What it’s about
After she begins seeing ghosts, Tae Gong Shil’s promising future self-destructs. She can’t hold down a job, have regular friendships, or even get a good night’s sleep, because the ghosts find her wherever she goes. But then she meets Joo Joong Won, the flamboyant president of one of Seoul’s ritziest shopping malls, who can make her spectral companions disappear with a single touch. Stealing skinship at every opportunity, Tae Gong Shil starts to feel in control of her life for the first time since her inexplicable powers appeared. Desperate to stay by Joong Won’s side, she swears to solve a mystery that has haunted him for more than a decade.
In spite of my enormous backlog of half-watched dramas, I finally broke down and decided to start this currently airing show written by the Hong sisters. I’ve been holding off because it’s already being covered to death on the dramaweb, but I’m being tortured by fabulous Tumblr gif sets of its ghosts every time I visit my dashboard. Two of my greatest loves are horror movies and romantic comedies, so it seems that Master’s Sun and I were made for each other. But after last summer’s debacle with the Hong sisters’ drama Big, I’m a little wary of this show being another flameout. Master’s Sun is starting off as a fun Kdrama take on the American movie Ghost—but then again, Big started off as a fun take on the American movie Big. And look where that got us.
I am incredibly happy to report that Master’s Sun is no Big.
If you were a Kdrama fan during the summer of 2012, you almost certainly know what I mean. That was the year the famous Hong sisters—screenwriters behind fan favorites like You’re Beautiful and Greatest Love—made what was arguably the worst drama of their long careers. Suffice it to say that Big was nearly unwatchable and utterly squandered a great cast and a promising storyline.
After the disappointment of that show, I almost swore the Hong sisters off forever. I’m glad I didn’t, though, because they rebounded with what might just be the best drama they’ve ever written. Master’s Sun is funny but not broad, sweet but not treacly, and animated without being over the top. It’s full of endearing, eccentric characters who are interesting, but don’t hijack the show with manic scenery chewing (unlike, say, Dokko Jin in Greatest Love).
And for the first time in recent memory (or maybe ever), the Hong sisters have given these great characters a plot that’s worthy of them. Master’s Sun is propulsive, always moving forward and never getting hung up for too long any particular roadblock. It helps that the narrative works on two levels: there’s the love story and overarching mythology of the two leads, which is supplemented in almost every episode by a free-standing, procedural-style mystery about an individual ghost. They give us something more to care about than the relationship of the lead couple, and allow the show to fill time with things other than frustrating romantic obstacles. A few are even surprisingly moving.
Charming characters, a fast-moving plot, and a satisfying finale made Master’s Sun a joy to watch. It’s not particularly scary in spite of its ghostly premise, but it is worth your time if you’re looking for an engaging love story with a otherworldly twist.
• Episode 1. I never would have guessed that dark under-eye circles would be the big trend in Kdrama makeup this year. But this show’s female lead is the second character to have them (and somehow still manage to look cute).
• Episode 1. This drama seems to be taking an episodic approach—its ghost-seeing heroine is being set up to solve a weekly lineup of mysteries related to her spectral visitors. This might actually be just what the Hong sisters need to produce a decent drama. They have great, fizzy ideas and a knack for manufacturing truly funny moments, but they’re not so good at sustaining conflict that lasts for the whole run of a series. Their past few dramas have been gimmicks that never really developed anything like cohesive narrative arcs, so maybe they’ve finally decided to play to their strengths and write a drama that has lots of discreet stories that are topically explored, rather than trying for a strong central storyline that they can’t manage.
• Episode 1. That Gong Hyo Jin is so cute it’s hard to believe that she’s a human being, not a manwha character. I just want to pinch her cheeks and give her food. (Lots of it, preferably carbohydrate-based.)
• Episode 2. What’s up with raiding my grandmother’s nightie drawer, female lead? Just because you act like a mental patient doesn’t mean you have to dress like one, too.
• Episode 2. This show is shaping up quite nicely—it’s slowly doling out hints about its endgame and the backstories of its lead characters. (Which is exactly what Big did before it went to hell. So I’m still cautiously optimistic at best, even if I’ve really liked both episodes so far.)
• Episode 2. Younger versions of So Ji Sub have been played by some pretty toothsome boys lately—first there was Yoo Seung Ho in his music video last spring, and now L from Infinite. (Who, might I add, has grown up a lot since he played Eye Candy’s hardest worker in the wonderful Shut Up: Flower Boy Band.)
• Episode 2. As an arachnophobe who lives in a spider-infested condo, I understand the female lead’s constant state of fear at being surrounded with ghosts. (Okay. So maybe spiders are a little less scary than ghosts—although some of them are poisonous, while Ms. Tae’s ghosts just want to shoot the breeze and send her on errands.) But no matter how scary something is, you get used to the trauma after a while. If this whole ghost-whisperer thing didn’t start pretty recently, her squealing, over-the-top reactions are going to feel pretty disingenuous.
• Episode 4. This is the first Kdrama I’ve seen where the girl is the one who’s desperate for skinship. I think this is actually an oblique way for the Hong sisters to discuss the double standards about women and desire—they make up this crazy reason for the female lead to want to “sleep with” the male lead, and then play it for laughs that such a thing could ever be possible when all girls are obviously angelic paragons of virtue.
