Mystic Pop-up Bar: Episode 1
Mystic Pop-up Bar is the latest from JTBC, a bright and fun drama that mixes magical dream-walking with revenge, which makes a surprisingly fun combination. Our long-lived heroine is living her afterlife on Earth, atoning for something in her past, but her time is almost up. She needs someone to help her, which is where a very confused yet gifted human comes in. I already love their chemistry and can’t wait to see more!
EPISODE 1 RECAP
Five hundred years ago.
A young girl staggers through the woods, making her way to an ancient tree high above Hanyang. People hold ceremonies and offering to the gods at the Sacred Tree, and the girl destroys the altar in a fit of anger.
A short flashback shows us the same girl, WOL-JOO (Park Shi-eun), sitting beside a sleeping woman. As the woman suffers from a nightmare, Wol-joo holds her hand and concentrates. Afterward, she tells the woman’s worried family that her husband’s body is buried in the wrong place, so he’s been yelling at her in her dreams. She suggests moving his body to a sunnier spot, thus restoring the woman’s health.
Wol-joo is greatly respected in Hanyang for her dreamcatching powers, which she’s used to solve a lot of the villagers’ problems. Her mother, a shaman, wants Wol-joo to stop dreamcatching and get married, but Wol-joo enjoys helping people. She reassures her mother that she’ll marry when she finds her true love.
Eventually the queen, who’s come to pray to the Sacred Tree regarding the crown prince’s lingering illness, hears about Wol-joo’s unique ability. Wol-joo is summoned to the palace to read the crown prince’s dreams (Song Geon-hee, I love him!), and learns that the crown prince is being haunted by the vengeful spirits of those who died at the hands of the royal family.
She tells the queen that the spirits must be comforted by moving their bodies to sunny places and holding memorials. But the queen doesn’t know where the bodies are buried, so Wol-joo returns to the palace for many nights in a row to ask the spirits in the crown prince’s dreams.
When she’s finished, the queen insists on rewarding Wol-joo despite Wol-joo’s insistence that she needs no payment. She showers Wol-joo with riches, but the expensive items only seem to make Wol-joo uncomfortable.
The crown prince recovers, but he also begins acting strangely, smiling at odd times and not hearing when people call out to him. The queen grows worried that he’s been bewitched, so she sends her maid to fetch Wol-joo.
When the maid enters the village, she hears vicious gossip about Wol-joo — that she must have done more than just read the crown prince’s dreams to have earned so much treasure. It’s nastily suggested that she’s been “servicing” the prince at night and mesmerizing him through his dreams.
Wol-joo’s mother has a vision, and what she sees has her sending Wol-joo away from the village. She even has Wol-joo put her hair up like a married woman, saying that there’s more to a marriage than a wedding, like love, and causing Wol-joo to gasp, “You knew?” Oh nooo, are Wol-joo and the prince in love?
Wol-joo sobs about being sent away alone, so her mother gives her the silver binyeo (hairstick) that she wears in her hair. She tells Wol-joo that if she holds the binyeo tightly, it will bring her the person she desperately seeks.
Not long after leaving the city, Wol-joo hears voices screaming. She runs home to find her house on fire with her mother still inside. Wol-joo cries and begs her mother not to die, but it’s too late. In a daze, Wol-joo makes her way to the Sacred Tree and smashes the altar, then she stand on the hill glaring down at the city. “Even in death,” she vows, “Even in death, I will curse you all.”
Wol-joo hangs herself from the Sacred Tree, and as her body swings in the night breeze, the binyeo falls from her hair onto the ground. The earth cracks violently, and the glowing gold cracks spread to the tree and burn the leaves from its branches. Tiny golden motes fill the air around Wol-joo’s body, and one of them flies high into the sky, landing five hundred years later in modern-day Seoul.
An elegantly-dressed woman serves a single customer in a pojangmacha, and the silver binyeo in her hair tells us that this is WOL-JOO all grown up (Hwang Jung-eum). She gives the customer a plate of food she didn’t order, saying that it’s on the house, then takes out a bottle of alcohol she calls “Like A Boss” (“You spend all day being tossed around, so you should at least drink like a boss.”)
