A few things to get out of the way at the top: Yes, this is a predominately Korean production, currently available on Netflix. Yes, it's primarily in Korean, so if you don't speak the language you have to read subtitles through most of it. Yes, it is a period piece, taking place over decades of tumultuous History, with dozens of players and events that drive a complex narrative.
Have I lost you already? That's too bad. You really have no idea what you're missing.
Mr. Sunshine is a fantastic piece of work that has no rival. When I say it is epic in its scale, I mean Dr. Zhivago can't hold a candle to this major work - insightful, daring, revelatory both in content and execution. The cast is stellar, with many breakout performances delivered alongside a few familiar faces, bringing real human emotion to scenes which could have easily fallen into slipshod, two-dimensional predictability.
The first episode introduces us to the province town of Joseon, in what would be today's South Korea. Set in 1871, it introduces us to the political importance of the city as an International Hub for imports and exports, thus making it a desirable piece of real estate to any nation with Imperialistic ambitions. Blending Historical facts with fictional characters, we see Joseon already beset by outside influence from Japan and others, including the United States.
From the beginning, there is violence and political intrigue that spans across Japan and Korea as Joseon fights for its sovereignty. At first, the American influence is primarily over trade - Korea's handmade porcelain is already a desired commodity, and no nation ignores the strategic importance of the access to the East provided by the coastal city. It is in this environment that we are introduced to the first generation of players who resist, rebel, and play their own Asian-style Game of Thrones.
Fortunately, people's ambitions and behavior are pretty much the same no matter where you go, so despite some mannerisms and cultural differences, the struggle is a familiar one: Royal Families at home vie for political influence, while enemies from within and without seek to undermine the Emperor and seize control over Joseon.
This is the set up going into the first few episodes, but the story really doesn't begin there. No. Rather, these first episodes are used to set the stage for our main players, seen as children here - the weakest, most vulnerable in any conflict. These kids see their parents struggle to survive, whether through political maneuvering or direct combat - no child survives without some injury or emotional damage - and that's where Mr. Sunshine reveals one of its greatest strengths: there is no end to the struggle. Like it or not, each of these children grow up to be the new players, carrying on the fight their parents began. Each of these children is motivated by the deeds of the past, and each of them walk a unique path to face their destiny.
Our main character - Mr. Sunshine - is one of these children. The son of slaves, he witnesses their murder before fleeing for his life. The begrudging help of a local Craftsman provides the means for his escape, as a Missionary from the U.S. agrees to take the boy with him in exchange for more of Joseon's valuable ceramics. Once in the States, the boy, basically alone in the vast, strange, and dangerous burroughs of New York, is forced to learn how to survive in a hostile city.
The moment that saves him is an interesting observation of U.S. culture from an outside perspective. After being beaten and robbed by local kids (all white), he stands on the edge of a street corner as U.S. Soldiers march by. Amongst those Soldiers is a Black Infantryman, standing out against the Caucasians surrounding him, yet marching in unison, in a military uniform. Seeing a black man in uniform, unmolested by his white counterparts, he recognizes his own means of survival comes at the cost of conformity. To survive, the boy must integrate into this strange world, and the easiest way to do that is via the one thing both nations have in common - a standing army.
Flash forward to 1900. The boy is now a man - Captain Eugene Choi of the United States Marine Corps (played with dignity and stoic grace by Byung-Hun Lee). Decorated in combat and recently returned to the States after serving in the Spanish-American War, he gets the unpleasant news that he is to be deployed back to Joseon, the very city he barely escaped from alive when he was a boy.
His mission is more of a diplomatic one, as the unstable political climate means that U.S. Soldiers would have to be offshore or limited to certain areas within the city. He is appointed to the U.S. Consulate Office because he speaks the local language.
So, the shunned Slave Boy returns to his home (native) city as a U.S. Soldier with a mission to exploit any political situation to favor the U.S. and its trade ambitions. The Civil War is over, and the East looks to be ripe for the plucking. Who cares whether they trade with Japan or Korea? Whichever serves the U.S. best interests in Joseon is all that matters.
