Drama Smackdown (Part 1): Iljimae (SBS, 2008) vs. The Return of Iljimae (MBC, 2009)

Pretty Boy Wonders: The Iljimae Smackdown!

Part One

by Ender’s Girl


It was my best friend who suggested I do a sageuk superhero smackdown — a challenge I’d love to take on, but one that will require a re-watch of Hong Gil Dong and Strongest Chil-woo to jog my memory and thus enable me to be more objective in comparing all four sageuks. But for now it’ll just have to be about these bonny bandits, aka the two Iljimaes.

Iljimae (SBS, 2008)

The Cast:
Lee Jun-ki, Han Hyo-joo, Lee Young-ah, Park Shi-hoo, Lee Moon-shik, Kim Sung-ryung, Lee Won-jong, Ahn Kil-kang, Kim Roe-ha

In a Nutshell:
An insecure king signs the death warrant of one of his closest friends when a prophecy links the nobleman to the monarch’s downfall. The noble’s son, Geom, survives after witnessing his father’s murder and his mother and sister’s enslavement. Though the trauma erases his memory, the boy is rescued and raised by a peasant couple whose own son has been sent to live with the court official Byun Sik, also a party to the conspiracy. As an adult, Geom (now called Yong) vows to avenge the death of his father when his memory suddenly returns, his only clue a specially engraved sword used by the unknown killer. Outwardly he remains the happy-go-lucky village slacker he has been since the childhood trauma, but nights find him transforming into the deadly thief whom the people have dubbed “Iljimae,” for the plum tree paintings he leaves in each house he has robbed.

The Return of Iljimae (MBC, 2009)

The Cast:
Jung Il-woo, Yoon Jin-seo, Kim Min-jong, Jung Hye-young, Lee Kye, Park Geun-hyung, Park Chul-min, Kang Nam-gil, Lee Hyung-woo

In a Nutshell:
Born of a nobleman and a slave girl, Iljimae is taken from his mother and left to die in the icy waters of a creek. In several twists of Fate and Providence, the infant is found by a beggar, rescued by an old monk, and later raised by a wealthy Manchu family. Upon reaching manhood, a revelation about his past spurs Iljimae to leave his adopted homeland for Hanyang in search of his true identity — and the unknown mother who birthed him.


A Tale of Two Cuties: Iljimae vs. Iljimae

Two impossibly pretty K-heartthrobs. Two sets of smooth, blemish-free cheekbones made for… rappelling. Two rival television networks. One Korean folk hero… with a strange penchant for plum blossoms.

As they say, comparisons are inevitable — hence this Smackdown. So when push comes to shove, which Iljimae version prevails — in terms of narrative flow, character development, production values, and other benchmarks? Which Iljimae portrayal is more convincing? Is it the Man in the Iron Mask, or Ninja Assassin? (Or, in Star Wars terminology, is it Darth Vader Iljimae, or the Return of the Joseon Jedi? heh heh)

Based on the criteria provided below, let the Clashdance — er, Smackdown begin! *gonnnggg!!!* First of three installments.

First Drama Appearance as an Action Hero

Both drama adaptations open with the hero already well established as the Joseon-era Robin Hood that the tales speak of, loved by the peasantry and feared by the aristos and all that. And both dramas begin in the thick of the action, showing Iljimae doing his too-cool-for-school covert ops thing. First impressions are crucial because not only do they set the pace and tone of the rest of the drama, but they also give the viewer a feel of the kind of hero to watch out for.


SBS’s Iljimae:

Under the guise of an ice peddler (–why an ice peddler? because he is Iljimae! lol), our hero infiltrates the palace, and in the (conveniently) deserted royal pantry, hacks the ice block apart to extract — oh wow! — his killer costume! And he doesn’t get hypothermia wearing his armor! Because he is Iljimae! He’s come to steal another of the king’s Priceless Thingies — but not before the guards are alerted! So in complete defiance of the laws of physics (and, uh, basic logic), and despite wearing the clunky plate armor and iron mask (or respirator? where are the oxygen tanks? and did it ever occur to him that his metal armor is, um, SHINY??? and what’s with the vermilion strips of cloth? so much for stealth, DOH), Iljimae manages to nimbly leap through the air, scale the palace walls and ramparts, and skim the rooftops while dodging a hail of arrows. Jet Li may not have survived the killer arrows in the 2002 wuxia film Hero, but our hero naturally does — because he is Iljimae! (His motto: “I steal, therefore I am… Iljimae!” Or in Latin: “Latrocinor ergo sum… Iljimaeus!” hahaha)


MBC’s The Return of Iljimae (ROI):