Wol-joo takes in the customer’s sallow complexion and trembling hands, and she blurts out an excited, “I choose you!” She’s very invested in the customer venting her problems, and keeps urging her to tell her about her awful day, but the woman says that’s just life and not worth complaining about. HA, Wol-joo is so annoyed that she snaps at the woman to pay for her food.
Later, Wol-joo sighs at an electronic sign on the wall that says Mystic Pop-up Bar 99,990 and whines that getting to 100,000 isn’t easy. Behind the bar (and peeling way more onions than an empty pojangmacha needs) is MANAGER GWI(Choi Won-young). He tells Wol-joo dryly that it serves her right for hanging herself on the Sacred Tree, ha, and he complains that it’s her fault he’s stuck here as her manager.
Unperturbed, Wol-joo grumbles that there’s not much rational thought involved in suicide. She says that she needs to get into another line of business, like online chat, so that people won’t have to physically come to her. She even demonstrates how she’d host an online channel, with an unnecessary amount of aegyo, until Manager Gwi threatens to squish her.
He tells Wol-joo that he needs something to report to “the higher-ups,” but Wol-joo hasn’t opened the door to the Dream World in six months. Wol-joo snaps that it’s not easy to infiltrate a human’s dreams even to help them, bringing up several of her most famous clients.
HAHA, she’s definitely been doing this for a long time. She had terrified Nolbu into being a better brother, and even got Chunhyang (hilarious cameo by Hwang Bora) drunk on her special alcohol when the girl was about to give up on her love, Mongryong, and just give herself to the governor, thus buying time until Mongryong returns. Wol-joo even helped General MacArthur with her alcohol, ha.
But despite all the people she’s helped, Manager Gwi reminds her that she’s still ten short of her goal. He tells her to be nicer or people won’t open up to her, but she’s tired of being nice and of people in general. She argues that she’s not slacking, it’s just that nobody goes to pojangmachas much anymore.
Nearby, Wol-joo’s customer from the previous night works at her job handing out samples at a grocery store called Kapeul Mart. At the customer service desk is a meek young man named HAN KANG-BAE (Yook Sung-jae). Kang-bae avoids being touched by customers, because anyone who touches him seems compelled to tell him all their deepest, most personal secrets.
In a meeting after work, the sample lady, MI-RAN (Park Ha-na), wins Employee of the Month for the fifth month in a row. After the meeting, Kang-bae sighs that Mi-ran will be made a permanent employee soon, and a coworker chides him for chatting too much with customers and being too slow.
Kang-bae heads to a cafe to meet with an old school friend, Jin-tae, though he carefully avoids shaking hands. He tells Jin-tae that he’s the first person who’s called him since… but then he changes the subject. Hmmm, interesting.
When another customer bumps into Jin-tae and spills his drink, Kang-bae offers him a hanky and Jin-tae’s hand touches him. He starts confessing that he called Kang-bae because he works for a pyramid scheme, and Kang-bae was the only person stupid enough to think he’d be calling him just to get in touch. Kang-bae says that it’s still nice to see a friend, but Jin-tae spits that he’s only taking advantage of someone he’s always hated anyway. Ouch.
On his way home, Kang-bae sees a poster at the bus stop that says Share your true feelings and forge a beautiful relationship. He thinks to himself that in his twenty-seven years, he’s realized that to be on good terms with people, it’s best to stay unaware of their true feelings.
His musings are interrupted by his coworker, Mi-ran, standing in the street and cursing drunkenly at taxis. She lets out a primal scream, and Kang-bae wisely keeps to himself.
She’s back at work the next day, cooking up samples of Jeju pork. A customer begins eating up all her samples and rudely ordering her to make more, and when she’s not fast enough for him, he grabs the tongs from her hands and starts helping himself. He hurls insults at Mi-ran in between bites, broadly implying that she’s too stupid even for a menial job like this.
