Sorry for the delay! It wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy this episode — I watched it right away but didn’t have the time to devote to a recap till recently.
I know a couple comments have lamented that high-quality dramas like Return of Iljimae get overshadowed by pop-culture phenoms like Boys Before Flowers, but if it makes you feel any better, this drama has generally been well-received for its beautiful cinematography and solid storytelling.
As someone enjoying both series, I think it’s perfectly fine to respond to the youthful giddiness of Boys Before Flowers, and also to the artistry of Return of Iljimae. They speak to entirely different aspects of me.
SONG OF THE DAY
Return of Iljimae OST – “그리움” (Longing) by Bae Hae-sun [ Download ]
EPISODE 4: “Iljimae in love”
The girl who pushes Iljimae into the water laughingly introduces herself as Dal-yi. She has an open, sunny personality and looks at Iljimae with unabashed curiosity, taken by his pretty features. Caught off-balance at her assertiveness, Iljimae is unsure how to act.
Iljimae initially thinks that she was named after the word for “moon” (dal), but she informs him that she was actually named after a type of wild ginseng. Dal-yi’s father is a local ginseng gatherer — they’re in prime ginseng-digging territory in these parts.
Dal-yi can’t get over Iljimae’s prettiness, and frankly examines his face like he’s a fascinating toy. It’s almost classic role-reversal as Iljimae reacts with bashfulness and nervous curiosity, but finds himself unable to move away. This is a first experience for both of them, the narrator tells us, so neither really understands fully what they’re feeling.
Dal-yi takes Iljimae to her cave (the one he’s been staying in) which she explains is her special place for taking naps.
She notices he’s wearing Chinese-style clothing; he explains that he’s from China. Dal-yi wonders about his parents, but this puts Iljimae on the defensive, because it brings to mind his birth father’s rejection. Agitated, he bursts out that he’s Korean, as though affirming his heritage despite his father’s denial.
Not upset at his overwrought reaction, Dal-yi laughs that it doesn’t matter, then pushes him down to the ground and kisses him.
A bit later, they sit overlooking the waterfall when Dal-yi’s father finds them, his forbidding expression suggesting an ominous reaction. However, Dal-yi explains that her father is usually silent and stern — her her talkative, sanguine personality is almost like an antidote for his reticence. He’s not unloving (in fact, we can see hints of a caring father underneath the gruffness), but he just doesn’t express himself much verbally. So Dal-yi urges her father to let Iljimae live with them, and his lack of response indicates assent.
After hearing Dal-yi explain about Iljimae’s circumstances (as he has no family or home), her father takes out a set of clothing and tells her to give it to Iljimae. I suppose this is a mark of acceptance — only, they’re her clothes. Bwahaha.
Still, Dal-yi gives them to Iljimae, who dons them without any shame. Dal-yi giggles at the sight, but it’s all new to him anyway. It’s kind of hilarious to see Jung Il-woo wearing a girl’s pink hanbok un-self-consciously, but refreshing that this isn’t played as a slapstick gag. In fact, it completes Iljimae’s pretty appearance, enough that a few people take him for a girl.
Iljimae wants to show his thanks, but has a limited arsenal of ways in which to express himself, so he does the only thing he can that might prove useful: stealing chickens. (He’d stolen one previously, before meeting Dal-yi.) It doesn’t really register with him that theft is a bad thing — I’m pretty sure he doesn’t think it’s a GOOD thing, but he’s doing this with good intentions.
But after the last break-in, the farmers have tightened watch on their coop, and are on alert. When Iljimae emerges with a chicken, they try to apprehend him, but Iljimae fights back and runs off with his stolen chicken. Now understanding that thieving may not be a great idea, Iljimae decides to stop stealing — but is then confronted with policemen, who look at him suspiciously and try to grab him. As he does when pressed in a physical confrontation, Iljimae’s martial arts skills kick in almost automatically, and he fights them off.
Meanwhile, Officer Gu is busy tracking down the second of their three escaped prisoners: Wang Hweng-bo. At the scene of a recent fire, one dying man confirms having seen Wang recently, and the fire was his doing to cover up his tracks.
What’s funny is that Wang Hweng-bo knows he’s being pursued, and that his eccentric mannerisms are likely to get him noticed — but it’s not that he chooses to walk sideways, but rather that that’s the only way he can do it. There are a couple of moments where he’s forced to cover up the trait because he can’t avoid it.
