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Return of Iljimae: Episode 11

What a great episode.

It hit all the right elements — humor, pathos, sadness, hope, and oh yeah, action. (Was that a cool fight scene or what?)


Jang Yoon-ju – “Fly Away.” I mentioned before how Korean supermodel Jang Yoon-ju was putting out a solo album (she songwrites on it), and was curious how it would go because I knew she was a music fan who liked to sing. Turns out her album’s pretty good — it, like her voice, is not mind-blowing, but worth the money if you like pretty, gentle melodies with a tinge of melancholy. [ Download ]

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EPISODE 11: “Moonlight fight”

At the mention of her son, Baek-mae’s initial stunned silence gives way to cynicism; she flatly denies the truth even as Gu Ja-myung’s recites her past, of how she was forced to give up her baby. To convince her, Gu tells her how her son wasn’t reared gently but left out to die in the cold. Luckily, he was rescued and grew up with the name Iljimae; also, Gu may have found him.

Baek-mae reacts with a mix of hope and despair — how can she be sure that he’s found the right person, that Iljimae is her son? When Gu Ja-myung recites the poem she had left with the baby, she finally believes him, although she is overwhelmed with guilt at the thought that she had been wrong all these years, thinking her son was given a safe and comfortable upbringing.

I love this shot of Soo-ryun below as she stays at a respectful distance; it’s all in the eyes. She overhears as Gu agrees to Baek-mae’s request to arrange a meeting with her son, and then looks on in stricken silence when Gu adds, “And when I bring Ilijmae to you, I would like to become his father.”

The admission takes Baek-mae by surprise; he continues, “Let me care for you and Iljimae.” Baek-mae thinks he’s pitying her, finding it difficult to believe he has harbored feelings over 20 years. Gu assures her that he’s in earnest: “I may have just seen you once twenty years ago, but in these twenty years, not a day went by that I did not think of you.”

Baek-mae answers pessimistically that it’s too late now, since she’s fallen so low — she doesn’t want to fool herself into thinking happiness exists when it doesn’t. Gu replies, “Happiness isn’t gone, it’s hanging on right here.”

He asks for an answer before he leaves. Baek-mae asks for time to think while he finds her son. When she has made up her mind, she will send word.

Back in Hanyang, Iljimae kicks off his career in noble thievery, and I mean “noble” in both senses of the word. Targeting corrupt noblemen and government officials, Iljimae sneaks into their homes at night and steals their ill-gotten gains.

Nobody knows who is behind the robberies, as the only marker of the thief’s activities is the golden plum blossom stalk he leaves behind as his calling card.

Bae Sun-dal worries that the defeat of the two largest band of bandits means that Iljimae will go into hiding or retirement, and worries that his Iljimae Jeon (chronicle of Iljimae) is over.

However, Cha-dol bursts in excitedly, bearing promising news of a new thief who is just coming to light — one who only robs from the immoral rich and leaves behind a golden plum branch. It must be Iljimae!

This following series of scenes depicts the plight of the downtrodden and poor, such as families who can’t afford to buy food or medicine, or to pay the proper filial respects to their deceased ancestors.

Iljimae sees their struggles and anonymously leaves a string of money and a golden plum branch outside each household, which they discover joyously. Word spreads that their unseen benefactor is the generous Iljimae (whom they all refer to as “Iljimae-nim” as a term of respect).

It’s a familiar sequence that I’ve also seen in other dramas — for instance, Hong Gil Dong had a very similar montage, and I’m pretty sure there was something of the sort in Strongest Chil Woo as well. But for whatever reason, the one here is done very well, in a very touching way

Learning of Iljimae’s signature plum blossom, Minister Kim is infuriated to hear that it’s likely Iljimae’s gold came from his own stolen stash, and nearly pops a gasket.

