Thursday, February 13, 2014

Drama Review: Return of Iljimae (2009)

Grade: B+

Action/adventure fusion sageuk

What it’s about
The epic (but occasionally tongue-in-cheek) journey a hero and his desperate efforts to protect Korea and her people.

What it’s not about
Although it was released after the similarly themed Iljimae, the two dramas are totally unrelated. I suggest staying away from the original Iljimae, which blew its wad on lots of pretty actors but forgot that it needed a script, too. Return of Iljimae’s title makes it sound like the lesser of the two, but it’s actually based on an original comic while Iljimae is based on...Lee Jun Ki’s cheekbones?

First impression
In spite of our uncertain beginning, I’m really starting like this show. It’s trying to be a Korean version of The Princess Bride, which is a very noble calling indeed. The modern narrator is acting like the grandfather in that movie, guiding us through a series of stories about Iljimae’s youth. The Joseon setting has all the storybook charm of Florin, and its inhabitants—including a baby-eating giant and a flamboyant Chinese spy who only walks sideways—have the quirky, one-dimensional glow of fairytale characters. Korean dramas may love over-the-top people, places, and ideas, but they rarely venture into the realm magical realism. I’m hoping this mythical hero’s quest could change that.

Final verdict
Return of Iljimae really hit the sageuk sweet spot for me: It’s sweeping and glorious and tragic, stuffed full of genuine emotion and powerful friendships. But best of all, it managed to sidestep all the things that usually annoy me about this kind of drama.

It doesn’t bother with the typical introductory episodes featuring the lead characters as children. I guess these prologues are so common because they allow the shows to be longer, but I hate the jarring switch from the young actors to their adult counterparts—why bother with them, when you just have to start fresh with a new group of faces after five or six episodes? Wisely, ROI instead uses voiceover narration to zip through Iljimae’s birth and childhood with adoptive parents in China. Within the first episode we’re introduced to our hero, a taciturn, beautiful young man whose life is turned upside down with the revelation that he’s actually Korean. The story immediately kicks into gear, with a series of tragedies sending Iljimae on a grand tour of Asia. During his travels, he learns the signature martial arts of China, Korea, and Japan and collects a group of colorful characters that will support him through the rest of the drama.

Another bonus is that this is a drama of the people, not the privileged few. At its heart are regular folks who work hard and suffer at the whims of the rich and powerful. There are only a few brief cameos from the kind of talking heads that bog down most historical dramas with their scheming and (unintriguing) political intrigues. Instead of dwelling on lots of long-winded talk and staring contests, ROI fills the screen with gorgeous scenery, impressive battles, and stunningly choreographed fight scenes, along with some swoony wooing of ladies. Its star is a man of action, not a guy who thinks he can solve problems with behind-the-scenes manipulation. He steals from the rich and gives to the poor, struggles against corrupt officialdom, and quite frequently goes on undercover missions cross-dressing as a gisaeng. (If nothing else, this show is worth watching for its never-ending jokes about how Iljimae looks like a girl.)

Unlike many sageuks, I even came to love all of this show’s supporting characters. From monks to girl spies to a series of stand-in father figures for Iljimae, they were all compelling and fully fleshed. The best of the lot were Iljimae’s long-suffering mother and Goo Ja Myeong, whose oft-thwarted love affair is so poignant it will rip your heart out. The bromantic duo of Mr. Bae and Cha Dol Yi are a close second. They may have been introduced as clown figures, but they still had me in tears by the final episode.

Return of Iljimae is also free of the moral blinders most dramas wear—taking a life is a serious offense, even when it’s the life of someone you don’t agree with. There are very few characters who are outright evil in this series; even the Qing emperor who spearheads the invasion of Korea is treated with kindness and humanity. Iljimae himself is depicted as a human being. He’s weighed down by his chosen path, and his sufferings and losses along the way are keenly felt.

I would have liked this show even more if it had a stronger female lead and a slightly more charismatic actor in the role of Ijimae (Sorry, Jung Ill Woo. You’re super pretty, but you just don’t have the presence to embody a character this quietly powerful.) The drama’s fast-moving plot and slightly skewed storytelling more than made up for these shortcomings, and I’d have to say that it has taken a place on my list of favorite sageuks behind only Sungkyunkwan Scandal and Painter of the Wind.

Random thoughts
Episode 1. After an intriguing opening sequence set in the modern day, this action-heavy episode morphs into a fusion sageuk peopled by scary, baby-eating giants; heroic men in black; and a zygote version of actor Lee Hyun Woo in the role of comedy relief. I wasn’t crazy about Ijimae, an earlier, unrelated drama about a similar character, but all reports indicate that this series is much better. So far, so good.

