Rating:
Average user rating 4.5
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The Return of Iljimae: Episodes 1-2

MBC’s Return of Iljimae premiered on Wednesday, and from the first two episodes, my first impressions are:

  1. It is SO pretty. Amazing cinematography.
  2. The music is freaking gorgeous.
  3. Nice pacing of the story.
  4. Pretty solid acting, good casting.
  5. Yes, the narration gets annoying.

 
SONG OF THE DAY

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The drama premiered to a strong 18.5% rating, taking over the Wednesday-Thursday slot on the first try. (The second episode held onto the #1 spot with a 17.1%.) I’m a little surprised at how quickly it reached that number, but I suppose people were eager for a new series — KBS’s sageuk Kingdom of the Wind just ended and is currently airing a four-episode minidrama (Kyung-sook, Kyung-sook’s Father), while SBS’s A Star’s Lover is starting to drag.

I haven’t decided whether to keep doing recaps, because while I liked the series, this drama may require more work. I’ll see if I’m up for it after watching some more…

 
THE TWO ILJIMAES


SBS’s Lee Junki; MBC’s Jung Il-woo

It’s amazing how you can take one concept — one character — and build such contrasting worlds from it.

As you may know, I didn’t really like Lee Junki‘s version of Iljimae that aired on SBS last year. I found it over-the-top, slapstick, and melodramatic. I understand the allure of a hottie cast with Lee Junki, Park Shi-hoo, and Han Hyo-joo, but two of those three couldn’t really act and it was like the third tried to overcompensate by overacting. The story was also too overwrought for my taste.

I often say I dislike tragedy and melodrama, but I don’t mean I dislike all sad things. Actually, tragedy can be kind of beautiful in a melancholy way. What I dislike is the conventional kdrama depiction of tragedy as wailing, chest-beating, loud, exaggerated. That’s the style of storytelling that turned me off the SBS series.

The Return of Iljimae is vastly different from SBS’s Iljimae. Its tone is more delicate, its emotions played more subtly, the humor less a presence but drier when there is any. If you thought that SBS’s Iljimae was the best thing ever, I’m not sure how you’d feel about this version, because it has a completely different approach. It’s not hip or trendy; it’s more artistically inclined. While I don’t think its aesthetics top Painter of the Wind — that one set the bar really, really high — it’s much more in that vein than Lee Junki’s Iljimae or Hong Gil Dong.

 
EPISODES 1 & 2

Episode 1 got off to an odd start, in my opinion, by placing Iljimae in the current world. My first impression was that it was a mistake to frame the series in the context of the modern, although by the end of the episode I kind of liked what they did with it (it ties in with the theme that Iljimae “returns” in each generation, in addition to its literal meaning of how he returns home in the story). Suffice to say that this is similar to what Hong Gil Dong did at its end — but if I had to choose, I’d rather see the modern segment up front (and then forget about it) than end a series with it.

In any case, a masked man (actor Jung Il-woo) infiltrates a building, saves a hostage, and fights off bad guys, all while being observed by a Lois Lane-type photographer (Yoon Jin-seo).

She’s fascinated by the mysterious man, yet doesn’t recognize him (he recognizes her) when they bump into each other shortly thereafter. He picks up her dropped cell phone and returns it — along with a plum blossom, Iljimae’s signature.

The narration tells us that if you trace history through its turbulent times, you can find the emergence of a hero who rises up to defend the weak; thus Iljimae isn’t just a story about a specific person, but a metaphor for those kinds of heroes. And then we jump back in time to the origin of the legend.

We’re in the reign of Joseon king Injo, who ruled from 1623 to 1649. The international situation is shaky, with Korea (Joseon)’s relationship to Manchu deteriorating and corruption abounding domestically.

In Hanyang (the capital), we have a villain on the rampage, this ogre-ish giant who terrorizes with his brute strength and, yes, actual baby-eating.

He’s a menace to society and about to kill a kid (Cha-dol) one night when a young man (Iljimae) intervenes. He attempts some traditional fighting maneuvers, but his blows hardly register on the giant, so it takes some swift moving to get the better of him. After getting thrown around a bit, Iljimae delivers a final blow to the giant in a particular style that goes noticed by one bystander, who recognizes Iljimae’s fighting technique. (The giant doesn’t die, but is incapacitated for life.)

