The Return of Iljimae: Episodes 1-2
MBC’s Return of Iljimae premiered on Wednesday, and from the first two episodes, my first impressions are:
- It is SO pretty. Amazing cinematography.
- The music is freaking gorgeous.
- Nice pacing of the story.
- Pretty solid acting, good casting.
- Yes, the narration gets annoying.
SONG OF THE DAY
Dear Cloud – “Lip” [ Download ]
The drama premiered to a strong 18.5% rating, taking over the Wednesday-Thursday slot on the first try. (The second episode held onto the #1 spot with a 17.1%.) I’m a little surprised at how quickly it reached that number, but I suppose people were eager for a new series — KBS’s sageuk Kingdom of the Wind just ended and is currently airing a four-episode minidrama (Kyung-sook, Kyung-sook’s Father), while SBS’s A Star’s Lover is starting to drag.
I haven’t decided whether to keep doing recaps, because while I liked the series, this drama may require more work. I’ll see if I’m up for it after watching some more…
THE TWO ILJIMAES
SBS’s Lee Junki; MBC’s Jung Il-woo
It’s amazing how you can take one concept — one character — and build such contrasting worlds from it.
As you may know, I didn’t really like Lee Junki‘s version of Iljimae that aired on SBS last year. I found it over-the-top, slapstick, and melodramatic. I understand the allure of a hottie cast with Lee Junki, Park Shi-hoo, and Han Hyo-joo, but two of those three couldn’t really act and it was like the third tried to overcompensate by overacting. The story was also too overwrought for my taste.
I often say I dislike tragedy and melodrama, but I don’t mean I dislike all sad things. Actually, tragedy can be kind of beautiful in a melancholy way. What I dislike is the conventional kdrama depiction of tragedy as wailing, chest-beating, loud, exaggerated. That’s the style of storytelling that turned me off the SBS series.
The Return of Iljimae is vastly different from SBS’s Iljimae. Its tone is more delicate, its emotions played more subtly, the humor less a presence but drier when there is any. If you thought that SBS’s Iljimae was the best thing ever, I’m not sure how you’d feel about this version, because it has a completely different approach. It’s not hip or trendy; it’s more artistically inclined. While I don’t think its aesthetics top Painter of the Wind — that one set the bar really, really high — it’s much more in that vein than Lee Junki’s Iljimae or Hong Gil Dong.
EPISODES 1 & 2
Episode 1 got off to an odd start, in my opinion, by placing Iljimae in the current world. My first impression was that it was a mistake to frame the series in the context of the modern, although by the end of the episode I kind of liked what they did with it (it ties in with the theme that Iljimae “returns” in each generation, in addition to its literal meaning of how he returns home in the story). Suffice to say that this is similar to what Hong Gil Dong did at its end — but if I had to choose, I’d rather see the modern segment up front (and then forget about it) than end a series with it.
In any case, a masked man (actor Jung Il-woo) infiltrates a building, saves a hostage, and fights off bad guys, all while being observed by a Lois Lane-type photographer (Yoon Jin-seo).
She’s fascinated by the mysterious man, yet doesn’t recognize him (he recognizes her) when they bump into each other shortly thereafter. He picks up her dropped cell phone and returns it — along with a plum blossom, Iljimae’s signature.
The narration tells us that if you trace history through its turbulent times, you can find the emergence of a hero who rises up to defend the weak; thus Iljimae isn’t just a story about a specific person, but a metaphor for those kinds of heroes. And then we jump back in time to the origin of the legend.
We’re in the reign of Joseon king Injo, who ruled from 1623 to 1649. The international situation is shaky, with Korea (Joseon)’s relationship to Manchu deteriorating and corruption abounding domestically.
In Hanyang (the capital), we have a villain on the rampage, this ogre-ish giant who terrorizes with his brute strength and, yes, actual baby-eating.
He’s a menace to society and about to kill a kid (Cha-dol) one night when a young man (Iljimae) intervenes. He attempts some traditional fighting maneuvers, but his blows hardly register on the giant, so it takes some swift moving to get the better of him. After getting thrown around a bit, Iljimae delivers a final blow to the giant in a particular style that goes noticed by one bystander, who recognizes Iljimae’s fighting technique. (The giant doesn’t die, but is incapacitated for life.)
However, the particular martial art was said to have died out a few years ago. The chief policeman (actor Kim Min-jong) knows of only one person who could know it — the mysterious Iljimae.
Officer Gu is troubled by the news. Iljimae had been known a few years ago (perhaps for his heroics? — we’re not quite sure why), but had disappeared. Now it seems he’s returned.
Cha-dol enthusiastically recounts a blow-by-blow telling of Iljimae’s battle to villagers the next day. One woman, Wol-hee, takes special interest in the story and asks Cha-dol to tell her if he ever manages to find Iljimae. When asked why, she says, “I think he’s somebody I know.”
