Drama Smackdown (Part 2): Iljimae (SBS, 2008) vs. The Return of Iljimae (MBC, 2009)

Pretty Boy Wonders: The Iljimae Smackdown!

Part Two

by Ender’s Girl

[Read Part One of Smackdown]

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The Leading Lady & the Romance Factor

The thing about these masked adventurer stories is that there’s room for only ONE superhero, just ONE dude who fights crime and does all that manly, maaaanly stuff. Ergo, behind every costumed crusader is — a damsel who needs rescuing! And even if all this ever does is perpetuate evil sexist stereotypes, sometimes all you want the heroine to do is look pretty and scream prettier until the hero saves her. These types of stories, I don’t look for female empowerment and gender sensitivity and all that wet-blankety stuff (lol). Sometimes you just want a Good Escape. And don’t these swashbuckling tales make for great fantasy fodder, after all? I mean, screw real life: Hero need woman! Woman give hero sexy time! Bad guy capture woman! Hero save woman! Woman give hero sexy time! Bad guy capture woman!… And so they go, and so they go, these bold and sensational archetypes for the ages.

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Iljimae:

You get a vanilla actor to essay a vanilla role, and what do you have? Han Hyo-joo as Iljimae’s Ladylove, Eun Chae the Humanitarian, who is soooo utterly perfect you’ll be bored to tears from her bland smiles and 101 Charitable Pursuits. She feels like a composite of Mother Teresa, Princess Di, Albert Schweitzer, Jimmy Carter, William Booth, Muhammad Yunus, and Angelina Jolie (um, okay, maybe without Angelina’s scariness lol) all rolled into one fetching package. Han Hyo-joo seems to be the go-to girl for playing unattainably pretty and unattainably saintly stereotypes (the few episodes of Spring Waltz that I watched made me snore — and I wasn’t even asleep yet, lol), but you’ve got to admit that what little the Eun Chae role required, Han Hyo-joo pretty much delivered. Prettily.

The BLAH-factor of actor and character notwithstanding, I actually enjoyed the romance of Iljimae, which essentially crossbred conventions from two disparate genres: K-dramas, and masked adventurer fiction. While by no means original, this hybrid formula was at least entertaining, and worked in a way that the love story in ROI just didn’t for me. The K-drama romance elements are more obvious in the first few episodes than later on in the story: Young Geom and Eun Chae meet as children — a single, life-changing instant that irrevocably seals their OTP in the heavens, yadda yadda. Throw in a really pretty locale or object (in their case, The One and Only Plum Tree!) that serves to symbolize said OTP and remind the two of Their! Pledge! Of! Love! later as adults. And POOF! — you have the premise of a thousand other K-dramas, regardless of setting or plot or characters.

While this drama certainly could’ve done without all that kiddie-virtual-betrothal stuff (it’s one of the things I dislike about K-dramas), what I enjoyed was the general dynamic of the love story. Compared to ROI, the romance arc in Iljimae stays close to mainstream pulp hero canon — and that’s what solidified its entertainment value for me. Whether it’s Zorro or Spider-Man or Batman or Spring Heeled Jack — or any other luminary from humanity’s vast constellation of Superheroes and Mystery Men, the common denominator to the romance aspect of such stories is the emotional dichotomy between the Heroine’s feelings for the Hero, and her feelings for his crime-busting Alter Ego. The same formula is used in Iljimae — to satisfying results, if I may say.

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The emotional dichotomy: Eun Chae finds herself deeply attracted to the dashing masked bandit codenamed Iljimae — and even cultivates an idol complex towards him, believing his exploits are rooted in the same public-spirited ideals she upholds. At the same time she’s briefly drawn to Yong the Poor (lol), and even shares a few cute moments with him — like their awkward meeting on the branches of The One and Only Plum Tree, or a little later when Yong defends Eun Chae’s honor from that horrid Qing boy. But — true to formula — she soon gets repulsed by Yong’s slacker façade, and makes it very clear what a scumbag he is for falling in with Greasy Hair’s band of ruffians who like to beat up cabbage vendors (bad ruffians! bad ruffians!).

But Eun Chae’s feelings for Iljimae continue to grow, especially when he shows he’s equally interested in her. And he IS — although this intense attraction is also mingled with an ulterior, more utilitarian motive (i.e. he needs her to get to vital evidence that can point him to the Ultimate Baddie). Their nighttime encounters have all the hallmarks of the said genre: the mystique of his masked persona, the moonlight abductions, the illicitness of their trysts, the pervading sense of danger. It’s all very exhilarating, even a little erotic — in a way that the love story in ROI (for all the bed scenes, lol) isn’t. It also helps that despite their limitations as actors, Lee Jun-ki and Han Hyo-joo have CHEMISTRY, something I failed to see between Jung Il-woo and Yoon Jin-seo.