Not a very impressive first appearance for a sageuk hero, either, sorry to say. Present-day Iljimae slips into a Seoul skyscraper to rescue a corporate whistle-blower imprisoned in a brightly lit room with huge see-through glass windows. => LOL!!! (It’s as if the kidnappers were just begging for the poor girl to be found. Fooools!!! lol) So our hero naturally sets the damsel free — but not before niftily disposing of a dozen or so hired guns, with their one-sided fight clearly visible from outside the high-rise building. => LMAO!!! First on the scene is Iljimae’s modern-day chronicler/stalker/reincarnated love interest, taking paparazzi shots of the masked hero in action and later exchanging enigmatic text messages with her elusive quarry — before he (natch!) rappels down the glass façade and disappears into the throng of pedestrians right outside the building… Cut to Joseon Korea, where a few scenes later, we see Iljimae clashing with some period baddies and vanquishing the *cough* animatronic *cough* Baby-Eating Giant who is terrorizing the Capital. => WTF? (I burst out laughing when Gigantor made a big show of chomping on some infant while the villagers quailed in fear. Hahahahaha so funny.) The fight choreography in the first episode looks slow and heavy, although Jung Il-woo’s crime-busting uniform (basic black ninja suit with that hoodie-mask) single-handedly ups the coolness factor of whatever scene he’s in.

WINNER: ROI. (Seriously, SBS. Body armor stowed away in a raspberry sherbet? A fusillade of arrows that can’t pierce for sh*t? An invisibility cloak? And Lee Jun-ki in Seven-Samurai-meets-Men-of-Gondor cosplay gear while mouthing off “I can <insert random impossible feat> because… I am Iljimae!” every bleeping minute? Seriously.)

The Hero: Path to Destiny (Origins – Coming of Age – Tipping Point – Training – Portrayal)

Whether high-born, or of humbler beginnings, it isn’t so much where the Hero comes from, as how his life experiences eventually shape his transformation into a true champion for the poor and the downtrodden.



Origins: Young Geom’s happy and privileged childhood (loving parents and noona, wealthy family, plum blossoms galore, galore!) is flipped upside down when Daddy-O gets skewered by a mysterious assassin’s sword with funny markings on it, and Mum and Noona are sold off as thralls. So the boy wanders through the city streets cold and hungry, and under duress throws rocks at his own omma to convince the Baddies he isn’t her child (okay, that was just too cruel for a kid! really gut-wrenching scene, that one), gets chased through the forest, almost dies several times, passes out and loses his memory, and finally gets adopted by a peasant couple (who, as it turns out, have their own murky ties to Geom’s family, oh wow!).

But there’s a huge disconnect between Young Geom (Yeo Jin-goo => good child actor, BTW), the grave, precocious boy with a deep sense of social justice, and Adult Geom (renamed Yong, played by Lee Jun-ki), the uncouth, manic, porn-loving village goof-off. Granted, personality changes are known to manifest in victims of severe psychological and neurological trauma (and heaven knows Little Geom had everything of both, tsk), but these two temperaments are so jarringly inconsistent that you have trouble shifting your invested emotions from kid to adult. It doesn’t even make sense for Yong to turn out the way he did, because it’s not like the boy was raised by a family of troglodytes in a prehistoric cave, or by a band of crass-mouthed ruffians and pirates (arr!). His adoptive parents, Swe Dol the Locksmith and Ex-Slave Girl Dani, may have differed in their parenting ethic (Dani the austere, distant disciplinarian vs. Swe Dol the softhearted pops-is-your-buddy type), but both were still decent and hardworking peasants that it’s simply preposterous for Yong to turn out the way he did.

Coming of Age: Yong’s memory returns in intermittent flashes, causing him to regain his old identity — and then some. For he becomes — Bipolar Iljimae (!!!), who erratically swings from being Yong the Rowdy Village Dipstick, to being I-got-my-memory-back-and-I-know-who-I-REALLY-am-and-I’m-SO-mad-my-laser-stare-can-melt-solid-rock-when-nobody’s-looking-and-you-just-wait-‘coz-tonight-I’m-gonna-rob-me-some-aristocrat’s-bric-a-brac-and-be-totally-badass-because-I’m-(…wait for it)-Iljimae!!! Hahahaha! At times (many times, in fact) I felt that Lee Jun-ki belonged inside a psych ward, and not the streets of Hanyang. Watching him for five straight minutes just sapped the energy out of me. Blerg.


Tipping Point: So it’s really ALL ABOUT REVENGE, is it now? Everything that Geom/Yong does as Iljimae — robbing the houses of nobles to find that bleeping sword, getting back at abusive officials, rescuing the wrongly imprisoned — is driven solely by retribution!!! –For his father’s murder, for his noona’s hanging, even for the little Cabbage Patch Kid’s trampling to death by the Qing envoy’s odious son. There’s no growth in Iljimae’s character because his worldview and life pursuit remain so blinkered by this vendetta, and never expand to encompass something greater than his own self, greater than his own wronged family. I don’t mind revenge plots if they’re about ordinary people, but you’d expect a folk hero such as Iljimae to treat his higher calling — serving the people because Government has failed them — as the central purpose of his life work, and not as something tangential to a personal payback story. This version of Iljimae begins and ends with revenge, and even after our hero finally traces the evil conspiracy to the highest power tier (i.e. King Injo), it’s only in the closing scenes of the final episode that the story implies that Iljimae has actually moved past basic revenge and begun to work for the greater good of the Joseon people.

