Drama Smackdown (Part 3): Iljimae (SBS, 2008) vs. The Return of Iljimae (MBC, 2009)
Pretty Boy Wonders: The Iljimae Smackdown!
by Ender’s Girl
The Plot & Narrative Devices
Take away the sageuk setting, cheesy outfits and uber-fanciful swordplay, and you have a typical K-drama outline, supersized and with everything on top: the OTP-since-freakin’-childhood premise, the amnesia, the son swap, the pseudo-incest, the revenge angle. The revenge motive vastly limits the whole story, and so you slog through all 20 episodes of Iljimae running around at night, breaking into mansions to find The!Sword!With!Funny!Markings!
Even worse is the drama’s confused tone and style. It isn’t just the portrayal of Iljimae that’s bipolar, but this whole drama is too. No, make that — multipolar? Hahaha. My best friend appraised it perfectly: “So the makers of Iljimae threw everything at the wall, hoping it would stick.” What stuck was this unsightly pastiche of weepy K-drama conventions, vaudeville histrionics, juvenile adventure hijinks, and stinky splotches of toilet humor (laxatives, bare butts and primitive contraceptives, oh my!).
Another WTF-y element is the sheer illogicality of Iljimae’s ruses and contraptions. And I’m not just talking about the silly costumes and even sillier disguises that Tom Cruise and his Mission: Impossible posse would snigger at. Sliding trapdoors in the forest? An underground hideaway accessible by a ramp, while riding a surf board? An arsenal of goofproof gadgets and gummy latex masks? HOW ON EARTH did Iljimae manage to construct all those foxholes and tunnels and that well-stocked Batcave??? How? How??? One moment he isn’t Iljimae, then suddenly — POOF!!! — he’s Iljimae!!! One moment these subterranean hiding places and amayyyzing doohickeys don’t exist, then suddenly — POOF!!! — they do exist!!!
It isn’t enough that Yong figures in the most death-defying scrapes — dragged through the forest floor! mauled and beaten to a pulp! dropped down a pit! left for dead in a frozen lake! bashed against a rock face! jumps into a blazing library! and all before Episode 6, oh wow!!! — because he also devises the most convoluted and inane schemes to thwart The Baddies. Man, the elaborate stratagems are so outrageous, a ten-year-old fanboy could have penned them. (Oh wait, maybe a ten-year-old fanboy really did write the script.) Case in point: Iljimae smears honey on the rope to be used for his noona’s hanging, hoping the rats will chew their way through the fiber, and maybe, just maybe the executioners won’t notice the noose has frayed (hahaha fat chance), and so the sister won’t die when they hang her…? L-M-A-O!!!!!!!!!!! Well, at least one thing is certain: as a fanboy role-playing fantasy, this Iljimae adaptation is hard to beat… Except that I’m NOT a ten-year-old fanboy with superhero aspirations. Blerg. And I’m surprised this Iljimae version isn’t the manga-based drama of the two, because it feels like — well, a comic book.
The Return of Iljimae (ROI):
I was struck right away by ROI’s non-linear structure: this rather sprawling drama starts in the present, then rewinds to the time when Iljimae comes back after his three-year exile, then leaps further back to the circumstances of his birth, and occasionally weaves to and fro when major characters are introduced — all tied together by the narration of a modern-day historian. Props to such inventive storytelling, which helps make up for the long-drawn-out scenes and extraneous moments that bestrew this drama. The pace of ROI is very… sedate, and by “sedate” I mean the drama alternates between “calm, dignified and unhurried,” and “rather dull.” There are times when you wish this drama could be more spirited — and I don’t mean devolving into the frenetic, topsy-turvy mess of the SBS version, but just displaying a little more élan and brio.
Still, you can tell that a lot of thought was put into ROI because there’s a harmony of mood throughout this drama — from the pensive tone of the narrator, to the contemplative nature of the hero himself, and even to the strong philosophical vein of the dialogue, all of which engage the viewer to reflect on such metaphysical concepts (oooh!) as identity, purpose, and time/space (or history). For instance, early in the first episode the voice-over narrates musingly: “We usually remember the past with the title, “history.” But was there ever a time that began as “history” from the start? All that remains is the collective time of the people, who sometimes get tangled up together or go their separate ways until time is collected — like a giant ball of yarn.”
The interactive nature of the narration works for the most part, but there are times when you suspect it’s merely a plot crutch that tends to tell instead of show. Remember those skits you’d do in school, wherein you and your group mates would act out a story while another classmate provided the blow-by-blow from behind the classroom door? Well, that’s how it sometimes felt with ROI. I didn’t need the narrator to tell me what was unfolding onscreen every bleeping moment, and I wish the actors had played out their scenes with more conviction instead of just going through the motions.