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For Uber-Good Girl Eun Chae, there’s nothing more wildly romantic than to be whisked out of your palanquin after nightfall by a mysterious outlaw, or to hide in a roadside ditch, whispering secrets in the dark, or to get carried off on a horse to the outlaw’s underground inner sanctum, or (!!!) to sit high up in a tree with him, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. (Quick comments on this scene: W0000T. Nice buildup, especially when Iljimae balks at Eun Chae’s plea to “Show me your face,” but slips on a blindfold (heh heh) before laying one on her — in the true spirit of Zorro and Spidey and all the other Masked Heroes of Unascertained Identity who have ever canoodled with their ladyloves since time immemorial. But, um, for such a great buildup, the Lee Jun-ki + Han Hyo-joo lip action was laaaaame. Kiss her s’more, dammit! And kiss him back, dammit! Aigoooo *bangs head* But it’s a good thing Iljimae remembered to take off his iron face guard before smooching Eun Chae, or that horrible metal beak would’ve… would’ve… oh, I won’t even try to imagine it. Eeewwww.)

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But all those scenes with them perched on a tree left me wondering: how the hey did they get up there? Did Iljimae use a grappling hook to hoist both of them up? Did they, uh, scamper up the tree like monkeys? (Very unlikely, with that high-maintenance girlfriend tsk, lol.) Because anyone who’s ever tried it knows that it ain’t the most romantic thing in the world to climb up 9 ft., panting from exertion and scraping your face on the bark along the way, and end up perched prettily on a bough still looking like a million bucks, DOH. And not once does Eun Chae ever put two and two together after their — oh, 934,727,732 dates in the same spot. (What do the plum blossoms tell you, Eun Chae? What do they tell you???? Could it be that… Geom = Yong = Iljimae, hmmm? Yes? Yes??? *sigh*)

The romance dynamic inevitably changes when — and here’s where the formula reverts to the ol’ K-drama clichés — Iljimae discovers Byun Sik’s complicity in the murder conspiracy. And surprise, surprise, the said court official happens to be his ladylove’s own father, tsk. What to do, what to do? The Iljimae-Eun Chae relationship sours on her end as well, because now she realizes he was using her all along to infiltrate their home and steal the incriminating record book, tsk. Well, the MOAR angst the better, because it cranks up the emotional momentum going into the final act of the drama: Eun Chae’s abduction and torture at the hands of Mr. Evil, Sa Cheon, and her subsequent rescue by Iljimae (yippee). But even when she’s out of danger, he dumps her — to save her!!! Well, like I said, the more angst, the better.

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There is, however, a difference between romantic angst, and pure ickiness. Romantic angst is when the guy can’t be with his ladylove because he has a secret identity to protect, or his work is too dangerous for her to be involved in (e.g. Yong and Eun Chae). Pure ickiness is when the guy can’t be with his ladylove because — um, well, they think they’re siblings, eeeeeeeewwwwwwww (e.g. Shi Hoo and Eun Chae). (What have you to say for yourself, Shi Hoo??? Oh… just go shoot some arrows, will you? Topless. And flex your biceps. S’more. Good boy.) Yeah I know they aren’t biologically related after all, but the fact that Shi Hoo, from his early teens to adulthood, grew up thinking he and Eun Chae were half-siblings, and STILL developed romantic feelings for her… is. simply. inexcusably eeeeeeeeeewwwwwww. This is the Autumn Tale/Autumn in My Heart treatment all over again, i.e. It’s-not-technically-incest-because-one-of-us-got-switched-at-birth-so-this-totally-validates-my-creepy-feelings-for-you-and-I-wish-I-could-tell-you-how-much-I-get-off-everytime-you-call-me-“oppa.” Well, K-drama writers and PDs who love to do pseudo-incest stories, it’s not just the letter of the law that matters, but the spirit of the law!!! *pounds gavel* (Foooolsssss!!!!!!) Ugh. Yuckity yuckity.

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The Return of Iljimae (ROI):

So there’s just ONE actor (Yoon Jin-seo) playing Iljimae’s First Love Dal Yi, the Love of His Life Wol Hee, and Wol Hee’s reincarnated modern-day self (the lute!!! it’s the telltale lute!!!)??? FOR REAL??????? Was this a cop-out by the drama’s PD who didn’t want to antagonize the Jung Il-wooxYoon Jin-seo shippers?????? Oh looky, it’s okay that Dal died, because when Iljimae falls in love again, he’ll essentially be kissing (and shtupping) the same lady!!! Wow wow wow!!! No. NONONO. Ugh. This is what I disliked the most about the casting of the ROI leading lady, that they stripped Dal’s character (or Wol Hee’s, depends how you look at it) of every last inch of her integrity. How can you feel for either woman if she isn’t even her own person? Yoon Jin-seo is a fine actress (I mean, Old Boy — oh boy), but my issue is with how the female characters were written and subsequently cast — which, for me, was a huge stumbling block to fully appreciating the love story of ROI.

