This historical fiction drama is nothing short of a 10; a really, really big 10 – the first one I’ve given in 2018. I sincerely hope you don’t miss Mr. Sunshine, a Kdrama which is both heart wrenching and uplifting at the same time.
Nine year old Choi Yoo-Jin watches as his slave father is beaten to death. His mother, desperate to save her child from the same fate, threatens to kill the pregnant daughter-in-law of the rich slave owner in order to buy her son time to escape with his life, seconds before she commits suicide. Orphaned Yoo-Jin is now alone and hiding from men who hunt runaway slaves. With the help of a sympathetic, young missionary named Joseph the boy manages to stow away aboard a ship bound for America and happily adopts a new homeland. As a man, he joins the army, which affords him American citizenship, and becomes a much respected Captain in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is then stationed overseas at the American Ligation in Joseon. Thirty years earlier he fled that country as a runaway slave and now he returns as a decorated American soldier where he is known by the people there as “the American who looks like us.” During his stay there he is made aware of a Japanese plot to overthrow the Joseon government but things begin to get even more complicated when a beautiful young noblewoman propositions him with an offer he can’t refuse – love.
Although Captain Eugene Choi looks and sound like a Joseon native he is American through and through. He feels no loyalty to a country he was forced to abandon in order to stay alive. As soon as he arrives in Joseon he sees a sniper and it isn’t long before he’s able to figure out the person’s true identity. Although Captain Choi keeps a fair distance between himself and the people of Joseon, he can’t help but fall for a beautiful noblewoman, Go Ae-Shin, the sniper he encountered. Now that he is back in Joseon will he be able to take revenge for the death of his parents so long ago?
Go Ae-Shin was raised by her grandfather, never knowing her parents who were murdered in Japan just after she was born. Although she is of nobility she wants to do more than just paint and do embroidery. When her beloved Joseon is threatened by a Japanese takeover her grandfather allows her to be trained in the art of defense by gunner Jang. She also begins to secretly attend a school that teaches English because she wants to be able to read a certain American soldier’s name. Lady Ae-Shin has been engaged to a nobleman, Kim Hee-Sung, since she was young but has no intention of marrying him since she has decided to “try love” with Captain Eugene Choi.
Goo Dong-Mae is the son of a butcher, a low-born in Joseon. After his parents were murdered he was aided in his escape by young Lady Ae-Shin and although he considers her to be a noble, entitled, brat, he sincerely loves her. He spent many years in Japan and became Samurai Ishida Sho, an excellent swordsman and boss in the Musin Society (part of the Yakuza). He is back in Joseon now with no loyalties to either the Japanese or Joseon people. He and his men work for whomever will pay him.
Born to a family that is just below the Emperor, Kim Hee-Sung is the only son and his parents are anxious for him to come back from Japan, marry, and produce an heir. However, after being away for the past ten years he’s uneasy at the thought of going back to Joseon to assume the life his parents want him to lead. When he finally does make it back he decides to assert his independence and live at the Glory Hotel instead of at home. When he meets his fiancée he is mesmerized by her beauty and decides being married wouldn’t be all that bad but discovers he’ll have to compete with two other men for her love.
The owner and manager of the Glory Hotel is a beautiful widow named Lee Yang-Hwa who goes by the Japanese name Kudo Hina. Her father is a cruel, greedy man who, in order to advance his social status and bank account, sent her to Japan and sold her to a rich, old Japanese man who made her his wife. When he passed away she inherited the hotel and went back to Joseon to run it. Her mother disappeared when she was a young girl and she has been searching for her for years. Although she is close to her bodyguard, Goo Dong-Mae, she has eyes for Captain Choi.
The incredibly talented actor that plays the part of Eugene Choi is Lee Byung-Hun whose last Kdrama was Iris, nine years ago. He couldn’t have chosen a better vehicle by which to return to the small screen than Mr. Sunshine. His acting accomplishments are quite impressive but I’m only going to share a select few…
Lee Byung-Hun is an international star, appearing in Hollywood films next to big nanes like Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger; he is one of only two South Korean actors who has his hand and foot prints on the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood California; he is the first South Korean actor to present an Oscar at the Academy Awards and is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; he’s the only South Korean actor who won the Best Actor award in three separate award ceremonies for one role he played; he has five movies on the list of highest-grossing films in South Korea; for his role in Iris he received over 100 million won per episode, making him (at that time) the third highest paid Kdrama actor in South Korean history; he has his own management company; and his likeness was used for the main character, Wayne Holden, in the 2006 video game Lost Planet: Extreme Condition.
As far as his personal life goes he is a graduate of Hanyang University with a major in French Literature and the Graduate School of Chung-Ang University with a major in Theater and Cinematography; he practices taekwondo; and his younger sister was 1996’s Miss Korea. He is married to actress Lee Min-Jung and they have a three and a half year old son.
The character Go Ae-Shin is played by Kim Tae-Ri who began her entertainment career as a model in TV commercials. She appeared in several short films before making her feature film debut in the 2016 movie The Handmaiden where she beat out 1,500 other actresses auditioning for the part in which she was cast. Last year (2017) she was in the political thriller 1987: When the Day Comes and in February of this year she starred in the Korean adaptation of the manga series Little Forest. Aside from making a quick cameo appearance as herself in Entourage, Mr. Sunshine is her Kdrama debut. Let’s hope we see a lot more of her in the years to come.