Bae Soon Dal as the chronicler of Iljimae’s exploits (a kind of Joseon-era Herodotus, or Plutarch) finds a present-day counterpart in the female historian/narrator. I get how important it would be for the portly, athletically challenged man of leisure, Bae Soon Dal, to base his Iljimae biography on eyewitness accounts. But did it always have to be HIS eyewitness account? How did Bae Soon Dal and his protégé Dol Yi always happen to be physically present for each of Iljimae’s escapades? What were the odds of bumping into a given person in a given place and at a given time, anyway? They were living in the capital city — not a hamster hutch, for heaven’s sake.
Other points that stretch one’s logic: There are too many coincidences where Iljimae bumps into the Screechy Beggar Dude and the Uber-Zen Monk as an adult. And much later, when Dumb and Dumber and Screechy Beggar Dude dig a tunnel to bust Wol Hee out of IgNoble’s house — clever, yes, but doable? Uh, not by an infirm, overweight geek, a half-formed teenager, and a scrappy old vagrant. DUH. Another WTF-y element is ninja-garbed Iljimae prowling the streets of Hanyang in broad daylight. => Hahahaha. So many characters seem to know who Iljimae is (and even where he lives, lol) that at one point I threw my hands up and barked at the TV screen, “Dude, just take your mask off, everyone knows it’s you, anyway.” Come to think of it, Iljimae doesn’t need a fancy costume because he doesn’t have a secret identity. “Iljimae” — that’s his real effin’ name in the real effin’ world, lol. It’s like, Batman being born as “Batman Wayne” or something. Hahahaha. Jung Il-woo ought to have been the one running around saying “I am… Iljimae!” — and NOT Lee Jun-ki, lol.
As for the Iljimae-saves-Wol-Hee! moments — hmmm, not as thrilling as I’d hoped. On the contrary, they were lackluster and unconvincing. The first time Iljimae comes to his ladylove’s rescue is when some baddie barges into her bookshop, takes one look at the lass, entertains dark thoughts of defilement, and begins to undress her in front of his lackeys, but — WTF! It’s Iljimae, crouched by the bookshelf!!! (How the hey did that guy slip into the room?) Hahahahahaha. LOL. WHAT. Then later Wol Hee gets abducted (twice!) on IgNoble’s orders, so naturally Iljimae rescues her (twice!), but… I dunno, the scenes lacked the heart-stopping, action-packed, swashbuckling quality you’d expect from these hero adventure capers.
Finally, the Drums of Doom being the otherwise invincible Iljimae’s Achilles heel??? Seriously??????? Oh my goodness gracious, how do you spell “lame”? Here’s how: D-R-U-M-S, “lame.” Hahahahaha. Probably the weakest bolt in the narrative. Whenever those stupid drumbeats sounded and Iljimae promptly dropped to the ground, writhing in distress, I also promptly lay back and started rolling around, howling with laughter. (Jung Il-woo = Acting FAIL. A moment — a few of them, in fact — that will live in infamy, hahaha.) In Ep. 20, IgNoble has the Noble Noble’s cannon factory raided by his goons, and Iljimae rushes in to salvage the precious gunpowder, but some idiot guard beats the Drum of Doom and — BAM! Pretty man down!!! Vital munition warehouse goes up in flames! BOOM! — There goes Joseon’s firepower that would’ve helped stave off the next Manchu invasion! Aigooooooooooooooo.
Yes, we get it, we’re not shtoopid, the drums are some kind of Pavlovian trigger that stirs up memories of the night Dal and her pops were executed, but the writing greatly exaggerated their psychological effect. I mean seriously, was the trauma so great as to cause a grown man — so physically and mentally well-conditioned, mind you — to fall into a swoon each time he heard the dreaded pounding? L.M.A.O.!!!!!!!! For the drama to play up this one weakness to the hammy hilt did not achieve the desired effect, but its exact opposite. It’s one thing to show the scars of a harrowing experience, but a different thing altogether to spin out the trauma to the point of utter ridiculousness.
Well, blame those nasssty little tom-toms (or tambours, or buk, or janggo, or galgo, or whatever the hell you call ‘em) for indirectly causing Teddy Bear Naeuri’s death!!! *horrified gasp* Or blame Iljimae, who couldn’t keep it together for two minutes after hearing the dum-ditty-dum-dum-DOOM!!! aural trigger. Meh. If I were the one standing beside Iljimae and those drums went off, I’d go all Don Corleone on him, bitch-slapping his soft alabaster cheeks then bellowing, “YOU CAN ACT LIKE A MAN!!!” Heh heh heh.
WINNER: ROI. For the innovative storytelling features, broader narrative scope, and more consistent tone.