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Iljimae’s budding romance with Dal, with all the shiny, pink-hued feelings of First Love, is too brief for the viewer to invest in. But his later relationship with Wol Hee, unquestionably a more complicated, more mature trajectory spanning years and marked by separation, marriage jitters, other commitment issues, and yes — lots of shtupping (cue song: Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” lol), failed to move me because “doppelganger! doppelganger! doppelganger!” kept niggling at the back of my head. What’s regretful is that I had no objection to Iljimae falling for two different women at different points in his life, because this was far more believable than him having just one OTP forever and ever. Life… just… happens, y’know: you fall in love, you lose someone, you move on, and when the time is right, you might even love again. Had a different actor played Dal, it would’ve been absolutely fine by me. But what the PD did in casting the same actor in both roles (or all three roles, including the modern-day incarnation), suspiciously reeked of fan appeasement. Not cool. At all.

When Iljimae shacks up with Wol Hee after his Japan exile, the new couple’s moments together swing from cute to… very cute. There’s a sequence towards the end of Ep. 8, where Wol Hee helps Iljimae at the forge in between their “sexy time” (lol) bedroom romps. But everything was sweetly and tastefully done, so it’s all gravy. And there’s a funny moment later on where Wol Hee makes Iljimae and Screechy Beggar Dude wash the dishes after the two basically just mooch off her food and living space for weeks, lol. But this scene raises the potentially knotty matter of their cohabitation, and explores the expectations that women (in this case, Wol Hee) have while in a relationship. Iljimae obviously treats this playing house more casually than Wol Hee does, but when he proposes over the clothesline (and she naturally accepts, and when he nods without looking up, then smiles and thanks her — I squeed, heh heh. Jung Il-woo was just so damn cute), the scene is — yeah, cute at best, but you know Iljimae proposes more to mollify Wol Hee than anything, because at this point, his feelings for Dal are still there.

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The story tries to create incidents meant to up the emotional ante of the Iljimae-Wol Hee romance, but they mostly come off woefully wanting. Take, for instance, the pseudo love triangle with Iljimae, Wol Hee and the lassie whom Iljimae frees from the baddies and hides deep in the mountains. It’s not long before Lassie takes a shine to her hot young rescuer (of course), but when Iljimae brings the chit home to, uh, Wol Hee’s house, the drama spends an entire episode belaboring Wol Hee’s feelings of jealousy amid Lassie’s insinuations that she and Iljimae made mountaintop nookie all night long. And ai! caramba, Iljimae does NOTHING to disabuse Wol Hee of her misapprehension, going about the house without so much as a “Don’t worry, I never touched her, like, eeew.” Nothing, he does nothing, and the writing spins out this already tiresome episode until you stop caring about anything in particular.

And here’s my beef: I could never really buy into Iljimae being capable of mad, passionate, I-jump-you-jump love for Wol Hee, or even for Dal. Even after he believes Wol Hee is dead and stuff, and he goes bonkers with grief and all that, by this time my investment was so far gone, I was sick and tired of wishing he’d be more affectionate towards this woman who put everything she had on the line just for him. He never tries to make her happy — heck, I wasn’t even convinced he ever really WAS completely happy, even with her.

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I could’ve liked Wol Hee (even more than Dal), really I could. I admired how levelheaded she was, and how she was prepared to go against social mores by — gasp! — working as a book transcriber after her father’s death. But when she wandered all over Joseon, distraught and looking for Iljimae (who dumped her and Screechy Beggar Dude in some mountaintop hut before wordlessly taking off — to protect her, of course… I think), did she really have to do that? Her 10,000++ “I am Wol Hee, the ever-patient and long-suffering girlfriend, I have no life apart from Iljimae” moments — were they really necessary? So much for being ahead of her time and all that. And when she finally catches up with Iljimae, who then wastes no time in breaking up with her, OH MY GOODNESS GRACIOUS, DID SHE REALLY HAVE TO JUMP OFF THAT CLIFF????????? WWWWWTTTTTTTFFFFFFFFFFFFFF?????!@!?@!?!??!?@?!?? Because she literally couldn’t live without her man? This wasn’t unconditional love, this was codependency. Like, one step away from being a psycho girlfriend with suicidal tendencies, yesss? Horrible way to write a character!

And later, the fact that Wol Hee actually survived the drop with nary a scratch, and even had time to hobble away and hide while Iljimae came a-looking for her — HA HA HA HA. And Iljimae tearing down the cliff, crying out her name — okay, that was moving. But when he couldn’t find the body, wouldn’t he first be, um, you know, puzzled? Perplexed? Bewildered? No “hey… if I can’t find her broken, lifeless corpse, what can I infer from this strange, inexplicable situation?” Because Iljimae just gives her up for dead and, um, next thing we know, he’s going all Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! on random Joseon baddies. By this time, it actually felt gratifying to see Iljimae act like, um, Universal Soldier: that’s right, I’d say, just be a badass killing machine, screw love and women!!! *evil laughter*

