[HanCinema's Drama Review] "Mr. Sunshine" Historical Review Part 1 - Gunboat Diplomacy
By William Schwartz | Published on
The notion of "Mr. Sunshine" being historically inaccurate isn't new. The wildly popular show received its fair share of criticism at the time for such distortions. But that was five years ago. Being easily available on Netflix, "Mr. Sunshine" is now casually recommended by the streaming service's algorithm, its misinformation now being virtually unstoppable. As with most effective misinformation, "Mr. Sunshine" is problematic less for its assertions than its implications, and gunboat diplomacy is a great place to start as far as that goes.
The early nineteenth century marked the start of the Century of Humiliation for China. The short version of this story is that the Western powers started trading opium with China, and when the Chinese government tried to make them stop, the Western powers went to war to force the opium to keep flowing. Great Britain was the most important belligerent, the First Opium War starting in 1839, but over time every Western power got involved. The Century of Humiliation marked the end of historical Chinese power and destroyed the lives of China's people.
Adjacent to all this, Matthew Perry, a major leader in the United States Navy, visited Japan in 1852 with a naval fleet, and quite literally threatened to destroy Japanese cities if Japan didn't accede to similar diplomatic terms China had already been forced to endure. While Matthew Perry isn't that well-known figure in American history, he's a pivotal one in Japanese history. His actions prompted the Bakumatsu period and eventually the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the belief in Japan being that without modernizing reforms, it was only a matter of time before they became the next China.
"Mr. Sunshine" doesn't get into any of this. But given how the drama frames itself around the General Sherman Incident of 1866, and the subsequent 1871 United States expedition to Korea, you can perhaps see how this context is relevant. Where "Mr. Sunshine" portrays friendly Americans just wanting to conduct innocent trade in Korea, only to be unjustly attacked by psychotic xenophobes in the government, this isn't how Koreans at the time would have seen their actions.
Even Americans at this time wouldn't have seen their actions this way. Nineteenth century westerners weren't exactly shy when it came to their belief in the moral superiority of white supremacy. Of course, the weirdly positive, even glowing impression "Mr. Sunshine" gives regarding the United States is a topic in and of itself- which I'll discuss in the next iteration of this series.
Written by William Schwartz
"Mr. Sunshine" is directed by Jang Yeong-woo, Jung Ji-hyun, Lee Eung-bok, written by Kim Eun-sook, and features Lee Byung-hun, Kim Tae-ri, Yoo Yeon-seok, Kim Min-jung, Byun Yo-han, Jo Woo-jin. Broadcasting information in Korea: 2018/07/07~2018/09/30, Fri, Sat 21:00 on Netflix, tvN.
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea from 2011 to 2021. He is currently located in the Portland metropolitan area. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org, and is open to requests for content in future articles.