With Iljimae’s legend growing by the day, even Wang Hweng-bo is jealous of his popularity. He and the former Bongsuni leader have been reduced to hiding in rented rooms to stay out of trouble, and this leaves Wang Hweng-bo restless and bored. He ventures out on a reconnaissance mission, and his thieving instincts can’t pass up an opportunity to hit an easy mark — a man carrying a large pouch of money.

This chase scene may be a little frivolous, but it’s amusing — it’s like one of those mildly funny jokes that gets funnier the longer it goes on because it grows increasingly absurd. Wang Hweng-bo snatches the bag of money, and the victim doggedly chases him through town. Wang Hweng-bo is run ragged, and so frustrated at the man’s persistence that he confronts him in exasperation and forces the victim to pinky-swear (LOL) to stop following him.

The man continues chasing anyway, and Wang Hweng-bo wails that the guy broke his promise, and staggers back to safety in exhaustion. (Was it me, or was there a 놈놈놈 joke in there, too? That is to say, I think Wang makes a reference to The Good, The Bad, The Weird.)

When Wol-hee refers to Keol-chi as her father-in-law, he tells her that just because she and Iljimae live together doesn’t mean they’re married. Also, he speaks from experience when he cautions that Iljimae is a guy who might disappear at any moment.

This doesn’t seem to have really bothered Wol-hee before, but now that she thinks about it, he has a point. Without being married, she has no guarantee of Iljimae’s commitment to staying with her, and this starts to weigh on her mind.

Therefore, she’s in a touchy mood at dinner, muttering that Keol-chi ought to contribute to household expenses — and when Keol-chi says, “What about being your father-in-law?” she repeats his words back to him that he’s no father-in-law since she and Iljimae aren’t married.

At the word “marriage,” Iljimae chokes on his food, eyes looking around in alarm. (It is hilarious.) Keol-chi counters that they have no money to pay for expenses, so Wol-hee puts them both to work to earn their keep.

Wol-hee assigns them both to handling chores such as dishes, laundry, and grocery shopping.

As the men do the dishes, Iljimae wonders if he really ought to marry Wol-hee. Keol-chi wisely says that Wol-hee’s acting like this because she feels uncertain — Iljimae is all she has, and what will happen if he just up and leaves her one day?

Next they go shopping in the marketplace, where she looks over their purchases. (She goes for a strict demeanor but it’s obvious she’s actually enjoying herself — Wol-hee’s not actually angry; she’s just taking a little bit of control over the situation, which is why I think it’s cute and not annoying.)

It’s here that they witness a ruthless loan shark, Shim Chan-kyu, threatening a merchant with his debt.

The merchant begs for mercy, but Shim orders his men to beat up the man anyway. To give an idea of how unscrupulous he is, the man has borrowed a modest 30 nyang, but the interest is so outrageous that the amount has ballooned to a ridiculous 300 nyang.

The encounter with the loan shark provides Iljimae with his next target, so he sneaks out that night (as he does every night) to go on his next raid. He slips by a sleeping Keol-chi, but finds Wol-hee standing in the courtyard.

She’s in a despondent mood, and wonders sadly how they can keep living together when he sneaks out every night. Taking in her sadness, Iljimae thinks for a long moment, then says tentatively, “Wol-hee… let’s fix a date and get married.”

She doesn’t respond immediately, so he asks nervously if she doesn’t want to marry him. She hurriedly retorts, “Who said I didn’t want to?” and says she’ll think about it.

Heading to the home of the loan shark Shim Chan-kyu, Iljimae finds trunks of gold and riches, all earned through deceptive means, and a stack of papers — promissory notes for Shim’s debtors.

Shim awakens to see the golden plum branch, and it looks like he’s heard your comments, because he’s more than happy to have been given a valuable gold item. On the other hand, the one plum branch hardly compensates for the trunks of valuables that Iljimae takes. Worse yet are the debt bonds that Iljimae burns right in front of Shim.

Shim protests, but Iljimae threatens to twist Shim’s neck and not just his arm if he continues with his usury. Shim fearfully agrees to stop.