But, well, it was not meant to be (nuts! lol). Which is all right, because the lovers are reunited a few episodes later — after Wol Hee nurses a bullet-riddled Iljimae back to life in the mountaintop monastery. I thought their reunion wouldn’t be for another couple of eppies, but — well, at least they got that major relationship hiccup out of the way. Ep. 21 has my favorite Iljimae-Wol Hee scene of all, aka “It Ain’t Easy Being an Outlaw’s GF” (cue song: “Bonnie and Clyde” by Jay-Z ft. Beyoncé: “All I need in this life of sin/ Is me and my girlfriend (me and my girlfriend) / Down the ride ‘til the very end / It’s me and my boyfriend (me and my boyfriend)…”). Lol, sorry, got carried away. But seriously, I loved that tender, quiet moment with the two lying in bed back to back (look, ma, no sex!), and Wol Hee muses aloud, “When can we live together, like other people do? Will that day ever come?” And Iljimae turns to her and says simply, “It’ll come.” — before taking Wol Hee into his arms. Lovely, lovely, lovely moment.

WINNER: Iljimae. The romance in Iljimae is less explored than in ROI, but it’s smoother (albeit more conventional), and without the rough patches of sheer WTF?-ness (e.g. suicide attempts! doppelgangers!) that ROI suffers from. And I always felt that Lee Jun-ki’s Iljimae was more in it to win it (read: more emotionally invested in his relationship), than Jung Il-woo ever was. And Han Hyo-joo may be the lesser actor, but I gravitated more toward her character than to Yoon Jin-seo’s clingy, passive-aggressive turn as Wol Hee.

The Other Characters

I’m quite ambivalent toward the casts of Iljimae and ROI, because they’re such a mixed bag: some characters I loved to bits, while others I wasn’t too crazy for — or even flat out detested.

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Iljimae:

With just a few glaring exceptions, the Iljimae supporting cast brought a lot of heart and maturity to this otherwise puerile exercise, and so were chiefly responsible for keeping me around for all 20 episodes of the drama. Whether these characters were mostly good (Swe Dol the Locksmith and Dani, oh Dani), mostly rotten (Byun Sik and Shi Wan — Eun Chae’s dad and brother, respectively), or a mad, conflicted mixture of both (Shi Hoo!!! aigooo Shi Hoo, lol), they mostly felt like real people to me, with flaws and strengths rounding out their very human dispositions.

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I grew to love Swe Dol’s (Lee Moon-shik) gap-toothed smile, his boundless optimism, and his unconditional love for his two sons — and for the slave girl he could not stand to see thrown out like dross. I was heavily invested in Swe Dol and Dani’s (Kim Sung-ryung) own little love story; it was a delight to watch him break down her walls of bitterness and heartache with his earnest charm, for the way he went about it was sweet and comically tentative, that you couldn’t NOT root for a happy ending for this unlikely couple, though it later proved to be all too brief. (Damn.) Swe Dol did not deserve the life (or the end) that he got, and when he was gone, I mourned the loss of this drama’s truest and most faithful character.

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There’s also a soft spot in my heart for Byun Sik (Lee Won-jong), the capricious court official who could swing from jovial to ruthless in a heartbeat, and whose one redeeming point was his being a doting father to Eun Chae, the sweetest and brightest apple of his eye. Same goes for his supercilious, lily-livered junior, Shi Wan (Kim Moo-yul), who may not have inherited his father’s intimidating presence, but certainly made up for it with a different brand of vileness: the sneering, strutting, snickering kind that you just loooove to hate. I truly enjoyed watching both actors attack their roles with a total commitment to squeezing out their most odious aspects, but without pitching headlong into caricature portrayals.

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But my best-loved character would have to be Iljimae’s own half-brother Shi Hoo (Park Shi-hoo, played as a teenager by Lee David). Brooding, conflicted Shi Hoo is the meatiest and most interesting character on this drama, his life the one most buffeted about by Fate or Chance. His story reads like an effin’ soap opera: raised in poverty, given up by his parents to live with a rich hoity-toity couple (having been led to believe that Byun Sik is his biological father), falling in love with his (wrongly presumed) half-sister, indirectly causing the death of his own true half-sister, losing Eun Chae to Iljimae, vowing to bring Iljimae to justice only to find out — tadaaaaa — they’re brothers!!!, etc. etc. Park Shi-hoo gets full marks for treading the murky psychological waters of Shi Hoo’s soul with incredible sensitivity and conviction. (And that beefy build of his doesn’t hurt at all, oh no no no….) My favorite Yong + Shi Hoo moment would be in Episode 4, where the brothers go all Ong-Bak on each other in a pulpy, visceral style that would do JCVD proud (Bloodsport! Kickboxer! Universal Soldier! lol).

