Return of Iljimae: Episode 12
Another reliably solid episode, and some signs of shifting relationship dynamics. What this drama does well (among so many other things) is knowing just when to change things up — not so suddenly that we feel jerked around by plot, but not so slowly that we’re grinding our teeth in frustration.
SONG OF THE DAY
The Black Skirts / 검정치마 – “Tangled.” This song (and band) is awesome. If you aren’t listening that closely, you could almost mistake them for a Brit-rock or an American hipster-indie band… until you realize in the second verse that something is off when the lyrics switch into Korean. The Black Skirts started (and broke up) in New York, after which lead singer (and main songwriter) Jo Hyu-il returned to Korea and re-formed the band with the current members. [ Download ]
EPISODE 12: “Mysterious man”
His visit to the monk Yeol-gong has forced Iljimae to examine his feelings with uncomfortable scrutiny, so that night, Iljimae dreams of Dal-yi. At first, the dreams consist of pleasant memories of happier times spent with Dal-yi, and he repeatedly murmurs in his sleep that “It’s warm.” But the scenes turn ominous when Dream Dal-yi disappears, leaving Iljimae alone… and he wakes up in the cave, troubled.
He’d spent the night in the cave, and back at home, both Wol-hee and Keol-chi wonder where Iljimae goes at night. He never tells them, but they both reason that he must be safe enough. It’s cute how Keol-chi grumbles about continuing his chores — he thinks that since Wol-hee agreed to marry Iljimae, he (as her “father-in-law”) shouldn’t have to work anymore, but she’s not letting him off the hook.
When Iljimae returns home, Wol-hee greets him cheerily, assuming that he’s late because he spent a lot of time chatting with the monk. If she notices that Iljimae’s subdued and distracted, she doesn’t comment on it; instead, she asks what Yeol-gong had to say about their decision to marry.
Iljimae starts to answer honestly, seeming for a moment that he might admit the whole messy truth — but then he stops himself, and replies that the monk thinks it’s a good idea.
In town, Wang Hweng-bo is having problems of his own; digestive troubles send him repeatedly to the outhouse clutching his tummy in pain. While in his vulnerable condition, he’s spotted by the man he’d stolen from, and must make his hasty escape.
Determined to recover his stolen pouch of money, the victim grabs the police and brings them to Wang Hweng-bo’s rented room. Wang himself is hiding around the corner, but the police find his partner, the ex-Bongsuni leader, who has the money pouch on him. The police start to drag the ex-gang leader off, so Wang jumps in and rescues the boss.
It’s a hoot how exasperated Wang Hweng-bo is with his pursuer, as though the victim was the one who started the fight. Wang returns the money and begs the man not to follow him anymore.
Iljimae continues to be aloof and quiet when he, Keol-chi, and Wol-hee head into town to browse a clothing shop. Wol-hee keeps up a pleasant stream of talk as they look around, but Iljimae isn’t in the mood for shopping, and turns away.
She tries to engage him in conversation, then asks (a bit heartbreakingly), “Did I do something wrong?” I’m not sure if Iljimae would have answered her if they weren’t interrupted — I’m inclined to think not — but in any case, they’re distracted by a commotion. A nobleman is being arrested.
Something about this strikes Iljimae as fishy, and he heads off to find out more about the situation. Wol-hee grumbles that he’s already helping the poor — does he have to get involved in everything?
(What I like about Wol-hee is that even as she’s complaining, it doesn’t come off ungrateful or possessive. I think she has a point, and though she may have a moment of petulance, it’s like she’s the realistic half of the relationship, and this balances out Iljimae’s purely idealistic half).
Here’s the deal. The man being arrested is the nobleman Choi Sae-woon (above right). The man on the left is his former friend, another powerful nobleman, Sohn Seok-joo. Their conflict boils down to this: Sohn is a greedy meanie, and Choi is the betrayed nice guy. You could probably deduce that from their pictures alone.
Sohn wants to marry Choi’s pretty and young daughter, Kyung-ok; her loving father opposes. In retaliation, Sohn has his ex-friend investigated for dirt, but as he doesn’t really find much, he twists facts to his advantage. By distorting a conversation in which Choi expressed revolutionary ideas for reform, he accuses him of being a traitor.
As a result, Choi is accused of plotting a conspiracy, and dragged off. His absence allows Sohn the opportunity to claim daughter Kyung-ok for himself.
Iljimae learns of this, and gets to work meting out justice in what is frankly one of his easier tasks in a while. He “happens to” walk past Choi’s home as a gang of henchmen hired by Sohn are lurking in front. Because they are on the job and acting as lookout, they try their best to let Iljimae go. However, Iljimae is the master at passive-aggressively engaging these simple thugs in a verbal argument, knowing just how to push their buttons to incite a fight (while making it seem like THEY’re the ones picking the fight).
