THE SHORT VERDICT:
A warm, heartfelt little show, Mystic is sometimes a little (or a lot) sillier than I usually like, but is, on the whole, so sincere and full of heart, that I can’t quibble with it too much.
Hwang Jung Eum is quite wonderful as our protagonist Wol Joo, and importantly, displays zero screechy tendencies in this role. Choi Won Young and Yook Sung Jae round out the little Mystic team really nicely, and these three make a surprisingly endearing trio, as they strive to help their customers resolve their grudges – for heavenly credit, of course.
The overarching backstory is bittersweet and poignant, and Show does a nice job tying it in with our grudges of the day, with an impressive degree of consistency. Importantly, Show starts strong and manages to end strong as well, making for a solid and satisfying watch, overall.
THE LONG VERDICT:
This, my friends, is the show that I almost missed.
I’m generally ambivalent towards Hwang Jung Eum because she’s often directed to be quite screamy and screechy in her roles, and people comparing this story’s set-up to Hotel Del Luna did not make me more interested to see this show; rather, I felt even more ambivalent about checking this out coz I didn’t end up loving Hotel Del Luna.
But, now that I’ve emerged on the other side, I must say that I’m quite glad indeed, that I followed the positive buzz on this one, and gave it a try, despite my misgivings. Keeping an open mind – and FOMO too, hur – has served me well, in my drama journey.
This show did turn out to be a little gem, just like everyone said.
OST ALBUM: FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE
Here’s the OST album, in case you’d like to listen to the soundtrack while you read the review. The OST is rather compact, as befits a compact little show like Mystic, but the songs do prove effective in magnifying the watch experience.
I think my favorite is Love Resembles Memories, sung by Yook Sung Jae. It’s got that heartfelt quality which I feel is Show’s biggest strength.
SO IS THIS LIKE HOTEL DEL LUNA?
I can see why people say that this show has some Hotel Del Luna vibes. It kinda does, but I prefer this show’s vibes. Let me explain.
Both shows have an undead female protagonist (with a great wardrobe), who is sentenced to a punishment that lasts hundreds of years, that involves helping others. On paper, the two shows do share some things in common.
However, I feel that Hotel Del Luna has a sadder, more plaintive sheen to it, beyond the funny that Show works to serve up, and I think that’s to do with 1, Man Wol’s backstory being amped up to really bring the tragedy, and 2, the hotel being set up to help ghosts.
In contrast, Mystic possesses a more cheerful, lighthearted vibe, despite the sad backstory. Show treats Wol Joo’s (Hwang Jung Eum) personal tragedy and angst with a comparatively lighter touch, in that Wol Joo doesn’t have a melancholic air about her, in spite of what she’s gone through, and instead, is spirited and feisty as a general rule.
The other thing is, this show has Wol Joo helping the living as well as the dead, and that in itself puts Show in a brighter, more hopeful category, because the “patients” – or “clients” or whatever you’d like to call ’em – are mostly alive. Hotel Del Luna focused on helping ghosts come to terms with past regrets, and while this show does some of that too, I definitely appreciate that we also get to see our characters help the living gain hope to keep on living.
The CGI and overall visuals in this show may be less polished than Hotel, but the richness of heart wins hands down. I felt myself choking up a few times over the course of my watch, at the story behind the grudge of the day, and that’s not something I felt much in Hotel – at least, not with the ghosts of the week.
Long story short, this show comes across less glossy and expensive than Hotel Del Luna, but I personally prefer this one, because it pops more (hur) for me.
STUFF I LIKED
General handling and execution
Even though it’s clear to see that Show doesn’t boast an especially high budget (compared to Hotel Del Luna, for example), there are nice touches in terms of how Show interprets dreamscapes, and the CGI around that.
Another thing that strikes me about Show’s handling, is that Show always feels like it knows what it wants to be, and where it wants to go. This all added up to a really nice sense that I was in good hands, and I count that a big plus.
The presentation of the dreamscapes
E2. The CGI around Ko Dong Gil’s (Kang Shin Chul) deep subconscious mind, is nicely done. It may not be the most polished and shiny, but it’s solid and believable, and feels suited to this drama world. I also liked the levity Show injects into how our trio tries to guess the combination to open the door to Ko Dong Gil’s deepest memories – and fails, twice. Manager Gwi being afraid of the tickles, thus resulting in them losing his phone to the abyss below, was quite amusing as well.
E2. I really liked the visual of how Show presents the locked memories, as a black and white image, frozen in time like a photograph. I thought it was quite perfect, that the way Wol Joo unlocks it, is to poof some color into the air with a wave of her hand, and as the color saturates the image, the people in the memory come back to life. Very nicely done.
Show knows where it wants to go
E7. This show really manages to mash up several different genres at the same time. It kinda shouldn’t work, on paper, but somehow, it still does. Despite Show moving between what I see as three (maybe four?) disparate genres this hour, I didn’t feel a sense of whiplash, even though my brain thinks I should.
E8. It’s an interesting development, that Kang Bae (Yook Sung Jae) is now able to see ghosts, when he couldn’t before. I appreciate that Show had paved the way for this early on, by having Wol Joo and Manager Gwi (Choi Won Young) mention that with all this ghost-related work, that Kang Bae’s powers might increase and become more sensitive. This way, it feels like Show planned ahead, and I always like that feeling, that Show knows where it wants to go, and is steadily working towards its destination.