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Also notable: Kudos to Son Tae-young (aka “The Missus” to Mr. Hallyu himself, Kwon Sang-woo) for her brief but heart-rending performance as Geom’s noona, who momentarily crosses paths with her long-lost brother — before meeting her unhappy end on the gallows. And I kind of like how Kim Chang-wan’s portrayal of King Injo is more fretful, world-weary geezer than deranged, cackling, monarch — which was Jo Hee-bong’s take on King Gwanghaegun in Hong Gil Dong. Too bad the Injo character doesn’t get to do much besides sigh and worry about losing his throne, so there’s not much to say about this performance. Ditto for the king’s shady chief henchman, Sa Cheon (Kim Roe-ha), who does little besides scheme in the shadows with his own sidekick, Pointy Hat. But at least these two baddies are nowhere near the cartoonish excess of…

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…The conning duo of Reformed Warrior-Monk Gong He (Ahn Kil-kang) and his ward, Bong Soon (Lee Young-ah), whose slapstick routine — sight gags, bawdy wisecracks, clownish antics — sucked the funny out of this drama like those oversized underwater annelids from Attack of the Giant Leeches. I mentioned there were a few glaring exceptions to the otherwise commendable supporting cast, and these two — Warrior-Monk and Bong Soon — are exactly who I had in mind. Together with Lee Jun-ki (whenever he was being his manic self, that is), their crude characterizations had no place amid the rest of the cast, who thankfully kept their performances more grounded in realism. Instead of feeling amused by their shenanigans, I only felt irritated. And instead of investing emotionally in their decidedly serious backstories (Warrior-Monk trying to make amends for his “Hitokiri Battousai” past, and Bong Soon finding out that her adoptive dad and mentor was responsible for dispatching her entire family, tsk), by the time their sub-plot reached its melodramatic climax, I was past caring.

Visual comedy is a tricky thing because either it works, or it doesn’t. And when it fails, it really, really fails. There’s a reason why the likes of Chaplin, Larry/Curly/Moe, and even Rowan Atkinson, have elevated this style to an art form, and why so many lesser attempts only fall flat on their face. To the viewer, visual comedy may look broad and clumsy, but the artist must learn to wield this stylistic tool with finesse and restraint, and with a keen understanding of when, where, and how it should be used. Because it’s all about the context of the humor: visual comedy is not an end in itself, but merely a medium for conveying a story. And if it diminishes the viewer’s enjoyment of the story rather than enhance it, then the whole exercise is futile.

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ROI:

My favorite characters, bar none? Why, Goo Ja Myeong (Kim Min-jong) and Baek Mae (Jung Hye-young), naturally!!! Gifted and mature actors both (especially Jung Hye-young, ZOMG what a performance), they took this drama to another level. Their scenes — whether together or apart, but better together! — kept me emotionally plugged into the Iljimae epic in a way that Jung Il-woo or Yoon Jin-seo’s performances couldn’t.

I remember Jung Hye-young OWNING the “Female Second Fiddle” role as Lee Seo-jin’s psycho-cripple girlfriend Mi-ran in the 2004 drama Boolsae (Firebird/Phoenix). As hackneyed as the stereotype was, she played it soooo deliciously crazy as Mi-ran, and her turn in ROI only validated her brilliance and versatility as an actor. Seeing her rock the part of Iljimae’s birth mother, the slave-girl-turned-gisaeng-turned-ginseng-grower Baek Mae, gave me alternating shivers of awe and sadness all throughout the drama. The scene where Baek Mae realizes that her beloved son, whom she believed was raised in (relative) comfort in her former master’s house, was actually abandoned at birth and is now considered a menace to society — WOW. Her heartache just… ate up the whole screen. You saw a mother’s pain, her great, gaping sadness, a soul stripped of joie de vivre and hope, and you believed it all.

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Enter brave, noble, conflicted Goo Ja Myeong (or my Teddy Bear Naeuri, as I’d call him), whose quiet, unshakable faith liberates Baek Mae from a life of emptiness and defeat. Awwww, don’t you just want to hug him??? I did every time I saw him! And I squeed big-time during his moments with Baek Mae — like the time he visits her at home in Ep. 11 to confess to her that: (1) “Iljimae is your son!” and (2) “I want to be his daddy!” (lol) My heart went into spasms watching Goo Ja Myeong strive to save Iljimae from imminent doom and reunite mother and son — at all costs. (His best line: “I never make promises I can’t keep.” *SOB*) And I knew it could only bode ill for this man so committed to upholding the law, for this gentle romantic who understood too well the harsh realities of the world in which they moved.

I just lived for the Teddy Bear Naeuri + Baek Mae moments, and kept wishing the drama had been about these two instead. Man, what a love story — about the Believer and the Cynic, a romance twenty years in the making. Their relationship resonates with the same maturity and self-restraint reminiscent of Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh’s characters in the 2000 wuxia film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And when Naeuri and Baek Mae consummate their long and tentative courtship in Episode 15, it’s such an incredibly romantic moment (and possibly my favorite scene of the drama): She invites him in for a drink, for a repast, for a chance to spend the night. He obliges gravely, sitting on the floor (and he can’t even look at her!!!) while she prepares the beddings, his hands clenching and unclenching at his sides. They recline slowly on the mattress and he waits till she’s ready, till she turns to him and melts into his embrace, and he holds her (w0000t nice biceps hehe) for the rest of the night. Goo Ja Myeong and Baek Mae’s story tells us that love is neither rushed nor forced; there is a right place and time for it, when a heart is yielded to another in sweet surrender.