However, the particular martial art was said to have died out a few years ago. The chief policeman (actor Kim Min-jong) knows of only one person who could know it — the mysterious Iljimae.

Officer Gu is troubled by the news. Iljimae had been known a few years ago (perhaps for his heroics? — we’re not quite sure why), but had disappeared. Now it seems he’s returned.

Cha-dol enthusiastically recounts a blow-by-blow telling of Iljimae’s battle to villagers the next day. One woman, Wol-hee, takes special interest in the story and asks Cha-dol to tell her if he ever manages to find Iljimae. When asked why, she says, “I think he’s somebody I know.”

A flashback told through Iljimae’s eyes shows us a girl with whom he shared a young love. The actress (Yoon Jin-seo) also plays Wol-hee, but the character descriptions tell us this is Dal-yi, Iljimae’s first love, to whom Wol-hee bears a striking resemblance.

The two witnesses to the fight are Cha-dol and the gentleman Bae, who took particular note of Iljimae upon his first encounter with him years ago. He has begun recording Iljimae-related incidents through drawings and descriptions, feeling that he has some kind of cosmic fate with Iljimae: If he has one purpose in this world, it is to make the hero’s exploits known.

Together, the duo sneak out over a series of nights to witness Iljimae taking on bandits and bad guys, which are compiled into a collection of stories.

And then, we jump back even further to Iljimae’s childhood. He was born to a slave woman (Jung Hye-young), who was taken advantage of by the son of the household she served. To keep from ruining the young man’s future, she is forced to give away her child and told that the household will make sure he will be raised safely. She begs to leave the boy a message to be read when he’s older, and writes of the plum blossoms that had been in bloom when she was forced to surrender him.

She’s kicked out of her position and, with no other options left to her, becomes a gisaeng (an entertainer like a geisha), not knowing that her son is immediately left out to die in the cold. Through a stroke of luck, he is discovered by a kind beggar like Moses in the reeds. The man takes a liking to the boy and tries to raise him, although that requires that he wander the village begging for a woman to nurse the baby.

When he asks for help at the gisaeng house, Iljimae’s mother, who has now adopted the gisaeng name Baek-mae, feels compassion. She nurses the boy, imagining this is her son and not knowing it actually is (believing her son to be safe in a noble household). She gives the beggar a pricey ornament, telling him to sell it to clothe the baby.

Seeing the beggar with an expensive trinket, a younger Officer Gu becomes suspicious, and drags the beggar back to the gisaeng house. Thinking the man a thief, he is shocked when Baek-mae confirms the beggar’s words. He is also instantly smitten by her — perhaps not just her looks, but by her beautiful and sad aura. After that initial meeting, he goes back to the gisaeng house nightly to gaze at her from the shadows.

Some days later, the beggar once again goes out to beg another woman to nurse the baby. Despite the warnings of the monk (the beggar often stays at the shrine), he wanders into a richer neighborhood and is seen by the matriarch who’d forced Baek-mae out. Upon hearing the details of the baby’s discovery, the old woman recognizes him as Baek-mae’s son. This means the boy must be killed (again), and men are sent to do the deed.

However, the monk has sensed this danger and steals the boy away to safety, taking him to China. There, he encounters a kindly couple who hear that the boy is orphaned, and decide to adopt him. They name him Iljimae.

Thus the boy Iljimae grows up privileged and loved, although his adopted father does insist he learn martial arts to toughen him up, to offset his too-pretty face. (Ha! Cheeky nod to Jung Il-woo’s pretty-boy status?) He grows into a quiet, refined, and principled young man, who one day stands up to a malicious nobleman’s son who is beating up a Korean kid just for being Korean.

Although Iljimae believes himself to be Chinese, he has sympathy for the Korean boy’s plight, and when the mean son picks a fight, Iljimae fights back. The boy and his buddies outnumber Iljimae, but are no match for his skills.

This lands Iljimae in trouble, because afterward, the mean son is spitting mad at being beaten and demands punishment. The proud Iljimae refuses to apologize when it should be the other guy apologizing, not backing down even when the boy’s father arrives.