E9. Now that we’re in the final stretch, I can feel Show shifting its focus to our main players, while making the case of the day a more.. straightforward affair. There’s a lot less silly, and a lot more in terms of angsty feels this hour, and the keener focus on our overarching story feels warranted and well-timed.
Hwang Jung Eum as Wol Joo
For the record, I really like Hwang Jung Eum as Wol Joo; she feels perfectly cast, in the role. I really enjoy how spirited, energetic and feisty Wol Joo is; she feels alive, even though she’s supposed to be a 500-year-old ghost.
Hwang Jung Eum looks almost unreal as Wol Joo, in that she has an almost plasticky appearance, probably due in equal part to cosmetic procedure and a lot of thick makeup, BUT, it works. She’s not supposed to be human anyway, and if a 500-year-old ghost is going to be glamorous, she might as well rock it to the maximum. For the record, I do think Hwang Jung Eum looks fantastic as Wol Joo, even with the slight plasticky feel.
On a shallow note, I also really enjoy Wol Joo’s wardrobe, which is mostly made up of sundress versions of the traditional hanbok, worn with running shoes. It’s different and quirky, and I just liked admiring her pretty hanbok dresses.
Importantly, I like how Show peels back Wol Joo’s layers, to reveal the sincere, giving, warm heart beneath her gruff and prickly-picky surface. I grew very fond of Wol Joo over the course of my watch, as I grew to understand her more.
Last but not least, I also liked how Show tied the grudges of the hour, to Wol Joo’s backstory and therefore, also, her character development. I felt that was well planned out, and that sense of meshing multipurpose threads, added to my positive impression of Show’s deftness.
E1. I do like Hwang Jung Eum’s wardrobe, though I admit I was a little thrown by the bare shoulders and the décolletage. That’s culturally avoided in Korean society, as far as I understand, so I was a little startled to see her dressed in a hanbok without the jeogori (the little outer jacket). But, I rationalize that to be shorthand for how Wol Joo is not one to abide by societal rules, but boldly wears whatever she fancies, never mind what anyone else thinks.
E2. Wol Joo’s reluctance to help Ms. Andong (Baek Ji Won) feels very personal, and for good reason. She’d ended up dying herself, because of baseless malicious rumors, so it’s perfectly understandable that this touches a raw nerve for her, and she’d rather not complete her mission, than help someone who ruined other lives with lies.
But when she decides to accept Kang Bae’s proposed deal and help Ms. Andong, I appreciate that Wol Joo goes all in to help her, and even protectively shields Ms. Andong’s ghost from a reluctantly cooperative Reaper Yeom (Lee Joon Hyuk).
E3. We see another facet of Wol Joo’s life reflected in this story; that of being treated as less than, because of her poor lineage. I like the idea that as we witness Wol Joo get closer to her goal, that we’ll understand her more and more as well. And, it also feels like Wol Joo is doing more than just a job that was assigned to her, since the grudges so far, touch various personal nerves, for her.
E3. I have to give props to Hwang Jung Eum, for committing so fully to the physicality of the role. This may not be an action role, but she executed that cartwheel flawlessly while wearing that form-fitting cheongsam, and that’s impressive. Also, that faux-sexy dance that she performs, to entice the Chairman (Yu Seong Ju) to accept a drink from her that he hadn’t ordered, is so cringey to watch, but she throws herself into without any apparent vanity. I’m impressed – and relieved that I’m not in her place, ha.
E4. That moment when Great-grandpa Seok Pan (Jung Eun Pyo) begs for our crew to save Jin Dong (Ahn Tae Hwan), saying that he’d go to hell if he could save him, really hits home for Wol Joo. That triggers the memory of her mom (Kim Hee Jung), who had willingly died, in order to save her, and that’s what causes Wol Joo to agree to help save Jin Dong. Again, I like how Wol Joo is consistently moved to action because a certain facet of the situation resonates with her; it reveals where her heart is, and also, unlocks her compassion, which are both very good things.
E5. This episode, Wol Joo’s personal connection to the case, is an empathy born of also leaving behind someone that she loved, when she’d died. That moment at the BBQ place, where she thinks back to the crown prince, and how he’d declared his love for her, and how he wanted to be a person that she needed, is full of pathos, as Wol Joo gets lost in her memories.
E6. This episode, Wol Joo feels so strongly empathetic towards Kang Bae’s dance instructor (Lee Seo An), whose dream is to have a baby, because she knows what it feels like to love someone and want to have his children, that she throws herself into stealing a conception dream for her.
E8. That moment when Wol Joo wishes tearfully on the moon, that she’d be delivered from this misery before she gets attached again, is so full of sadness. Her anguish feels so raw, as her tears stream down her face, that I can’t help feeling protective of her. Really nicely done, I thought.
Choi Won Young as Manager Gwi
I do like Choi Won Young very well, so I was glad to see him at the Bar as Manager Gwi.
Show keeps his character vague on purpose for a good stretch, so we don’t actually learn about Manager Gwi’s backstory until Show’s last stretch. Certainly, when Show reveals all the details, Manager Gwi pops extra, as a character. However, I just want to say that even before we know what there is to know, Manager Gwi comes across as a likable character. He’s wry but helpful, and we do see his caring nature come to the fore, when the situation calls for it.
Additionally, Manager Gwi contributes a fair bit to Show’s comedic tone, and Choi Won Young is a good sport through it all, which I appreciated.
