Mystic Pop-Up Bar is a low fantasy series that doesn’t boast ratings to shout about. They’re not terrible per se — quite decent for cable television, actually. Available on Netflix in partnership with its original network JTBC, its average Nielsen ratings hover at 2.918%. Dramas on cable networks tend to receive lower ratings, compared to those on free-to-air TV, and Mystic Pop-Up Bar had an odd middle-of-the-week timeslot. But several (including TvN’s Prison Playbook and JTBC’s widely praised The World of the Married and SKY Castle) managed to earn double digits. Prison Playbook also aired at around the same time as Mystic Pop-Up Bar. The latter is not even among the top 10 highest-rated dramas on JTBC alone.
These ratings then beg the question: is it what she deserves?
Korean Name: 쌍갑포차
Number of Episodes: 12 episodes
Episode Length: 70 minutes
Recommended For: Those who enjoy fun dramedies; fans of female-centric dramas; those without the stomach for long-running dramas; fans of BtoB’s Sungjae.
NOT Recommended For: Heavy-duty drama addicts who prefer shows that seem to last for seasons on end; viewers who cannot abide Hwang Jung-eum’s signature comedic stylings.
NOTE: This review is not spoiler-free.
Hwang Jung-eum as Weol-ju
Yook Sung-jae as Kang-bae
Choi Won-young as Chief Gwi
Mystic Pop-Up Bar revolves around fiery-tongued Weol-ju, a woman who runs a pop-up bar known as pojangmacha (포장마차) in Korean. But the bar, of course, isn’t any old run-of-the-mill one. And neither is the owner an ordinary woman. Weol-ju has been sentenced to resolving the grudges of 100,000 customers for the past 500 years — in their dreams. Problem numero uno: she hates humans. Secondly, it’s now a punishment with a target that has become increasingly tougher to achieve amid the decline of pojangmacha’s popularity due to the rise of food deliveries. Problem numero tres: the god of the Underworld has handed her a new tight deadline. Weol-ju and her sole employee, Chief Gwi, struggle not to take their frustrations out on a tight-lipped customer. But then they meet a boy whose touch triggers others into spilling their troubles.
If the premise above sounds vaguely familiar, you might have already watched Hotel del Luna. You can’t be blamed here because Weol-ju and Man-wol do share similar traits:
- Weol-ju is as irascible as Man-wol
- Both of them may never reincarnate
- They’re both running a niche establishment as punishment
- Deep-rooted grudge and regrets
- Questionable management styles
- Love of strikingly red lipsticks
But neither can the creators behind Mystic Pop-Up Bar be blamed for their similarities. Theirs is based on a story — Bae Hye-soo’s Twin Tops Bar — that was published in 2016. And that means that it’s been around before Hotel del Luna. Its plot progression is also completely different from Hotel del Luna. The latter primarily creates tension through Man-wol’s resistance to The End of All Things. By comparison, writer Ha Yoon-ah’s telling of Mystic Pop-Up Bar is an urgent race towards its desire for resolution.
The drama achieves this by first beginning with Weol-ju resolving her 99,990th case — her goal of 100,000 resolutions is so very close at this point that you can almost taste it. Except the rush is made even more maddening by a new deadline. Weol-ju’s higher-ups (folks running the afterlife, apparently) sends her a message, telling her hat she needs to complete her punishment within a month. The result is a show that progresses briskly, helped along with themes of sacrifice, good vs evil, and family.
One of its main reasons for its good pacing is a truly refreshing absence of love triangles. Yes, some may get a kick out of fighting other people on the internet over the superiority of their ships. Go ahead if that makes you happy. But it’s a trope that the world of K-drama could cut down on from time to time. Mystic Pop-Up Bar even includes a clear tongue-in-cheek parody of this tired trope. It does this through its intentionally ridiculous retelling of Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet incredibly (and yet, kind of logically) dumps Romeo for his more powerful father. In fact, the show entertainingly pokes fun at quite a number of classic romantic tropes, including ye olde True Love’s Kiss.
On that note, another reason for its enjoyable plot progression is its use of humour to bring relief to its heavier themes and plot points. If you’re bone-tired and you’re just looking for a lighthearted, humorous watch that heals your soul, Mystic Pop-Up Bar might just be right up your alley. Some may find themselves unsatisfied by the drama’s deluge of happy resolutions, but I’ve always been a sucker for happy endings. And 100,000 resolutions is my idea of a good time.
There are stumbling blocks along the way, though. Some of their resolutions could have ended far more satisfactorily. Additionally, the show does, however, incorporate quite a bit of slapstick. You’d best steer clear of this one if that’s not your cup of tea. Most of it makes for an enjoyable viewing experience, though, especially because of the adorable, easy camaraderie among the main leads, oddly even between the goddess of hell and Weol-ju.
The beauty of the show, nevertheless, is that while it isn’t exactly high art, it never really feels as though it takes itself far too seriously. How can it when it uses over-the-top humour and its protagonist even breaks the fourth wall more than once? In a way, that’s probably how it was able to convince me to play along with (and even seriously enjoy) their strategic decision to magically age certain characters up. Never mind the fact that nearly everyone else pretty much looks exactly the same in death.
