After such a beautiful, refined depiction of Iljimae’s maturation, it’s interesting to see him — and the series — take a darker turn. While I wouldn’t say that the series itself is “realistic” — in that it’s based on a hero comic — the characterizations are absolutely realistic, and that’s quite compelling. I love that this is almost a reversal of what I’ve seen in other heroic tales, where you have a nondescript young man changed into a righteous defender of innocents. That change is usually mono-directional, traveling in a straight path from “ordinary” to “hero.”
What’s different here is that Iljimae grows up a very decent young man, and has a pure sort of early upbringing. Even after he makes the transition into a noble thief and crusader against corrupt noblemen, he struggles and makes errors in judgment, and comes up against some complex moral dilemmas. It’s not a straight line to becoming a hero, and I appreciate that this drama shows us his ups and downs — not just in terms of external antagonists, but within Iljimae himself. It’s almost like becoming a hero has introduced darkness into his life of sweet and light, rather than helping clear it away. That’s kinda profound, isn’t it?
SONG OF THE DAY
Park Sae-byul – “우린 날 수 있어요” (We Can Fly) [ Download ]
EPISODE 17: “Sword of Heartbreak”
Iljimae sneaks onto the property of our latest corrupt nobleman, Lord Kwon, and overhears him making plans. Kwon had been responsible for the beheading of the man found by the police, and the proof resides in the box that Kwon’s dim-witted son, Jang-ho, had accidentally seen. Jang-ho is easily distracted, but Kwon worries that he may prove to be a problem, and decides that he must be sent away.
Jang-ho stumbles along, drunk, and sees a young lady arriving home. Jang-ho is instantly captivated by her beauty, and like the overgrown child that he is, wants her right away. Now now now.
He demands the girl, and bursts past the gate using his brute strength, shoving people aside in his attempt to take her away. Although he is eventually stopped, this causes a problem for Lord Kwon, since the lady (named Sook-young) belongs to a noble family as well.
Jang-ho’s kind of like Lennie from Of Mice and Men — he doesn’t have control over his own strength and does things more forcefully than perhaps intended — only much more bratty and selfish. It’s easier to try to appease or deflect him than to reason with him, because he’s all id, no superego.
Jang-ho whines that he wants to marry Sook-young, but unfortunately, this is not easily managed because she is already engaged. Lord Kwon knows it won’t be easy appeasing his oaf of a son, but he tells him to go off to China for a while. While Jang-ho is gone, Kwon will prepare his son’s marriage to Sook-young. This promise keeps Jang-ho happy enough as he as he prepares for departure.
Therefore, Lord Kwon attempts to buy off Sook-young’s fiancé Gil-young by sending a messenger to offer bribes. However, Gil-young and his father are honest men, and are affronted at the offer. They refuse.
Iljimae stops the messenger on his way out and gives him a letter, saying that this is from Gil-young to Lord Kwon. Having anticipated that Lord Kwon would not stop with a simple refusal, Iljimae’s letter warns him not to interfere with Gil-young and Sook-young’s engagement. If he does, he will turn him in about the severed head.
This has the intended effect of scaring Lord Kwon, but perhaps is overkill, because now Lord Kwon decides that Gil-young is a loose end that needs to be tied. He’ll have to dispose of both Gil-young and Sook-young.
A bit of an interlude takes us to Wang Hweng-bo’s current exploits as he tries to gain membership into the gang headed by the illegal gambling den owner. As their first assignment, he and Sung-kae are instructed to collect money owed the gamblers. However, this turns problematic because there is no money to be gotten — and the man has already handed over his house deed.
Unable to complete their assignment, the two settle for satisfying their hunger by killing the man’s chickens and eating them (while Wang Hweng-bo blames Iljimae for everything). Unfortunately, when they report the incident to the boss, they are told that the man’s two chickens are worth more than the money owed anyway — they’re excellent fighters that can be used for the cockfighting ring. The boss orders them to go fetch the chickens. Whoops!
Worrying what to do, Wang Hweng-bo and Sung-kae decide they’ve got to run away.
That night, Iljimae sneaks into Lord Kwon’s home. Using a straw, he blows sleeping powder through a hole in the rice paper door, then enters after the men inside the room fall unconscious.
Iljimae rifles through their belongings, inside which he finds a secret letter. He reads the scroll, and his darkening expression shows us that this is bad news.
One of the servants spies Iljimae from outside the room, and raises the alarm, crying, “Thief!” Iljimae slips away, followed by Yang-po, who has been tracking his moves silently.
In the forest, Iljimae reads the scroll again, and Yang-po finds him extremely disturbed at its contents. The letter explains a secret plot to collude with China and essentially sell Korea to them.
Iljimae tosses the scroll into the fire, and Yang-po makes a move to grab it out, but stops himself. He asks Iljimae what he intends to do; Iljimae’s response is that he’s thinking of “taking care of” Lord Kwon. As in, kill him.