I’ll talk more about Manager Gwi in other sections, but for now, here are some of my early-episode impressions.
E1. I do love the little arc of Manager Gwi visiting that abusive customer in his dreams, to impress on him the importance of eating his food at home, and treating supermarket samples as samples. Hur. That’s so sarcastic and heroic, at the same time.
E3. Manager Gwi is turning out to be quite the hoot, with his shape-shifting antics, and his shake-it-out method of shifting back to his original form. That scene of him walking down the hallway in a skirt is quite amusing, and I can’t help but notice that he has slender legs that look surprisingly androgynous.
E4. The entire vibe around Manager Gwi is shifting, I notice. Up till this point, he’s mostly been affable and comedic in an almost token sort of way. He hasn’t taken up much story room so far, and the spotlight’s been mostly on Wol Joo or Kang Bae. But this episode, not only does he save the day by bringing the pouch of good deeds just in time to save Jin Dong, he gets the backlit, slo-mo hero entrance, complete with damp hair that he’s shaking off. Ooh. Even Wol Joo gets slightly starry-eyed, at the sight.
And then at the end of the episode, we see Manager Gwi in action hero mode, effortlessly taking down an evil spirit with ease, panache, and a smirk. I do love that Manager Gwi is this effortlessly badass, underneath his affable, laidback cover.
Yook Sung Jae as Kang Bae
I thought Yook Sung Jae was perfectly cast as Kang Bae, our earnest good-hearted boy with the ability to unlock people’s desires to share their inner pain.
Yook Sung Jae plays Kang Bae with an innocence and purity that I thought was pitch perfect, and on the occasions when Kang Bae shows touches of comedy or deep emotion, Yook Sung Jae delivers very well, as well.
Even though Kang Bae lives in constant dismay at his gift inadvertently subjecting him to hours of people unloading their cares onto him, at every accidental touch, he isn’t angry with his lot in life, and possesses so much heart, that I couldn’t help but grow fond of him and want only good things for him.
E1. I wasn’t surprised that Kang Bae moved to save Mi Ran (Park Ha Na) from killing herself by walking in front of an oncoming truck, but I was surprised that instead of pushing her out of the way, he planted himself between her and the truck. That seems rather extreme? Did he do that just to avoid touching her? Coz.. that is also very extreme, to put your own life in danger, just because you’re afraid the person you’re trying to save will unload their cares onto you.
E2. Kang Bae is an earnest young man who wants to be sure he’s doing the right thing by people, which I think is sweet. Also, when it’s revealed at the end of the episode that he’d hesitated to sign the contract because he’s so used to failing at things and therefore he was pretty sure he’d fail (and have to pay the price of possibly having his powers magnified), I felt rather sorry for him. I’d like Kang Bae to grow in self-confidence over the course of our story.
E5. That moment when Kang Bae can’t bear to eat the porridge that Wol Joo’s cooked for him, because, as an orphan, he’s never had food cooked for him by someone at home before. Oof. That’s such a simple thing, and yet, he’s never experienced until now. That really hit me in the heart; poor lonesome boy.
The Mystic team
Guh. The coming together of the Mystic team as one little found family, is my favorite thing in this whole show.
With Kang Bae joining the fold, Manager Gwi and Wol Joo seem to slip very naturally into parental roles, as they take care of him, and, as their affection for him grows, fuss over him as well. Because each of them is basically an independent agent in this world, with no family to speak of, this little family unit becomes their anchor, and it’s really heartwarming to witness.
E2. Manager Gwi seeking out Kang Bae for a round of basketball is such a fatherly thing to do, and I love that he gives Kang Bae credit for his part in their successful mission. Although Kang Bae feels that he didn’t do much, and that Manager Gwi and Wol Joo did all the work, Manager Gwi graciously acknowledges that without Kang Bae, they could’ve even have started. I tend to agree with Manager Gwi; the three of them do make a pretty great team.
E7. On the one hand, the found family really comes to the fore in a strong new way this hour, when Kang Bae can’t find Wol Joo, Manager Gwi, or the bar. It’s only then that we realize just how much they mean to him, and how they’ve brought warmth and companionship to his otherwise lonely life. Even though he should’ve been preoccupied with the dance competition with Yeo Rin (Jung Da Eun), he can’t seem to function, out of worry for Wol Joo and Manager Gwi, and he’s bereft at the thought of possibly never seeing them again. His unadulterated relief and joy at seeing them again, complete with tears and hugs, is so touching too. Aw. How poignant and endearing.
E7. When Wol Joo and Manager Gwi talk about the time that’s coming when the bar won’t be around anymore, and Kang Bae really won’t see them, it’s so bittersweet. It’s true that Kang Bae will be free from his powers then, and will finally be able to live a normal life. But nothing takes away the sadness of the impending separation of this little found family. They’ve been through a lot together in a short amount of time, and now, it’s hard to imagine them not being together, hanging, helping people, fighting evil spirits and just being silly together, through it all. Sniffle.
It’s kind of bizarre to think that this human boy basically fills his lonely life by hanging out with ghosts and reapers, but it’s true that Wol Joo, Manager Gwi and he have become a family of sorts, and that is an idea that warms my heart.
E8. It’s sweet, that both Manager Gwi and Wol Joo worry about Kang Bae being able to see ghosts, and go out of their way to help him. The way Wol Joo fusses over him, getting him good quality salt, and reminding him to carry it with him, is quite motherly. I like it whenever Kang Bae gets some good mothering from either of these two.