The leader repeatedly tries to control his temper and let Iljimae go, but Iljimae won’t back down. Maintaining a pleasant surface demeanor, he pushes the others into losing their temper. The conclusion is inevitable.
lljimae wins the brief fight that breaks out, just as a woman screams nearby. The rest of the gang has succeeded in kidnapping the girl, so Iljimae follows them into the woods.
Iljimae waits for his moment to step in, but doesn’t get the chance — another mysterious man emerges to stop the petty gangsters. He carries a bow and quiver of arrows, but he sneers that these guys don’t even merit arrows, and beats them down merely using his bow.
The beaten kidnappers scurry off, and the mysterious man addresses Iljimae, saying that he is here merely as helper. Hearing this, Iljimae is uncomfortable that the man knows his identity when Iljimae doesn’t know his. For all he knows, the Mysterious Archer could be working for anyone.
Pressed to give a name, the man calls himself Yang-po, and reminds him that Iljimae has more pressing business to address. Yang-po indicates the kidnapped girl, then leaves.
The girl is Kyung-ok, Choi’s daughter, whom Iljimae frees. Needing a place to keep her safe, he takes her to his mountain cave, where she can stay until he can free her father.
Telling Kyung-ok to stay put, Iljimae heads out in his ninja garb to find out more information for his rescue mission. Outside nobleman Sohn’s home, he eavesdrops on the conversation between Sohn and his thwarted henchmen, who relay the details of their foiled kidnapping attempt. Speculating that the culprit is the infamous Iljimae, Sohn orders his men to catch him.
Iljimae returns to the cave to check in on Kyung-ok. Feeling pretty sure that he will be able to rescue her father tomorrow, Iljimae figures she should stay here for the night, and starts to leave. However, in addition to being timid, Kyung-ok seems like a very young thing, and she pleads with Iljimae to stay with her. She’s scared to be alone, convinced that she heard large, fierce beasts prowling outside.
Iljimae tries to explain that there are people waiting for him at home, but Kyung-ok is so afraid that he ends up staying in the cave.
It’s something of an awkward night on both ends; Iljimae keeps Wol-hee and Keol-chee worried back at home, while Kyung-ok is developing a crush on Iljimae and therefore is rendered uncomfortable at the awareness of his proximity. Unable to sleep, she passes the night nervously, both of them remaining silent.
In the morning, Iljimae brings Kyung-ok home and asks Wol-hee and Keol-chi to look after the girl. (He’s got to keep her somewhere safe while he works to rescue her father.)
Wol-hee isn’t thrilled about the young, pretty newcomer, but she accepts the task uncomplainingly.
As the girl eats, Wol-hee asks if she’d spent the whole night together with Iljimae. Kyung-ok answers straightforwardly that yes, they were together in a cave in the mountains. Then the girl asks, with some hesitation, what Wol-hee’s relationship is to Iljimae. Although Wol-hee’s tone is even, I have to think she takes a little satisfaction in answering that she’s going to marry Iljimae. The girl’s face falls at this answer.
In the meantime, there’s another nobleman who’s dying for some revenge — the corrupt moneylender from the previous episode, Shim Chan-kyu. Having been robbed of all his (dirty) money, Shim is bloodthirsty to punish Iljimae, and has his servants drag Cha-dol from the marketplace for questioning. As usual, the boy is busily telling his elaborate Iljimae stories to anyone who will listen.
Cha-dol is taken to Shim’s house and tied up, where he is shown a frightening array of torture implements. Threatening all sorts of creative punishments, Shim demands to know where Iljimae is, figuring that Cha-dol must have some information since he has so many first-hand stories.
To his credit, Cha-dol refuses to give up any information — he insists he knows nothing and begs for mercy. Shim picks up a heated iron and uses it to scorch Cha-dol’s leg, then threatens to burn a hole in the boy’s face…
Shim orders his men to attack, but they all quake in fear, having heard all about Iljimae’s ability to kick some ass. There’s a really funny moment when the men start to approach, but stop abruptly when Iljimae holds one shuriken up in warning. Shim hides behind Cha-dol and barks out that it’s only one shuriken — once he throws it, the rest of the guys will be safe from harm… and so Iljimae brandishes a whole set of shurikens. Haha.
In any case, the following fight is short and easily won. Iljimae unties Cha-dol, then approaches Shim menacingly with the branding iron. Shim cowers in fear, and when Iljimae orders the man to remove his shoes and lick them, Shim complies. Iljimae warns that the instant he stops licking, he’ll get a hole burned into his neck.