Training: It’s quite laughable how Lee Jun-ki’s Iljimae figures in the most death-defying stunts and yet is the most inadequately trained of all the sageuk crime-busters. His entire fight instruction comprises a day (or two) under his adoptive dad Swe Dol (who is, um, a lowly thief turned locksmith for Pete’s sake), and then for a couple of seasons with the Reformed Warrior-Monk Gong He. Which obviously is enough to grant him superpowers for his deadly (though not entirely altruistic) night missions, yesss? (Actually, NO. NONONONO.)

That said, there’s a pretty cool training montage showing beach scenes of Yong practicing under Reformed Warrior-Monk’s tutelage, juxtaposed with shots of Yong’s nemesis Shi Hoo (Park Shi-hoo) getting his fight instruction from Sa Cheon (Kim Roe-ha), the king’s numero uno hatchet man himself. It’s the age-old collocation of Good Guru vs. Evil Guru, Goodish-but-conflicted Pupil vs. Goodish-and-conflicted-but-with-darker-predilections Pupil, Brother vs. Brother. It’s Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Sidious and Anakin Skywalker all over again, this moral symmetry of mentorship that never fails to fascinate: chock-full of archetypes and visual symbolism, not to mention inexhaustible pop-cinematic appeal.

Portrayal: Lee Jun-ki was dashingly androgynous in My Girl (2005) (but okay, confession: I was Team Gong-chan from Day 1, baby), intense and tortured in Time of Dog and Wolf (2007), and heartbreakingly innocent in The King and the Clown (2005), but in Iljimae he’s just so… manic-depressive. Like, ALL the flippin’ time MANIC-DEPRESSIVE. A memorable portrayal for all the wrong reasons, indeed. Which is too bad, because those intense moments of realization, grief and loss (e.g. when he cries in private after his noona’s hanging, or when memories of his dad’s murder come flooding back) could’ve been more keenly felt by the viewer had Lee Jun-ki acted like a normal person the rest of the time. All that emotional super-saturation in his hammy performance did more damage than good, not to mention was just so physically draining to watch.



Origins: So Iljimae is actually… Moses!!! (LOL) Same baby-in-the-basket-floating-downstream incident, same real-mom-somehow-gets-to-breastfeed-her-own-baby-but-nobody-ever-guesses! mini plot twist. Compared to the SBS version, this Iljimae doesn’t experience much childhood trauma or sadness until later as a strapping adolescent. Had Iljimae remained unaware of his true identity, he could’ve stayed in China, married that princess, and raised boootiful little chillun (but with bound-up feet no doubt, tsk), and I’m sure his life would’ve felt complete just the same. But Fate had to intervene through Wang Hyeong-bo the crafty little Cat-man, launching Iljimae out of his comfort zone (read: China) and into his odyssey from Boy, to Man, to Hero, to Legend. Another noteworthy point is that unlike Lee Jun-ki’s Iljimae, who appropriates the sobriquet from the plum blossom paintings (reading “Iljy wuz heer, yo” lol) he leaves at each crime scene, Jung Il-woo’s Iljimae identity is his ONLY identity, having been named such by the Uber-Zen Monk after seeing a plum tree nearby. Interesting, huh?

Coming of Age: In many ways, the ROI outline reads like a classic Bildungsroman, where the protagonist sets off on his journey after experiencing extreme discontent (in the case of Iljimae, triggered by the revelation about his true parentage), and/or deep emotional loss (i.e. losing his first love Dal to the headsman’s blade). And like any coming-of-age tale, much of ROI is a process of maturation and self-realization, and one whose main conflict is between the protagonist and the existing social order. The whole odyssey is also punctuated throughout by introspective moments where the hero asks himself the pivotal questions, “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose in this world?” Plus, there are a few validating clues to help the hero along the way, like that Excalibur moment in Ep. 4 where Iljimae extracts a glittering sword from the bottom of a pond — and if that doesn’t spell out “Grand! Destiny! Awaits! Lots! Of! Fighting! Ahead!” then I don’t know what does.

The first seven episodes of ROI chronicle Iljimae’s formative, soul-searching years, where upon embarking on his journey he finds himself tossed about by circumstance, unable to make any lasting human connections, a drop-dead gorgeous vagabond set adrift in a sea of renegade crab-walking cat-men, jail time, mountain chase scenes, languid forest trysts, mistaken identities, long-standing death warrants (R.I.P. Dal and her pops *tear*), murderous one-man rampages, corrective Buddhist monks and a year’s worth of Zen meditation, swordplay and more swordplay, fishing villages rife with jealousy and murder, idyllic ninja communes, fight training, and — oh yes! — love triangles.