Iljimae slips out of the house, but Shim isn’t about to let him go so easily. He summons all his men, including a specially hired fighter (Warrior Seo), a large, burly soldier whose weapon of choice is a massive blade called a “wal-do” (moon knife).

Warrior Seo catches up to Iljimae, and the two face off a clash of swords.

Bae Sun-dal and Cha-dol, as usual, have followed Iljimae in hopes of witnessing more of his heroic acts. They ooh and ahh as the two warriors go at each other with their blades, leaping through the air as they strike and parry.

However, Bae and Cha-dol start worrying that Iljimae isn’t dominating the fight as much as they’ve come to expect of him. He holds his own, blocking each forceful strike of the wal-do, but he doesn’t seem to be doing much damage in return. Cha-dol frets — does this mean Iljimae is outmatched?

When Iljimae runs away, Cha-dol worries even more that he won’t be able to defeat this guy. Bae speculates that there’s another reason for Iljimae’s actions, and they follow the fight from the courtyard to an outdoor pavilion.

While the first part of this fight was a little stagey (nice, but the wire work could have been better), here the fight gets intense. Bae notices that Warrior Seo is being worn down — all weapons have their weaknesses, and Iljimae is working with his opponent’s. Namely, the wal-do is heavy and unwieldy, and to counter, Iljimae works the warrior in circles, confusing him, hitting and running. The larger man with the heavy blade barely has a chance to react in time and get his bearings.

Let me say, in this whole action sequence, Iljimae is just so cool. He’s barely winded, compared to the warrior, who pants heavily and staggers with exertion. Iljimae leaps head-first off the railing — Seo lumbers after — bringing the fight from the pavilion to the ground below.

By this point, the larger man is having trouble even holding his huge weapon up, much less swinging it with any accuracy. In the end, Iljimae doesn’t even need a weapon to bring Warrior Seo down — he strikes the bigger man in the chest with his bare hand, then jumps up, trapping him against a pillar with a kick. (Sweet!)

Cha-dol and Bae are practically squealing with joy because it’s so damn cool, and, well, so am I.

Armed with fresh news, Cha-dol again tells his story to an eager audience (and again gives himself a little too much credit — Cha-dol blusters that he shouted out advice, “Iljimae sir, remember all weapons have their weaknesses!”).

Now, the following is a scene that I love for all its unspoken messages. Soo-ryun, dressed in a woman’s hanbok rather than the mannish (or at least gender-neutral) damo clothing she usually wears, makes her way across town, stopping to look at a shop selling hair ornaments. She doesn’t buy anything and starts to walk off — then returns to purchase a hairpin.

She arrives at Gu Ja-myung’s house, reluctantly carrying a letter but not handing it over right away. He looks up in surprise from wallpapering a room and asks, “Why are you dressed up like a woman?” She answers, “I’m not dressing AS a woman, I am one.”

Gu laughs, having almost forgotten that fact — he obviously looks at her as trusted subordinate but never as a woman, to her dismay. He’s preparing for Baek-mae’s arrival, and when Soo-ryun reminds him that Baek-mae hasn’t given her answer yet, Gu admits, “If I don’t do something, I don’t think I could bear the wait.”

Soo-ryun hands over the letter, which is from the ginseng village. Immediately, Gu grabs it, knowing this is Baek-mae’s reply, and eagerly reads. The answer strikes him full force with anticipation and joy — Baek-mae has decided to accept his proposal, although her one worry is that Iljimae may not want to meet her. But if he does agree to a reunion, she would like to try a fresh start.

However, Officer Jung-tae brings word of a new robber about town, who steals from corrupt rich people and divides the spoils among the poor. The news has reached the authorities late because none of the victims reported the burglaries (probably because the stolen items were ill-begotten to begin with). Worse yet, the thief’s name is Iljimae.

