Not only was this a great episode, I could feel the tension building for the future, promising a whole slew of great episodes to follow this one. It’s a wonderful (and remarkable) thing to have faith that a drama will deliver.
A lot of times, even a very strong series may falter toward the end. Even when it doesn’t, there’s always that uncertainty whether the good streak will last. But Return of Iljimae, to me, has established its credibility and I have faith that this drama will continue to execute its story with delicacy and heart.
SONG OF THE DAY
Ladybird – “돌아설 수 없는 이유” (The Reason I Can’t Turn Away). Several recaps ago (it was Episode 8, to be exact), I posted about how I’m in love with the new singer-songwriter-pianist Ladybird. Here’s one more reason why. [ Download ]
EPISODE 13: “Moon river”
Bad guy Sohn’s warehouse is emptied of both the imprisoned nobleman Choi and its treasures. Taken to safety, Choi thanks Iljimae profusely for his help, while daughter Kyung-ok looks longingly in his direction.
That night, Kyung-ok mumbles Iljimae’s name in her sleep, then stirs awake to realize that Wol-hee has overheard. Rather than making excuses, Kyung-ok takes the direct approach and asks Wol-hee about Iljimae, such as how he came by such an unusual name.
Her questions put Wol-hee ill at ease, particularly since Wol-hee doesn’t know the answer. Kyung-ok remarks in her sly, petulant sort of way how odd that is — isn’t she curious? How could she be engaged to marry a man and not know that? If it were her, she’d have found out for sure.
Kyung-ok is an annoying girl, but I like this flash of realism in her character — she’s like a jealous little sister who won’t ever have a chance at Big Sis’s boyfriend, but that won’t stop her from making snippy little comments to undermine the relationship.
Wol-hee steps outside to find that Iljimae has set up his blankets in the hearth area rather than his bedroom. He’d thought it would be more comfortable for Choi to not crowd the room.
Wol-hee is a little bothered by Kyung-ok’s insinuations, so she says that it’s odd that Iljimae has bothered to do that when he’d spent all night with Kyung-ok in the cave. He laughs, telling her that he’d spent the night outside.
When she asks about his meeting with the monk, Iljimae starts to confess what Yeol-gong had said about Dal-yi… but he stops himself, then asks her to play the lute instead.
I really love this shot. It also makes a subtle point, how listening to Wol-hee’s lute-playing is Iljimae’s way of reminding himself why he fell for Wol-hee; it’s something she has that differentiates her from Dal-yi.
After she plays for him, they pass the time reading each other’s palms, teasing each other about how many children they’ll supposedly have (not necessarily together; they’re jokingly counting the lines in their hands).
Still, his nightmares return, and Iljimae is visited by more memories of Dal-yi’s execution. His agitated sleep-muttering worries Wol-hee, who wakes him up. Although he says he’s fine, he’s in a cold sweat and his temper is short; he knocks her hand aside when she raises it to his brow in concern.
Morning means it’s time for Choi and his daughter to head out. Choi thanks Iljimae and readies to go, but Kyung-ok, in a sulky mood, makes no move to join him.
Guessing the issue, Wol-hee addresses the girl, figuring that she’s suffering from a crush on Iljimae. Kyung-ok admits the truth, and surprises everyone by pleading to be allowed to stay on: “I know I shouldn’t say this, but if not for Iljimae, I would have been trampled by Sohn Seok-joo and killed. Let me be with Iljimae.”
Choi is more than willing to take Iljimae for his son-in-law, and eyes turn to fiancée Wol-hee, who answers that Kyung-ok should ask the man himself. Iljimae doesn’t answer the question; instead, he suggests that the two hurry on their way.
Choi is disappointed but accepts this; Kyung-ok isn’t as willing and hangs behind sullenly.
Iljimae points Choi in the right direction, as they will be leaving Hanyang for less dangerous ground, for Choi’s own safety. Iljimae informs the nobleman that he’ll punish Sohn appropriately, and gives him some money for his journey.
When Kyung-ok continues to drag her feet, Iljimae tells her matter-of-factly what he intends to do: he will kill Sohn Seok-joo, slice him up and feed him to the dogs. This is the kind of person he is, so she’s best off going along with her father.
Wol-hee laughs when she hears this, because she thinks he went too far making up an extreme lie to scare her off. After all, she would have preferred he just said honestly that she (Wol-hee) is the only woman for him.
Iljimae doesn’t find the situation funny, however; although his intention in telling Kyung-ok those things was to frighten her, it wasn’t a lie. He really does mean to kill Sohn. Wol-hee is startled and perturbed at this.
Officer Gu has ordered his policemen to keep a close eye on Bae and Cha-dol in case they lead to more hints about Iljimae. This stems from Gu’s fatherly sense of concern — he must stop Iljimae from continuing his raids on rich noblemen, corrupt or not, because that can only end badly. Baek-mae is on her way to Hanyang to join Gu, and he wants to be able to find her son by then.
