Ah, 2017. I remember when this little blog was growing and I had all the time in the world to do what I love: fangirling and dissecting kdramas. Then, life happened. More specifically, law school happened. Now those who frequented this site despite my 3 year hiatus might go well damn, you’re rich now. Nope. Not even close, I’m even more in student debt than I was before and this pandemic has affected what small prospects I had for a long-term career in a very saturated market. So I’m back to drown my sorrows in Kdramas! Not that I ever stopped watching dramas these past 3 years (okay, only for the first year, I didn’t have time to breathe that year), but I just didn’t have the time to lay out the analyses I was known for.
But law school (aka hell) is now over and life shows signs of resuming, so I’m finally back with a review of Netflix’s latest foray into Kdramas: Mystic Pop-up Bar.
First off, that is a terrible translation of the Korean title 쌍갑포차 (Ssang-kab-po-cha). The last two syllables 포차 (po-cha) refers to the road-side red tent restaurant seen so often in Kdramas. The first two syllables 쌍갑 (Ssang-kang) are a little more complicated. 쌍 means twins or equal and 갑 has a meaning similar to ‘top’ or boss’, hence ssang-kap-po-cha. A red tent restaurant where all customers are equal and everyone’s a boss (no class/hierarchy here!)
But that’s where all the terribleness ends, because this show is a lot of fun. And I mean FUN.
The premise is very Hotel Del Luna-ish but the show’s actually based of a manhwa of the same name which came before HDL, so I’ll leave it to your imagination as to who’s plagiarizing whom.
Weol-ju, a kind-hearted young woman living of the Goryeo dynasty, is wronged by the royal family and the very village she spent her life serving and caring for. In vengeance, she hangs herself from Goryeo’s Sacred Tree (as is translated on Netflix and my Korean unfortunately does not extend to the level of understanding the exact wording used. I would appreciate any correction on this!). Hanging oneself is a big no-no to the gods to begin with and hanging oneself from the Sacred Tree is an every bigger no-no. So the Queen of Hell gives Weol-ju the following penance: to hear out and resolve the problems of 100,000 humans. Given that Weol-ju’s not exact a fan of the human race, this is a true punishment to her. Especially since getting people to spill their guts, isn’t as easy as it may seem. We meet Weol-ju when she’s spent 500 years solving 99,990 people’s problems. She has only 10 more to go, but the Queen of Hell’s tired of waiting and has given her only 1 month to find the remaining 10. Will Weol-ju and her sexy manager (played by Choi Wonyoung who worked with Hwang Jungeum in Kill Me Heal Me as Cha Dohyun’s secretary!) meet their quota? Or is she going to hell? Enter the hapless Han Kangbae (Yook Sungjae) with the amazing power of making people spill their guts once they touch him, and you know you’re in for a ride.
Episodes 1 & 2 Review [some spoilers]:
Seeing as this is a review, I won’t be commenting explicitly on the events that unfolded but I’ll analyze what we know, which is surprisingly a great deal. I love 12 episode dramas (hi Liar Game) because they tend to avoid the lag ever present in 16 episode shows. There’s always one slow episode. 12 episode shows don’t have that. So we know a lot about Weol-ju. One. She has quite the temper and (as a woman who’s been discovering her own temper the past couple of years) I love her. She doesn’t back down in the face of injustice, has no issues with grabbing assholes by the neck and uses her supernatural powers for incredibly petty revenge. l. LOVE. IT.
Not to draw comparisons and both actress were INCREDIBLE, but one of my issues with how Jang Man Weol was written in HDL, was that she was shown as clever and cunning and yet a complete nitwit when it came to her finances. I just found it so hard to believe that this intelligent savvy woman was so self absorbed and loved to roll in cash without a care for anything else. It’s almost as if Man Weol was so amazing, that the writers had to give her a weird flaw for comic relief. I just couldn’t buy it. We don’t see that in Weol-ju, which feels much much better. She’s flawed in her own way (see: very bad temper which lends itself to bouts of impulsivity) and selfish and egotistical but it feels organic. Hwang Jungeum conveys Weol-ju’s world weariness very well. She definitely gets up to some wild antics (Hwang Jungeum’s legendary overacting comes into play here and actually works for once) but in the wry turn of her lips you see cynicism and anger. Her eyes say ‘been there done that’. She’s quick to judge, but quick to forgive as episode 2 proves. And Manager Gui may have been onto something when he mentioned in episode 1 that she may not hate humans, rather there may be something deep inside her that she’s keeping from the world. Weol-ju paused when he made those comments so we might be in for something interesting.