Surprisingly, the father is ashamed of his son’s cowardice — ganging up on one person in a fight — and asks Iljimae to accept his apology. Iljimae does, and his gracious acceptance earns the father’s approval. Iljimae doesn’t discover until the man leaves that that was the powerful Huang Taiji (who becomes first emperor of the Qing Dynasty), son of Nurhaci (founding father of the Manchu state).

Iljimae is impervious to the female attention pointed his way because of his refined looks, but one lady takes a strong fancy to him. She’s the daughter of a powerful nobleman, and Iljimae is engaged to her.

But one day a man arrives from Korea, ordered by madam matriarch to deliver gifts to Iljimae’s new family. The matriarch had been told by the monk of Iljimae’s fate, and thereafter sent gifts every year to the adoptive family, who every year refused them. Once more he is refused, but this time he is noticed by one oddball — a man named Wang Hweng-bo with a nose for mischief.

Hweng-bo finds the Korean nobleman and kills him, taking the fine gifts for himself and discovering Baek-mae’s letter among them. Realizing he’s sitting on a valuable piece of information, Hweng-bo takes the package to Iljimae, and announces (rather unceremoniously) that he is adopted.

This news is a shock in Iljimae’s otherwise calm, contented life. However, in the face of this knowledge, Iljimae senses the truth in the man’s claims. It explains his feeling of not quite belonging, the connection he felt with Korean outsiders, and vague memories from his past.

Hweng-bo seems up to no good, and slyly offers to take Iljimae along with him when he returns to Korea tomorrow. Iljimae wrestles with the dilemma of whether to go, finally deciding that he will do so to find out once and for all what the truth is.

He leaves behind a letter for his parents, and when they find it, all hell breaks loose. For one, this means he’s of different (lesser) birth than initially believed, which is insulting to his fiancee’s family. The girl’s father announces a huge bounty on Iljimae’s head, dead or alive.

While on their journey, Iljimae starts to sense that all is not well when they’re attacked more than once. Hweng-bo explains that his parents put a bounty on his head, having grown resentful of the cost to raise a son not their own. Iljimae doesn’t believe that — they would never have done that — but the fact remains that they are chased, and barely manage to escape their pursuers.

(Hweng-bo is a shifty fellow and certainly not trustworthy, but it’s difficult to get a read on his character because he tells Iljimae the truth, and helps him fend off attackers.)

The two finally arrive at the port, from which they’ll depart for Korea. Iljimae is almost aboard the boat when a group of men, led by his former teacher, call for him to stop. Seeing his teacher gives him pause, but Iljimae is resolved in his mission to seek his mother, and turns to board.

That’s when hidden men spring up from camouflaged hiding places and throw ropes around Iljimae’s wrists. While he’s bound and surrounded, Hweng-bo leaps into the air to fight off the mob…

 
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE

The action scenes leave something to be desired. I suppose they’re serviceable, but the wire work is really obvious and adds an element of silliness to what should be serious moments. I think you’re going to get some degree of bad stunts in any sageuk incorporating action sequences, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Yeah, the narration gets pretty obtrusive. I think what’s worse than the narration itself is the voice doing it — it isn’t cutesy like in Goong or introspective like The World We Live In, but almost didactic. Like in an educational documentary. There’s too much of it and a tendency to state the obvious.

On the upside, unlike acting or directing, narration is something that can be remedied at the last minute, so I hope the director takes note of the public reaction (mostly annoyed) and adjusts accordingly. I found myself getting used to it and wasn’t so bothered — maybe it’s because a narrator filling in the blanks can negate the need for clunky exposition scenes, and I appreciated that the first episode was only an hour long (Hong Gil Dong started to kill me when its later episodes went on for nearly an hour and twenty minutes).

The beginning modern scenes felt unnecessary, although I understand the purpose behind it. But when you have a beautifully shot, lush period drama, do you really want to start it right off with an ordinary-looking opening?

 
WHAT I LIKED

The Look of the Drama

I mean, just look at it! It’s stunningly shot. I don’t know if they used CG, but it doesn’t look too fake, so well done on that score.



 
Storytelling

MBC’s Return of Iljimae acquired the rights to the hit manhwa series, and it shows in the storytelling. The pacing is steady, and it seemed to me as though there was a confidence in the narrative that I don’t always get from dramas — sometimes shows start out feeling wobbly and uncertain. Here, I feel like they really know where they’re going and how they’re going to get there.