That means Cha-dol and Bae find themselves stuck at home, because if they go out looking for Iljimae, they might inadvertently get him caught. They’re dying for gossip about their hero, though, so when a salt peddler arrives at their gate, they eagerly prod him for information.
The peddler has heard some whisperings, because his friend is one of the servants in Sohn’s household — but he registers their eagerness for gossip, and withholds it until they promise to buy large amounts of salt in exchange for info. They reluctantly buy salt, and the peddler shares that Choi escaped from Sohn’s clutches, thanks to Iljimae’s rescue.
Yeol-gong is appalled at Iljimae’s decision to kill Sohn. He cautions Iljimae that even if his intentions are good, he must restrain himself. Iljimae remains quietly convicted that he’s chosen the right path — it’s not that he’s bloodthirsty or takes pleasure in killing, but that he honestly thinks that his is the best way to rid the world of a person who does so much harm to other, innocent people.
He tells Yeol-gong of the lesson he learned from Dal-yi’s (adoptive) father, that one finds “the way of a person through a person, the way of the sword by sword, and fighting through fighting.” Hence he has learned all his martial arts skills to fight this kind of evil.
The monk retorts that he ought not deceive himself with lies — that’s just an excuse for him to act on his self-interest. Iljimae wonders blankly, what possible self-interest could he have in killing Sohn? The monk challenges, “Have you not realized it yet? Or are you pretending not to know?”
As he prepares to leave that night, Wol-hee asks if he must go — she’s afraid. Isn’t there any other way to claim justice? She says, “I know why you’re doing this. Why you have to.”
For what it’s worth, I think Iljimae knows too, but the concept hasn’t made its way into conscious thought, so he hasn’t put words to it yet. That’s why he is surprised when Wol-hee tells him: “This is because of Dal-yi.”
That stops him, and they sit down for a talk. Wol-hee reminds him of his first words to her — he’d called her Dal-yi. When he had left after their first meeting, she couldn’t forget him or the name he’d called her. Worried that he’d been captured, she had kept her ears open for news, and learned that a girl named Dal-yi had been unjustly executed.
Wol-hee: “It’s because of her, that girl who looks like me, that you’re afraid someone else will die a wrongful death. That’s what you’re afraid of.”
Iljimae: “Yes. Dal-yi died because of a conspiracy plot. She died not even knowing what she’d done wrong.”
He leaves anyway, but not without some hesitation; he pauses for a few moments before he makes up his mind and continues on his mission.
A crooked cop drops by Sohn’s household, and their conversation is essentially: “Why did you call me, sir?” “I thought YOU wanted to see ME.” “But this really pretty man came by with a message from you….”
Iljimae interrupts this sideshow, saying, “It was me.” He’s come here to punish the both of them — the officer for being bribed by Sohn, and Sohn for everything evil he’s done, including his plan to steal Choi’s daughter. As the men cower in front of him, Iljimae holds his sword up to the officer’s neck… then nicks a shallow cut into his neck. He spares his life, warning him he’d better live a straight and narrow life from now on.
Gasping in relief, the officer thanks Iljimae. Sohn thinks he’ll get off lightly too, but Iljimae says his crime is ten times worse, and merits a greater punishment.
So when Iljimae looks away for a moment, Sohn grabs his spear and strikes; the two men clash and fight their way outside to the courtyard.
Buying piles of salt for gossip, Bae and Cha-dol have found out that Iljimae may make an appearance tonight, and watch as Sohn gathers his men to help fight Iljimae. Bae recognizes that these aren’t mere servants, but actually skilled trained soldiers — one in particular is a formidable specialist with the spear, perhaps even stronger than the wal-do specialist from a prior episode.
Sohn, ever the coward, yields the weapon to his specialist, letting the warrior take on Iljimae while he retires to safety. A one-on-one fight ensues, during which Bae and Cha-dol bite their nails in fear for Iljimae’s safety — he defends himself well, but the man with the spear is incredibly powerful.
However, as with his prior battles, Iljimae knows how to use his opponent’s weak points, and moving the fight indoors limits the spear’s range of movement. He traps the spear and kicks the warrior away, defeating him effectively.
Iljimae then turns on Sohn, cornering him and instructing him to tell his men to drop their weapons. Quaking in his shoes, Sohn does, and they do.
Sohn begs for his life, and it seems for a moment that Iljimae is really not going to have any mercy — but he stops from striking at the last moment, with a lot of regret. He’s not going to kill him, but he’s not letting him off, either.
Drawing something from his pocket, Iljimae lights it — a primitive grenade — and tosses it into Sohn’s storehouse, setting everything ablaze. He warns the corrupt nobleman that if he doesn’t shape up, Iljimae really will kill him next time.
He leaves behind his gold plum blossom branch as “compensation” for all the illegally acquired goods he’s just burned, and leaves Sohn wailing over his losses.