E8. Wol Joo musing everyone needs someone to listen to them, in order to live, and then that she’d had no one to listen to her while she was alive, but is now, in death, listening to so many, is quite sadly ironic. It’s sad that she’d killed herself because she’d believed that the crown prince had betrayed her, and thus felt that she had no one left in the world who would listen to her and understand her.
It’s sweet, though, that Kang Bae tells Wol Joo that he’s proud of her, because she has the ability to actually help the people that she listens to, unlike him.
E9. It’s a poignant reveal, that Wol Joo had been pregnant when she’d died, and that the whole reason she agreed to be punished instead of being sent to the Hell of Extinction, was so that she could save her child from living multiple miserable lives. I’m getting the sense that Manager Gwi is the crown prince, and Kang Bae might be the child that she didn’t know she had. I like that idea, since these three have already fallen into a family dynamic, and they all clearly care about one another.
E9. I’m still quite floored though, by Wol Joo’s lack of hesitation, when it comes to exchanging her chance for reincarnation for information that would give her a chance – not even a guarantee – of helping Kang Bae. I mean, she’s basically agreeing to disappear from existence, for his sake. Is this a mother’s instinct, perhaps?
Also, while I love the idea that Wol Joo, Manager Gwi and Kang Bae are a family, it’s also heartbreaking to realize that when the 100,000th grudge is solved, Wol Joo and Manager Gwi are supposed to leave anyway, soul contract or no, and that would leave Kang Bae without his family, all over again. That thought makes me so sad. I just want there to be a way for them to be together properly, long term.
The connection between Wol Joo and Manager Gwi
A few episodes into our story, Show starts playing with a hyperawareness between Wol Joo and Manager Gwi, and it’s cute and amusing even as a side arc, to see the usually brusque Wol Joo swoon a little bit at Manager Gwi.
Visually, I think they make a cute couple, and I like the chemistry that Choi Won Young and Hwang Jung Eum share as well. Without being spoilery, I’ll just say that I am pretty satisfied with how Show treats the connection between Wol Joo and Manager Gwi.
E5. We’re also getting hints of a burgeoning hyperawareness between Wol Joo and Manager Gwi, with him wowing her, not just by preventing her from falling in the bus, but also saving her from an evil spirit, and getting her all worried about him, if just for a moment. I think it’s pretty cute.
E10. I find it fitting, that Manager Gwi, for all his efforts, can’t hide his identity from Wol Joo. She recognizes the romantic lines that she overhears Kang Bae saying to Yeo Rin, and when Kang Bae admits that it was Manager Gwi who’d taught him what to say, Wol Joo makes the connection immediately. I’d say it’s high time Wol Joo gets to know that the very person whom she’s been pining for, has been right beside her all this time.
E10. Manager Gwi is the crown prince, like I’d guessed, and I’m not surprised that he did everything in his power to find his way back to Wol Joo’s side. But, we’re not told that he can’t tell Wol Joo his identity, so why hasn’t he revealed himself to Wol Joo, all this time?
How tragic, that he’d beheaded his friend Won Hyung (Na In Woo), then killed himself – and based on the clothes that he was wearing while kneeling before Queen Yeomra (Yum Hye Ran) – ostensibly, on his wedding day. His loyalty to Wol Joo is so deep. Guh.
I’m not even surprised that he offers himself in exchange, to Queen Yeomra, on the matter of Wol Joo’s contract. I can believe that he’d sacrifice himself, if it means that he can protect Wol Joo. I’m almost certain that what he tells Wol Joo, about using important information that he’d saved up, in exchange for her contract, is a lie. Blubber.
Kang Bae’s loveline with Yeo Rin
I hadn’t expected Kang Bae to have a loveline – I don’t even know why, since this is a kdrama after all, and about 95% of kdramas will make sure to have a young loveline, if only to draw in audiences, so I should’ve seen it coming – but I was pleasantly surprised to realize that Kang Bae has a very cute blossoming romance with Yeo Rin.
Even though this loveline regularly brought lashings of lightness and cute to our story, I also really appreciate how Show makes their connection something deeper, where they’re able to empathize with each other at an almost visceral level.
I don’t have a separate section for Yeo Rin as a character, since her role is mainly in relation to Kang Bae, so I’m putting my Yeo Rin thoughts in this section too.
E3. I’m intrigued by bodyguard Yeo Rim who doesn’t have any reaction to Kang Bae and his magic hands, and I’m very interested to see how she fits into the story, because from what Show is revealing so far, she’s definitely not a throwaway side character. If this spells a potential loveline for Kang Bae, who’s pining to experience what it’s like to hold hands with a girl, I think I’m going to be nicely amused.
E5. Kang Bae getting strong-armed into joining the dance competition at work, and trying to get Yeo Rin to be his dance partner, is quite amusing.
I am relieved that instead of the comical (and very inappropriate) suggestions by Kang Bae’s colleagues, he and Yeo Rin end up bonding in more meaningful ways. The way they both step in to help the blind man in the restaurant, by speaking up for him to the aggressive customer, helps to break the ice a little. And then when Kang Bae uses his magic fingers to cause the thief to admit his wrongdoing, to save Yeo Rin from having to apologize to him for lack of evidence, that really paves the way for the two of them to actually become friends – or at least, partners in the dance competition.