Tipping Point: Iljimae’s personal journey kicks off on these three pivotal moments: (1) when he providentially comes across the lovely poem his birth mother wrote long ago; (2) when his nobleman father coldly disowns him; (3) and when Dal dies. These developments set off a chain reaction ultimately leading to his inner evolution. Upon returning to Hanyang from a three-year stay in Tokugawa Japan, Iljimae soliloquizes, “Even though I was born in this land, my birth and lineage are not recorded here. Even if I returned home, there is not one person here who would welcome me. I can never be a legitimate citizen in this country.” The quest for revenge initially plays a part in Iljimae’s growing-up process, but unlike in the SBS version, this Iljimae learns to move beyond his personal baggage to grasp the bigger picture, the plight of his countrymen.

BUT — and it’s a big BUT — I still felt that the transition from Iljimae the Callow Drifter, to Iljimae the People’s Hero, wasn’t depicted convincingly enough. Iljimae spends more time fleeing from something or someone (whether it’s his own adoptive parents, the Qing general’s minions, the Joseon police, or Cat-man), than he does observing his countrymen and developing a deep sense of responsibility towards them. There is no definitive juncture in the story where Iljimae’s personal grievances (illegitimate birth, no mama, wrongly executed girlfriend), his newly awakened social consciousness, and his desire to fight the injustice and corruption crippling his homeland, all crystallize into one single aspiration and life mission.

In Episode 7, Iljimae confides to Uber-Zen Monk that in the three months since his return from Japan, he was able to go around the country and witness the true state of Joseon. This, I felt, was one of the most critical periods in his journey and the main impetus for his life mission as an extrajudicial crime-fighter, and the drama only mentions the whole thing in passing??? For goodness’ sake — show, don’t tell. Many extraneous scenes could’ve been shortened (or even jettisoned) to give Iljimae’s three-month exposure trip the precious screen time it so deserved. Because I was not yet convinced that even after doing time with the monk and after his ninja village sojourn, Iljimae was already the kind of hero who would later aid the police in busting the two smuggling gangs (in Ep. 8), or lend assistance to the Noble Noble (haha geddit?) secretly tasked by the king to manufacture cannons for their impending war with Qing (in Ep. 20). When — and more importantly, how — was this nationalistic, altruistic spirit awakened in Iljimae? Because I sure missed it.

Training: I had NO problem believing that Jung Il-woo could pull off all those crime-fighting exploits, because his Iljimae was simply the best-trained sageuk hero of the whole lot. I mean, from the kung-fu (or wire-fu? lol) training back in China, to the Jang Baek swordplay (care of Dal’s dad, the former war hero), to Iljimae’s three-year stay in a freakin’ ninja village — the guy had a virtual PhD in Ass-kicking. My fave Iljimae training scenes were the ones under Dal’s dad: breathtaking locations + ultra-cool blade workouts, all backed by the guitar riffs from the awesome OST = Incredible.

Barring the clunky clashes in the first episode, ROI has the coolest fight scenes I’ve seen in a sageuk: tight, thrilling, dynamic. The moonlight rooftop duel in Ep. 11 between Iljimae and the loan shark’s minion is my personal favorite: Iljimae wears the man down, turning his opponent’s strength (the moon blade) into his very weakness, drawing him out into a forest clearing before pinning him to a tree — and against the most perfect backdrop known to man: full moon in an indigo night — all making for great fight entertainment. (But really, did Dumb and Dumber — Bae Seon Dal and his sidekick, Dol Yi — have to be there in the scene with their running commentary? Ugh. More on them later.)


Portrayal: Yes I get it, we all get it, Jung Il-woo is Korea’s own Endymion — a remarkably beautiful male specimen, a cut above us mere mortals. But the drama sure likes to belabor this point. Like, to death. Every episode there’s some character who remarks Iljimae’s eye-appeal (e.g. “He looks like a girl!” “So this is Iljimae? What a pretty boy you are!”), which is amusing the first time, but gets tired and corny after a few repetitions. And as if the androgyny references weren’t enough, Iljimae gets dolled up as a girl several times throughout the story, and although Jung Il-woo certainly makes a fetching gisaeng, all that cross-dressing becomes borderline gratuitous. Still, ZOMG Jung Il-woo, what a pretty, pretty boy you are… (heh heh)

But unlike my Jdorama Johnnies, who dress and act like little horny cake boys most of the time, Jung Il-woo for all his porcelain-y perfection, paradoxically remains 100% masculine. I never got the gay vibes from him. Never. The way he moves is graceful but never limp, and that build is lean but athletic (though not overly muscular). Jung Il-woo reminds me of a more substantial Joo Ji-hoon… a much, much more substantial-looking Joo Ji-hoon, heh. (Sidebar: JJH was my biggest crush back in 2006-2007. And Goong will always have the singular distinction of being the only drama I marathoned in one sitting — including quick dashes to the bathroom and the pantry, of course — as in all 24 bleepin’ episodes. I was madly in love with that drama. And with Joo Ji-hoon, whom I will always remember with great fondness… though he is no longer with us, lol.)