A flashback told through Iljimae’s eyes shows us a girl with whom he shared a young love. The actress (Yoon Jin-seo) also plays Wol-hee, but the character descriptions tell us this is Dal-yi, Iljimae’s first love, to whom Wol-hee bears a striking resemblance.
The two witnesses to the fight are Cha-dol and the gentleman Bae, who took particular note of Iljimae upon his first encounter with him years ago. He has begun recording Iljimae-related incidents through drawings and descriptions, feeling that he has some kind of cosmic fate with Iljimae: If he has one purpose in this world, it is to make the hero’s exploits known.
Together, the duo sneak out over a series of nights to witness Iljimae taking on bandits and bad guys, which are compiled into a collection of stories.
And then, we jump back even further to Iljimae’s childhood. He was born to a slave woman (Jung Hye-young), who was taken advantage of by the son of the household she served. To keep from ruining the young man’s future, she is forced to give away her child and told that the household will make sure he will be raised safely. She begs to leave the boy a message to be read when he’s older, and writes of the plum blossoms that had been in bloom when she was forced to surrender him.
She’s kicked out of her position and, with no other options left to her, becomes a gisaeng (an entertainer like a geisha), not knowing that her son is immediately left out to die in the cold. Through a stroke of luck, he is discovered by a kind beggar like Moses in the reeds. The man takes a liking to the boy and tries to raise him, although that requires that he wander the village begging for a woman to nurse the baby.
When he asks for help at the gisaeng house, Iljimae’s mother, who has now adopted the gisaeng name Baek-mae, feels compassion. She nurses the boy, imagining this is her son and not knowing it actually is (believing her son to be safe in a noble household). She gives the beggar a pricey ornament, telling him to sell it to clothe the baby.
Seeing the beggar with an expensive trinket, a younger Officer Gu becomes suspicious, and drags the beggar back to the gisaeng house. Thinking the man a thief, he is shocked when Baek-mae confirms the beggar’s words. He is also instantly smitten by her — perhaps not just her looks, but by her beautiful and sad aura. After that initial meeting, he goes back to the gisaeng house nightly to gaze at her from the shadows.
Some days later, the beggar once again goes out to beg another woman to nurse the baby. Despite the warnings of the monk (the beggar often stays at the shrine), he wanders into a richer neighborhood and is seen by the matriarch who’d forced Baek-mae out. Upon hearing the details of the baby’s discovery, the old woman recognizes him as Baek-mae’s son. This means the boy must be killed (again), and men are sent to do the deed.
However, the monk has sensed this danger and steals the boy away to safety, taking him to China. There, he encounters a kindly couple who hear that the boy is orphaned, and decide to adopt him. They name him Iljimae.
Thus the boy Iljimae grows up privileged and loved, although his adopted father does insist he learn martial arts to toughen him up, to offset his too-pretty face. (Ha! Cheeky nod to Jung Il-woo’s pretty-boy status?) He grows into a quiet, refined, and principled young man, who one day stands up to a malicious nobleman’s son who is beating up a Korean kid just for being Korean.
Although Iljimae believes himself to be Chinese, he has sympathy for the Korean boy’s plight, and when the mean son picks a fight, Iljimae fights back. The boy and his buddies outnumber Iljimae, but are no match for his skills.
This lands Iljimae in trouble, because afterward, the mean son is spitting mad at being beaten and demands punishment. The proud Iljimae refuses to apologize when it should be the other guy apologizing, not backing down even when the boy’s father arrives.
Surprisingly, the father is ashamed of his son’s cowardice — ganging up on one person in a fight — and asks Iljimae to accept his apology. Iljimae does, and his gracious acceptance earns the father’s approval. Iljimae doesn’t discover until the man leaves that that was the powerful Huang Taiji (who becomes first emperor of the Qing Dynasty), son of Nurhaci (founding father of the Manchu state).
Iljimae is impervious to the female attention pointed his way because of his refined looks, but one lady takes a strong fancy to him. She’s the daughter of a powerful nobleman, and Iljimae is engaged to her.
But one day a man arrives from Korea, ordered by madam matriarch to deliver gifts to Iljimae’s new family. The matriarch had been told by the monk of Iljimae’s fate, and thereafter sent gifts every year to the adoptive family, who every year refused them. Once more he is refused, but this time he is noticed by one oddball — a man named Wang Hweng-bo with a nose for mischief.
Hweng-bo finds the Korean nobleman and kills him, taking the fine gifts for himself and discovering Baek-mae’s letter among them. Realizing he’s sitting on a valuable piece of information, Hweng-bo takes the package to Iljimae, and announces (rather unceremoniously) that he is adopted.
This news is a shock in Iljimae’s otherwise calm, contented life. However, in the face of this knowledge, Iljimae senses the truth in the man’s claims. It explains his feeling of not quite belonging, the connection he felt with Korean outsiders, and vague memories from his past.