I like that Kang Bae frames it to Yeo Rin, as wanting to return the favor, for when she’d trusted him when they first met; that he’d wanted to do the same for her, if the situation ever arose. Aw. That’s meaningful, and I like it. No wonder Yeo Rin softens and asks him to be her dance partner.
E6. I really like the unexpected solidarity between Kang Bae and Yeo Rin. The maybe-date that they go on is cute, but it’s the way they both cry at the silly gout love movie that hits home. The movie’s theme hits Kang Bae like a ton of bricks because he knows the pain of being unable to connect with another person via physical touch. What’s surprising is that Yeo Rin appears to know the same pain – except that her touch triggers a different response from others. While Kang Bae’s touch triggers people to share their emotional burdens, Yeo Rin’s touch seems to trigger a strong sense of the creeps.
It’s bittersweet, cathartic and kind of silly, to see them bawling at the supposed rom-com. And I feel, more than ever, that these two dorks, with similar-but-different magic hands, belong together.
E7. Yeo Rin is encouraged by her friend Da Bin (Baek Soo Hee) to plant a kiss on Kang Bae before she develops feelings for him and activates the curse of her magic hands. Yeo Rin getting all hyper-aware of Kang Bae and fixating on his lips, is pretty funny, and Kang Bae spacing out in wonder after the sudden kiss, is endearing too.
On top of that, their dance at the competition was pretty impressive, and their chemistry seems on-point. Also, it was nice to see Yook Sung Jae showing some of his dance prowess, which he’d had to deny in the early stages of the dance competition prep.
E8. Poor Kang Bae, getting his heart broken by Yeo Rin even before he manages to confess his feelings to her. Judging from Yeo Rin’s reaction when she hears that Kang Bae called in sick, though, it seems that she cares more about him than she realizes.
E9. Evidence is mounting that Yeo Rin is the reincarnation of the Cinnabar, from what we’ve seen of how she’s been able to neutralize spiritual powers, so it’s actually quite cute that Kang Bae needs to share true love’s kiss with her, in order to neutralize his own power and lead the normal life he’s always wanted. Yeo Rin definitely cares more about him than she’d like to admit, even to herself, and Kang Bae’s already quite smitten, so I’m looking forward to seeing their loveline take off, in the episodes that we have left.
E10. I love how Kang Bae stands up for Yeo Rin, to the clueless insensitive blockhead that she’d used to like. For one thing, he’s so protective of her, and demands an apology from Clueless Blockhead. Beyond that, I find it very touching, that he can empathize so deeply, with her feelings of exclusion and rejection, just for being herself. When he shares his story about being nicknamed the Cursed Boy, it clearly resonates with Yeo Rin, because it mirrors her own experience so closely.
E10. Kang Bae is so cutely bashful when he clarifies what he meant when he’d said before, that he’d felt relieved that Yeo Rin didn’t feel anything when she’d touched him; that he’d felt relieved that nothing bad had happened to her, and that of course he can’t feel nothing with her, coz he’s so nervous and happy just sitting there with her. Cute. Yay that Yeo Rin takes her cue from Kang Bae, and tells him that she likes him too. Finally! Let the bashful dating begin! 😀
Treatment of the overarching backstory
Show does this thing where it sprinkles little snippets of the past into each episode via flashbacks, often tying it up with the grudge of the day. The effect this has, is a jigsaw puzzle sort of vibe, where we are fed pieces of information that we then try to piece together. And as new information is served up from episode to episode, we juggle the jigsaw pieces a little differently, as we try to make sense of it all.
I thought this was well handled, with the backstory managing to bring poignance to the table, even while being told in fragments.
Yum Hye Ran as Queen Yeomra
I just wanted to say that Yum Hye Ran is perfect as Queen Yeomra. She looks suitably imposing, majestic and witheringly badass. And yet, when called upon to serve up the funny, Yum Hye Ran gamely puts aside her intimidating aura to embrace the gag humor, [MINOR SPOILER] like in episode 7, when she mistakenly texts an insult to the Jade Emperor, and basically falls over herself in horror as a result. [END SPOILER] I thought it was hilarious; who knew that Yum Hye Ran had the physical comedy and comic timing in her?
STUFF THAT WAS OK
Grudges of the day
Although Show generally does a good job making the grudge of the day poignant and heartfelt, I have to admit that I liked some cases more than I did others. Generally speaking, the more poignant and heartfelt the story was, the more I tended to like it, and the more broadly comic the treatment of the story was, the less I felt connected to it.
In this spoiler section, I highlight the cases that I liked well, and the ones that worked out to ok. And then later, in the section on Show’s humor, I’ll mention the cases that I found too broadly comical for my taste. Of course, this may not be an issue for you at all, if you’re able to jive with Show’s brand of humor.
Cases I enjoyed
E2. Ms. Andong’s story
The backstory of this episode’s customer, Ms. Andong, is heartbreaking. A petty fit of jealousy, fueling recklessly spoken drunken words, resulted in 3 ruined lives, and it’s no wonder that Ms. Andong has been living in guilt and torment all these years.
It’s a very compelling situation, because on the one hand, I feel sorry for her, for having lived a miserable life being crushed by the weight of her guilt, but on the other hand, I feel even more sorry for the lives that she ruined with her reckless actions. She’s done everything in her power to atone for her wrongdoing – bringing up the child and punishing herself along the way – so I feel like she’s done all she can, and yet, it still feels insufficient, because someone died, and someone lost her parents, and someone lost his family, because of her.