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You’re kept on pins and needles as the drama delays, with delicious anticipation, the much-awaited meeting between Baek Mae and Iljimae. The two unwittingly cross paths so many times that I sounded like a broken record groaning and wailing, “Awww NUTS! Foiled again! Just look at the plum blossoms, Baek Mae!!! WHAT DO THE PLUM BLOSSOMS TELL YOU??!!?!??” (lol). My only bone to pick would be the manner by which Baek Mae learns of her son’s reported capture and execution as an outlaw (Iljimae having been framed by IgNoble for Teddy Bear Naeuri’s death *SOB*). She just hears about it from a traveling bureaucrat, who only got wind of it himself, and on the sole strength of this unfounded rumor, she decides to take her own life??? You’d think her resolve to see her son at last — living or dead — would prompt her to at least verify this piece of hearsay herself. Anyway, that quibble aside, Baek Mae’s final encounter with her son is simply… devastating.

Also notable: Goo Ja Myeong’s loyal damo Soo Ryun, who channels the pain of unrequited love so beautifully (another strong performance from Joo Soo-yeon, whom I first noticed in Goong). Park Geun-hyung playing the IgNoble Kim Ja Jeom is also effective as the resident bad guy, radiating Machiavellian wiles, power and greed while plotting to sell his own country down the Han river. And as for the ascetic old monk — yes, I was very fond of the codger, and it was so cool of him to show Iljimae all that tough love. (One of the best lines in ROI: “You are nothing but a flea.” => LOL that monk rawked!)

Another character I admired was that of Yang Po, the hirsute swordsman-archer of dubious allegiance, who jumps in unexpectedly to either help Iljimae get out of a particular jam, or to — um, PUT him IN one. Sometimes he wielded his bow and quiver of arrows (so I’d call him Bearded Arrow); other times, his sword was the weapon of choice (so I’d call him… Bearded Sword). Then I got tired of switching names and settled on “Beard-O” instead, hahaha. Anyway, Beard-O may have saved Iljimae’s life a couple of times, but it was also he who reported Iljimae’s hideout to the police, who of course raided the house and carted Wol Hee off to the slammer — what gives, Beard-O??? Later we learn that he was dispatched by the Qing general (remember him?) to capture Iljimae and haul him back to China. But I liked the ambiguity of his role, because unlike Cat-man, Beard-O wasn’t a 2-D villain, just a decent, honorable bloke who happened to take his mission very seriously.

And the murderous, meowing Manchu spy Wang Hyeong Bo the Cat-man (Park Chul-min)? W-T-F was that? (lol) I mean, seriously, with a performance like that, did he actually expect us viewers to take him… seriously? Seriously. Remember the scene where he’s on the lam and gets bamboozled by some unscrupulous boatmen (or river pirates?) who promptly eat his horse and then turn him over to the ridiculously lead-footed police? Well, those pirates should’ve had Cat-man for dinner, too. Ahahahahahahaha. (We hatessss him, my precioussss!!!! We hatessss him!!!!)

I have mixed feelings about Screechy Beggar Dude Jeol Chi (Lee Kye), an even bigger (and grubbier) teddy bear than, uh, Teddy Bear Naeuri. Jeol Chi’s reunion scenes with Iljimae (in Eps. 6 and 10) were extremely touching, and he’d have no problem growing in my affections — if he didn’t squeal like a stuck pig every time he had something to say. Gaaaahhh, every time he opened his mouth, his face went all purple and his voice shot up three octaves — that I actually felt scared the actor would pop an artery and fall down dead on the spot. I liked the character, but couldn’t stand the actor.

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As for Bae Soon Dal (Kim Nam-gil) and Cha Dol Yi (Lee Hyun-woo), aka Dumb and Dumber: I don’t know why these two never amused me. Perhaps it was the hammy acting and Kim Nam-gil’s calamitous efforts at clownishness, when he just came off as sad and old and heavy and trying too hard (although he was great as Yoon Eun-hye’s dad in Goong, where he kept it more natural). Their running commentary on Ijimae’s exploits made me want to tear my hair out. The shtick was NOT cute. AT ALL. And the kid was bloody annoying most of the time, with that silly topknot/ponytail on his head. Gaaaahhh! It’s no wonder he gets hauled to the pokey by IgNoble and threatened with torture unless he reveals where Iljimae lives — because OF COURSE the officials get wind that he’s chummy with a *certain* masked vigilante, since he spends his days regaling the tavern regulars with tales of said vigilante’s exploits, durrr. Stupid little blabbermouth. (We hatessss him, my precioussss!!! We hatessss him!!!)