They’ve also conveniently made sure that there are no other little girl ghosts on the show for me to question this discrepancy far too much to the point of rage-quitting. We all know it is obviously a clear cheap device to maintain a veil of mystery around the drama’s primary romance. It was obviously the only way for them to keep Weol-ju from recognising an important figure from her past. I wish that the writer could have at least attempted to hand-wave some kind of ridiculous explanation for it — it would’ve been on brand, too.
Every K-drama depends on its characters to carry their varying plots, and Mystic Pop-Up Bar’s entertaining plot goes hand-in-hand with its endearing characters. At its forefront are the staff of the pojangmacha, Weol-ju, Chief Gwi, and Kang-bae. Its development of characters is a mixed bag, though. Weol-ju, in particular, is the show’s highlight for many reasons, the most important one is its treatment of gender — more specifically, the voices of its female characters. After all, its screenwriter is a woman and another woman wrote its original text. Anything less than a drama that gives a voice to its female characters would have been disappointing.
Plenty of other K-dramas out there, fortunately, feature well-developed female characters with no shortage of agency. But not all of them pass the Bechdel Test. To recap, to pass the Bechdel Test, the story must involve a scene in which at least two named female characters discuss with each other about something other than a man. Mystic Pop-Up Bar, though, passes the Bechdel Test.
Disclaimer: Failing The Bechdel Test, to me, does not reduce the meaning of any interaction between female characters. Neither does passing it automatically elevate any story to greater heights. However, the way that an interaction passes the test can help us analyse the significance of a specific scene.
Mystic Pop-Up Bar, in particular, passes it when Weol-ju talks to Samsin about conception dreams, moved into action by her desire to help a dance instructor who has been struggling to conceive. Some would rightfully argue that while it does technically pass the Bechdel test, the scene speaks of marriage and babies. This defeats the spirit of the test as it furthers stereotypical gender conventions and expectations. I would have liked to see it pass the test differently, but it does not change the fact that the isolating and debilitating grief over an unborn child is a painful struggle that women still face.
Moreover, through this scene, it’s able to clear any lingering beliefs that Weol-ju’s actions have only ever been self-serving. Still, if there’s one case that I wish ends differently, it’s this one. A much more impactful ending is one that has the dance instructor believes that her mental well-being matters above all else. That, to me, would have been far more satisfying. Flaws aside, however, what the drama does well is showcasing women being human. And sometimes, humans can’t see anything past their imperfections, pain, and raw desires.
Hell, the drama is so good at humanising its female characters that even goddesses emit extremely odorous intestinal gas. You read that right, they do fart jokes. It’s that brand of humour. But this time, it involves a female character. Here, its intersection of comedy and drama comes into play to add colour to its characters by narrativising the tiny minutiae of life as a woman, be it good, bad, or ugly. It then challenges character tropes through these snapshots of women being human.
Weol-ju usually opts for a pair of ugly but more practical shoes over high heels because clearly, her job involves a ton of legwork and heels just won’t cut it. A terrible woman exposes herself in public when she admits (by way of Kang-bae’s power) that she enjoys sleeping with a married man. One of my personal favourites is the way they’ve written Yeo-rin with Kang-bae. Kang-bae frequently and hilariously plays the role of the damsel, nay, Samsel in distress, while Yeo-rin comes to his rescue more than once. Society has long progressed past the need for the typical damsel in distress.
My main gripe is that only Weol-ju truly gets an in-depth character study. Don’t get me wrong, the drama offers plenty of interesting characters. But it’s most unfortunate that we don’t get to see enough of Yeo-rin’s character beyond her past dating debacles. Surely there’s more to a woman who can kick major ass and secure a job without connections than her love life. I would have loved to see more of her personal motivations besides her connection to her past life. And what even happens to her after fighting those evil spirits by the end? Why doesn’t she look for the Samsel in distress afterwards? Does she just kick those spirits’ asses and call it a day? The people would like to know. Her character deserves better. Docking off at least a point for that.
Another fascinating aspect of the drama’s characters is in its portrayal of Won-yeong. Initially, the drama makes it seem as though his beef lies with the Crown Prince/Chief Gwi, but by the end, it’s clear that he’s truly intended as Weol-ju’s foil. Chief Gwi already served his punishment well before the start of the drama. But Won-hyeong only managed to escape hell just as Weol-ju is close to the end of hers. Mystic Pop-Up Bar shows Won-yeong’s human struggles and pains, but it does so without removing responsibility or simplifying all his actions purely down to parental neglect.
After all, Won-yeong made his choices and continues to make the same ones in death. The guy had the chance to redeem himself. His father becomes Weol-ju’s last customer (his grudge born out of regret for being an absent father to him) and wishes to resolve it by asking them to bring Won-yeong to him alive. And what does he do? Won-yeong makes a derisive noise, clearly rejecting the peace offering as he says, “he still knows nothing about me”. There are levels to this.