It’s very poignant, because this is the kind of conundrum we tend to face as humans; sometimes we do things that we deeply regret, but we just can’t take it back, no matter how much we want to, and we have to find a way to co-exist with the guilt.
It’s quite moving that after Ms. Andong’s death, neither Eun Su nor her dad (Kwak Sun Young and Lee Seung Chul) seems to hold a grudge against her. Instead, Dad speaks of her with compassion, and Eun Su cries and thanks her and addresses her as Mom, and says that she misses her. It’s a testament to how much Ms. Andong poured herself into raising Eun Su. She may have been battling her own demons while she’d raised Eun Su, but Eun Su felt her motherly love and protection, and that’s what she leaves behind, after her death.
The scene of Ms. Andong meeting Sun Hwa in the afterlife is beautiful and poignant. Sun Hwa looks ethereal and lovely in a hanbok, and the way she greets Ms. Andong with gratitude instead of anger, is so gracious. She doesn’t say a thing about Ms. Andong’s lies which led to her death; she only thanks Ms. Andong for raising Eun Su well. Ms. Andong can only sob on her knees, and Sun Hwa, tearing up as well, kneels down to comfort her. What a touching, poignant note on which to leave them, I thought.
E3. Unfair recruitment practices
This episode’s grudge feels so familiar because we’ve seen it in countless other dramas; hardworking, qualified candidate get passed over because of nepotism. But Show manages to bring it to life, and deliver an intervention that is entertainingly heist-like, while bringing heartfelt resolution to the aggrieved candidate.
I wasn’t sure how our team would use their access to the Dreamscape to solve this episode’s grudge, but the way that that worked out was pretty clever and quite fun to watch.
E5. The wandering spirit
Today’s case is nicely done, in that Show played with perception effectively, and for a good stretch, I was under the impression that the wandering spirit was Sang Geon’s (Oh Man Seok) mother and not his wife (Lee Ji Hyun). The reveal is quite excellent, and it’s heartbreaking and tragic to realize that he’s struggling to deal with the grief of losing his wife, while suffering from the onset of dementia. All the times that he thinks he’s interacting with his wife, his dementia is actually causing his perception to be wonky and inaccurate.
I found the trajectory of this arc very touching; that all the ghost wanted to do, was say a proper goodbye to her husband, for whom she was worried. And it’s so meaningful, that it’s because of her words to him in his dream, that he decides to check into a nursing home and receive treatment, like she’d asked of him.
That final touch, of him getting one last chance to eat the dumplings that she’d made for him, under the protective guise of the pop-up bar, was very meaningful too. Although he can’t quite remember why the dumplings taste so familiar to him because of his dementia, I’d like to think that his heart remembered and was warmed.
Cases I found ok, overall
E6. The conception grudge
Ha. This episode’s preoccupation with claw machines is so random and silly. First, Wol Joo and Manager Gwi getting so caught up in their fight against a claw machine that they use up all their grocery money, and then later, they find that Samshin keeps all her conception dreams in a claw machine too? Pfft. It’s ridiculous, but it’s entertaining.
The way our crew encounters the case feels more random than usual, since it pretty much has nothing to do with the bar. Still, this episode is a poignant glimpse into what it’s like for couples struggling to conceive. It’s an experience that most couples don’t go through, so it feels illuminating and educational, to gain some insight into the emotional struggles, the physical and emotional pain, and the relationship strain that all tends to come with the territory.
The cat-and-mouse game that they play with Samshin (Oh Young Sil) at the end, while trying to get the conception dream to the instructor lady, is silly and ridiculous, but generally quite feel-good, since they are successful at helping her.
E8. Makjang Romeo & Juliet
I was rather thrown at first, by the apparently random Romeo and Juliet-inspired play, plonked in the center of our episode, and it did feel like this story-within-a-story was taking up a disproportionate amount of time, making the episode feel rather scattered and draggy, but trust Show to actually turn it into something rather poignant, by the end of the hour.
I will admit that once that Romeo and Juliet story turned makjang, it actually became rather entertaining, and I was quite amused. Although, I do think there was an oversight where the story refers to Juliet being 10 years older than Romeo, and then Wol Joo remarks that Juliet’s such a wise and worldly woman at just 16. So.. if that actually works out, Romeo’s just 6 years old, in this story? HA.
I found the writer’s (Han So Eun) unfulfilled wish poignant and bittersweet, in that it’s so loving and selfless. She died being misunderstood, but it’s her boyfriend (Shin Hyun Soo) that she worries about. She doesn’t care if he misunderstands her and hates her. She doesn’t want him to go through life believing that he’d been looked down on for his occupation. She wants him to know that he was loved. Oof. That’s very touching, and it’s really sad to see that these two people loved each other so sincerely, but are now separated by death.
The way Show manages information [VAGUE HIGH LEVEL SPOILERS]
From fairly early in our story, Show starts to drop hints that either Kang Bae or Manager Gwi might be Wol Joo’s crown prince, and basically teases us with both possibilities until its final stretch, when we get a Big Reveal.
On the one hand, I did find this intriguing and fun, to guess what the truth might be, but sometimes, I did feel like Show was toying with me, by stretching logic and taking the teasing a little far.
This made me occasionally slightly peeved at Show, but it was not a deal-breaker.