You can learn a bit about Yoo Yeon-Seok, the actor who plays Goo Dong-Mae, by checking out my Romantic Doctor, Teacher Kim review.
Byun Yo-Han, the actor who plays Kim Hee-Sung, appeared in over 30 short films while he was a student at Korea National University of Arts. It was his supporting role in the 2014 cable series Misaeng: Incomplete Life that shot him to fame. Aside from appearing in film and TV he was also in the musical production Hedwig, playing the title role.
You can read about Kim Min-Jung, the actress who plays the owner of the Glory Hotel, Kudo Hina, in my Man to Man review.
The one and only reason I was excited to see this drama was because Lee Byung-Hun is the star. I adored him in Iris and hadn’t seen him in any other drama since so I was anxiously awaiting Mr. Sunshine being out in its entirety. Historical dramas are way down on my list of favorites but this one’s setting didn’t seem to go as far back in history as some I’ve seen (it begins in the later half of the the 1800s and ends in the very early 1900s so there’s telephones and trains and guns… ). Once I saw all the episodes were available, I crossed my fingers and began watching the show. It didn’t take long before I was sucked in and wondering what would happen next. This drama is sensational!
Director Lee Eung-Bok and writer Kim Eun-Sook are the explosive duo responsible for bringing us Mr. Sunshine. I was in awe at the creative directing we witness throughout this show. The camera angles are fresh and original while the use of slow motion is simply perfect. The writing is powerful, reflective and extremely emotional. (Yes, I cried.) This isn’t the first thing Director Lee and Screenwriter Kim have combined their cinematic talents on, though. We also got to witness their amazing teamwork on the acclaimed Kdramas Descendants of the Sun and Goblin. Goblin and Mr. Sunshine were both broadcast on tvN, a cable channel, which means less viewers and lower ratings than shows that are broadcast on free channels, like Descendants of the Sun was. If you’re wondering how Mr. Sunshine faired in the ratings, it is the third highest rated drama in cable TV history (18.129%), just behind Reply 1988 (18.803%) and Goblin (18.680%). However, if you’re going to go by my rating system, Mr. Sunshine got a perfect 10.
Here’s some interesting information about this amazing Kdrama…
1. Mr. Sunshine is the most expensive Korean drama to date, with the production costs being a whopping $27.8 million US.
2. At the 6th APAN Star Awards Lee Byung-Hun won the Grand Prize for his portrayal of Eugene Choi, Kim Tae-Ri received the Best New Actress award for her role as Go Ae-Shin, Best Supporting Actress was awarded to Kim Min-Jung for playing Kudo Hina, and Mr. Sunshine won the Drama of the Year award! Yep guys, that says it all. Are you really going to pass up this amazing drama?
3. One thousand extras were hired for a battle scene.
4. Rumor has it Lee Byung-Hun was paid 150 million won (about $134,700) per episode, totaling 3.6 billion won ($3.2 million) for his role as Captain Eugene Choi in this highly acclaimed drama.
5. Mr. Sunshine’s pilot episode (8.852%) was the highest rated among cable Kdramas of 2018, smashing the previous record (5.757%) set by What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim.
Sadly, Mr. Sunshine hasn’t been without controversy. Some viewers were concerned the show wasn’t entirely historically accurate and that it portrayed the Joseon people as “uncivilized and backwards.” In my opinion that’s just nonsense. The drama is obviously classified as historical fiction. At the beginning of the show it states, “This is a work of fiction based on historical events.” How much clearer can they get? The writer never claimed it was a documentary. And just because a country doesn’t have a particular “modern” convenience before another country brings it to them certainly does not make those people “uncivilized.” I think viewers were just being picky. People were also critical at the age gap between the male and female leads, wondering how successful a love story could be when the actors are just shy of 20 years apart. Well, let me tell you, folks, Lee Byung-Hun and Kim Tae-Ri prove they are fantastic at their craft because the romance (chemistry) is extremely believable!
Mr. Sunshine’s soundtrack is quite large, but then so is the drama. The old English folk song Greensleeves is featured in the show many times. It is the one that plays on the music box Eugene buys in America and brings to Joseon, and the song My Home (Eugene’s Song) begins and ends with that familiar tune. There are a few other songs in need of mentioning – Sound is a pretty, light waltz that makes us sway as we listen to it. Ironically, the song entitled Days Without Tears has a very sad sound to it with a cello that even mimics crying. Becoming the Wind is an emotional song with a slight sound of hope mixed into its solemnity. Shine Your Star (one of a couple songs sung in English) sports the romantic lyrics, “I will guide your dark and lonely nights.” It’s an excellent soundtrack that accompanies a superb Kdrama.
The cinematography in Mr. Sunshine is breathtaking. Filming took place in various parts of South Korea – Busan, Daegu, Gyeongju, and Hapcheon. They built several sets solely devoted to the early 1900s settings of Korea on a 20,000 square mile site in Nonsan and another humongous indoor set in Daejeon. Everything looks and feels authentic. During the show’s 24 episodes we are genuinely experiencing Joseon during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Every single outdoors/nature background is absolutely exquisite, indeed.
Mr. Sunshine is an amazing show of epic proportion that has secured a place as one of the best Kdramas in history. You just wait a few years and see if I’m not correct. I’m sure I’ll watch it again someday. It’s absolute perfection.
Note: In adding Mr. Sunshine to my top 20 favorite Kdramas list I chose to remove Tomorrow’s Cantabile.
Amazing chemistry between actors/actresses
Top-notch action sequences
Not one single thing