Episode 2. I was hoping that the voiceover narration would stop after the first episode, but no such luck. I wouldn’t mind it if it only came up a few times an episode, but at this point it’s looking like this is going to be a drama of skits held together by a unnamed omniscient narrator. How about you go about the business of showing me connected events, director-nim, and I go about the business of interpreting therm myself? [Finale note: After the first chunk of episodes, the device of narration is used a lot less—and actually becomes snarky fun.]

Episode 5. I think it’s safe to say now that this drama is infinitely better than the earlier Iljimae, which starred Lee Jun Ki and Park Shi Hoo. That show felt campy and disjointed, with hokey production values and a nonsensical plot. In contrast, Return of Ijimae is quite thoughtfully constructed and its tone is much more serious (although it’s not without a pair of sageuk clowns, of course). At this point, the narration has become less of a crutch and the story is starting to stand up on its own two feet. This episode seems to be set inside three framing stories: one about a modern-day vigilante and reporter, one about Iljimae’s biographer and his kid sidekick, and one about the omniscient narrator who is at some future date reading that biographer’s work. That’s some intricate plotting for a fusion sageuk—I sure hope they don’t blow it. (And also that the events of this episode don’t mean that the romance subplot is over.)

Episode 5. Why is it only girls help Ijimae? Is it because he’s nice looking? Is it because he’s the main character?” That’s an excellent question, Ms Narrator! It should be asked of more Kdrama heroes.

Episode 6. In an obvious corolary to the recoveryless Kdrama coma, Iljimae was just locked in a teeny, tiny room for a year, but when he was released was able to walk out under his own steam. After not being able to move more than a few feet for all that time, I bet a real person would be nearly paralyzed. (Heck, I can barely move after spending a measly hour on the couch watching a Korean drama.)

Episode 7. I appreciate that this show is actually teaching its hero things, rather than having him appear out of nowhere with every skill he could possibly need to singlehandedly defeat an army of bad guys. I’ve never seen any period Japanese dramas, so it’s especially interesting that Iljimae’s world tour continues with Japan. I recognize most of the ninjitsu implements they’re using in this martial arts montage, but mostly because—like all children of the 80s—I watched a lot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles growing up.

Episode 7. Ijimae, you scamp! Nobody gets this much tail in Kdrama these days. (More’s the pity.)

Episode 8. You sure get a lot of cross-dressing bang for your buck in this show. I literally didn’t recognize the male lead in his girlie hanbok until the narrator pointed him out. I was just “Who’s that pretty woman, and why does she look vaguely familiar?”

Episode 10. “The pot is hot,” says the male lead. “So am I,” says the female lead. The two then share a swooning, naked kiss. My god, show. Have you no shame? They’re going at it like bunnies and they’re but even married. (In a related note, I think I love you.)

Episode 10. If I were to make a drinking game for this drama, I would be tempted to have people drink every time a massive fight erupted between hordes of random dudes. But then I’d probably end up in prison, because anyone who actually did it would die of alcohol poisoning during their first episode. So maybe not.

Episode 12. I’ve learned a lot about Korean dramas over the past few years, but here’s something that’s still an utter mystery. When someone is beheaded, the executioner is always a burly guy with shaggy hair and a giant, wicked-looking sword. So far, so good. But said guy always dances around and then drinks something before dramatically spitting it all over the sword. Why? I can see that a professional killer might want some alcohol before going to work, but why not just drink it? Is it meant to clean of the sword or prevent gory bits from sticking to it on the way through? It can’t be meant to sanitize anything, because, hello—dead.

Episode 14. The best thing about this show is that, unlike most sageuks, it doesn’t include any royal characters. No fighting over the throne equals no boring talking heads plotting political intrigue, which means actual events happen in each and every episode. It’s quite novel, really.

Episode 15. Talk about packed with value—this show has already touched on four great love stories, and hinted at a fifth. That’s how I like my action dramas, thank you very much. (My favorite of these romances is definitely between the male lead’s mom and the kind-hearted government official. Sigh.)

* Episode 16. Well, at this rate I’ll finish this show just in time for the next millennium. It’s not that it’s bad (although it could use a better central plot or villain to move things along). The problem is that watching two currently airing Korean dramas takes up a lot of time—I can usually squeeze in only one episode a weeknight, which means I’m watching a new show four days a week. And poor Iljimae is left behind.

Episode 16. Much like this episode’s bad guy, I often put the heads of my enemies in storage after I’ve killed them. Who knows when you’re going to want to stage an impromptu performance of Hamlet, right?

