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Return of Iljimae: Episode 8

I’m sure the obligatory cross-dressing scene was expected at some point; here, Jung Il-woo dons gisaeng clothing to show that his prettiness extends on both sides of the gender divide.

(Interestingly, I don’t know that he was too convincing as a female, which is ironic since he certainly looks the part. But it’s like I’ve said, Jung’s version of Iljimae may be refined and graceful, but he’s also got a masculine edge to him, which keeps him from seeming overly effeminate.)


Ladybird – “도시아이” (City Child). Ladybird is my latest infatuation. She sings, songwrites, plays the piano. She’s kind of like a female Yiruma, or a Ryuichi Sakamoto who sings, but jazzier and more intimate. LOVE. (Particularly when she scat-sings at the end.) [ Download ]

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EPISODE 8: “The man in the black mask”

We start this episode with quite a bit of story setup and talky-talk. Basically, it boils down to this: An undercover government investigator is on the trail of an illegal smuggling operation between Korean and Qing traders. Before he is able to alert anyone about his findings, however, the inspector is killed by a violent assassin.

Back in Hanyang, the nobleman below on the right, Kim Ja-jum, talks about the murder of the investigator with his cronies. This segues into a discussion on politics and Joseon’s tenuous relationship with Qing, whom they fear may soon invade.

Kim Ja-jum, having aided the current king’s rise to power, is a government minister with a thirst for greater power. He also feigns ignorance when the murder is mentioned, not giving away what we find out next: that he hired the assassin. It’s clear he’s cooking up some sort of plot (we know he’s evil from his maniacal cackle, but we’ll have to wait to see how this plays out). For now, he lovingly gropes a chest of gold bars, which he will trade for power (I’m presuming) when Korea is invaded.

Kim also comments to his servant that he’s being watched very closely, which means he must move carefully.

I mentioned two rival gangs; they are named Bongsuni (helpfully color-coded in reddish clothing) and Haedongchung (mostly blue). Red Gang, who have employed the giant Bulgasari (or Bulgasal), hear that the police force is bringing back Officer Gu from exile. With crime rampant in the capital, his leadership is needed again, and officers are sent to retrieve him.

To intercept them, the Bongsuni group sets up a roadblock to the officers. Outnumbered and overpowered, the officers are easily beaten.

And then, the man in black appears. (I hadn’t realized just how slowly this episode got started until I saw Iljimae’s appearance and was greatly relieved.)

With only the blunt end of his scabbard, Iljimae quickly works his way through the crowd, downing each man with one swift jab at a pressure point. (Their delayed reactions, while not exactly comedic, is an example of this drama’s dry sense of humor, as opposed to slapstickery.) Bulgasari underestimates Iljimae, thinking he can take him easily, but instead winds up knocked unconscious.

Iljimae instructs the downed policemen to hurry on with their mission before the giant awakens — the sooner Officer Gu is back, the better.

(And this pic’s just because Jung Il-woo is TOO pretty. He reminds me a lot of his High Kick big bro, Kim Hye-sung, here. Though perhaps manlier.)

Word spreads within the prison that Officer Gu is being brought back from exile, which spurs Wang Hweng-bo to hasten his plans for escape. He has a much better chance of making a break for it without Gu around.

He escapes with two of his cellmates, and Wang finds to his glee that all his leg exercises in prison have paid off: he can now walk (more or less) like a normal person.

His accomplices belong to the Bongsuni gang, and now they make their way back to headquarters, where they present Wang as a helpful addition to the team.

Although Wang Hweng-bo ruffles some feathers with his personality (he’s arrogant and likes to show off), he’s accepted into the group. For one, he is skilled in the martial arts, which he demonstrates to the thieves.

Gu Ja-myung returns one month later, too late to catch Wang Hweng-bo but eagerly welcomed back by all the other officers. He immediately sets to work, trying to shut down both bands of thieves.

And now, we’re all caught up, chronologically, to the events of Episode 1, when Iljimae fought the giant one-on-one. We don’t see the fight again, but we understand that it has recently occurred. Rampant rumors suggest that the mysterious Iljimae was really the one responsible for Bulgasari’s defeat instead of the police, and the talk is fueled by Cha-dol’s repeated retelling of his eyewitness account (in which he exaggerates his own role in the fight).