In another scene I love (this episode has several), Iljimae and Keol-chi assist with the laundry (per their new chores), and the two men help Wol-hee hang clothing to dry. Wol-hee wonders if Iljimae is going to ask whether she’s decided to marry him, so he asks. She answers that she’s thought it over, and decided to agree.

Iljimae smiles a little, but his overall reaction is contained so she repeats, “I said I’d agree.” He smiles wider and nods, saying, “Thank you.”

And yet, Wol-hee’s expecting something a little more… well, more. His reaction is so minor that she’s a little miffed, and turns her attention to the laundry, shaking it out forcefully. Iljimae follows her down the laundry line and asks, “What’s wrong? I said thank you.” Wol-hee wants more of an answer (“Is that all?”).

Now it’s Iljimae’s turn to distract himself with laundry, moving away, and Wol-hee follows him down the line. She crosses to his side, prodding him to say something, so he crosses to the opposite side — and it’s this simple but really, really lovely clothesline choreography that gives this scene a living, moving feel. It’s remarkable how this drama can do that.

Maybe Iljimae doesn’t have more to say because he’s more conflicted than he’s letting on. For all he’s attached to Wol-hee and wants her in his life, there appears to be something holding him back, and he turns to the monk Yeol-gong for some guidance.

The monk tells him that since there are no family-related or political reasons in their case, marriage should be for two people who love each other. Does this mean that Wol-hee has entered his heart? Has he forgotten Dal-yi?

Iljimae looks startled at that question, and replies, “I want to protect Wol-hee. I was weak and couldn’t protect Dal-yi. But Wol-hee…”

But the monk cuts to the chase: “I asked if she’s entered your heart. Is Wol-hee taking Dal-yi’s place, then?” Iljimae doesn’t like that thought: “That’s not it.”

The monk leans in closer and addresses his chest: “Let’s ask it directly. Is the person in there Dal-yi, or Wol-hee?”

A bit nervously, Iljimae asks, “What does it say?”

The monk returns, “Why are you asking me about your heart?”


From reading the comments, it seems some people are following this drama here but not necessarily watching the episodes, which means that there is one huge element missing — the sense of this drama’s music! Which is outstanding. Well, Return of Iljimae isn’t the only drama to ever have good music — A Star’s Lover and Cain and Abel, for instance, both have nice scoring but don’t strike me in the same way. But Return of Iljimae‘s music, like its scenery and cinematography, somehow tap into the emotional vein of the drama and enhance the overall experience.

Take, for instance, the following bit from Episode 6 (I ripped the audio from the episode directly so there are some background sound effects). I don’t know that anyone would be interested in downloading the clip, but here’s the link anyway: [ Download ]

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Or, this clip from Episode 5: [ Download ]

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The reason I particularly liked the scene with Soo-ryun is because the meaning was all there in the structure and content of the scene, but it wasn’t necessarily spelled out in plain words. Soo-ryun, for no explained reason, suddenly appears wearing women’s garb when she’s never done so before. She is distracted by the sight of a pretty hairpin, and although she never wears them, is swayed into buying one. When she arrives bearing the letter for Gu Ja-myung, we realize that she knows she’s carrying Baek-mae’s response, and although she has never made her love for Gu clear, it’s in everything she does — she’s trying one last time to attract his attention as a woman, hoping that he’ll notice her before Baek-mae’s answer overshadows all else.

None of this is stated, of course — but the gesture is that much sadder for its lack of verbalization. Soo-ryun is destined to pine in the background, in silence, and so her last-ditch attempt to win Gu’s attention is in keeping with her character. It’s also futile, but still, she hopes. And I really, really appreciate that this drama trusts its viewership to make this connection on our own rather than hammering in the point.

Same with the clothesline ballet — it’s really refreshing to see the choreography of this scene, with Wol-hee’s and Iljimae’s dancing around the clothesline representing how they’re dancing around the topic of their courtship, never in one place for too long, the balance first tilting in one direction, then sliding back in the other. Because, as with life, relationships aren’t ever static for long. LOVE. This. Scene.


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