There’s a certain… purity, an innocence to Jung Il-woo that lends itself well to this role. (Even during and after the Iljimae and Dal/Wol Hee love scenes, of which the SBS version has zilch, Jung Il-woo always seemed untouched by all that… carnality his character partook of, lol.) Which is fine up to some point, since the protagonist of a Bildungsroman always starts out this way: naïve, immature, a little ignorant of the ways of the world. But sometimes I felt that Jung Il-woo played it a little too naïve to be believable, judging from his reaction to Dal and her pops’ beheading in Eps. 5 and 6. If a little kid acted that way you’d totally understand, but I’d like to think that Iljimae’s upbringing in China, if more sheltered than the average adolescent, at least exposed him to a number of life’s realities such as death and suffering and injustice. It’s not like his adoptive parents kept him in a sanitized bubble for all sixteen years — or did they?

Another case in point: when Iljimae runs amok in Ep. 5 following the execution of Dal (as the last of her noble family sentenced to die on account of a trumped-up charge against her father from the previous Manchu invasion, tsk), he isn’t convincing AT ALL. He looked more like a kid throwing tantrums in the village square than a bereaved lover seething with vengeful resolve.


From reports and interviews, Jung Il-woo appears to be an intelligent, well-grounded and introspective young man. And good for him: heaven knows the fewer flakes there are in the biz, the better for everyone, yes? But could this also mean that as an actor, he tends to over-think his performances, so that they come across as self-conscious and emotionally static? For all his… gorgeousness, gentility and grace, Jung Il-woo lacks that spark of dynamism that I was looking for, or even a dash of danger lurking beneath the rather… stolid exterior. There’s nothing about him that really grabs you. Let’s just say that he acted best when wearing that ninja mask, yes? In fact, he’s particularly effective in a brief scene in Episode 17, where Iljimae broodingly runs his fingers against a stone wall at night, pain reflected in his eyes — good moment, that one.

Perhaps Jung Il-woo just needs to mature as an actor, and learn to connect to his characters more instinctively, more organically. His portrayal is at times too studied and not spontaneous enough, with too many shots of him looking off into the distance, all pensive and handsome and grave. (Uh, what’s this? Iljimae, the Thinking Bandit? Lol) Moments like these, he’s there in the scene… but he’s not really there, and becomes a (very pretty) part of the scenery — instead of filling up the screen with his presence, vitality and charisma (as Kang Ji-hwan did in Hong Gil Dong, like, all the freaking time).

WINNER: ROI. More thorough character development, ergo it’s easier to root for the fella. Besides, you want your heroes to act like they’re heroes, not ex-amnesiacs with a lifelong ax to grind. So yeah, as far as Iljimae portrayals go, I’ll take Jung Il-woo’s Phlegmatic Fugitive over Lee Jun-ki’s Bipolar Burglar any day of the year.

Next up:
Part 2 – The Leading Lady & the Romance Factor; The Other Characters
Part 3 (final) – The Plot & Narrative Devices; The Ending; Direction, Editing & Production Values

Photo credits: abroadcasting.tv, arabian @ d-addicts.com, babelpop.com, crunchyroll.com, dangermousie @ livejournal.com, epdrama.com, goodwill.weloveshopping.com, hancinema.net, hanfever.com, jazzholic.com, koreandrama.org, koreanmovie.com, krfilm.net, orionbeat.com, popseoul.com, post-its.blogspot.com, sbs2.blogfa.com, seoulbeats.com, soompi.com, the-double-0-project.net, video4viet.com

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23 Comments on “Drama Smackdown (Part 1): Iljimae (SBS, 2008) vs. The Return of Iljimae (MBC, 2009)”

  1. […] Here is the original: Drama Smackdown (Part 1): Iljimae (SBS, 2008) vs. The Return of … […]

    • just me Says:

      Very interesting.
      I’ve watched both and found Iljimae easier on the eye as basic entertainment.

      ….i really liked the first Iljimae because, well, of course we already know this is based on folklore and the blastful nature of the opening score already sets the pace that you don’t have to believe it just enjoy the presentation that looks real…which they did very well I must say. And that is what is enjoyable about any tale that you hear…we don;’t question its reality because it is A LONG ago story.

      As for ROI, they used beautiful landscapes and the narration to create a sense of surrealness…a less dramatic approach, which even if it doesn’t get my immediate attention, does give me time to reflect on the character developments…different, still enjoyable.