Episode 17. Unlike most dramas in the fusion sageuk family, this show actually acknowledges the consequences of violence. It makes it clear that Iljimae can kill but chooses not to until he’s in his darkest days, and that vigilante murders are not without cost to both their perpetrator and the world. Most fusion series are too madcap and cartoony for anything as genuine as respect for either life or death.

Episode 20. I’ve watched a number of sageuks at this point, so I’m pretty familiar with historical drama clothes. And yet Iljimae has produced something new: many of the supporting actors seem to be wearing white mesh bath poofs on the brims of their strange little straw hats. Wae?

Episode 21. As if his adorable face alone wasn’t enough to make me love him, my darling Lee Hyun Woo squeaks like a little mouse every time he gets worked up in this show. It’s a direct blow the ovaries, let me tell you.

Episode 21. You always hear about food being acquainted with love in various cultures. If drama is to be believed, that’s certainly true of Korea. Again and again, we see the magical properties of foods prepared by a mother: Iljimae in this episode, Young Do in Heirs, and the tragic lead of I’m Sorry, I Love You all had major bonding moments with mother figures over bowls of rice (or ramyun, which was no doubt symbolic of that particular mother’s inadequate love). There’s always the element of food preparation being “woman’s work,” but it’s also a kind of power. These mothers give of their time and energy so children can be strong and safe. The flip side of this coin is a common Kdrama saying: “I feel full just watching you eat.” As an act of love, providing food has is own reciprocal benefits.

Episode 21. Here’s the narrator’s best line yet: “The age rating for this mini-series is 15. Go to sleep, children!” I also love how she sometimes explains where the action is taking place in relation to modern subway stops. What started of as the most annoying thing about this show has turned into a sly, charming bonus.

Episode 21. How many times can one woman really be kidnapped, Show? Wouldn’t it have been nice if Iljimae had taught her some mad fighting skills the last time this happened instead of turning her into a one-woman cafeteria? There are kickass girls in this drama, but the one Iljimae ends up with doesn’t have much to contribute beyond making rice and cleaning underwear. (At least this time she’s not actively daydreaming about how awesome it will be to be rescued.)

Episode 22. Thanks to a Dramafever outage, I headed to another streaming site to watch the final few episodes of this show. Now I’m torn—Dramafever’s video is much clearer, but the HaruHaru subs on the other site are a thousand times better. That’s something DF really needs to work on: they’ve got the video quality, but their subtitles never have the grace of fan-subbed work. In the case of Viki, I suspect this better quality is because their subs are always under improvement, while the DF ones are obviously never touched after they go live. The network-provided subs are always the worst of them all, though. Is the foreign market really that far from the minds of their execs?

• I love how prominently books are featured in sageuks. In Western historical dramas, they’re mostly seen as things for rich people to use in their interior design schemes, but in Kdrama somebody is always studying or reading for pleasure. (And sometimes more literally than you might expect—dirty books are all the rage in fusion shows, bless their hearts.) This episode is a particular delight. The female lead, a girl who once made ends meet as a scribe, has decided to go into the paper-making business, so there are a few scenes showing how it was manufactured.

You might also like
—The gender-bending thoughtfulness of Sungkyunkwan Scandal and Painter of the Wind


  1. A Korean Princess Bride? I just might have to give this one a chance. I usually steer cleer of sageuks, but four different love stories and a snarky narrator sounds so tempting. BTW, thank you for adding my blog to your Linkapalooza!

  2. Sagueks aren't my cup of tea, but this review makes me want to hunt down the kissing scenes at least. I'm kidding, kidding. Not really.

  3. I never finished this drama despite my love for Jung Il-woo. I was way more intrigued by the modern day characters than the sageuk part. I'm not a sageuk person to begin with though. I got bogged down in the first few episodes and could not fight my way out of the mire. I ended up reading recaps and visiting you tube for exerpts, and felt I was probably better off for it.

  4. Dear Ms. Amanda, thanks for this Blog and I truly hope to see it revived.

    I will answer your Random Tought on Episode 12: there is a logic under the disgusting and really overplayed for dramatics cleaning of the sword, and it is simply that the carbon steel which conforms the blade is made through forging and not by crucible steel (hence their microstructure is uneven and more prone to being attacked by the elements - modern crucible steel started in 1740's Englad).

    Add to it that Stain-Less steel is an early 20th century advancement in metallurgic (and even today you need special alloys to have both high tenacity and corrosion resistance for a long blade). In short, the metallurgy of ancient swords was a compromise (the best thing they had-they knew), and the result was a blade you had to clean after use for it not to rust (not only the horrible red-orange coating, but pitting and other types of corrosion that truly weakens a blade).

    Of course, the disgusting way in which the executioner does it is overplayed.

    Best regards, and hope to read you soon.

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