I’m curious as to what was written on that scroll Queen Yeomna handed Weolju that had her so transfixed. What exactly did she did read there that broke her down so badly. She went from telling the Queen of Hell that she’ll happily vanish from existence to suddenly sobbing and accepting her punishment. I’m so curious.
Speaking of curious. Manager Gui remains an enigma. We know he’s been working with Weol-ju for a while. Is he the supernatural equivalent of a probation officer making sure she does her penance and sticks to the rules? One things for sure, Choi Wonyoung’s delicious in this role (and in general). It gets tiring seeing him as a villain over and over again and seeing him stuff meat into Sample Boy’s mouth was the BEST thing about episode 1. I choked. I’m curious as to why Manager Gui stays with Weol-ju. Does he sleep? Where does he live? Where does Weol-ju live? Does she sleep? How long has Manager Gui been with her. He didn’t appear to be present during the dramatized retellings of ‘Nolbu and Heungbu’ and ‘Chunhyang’ or during the MacArthur episode. When did he enter Weol-ju’s life and why? I can’t wait to find out.
And the last member of our trio, Han Kangbae. Aww what a squishy cute kid. Yook Sungjae excels at these roles wher ehe’s a bit of an idiot, but a fun idiot, an idiot you want to be your best friend and preserve from the evils of this world. Han Kangbae has everything that these two world-weary immortals lack: selflessness, no ego, a kind heart, and an ever-present luminescent smile. Unlike Weol-ju, he sees the good in people and is slow to judge. There’s no loveline between him and Weol-ju (thank goodness because despite the real life 10 year age gap, Yook Sungjae looks very young, it just wouldn’t work). In fact episode 3’s preview appeared to show Kangbae’s love interest – seemingly a bodyguard of some bad guy chaebol. Should be interesting to see where this goes.
Moving onto the plot, it’s simple and episodic. One case per episode. 10 more episodes and 8 more cases. Should be simple enough I imagine. The revenge is amusing even if the real-life consequences of that revenge can fall flat. It’s unclear as to whether sexual assaulter Manager Park was actually drawn into Miran’s dream and therefore suffered the same consequences as Sample Boy. And the way the supermarket head honchos and lawyers believed Miran seemed a little too easy. I’m not complaining (I saw some reviews complaining about how this was handled but I disagree). I want real life to be this clear cut where all you have to do is point at CCTV footage and culprits are arrested, justice is done. But law school has made me a cynic. The real world doesn’t work that way, it’s far more likely that the supermarket honchos would’ve deleted the footage and fired her instead. Then again, if this show tried to handle this conflict with realism, we’d end up with a much longer show. I like believing that good things are possible so I’m going to shove my Weol-ju style cynicism away and believe in the goodness of people – at least for the duration of this show.
I know ratings have been hampered by accusations that one of the PDs was on Jang Jayeon’s list. It’s unfortunate that a show that a lot of people have poured their work into (the writers, actors, staff) can be blacklisted because of one person. But at the end of the day, justice deserves to be done. The Korean prosecution is notoriously incompetent and corrupt. Just because that same prosecution cleared this PD doesn’t mean he’s innocent. As a lawyer, I cannot emphasize enough that being cleared of charges does not mean you’re factually innocent. You’re legally innocent, because there wasn’t enough evidence to make the charges stick. But that does not mean that you actually didn’t do it. Jang Jayeon died to name this person (among others) on her list. It’s important that we don’t forget that. This doesn’t mean we should boycott the show o course. There’s more to this show than this PD, but you can boycott the PD in other ways: signing petitions, throwing eggs, you name it.
All that aside, this is shaping up to be a super fun show! I will (100% certainly) be reviewing this show and coming back to kdrama life so stay tune to this blog if you like what you see! This was but a preliminary!
Also I want all Weolju’s hanboks