It’s been a long day. You are tired, and burdened by your worries. On the trudge home you stumble into a travelling pop up bar, serving free drinks for solace and delicious favourites to soothe. Such places are designed to accommodate the weary wanderer, but perhaps more than a friendly ear is being offered? Mystic Pop-Up Bar will not only listen to your woes but enter your dreams to solve them too.
Weol-ju (Park Si-eun) is a hot-tempered woman who runs a pop-up bar along with her down to earth employee, Guibanjang (Choi Won-young). Both are able to enter the dreams of their clientele in order to solve their life-damaging ‘grudges’.
Yet the deadline to clear 100,000 grudges (due to an initially unspecified crime Weol-ju committed 500 years ago) is fast approaching and they need help, lest Weol-ju be cast into a torturous hell with no chance of reincarnation.
In stumbles Han Kang-bae (Yook Sung-jae), a young supermarket worker cursed with an unwanted power: anyone he touches will immediately spill out all their deepest fears and vendettas. Persuaded to help by Weol-ju’s insistent promise that she can ‘cure’ him, the trio work hard to help those in need.
Mystic Pop-Up Bar tends to the slice of life problems that weigh us all down whilst doing so within an overarching plot that incorporates dramatically jiggled versions of Korean folklore.
In doing so it bears many similarities with the superb Uncanny Counter, insofar as both deal with disruptive demons and officious heavens.
Uncanny Counter leaned on Buffy The Vampire Slayer stylings to storm forward, whereas Mystic Pop-Up Bar is more Midnight Diner: enriched by individual one off stories.
Yet, a note of caution. This is a classic homegrown Korean show that happens to have gotten a Netflix distribution, rather than made with Netflix in mind. It is 12 hour-long episodes (which is actually shorter than the standard 16) and blends comedy and drama in that peculiar way endemic to Korean programming, where ‘amusing’ sound effects and clanging bell ‘this is funny!’ direction can quickly try your patience.
This is especially true in the earlier episodes when the character work needed for such comedy to land has yet to be done; thankfully such an approach is dialled down as the series progresses.
Is Mystic Pop-Up Bar Worth Watching?
Mystic Pop-Up Bar starts spottily but improves as the central dynamic between the three characters takes shape.
Weol-ju, when she isn’t delivering cliched ‘fiery woman’ burns, has a plot and performance that is aching with the full 500 years of her regret.
Similarly, Guibanjang’s somewhat cheeky loyalty is a wonderful element that only deepens as his own plotline is uncovered.
Choi Won-young is the standout draw as his experienced delivery toes the line between drama and comedy much better than silly squeaks and cartoonish eye blinks ever could.
The weak third wheel is Kang-bae, who plays a popped out of the mould ‘cute’ boy. Sung-jae is best when dealing serving up empathy and kindness, but he is undermined by the show’s editing, which holds back showing the heartbreak he has had to deal with due to his curse until late in the series.
In Uncanny Counter So-Mun’s daily struggle was evident with his physical disability; Kang-bae is too happy-go-lucky to buy his pain. His falling in love plotline, therefore, makes for a light-hearted reprieve rather than a success of character, which is a shame because Kang Yeo-rin (Jung Da-eun, the object of his affections) is an impressive hard nut with a collection of excellent jackets and a much better character arc, even if it is slow to develop.
In a show where there are heaven-sent rules and regulations about reincarnation, Mystic Pop-Up Bar flirts with being too melodramatic, but earns your heart and tears by the strength of eventual camaraderie and some truly wonderful episodic grudges; such as a respectful and emotional storyline about a man with Alzheimer’s mourning the loss of his mother; a fantasy romance author who dies before finishing her novel; a woman searching for her lost son kidnapped 15 years ago; and a couple unable to conceive.
Despite a rocky start and some irritating habits (that, to be fair, appear to be a cultural method used in some Korean shows like The Sound of Magic), Mystic Pop-Up Bar is worth stepping into and unburdening yourself with.
As the final secrets are revealed and both heaven and hell are challenged, it’s a welcome bowl of udon noodles slid across the bar into your cold and grateful hands.
Words by Mike Record
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