STUFF I LIKED LESS
Sometimes Show is sillier than I’m prepared for
Although I realized early on, that Show leans light and funny, I have to admit that there were times when Show vibed sillier than I was prepared for. To Show’s credit, the plot points are consistently full of heart, which helped.
For the record, here’s some Funny that I liked, and some that I didn’t like so much.
Funny that I liked
E7. The one with the chicken
There’s a large serving of funny this hour, at which I found myself – gasp! – actually laughing out loud. Usually k-humor doesn’t work so well for me, and I often don’t jive with dramas’ idea of funny, especially if the humor is broad, and yet, I am giggling at the ridiculousness that Show serves up. To be fair, I wasn’t much into the toilet humor of Manager Gwi accidentally drinking the laxative-laced drink that he’d planned for the dance competitor, but I liked a good number of comic moments this episode; more than average, I’d say.
My favorite comic moment this episode, is Kang Bae using his magic fingers on a hen, and Manager Gwi speaking chicken to the hen, who’s the witness of what went down with the runaway ghost. HAHA. That’s so absurd that I can’t help giggling even as I type this.
Funny that was just ok for me
E4. The one with the field day for the dead
The first half of this episode felt particularly random and silly, but Show manages to round it up and bring it back to a more poignant, personal note by the time we hit the end of the hour. I appreciate the lashings of personal story, but I hafta say, the silly isn’t sitting so organically with me, this episode. I’m adjusting my lens for it, and that’s helping, but I’m realizing all over again, that I don’t tend to jive with the silly so much, when it comes to dramas. Someone who enjoys this particular brand of silly would love this episode, I think.
The cover story that Kang Bae, Wol Joo and Manager Gwi cook up to get Yeo Rim off Kang Bae’s case, is really quite clichéd, and the terrible acting and just as terrible spoken English of the actor playing Manager Gwi’s avatar as Mr. Smith, is highly distracting. But ok, at least Yeo Rim buys it, and Kang Bae’s got a cover story, and Manager Gwi gets to look sharp in a suit, once he shakes off the terrible Mr. Smith avatar.
Wol Joo’s encounter with Jin Dong’s grandmother (Kim Mi Kyung) at the supermarket feels like filler, and the scene feels quite pointless to me, since it’s not necessary for Wol Joo to know Gran, in this episode’s events. I guess it’s more to give us some insight into Gran and her sweet-talking ways, but in effect, this still felt like filler.
The field day for the dead also feels like one rather protracted gag (which was just ok for me), but there’s something endearing about all these ghosts fighting so hard for the chance to bless their descendants.
Snerk, at Show indicating that because they’ve got a new hire – a heavy hint at Steve Jobs – all the records at Afterlife City Hall are now digitized and super fast to access. Ok, I did chuckle at that, it felt so random, hur.
On the upside, I like that this episode’s case doesn’t just result in Jin Dong’s life being saved, but his grandmother’s back being healed as well. That feels way more precious and priceless than winning lottery numbers, and it’s so wholesome, to see Jin Dong and Gran celebrating her newly strong back.
I thought it was a little weird for Wol Joo to break the fourth wall and address the audience, advising us to be nice to one another and help one another, because the good deeds eventually can come back to us. I found it rather hokey and awkward, but I get that Show’s trying to serve up a feel-good, aspirational sort of moment.
THEMES / IDEAS
I’ve already alluded to a number of themes and ideas in this review, most of which are tied up with the grudges of the day, but I wanted to shine the spotlight on one particular theme that stood out to me extra.
In episode 6, Kang Bae gives the following voiceover, which I really liked. I found it to be resonant through our entire story:
“Everyone has a wound that pains them. The moment you’re willing to reveal that wound you wanted to hide is when you find someone with the same wound. ‘I know. I’m in as much pain as you are. So you can cry in front of me.’ As you show them your true self, and when they do exactly the same, you begin to get to know each other little by little.”
THOUGHTS ON THE PENULTIMATE EPISODE [SPOILERS]
This was a very solid penultimate episode, where I don’t just feel like stuff is being moved into place for the big finale. This episode, in itself, feels meaty and significant, with important plot movement taking place, without taking away the spotlight from the finale. Nicely done.
Although we do have to contend with some angst and continued misunderstanding for a while, we do finally get some honest conversation between Wol Joo and Manager Gwi, where she finally learns what happened after her death. There are sighs, tears and wistful regrets, but it’s heartwarming to see Manager Gwi finally give Wol Joo the ring that he’d prepared all those years ago. I do love how that moment is treated, where we momentarily see young, human Wol Joo facing her crown prince, as they smile at each other. It feels like all the angst of the last 500 years has been mended, and they’re finally reclaiming the love, affection and truth that they’d shared.
It does bug me that Wol Joo doesn’t yet tell Manager Gwi about their child, and why she’s accepted this punishment for the last 500 years. I feel that as the child’s father, he has a right to know. But, I do believe that Show is saving that for our finale.
It’s quite clever of Show to have this episode’s grudge to be of the Cinnabar herself, so that we don’t deviate from our main narrative at all. It is admittedly very convenient that the Cinnabar’s grudge and general hatred of men has to do with Won Hyung as well, but in a small drama world like this, I can’t quibble too much. I also found the way in which that grudge was settled rather lame, with noraebang, sweet treats and friends, but in lieu of actually punishing Won Hyung – which I believe Show is also saving for the finale – I suppose this is as close as we can get.
