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