But it's no longer simply the U.S. and Japan. Now Great Britain has a finger in the pie, and so does France. And Russia. Each of them vying for favor, playing Joseon's Emperor against the ever present Japanese. When Eugene Choi arrives in Joseon, he finds amongst all of this International intrigue the very same families responsible for the death of his parents - and revenge is high on his mind.
I'm 22 episodes in on this series and just about to sit down and watch the next installment. If I were talking the traditional episodics we're used to seeing in the U.S., and judging by the cliffhanger at the end of this 22nd chapter, I would say I've completed the first season. I can't wait to see what's next.
After the disappointment and relative boredom I have experienced drifting through Netflix lately, Mr. Sunshine is the one unique, consistently engaging episodic series I have not been able to look away from. There is deep history between each of these characters - Turncoats, Warriors, Fops, Royals and Rebels - all connected in one way or another as they wage the tragic, never-ending Battle for Joseon.
In addition to Byun-Hun Lee (whom many will recognize from G.I. Joe or REDS 2), there is the restrained passion of Tae-ri Kim as his paramour, Go Ae-shin, a Rebel from a Royal Family. Too smart & feisty to be trapped learning "women's work", her Grandfather secretly arranges for her training to fight the Japanese - and anybody else who might threaten Joseon's Sovereignty. She joins the local rebels and soon runs afoul of Eugene when their separate missions designate the same target. Their relationship builds at a credible pace, each learning to trust the other over the years that pass in this epic romance.
Tae-ri Kim's measured performance allows us to see her character develop from a girl constrained by her culture growing into a woman of means and influence in her own right. Their love grows as their innocence subsides, and their relatively chaste encounters are wonderfully performed.
Min-Jung Kim is riveting as Hee-na - Joseon-born, yet traded to a Japanese Dignitary as a young girl by her treacherous, traitorous Father (a scary, menacing Eui-sung Kim) who ruthlessly pursues his own political ambitions at any cost. She survives a brutal upbringing - and her Japanese husband - only to return to Joseon to run the biggest & best Hotel in the city. And she does it well, becoming quite influential as she searches for her long lost Mother.
Min-Jung Kim gives a masterful performance, either friendly or treacherous according to her own whim, yet always professionally courteous to whomever passes through her doors. If this series were just about her and what happens at her Hotel, I would still be entranced by the delicate power and intelligence behind those deceptively vulnerable eyes. The scene where she finally comes to accept the truth she has learned regarding the fate of her mother is genuinely heartbreaking.
So much more to say about this series!
But that's where I'll leave it with this last thought:
The strength of this series begins in its view of History. We see families rise and fall. We see people taken from their homes only to return with some stronger sense of purpose. Ambitions and repercussions that last through generations - each event making its own unique impression on each character. Sure it's in another language. Sure it's set more than two hundred years in the past. But where Mr. Sunshine succeeds is in portraying a theme that's familiar and appealing to all of us - a desire for romance against a backdrop of adventure.
The bittersweet relationship between Byun-Hun Lee and Tae-ri Kim is just one of the many engaging stories in this compelling epic drama, and yet it is far from the only one. Even characters who seem relatively minor in the big picture come to have an affect on the story in surprising and interesting ways - unlike some of my recent viewing experiences where predictability reigns, or character swerves were just too ridiculous to believe.
Mr. Sunshine is currently on Netflix. If you have the time, make the investment. It's so worth it for any fans of the genre. Enjoy!
UPDATE: Okay, so it's a one season series running 24 episodes. I just finished absorbing what I witnessed in these final two episodes, and all I can say is:
Bravo! Wonderful. Amazing. When you consider that this is basically considered a series for Korean Television - albeit an ambitious one - the breadth and scope of the accomplishment is as impressive as Peter Jackson's original Lord of the Rings productions. Seriously. I stand by the "Asian-style Game of Thrones" comparison as well - action, intrigue, tragedy, romance, it's all there. Well, the nudity & graphic violence is out, but for what this story is, it really doesn't need all of that anyway.
Mr. Sunshine can only further cement Korea's place in the Asian Film Market as producers of top quality entertainment. Hollywood seems seduced by Chinese Investors these days - which is not a bad thing, either - but as Netflix continues to blur the lines between Cable and Feature Film Production, Korean-based Producers and Performers are proving it's time they get the International recognition they deserve.
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