Sunday, August 5, 2012

Drama Short: Iljimae (2008) Review

Grade: C+ 

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. 

First impression
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. 

 Final verdict
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. 

Random thoughts
• 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... 
Watch it
Good Drama  

You might also like  Tamra, the Island (for the funny) 
Princess’ Man (for the epic melodrama, and/or Park Shi Hoo)


  1. I love the leopard print cozy. I remember sort of noticing it as I was watching, and my eyes glossing right over it until moments later: wait... WTF?

    Flaws and all, I enjoyed this show tremendously, although I think that's because I fast forwarded through most of Joon Ki's early buffoon-acting scenes. (Yes yes, writers, I know he's going to have to develop and hone his style, and eventually he's going to become awesome. I think I already spy who's going to teach him those vital thief/sword skills - I'll just wait for you (and the plot) to catch up.))

    The most important contribution this drama gave me: a revitalized love of Park Shi Hoo! Now, don't kill me, and I think I've mentioned this before, but I never did get into Princess's Man. My only excuse at the time must be that I wasn't in the mood for epic melodrama, and I had a case of Second Lead Syndrome until the plot totally ruined my fantasizing. As such, PSH did not make a roaring impression on me at the time. I'm willing to make amends though and rewatch Princess's Man in the near future.. if only for the eye candy.. though I will try to see it in a different light this time around.

    1. Teehee...probably the leopard was meant to show that he was daring and the sort of person who could kill a dangerous wild animal. But mostly he came off as someone who hit the clearance rack at TJ Maxx ;)

      You know, I completely agree about Park Shi Hoo—and Princess's Man. That show was gorgeous and amazingly well done, but the plot drove me too crazy to enjoy it. (OMFG. You know someone's out to kill your boyfriend's dad, and yet you don't even try to tell him because you're too busy waiting for someone to find you shoes?!? You have a list of conspirators in a plot against the king, so naturally you keep it in your hanbook’s sleeve?!?! Come on, writers. It's hard to root for the good guys when they're dumb as rocks.) And in it, Park Shi Hoo was kind of a punk; his journey from playboy to doting husband wasn't as well done as it should have been. For my money, it's the early Park Shi Hoo that's most appealing, before the touch-ups at the plastic surgeon and before he became the Park Shi Hoo—like Family's Honor and Iljimae.

      I also think I might need to rewatch Princess' Man—every sageuk pales in comparison to my memory of that show, but while I was watching it I was convinced that I didn't like it. This might bear further investigation.

    2. Is that why I thought Park Shi Hoo was looking kind of strange recently, touch ups at the plastic surgeon? Why mess with the cute?

    3. My theory is that he got his nose straightened and his ears pinned, but I always assume the worst ;) It could just be that now that he's playing the lead, they spend more time on his hair and make-up.

    4. Sigh. I feel guilty about taking Park Shi Hoo's name in vain, so have come back to mention that he seems like his soul might just be as beautiful as his face. Every time he comes up in the Kdrama news, it's because he whisked a drama's production team off on a fabulous vacation or watched episodes of one of his shows with his fans. Also, he's got a cute cat. How can you not love that?

  2. I don't know if I'll get around to watching this one, for whatever reason it doesn't appeal to me, but I don't usually go crazy over the sagueks I don't know why because I love to read historical fiction books, but I'll watch one form time to time.

    1. The only sageuk I've ever really adored was QIHN. All the rest have been either just been tolerably fun (Sungkyunkwan Scandal, Iljimae) or ridiculously annoying (Hong Gil Dong). I loved watching Jewel in the Palace, though at 54 episodes it's hard to compare it to any of the others. I think sometime in the next month I'll try watching some more 'serious' sageuks. They're soo intimidating though..

    2. I really loved SKKS, but feel the same way about sageuks. They're either so huge and serious that they make my knees knock in terror (e.g., Jewel in the Palace), or so runty and brain-dead that I want to crush them (e.g., Moon That Embraces the Sun). I've been thinking about giving Shin Don a try--its Dramafever ratings are low, but it's the all-time best Kdarma according to DramaTic's top 100 list. I feel like I could really, really love sageuks, but just haven't found the right one yet. (Probably because I'm too chicken to commit to something longer than 25 episodes, when you come right down to it.)

  3. I think it is the seriousness of them that intimidates me. I like at least some humor. I really loved Sungkyunkwan Scandal as well, but it seemed so much more light hearted than most sageuks. I am still looking forward to Arang and the Magistrate though, you know where there is Shin Min Ah there is bound to be some mischief and fun lol, plus I already saw a little goofiness at the end of the trailor :).

    Oh and I started watching the first I Need Romance and I am so sucked into it!! I was like "Oh it's the whiny second lead that wore way too much lip gloss all the time in Goong!!" when it first started, but he couldn't be a more different character lol. It's a perfect balance of melodrama and humor so far, though it cracks me up how much they blatantly ripped off Sex and The City with the theme song :P.


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