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Lastly, I’d like to mention Pyeha (Park Chan-hwan) and Queenie (Yoon Yoo-sun) from Goong who played ninja parents to K-Pop starlet Sandara Park in Episode 7 — so what is this, a shout-out to all the Goong fans? Heh. But it was nice to see the two reunited — albeit in Edo garb (which, uh, didn’t feel right, but whatev). The Japan ninja episode was a nice little breather from this ponderous saga, and what made it a little bittersweet was the love triangle involving Iljiame, Rie (Sandara Park), and Rie’s childhood friend Kotaro (awww).

WINNER: Hmmm. Tough one. ROI has a more talented main cast, but Iljimae’s supporting cast has fewer performances that grate on the eyes and ears. So I’m calling it a tie.

Next up:
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, kimnicki.blogspot.com, koreandrama.org, koreanmovie.com, krfilm.net,
muctim.com.vn, orionbeat.com, popseoul.com, post-its.blogspot.com, sbs2.blogfa.com, seoulbeats.com, soompi.com, the-double-0-project.net, video4viet.com

Video credits: aoiwas, bobocel2, Reklan1 & vudoolady @ Youtube.com

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12 Comments on “Drama Smackdown (Part 2): Iljimae (SBS, 2008) vs. The Return of Iljimae (MBC, 2009)”

  1. ditdut Says:

    Ooooh, interesting. This is where my opinion is so opposite of yours. I didn’t think I would, but I found Jung Ilwoo and Yoon Jinseo to posses chemistry SO crackling despite the unconventional kdrama love story (which actually is more true to life.devoted, almost obsessive girlfriend, anyone??) they’re carrying. While I fail to see the connection between Han Hyojoo and Lee Junki because I just cannot get attracted to Lee Junki. So it’s like I can’t see what Eunchae sees.

    Perhaps I might feel differently if Dalyi and Wolhee are played by 2 different actresses, but the same-face treatment worked because YJS was able to make distinctions between her Dalyi and her Wolhee that I didn’t feel like Iljimae fell in love with the same person. I even got jealous for Wolhee because Iljimae clearly still couldn’t get over Dalyi when he was already shacking up with Wolhee and like you said, his proposal was more for appeasing Wolhee’s request for marriage than actually for himself. That part, actually stung a lot for me. It wouldn’t have, if I merely thought he was falling for the same girl anyway.

    Now, I admit that I think Iljimae never loved Wolhee as much as he did Dalyi. Or at least, his devotion to the relationship is not as high as Wolhee’s is. Which is something that JIW even mentioned in his interview. So it’s totally his fault that viewers don’t see Iljimae loving Wolhee completely. But for me, I was still very infested in this relationship because it felt really real instead of just a conventional k-drama fairy tale love story.

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Hey, different views are always cool, so it’s all good, baby.😀 (Btw I enjoyed reading your ROI reviews on your blog. Wow, you really really love this drama! Whereas the only sageuk I can honestly say I ever loved are Damo and HGD.)

      “I just cannot get attracted to Lee Junki.” => LOL🙂 I think we’re in the same boat here. It took me three dramas and a movie to realize that I will never be a Jun-ki fan. (Which is a pretty good deal since it usually takes me a much shorter while to make up my mind re certain actors. XD)

      • Elaine Says:

        Eh same. I never could get the attraction towards Lee Junki. Which was probably why I never did finish watching Iljimae:/

    • Elaine Says:

      Chanced upon this review and I have to say I totally agree with you!
      There was amazing chemistry btwn Jung Ilwoo & Yoon Jinseo imo and I too failed to see the chemistry btwn Lee Junki & Han Hyojoo. Partly because EunChae was boring me actually:/
      & I really love Yoon Jinseo for her portrayal of Wolhee which she managed to distinguish quite a bit from Dalyi.

      Still can’t get enough of ROI after marathoning it for three days straight.


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

  3. v Says:

    hihi… great post! i agree with 60% of what you said but great post nevertheless.. i thoroughly enjoyed reading it (lots and lots of laugh out loud moments).. for me, actually, i would agree with 99% of what you said about iljimae. i was invested as crazy in their romance and almost strangled sme when iljimae did not reveal to han hyo joo his face at the end although i know that storywise, it’s better. and ironically, altho i was smitten with park shi hoo, i didnt love him like i did in his modern roles. but still, i really felt for him. but i would give more credit to ROI than you did. i do get your point and arguments but i do feel differently though. overall, i would say toss up for both romance and characters. anyways, thanks for this!

  4. zachariah Says:

    but one thing that iljimae was good at…
    the soundtrack and music…
    although it doesnt have many singer for the song,but still park hyo shin-hwa shin and lonely footstep were amazing…

  5. Sinamon Says:

    loved reading this. great writing style and content review. however (did you see that “however” coming? :-P), i really wanted to read more of your thoughts on goo ja myeong’s damo, soo ryun. i was very surprised to see a female in that role in that period and wondered what led to that casting and an exploration of her character in terms of how she earned such a prominent position. afterall, a woman in that position must have been rare indeed.

