Global viewers might not understand the historical background to new South Korea series “Mr Sunshine” but they will have no trouble following the story
The entertainment media was out in force late last week, reporters turning out in their hundreds to a conference room in Seoul’s Gangnam district to hear more about one of the most anticipated drama series of 2018. The series in question is “Mr Sunshine” and for once non-Korean fans won’t have to wait months to see it thanks to Netflix, which is bringing it to the US and most Asian viewers on Saturday followed by Japan on Sunday and the rest of the world on July 19.
The 24-episode series, estimated to have cost 40 billion won (Bt1.2 billion), is the third collaboration between talented scriptwriter Kim Eunsook and director Lee Eungbok, the pair behind “Descendants of the Sun” and “Goblin”. “Mr Sunshine” also marks the return to the small screen of South Korean superstar Lee Byunghun, who famously played the lead in the espionage action thriller “Iris” but has focused more on movies in recent years.
Based in Shinmiyangyo, the US expedition to Korea in the late 19th century, “Mr Sunshine” tells the story of a Korean boy born into a family of house servants who runs away to board an American warship and later returns to his homeland as a US marine officer. Ironically, he falls in love with an aristocrat’s daughter and discovers the dark scheme to colonise the country from which he once fled. Lee Byunghun, who played Storm Shadow in the “GI Joe” series and Han Cho Bai in “Red 2”, takes on the role of the US marine officer Choi Eugene, while Kim Taeri, who came into the spotlight with Park Chanwook’s “The Handmaiden” makes her TV series debut as the aristocrat’s daughter, Go Aesin. Yoo Yeonseok, Byun Yohan and Kim Minjung, the latter replacing Kim Sarang in the role of Kudo Hina, also star.
The combined power of Kim Eunsook and Lee Eungbok earns the credit for drawing the superstar cast.
“I joined the team a little bit later than the rest of the cast. I was thrilled when I read the script and there was no reason for me to say no. It’s the first time I have joined a project that had already gone a long way so his is pretty new to me,” says the actress.
Kudo Hina is sold by her father to a rich old Japanese man and inherits his wealth when he dies five years later.
Unlike other movies or TV dramas that usually tell patriotic stories set during the years when Japan ruled Korea, “Mr Sunshine” takes place decades earlier, towards the end of the nineteenth century.
“My character is a Korean-American. I think it’s the first time I’ve played an American character in a Korean drama. Eugene is very different. He is not a patriot. In fact, he has a lot of negative sentiments towards Joseon and wants to get his revenge on the country. That made the role unique and interesting for me,” says Lee Byunghun.
Next year marks the centenary of the establishment of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea and so the series is a good opportunity to celebrate the occasion and teach the audience more about Korean history.
“A lot of countries have been invaded by foreign countries and there has always been a fight. I think this is a common sentiment and one that non-Koreans easily relate to. To be honest, we weren't really thinking of foreign markets when we were making the series, but if you look at our main characters you will see that the patriots were fighting for this country and I think a lot of overseas viewers will be able to relate to that,” says the director.
Lee Byunghun agrees, adding that the 1871 Shinmiyangyo, the first American military action in Korea and the subsequent Japanese annexation of its ports saw a great deal of political turmoil.
“I think a lot of people will look at this without knowing much about the historical background but that’s not important. Essentially this is a story about people and it’s the relationships between these people that make up the focal point of the drama. So even if you don't understand the backdrop, you will be able to follow and get immersed in the story,” he says.
“For global viewers, it may be a little more difficult. They know little about Korean culture or history so I wonder how they will be able to digest the story.”
It shouldn’t be a problem, Fans of Kim’s earlier hits such as “Secret Garden”, “On Air”, “The Heirs” and even “Descendants of the Sun”, will merely see “Mr Sunshine” as a romantic drama with historical turmoil in the background. One of the writer’s signatures is inserting some cheesy lines into the script and there are here in “Mr Sunshine” too.
“She has certain lines like that prepared. But as actors, we don’t know what lines are going to attract attention. That will be determined by the viewers so we just act it out and then they catch something and start saying ‘oh that was interesting’ and then it becomes a famous oneliner,” says actor Lee, admitting that it took him a while to get used to her language.
“It's the first time I’ve worked with her. She seems to have her own language and her own way of expressing herself. It was a bit awkward for me at first but I soon got used to expressing myself like that. Let’s just see what comes the next,” he adds.
Another of Kim Eun Suk’s more famous quirks is her genius for writing Cinderella stories. This doesn’t seem to have washed into “Mr Sunshine” as Go Aeshin, the daughter of a high-ranking an aristocrat turns out to be a secret anti-Japanese fighter.
“She’s also fighting for the Joseon dynasty so she’s kind of caught between these two different personalities. She’s a very complex, sophisticated and layered character and whenever I had frustrations and difficulties, I asked the director for help and tried hard not to make her a twodimensional flat character,” says Kim Taeri.
This is the first time a Korean drama will be airing globally via Netflix on the same day as in Korea and that’s a completely new experience even for Lee Byunghun.
“Even when I starred in Hollywood movies, the release dates would be slightly different. So this is the first time I’m seeing a Korean drama being premiered in 190 countries so that everyone in the world can watch the series at the same time. It’s exciting,” her says.
“Mr Sunshine” will stream on Netflix starting on Saturday with new episodes showing every Saturday and Sunday, the same day as the Korean broadcast.