SBS’s Iljimae isn’t necessarily BAD… if you don’t mind over-the-top, ham-fisted schlock. Perhaps that’s harsh, but I have a bad feeling about it — it’s like Hong Gil Dong but less realistic, which tells you a lot right there. The series starts off with grown-up Iljimae in an action sequence that is as ridiculously cheesy as it is logically riddled with holes. Then, as many sageuk dramas do, we jump back to childhood to establish our characters in the Tragedy! and Chaos! that informs their adulthoods, and it’s in the past that the series does a borderline decent (though convoluted) job of building the intertwining relationships.
The current-time sequence that starts us off is what bothers me most — because although we spend a mere ten or fifteen minutes in that time period before the story jumps backward and improves, I know we’re going to be returning to the “present” time eventually. And when it does, if things continue in the vein of the series start, I am going to be incapacitated by Howls of Laughter at the Ridiculous.
The acting ranges from acceptable to laughably over-the-top, the directing is okay, the effects are not as good as they could be, the music is pretty good, and Lee Junki is as much a ham as he ever was. (He’s always had a tendency to overact, and his best moments are when he pulls back from his excess. He doesn’t restrain himself much here.) Can I see why the series got off to a quick start and healthy ratings? Yes. Do I agree? Umm… not really.
SONG OF THE DAY
Gummy – “따끔” (sting) [ Download ]
But rather than merely sling words like “cheesy” and “absurd” around and work the Lee Junki fans into a froth, let me describe for you the opening sequence, and you be the judge.
Sitting in their darkened lair, Iljimae and his bandit friends discuss the night’s raid. Everyone is opposed to Iljimae’s target, because it’s too heavily fortified, too impossible. But Iljimae dons his Hannibal Lecter-esque metal-plate mask and says, “There’s no place in this world I can’t rob. Because… I’m Iljimae.” Wait wait, let me try out that logic: There’s no way a million dollars won’t fall out of the sky in to my lap. Because I’m javabeans. Hm, I wonder why that didn’t work.
Iljimae, disguised as a peasant/trader, arrives at their heavily guarded target with a cart of huge ice blocks, the largest of which has been dyed red with berry juice for an event the next day. The guards are on high alert, having heard Iljimae’s intentions to raid, and wave them inside — where Iljimae crushes the ice, dyed red to hide its contents, dons his armor, and retrieves his weapons, which includes an arm-mounted grappling hook. Oh yeah, and he peels off his rubbery facial prosthetics because they’ve already been invented in this parallel universe.
Iljimae crawls through tunnels, then runs along the rooftops — jumping back and forth willy-nilly ’cause it’s cool, not because it makes sense or anything — and arrives at one particular building. He knocks out the guards by throwing what looks like golf balls at their heads and beating them unconscious, and uses his arm-mounted grappling hook to launch the wire and hook to an opposing building, then traverses the divide silently by climbing the wire. What, he couldn’t just jump to that rooftop?
Then Iljimae busts out his invisibility cloak — yup, that’s right, I said INVISIBILITY CLOAK — and hides himself while rigging his PLASTIC EXPLOSIVES to bust a hole in the wall. Dude Iljimae, I’m sure you’re smart and everything, but don’t you think you could’ve saved yourself some trouble by using the invisibility cloak to begin with?
Now he’s inside the chamber containing some kind of valuable artifact. Guards swoop in, dropping down from the ceiling because doors are so passé, y’all, and surround Iljimae. They fight. (Credit where it’s due: this fight scene is filmed pretty well, with nice photography and lighting.) Ilijmae rat-tails a piece of cloth (you know, that obnoxious towel-whipping boys do in locker rooms, erm, not that I’d know personally) and extinguishes the candles, dousing the room in darkness.
When torches are brought in, Iljimae is gone. But they hear the clash of a swordfight, and rush to the room next door — it’s Iljimae versus Guard. They corner Iljimae on the ground, and find that somehow, it’s not Iljimae but a guard who’s been gagged and dressed in Iljimae’s own clothing. Wait, wha-? Exactly.
It’s like how Tom Cruise keeps changing faces in Mission Impossible and the last time he does it, you’re like, “Oh, that’s cool,” before you stop and think, “Wait, how is he making these perfectly designed prosthetic masks of people’s faces in advance?” But logic has no place in a Mission Impossible movie, nor has it a place here.
Anyway, the guards rush to their precious artifact, whatever it is, only to find it’s been stolen — left only with Iljimae’s trademark white handkerchief with his signature plum-blossom detailing. Outside, now dressed in the guard’s clothing, Iljimae walks the rooftop and says: “See? I told you there was nothing in the world I couldn’t do. Because… I’m ILJIMAE!”
