his origins, “This Joseon you are trying to protect. Who is it for?” What does it mean to fight to free your country when not all citizens of your country are free?
Next comes Kudo Hina, my personal favorite—she is a Korean woman who inherited and now independently runs a Western-style hotel from an old Japanese man (who we find out she murdered, and with good cause). We’re introduced to her when she defends one of the hotel waitresses from an abusive male customer. She tells the girl, “If anyone tries to harm you or take advantage of you, bite that person instead of breaking into tears.” And she herself is a viper, manipulative and sharp, two steps ahead of everyone else. Always poised, always strong, her gaze is like a constant challenge. When a scene with her begins, her eyes alone are enough to make you hold your breath, waiting to see who her wit will sting next. Like Ae-shin—our lady by day, sniper by night—Kudo Hina embodies total feminine strength in a time where any sign of female power is only an exception to the rule.
It should be said that Mr. Sunshine is a beautiful hunk of feminism not only because of the women, but because of the men. The way the three central male characters treat Ae-shin and Kudo Hina as equal partners and friends, even when these women are breaking so many rules, presents us with a cast of characters driven by mutual respect and equality—feminism, of course, isn’t just about women being badasses. It’s about the men who treat them as such.
While the women in Mr. Sunshine start at a high—with strength, power, and badassery as a through-line—the men in this show are more dynamic, arching from more simplistic alliances toward drastic change in moral direction. All three ultimately sacrifice themselves in the name of that newfound morality.
Kim Hee-sung is a pretty boy who spent 10 years in Tokyo as a student but mostly stayed away to avoid his overbearing family. And guess what? His family are the ones who killed Eugene’s parents and used to own Eugene.
While Hee-sung is insufferable for the first half of the show, his character gradually becomes more and more lovable as you realize he is willing to release Ae-shin from their arranged engagement so that she can be independent.
Throughout, he tells people he only likes “beautiful and useless things,” things like flowers and poetry. But this becomes heavier as the show progresses—he decides to begin a nameless newspaper to spread information about the Korean resistance, empowering the people to fight back. He hangs flowers at the entrance. But in the end, when he being beaten and interrogated by the Japanese about his newspaper, he repeats this: “I only like beautiful and useless things.”
Dong-mae is our quintessential byronic hero. Born to butchers, another “low-born” class, he is a child when he watches his mother’s murder and escapes with the help of none other than Lady Ae-shin. He ends up training as a samurai in Japan and returning as the boss of the Joseon branch of a samurai mafia. Yet, when the Japanese military occupy Joseon, he betrays the samurai to defend Korea. Dong-mae acts as a kind of parallel to Kudo Hina. He, too, has blood on his hands, and yet we feel nothing but sorrow for him and the life he’s led. A “tough-guy,” the show does a wonderful job of humanizing him, most comically through his affinity for candies.
When young Ae-shin helps Dong-mae escape in her palanquin, he wipes his blood on her silk skirt and says, “You’re just a noble fool who lives in luxury.” These words haunt Ae-shin into adulthood and inform her decision to be more than just a noblewoman, and Ae-shin haunts Dong-mae into his adulthood—as, of course, he is also in love with her.
And last but not least, we have Eugene, who while being the protagonist and the sexiest is the least interesting of our men. All of his decisions are motivated by his love for Ae-shin—her cause is his cause—and his loyalty to the men who helped him escape Korea as a child. But it’s fun to watch the classic, anime-esque quality of the hero who comes in and makes everything okay no matter what (except for maybe in the end when his heroism is his demise, cough-cough).
Eugene and Ae-shin do have great on-screen chemistry. Perhaps one of Mr. Sunshine’s strangest accomplishments is its ability to keep me deeply invested in a romance in which—over the course of 23 1.5-hour long episodes—the couple never kisses. This had the strange effect of making their first handshake feel like a wild plot development, and their first hug had me nothing short of aroused.
If you decide to dive in, stick it out for the first few episodes. The show packs a whole lot of backstory—character and historical—into the very beginning. One of the reasons this is so great, though, is that every moment in the first episode will later become relevant. It also cuts between past and present often in episode one, which was hard to follow. This can be especially confusing if you go in with zero Korean history, as I did. If you’re going in with history chops, though, you’ll probably have a good time either A) patting yourself on the back for knowing what’s going on or B) catching little mistakes.
Most of the cast is, of course, Korean, but there are exceptions. These actors are worth mentioning because they all hands-down sucked at acting. Whether it’s British Teddy Roosevelt appearing for only two seconds to say, “speak softly and carry a big stick” as if he’s winking in a Coca-Cola ad, or Major Kyle Moore (who is actually half Korean but wore blue contact lenses for the show), the “American” acting in Mr. Sunshine feels like washed up, middle-aged community theater actors telling jokes that aren’t funny. Regardless, this dorkiness was one of my favorite parts—Just like how the corny Korean love song (“...you are my shining ending…”) that played every time Ae-shin and Eugene looked at each other was also swell.
Aside from the fact that I found all of the above engaging about Mr. Sunshine, it is also beautiful, juicy, and full of attractive actors, which makes it a perfect show to binge watch for fun with friends (or alone with chocolate and my feelings like I did). What I love about it is that amid the corny Korean pop, expensive cinematography, and melodrama, Mr. Sunshine forces you to think, even if you don’t realize you’re thinking.
Julianne McAdams teaches teenagers in Linz, Austria, dances Lindy Hop on a boat anchored in the Danube, and likes to think of herself as a fiction writer. Someday, someone will pay her to do so, and she will live in a room full of books, houseplants, teacups, and tiny clocks.