      I feel LJK simply approached the character in a straightforward asian type acting…the kind you would see in most asian tv dramas while JIW approached it in a natural subtle way, much that you would see in films….both did justice to the particular creative effect that the drama wants to create. I think Iljimae is easier to digest for most ages from young to old…family drama and all that…but for the newer version…it takes viewers who appreciate irony, art , humour in subtlety to hang on longer

      I don’t think LJK’s acting was bipolar (Big LOL…nice description). But I think the audience was just ‘priviledged’ to see his ‘two identities’ Just imagine if we were only seeing him as a friend with that one happy face….we wouldn’t even suspect him of having anything to hide. Hence him hiding his grievances to protect his loved ones is just one of his ‘heroic effort’. And we all know that most comedians use humour to mask or relieve tragic experiences in their lives.I just wished he could cry more manly (don’t ask how) and less innocently when Boon Song crashed into the sea with her adopted dad.

      As for IJW, he doesn’t have much of a problem of hiding because of his disattachment to society…he doesn’t hide his identity from his loved ones..he doesn’t have to mingle to investigate…the only problem is there should be some big demented change in expression when he was killing or running amok in the street after his love interests died. ( A bigger expression?…still, don’t ask how) He looked lost innocent and untouched, not dishevelled or roughed up suffered turbulence to cause that much of a ruckus in the whole town.

      Furthermore having him turn into a total murderous lunatic everytime his love interest dies puts me off…umn good thing Wol Hee survived the fall… but she’s human… so she’d better well live longer than he does..???..where is that turning, developed maturity?… Or is it just too bad that he has to demo to the audience that he loves Wol Hee just as much as Dal Min? sigh….

      It is also questionable about the almost too intimate speedy romances between the lead roles. So that might explain for the ratings with regards to family viewers…not for all ages..or PG rated… It also seems questionable to me that a father might allow the daughter to shelter a vagabond in too much of an intimate manner??? especially in such periodic times???Yet again, suspense in disbelief because ROI did begin with a modern era….so..err..modern practices in olden times?

      So my take is iljimae because of its simplicity and execution….umn…minus the ending….even for a cliffhanger, it was too abrupt and unsatisfying…due to confusion, not because you want to know what happened next.

      Well nothing’s perfect…

  2. sophie Says:

    Fun post 🙂 Thanks for sharing! I’ve only kept up with ROI and know nothing about LJK’s version. I loved ROI and JIW is wonderful.

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Thanks! Parts 2 & 3 should be up later today. 😀

      Well, I didn’t love ROI, it didn’t grab my heart the way Hong Gil Dong did, but I do appreciate the care and detail that went into this production.

      Re Jun-ki’s Iljimae, you might want to give the first few eppies a try, if only for the entertainment value, heh heh… >DDDD

  3. jicks Says:

    But unlike my Jdorama Johnnies, who dress and act like little horny cake boys most of the time, Jung Il-woo for all his porcelain-y perfection, paradoxically remains 100% masculine. I never got the gay vibes from him. ^lol It’s great fun poking fun @ our JE boys, I must say. But we all know it’s all w/ copious amounts of lurve xDD

    I enjoyed reading the post but I haven’t gotten around to seeing either series. May do given Jung Il Woo looks pretty divine in period costume. An Jun Ki is so delicately girly beyond words.

    Though I don’t really go out of my way to see Korean period dramas (bar Damo & Hwang Jin I because I am in love w/ Ha Ji Won xDD) I blame Dae Jang Geum for this. The bazillion number of eps made me wanna pull my hair out.

    But what I really wanted to comment on was the Ju Ji Hoon loveness! He is still w/ us, just slightly under the influence that’s all! Sorry, that was a cheap shot ><;; Truthfully, I genuinely heart that man & am more than eager for his return. Will def be supporting such a good-looking being's return to the ent industry *fingers crossed*

    P.S. Goong ❤ The most colourfully rich visual feast of a series that I've ever scene. But sitting 24eps straight??? Did you even brush your teeth during that time?? I think you need to be awarded some sort of medal or something…

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      “Copious amounts of lurve” — heck yeah, plus maybe a dash of denial and self-mortification, haha. But you know the world just wouldn’t be the same without our favorite JE *cough*whipping*cough* boys…… XD

      I haven’t seen Hwang Jini (I guess I don’t love Ha Ji-won that much 😉 ), but Damo absolutely rocked. Love it to bits, def. my fave sageuk ever. (Dayum, Dae Jang Geum — I bought the whole disc set but to this day have yet to watch a single eppy. I dunno, but the cooking-doctoring-palace-y stuff just never appealed to me. Gimme swordplay under the moonlight! Arrrrr!!!!)