Tone

This may be my favorite aspect so far. Transitions make sense — even when the narrative skips forward and backward in time — and the music is fantastic. The scenery is lovely, the filming assured. Objectively, the acting may not be outstanding (yet?), but the director uses the actors well and teases out little bits of emotion from small looks. I dig that.

There are opportunities for action, for emotional beats, for introspection, but it doesn’t feel pretentious (unlike, say, The World They Live In). A few times I think they were in danger of making a serious moment unintentionally amusing, so that could be one area to watch, but I appreciate the absence of the slapstick. “Fusion sageuk” does not have to equal gimmicky jokiness! (Not that this is a typical fusion sageuk.)

 

 

Casting

We didn’t get to see a lot of acting from most of the characters, but I liked what I saw, particularly Kim Min-jong as the policeman and Jung Hye-young as Iljimae’s birth mother. Kim has a lovely gentleness about him, but as a police chief, he’s also in a position of command. I’ve seen a lot of evil magistrates and pushy, corrupt officers in dramas, but he’s got a different energy that intrigues me. Both Kim and Jung speak volumes with their eyes, and are wonderfully expressive.

Yoon Jin-seo I’m less familiar with. There wasn’t much of her so far, but I had a generally favorable impression. I know she’s not idol-star pretty like some other actresses, but I find her quite beautiful in a clean, classical Korean sort of way that suits the drama very well. She has a serene air about her that’s a bit unusual for one her age (25).

As for Jung Il-woo — you know, he’s not bad. I wasn’t blown away, and I think he’s capable of more passion, but the story’s just getting started and I think there’s time for that. Aside from a few moments in the modern part, he carried off the intense looks and hard stares well. I remember when Lee Junki would glare, I always wanted to laugh; for some reason Jung pulls it off. He doesn’t mug, and that’s a relief. I wasn’t a fan of the fighting sequences (thought they needed more dynamic energy) but it looks like Jung is doing a lot of stunts (which explains the exhaustion). I also really like that they gave this Iljimae an aura of quiet elegance.

The verdict? I’m cautiously optimistic.

 
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Annie, this post covers both episodes 1 & 2. (Episode 1 ends with Seo and Cha-dol recording all of Iljimae's adventures, while Episode 2 ends with Iljimae being caught on the boat on his way to Korea.)

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lol. nvm, i just realized you capped ep 2 already, i just couldn't tell cause there was no heading. thanks mucho :)

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about the look of the drama, i remember the lush landscape shots in Hwang Jin-i...

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great in depth review!!
im watching iljimae atm on viikii...
http://www.viikii.net/channels/video_list_home/334/video_list/all/full
...but the subtitles are rather limited, so im surviving by watching the beautiful scenery and reading your recaps!
thanks a lot
x

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hey javabeans, are you working on ep 3? or are you waiting for ep 4 too? sorry i'm not trying sound rude, I just want to know. man if i could understand korean, i would totally sub, but then i don't :( so yea. anyway, thanks for your witty recaps :D

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Yoon Jin seo seems like a pro at bed scenes... I was glad she got a drama role this time but her characters always do the same stuff... I LOVED her in the movie My Lovely Week, I just wished she ended up with the popstar....

Jung Hye Young's pretty terrific at looking sad.... She was like your worst nightmare of a girlfriend in the drama Phoenix (totally batsh!t crazy)...but I have to admit that she is a good actress and I'm glad to see her again...

This drama seems okay so far, I'll be keeping it on my radar...^_^

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i prefer hong gil dong ending in the future..

im still not sure about this..
i dint like the other iljimae too~~

hes cute tho~~me lyyks!

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I watched it and anyway it's far far far far far better than BOF, especially the acting, the soundtrack, the scenery, the filming, the chemistry between the actors I really agree with you.

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this was a good review but truthfully, i like the 2008 iljimae better
it had more action and the action looked real while i think this looks a little fake
wat i don't lik is the time switch it had on the first episode because tat just threw me off while in the 2008 one, there wasn't tat big of a time switch where it was hard to follow with bits of flashback here and there
but i love the scenery on this one
it's so serene and so calming
the narration is a little annoying but it's bearable
but i agree with a lot of ur reviews such as the transistion and stuff
but anyways, getting off from my tangent
great review
can't wait for the rest

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i like both but i prefer LJK iljimae .