So there we have it: Iljimae, a fusion sageuk that obviously misunderstands the word “fusion” to mean “make up whatever the hell you want, even if it doesn’t make sense, because we can call it fusion!” A sageuk that’s as much Jack Bauer meets Bond meets Mission Impossible as it is supposedly a historical.
Well, let’s cover the story of his beginnings now:
In his childhood, Iljimae is a happy boy named LEE KYUM, son of respected nobleman Lee Won Ho. He lives a charmed life with his family of four, and all is cheerfulness, goodness, privilege and plum blossoms floating in the wind. Not only that, but Kyum is a good kid, honest and sympathetic.
When another noble youngster, SHI WAN, targets a local poor boy CHA DOL (below right) with his cruelty, Kyum steps in. Shi Wan is an elitist little shit, to put it nicely, and thinks Cha Dol (whose adult character is played by Park Shi Hoo) deserves a little more misery than being born poor in a rich man’s world, and steals a medallion from Kyum’s father, stuffing it inside Cha Dol’s bag. Then he accuses the boy of being a thief, and the boy is dragged off, begging for mercy.
Kyum (above left) looks at his father’s returned medallion and notices a sticky white confection on it, and plays Encyclopedia Brown. The poor boy’s fingers are clean, and so are Kyum’s father’s. Not so Shi Wan’s.
Shi Wan runs off and Cha Dol (later renamed Shi Hoo) thanks noble father and son for stepping in to prove his innocence. He swears to repay their kindness one day.
When BYUN SHIK, Shi Wan’s powerful father, finds out about his son’s misdeed, he doesn’t necessarily disapprove but fears the wrath of Lee Won Ho. He tries to force his son to apologize, but Shi Wan petulantly refuses, and his good, kind baby sister EUN CHAE (later played by Han Hyo Joo) steps up. She’ll beg for forgiveness.
So when she goes to plead prettily for her brother’s wrong, she meets Kyum, and they look at plum blossoms and marvel at the little bird (a warbler) that flits among the trees. Ah, love at first sight. (I know it’s supposed to be sweet, but who else thinks that finding true love at age 8 is kinda creepy? I mean, if my soulmate were the first snotty boy I had a crush on in second grade… shudder.)
This drama is not without its own convoluted birth secret, and here we have DANI, Cha Dol’s mother and wife to Swe Dol (above right). She’s the long-suffering type who used to be a maidservant in the household of a young Lee Won Ho. She and Lee Won Ho were in love, despite their class differences, and also lovers — and when she found out she was pregnant, do you know what she did? She headed straight for Byun Shik (Shi Wan’s father) and told him that he could have her for a night (he’d been bugging Lee Won Ho to let him have his servant for his concubine). They had sex. Somehow this makes sense in Dani’s mind as the logical thing to do in self-preservation. I don’t know why. Soon after, she married Swe Dol and bore her son Cha Dol, who is actually Lee Won Ho’s son and therefore Kyum’s half-brother. Are you following all this?
Anyway. Swe Dol is a former thief but generally good-hearted (though weak) man, and when he’s contracted to do something for Byun Shik, he balks at the last moment because it feels wrong.
The conspiracy plot: Lee Won Ho’s older brother (above left) is at the helm of the conspiracy, which has to do with a royal coup. The older brother (I’m not positive they’re blood brothers, or if they’re using the term as a sign of respect/closeness), accompanied by his three warriors, orders Byun Shik (above right) to make Lee Won Ho into a traitor. Byun Shik carries this out by hiring Swe Dol to plant a blood-sealed letter on Lee Won Ho’s property — but Swe Dol backs out at the last moment in fear. His refusal causes him to be beaten, and Cha Dol, who has followed his father, cries out not to kill him. He agrees to carry out the task in place of his father if they will spare them, and he does.
However, both are then about to be killed by Byun Shik (to tie off loose ends) when Dani hears and rushes to beg for mercy. She reminds Byun Shik of their night together years ago, and confesses that Cha Dol is HIS son. Thus Cha Dol is sent off to live with Byun Shik’s family, to grow up alongside Shi Wan and Eun Chae and renamed as Shi Hoo. Poor kid’s going to develop an identity complex when he realizes that this second family isn’t the right one, either. (And that his act to save his adoptive father in fact killed his biological one.) What an irritating mother.
When the three warriors infiltrate, Lee Won Ho hides Kyum in a cabinet and locks it before going out to face the men. He fights a good fight, but is killed — all while Kyum watches through a peephole in the cabinet. The death is ruled a suicide and the man declared a traitor. As punishment for high treason, the wife and daughter are sold off. Kyum, however, is spared because Swe Dol arrives on the scene before the authorities, hears the boy in the cabinet, and carries him away. However, Kyum is wanted by authorities as well as Byun Shik’s men, who want to kill him to clean up the mess.