      Re JJH, oh your “cheap shot” was priceless. 😀 I guess I’ll never fully realize how big a deal celebrity drug abuse is in Korea, and the corresponding sanctions. Here it’s like, “oh just send the actor to rehab, so he can do his scheduled movie project in 6 months” haha. Anyway, I’m also looking forward to the Return of Joo Ji-hoon (from his military service), and I hope the Korean public will be extra forgiving. *crosses toes*

      OMG come to think of it, I did NOT brush my teeth at all during my Goong marathon!!! *shudders at the memory* I cannot believe I actually pulled it off. I watched it with 2 of my girlfriends and they had dozed off midway, but I was kept awake by the chemistry and the story and the lovely sets and the OST and Joo Ji-hoon… plus vats upon vats of really strong coffee, hehe. 😀

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Pryscila Santos, NeeNee. NeeNee said: http://bit.ly/duPVE4 and Iljimae drama smackdown by Ender's Girl […]

  5. ditdut Says:

    Yay, finally. ROI is one of my favourite dramas of all time. I didn’t watch Iljimae so I have always been curious how these two Iljimaes compare and contrast against each other. Awesome write up!

    Good point about JIW’s “too studied” acting. Even on screen you can see how he works hard but there’s a lack of naturalism. It just feels straight and meticulous.

    Okiess, on to the next part!

  6. […] Smackdown: Iljimae (SBS, 2008) vs. Return of Iljimae (MBC, 2009) PART 1:: PART 2:: PART […]

  7. v Says:

    love you! and this review! agree with most things you said.. not all because i am completely jung il woo biased since his high kick days.. lol! love lee jun ki too but i have to agree. too much overeacting in iljimae. his hottest hottie role for me was in fly daddy fly i guess but i loved him as an actor is in the king and the clown. lol to your reference to goong. i dont remember if i finished that one in one sitting but proabably smthing along that line. i really like JJH as prince shin in it (poor him.. hopes he recovers and wakes up during his army days) but i was in love with the other prince. and for iljimae development as a hero.. i do agree that they should have developed more but there were always indications (like when he defended the korean kid against the chinese noble kid). and LMAO at PhD at ass-kicking. i swear you are a great writer!

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      thanks! i think the ROI fans, though outnumbered by the Iljimae diehards (as the ratings show), have such a fierce and abiding love for this drama that goes beyond pop fandom. i think it’s actually very sweet and lovely.

      lololol @ “(poor him.. hopes he recovers and wakes up during his army days)” 😀 😀 😀 when joo ji-hoon had his lovely long locks shorn off before entering the army, i felt so sad for him, lol. oh well. the army stint is probably the best thing that can happen to his career at this point. hope he comes out clean. (and buff! lol oh no i don’t know if i want him in any other way than his usual anorexic self @__@ )

      • v Says:

        who knows.. you might be surprised.. like go soo turned out quite okay with six packs after his army training. altho you’re right, i can’t imagine him as anything but lean and princely. and yeah, i agree.. the army might do good to his career. hope both people and he forget his darker days.. who knows.. baek ji young did get away with a sex scandal.

  8. justme Says:


  9. Amanda Says:

    you didn’t get the story of Iljimae correct at all Yong as he was known by the villagers acted that way to cover that he was in pain and throw off those that would suspect him
    his acts were not for pure revenge though it was a good motivation it was not the only one you can see this by him infiltrating the palace and confronting the king for not hearing the peoples complaints
    also he stole from the corrupt nobles not because they had info on his parentage but because they were being unjust

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Hi! Thanks for stopping by and sharing your comments! 🙂

      I get your point about Yong acting like the village douche as a personality cover. You’re right, I don’t think I touched on that underlying motive as much as I should have. But my main beef was with Jun-ki’s portrayal, which I found too hammy for my taste — even if it was all an act. I’m not a fan of Jun-ki’s tendency to overact (the way he did in certain scenes in Time of Dog and Wolf, for example). Even if his asinine behavior in Iljimae was just a cover, it still felt overdone and I wish Jun-ki had tempered his performance with some subtlety and depth. That way he wouldn’t have been so annoying as Yong, lol.

  10. chocolateyD Says:

    Dude, this whole thingee is liked based on a biased opinion! u can tell by the way this post describes sbs iljimae and r.o.i. it was a waste of time reading this… sigh

  11. emperor Says:

    just saying that i love the lee jun ki version better and you must be crazy to think that he behaves like a girl and he just got to me i really love the show and i dont think that tthe other version is better than the lee jun ki version any way i loved this post keep it up but the next time you want to post some thing please aknowledge lee jun ki because i think that he is the best!!

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Where in this post did I say Jun-ki acted like a girl? You have to admit that his looks are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean he “behaves like a girl.”