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I Love Lee Jun Ki iljimae as it look more romantic in the love of the two lady, especially with the lady that acted by 李英雅.

When I see 李英雅 and Lee Jun Ki in this show, it feel so romantic as a girl can do whatever she will do for the guy(lee Jun Ki) in the show.

And the song Flower's letter make a good match to the show that make 李英雅 and Lee Jun Ki more romantic.

And oso this show is full of laughter.

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Thank you so much Dramabeans for the recap! I really needed it. I don't think I would've understood episode 1 if it wasn't for your recap... I was so confused with some points, especially the whole change time thing and the arguements that raged inside my head:
1.) 'Isn't she the same girl?' when I saw her 4 times but at different plots and times in the story
2.) 'Aren't they meant to be dead? Or is this some sort of reborn plot line?' when it came to the past from the future but with the same cast

And WHAT IS WITH THE NARRATING?!! It is killing the show so badly right now. I can see myself so totally getting into this but the stupid person keeps on opening their mouth and says the most obvious things most of the time. I think that sometimes it ruins the effect of the scenes as my thoughts are just interupted by that stupid voice. The voice of the narrator doesn't connect with the drama.

And is it just me or are there are moments when the narrator sounds real manly, but then sounds feminine at times?... well, I am having a really hard time figuring out if they're male or female, which isn't helping me concentrate on the great storyline, cast (yay Jung Il Woo!) and settings. Gahhh.

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hey javabeans...
do you happen to know the name of the actor that portrays iljimae's adoptive chinese father? he looks soooo familiar and I swear I've seen him in some other drama before, but it's killing me that I can't remember!! ahh!
thanks :)

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nevermind!
i finally remembered. it's the doctor/herbs guy from dae jang geum. i've been rewatching it from dramafever so he looked especially familiar when he popped up in this drama. haha.

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I laughed when i heard the Dark Knight Theme during the modern scenes! Are they allowed to do that?

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The name of Lee Junki first comes across my attention is when the movie “The King’s Man” was released a few years back. I heard that he is really good in the film, but never get the chance to see it. A couple years later, he played the leading role in SBS’s version of Iljimae. Again, I heard lots of buzz over it, but wasn’t enthusiastic enough to watch it. Often, I notice his pictures in the entertainment news section. My initial impression of him is that he is a very feminine looking guy (specially his eyes and mouth), which I don’t particular think is a bad thing (many good looking men give out that notion). We all have different tastes. Certain people strike you more than others. There is nothing wrong with that. I am sure Lee Junki is a good actor; however, he is NOT my “cup of tea”.

On the other hand, the main reason I decide to watch MBC’s Return of Iljimae (with great infatuation and interest) is because of Jung Il Woo (aside from the excellent script and casts). Something about him draws me right in. I find myself lost in his gaze. He may not be the prettiest man I have ever seen, but he surely captures my attention. Young (only 21 years of age), tall (184cm in height), slender (a bit too skinny in my opinion, specially in his European Vacation Photos, but fit enough for the drama), and handsome (with still a boyish looks), thru this drama, Jung Il Woo has matured beyond his seemingly youthful years. Most of all, he does a good enough job to lead me believe that he really sustains the spirit of Iljimae: the dynamic hero, witty, brave, fair of face, and possesses an undaunted sense of integrity.

Honestly, I haven’t really watched Lee Junki’s Iljimae, only clips of it (wasn’t impressed). I don’t think I have the right to judge who is the better Iljimae. The only other drama I saw Lee Junki stars in is “The time between dog and wolf” (the script could have been better). However, I like Jung Il Woo in “High Kick” (in the show, he seems to know more about how to love someone than the adults, for an example: his uncle) very cute and sweet. And the few minutes he appears in the film “The World of Silence” scoops my enthusiasm for the movie.

Personally, I like Jung Il Woo as Iljimae. I think he has done an excellent job in MBC’s ROI; but then again, beauty exists only in the eyes of the beholder. I truly wish to see more of him in the future.

Good job, Java beans. I really enjoy your blog.

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i love iljimae lee jun ki is the best

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lee jun ki the hero...