What lasting images will stay with you when the closing credits have stopped rolling? How will you best remember a drama that has captured your attention and imagination for all 20, 24 episodes? Good endings can partly erase the displeasure over a mediocre production, while bad endings can spoil the satisfaction of an otherwise decent drama. And of course, it goes without saying that a great ending firmly establishes an already outstanding story in the hallowed canon of drama productions.
“Frodo lives!!!” Er, Iljimae lives! He lives to die another day! (heh) Wow, okay. Lee Jun-ki seems to have built a career from open-ended dramas (Time of Dog and Wolf, anyone?). So anyway, when Iljimae realizes that the Ultimate Baddie is King Injo (oooh!), he almost kills the king but doesn’t, and then engages Shi Hoo in a final showdown at the palace — although Shi Hoo is really covering for him, ‘coz hyung’s gotcha back, yo. Cut to the Lee family’s old home, where Iljimae squares off with the Ultimate Baddie’s Ultimate Henchman Sa Cheol. Iljimae almost kills him — but doesn’t, and in a monumentally stupid (but oh-so-predictable) move, turns his back on Mr. Evil who also very predictably gives the boy a nice good dorsal slash, leaving him to bleed to death on the old family turf right under the plum tree. (Ah, how poetic indeed.) But what’s even more poetic, is protégé Shi Hoo giving Mr. Evil his comeuppance as the assassin makes his getaway.
Jump forward a few years, and Iljimae is presumed to be dead (although his body was never found — of course!). Dani’s youngest son is now a bona fide rascally tyke, the spitting image of his dad Swe Dol and his hyung Yong. But although the authorities believe the masked menace is out of their pomaded hair, those close to Yong seem to know otherwise, and in fact have kept his whereabouts a closely guarded secret all these years. For Joseon is once more abuzz with tales and sightings of the masked bandit, because — oh yes!!! Iljimae Returns! To sow terror in the hearts of abusive nobles and corrupt officials! (And so we’re brought back to the same sequence from the Episode 1 opening, showing Iljimae 2.0’s exploits which really serve to bookend the entire drama.)
In other news, King Injo has deteriorated into this stooped, querulous old man forever imprisoned in his own paranoia, while Shi Hoo is running a combat school for boys AND girls, which is cool, very cool. Eun Chae returns from the remote coastal village where her dad Byun Sik lives in exile (which is just fine because I didn’t want him to die, anyway), and she gives us much reason to believe that she also knows Geom/Yong/Iljimae is alive. Of course they’re not together anymore (were they ever?) — which, granted, isn’t a wildly satisfying ending… BUT AT LEAST HE LIVED, OKAY, WHICH IS MORE THAN I CAN SAY ABOUT OTHER SAGEUK HEROES OUT THERE, GAAAAAAAHHHHH. (*damn you Hong Gil Dong! damn you!!!*)
Satisfaction rating: 7/10. If you’re a glass-half-full type of person, the open ending does not close the door on a romantic future for Yong and Eun Chae. But if you’re the glass-half-empty sort, either you believe they’ll never end up together, or that they do get back together, but their union will be rocky and short-lived — given the class differences between the two, and the inherent dangers of his masked vigilante profession (I see fights! breakups! early widowhood! tsk tsk).
Following the tragic death of his mother, Iljimae accepts a reconnaissance mission deep behind enemy lines in Shenyang, the very heart of Qing. It means cutting off ties with Screechy Beggar Dude and Wol Hee, but I was all for this move because he needed to do this — as much for himself as for his country. You want his story to come full circle, and so it does. But a stopover at Liaodong, the place of his childhood, yields a dead end because Iljimae learns that his adoptive parents are long gone. Which is too bad because you also would’ve wanted him to reach closure with the people who were his family for the first sixteen years of his life.
So in Shenyang, Iljimae rendezvouses with other Joseon secret agents, who later dispatch him back home with an important missive. But Goo Ja Myeong’s Damo catches up with him, mistakenly seeking to avenge her beloved Naeuri’s death by cutting Iljimae down. She soon realizes her error and volunteers to complete the mission, but alas — the document falls into IgNoble’s clutches. (And oh, poor Damo, meeting her end on the bank of a river, her body shot through with arrows.)
Iljimae recovers from his near-fatal wound, but by the time he wakes up from his coma — WTF! The war is over and Joseon is now a vassal state to the Qing. And all that happened while he was sleeping. Iljimae later gets to meet the crown prince, who charges him with repatriating their countrymen out of China (and then the poor heir goes home only to die, tsk). Iljimae reunites with Beard-O in helping the Joseon captives cross the Qing border — a pretty dangerous mission, because a detachment of Imperial Guards (headed by none other than — meow, Cat-man himself) are out to thwart Iljimae and Beard-O at every turn. Cap’n Cat-man even sounds the Magical Drums of Doom at one point — but to no avail!!! Because Iljimae has finally learned to Master!His!Weakness!!! (Either that, or the coma messed up his hippocampus real bad, hyukhyuk.) So for nine long years, Iljimae and Beard-O carry out their high-risk mission; thankfully, the Qing Emperor finally pardons all Joseon POWs and green-lights their mass repatriation. Meanwhile Bae Soon Dal dies from a lingering disease, but not before bequeathing the unfinished Iljimae chronicles to his ward, Dol Yi.
