Category: Action sageuk
What it’s about
An exploration of the complex web of cruelties and family ties that lead to the making of a Robin-Hood-style vigilante who stands up against the nobility on behalf of Joseon’s everyday people.
After a bunch of rom-com wheel spinning, I’m ready for a nice, juicy sageuk. This one seems to fit the bill in unexpected ways—there’s arterial blood spurting in practically every scene. The production values may not be par with something like the spectacular Princess’ Man, but it’s still a soapy historical treat.
If only the whole thing was as thrilling as the final four episodes, this would have been an excellent drama. As it is, though, the bulk of Iljimae lacks the gonzo charm of Tamra, the Island and the cinematic grandeur of Princess’ Man. It’s doomed to the middle ground: not quite funny enough to be a comedy, not quite moving enough to be a drama. The mysterious murder of the male lead’s father provides a healthy dose of narrative tension toward the show’s beginning and end, but unfortunately much of the drama consists of flabby, comedic midsection that feels both unnecessary and tonally disjointed. Add to that a plot so dense with serious, laughable holes that I have to suspect the script was actually written by chimpanzees with typewriters, and Iljimae has some serious failures to overcome.
It turns out, though, that its well-cast group of likeable characters is almost enough to do the trick. Particular standouts are the show’s loveable-lunk adoptive fathers and its second male lead, the source of some much-needed gravitas. Iljimae is also a drama that knows to make the most of what it has to work with—lavishly choreographed fight scenes, tragically conflicted loyalties, and mustache-twirling bad guys (literally, in a few scenes). Overall, a diverting if not entirely satisfying way to spend twenty hours.
• This show doesn’t so much beggar belief as bugger it—the coincides and implausibilities are stacked ten deep.
• Have I mentioned that I'm a sucker for sageuks in which smutty books are a major plot point? Such fun, and an incredibly different vantage point on the past than we Westerners ever take.
• Sweet Jesus, is this ever a Korean boy buffet. Not to put too fine a point on things, but I’d like to be the filling in a Lee Joon Ki/Park Shi Hoo sandwich of brotherly love.
• Episode 3. Huh. This is like Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, Korean style. How many more awful things could possibly befall my beautiful Lee Joon Ki? (I guess they’re going to spend the next 18 episodes answering that question, aren’t they?)
• Episode 8. I definitely have a case of second lead syndrome here. The goofy lead is too clownish for the thoughtful, smart girl he’s going to wind up paired with, while her forbidden, not-quite-romance with her not-quite-brother is sweet and lovely. I almost died of swoon when he lit all those lanterns for her.
• Episode 13. Is that a leopard-print bow cozy I spy? I had no idea those Joseon warrior types were so fashion-forward!
—When I was in high school, we gym-class slackers always chose to do archery because that was the only sport that sucking at automatically got you embraced by the hot gym teacher. Clearly, the writers of Iljimae had similar experiences—they wasted no time in getting Park Shi Hoo to give the female lead some bow-and-arrow lessons. Rawr.
• Episode 16. This show suffers from one of the most serious afflictions of dramas these days: NEPSHS (Not Enough Park Shi Hoo Syndrome). Well-meaning but doomed to cause disaster after disaster for the people he cares about, his weighty silence steals every single scene he’s in.
• Episode 18. Dude. Are there airholes in that iron mask? I really don’t want this to turn into a snuff drama...
You might also like Tamra, the Island (for the funny)
Princess’ Man (for the epic melodrama, and/or Park Shi Hoo)