Pandemic Diary April: Mr. Sunshine

The one day I went for a big walk.

If March was a month of bittersweet longing (served up by Crash Landing On You) then April, when I started watching Mr. Sunshine, was more serious and sad. 

Things in the outside world were scary in April and so I went out less and less. The infection and death rates were climbing all the time. Every throat tickle I had sent me into a panic. I did not get sick, but I struggled to sort out what this stay-at-home life would look like. I bought a lot of masks, gloves, and cleaning supplies. I freaked out over getting grocery delivery slots because my local store is small and overrun. Later in the month the shops started to control crowds a bit and my once-a-week errands became a little less harrowing. 

I planned an epic walk to Flushing Meadows Park to meet up with a friend from Forest Hills. It took a big gulp of courage to get over my anxiety of seeing people and interacting with people and my fear that an hour plus walk to the park would be full of interactions with people not social distancing (as shorter trips around my neighborhood had been). But I did it and it was good to get out and feel tired from a long walk. It was great to see a human I knew (while masked). 

After letting go of Crash Landing On You, reluctantly, someone on twitter directed me to a period K-drama on Netflix that was a deep dive into Korean history. Mr. Sunshine proved a fun show, in part, at the start and then it deepened with its evolving plot. 

It's a swashbuckling romance between two rooftop assassins in the early 1900s. While Japan, America, and Russia encroached on Korea and the emperor struggled to fend off Japan’s increasing pressure and control, a Korean-American solider (and former Korean slave), Eugene Choi (Lee Byung-hun), returns to Korea and meets a high-born young woman, Go Ae-sin (Kim Tae-ri), who is secretly part of the Righteous Army, a militia trying to fight for Korean freedom. There’s also a Korean-Japanese hotel owner, Hina (Kim Min-Jung), who knows everyone and everything and has a handsome, murderous swordsman, Dong-mae (Yoo Yeon-seok), who protects her. But Dong-mae also has a past with Go Ae-sin. 

It was another show where the well-crafted supporting characters build up the story and provide nuanced comedy alongside the serious business of the period politics and romance. 

Both Mr. Sunshine and Crash Landing have really strong female characters and I found this another reason why these K-dramas were hitting me in the right place. 

There are also three different men in love with Go Ae-Sin. The three men, aware of each other, become frenemies and eventually end up in a catty bromance. 

Something for everyone really. 

Go Ae-Sin also cannot totally focus on romance, because she has a rebellion to win. She’s got a lot on her plate. Passing secret love notes goes on for a while, but the reality of the Japanese encroachment becomes all encompassing. Mr. Sunshine also tracks Korean history and, spoiler alert, things go downhill for Korea in the early 20th century. 

Should have been Hashtag 1910 thoughts. 

As a white American with little knowledge of Korean history, getting to see a perspective on class, identity, imperialism, colonialism, and slavery from a different country’s point-of-view was eye-opening. It reminded me how limited the lens can be in American mass media (also American education) or what we (me) generally consume. 

It got me thinking there was good reason to keep watching K-dramas beyond the obvious pleasure I was getting from them. The shot structure, points of view, and tropes were new to my eyes. But there were many stories I had not encountered before. While things were rough going in real life, I was still up to be challenged by the shows I was watching. I also had a lot to learn. 

Maybe also in a month where everything felt like it was about survival and nothing but seeing a character take some time for romance while the world is crashing down around her (knowing that her cause will always come first) gave me a little hope in these dark days. 

As with Crash Landing, I struggled to finish Mr. Sunshine because I knew how profoundly sad it would be.  The defeats start to add up for the Righteous Army and I dreaded how this might play out on the characters I had grew fond of. I had a good cry at the end. 

When I finished Mr. Sunshine, it happened to coincide with the series Asian Americans running on PBS. In the show, they mentioned a real-life leader in the Korean independence movement, Ahn Changho, who came to America in the early 1900s with his wife and continued to fight for Korea from here. Ahn's daughter, Susan, went on to become a Navy gunnery officer. She was the first Asian American woman in the Navy. She later worked at the NSA. Now I’m totally obsessed with Susan Ahn Cuddy and want someone to make a movie of her life. 

I feel like Go Ae-sin would have been proud to see the next generation of Korean rebels out there.