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Decided to watch the first episode today since JB seems to recommend it so much. While I found the cinematography outstanding ... the storyline was just ok. I kind of fell asleep on some parts because not much was happening. And I got so annoyed by the narration. That is going to end right? I just want to know the story already so show them to us. I hate it when it jumps timeframes. While the directing is well done (better than Iljimae 2008 version) it still has that annoying time skips. Come on let it flow.

Still going to continue, but if this doesn't get better by ep4, I'll drop the series. I haven't reached the "fanatic" phase for Jung Il Woo yet since I abandoned MFL early. Hopefully, this shows his amazing acting skills.

Reason why I started watching is because Sandara from 2NE1 is said to be in it. Will be waiting for that episode.

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i am very sad for Rie because, you know, for me Rie and IIjimae were fit togethere
and thats why i'm sad......ooowwwww!!!!!

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they should have widen the role of rie (sandara park) it would be interesting if they did. you know, the older guy fall in love with his not so sister. sister fall inlove with brother figure oppa.

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jung il woo !!

he's so handsome ^_^

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I get that they were trying for a different approach, but if they put the city scene at the end of the series it may have made more sense for those who watched it first.

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I am going to close both eyes and pretend that the stretch involving Iljimae in the Qing territory didn't exist. The Qing are known for their half-shaven hairstyle. Come on! It was such a big movement to make the Hans shave their head when they took over the rule of China! And yet, other than Iljimae's adoptive father (with a strangely shaven head, but at least it is still shaven) and Huang Tai Ji, everyone had beautiful haif. Whatever. And everyone speaks Korean in Qing territory. Only a handful of oddly pronounced Chinese was scattered here and there. Not Manchu, not Chinese, but Korean. ODD.

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The narration is annoying but I will continue to watch

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I'm glad I watched The Return of Iljimae first... In fact,it's the only version I watched. But I'm tempted to see the other face of Iljimae.

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[…] out this summer on MBC. I’m pretty sure it’s not enough time for him to grow out his Iljimae hair, but I suppose we can’t have Joseon ghostbusters running around looking exactly like […]

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I'm liking the drama so far but the historical accuracy in China was like non-existent. It was such a glaring miss-match of different eras and stereotypes that as someone who is pretty knowledgeable about Chinese history made it hard to watch. I wish they'd tried harder to make the China parts more accurate. The traditional long Han Chinese hair and then the random Qing dynasty queues was just so confusing lol. And I swear I saw characters wearing clothing that would have been worn in the late-1800s and others wearing styles that would have been worn in the mid-1200s... orz

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I also found it kinda sad how easily he was able to abandon his Chinese adopted parents for people he'd never met. "I'd rather live as a farmhand in the land of my parents (then stay in China and marry Mo Ran) was cruel. His adopted parents loved and provided for him and he just abandoned them so easily. :((

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wish i could delete this xD i was confused and thought that this drama was taking place during the qing dynasty. the subs on the videos i was watching were misleading, i now know that it takes places during the last years of the ming dynasty so the miss-match of hair styles now makes sense (tho there are still inaccuracies in clothing and such)

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Thank You For Recap.

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wow.................the story is super cool,i realy lyk it.tnks

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I've read through everyones contributions and some do say the fighting is poor. I agree much less good than in Iljimae and the wire-work is barely disguised at times. However, that spy with the sideways walk and silly noises is 'mental' who on earth came up with that. Oh and the suspension bridge antics were so ridiculous! There are so many things great about 'Return' but I am worried that as the episodes pass it will become a disappointment. One last thing though, seems there is going to be a hint at sex scenes, wow I thought they were out in Saguks, but bring them on!

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[…] cinematography is beautiful, though not to the extent of The Return of Iljimae (yet? this has potential), which is okay because it’s easy to deviate and focus too much on […]

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I'm glad you're not the only one reviewing because you are so damning in your criticism of acting. I suppose a critic has to have self-confidence but you have too much!

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Who can write more clearly than you about such things!
I assure you, nobody, I've seen something like
this only on https://cbwtransparency.org/where-to-find-a-reflection-paper-example/. I
enjoyed the guide and assume you have more such material?
If so, so please post it since it's somewhat unusual for me in the present moment, and not just for me, that is my opinion.
Hopefully, I can get an in-depth guide of yours and take note of
all of the news and the latest data.

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