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Thank you for the encouraging words!😀

      LOL you’re right, I re-read my Smackdown and realized I’d devoted like, one sentence to Damo Girl! *facepalm* I didn’t delve that deeply into the Soo Ryun character because she was simply overshadowed by the other characters who impacted me more — both in a good way (e.g. Baek Mae and Teddy Bear Naeuri) and in a bad way (e.g. Dumb & Dumber). But thank you for sharing your insights into her character.🙂 I guess I wasn’t that surprised to find a character like hers in a period drama, because she seemed patterned after Ha Ji-won’s eponymous heroine in Damo. (Btw, have you seen it? My fave sageuk EVAR.) I totally agree with you that Soo Ryun held an extremely rare but prominent position. Undoubtedly such strong and non-traditional female characters were more the exception than the rule in Joseon society, but Soo Ryun didn’t feel like an anachronistic aberration in the drama because in spite of her unusual abilities she was still really a damo at heart — obedient and utterly devoted to her Naeuri, and painfully cognizant of her rank and status. She just happened to be *insanely* well-trained in the art of ass-kicking.🙂

  6. Sinamon Says:

    i very much enjoyed your writing. it flows well and it feels like we’re having a convo about this show, rather than it being instructional or an oratory. there are even sharp insights in your humorous points, which is great. so, in other words, it’s very natural, even in it’s complexity (and thank you, jeebus, grammatically correct and sh*t – seems a rarity also these days).🙂

    as for the damo, this is my first foray into any historial/period kdramas so i’m not too familiar with the role and position. sadly, even being korean, i know more about the edo and meiji period than i do about the joseon. not sure why it took me this long to beget interest in it but this show seemed like a more “entertaining” way of getting into history (albeit sort of bent for the sake of drama here and there, i imagine). but, i must say, not knowing anything about gov’t positions and hierarchy, i was immediately drawn to the damo in this series because it did seem like a woman with that degree of skill in the martial arts would be rare (even with what little i know of the time period) and her holding that title, even moreso. i was quickly curious and wanted to know more about her, just because of that, though i understand that she is overshadowed by most of the others in the story/cast. like, what kind of family did she come from that would allow their daughter to be trained in fighting? who did she train with? what were her struggles with getting the position and the inevitable flak and low-expectations she’d initially get for being a woman? however, i have to remember that this series is not about her and it would be too much time spent no a background character, lol. certainly would have liked to have seen more of her, though, and maybe for her not to have been rewarded for her fealty with the fate that awaited her, but i get that this is a drama and pockmarked with tragedy. sigh.

    since you have recommended it so highly, i will check out “damo” next. thanks! and thanks again for your insight and commentary into this series. a big vat of kudos to you.🙂

    • Ender's Girl Says:

      Thanks a bunch!😀

      Hey, I totally get your fascination with cultures and histories not necessarily your own, so it’s cool.🙂 I’m a bit of a history nut, but like you I’m more familiar with Japanese & Chinese history as that was more the focus of my Asian History classes. But watching sageuk is like getting a crash course on Korean history — the different time periods and dynasties, the rule under China & Japan — and I’m finding it all very fascinating.

      Oops, btw in my previous comment, I erroneously called the damo’s position “prominent.” I remembered that damo (tea serving girls) were from the servant/slave class so their rank could hardly be prominent. But they certainly were extremely valuable to the police bureaus that employed them to do the investigative footwork that was considered too menial or gender-delicate for the 100% male police detectives.

      Since the Soo Ryun character resonated so strongly with you, I’m pretty confident you’ll love Damo because it’s ALL about the damo Chae-ohk (Ha Ji-won). A stronger — but strangely more vulnerable — Kdrama heroine you will not find elsewhere. When this drama came out in 2003 it wowed audiences for a number of reasons: (1) it was shockingly short for a sageuk — just 14 eppies!; (2) it was one of the first Kdramas shot in HD; (3) the writing, direction, acting, editing, soundtrack were top-notch through and through. (Lol, sorry if that felt a bit too “instructional” or “oratorical.” :-)) To date it remains many drama fans’ favorite fusion sageuk. It also set the bar for the whole fusion sageuk sub-genre — I’m watching Chuno right now and although I’m loving it for its own merits, I can’t help referring to it as “Damo on mega-steroids” — because that’s how deep and lasting an impact Damo has left on my drama-watching sensibilities.🙂

      Also, you can’t go wrong with the classic themes of unrequited love + forbidden love + passion (oh my!) + love triangles (oh oh my!) + the age-old conflict of duty vs. personal happiness — all set against the backdrop of the Joseon era where police are working hard to crack a dangerous counterfeiting ring. And there’s a sense of urgency to Damo that you won’t find in Return of Iljimae. Hope you find the drama worth your while if and when you find the time to watch it. (Er… and do keep a hankie nearby… or maybe two.) I’d love to hear what you think of it when you’re done!😉


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