Past lives, centuries-old ghosts taking a shot at redemption, and temperamental female leads seem to be the big trends in K-dramas lately. We saw it last year with Hotel Del Luna, and this year, we are seeing it again with Mystic Pop-Up Bar. Starring Hwang Jung-eum (The Undateables), Choi Won-young (The Nokdu Flower), and Yook Sung-jae (Guardian: The Lonely and Great God) comes a charming little show full of magic, laughter, and valuable life lessons. Think Hotel Del Luna, but with more comedy and less trauma. The concept might sound rehashed, but the execution is fresh and makes for a fun watch.
As with all dramas about past lives, we begin with a flashback to Joseon Korea to meet our lead, Wol-joo (Hwang Jung-eum). Wol-joo is a bright, young girl with a special gift—she can visit people’s dreams through touch and solve health issues for them. Wol-joo is generous to a fault, helping out everyone around the town without expecting much in return. News of her talent soon reaches the royal family, who bring her to the palace to cure the long-suffering crown prince. Once the prince is cured, Wol-joo finds the townsfolk she helped are now jealous of her association with the royal family and spreading rumors about her becoming a concubine. Things take a dangerous turn when Wol-joo’s mother is murdered, and driven by grief, Wol-joo swears revenge upon humans and hangs herself from a sacred tree.
One of the best things about shows featuring past life narratives is the thrill of watching past mysteries reveal themselves little by little. Mystic Pop-Up Bar follows pretty much the same structure. In the first episode, we are only shown how becoming involved with the royal family’s affairs caused the deaths of Wol-joo and her mother. The details of this tragic story, however, are revealed slowly as we progress from episode to episode. The present and the past timelines move together. As we discover how the sweet-tempered child Wol-joo turned into the temperamental adult Wol-joo, we also find out what exactly happened in her first life to force her to take such an extreme step.
In the present, Wol-joo is a 500-year-old ghost running a magical pocha (short for pojangmacha – a tented outdoor drinking establishment) in the streets of Seoul. Her task is to help 100,000 people resolve their grudges in order to avoid going to hell, so running a pojangmacha, where the world-weary come to unload their sorrows, is the obvious solution. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of Hwang Jung-eum’s acting and tend to avoid her dramas. In this one, however, I feel that her trademark loud and brash demeanor fits the character of Wol-joo. She struggles with the more emotional scenes, but as they’re not too many, it’s easy to ignore. My favorite thing about her character is her modern fusion hanbok fashion, a new one for each episode.
At her SSang Gap Pocha, she’s joined by Chief Gwi (Choi Won-young), an ex-detective from the Afterlife Police Agency who now serves as the pocha’s manager. He has been tasked with keeping watch over the unpredictable Wol-joo, but spends the majority of his time peeling onions for her. Although he often complains of being stuck doing odd jobs for Wol-joo, he is genuinely attached to her and the work she does. Chief Gwi’s superpowers include being able to mimic the physical appearance of whoever he wants to and calming Wol-joo’s temper.
When Yeomra-daewang (Goddess of the Underworld, in an incredible cameo by Yeom Hye-ran) suddenly changes Wol-joo’s deadline to reach the goal of helping 100,000 people, Wol-joo decides she needs some help. She hires Han Kang-bae (Yook Sung-jae), a part-timer at the local mart who has gifts of his own—he can get people to reveal their deepest worries simply by touching them. It’s not a gift he’s particularly happy with because he has had to remain an outcast for the majority of his childhood and adult life and agrees to join Wol-joo in exchange for her “curing” his condition.
Each episode features new stories of individuals whose grudges Wol-joo helps resolve. The stories range from funny to heartbreaking, and delve into everything from sexual assault, a couple having trouble conceiving, a woman paying the price for spreading rumors, a talented man not being able to land jobs because of corporate nepotism, etc. Some incredible supporting actors bring these stories to life—like Tae In-ho, Park Ha-na, Oh Man-seok, among others, and they feel like well-developed side-arcs instead of fillers. A little bit of Wol-joo’s past is reflected in each story and helps us get to know her.
Surprisingly, the world building in Mystic Pop-Up Bar is better than most fantasy K-dramas I’ve seen recently. The dream world in which Wol-joo works her magic has rules—like staircases to a person’s locked memories, that can lead to being trapped in their subconscious permanently and losing your soul. There is the Korean lore around death and afterlife, complete with the Grim Reaper, God of the Underworld, and the Goddess of Childbirth (Samshin Halmoni). The show’s mythology comes alive when meshed together with clever and creative pop culture references, like a Running Man-esque tournament for the dead and Samshin Halmoni choosing childbirth conception dreams by playing an arcade crane game.
As our mismatched trio go about relieving people of their worries, it’s heartwarming to see them become a great team. Wol-joo begins to see humans as more than just another number to add to her tally, and her hate transforms into a genuine desire to help. In healing others, she seems to be healing her own past wounds as well. Kang-bae, who is an orphan and has been lonely all his life because of his gift, gains a family. Chief Gwi finds two people he would do anything to protect. Their dynamic is almost like Kang-bae having a really loud, really weird set of parents, and it’s both hilarious and sweet. Initially, it wasn’t looking like the show would have romance but feelings seem to be stirring between Wol-joo and Chief Gwi, as well as between Kang-bae and Yeo-rin (Jung Da-eun), an incredibly skilled bodyguard and also the only human who is immune to Kang-bae’s touch.
I don’t have many complaints from the show aside from Hwang Jung-eum failing to hold her own in the more emotional scenes. In any other show, I would be missing the emotional component, but the moving individual stories in this drama make for good emotional pay-off. I do wish, however, that an actor of Choi Won-young’s worth was used better in the plot. However, it’s looking like Chief Gwi might have a connection to Wol-joo’s past, so we might just see the actor become more involved. Yook Sung-jae, as always, is incredibly charming, and I wish he had given us some more dramas before enlisting in the army.
My verdict on the first half of Mystic Pop-Up Bar is that it makes for a fun watch if you are looking for something light and interesting with minimal investment. This is not to say that the show is bland. It has everything in good measure—humor, magic, lore, romance, mythology made hilarious by juxtaposing it with contemporary culture references, and some really moving stories of the people Wol-joo helps out. There is a good balance of everything, and the scales don’t tip too much in any single direction.
So far, Wol-joo has been on a linear path of helping people with Chief Gui and Kang-bae’s help, but with the pocha being suspended, she’s set to face some hurdles. Certain mysterious characters from her past life are also beginning to reappear, suggesting that there might be a bigger political conspiracy behind her death. While the first half was mostly light-hearted, tensions will undoubtedly rise in the second half. I’m also looking forward to how the romance arcs will develop and if we will see more past life connections revealed between our trio. While they are certain to go on more incredible adventures together, at its heart, Mystic Pop-Up Bar is the story of Wol-joo’s redemption, and I find myself completely invested.
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