Wol-hee asks if Cha-dol has managed to meet Iljimae yet. Cha-dol answers no; he’s been looking for him everywhere, but has been unsuccessful.

Cha-dol asks why Wol-hee’s so eager to meet Iljimae, and what relation they are to each other. She answers, “Three years ago, we met very briefly.” Cha-dol reads between the lines and teases her for harboring feelings three years after a so-called “brief” meeting. Wol-hee explains, “The look in his eye was like an abandoned animal. I can’t forget it.”

As Wol-hee walks, off, Cha-dol says to himself that Wol-hee doesn’t look like a good match for Iljimae (and I burst out laughing when he mutters that her face is too round).

Wol-hee is still doing transcribing work for the booklender, which is a thriving business, aided by such popular stories as Hong Gil Dong and the Three Kingdoms making the rounds. Naturally, her uncle is still unhappy about this; not only does he dislike the idea of her working for a living, he pressures her to marry. It worries him that she’s working, single, and living alone.

As he often does, Cha-dol again tells his story of Iljimae’s fight to a captive audience, not knowing that Iljimae stands at the edge of the crowd, listening. Cha-dol catches a glimpse of him — dressed as a gisaeng — and recognizes it as a familiar face, but can’t place how he knows it.

Bae Sun-dal finds Cha-dol telling stories and chases the boy to scold him for not doing as instructed — namely, keeping his eyes peeled for Iljimae. Which, of course, he says as he pulls Cha-dol away from the disguised Iljimae.

As for the reason to this disguise? Iljimae has two goals: First, to observe quietly and get a sense for the current state of affairs, and second, in hopes that he will hear something about his mother.

He’s unlucky with the latter, but successful with the former: Under the guise of “Hong-mae,” Iljimae is assigned to attend to the leader of the Bongsuni gang, who is meeting with an informant. He pretends to be hard of hearing so that the men lower their guard, and talk in his presence about their plans to intercept a gold-bearing merchant on the road. This man has recently been converting all his possessions to gold and transporting it out of Hanyang, and it’s been speculated that he is working under the instructions of someone higher. (I’m guessing that Kim Ja-jum, knowing he is being observed, has gotten others to carry out his bidding so he is not implicated.)

Next, Iljimae sneaks in to eavesdrop on Bongsuni headquarters as they discuss the merchant target.

Haivng learned that Blue Gang, aka Haedongchung, is also planning on stealing the gold, Bongsuni plan to use this information to their advantage.

And now for Wol-hee. She doesn’t really expect Iljimae to come see her but harbors hopes that he will. So when he finally does show up at her door without warning, with a friendly smile, she approaches slowly, gladdened but also unsure how to react.

Although I’ve been expecting this meeting and the outcome is no surprise, the director is a master at building the moment: This is how you do tension right.

Both are glad to see each other — a little uncertain, a little restrained by propriety and politeness. Wol-hee invites him in and they sit together, first making a bit of small talk. He tells her she’s gotten prettier; she says HE’s gotten prettier. Seeing an instrument in the room (a wolgeum, or lute), Iljimae asks Wol-hee to play it for him. He watches intently as she does, and after she stops, he slowly sets it aside.

I appreciate that this drama approaches sex in a lovely, unpretentious way — it’s not sensationalized, or even romanticized. The little awkward beats are kept in — this is their first night together, after all. And most pleasantly, there is no overarching moralizing tone, no judgmental message — it’s just part of the story. (In that, it reminds me of Coffee Prince.) It’s really refreshing.

Iljimae then asks Wol-hee for a favor; there’s something he needs to hide out of plain sight and would like her to hold for him.

Officer Gu drops in on Bae Sun-dal to thank him for helping Soo-ryun in the past. He also has a question to pose, having heard of the incident involving Bulgasari blocking the road. Gu speculates whether the black-masked man who had stopped him could have been Iljimae. For some reason, Gu has a feeling that Iljimae’s involved somehow, although he can’t understand his possible motives.

Talk of Iljimae’s sword triggers Bae’s memory of the handguard, which was designed in an unusual way — vaguely like a ninja sword. They wonder what Iljimae has been up to, and if he could have picked up these skills in the years he’s been away. (Bae and Cha-dol, eager to learn as much about Iljimae as they can, ask Gu for details on his childhood, which Gu deflects for another time.)