Watching the customer gobbling up all her samples, Mi-ran finally snaps. She screams and tries to take her tongs back, but the man shoves her to the floor. Mi-ran grabs a handful of raw pork and slings it at him but he ducks, and the pork hits Kang-bae, who was standing behind him, right in the face.
But suddenly a hand grabs the customer by the throat and silences him… it’s Wol-joo, who happens to be in the store. She lifts him completely off the ground and snarls that he’s a beggar, filling his gut with free food and insulting the one who provides it. She flings him halfway across the store, then sails out like a queen.
Of course, the entitled customer demands to see a manager, who orders Mi-ran to kneel and apologize. Kang-bae speaks up and says that the customer provoked Mi-ran, and that they should both apologize. But the manager reminds Kang-bae gruffly that he’s only a contract worker. He shouts at Mi-ran to kneel, but instead, she wordlessly walks out. Good girl!
Back at the Mystic Pop-up Bar, Manager Gwi fusses at Wol-joo for losing her temper and getting involved after she just said she hates the whole human race. Manager Gwi says that he doesn’t think she truly hates humans, she just has a nasty temper. HA, he’s not wrong.
Kang-bae runs into Mi-ran again on his way home, but this time she’s standing on the curb as if waiting for something. A truck approaches, and Kang-bae watches in horror as Mi-ran calmly and deliberately steps in front of it. He throws himself between her and the truck, which stops at the very last second, whew.
Once they’ve both calmed down, Kang-bae spots the Mystic Pop-up Bar nearby and invites Mi-ran to eat with him. Wol-joo makes them her special ssamjang and tries to entice Mi-ran to talk about her crappy day again, but Mi-ran claims that she was just preoccupied when she stepped in front of that truck.
Wol-joo calls her out on the lie, having witnessed what Mi-ran goes through at the hands of her customers. Mi-ran says that’s not what’s upsetting her, but she clams up again when Wol-joo presses her for the real reason.
Kang-bae returns, having run to the pharmacy for some ointment for Mi-ran’s scratched chin. She’s more worried about where she hit him with the pork, so she reaches out to touch him… and his ability kicks in. Mi-ran suddenly starts talking, and they learn the true reason behind her suicide attempt.
She says that it’s because of Assistant Manager Park, the same guy who ordered her to apologize, and who’s been sexually harassing her for months. He’s been verbally aggressive, letting her know that her job depends on her complacency to his advances, as well as physically grabbing her every chance he gets.
Wol-joo explodes with indignation and asks Mi-ran what she wants to do to Assistant Manager Park (Kang-bae is no help, having gotten adorably drunk while Mi-ran was telling her story). Mi-ran says she just wants him to know how it feels to be cornered with no way out.
Wol-joo sends Kang-bae to the restroom so she can talk to Mi-ran in private. She tells Mi-ran that she can make her wish come true, then offers her the special alcohol. This time Mi-ran drinks, and she immediately falls into a deep sleep.
Mi-ran finds herself in the store’s CCTV room, and on every screen is a different instance of Assistant Manager Park sexually harassing her. In one of them he approaches her from behind after the store closes, and she says invitingly that she’s been waiting for him. Excited, Assistant Manager Park reaches for her butt, but she grabs his hand and turns… and it’s Wol-joo.
She takes his hand and slams it down on the hot grill, then introduces herself angrily and does it again. Assistant Manager Park screams and tries to run, but wherever he goes, Wol-joo pops up in front of him like a ghost. He takes a knife from a shelf and brandishes it at her, but Wol-joo doesn’t seem at all intimidated.
Meanwhile, Kang-bae tries to return to the pojangmacha, but it fades and shifts in front of his eyes like a mirage. Eventually he makes it inside, but all he finds is Mi-ran asleep on the table. He puts a concerned hand on her back, and he’s instantly transported into her dream.
He follows Assistant Manager Park’s shrieks and sees him stabbing ineffectually at Wol-joo, so he grabs a shopping cart and runs at Assistant Manager Park, who falls into the basket and passes out. Startled, Wol-joo asks how Kang-bae got in here, because he wasn’t supposed to be able to see the bar and humans can’t enter other people’s dreams.