Yang-po warn Iljimae that he’s traveling down a dangerous path that may get him killed, but Iljimae scoffs, “Die? I don’t care about that.” He pushes past Yang-po, leaving the other man to wonder if Iljimae is doing this because of Wol-hee.
Speaking of whom, we find — as we suspected, I’m sure — that she’s still alive, although Iljimae doesn’t know this. After being rescued by Yang-po, she is now tended by Keol-chi, who worries over her weakened health.
She surprises him by saying she wants to return home to Hanyang — she’s giving up her search for Iljimae. Despite her ill health, she wants to leave right away, and suggests they depart the next morning.
This is a fabulous scene for Jung Il-woo, who has shown so much improvement in his acting. When Iljimae returns to Lord Kwon’s household, he finds another box containing another head — and he breaks down in anger and sorrow. We don’t see the face, but inside is Gil-young’s head.
Shedding angry tears, Iljimae despairs that his plan went wrong — he thought they would stop if he gave them a warning, but instead things escalated.
Recalling Gil-young’s fiancée, he worries that she may also be in danger and rushes off to find her.
His instincts are right, because Lord Kwon’s assassin next goes after Sook-young. He intercepts her traveling party (she’s being sent away for her safety, ironically) and kills her companions.
Iljimae arrives too late to save the others but in time to save the girl. Still in a fury over the needless death of Gil-young, he’s particularly vicious as he kills the assassin, and it’s almost uncomfortable to see how angrily he guts the man with his sword.
He turns to Sook-young and orders her to turn back and go straight home, but the girl begs Iljimae to come with her, because she’s scared. He slaps her and repeats his order harshly, leaving her alone in the woods to head home alone.
Next, Iljimae heads to Gu Ja-myung and waits for him at Gu’s home.
At the implication that Iljimae is going to go after Lord Kwon, Officer Gu warns him insistently, almost angrily in a paternal sort of way. Kwon isn’t someone to be messed with, and Iljimae must consider his mother. Gu had hoped that Iljimae had straightened out after helping the police last time, but now he’s worried again.
Iljimae doesn’t want lectures, and has come merely to let Gu know that they will find the missing head they are looking for at Lord Kwon’s house, as well as an additional head.
Having tipped off Gu, Iljimae heads again to Lord Kwon’s home. When the wife awakens, he pushes a pressure point to knock her unconscious, then poises his sword over the sleeping husband.
He raises the sword slowly, preparing himself — and we wonder what or who will stop him — and he thrusts the blade down swiftly. (Omo! I can’t believe he actually did it. That was not expected.)
Her intuition kicking in, Baek-mae senses an inexplicable, turbulent feeling and worries over what it means. Her thoughts are addressed to Gu Ja-myung: “I believe your words that you will bring Iljimae to me, no matter what. But you must also remain innocent.”
Acting on Iljimae’s tip (but slower to get there), Gu arrives at Lord Kwon’s home and finds that Iljimae’s tip was right about the two heads. However, he grows angered that the gold plum blossom was left behind, marking Kwon’s death — it’s the first time Iljimae has done so at a murder site — and mutters angrily, “Stupid fool.”
This turns Iljimae into a fugitive, and a sign is posted in the marketplace, calling for citizens to turn him in. To sweeten the pot, the reward for a commoner finding Iljimae is to be elevated into the noble class.
Yeol-gong, like Officer Gu, is dismayed that Iljimae gave into his anger and crossed the line into murder. (He has killed before, but this is the first time he’s premeditated an assassination — the others have all occurred in the heat of battle.)
This brings Kim Ja-jeom endless worry. First he’s anxious that Iljimae saw the secret conspiracy letter, and wonders if Lord Kwon confessed anything before dying. He’s also afraid that he’ll be next, and has nightmares of being killed by Iljimae in his sleep.
He’s not the only one, as the other noblemen in Minister Kim’s inner circle may also find themselves to be targets. The warrior Park Bi-su suggests that they send a man named Park Su-dong to hunt him: Park belongs to a group of former soldiers who were part of an artillery unit. No matter how good Iljimae is, he’s no match against a gun. Kim asks the others to pitch in enough money to hire Park Su-dong.
Wol-hee returns to the city, where she and Keol-chi are spotted by Bae Sun-dal and Cha-dol, and are filled in on Iljimae’s latest exploits. However, while Cha-dol and Bae figure that Iljimae must have had a reason for his actions, Keol-chi and Wol-hee have been recently hurt by Iljimae and are less wiling to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Cha-dol and Bae (and many villagers who support Iljimae) think that Kwon must have done something really wicked, because Iljimae’s not the type to kill for no reason. On the other hand, Keol-chi says bitterly how Iljimae didn’t even bat an eyelash when Wol-hee “died,” and he didn’t even bother looking for her.
Bae has a different take on the situation: “Iljimae thinks that Wol-hee died because of him and can’t forgive himself.” He doesn’t believe that Iljimae didn’t care whether Wol-hee died, and in the end, Keol-chi concedes that Iljimae doesn’t seem like that kind of person. They can find him and ask him what really happened.