Hweng-bo seems up to no good, and slyly offers to take Iljimae along with him when he returns to Korea tomorrow. Iljimae wrestles with the dilemma of whether to go, finally deciding that he will do so to find out once and for all what the truth is.
He leaves behind a letter for his parents, and when they find it, all hell breaks loose. For one, this means he’s of different (lesser) birth than initially believed, which is insulting to his fiancee’s family. The girl’s father announces a huge bounty on Iljimae’s head, dead or alive.
While on their journey, Iljimae starts to sense that all is not well when they’re attacked more than once. Hweng-bo explains that his parents put a bounty on his head, having grown resentful of the cost to raise a son not their own. Iljimae doesn’t believe that — they would never have done that — but the fact remains that they are chased, and barely manage to escape their pursuers.
(Hweng-bo is a shifty fellow and certainly not trustworthy, but it’s difficult to get a read on his character because he tells Iljimae the truth, and helps him fend off attackers.)
The two finally arrive at the port, from which they’ll depart for Korea. Iljimae is almost aboard the boat when a group of men, led by his former teacher, call for him to stop. Seeing his teacher gives him pause, but Iljimae is resolved in his mission to seek his mother, and turns to board.
That’s when hidden men spring up from camouflaged hiding places and throw ropes around Iljimae’s wrists. While he’s bound and surrounded, Hweng-bo leaps into the air to fight off the mob…
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
The action scenes leave something to be desired. I suppose they’re serviceable, but the wire work is really obvious and adds an element of silliness to what should be serious moments. I think you’re going to get some degree of bad stunts in any sageuk incorporating action sequences, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.
Yeah, the narration gets pretty obtrusive. I think what’s worse than the narration itself is the voice doing it — it isn’t cutesy like in Goong or introspective like The World We Live In, but almost didactic. Like in an educational documentary. There’s too much of it and a tendency to state the obvious.
On the upside, unlike acting or directing, narration is something that can be remedied at the last minute, so I hope the director takes note of the public reaction (mostly annoyed) and adjusts accordingly. I found myself getting used to it and wasn’t so bothered — maybe it’s because a narrator filling in the blanks can negate the need for clunky exposition scenes, and I appreciated that the first episode was only an hour long (Hong Gil Dong started to kill me when its later episodes went on for nearly an hour and twenty minutes).
The beginning modern scenes felt unnecessary, although I understand the purpose behind it. But when you have a beautifully shot, lush period drama, do you really want to start it right off with an ordinary-looking opening?
WHAT I LIKED
The Look of the Drama
I mean, just look at it! It’s stunningly shot. I don’t know if they used CG, but it doesn’t look too fake, so well done on that score.
MBC’s Return of Iljimae acquired the rights to the hit manhwa series, and it shows in the storytelling. The pacing is steady, and it seemed to me as though there was a confidence in the narrative that I don’t always get from dramas — sometimes shows start out feeling wobbly and uncertain. Here, I feel like they really know where they’re going and how they’re going to get there.
This may be my favorite aspect so far. Transitions make sense — even when the narrative skips forward and backward in time — and the music is fantastic. The scenery is lovely, the filming assured. Objectively, the acting may not be outstanding (yet?), but the director uses the actors well and teases out little bits of emotion from small looks. I dig that.
There are opportunities for action, for emotional beats, for introspection, but it doesn’t feel pretentious (unlike, say, The World They Live In). A few times I think they were in danger of making a serious moment unintentionally amusing, so that could be one area to watch, but I appreciate the absence of the slapstick. “Fusion sageuk” does not have to equal gimmicky jokiness! (Not that this is a typical fusion sageuk.)
We didn’t get to see a lot of acting from most of the characters, but I liked what I saw, particularly Kim Min-jong as the policeman and Jung Hye-young as Iljimae’s birth mother. Kim has a lovely gentleness about him, but as a police chief, he’s also in a position of command. I’ve seen a lot of evil magistrates and pushy, corrupt officers in dramas, but he’s got a different energy that intrigues me. Both Kim and Jung speak volumes with their eyes, and are wonderfully expressive.
Yoon Jin-seo I’m less familiar with. There wasn’t much of her so far, but I had a generally favorable impression. I know she’s not idol-star pretty like some other actresses, but I find her quite beautiful in a clean, classical Korean sort of way that suits the drama very well. She has a serene air about her that’s a bit unusual for one her age (25).
As for Jung Il-woo — you know, he’s not bad. I wasn’t blown away, and I think he’s capable of more passion, but the story’s just getting started and I think there’s time for that. Aside from a few moments in the modern part, he carried off the intense looks and hard stares well. I remember when Lee Junki would glare, I always wanted to laugh; for some reason Jung pulls it off. He doesn’t mug, and that’s a relief. I wasn’t a fan of the fighting sequences (thought they needed more dynamic energy) but it looks like Jung is doing a lot of stunts (which explains the exhaustion). I also really like that they gave this Iljimae an aura of quiet elegance.
The verdict? I’m cautiously optimistic.