      If you were looking for praise for Jun-ki maybe you stumbled across the wrong review — or the wrong drama, for that matter. His acting was better in Time of Dog and Wolf, IMO. 🙂

  12. shashine Says:

    I tried to watch ROI but stopped about half way through because it was starting to get super boring. Plus, I have to tell you, The plot of this movie is too slow and hackneyed that kind of bothered me!,also HGD I swear I can feel my brain cells dying! I only watched the first ten minutes of it. I personally think “Iljimae SBS” is a great saeguk drama ever. So no worries, man! 🙂

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Oh but I enjoyed Hong Gil Dong 934983 x more than ROI heh heh 😉 (I mean come ONNN — Kang Ji-hwan over Lee Jun-ki any day, baby!!! xD) I think I enjoyed Jun-ki’s performance best in Time of Dog and Wolf — but different strokes & stuff, so no worries at all 🙂

  13. Sadako Says:

    Again one of these (few) reviews trying desperately to demonstrate that the poorly rated ROI was, IN FACT, wayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy better than SBS’s successful drama. That Iljimae doesn’t at all deserve the love it gets and the hype that surrounds it. Like you said, it’s a matter of opinion but let’s face it, there are objective reasons why Iljimae was a smash hit and MBC’s Return of Iljimae a failure in terms of ratings. Narration and pacing, acting, action, directing, everything was superior in Iljimae. Filming beautiful landscapes doesn’t mean you’re a great director. Displaying one or two facial expressions like Jung Il Woo did during the first 15 episodes of ROI doesn’t mean you’re close to a “subtle” actor, just that you’re inexperienced. Voice over was heavy and unbearable most of the time, making it difficult for the viewer to get into the story. First 10 episodes were incredibly boring. Only the last 10 were worth watching but how brave must I have been to go to such lengths (boredom + some very uninspired acting from several supporting actors). Trying hard to make an “author” series, Hwang In Roe just managed to build some pretentious drama where each glimpse of dramatic tension is avoided like the plague. That’s not how you catch an audience.
    On the opposite, Iljimae comes to terms with its popular nature, it is entertainment in the noble sense of the word and the storytelling is one of the best I’ve seen in a drama. Fast pace and clear narration. Dynamic directing and editing. Individual and ensemble acting are fantastic, you can feel the pleasure they had while acting which is quite unusual. The whole drama exudes this kind of spark. As for action scenes, I think you should watch more martial arts movies: Lee Jun Ki’s moves are much more accurate and impressive than Jung Il Woo’s. He knows martial arts and some acrobatic techniques and it shows. He’s fast and precise; he delivers like a movie star. And Lee Yong Suk’s directing is on par with his skills, offering us some of the most spectacular action scenes seen in a TV series. Pure joy for the Hong Kong movie fan. ROI’s action scenes are OK in the last episodes but just can’t compare. No excitement.
    As for Lee Jun Ki’s acting, it’s a brilliant performance. A bold one. Not some pretty boy showing his best profile for the camera while looking seemingly depressed but an actor taking risks, giving all he has and more, physically and emotionally, thus creating episode after episode an incredibly rich and touching character. This kind of unique character that we cannot get out of our head – and heart. He carries the show with passion, playing the goofy man-child with the same ease as the super hot masked hero. Playing a character that plays his own character after rediscovering his identity. Once again, just brilliant. If you think Geom/Yong is just motivated by revenge, then you haven’t understood the character nor the drama. Social issues have a prominent part in Iljimae, it’s clear since the first episode.
    I know one cannot always have the same opinion as the majority. I for example don’t understand why so many people are crazy about Coffee Prince or Secret Garden. But I just let them be. The case of Iljimae is special because there was rivalry between the shows and this reflects on some viewers. Some people feel the urge to tell those who loved the first one for very good reasons that they were wrong, that the second one was in fact better as if we were talking of some little independent movie vs. the big blockbuster. But ROI is not some little production lost in space, there is clearly some budget in this drama. Plus it had the rights of the original material. SBS’s Iljimae had one well-known lead but he was definitely not the most bankable at the time. The other actors were not stars at all. There is nothing unfair in the reception that these two shows got at the time they aired. Nothing.

  14. keiji Says:

    I’ll judge the two series by the consequences in my life. Let’s see what happened after seeing the two TV-series.

    1. SBS “Iljimae”
    Reason for watching: Trying to see again the smile of Han HyoJoo / “DongYi”
    – I’ve rewatched it once (and I’m preparing for a 3rd because of my other private “Iljimae”-related projects).
    – I’m playing “Lonely Footsteps” on my guitar.
    – I’m studying Korean from “Iljimae”‘s transcript.
    – I’m making my own subtitles to “Iljimae”.
    – I’ve become a “fan” of Lee JunKi (watching movies, listening songs, buying books – “Hello Korean”).

    2. MBC “Return of Iljimae”
    Reason for watching: Some people said it’s better than SBS’s “Iljimae” or at least a very good show. I knew it was a different story, so I tried to let myself go with the pace.
    – I haven’t lost my time watching it. It was a pretty nice TV-serie.
    – I don’t know the name of the main actor.
    – I can’t remember any song from the OST.
    – I wouldn’t watch it again since it’s just a k-drama in the ocean of dramas.
    – All it remains is the memory of the “funny” walk&voice of HyongBo.

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