Thursday, October 31, 2013

Drama Review: Master’s Sun (2013)



Grade: A-

Category
Supernatural rom-com

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.

First impression
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.

Final verdict
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.

Random thoughts
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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16 comments:

  1. Argh, I was going to watch this drama, but chee-sus kuh-riste, I have such a long To Watch List! (and that's only my Korean Drama List... I have a Japanese List too, with some Taiwanese dramas thrown in for good measure)

    I think I will check it out, though. Every review I've read of it so far has pretty much made this out to be the best drama the Hong sisters have ever written. And that's really surprising, as most of their dramas tend to be fluffy dramas you watch on a rainy day to make yourself feel better.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Hope, could you share your Japanese list? Or at least tell me a few good shows I should start with? I've watched Nobuta Wo Produce as per Amanda's awesome review but not sure what to watch next. Thank you!

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  2. The Master's Sun is definitely in my top tier of most loved dramas. EVER. It's been one of the few dramas I've actually gone back to rewatch an episode here and there. A fantastic collection of characters, great chemistry all around, loved the "I even made lots of money because I know how much you love it!" line. Funny, touching, sad, sweet, tragic, feels feels feels, just a really great show from start to finish. This drama also made my (quite short) "No Fastforwarding Required" list. LOL

    I loved it so much, I wouldn't even mind a spin off with Yoo Jin-Woo and his whole "ghost encounters" story.

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  3. Hi Amanda, I've wanted to comment on the using-a-fan-to-dry-you hair thing since I saw your comment on the side bar.
    I am proud to say I have performed this ritual for the past 12 years, even sometimes in winter. My fan sits permanently in a corner in my living room, and I will use it to roughly dry my hair before a proper blowdry or using the hairstaightener. On weekends I will use it to completly dry my hair. It's an integral part of my morning routine.
    If you want to give it a go, just remember to place the fan at arm's length so your hair doesn't catch in the blades!

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  4. Hello Amanda,

    Thank you for your wonderful blog and for doing the TMS review. I loved TMS too, so much so that I started a writing a fanfic based on the OTP. I called it "That Far Gone". People who read the fanfic tell me the story is different from the usual fanfic material. Readers’ comment that the fanfic is "a masterpiece that brought us laughter, passion, grief, healing and hope ", "endearingly beautiful", or “blurring the lines between reality and fiction”, and my favourite comment - "good grammar". You can view more comments and read the whole fanfic here: http://mywebfoot.tumblr.com/tfg

    At the urging of those who have read TFG, I am turning this into a full-fledged e-book. The added length will permit me to develop the secondary characters more fully and to give the main couple more scenes to explore the growing relationship, making it an enduring tribute to the chemistry of this couple.

    To do this, I need the help of a good editor who can help to bring out the best of the story immediately and powerfully. I need a fair amount of money to pay for this skill. That’s why I have decided to turn to crowd-sourcing for the funds.
    Please, anyone reading this, please help me to write a fun, sexy, touching and maybe even inspiring love story by contributing to the cause here http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/make-that-far-gone-real

    Thank you for your support.

    Webfoot

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  5. I just began watching it so I won't read your whole review right now but after I've finished. It is really good so far!

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  6. I just started watching this, so I only skimmed your post. As big of a scaredy-cat as I am I started the show with caution, but really the spooky bits (at least so far) are manageable. The premise for the show certainly has me intrigued. Looking forward to watching more… ^^

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  7. I kept being terrified that this show would be terrible, and I was so happy at how much I enjoyed it! Maybe I should just assume things will be terrible from now on so that I can enjoy everything more.

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  8. i was watching with reserve cause of Big but by halfway thru the first episode both leads totally hooked me! i lurved this one every minute every episode. so surprised by so ji sub in this type of role-he should try it again but then, gong hyo jin has tons of chemistry with any lead guy and plays her parts so well-anyone could do well paired next to her. i love her! so ji sub knows how to be sexy without taking it all off although he can certainly try it anytime and there won't be any complaints. he has those bedroom eyes people always talk about with certain actors. i totally love reading your blogs and want to thank you again for such fun posts!

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  9. I have to say I love Master's Sun. It is so funny and cute. I never cared for Gong Hyo Jin that much before, she is so deadpan in her performances, but that really works for this drama! And So Ji Sub has had me swooning since What Happened in Bali. But I wish he had kept his black hair, he was far more handsome, but I'm not complaining!

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  10. I like the story enough but throughout the whole series, it bothered me a great deal that the male lead acted so much like Dokko Jin (Cha Seung Won) in the Greatest Love (Gong Hae Jin's other drama). So ji Sub is a good enough actor to do his own thing so I am not sure why he performed the character this way. It was like stealing someone else's performance.

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  11. I would say this years Master's Sun and I hear your Voice top my list of must-watch dramas! They are both something fresh ( considerably new genre) to the whole k-drama thing. A typical k-drama would be like Heirs, which I did watch as well ( just for the great casting; but lousy storyline).

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  12. Hello, I just finished watching Master's Sun and saw your blog. Your writing on this drama is brilliant , with sharp views. I can't agree with you more on your Random Thoughts under Episode 1 about the writers Hong Sisters. They used to have a problem of dragging the story along after the fun and conflict of the leads' romance dry out around the middle of the show's life.
    I enjoy watching the sweet and fun interaction between the leads in Hongs' stories, but most of the times get a bit bored towards the end. However, Master's Sun wrapped up pretty well. I'm especially impressed with So Ji-Sub's acting --- a bit like Dokko Jin in the Greatest Love (well, the Hong Sisters wrote for both dramas) but I think So gave more thought to the acting (since it's his first romance-comedy) and showed the right amount of charm.
    Thanks for sharing this drama with us and I'll keep coming back to your blog.

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  13. this is one the nicest k-dramas i have watched unlike other korean series this one is a FULL-PACKAGE it has comedy, drama, suspense, horror etc. it is a series that have this sense that you dont feel any lacking nor overdoing of the scenes. it is just so great watching this is not the usual kind of series i expected but it was like perfect. thanks a lot for making this drama 2 thumbs up !!! Joshua here

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  14. hi im from phillipines i love to watch master sun , i hope there is part 2 and i love the couple too ,

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