Cha-dol thanks Iljimae for saving him once again, and is proud of himself for refusing to reveal any information. Iljimae smiles in amusement, but he tells the boy that he shouldn’t go around blabbing stories about him anymore — or follow him around at night, either.
When Cha-dol was dragged off, Bae had rushed to enlist Gu Ja-myung’s help, so the police arrive just as Iljimae leaves. Cha-dol assures Bae that he’s fine, and that Iljimae saved him — which gets the attention of Gu, who asks why Shim wanted Cha-dol.
Now that Cha-dol has been reminded not to talk about Iljimae, he keeps the truth to himself and waves it off as nothing. Bae catches on, and excuses Cha-dol’s chatter as being nonsense.
Gu doesn’t believe those excuses, but what can he do? He arrives at Shim’s household to find the injured men still scattered on the ground, and Shim still fearfully licking his shoe.
Officer Gu pretty much guesses the truth — that Shim had earned money illegally and had lost it to Iljimae — but naturally, Shim doesn’t admit it, saying that this was the first time he’d ever laid eyes on Iljimae. He insists that the only reason he had been looking for Iljimae in the first place is because the police were doing such a terrible job in apprehending him that he thought he’d lend a hand. How generous of him!
Now, it’s time to recover Kyung-ok’s unjustly accused father. Iljimae once again dons his gisaeng identity as Hong-mae, and strikes a deal with another gisaeng to switch places for an upcoming assignment.
Thus he’s able to finagle his way into the party being held at Sohn’s home that evening.
I think it’s hilarious how much male attention Iljimae tends to attract when he’s in female clothing — the guy is pretty enough as a male, but to be equally pretty as a female? Well, now that’s just unfair.
It doesn’t faze Iljimae, though; actually, it probably helps. The man he is assigned to serve makes a pass at Iljimae/Hong-mae, to which Hong-mae replies suggestively that s/he’s flattered. The man cozies up to him, so Iljimae strikes him in a pressure point to knock him unconscious. Everyone else interprets this as a simple drunken blackout.
Since the person he was assigned to serve is out cold, Iljimae rises and makes his way outside, as though leaving the property for the night. On the way out, a lone guard asks him to keep him company — he’s stuck outside all night while everyone else gets to party inside, and he could use the “companionship.”
He says this with a leer, and Iljimae — playing the consummate coy gisaeng role to the hilt — plays hard to get. Naturally this makes the guy want him even more, and the guard suggests a tryst. Iljimae says bashfully, “Not outside!” and the guard perks up — does that mean they can hook up inside?
Iljimae indicates a locked shed nearby, and the guard wastes no time fumbling for the lock to comply. Men are such horny bastards.
After knocking the guard unconscious, Iljimae discards his gisaeng disguise, and enters the locked storeroom to find the missing Nobleman Choi.
This episode had a relatively simple plot, but what I like is how Iljimae’s inner turmoil is still what drives the action. We aren’t given a deep look into the Dal-yi/Wol-hee dilemma (I sense this is set-up for the next episode or two), but we can see the conflict roiling inside Iljimae — even in completely unrelated scenes. This is an aspect to Return of Iljimae that I love.
For instance, there’s the obvious choice to have Iljimae acting disengaged and cool with Wol-hee herself. This is understandable and necessary to show his inner struggle, no problem with that. But then we also see Iljimae’s frustrations bubbling up in other, totally unrelated ways, such as when he fights the kidnappers outside Choi’s home. Iljimae has always been good at playing on his opponents’ psyches, making the most of their mental weaknesses as well as their physical ones. But here, he seemed almost… mean, because he seems to cross the line from righteous masked avenger into taunter.
He actually enjoys picking this fight — you get the impression he’s just itching to beat someone up. He’s dying to take out his frustration on the bad guys, since he’s unable to direct his anger inward, at his own inability to figure out his feelings for Dal-yi versus Wol-hee. He could so easily disarm these kidnappers with cool efficiency, but he enjoys toying with them, like a cat taunting a mouse.
I wish more dramas were able to express their conflicts in multiple layers like this; alas, it seems like most productions are so afraid we won’t Get The Point that they choose instead to beat us over the head with their themes.
- Return of Iljimae: Episode 11
- Jung Il-woo is happiest with script in hand
- Return of Iljimae: Episode 10
- Return of Iljimae: Episode 9
- Return of Iljimae: Episode 8
- Return of Iljimae: Episode 7
- Return of Iljimae: Episode 6
- Return of Iljimae: Episode 5
- Return of Iljimae: Episode 4
- Return of Iljimae: Episode 3
- The Return of Iljimae premieres: Episodes 1 & 2
- Flower boy power
- Return of Iljimae sold to Japan