With their trail growing warmer (heh, literally), Gu hurries to catch up to Wang, who has by now stolen the clothes and horse of a policeman and disguised himself.
As the officers pass a particular ginseng patch, one ginseng picker looks up from her crops — Baek-mae. After losing her child, in the intervening years Baek-mae has poured all her affection to her crops.
Now living with Dal-yi and her father, Iljimae learns about the healing properties of ginseng.
Because Iljimae never smiles, Dal-yi tells a joke, resorting to the one story guaranteed to make even her taciturn father laugh. Two warriors boast of their superior sword skills — which, as all dick-waving contests do, results in a competition. The first warrior draws his sword and cuts a fly in half in midair. The second warrior follows suit, but his prey flies away. Still, he proclaims himself the better swordsman, bragging, “That fly won’t be able to have any offspring.”
True to her word, both men start chuckling.
Dal-yi: “Let’s live here for a really really long time, the three of us. And have children, too.”
Iljimae: “I’m not going to have any.”
Dal-yi: “Dummy, people are supposed to have children.”
Iljimae: “Who says?”
Dal-yi: “Do you have to be told to know? You can figure it out. In the spring, animals give birth to their offspring, and in fall, the flowering trees bear fruit and scatter seeds. That’s how the world works.”
This is very telling of Dal-yi’s frank, affectionate way of dealing with Iljimae. She’s not coy, and she doesn’t treat their relationship with a sense of priggishness or embarrassment. She’s a mountain girl and this is just a part of maturing and living.
If her responses tell us of her open and simple outlook on life, Iljimae’s shows his complicated, conflicted one. While she naps, he wonders bitterly:
Iljimae: “But there are children who are thrown away the moment they’re born. If everything has a reason for being born, then why was I born?”
And then, Iljimae’s eye is caught by a glinting in the water.
The flash of light turns out to be a sword, lying on the bottom of the shallow pool. Iljimae shows it to Dal-yi’s father upon returning to their cottage, and the man recognizes it at first glance.
The next day, Dal-yi’s father explains that he had thrown the sword away when he and Dal-yi came here to live. Tossing Iljimae the sword, he tells him he will be teaching him the “jang baek sword technique.” (An internet search tells me that this is named after the highest mountain in Korea, central to the Goguryo nation; this sword technique was used by Goguryo warriors.)
So begins Iljimae’s intensive training. This style of swordplay is described by Dal-yi’s father as devoid of the useless frills and flashiness of ordinary sword techniques.
Wang seems well on his way to escape as he arrives at a river, which is all that separates him from China. He worries at how to ford it, but happily meets with a boat crew that offers him and his horse a ride. Because of their friendliness, Wang lets down his guard, not seeing the greedy boatsmen trading sinister grins.
They first feed him dinner, which he eats with gusto until he’s told it’s his own horse. Then the drugged liquor takes effect, causing him to black out… after which he wakes up stripped of his officer’s clothing and his money.
No use to the thieves now, he’s about to be tossed overboard, so Wang thinks fast and admits to being a Chinese spy chased by (Korean) officers. He has a price on his head, and more money hidden somewhere on his body. Therefore, it would be a pity for them to toss him into the water.
That makes sense to the gullible men, who drop him off on land. (This is close to the same spot where he’d been picked up, because they’d merely been sailing back and forth while robbing him.) His captor can’t see any money hidden on his body, and Wang directs him toward his ankles, convincing him to cut the ropes on his feet. The guys aren’t so bright, so Wang uses the opportunity to kick him with his newly freed feet.
Because the thieves spent days wandering the river, Officer Gu is able to catch up, and his arrival forces Wang to run off hastily.
Gu is close behind as Wang jumps into a boat with a fisherman, but unable to apprehend him before Wang jumps into the water and disappears from sight.
Gu despairs that they lost Wang so close to the finish, but the fisherman reads his urgency and asks if it’s important that they catch the man. He grabs his net, casts it into the water, and drags Wang Hweng-bo in.
With two fugitives caught, Soo-ryun says with satisfaction that now only Iljimae is left. Officer Gu agrees, but a different meaning underlies his words: “Yes, we have to find Iljimae — and also his mother. I must make his mother meet her son.”