They’re interrupted by Manager Gwi casually wandering in, and Kang-bae asks how they got into Mi-ran’s dream. Manager Gwi tells him part of the truth — that they’re like spirits who help people by making their wishes come true. Wol-joo asks Manager Gwi how a human got into the Dream World, so Manager Gwi gestures at Kang-bae and causes a beam of light to shine from the top of his head.
He says that Kang-bae’s spiritual vision has been unlocked since birth, which makes him quite unique. He reassures Wol-joo that Kang-bae won’t remember anything, but Kang-bae is off on a personal tangent. He asks Wol-joo if she can change people, and she grumps that nothing is impossible for her.
Before Kang-bae can formally ask for help, Assistant Manager Park escapes the shopping cart and takes off, so they all give chase. He makes it outside, so Wol-joo stops running, removes the binyeo from her hair, and hurls it at him. It stops him long enough for her to kick him to the ground and stand on him.
Seeing him shaking and begging, Wol-joo asks how it feels to be cornered with nowhere to turn. Assistant Manager Park gets free and flees, but he runs right into Manager Gwi, who grabs him by the throat. Assistant Manager Park wets himself from fear, and with Wol-joo’s permission, Manager Gwi easily flings him halfway across the city.
Mi-ran is still locked in the Dream World security room, so Wol-joo, Manager Gwi, and Kang-bae let her know it’s okay to come out. She’s ashamed to let anyone see her being harassed, but Kang-bae tells her that she’s the victim and did nothing wrong. He makes her laugh over the image of Assistant Manager Park peeing himself, and he tells Mi-ran that when she wakes, she needs to make sure he’s punished for real.
Wol-joo gets impatient and tells Mi-ran that she can just live her life being bullied. Manager Gwi drags her away before she kicks down the door, but Mi-ran suddenly emerges. Wol-joo tells her that when she drinks at Mystic Pop-up Bar, she becomes a boss, so it’s time to stop giving Assistant Manager Park all the power and stand up to him. Her words finally get through, and Mi-ran says with growing confidence that she’ll live that way from now on.
The next day, Mi-ran tells the store manager what Assistant Manager Park has been doing to her. Not only does he promise to see Assistant Manager Park punished, but he thanks Mi-ran for being brave enough to speak up. Later, the rude customer from yesterday apologizes to her for the way he acted, and HAHA, we see that he also got a little dream visit from Manager Gwi last night — so that’s why Manager Gwi was in the Dream World!
Mi-ran gets a little teary-eyed, because it’s the first time anyone has ever apologized to her. She thanks Kang-bae for taking her home last night, but oddly, he doesn’t remember anything. Mi-ran says that she only remembers eating at the pojangmacha, but that she woke up today feeling great.
That evening, Kang-bae suddenly remembers Manager Gwi tossing Assistant Manager Park across the city like a ragdoll. It feels like a memory of something that really happened, and he steps on Wol-joo’s silver binyeo, it triggers the memory of Wol-joo flinging it at Assistant Manager Park’s head. Kang-bae realizes that it all really happened, and that he must have truly entered Mi-ran’s dream.
Wol-joo’s electronic sign reflects her success with Mi-ran, flipping to 99,991. As she and Manager Gwi share a celebratory drink, they’re joined by CHIEF YEOM (Lee Joon-hyuk), one of the spiritual “higher-ups” that Manager Gwi has been so worried about. Wol-joo proudly tells him of her accomplishment, but he says he’s here with a serious message from the god of the underworld.
A vision of QUEEN YEOMRA (Yeom Hye-ran) hovers over the table and tells Wol-joo that she’s cutting her atonement period short — she has one month to settle nine more grudges. If she can’t complete her task by then, Wol-joo will perish in the depths of hell.
Her message ends, so Chief Yeom explains that Queen Yeomra has been getting a lot of complaints about Wol-joo, saying that all she does is eat and drink and that it’s not much of a punishment. Wol-joo argues that she’s been working hard for five hundred years, but Chief Yeom reminds her that the dead who have to complete such tasks are normally only given three hundred years, and that Queen Yeomra granted her a generous extension.