• Episode 4. In spite of its episodic structure, this show is very much a chip off the Hong sisters’ block. Just like Big, Greatest Love, and You’re Beautiful, its story revolves around a rich, cantankerous guy and a slightly daft girl who are surrounded by a mishmash of borrowed genre tropes. I like that So Ji Sub’s performance is pretty dialed back, which allows Gong Hyo Jin to have some fun as the terrorized victim of multiple hauntings. It’s nice to see her be the attention hog for a change—she was very much the straight woman to Cha Seung Won’s insane scenery chewing as Greatest Love’s Dokko Jin.
• Episode 5. This episode was like Coffee Prince x Poltergeist + Insidious + Are You Afraid of the Dark. I loved it—and think Master’s Sun could very well end up being my favorite Hong sisters drama. The single-episode mysteries are doing a great job keeping this show engaging, which has been a huge problem for their past few dramas.
• Episode 5. One of the things that struck me as totally bizarre about My Lovely Sam Soon—the first Kdrama I ever watched—was how characters kept using electric fans to dry their hair. I haven’t seen it done since...at least not until this episode. So is it a thing to use fans like that in Korea, or is this some sort of bizarre coincidence? Also, the skinship price-tag scene was extremely reminiscent of my beloved Coffee Prince—only not quite as wonderful, of course.
• Episode 7. I’ve probably seen thousands of pieces of English-language dialogue in Korean dramas, but this is the first time it ever occurred to me that this foreign speech is rarely translated into Korean on screen. (We do see definitions in medical dramas and sageuks, which makes me think that subs really don’t exist for these one-off scenes.) People in Korea must really be expected to know a lot of English—or to be okay with not understanding what’s being talked about.
• Episode 7. Although this show’s lead couple is standard issue for dramas written by the Hong sisters, the combination of decent writing and great casting is really paying off this time around. So Ji Sub and Gong Hyo Jin are clearly having fun with their roles, but they’re not turning into scenery-munching hams like the male lead in Best Love or blank-eyed automations like the female lead in Big. (In fact, Master’s Sun is making me wonder if Big could have been saved if Lee Min Jung had done a better job in her role.) The story works, too—with Goosebumps-style ghost mysteries to solve in each episode, there’s none of the pointless wank and navel-gazing that so often passes for a plot in latter-day Hong dramas.
• Episode 8. The female lead just used the suffix sshi to address a ghost. Which is fine, except that’s supposed to be used by adults of similar status. The female lead is an adult and the ghost is a teenager...meaning that the female lead automatically figured out how old the ghost would be if it had lived, and addressed it appropriately. It looks as if there’s a lot more than learning Korean to learning learning Korean, doesn’t it?
• Episode 8. Sometimes I think the subbers at DramaFever like playing with us.
• Episode 10. This is usually the stage where dramas start to feel repetitive and pointless, but Master’s Sun continues to be a pleasant surprise. Between the romance, the ghost-of-the-week puzzles, and the overarching mystery about the male lead’s kidnapping, the story is still humming pleasantly along. I’d even like to see more about this episode’s pottery-dwelling ghoul (and maybe buy one from Hmart, if it means I could hang out with a dreamy Joseon scholar type.)
• Episode 9. I just watched this episode on Viki, because Dramafever seems to be down. As always, the Viki subtitles really respect the original Korean phrasings. I noticed, though that Viki carries a language I never would have expected: Latin. Is the pope a big BoF fanboy or what? Why else would Viki carry what’s essentially a dead language?
• Episode 11. I’m dog sitting at my dad’s today, and I just can’t adjust to watching this episode on his huge TV. Who knew that it’s actually harder to read subtitles when they’re spread over 55 inches of flat screen?
• Episode 11. I’ve literally never seen the actor who’s playing Secretary Kim in a good guy role, so I keep waiting for him to do something evil. At this point I think it’s safe to say that’s not going to happen—he’s shipping the lead couples even harder than I am.
• Episode 12. Gee, do you think that was a trick ending? (Ha! Of course it was—this show was written by the Hong sisters, not Satan.)
• Episode 13. This show is uniquely equipped to survive the extension I keep hearing about—add an extra ghost-of-the-week or two, shuffle some OTP scenes, and boom it’s an 18 episode drama.
• Episode 13. So if touching the male lead chases away the ghosts, why doesn’t Gong Sil ask for a lock of his hair or something? Or maybe a vial of blood to wear around her neck, like Billy-Bob Thorton and Angelina Jolie did back in the day?
• Episode 13. A big round of applause to the Hong sisters for taking the cheesiest, most over-used Kdrama plot twist and really making it work in the context of their story. I was initially annoyed when I saw it coming, but the explanation behind it is utterly perfect.
• Episode 16. I really like this show, but it makes me miss what Korean dramas used to be, back before everything was glossy and high budget. Even romantic comedies in the mid-oughts featured characters who were in possession of bodies as well as souls, people who spent a lot of time washing their faces, trimming their toenails, cooking food, and worrying about bills. None of those earth-bound things are featured in dramas today, and I miss them a lot. For the love of God, they built Tae Gong Shil’s rooftop room without a bathroom.
• Episode 17. That finale is exactly why I love Korean dramas so much—how do they cram so much happiness and light into such a short amount of screen time?
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