After awakening, Kyum wanders back home and is found by some guards, who chase him through the village, where he runs into an orphaned brother-sister pair. In exchange for their silence, Kyum offers his father’s medallion to the older brother, who pawns it in exchange for medicine and food. The girl, BONG SOON (played later by Lee Young Ah), awaits her brother’s return, while the brother finds himself being followed by assassins who have tracked down the medal he sold.
The boy is killed in front of Kyum’s eyes, and he grabs the girl and runs. When cornered on a cliff, Kyum tells Bong Soon to jump on the count of three to the water below, but just as he jumps, she’s grabbed by the warrior. She begs for mercy and the man readies to kill her — but doesn’t. He reports to his superiors that the girl is dead, however. Guess he has an ounce of heart left.
Kyum is spotted in the village and suspected to be Lee Won Ho’s missing son. He spots his mother being herded away, and almost acknowledges her — but she starts acting crazy and accusing Kyum of hurting her son to deflect suspicion and to save him. The guard tests Kyum by telling him the woman is the wife of a traitor and handing him a stone; Kyum hesitates for a long moment, then takes the rock and hurls it at his mother’s head. Geez, boy, you couldn’t aim for her stomach or something?
Meanwhile, Cha Dol/Shi Hoo is with one of the men, because he met Kyum in person and could confirm his identity. Shi Hoo answers that the boy is NOT Kyum, and thinks back to his promise to repay the boy for his kindness.
Kyum is released, and wanders in a daze, where he’s found by Dani. He collapses, and she takes him home. When he awakens, the trauma has been so severe he has no memory of recent events, and thinks Dani and Swe Dol are his parents. Swe Dol wants to raise the boy (he’s feeling guilty for his part in everything), and renames him Yong.
Meanwhile, now Bong Soon is all alone, and the warrior who’d spared her life now pays a village woman to raise her. But the vulgar village lady just wants money and plans to sell the girl off, prompting Bong Soon to follow the man. He yells at her to go back, but she cries, “I don’t wanna be sold off. I’m scared.” He turns his back on her and continues; Bong Soon continues following him.
And then we’re thirteen years later.
Kyum is now Yong, and believes Dani and Swe Dol to be his parents. He’s also constantly bullied by other young scholars, led by Shi Wan, and is today strung up in a tree. A hunter comes by and cuts him down, and hears Yong muttering in his sleep. He puts the pieces together and realizes that this must be the long-lost Kyum.
Meanwhile, Yong begs his parents not to force him to go to school, and plays hooky, wandering the village in search of amusement. He’s spotted by a peddler who takes him for an easy mark, and Yong is delivered to the man’s daughter — Bong Soon.
In the intervening years, the man has become a sort of peddler of junk, working with his adopted daughter to swindle people for worthless, wacky stuff, much of which is sexually themed, like primitive condoms. This time Bong Soon makes promises of really awesome sexy comics — which turn out to be a book of flower drawings. Yong can’t believe he was cheated, and rushes back to get his money back. Unfortunately, just then he’s caught by his father Swe Dol and dragged back to school
His return isn’t received happily by the other students, particularly Shi Wan, who leads the group in another round of hazing…
Stuff I liked: The pre-Iljimae years where Lee Junki lives as the troublemaking Yong seem interesting, and have more touches of comedy and light-heartedness. I didn’t think I’d like Lee Young Ah’s character, but Bong Soon seems plucky and cheerful, and I’m liking that better than that exemplar of perfection, Eun Chae (although we haven’t seen Han Hyo Joo yet). I don’t know how long we’ll stay in this time range, however, and I’m not particularly eager to speed ahead to the Robin Hood years because it’s so full of nonsense — it aims for cool but I find it campy.
Stuff I didn’t like: The Hong Gil Dong comparisons have already started, and this time they’re totally merited. While the characters’ origins are different, there are a lot of similarities not just in story but also in execution. And while I think Hong Gil Dong was a very flawed drama, in this respect I think it has a leg up over Iljimae, because it did this fusion-comedy-sageuk thing first and Iljimae seems to be echoing it.
Lee Junki as the goofy Yong is amusing, but his grown-up Iljimae is corny as hell. He may do well as the cool dangerous guy in a full-on action thriller like Time of Dog and Wolf, but it doesn’t achieve the same effect when the drama has a comedic overtone as it does in Iljimae. Kang Ji Hwan was similarly goofy as Hong Gil Dong, but his character was aware of the comedy; Lee Junki could take a hint.
I actually thought Iljimae was better than expected, and the drama did get better as it went along, starting off really poorly (I thought) and working its way up. So I’m not sure what I’ll do with it, but I have no problem dropping it at the first sign of boredom. Because I’ve already seen Hong Gil Dong, and I don’t need to see it again dressed in new trimmings.