|A scene from tvN drama "Mr. Sunshine" / Courtesy of CJ E&M|
By Park Jin-hai
The much-anticipated blockbuster drama "Mr. Sunshine," which premiered last Saturday, has shown how far a Korean drama can go when it is handed a 40 billion won budget.
The first two episodes of the 24-part weekend drama overwhelmed viewers with their scale and stunning cinematography, giving viewers the impression they were watching a Hollywood wartime romance drama.
Computer graphics have been lavishly used for graphic battle scenes where many nameless civilian soldiers fought for their kingdom, Joseon, under the pressure of foreign powers, to depict the most tumultuous time in history when "yesterday seemed distant, today seems strange and tomorrow, fearful."
The first epic blockbuster by star writer Kim Eun-sook, whose long track record includes pan-Asian smash hits "Descendents of the Sun" and "Guardian: The Lonely and Great God," devoted the first two episodes to telling the backgrounds of the lead characters in the fast-evolving Late Joseon period, where slaves were freed, and foreigners and Western culture were introduced before Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula.
Reflecting viewers' high expectations for the drama, its first two episodes received 8.9 percent and 9.7 percent viewership ratings, which surpassed the initial two episodes' ratings of "Guardian," whose first episode hit 6.3 percent.
The drama, starring veteran actor Lee Byung-hun and rising star actress Kim Tae-ri, is set in Korea in the late 1800s and early 1900s, telling the story of the wartime romance between Korean-born American Marine Eugene Choi who says "Joseon has never taken me" due to his painful memories involving his family, and Ko Ae-shin, a daughter of a noble family who became an assassin to fight the Japanese.
"Mr. Sunshine" was inspired by historical events concerning a U.S. expedition to Korea in 1871, the first American military action on and around Ganghwa Island, which killed over 200 Koreans. It forced Regent Daewongun to strengthen his policy of isolation until Korea established a trade treaty with Japan, after Japanese ships approached Ganghwa and threatened to fire on Seoul in 1876. Korea's treaties with European countries and the U.S. soon followed.
To tell the epic story that has seldom been dealt with in dramas, the production team built a 20,000-square-meter outdoor set in Nonsan, South Chungcheong Province, and another 6,600-square-meter indoor set in Daejeon based on research of the time period.
The drama began shooting last September teaming up with the music, art and visual effects staff Kim worked on with "Guardian." Staff members who worked on films such as "Assassination" and "The Handmaiden" joined in this blockbuster drama as well. All the star staff as well as many great actors explain how all the money has been spent _ on making the show good.
The story runs a bit slow as the show sets up its premise and introduces so many characters all at once, but the drama was nothing short of raising expectations for what stories will be unfolded in this great _ after all _ romance drama.
Jung Duk-hyun, a culture critic, says the episodes aired demonstrate the power of the writer, with 15 years of a successful career. "The first episode was like showing Kim's self-confidence as one of the most powerful writers whose name can earn easy access to investment, enabling her to cast A-list actors and attract viewers to sit in front of the small screen," he said.
Another culture critic Kim Kyung-nam said, "The attention is on whether Kim, who has shown strength in portraying romance, can succeed in the epic drama as well. So many incidents unfolding to describe the confusion of the era might scatter viewers' attention, but it could come fresh to Western audiences."