Importantly, Yeo Rin no longer has problems touching Kang Bae, and it’s very cute how she revels in all of the touches, the moment she realizes she can. From holding his arm, to holding his hand, to giving him a hug, Yeo Rin goes through the paces with wonder and glee, and it’s super cute that when she instructs Kang Bae to hug her back, he’s so thrilled that he’s allowed to. So he does, and won’t let go, even when she says it’s enough. Hee. Smitten puppies are adorable.
I’m rather disappointed that all the past hints that Manager Gwi had been suspicious of Reaper Yeom were all red herrings. This episode, I keep waiting for him to outsmart Fake Reaper Yeom, and he.. doesn’t.
HOWEVER. Show more than makes up for it, with the reveal, that Kang Bae is the Sacred Tree. When Fake Reaper Yeom attacks Wol Joo and flings Kang Bae out of the way, it seems that blast of supernatural power went right through Kang Bae’s open spiritual gates, and ignited the power of the Sacred Tree, which has been dormant in him all this time. Ooh. I didn’t see this coming, and I am suitable intrigued to see where Show goes with this. I am extremely pleased that Show pulls off this plot twist so nicely, this late in our story. Nicely done.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
In the end, all’s well that angsts well (hur), and we even get a happy ending all around, so I’d say Show does a nice job of this finale, despite the rollercoaster of emotions it entails, and some convenient plot developments that don’t actually get explained.
After the fiery confrontation with Won Hyung at the bar, Kang Bae collapses in a dead faint, and for a while, we get some nice family scenes, with Manager Gwi and Wol Joo taking care of him and feeding him food. We even get a dream sequence where they’re living ordinary lives as a family, with Wol Joo getting annoyed with her man-child husband who plays computer games with their son instead of getting him to study. It’s a silly little scene, but set in the context where these characters will never get to live that ordinary life, there’s a distinct undercurrent of bittersweetness running through this scene.
The final showdown with Won Hyung is dramatic and full of heartbreak, as our characters give of their all, to protect one another. Manager Gwi blocks Won Hyung’s last ditch flying-spirit-killing-weapon attempt to kill Kang Bae, by throwing himself in front of said weapon, saving both Kang Bae and Wol Joo – who’d herself thrown herself in the line of fire, to save Kang Bae.
Wol Joo, dragged over the edge of Kang Bae’s dream spiral staircase by a vengeful Won Hyung, chooses to let go, and fall into oblivion, in order to save Kang Bae. Her final words to him sound so loving and comforting; truly a mother’s last words to her son, wanting the very best for him.
“Just live your life like you always have. Be sweet and sincere. And don’t let go of those you love. All right? That’s more than enough. You will then live your life to the fullest. I’m the one letting go of your hand. You didn’t lose your grip, so don’t ever blame yourself.” … “I enjoyed our time together, Kang-bae.”
Ack. So much self-sacrificial love here, and it’s extra moving that Wol Joo and Manager Gwi have only really just found out that Kang Bae is their son. I believe that they would’ve given their all to save Kang Bae anyway – as we’ve seen from earlier events – but it just adds a big layer of extra poignance, to know that they are cognizant that this is all for their baby, whom they were just getting to know. Oof.
Unspecified time-skip later, we see that Kang Bae’s living an ordinary life, now that his unique powers have been sorted out. He and Yeo Rin are still happily dating, and Yeo Rin is happily still smitten with how handsome her boyfriend is, hee. Cute.
We also see Wol Joo, finally found, standing before Queen Yeomra to receive her sentence for not fulfilling the settlement of 100,000 grudges as agreed. With a smile, Queen Yeomra informs Wol Joo that she did, in fact, settle 100,000 grudges, since, in sacrificing herself for her son, she’d settled her grudge of not being able to save her son.
Wol Joo requests not to be reborn, and asks for permission to simply live in the Living Realm as she’d done before, because she’s now ready to truly listen to people’s troubles. As a reward, Queen Yeomra assigns her an assistant, and who should it be, but Manager Gwi, who’s alive and well!
We aren’t told how Manager Gwi manages to be alive, but the running hug that Wol Joo gives him, and their happy, tearful smiles, make my heart feel so full, that I barely even care that Show isn’t clear on this. (My logical brain does rationalize, though, that Manager Gwi did die, because Wol Joo makes mention of Manager Gwi having been to the Afterlife. Also, there’s Wol Joo’s voiceover, about how the heavens are more easily moved than we might think. So I’m assuming that the heavens were moved by Manager Gwi’s sacrifice, and brought him back from the Afterlife is some sort of supernatural reincarnation where he can go back to being who he was, at the time of death.)
With Kang Bae’s spirit-seeing powers gone, I was a little concerned that he wouldn’t be able to see the bar even after it reopened, but he does see it (I guess this is the power of love? Heaven’s mercies?), and he bursts into the bar with incredulous wonder. I love how he announces his arrival, “I’m here” – which are the same words that he’d always used, to let them know that he was there for his shift. Aw.
Like I said, the mechanics are kept vague, but I’m just really happy to know that Wol Joo and Manager Gwi get to start their love story all over again, while operating the bar together, and that now, Kang Bae will be able to join them too, and make this a fresh start for the whole family.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Sometimes silly, and sometimes angsty, but always heartfelt.
FINAL GRADE: B+
The next drama I’ll be covering on Patreon, in place of Mystic Pop-up Bar, is The King: Eternal Monarch. Yes, I’m finally checking it out, after numerous earnest requests from you guys!
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