Wol-hee speaks up for the first time to say that they won’t find him at their former home — if he was going to return, he wouldn’t have left in the first place. (She might believe that, but Iljimae does in fact return to the mountain home while wrestling with his guilt.)
All the while, Baek-mae remains ignorant of this latest development, and feels pride in her son. (She had heard that there was a fake Iljimae who was responsible for freeing the prisoners from jail, while the real Iljimae helped round them up again.) She proudly tells her kitten, “They say that the one who helps those in need is my Iljimae.”
At the mountain hut, Iljimae gets lost in memories of first arriving here, and how Wol-hee was so excited to move in. He doesn’t notice that he’s being watched by hired gunmen, who watch from a short distance away.
There’s a really great buildup of suspense, when you’re not sure if they’ll actually fire or how Iljimae will escape injury: They sneak up on Iljimae — fix their rifle sights on him — wait for a clear shot — and shoot him. (I just about had a heart attack; like with the killing of Lord Kwon, you’re so sure something will prevent the act that when it actually happens, it’s a shocker.)
Iljimae is shot in the arm, and collapses to the ground. The two hunters approach to make sure he’s dead, keeping their guns trained on him. Just as one leans closer, Iljimae kicks the rifle away, and the hunter shoots his partner instead.
Iljimae grabs the remaining hunter and demands to know who they are, and who sent them. The hunter shoves free of his grasp and runs away.
Because Wol-hee had left Hanyang because she was broken out of jail by Iljimae, it’s a risky prospect for her to return, as she finds when she is stopped by police. They have been ordered to bring in all women for questioning who bear a resemblance to Iljimae’s girlfriend, and they think she looks like her.
Then again, they’re not the brightest bulbs because they also recall that Iljimae is reported to be as pretty as a woman, and then speculate that maybe Wol-hee is Iljimae in disguise. They won’t let her pass until she proves that she’s not Iljimae.
Keol-chi handles this by asking if “proving” Wol-hee’s gender will let them off the hook, and the stupid policemen say yes. The implication is that she’ll have to undress, so they eagerly obey when Keol-chi asks them to turn around for a moment (oh, stupid men) — and then he grabs them in a headlock.
The hunter reports back to his boss (Park Su-dong) that his partner was killed after they tracked and shot Iljimae. Park Su-dong figures that although Iljimae got away, he cannot have gotten far, and orders his men to find him immediately.
Kim Ja-jeom calls in a female shaman (played by transgender singer Harisu) for additional help, thinking, “I’ll borrow strength from Park Su-dong and wisdom from her.” As Iljimae’s continued survival endangers Kim’s conspiracy plot and own safety, Kim is impatient to end his troubles and asks about Iljimae’s whereabouts.
The shaman’s answers are pretty accurate: she reports that one of the hunters has died, while the boss is howling in anger. However, the one they chase is also bleeding…
True to her words, an injured Iljimae crawls along the mountainside, needing to get to safety before he’s chased again.
I find an interesting dichotomy in Iljimae’s personality in that he is a rather cool, removed character, but can also be fierce and wrathful. He is described as cold and level-headed, and we can see some of that in his interactions with people, even those he cares about. He can leave Wol-hee and Keol-chi (the latter more than once), compartmentalizing his personal life away from his hero’s life, all making for a pretty lonely existence that keeps him at a distance from people.
On the other hand, he truly cares about what he’s doing, and whether it’s from the writing or acting, we can honestly feel that this Iljimae acts out of noble intentions and a genuine feeling of empathy for the wronged and poor people. More so than Hong Gil Dong, or Chil Woo, or even the other Iljimae, who all sorta turned into the Righteous Hero with a cheeky grin and a swagger. Not so this Iljimae, whose actions are driven by emotion. (Hong Gil Dong may have been the closest in terms of noble ideals, but he acted for the principle of justice, while Iljimae’s actions are more about individual injustices. Gil Dong cared about society on a philosophical level, whereas Iljimae never aspired to be more than one person doing what he can to right specific wrongs.)
In fact, if we were to assign one of the deadly sins to him, it would probably be wrath — which is kind of the complete opposite of his cool exterior. He’s passionate, but also capable of cold calculation.
I don’t think Jung Il-woo is the most natural actor out there, but he’s done well in this series, and shown a marked improvement from his earlier projects. I mean “natural” in the sense that I think he has to work very hard at his acting; in contrast, there are other actors who have natural instincts even if their skills are rough. But on the upside, Jung’s preparation and hard work does come through. I thought he was particularly good in this episode, not for a specific scene but for his overall intensity and expression. It’s good to see that he keeps getting better.
- Return of Iljimae: Episode 16
- Return of Iljimae: Episode 15
- Return of Iljimae: Episode 14
- Jung Il-woo talks about acting, fame, and the future
- Return of Iljimae: Episode 13
- 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