Wol-joo shoots him a death-glare so Chief Yeom quickly takes his leave. She gets ready to go pass out coupons, wishing she had some sort of magnet that would bring people to her, then she remembers Kang-bae’s ability and gets an idea. Nearby, the magnet… oops, I mean Kang-bae… recalls that Wol-joo said in Mi-ran’s dream that she can change people, and he also gets an idea.
They each set out to find the other, and they connect on a footbridge. Kang-bae asks if Wol-joo can help him, and she says she’ll do everything she can, but she wants something in return, “I need your body.” She takes back her mother’s silver binyeo and pokes it into Kang-bae’s chest.
In voiceover we hear Wol-joo’s mother’s voice echoing across five hundred years:
You won’t be alone. Whenever you need extra strength, hold this binyeo tightly. It will bring you the person you desperately seek.
Right now, and I mean this in all the best possible ways, Mystic Pop-up Bar reminds me a lot of Hotel del Luna. The tragic backstory of a young woman horribly wronged and cursed with eternal life in the service of others… both even have a Sacred Tree that seems to be the root (pun intended) of it all. But Hotel del Luna was such a good story that I’m not at all mad that Mystic Pop-up Bar is here to deliver more reluctant benevolence from a grumpy-but-fabulous proprietress. The only difference so far is that Man-wol served the dead, and Wol-joo serves the living. And speaking of glamorous leading ladies, can we talk about Hwang Jung-eum?! She’s absolutely stunning, both in her appearance (her makeup and clothing are just breathtaking) and in her performance so far, and I’m so excited to see her on my screen again.
That said, Mystic Pop-up Bar still manages to distinguish itself as its own show, and with only one episode under my belt, the best way I can describe that difference is that it has a completely different tone. Hotel del Luna carried the gravitas and sorrow of Man-wol’s situation from her past all the way into the present. But Wol-joo was a cheerful, happy girl who only experienced a short tragic period, and she seems to live her modern life in a much more easy-going, flippant manner. She’s colorful and expressive, almost bigger than life.
The casting here is great — Hwang Jung-eum is infamous (and often criticized) for her sometimes manic, over-the top energy, but it really works for Wol-joo. The character is understandably fed up with people after being forced to coax nearly a hundred thousand losers into becoming better human beings, so Hwang Jung-eum’s shrieks and harsh tones are an appropriate expression of her frustration. Yook Sung-jae’s Kang-bae is an adorably wide-eyed and good-hearted cinnamon roll, and seeing Choi Won-young in a lighter role for a change is really fun. If the show follows the story-of-the-week formula I’m expecting, we can look forward to a lot of great cameos, and I’m excited to see who comes on board to subject themselves to Wol-joo’s uniquely aggressive form of therapy.
There is definitely a lot more to unpack in Wol-joo’s past than what we’ve seen, and I have an ominous feeling that the Crown Prince is involved. The way he was acting after meeting Wol-joo, and her asking her mother if she “knows,” lead me to believe that the two fell in love while Wol-joo was reading the handsome prince’s dreams. This being the tragic story that it is, I have no doubt that their love wasn’t tawdry like the villagers assumed, but innocent and real, and that we haven’t seen the last of Wol-joo’s prince (I hope he’s not a firefly though — fireflies are so 2019, lol).
Kang-bae also seems to have a secret beyond his passive ability that compels people to tell him their secrets when he touches them. He mentioned to his old schoolmate that he hasn’t heard from anyone since something happened, and knowing that he’s always been a loner anyway because of his ability, it must have been pretty bad to make his few friends drop him. I already love Kang-bae because he’s so earnest yet pitiful, and I just wanna cuddle him and watch him come into his confidence and show up everyone who wrote him off. Considering that Wol-joo has enough confidence for three people, I know she’ll be a good influence on our poor sensitive Kang-bae. But all he wants is his unwanted otherworldly ability taken away, so I’m sure they’re about to enter into a strange but mutually-beneficial partnership, and I can’t wait to see the shenanigans they’re going to kick up together.
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