Now, for the ambush. The merchant and his caravan travel on the road, accompanied by hired guards — one of whom is a disguised Haedongchung thief. When the group pauses for a break, a surprise attack is launched, killing everyone in the party.

The thieves seize the trunks of gold bars… which is when the Bongsuni gang jumps in. Rumble!

Red fights blue — so nice of them to stay color-coordinated for ease of identification — and Red wins, but just barely. When the fight is over, only three Bongsuni members are left standing.

Iljimae plays it smart, waiting above in the treetops until the fight is over. When the three Reds start to head out, Iljimae steps in. Seeing that it’s three against one, they disregard his warning to drop the loot; two of them attack, only to be quickly brought down. The third reaches for bow and arrow, but Iljimae is quicker with his shuriken. Leaving the thief injured and immobile, Iljimae leaves with the gold.

He takes the chests to Wol-hee’s home for safekeeping, where she gasps at the sight of all the gold. But I suppose she accepts that Iljimae has his reasons for stealing from thieves, and helps him.

Meanwhile, news of the gang fight has reached town (along with rumors that Iljimae has again resurfaced).

Kim Ja-jum — who is the mastermind in this plot — is enraged to hear that the gold has been confiscated. His servant reports that it seems as though Bongsuni has taken it, but it’s unconfirmed which gang has possession. Kim screams that they must recover the gold.

At Bongsuni headquarters, the surviving thief reports back, defending his failure to secure the gold. The black-masked figure interfered and struck him with a shuriken, which he shows to the leader.

While everyone tries to guess who the man in black is, Wang Hweng-bo has a vague inkling that it may be Iljimae. It’s just a hunch, because the Iljimae he knows wasn’t trained as a ninja, but he has a feeling. The boss vows that they must find the Black Masked Man, no matter what.

I love this next sequence, because the little moments between Wol-hee and Iljimae are true to life, but cute too.

Right away, Iljimae turns his attention to the gold. Using his blacksmith experience, he sets up a metalworking apparatus and an oven to treat the metal, growing so absorbed in his work that Wol-hee, whom he sends around on errands, sighs repeatedly at being neglected.

Wol-hee even tries testing him out, pouting, “I’d be in trouble if I married a man like you.” She’s dejected becaue he doesn’t even seem to notice her, remaining fixated on his work instead. But he’s not completely unaware of her presence, and once he sets up his apparatus, he turns his attention back to Wol-hee.

Some time later, as the metal is melting, Iljimae explains to Wol-hee that it’s almost ready for the next step. He can tell from how the metal is boiling away, and Wol-hee responds, “That’s how I feel inside.” It’s an unexpectedly sweet line, and Iljimae looks at her in surprise, then smiles.

Finally, when the gold is ready, Iljmae begins the last phase — pouring it into molds. When he takes out the gold, it’s been reborn into his signature plum blossom.


(I remember having a discussion about Boys Before Flowers regarding Ji-hoo’s lack of… oomph. Kim Hyun-joong has been defended by some who say his character is supposed to be quiet and withdrawn. I agree, but I don’t think those things preclude emotion and intensity; Iljimae is also quiet and withdrawn — but, well, just look at Jung Il-woo’s eyes.)

I’ll admit, though, that this was the first episode of Return of Iljimae that felt a little off. It had its noteworthy moments — all the Wol-hee and Iljimae scenes, for instance — but it felt like it was setting up plot points for the future, to kick off he next round of stories. The gangs, the plots, the evil minister, etc… And because of all the info-dump scenes that were required to do that, the individual episode suffered a little.

The episode was still good — I just think I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that it wasn’t on the same level as the first seven excellent ones. (Or, to be more precise, the previous six excellent ones; Episode 1 was a little unsure, too.)

But that just means I’m glad I can jump right into the next two episodes.

And like I said, the scenes between Iljimae and Wol-hee were really wonderful. That first reunion scene pretty much encapsulates what the series is about — it’s a Big Moment, and we feel just how big it is, but it’s played small. So much tension and palpable nervous energy run through that scene when all they’re doing is staring at each other and moving closer together, but it really works. And later, when Wol-hee is reluctantly relegated to the backseat while Iljimae works, well, those are yet more small moments that feel part of something bigger. I really love this relationship and how it’s developing.


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