This is our first hint that Officer Gu — so righteous and dogged in the pursuit of justice — is acting out of his emotions. Perhaps Gu’s fixation — near-obsession — with finding Iljimae is his way of compensating for his inaction back when he wasn’t able to help Baek-mae.
Meanwhile, Iljimae continues training with Dal-yi’s father, gradually improving.
After watching the two men sparring, Dal-yi comments that she’s never seen her father looking so happy.
Although their early interactions were driven by the forward Dal-yi, Iljimae has grown more comfortable with her by now. He tells her that he’ll call her “Dal-nim” from now on, which is a pretty way of saying “moon.” She reminds him that she’s not named that kind of “dal,” but he doesn’t care: “To me, you’re Dal-nim.”
It’s not exactly a love declaration, but it’s an indication of his affection for her, and therefore an indirect way of making his feelings known.
A few months pass, but the time does nothing to dull Officer Gu’s obsession with finding Iljimae. He looks up police records for clues, and picks up on a few oddities, noting the case of the chicken thief who got away. Although only a hunch, Gu has a feeling about this case, and sets out to investigate — and if it turns out to be wrong, at least they’ll still be apprehending a thief.
Near the town where the theft was recorded, they come upon Dal-yi’s cave, where telltale chicken feathers and bones give this away as the thief’s hideaway. Looking nearby, the officers spot a house below, and decide to question its inhabitants.
The sudden intrusion into her home sends Dal-yi screaming. After she calms down — though she remains indignant at how they barged in — Dal-yi explains that she lives here with her father and Iljimae.
The name is unique enough to be remarkable; Gu asks where Iljimae went. Dal-yi answers that he’s out with her father looking for wild ginseng, and since the ginseng can only be procured deep in the mountains, it may be a while before they return.
Per her explanation, Iljimae and her father are currently high up in the mountainside, climbing steep rock and making their way deeper into the forest. After a long climb, they arrive at their destination.
I’m going to sound like a broken record when I say: Gahhh, Return of Iljimae is SO PRETTY, and omg the music is stunning.
Pretty pictures and songs can’t make something bad into something good — but when you’re working with something that’s pretty decent to begin with, they can enhance the experience. And when pictures/music are as outstanding as they are in this drama, we’re talking serious enhancement.
As for the characters, I appreciate this portrayal of Iljimae. Though on the cusp of manhood, he’s really more like a child, having lived a very sheltered life until now. Back in his life in China, he seemed a quiet, stoic person, but I don’t think he necessarily is one — he’s just never been challenged. Things didn’t stir him because he led a placid life until everything went topsy-turvy and set his adulthood in motion.
But not only is this an awakening on one level (childhood into adulthood), it coincides with a few other developments to make it a twofold (or threefold) awakening. We’ve also got Iljimae’s newness to Korea. As a stranger in a strange land, he views everything in Korea — the language, the customs, the fascinating curios — with wide-eyed wonder. He’s seeing his motherland through foreign eyes, waking up to aspects of his identity that have lain dormant thus far.
Then, we also have his growing awareness of the female sex. This is similar to the child-into-adult development, but I think they’re distinct in key ways: the former is reflected in his abandonment issues and his bitterness of not wanting children because he doesn’t know his purpose in life. The sexual awareness, on the other hand, is a pleasant discovery, tied in with Dal-yi’s naturalistic approach to life. (Like we get from the episode titles, Episode 3 describes Iljimae’s identity search as “Iljimae in a fury,” while Episode 4’s adolescent stirrings are “Iljimae in love.”)
So you put all these factors together at the same moment, and you have a very interesting portrait of a young man’s coming of age. Watching Jung Il-woo play Iljimae with a sense of childlike innocence — mixed with flashes of more adult conflicts and emotions — is like watching somebody wake up in front of your eyes. Or like witnessing an epiphany, as it happens. I find that fascinating.
- Return of Iljimae: Episode 3
- The Return of Iljimae premieres: Episodes 1 & 2
- Flower boy power
- Return of Iljimae sold to Japan
- Return of Iljimae meets the press
- Production forces overworked Jung Il-woo to rest
- More from The Return of Iljimae
- Jung Il-woo makes a surprising(ly hot?) Iljimae
- Iljimae readies for Round 2