Officer Gu receives word of the fire set to Sohn’s house, and rushes to the scene in time to find Bae and Cha-dol lurking. They attempt to run away, but Gu stops them, asking if it was Iljimae who set the fire. He orders his men to put the fire out and take these two witnesses to the station.
Minister Kim also learns of the fire, and Iljimae’s involvement. I suppose it’s funny when it’s not your illegal riches that have been stolen, so Kim finds it amusing, almost as though he’s impressed with Iljimae’s chutzpah. The guy has some cojones, for sure.
Soo-ryun reports back to Gu that Sohn’s household was not very forthcoming on details. In fact, they insisted that the fire was an accident, knowing that telling the truth about Iljimae would implicate their own crimes.
With no other leads, Gu turns to Cha-dol and Bae and asks how he can meet Iljimae. Because they are intimidated by the police officers and also unwilling to get Iljimae in trouble, they stutter that they don’t know — they only ever managed to see Iljimae through luck or timing.
Gu loses his temper — this is serious stuff! If the story is true, Iljimae has become an arsonist, and Sohn is a very important man. He’s not just a rich lord, he’s powerful enough to eventually become a government minister. Therefore he must find Iljimae before he does anything worse.
When Iljimae comes home to a waiting Wol-hee, he tells her that he didn’t kill Sohn. But he did set his house on fire, and even Iljimae seems surprised at his own actions: “I don’t know why I did that.”
This conversation is really well framed. Wol-hee sits inside, he outside, both facing in opposite directions. She admits her worries for his safety, because she doesn’t know what he’s doing or where he goes. Every time, she wonders, what if he won’t come home this time?
She understands that Iljimae believes in what he’s doing — but tonight, he was different: “Tonight, you were just the Iljimae of three years ago who could not forget Dal-yi.” This harks back to their earlier conversation about Dal-yi’s death, because Wol-hee understands that tonight’s raid wasn’t about a greater good — as the monk so wisely picked up on — but rather a need to satisfy his own fears and guilt over not being able to save Dal-yi.
What follows is a really nicely done segment, which intercuts Iljimae’s conversation with scenes from Gu Ja-myung talking to Bae and Cha-dol, who have missed curfew and are staying at the station overnight. Gu indulges their request for stories of Iljimae’s youth, and as he tells his story, Iljimae reveals his past to Wol-hee. Their narratives unfold in alternating segments.
Iljimae starts his story at the very beginning, from when his father took advantage of his slave mother and threw her out, leaving him to die.
When he gets to the part about Dal-yi, he says, “Dal-yi is the first person on Joseon land to smile at me, and to make me smile. How could I forget that Dal-yi?”
Inside the room, unseen by Iljimae, Wol-hee cries silently. Likewise, so does Cha-dol, moved to pity at the details of Iljimae’s troubled beginnings.
And finally, Baek-mae arrives on the outskirts of Hanyang, her journey almost complete. She crosses paths with two travelers coming from the opposite direction, who talk about a man who supposedly set fire to a nobleman’s house the night before.
The name startles Baek-mae, and she turns back to the two men, asking intently: “What did you say Iljimae did?”
I love that we’re starting to see that Iljimae is operating on motivations that are more selfish than previously indicated. I mean, it’s great that he’s a populist hero, fighting for the powerless and oppressed, but it almost seemed he was the perfect man — he always gets the girl, he always does the right thing, he always wins the battle against evil.
Since this is a comic-book hero’s tale, that would have been acceptable, but it’s ever so much more satisfying that things are not as simple as that. His outward actions are like a way of making up for his own failure; I don’t necessarily think he’s hiding behind his heroic persona to assuage his guilt over not saving Dal-yi, but I think his heroic exploits allow him to fool himself into thinking he’s solved the problem. Like a band-aid on top of a broken arm, I suppose.
Also, Iljimae’s conflicted feelings of love and guilt were really well-handled, I thought. Most stories that hinge on two characters looking exactly alike highlight their similarities, but in this episode, and this love triangle, we’re looking for the traits that set Wol-hee and Dal-yi apart — if Wol-hee is going to win Iljimae’s heart, then she has to be her own person and not just the girl who looks like Dal-yi. Which is why I absolutely love the scene where she plays the lute, and the fact that Iljimae asks her to play for him, and kisses her forehead when she finishes. He may not understand his feelings entirely, and some of his emotional wires may have crossed between the two women, but at least he realizes that he does care for Wol-hee as her own person.
Wol-hee is a little faster to understand all this unspoken stuff, because I don’t think Iljimae is deceiving her — I think he genuinely hasn’t worked it all out for himself. That’s probably why she never took Kyung-ok for real competition, because although the girl is annoying, she doesn’t have any claim over Iljimae. It’s Dal-yi that she has to contend with, and that’s got to be a pretty disheartening realization — how do you compete with a (years-old, possibly idealized) memory?
- Return of Iljimae: Episode 12
- 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