All’s well that ends well: on the home front, Citizen Wol Hee has kept literacy alive through these dark years by starting a paper mill, which has now grown into a highly successful enterprise that generates employment aside from advocating learning. His mission completed, Iljimae returns to Wol Hee and meets his son for the first time. Never mind that Jung Il-woo still looks 16 — okay, 18 then, lol — when his character ought to be nearing 30. (No prosthetic beard or something? None?) But it’s an incredibly touching reunion on the city streets, a scene that speaks volumes despite little dialogue.
The closing scene (right before the present-day epilogue) is one of the best drama finales I’ve ever had the privilege of watching. The same night of Iljimae’s homecoming, Wol Hee awakens to find him outside on the darkened porch, musing on a strange dream he’s just had, about a future still in need of a hero. He confides this to Wol Hee, quietly voicing his conviction that he — or his spirit — will be there to take up the call. So they sit on in silence under the pale glow of the moon, contemplating their own fate and future — and the fate and future of the whole world.
Satisfaction rating: 10/10. Could not have asked for a better ending.
WINNER: ROI. The finale satisfies those viewers averse to gloom-and-doom ending scenarios, and nails quite perfectly the timelessness and imperishability of the heroic spirit within us all.
Direction / Editing / Production Values
The technical elements such as cinematography, set design and sound aren’t horrendously bad, just… rather forgettable and uninspired. It’s the lighting I have issue with: the scenes are rendered so garishly — whether in broad daylight or at night. Overall, the PD didn’t place a premium on the production quality, and it shows. The only times the lighting and cinematography aren’t such an eyesore are the scenes where Yong and Eun Chae are high up in the branches of their favorite plum tree, CGI blossoms drifting around them. Very prettily shot, those scenes.
But man oh man, the continuity issues in this drama are simply egregious. Several times the editing makes a jarring shift from evening to morning — and all before the scene is over! For example, the underground Fight Club sequence in Ep. 4 takes place (and ends) at night, but when the spectators stream out of the venue, WTF — it’s morning!!! Later in the drama, a gravely wounded Iljimae half-stumbles through the forest with Shi Hoo hot on his heels. Apparently they either ran all night — or the forest is just. that. big!, because the next scene shows Iljimae reaching his home, and WTF — it’s daytime! Aieeeeeeeee.
The look (and feel) of this drama is lusciously cinematic and reminiscent of Goong (same network, same PD), which gave the same meticulous attention to set design, scene composition, framing of shots, sound and lighting use, costume design, and even special effects. And oh wow, the filming locations. ROI takes the viewer on a breathtaking tour of the Joseon realm (and beyond), from the lively capital scene to its stately palaces, from moss-carpeted caves to jagged sea cliffs, from postcard-pretty waterfalls to moonlit forest glades. Niiiice.
Period dramas are tricky because they walk the fine line between realism and stylization, and you don’t want to depict a world too old and shabby (hence the gloss and prettiness of ROI), but you still want to provide a realistic illusion of the period in question. And thankfully, this production never gets too stylized (*cough* Hong Gil Dong *cough*), but remains very classic, and classy. (Except for that stupid Gigantor business in Episode 1 — a blight on the aesthetics of the drama! A blight, I say!!!) Lastly, the soundtrack is simply rapturous, with just the perfect mix of instrumental and contemporary tracks: very fusion sageuk, in the best possible way.
WINNER: ROI. Just too pretty and well-executed a drama to ignore.
OVERALL WINNER: ROI takes the cake — and the box, ribbon and candles. SBS’s Iljimae is a charmless cartoon that has little going for it besides the engaging love story and solid performances from Park Shi-hoo and most of the supporting cast, while MBC’s The Return of Iljimae hews closer to a true fusion-sageuk saga with its discursive, leisurely pace and top-notch production values. But, oh well. I’ll bet the SBS executives were laughing all the way to the bank, anyway — because while ROI may have whupped its SBS counterpart quality-wise, the viewer ratings paint a completely different picture: Iljimae garnered an average of 23.2% nationwide, more than twice as much audience share as ROI’s regrettable 10.9%. Well, it ain’t a perfect world, baby. But if it were, then there’d be no need for heroes, would there? *winky winky*
Grade: Iljimae (SBS)
Artistic & technical merit: D
Entertainment value: C
Grade: The Return of Iljimae (MBC)
Artistic & technical merit: A-
Entertainment value: B
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