Weol-ju, by comparison, has been suffering her own version of hell for the past 500 years, too. She’s been forced to listen to thousands of people complain about their lives when she hates humans. No other punishment would have hurt her more. Unlike Won-yeong, though, she undergoes character development by not only learning to empathize with humans but by understanding the full gravity of her choices by the end. She ends up sacrificing herself to save her son, thus resolving her own grudge and ultimately becomes her own heroine.
The result is an impactful juxtaposition of the ripple effect of familial love on the good vs evil spectrum and the consequence of our own individual choices. This is further heightened throughout the drama in examples shown by the Queen and Department Chief Yeom. Even in its minor subplots including the lottery dream and conception dream episodes repeat these themes, reinforcing them throughout the drama.
Anyone not into over-the-top slapstick might dislike Hwang Jung-eum’s comedic stylings, a common issue in all her dramas. I’ve never been a fan of her myself, which is why it’s surprising how much I love her portrayal of Weol-ju. I actually gave up on watching Kill Me, Heal Me because of her, but her performance mostly works nicely here. There are still a few moments that made me wish that she had toned it down, but she makes up for it with precarious control during dramatic moments. Some of the scenes with the best performances in Mystic Pop-Up Bar were from her, especially when Weol-ju struggles to maintain her cold mask.
Perhaps the drama’s biggest failing is its lack of a mega superstar cast. Hwang Jung-eum is a household name and was particularly a major success in Kill Me, Heal Me, but she was backed by Jisung in that. Alas, her male counterpart, Choi Won-young, is not quite the ultimate screen presence powerhouse. At least not yet. Of course, that does not necessarily make him a poor performer. We’ve seen his chameleon-like transformations into various characters in other dramas (such as SKY Castle). And his performance is just as solid as the man behind the main woman in Mystic Pop-Up Bar. He may be no mega superstar, but he works well in tandem with Hwang Jung-eum, allowing her to shine.
Meanwhile, Sungjae definitely deserves the praise that he’s received thus far in his acting career. He was a breath of fresh air in the role of a lonely boy who wishes he could lead a normal life. Sung-jae was impressively able to switch quite comfortably from Kang-bae to the imposing embodiment of the sacred tree. I do wish that we could have seen more of him as the latter, but alas.
Let’s go back to that Hotel del Luna comparison again because if there’s any other category in which the two are evidently comparable, it’s music. Hotel del Luna far outshines Mystic Pop-Up Bar in this regard. Several OSTs from the former scored big on music charts for a reason. I still automatically feel things whenever I listen to bits of the melody from Heize’s ‘Can You See My Heart’.
But music in Mystic Pop-Up Bar has none of Hotel del Luna’s It factor. The drama primarily uses instrumental music, but we all know plenty of iconic instrumental soundtracks from the silver screen and television alike. Nevertheless, while the music in Mystic Pop-Up Bar lacks memorability, it does not take away too much entertainment value from the show.
Cinematography and Editing
It’s evident that most of their budget had gone into cinematography and editing. Nearly every mise-en-scène in Mystic Pop-Up Bar is beautifully shot and edited, carefully constructed and filmed on set, and later perfected in post-production. I like that while the drama revels in its exaggerated humour, there’s excellent control in the use of camera angles and movements. Each scene flows well to the next without distractingly awkward shots or overly glaring continuity errors. Overall, excellent execution there.
I do, however, find their action sequences lacking at times — in particular, the quality of visual effects and CGI during these scenes. It certainly is quite impressive for television standards, but it lacks that little touch of sophistication in some parts. You’ll see this in the quality of the glow of Chief Gwi’s spear, for instance. The show’s partly a comedy, but it’s clear that we’re meant to be impressed here. Fortunately, its style does work better during comedic scenes. I loved the moment in the first episode when Kang-bae’s asshole of a manager flies off from the top of the building. It’s what he deserved.
But Mystic Pop-Up Bar’s biggest triumph is the way their choice of colour palettes adds to the story. Take the dream sequences for instance. Each palette clearly signifies each type of dream. You’ll see rich, vivid colours in lucid dreaming, with edges of subtle dreamy filters and lighting. Vividness is carried into the pop-up bar itself when it’s open for business, giving it an ethereal, mystical (ha!) vibe. The bar then fades into a more neutral palette when it closes.
Another instance is its use of a white palette in the afterlife office, conveying purity and mirroring the clean slates that everyone is handed upon reincarnation. But at the same time, it also suggests a different side: the detached cruelty of the gods in the face of humans, the corporate slaves of the system that is life. By the end, of course, we see that Weol-ju meets her KPI target. She also gets paid the ultimate performance bonus: the freedom to decide her next life.
Overall, Mystic Pop-Up Bar is very entertaining and wastes very little of its viewer's time. But it does deserve its Nielsen rating. Despite its many positives, it lacks just that little bit of It factor that could have catapulted it to the top. Still, it’s a solid choice for anyone looking for a lighthearted watch.
Cinematography and Editing