Gaawddd! It’s been an AMAZING week! Not only has Javabeans finished her Return of Iljimae recaps, the god in heaven has also seen fit to bless me with Drama Fever who has this drama FULLY SUBBED, from the beginning to the end.
Literally, I shrieked. I was SOO ecstatic to find the drama subbed. I had to stop around episode 19 and waited for the subtitles, which I didn’t mind, but my heart leapt up upon seeing episode 1-24 fully subbed by MBC America. Yayness.
I just finished the drama today and I had to take some time before coherent thoughts can seep in. You see, there are a lot of different kinds of endings. There’s the overly satisfying ending that it becomes overkill. There’s the downright shitty shitty one that you refuse to accept. There’s the disappointing ending that you don’t quite despise, but you don’t exactly like either, there’s just something lacking. There’s the one somewhere in between, the ending is good, everything is good, but it’s not particularly memorable. Then, there’s THAT ending, the remarkable one, the one that leaves such an impression that even after a long time, you will still remember it.
Obviously I have not seen a lot of dramas, but to date, only I’m Sorry I Love You has been able to be in that last category. I knew from the beginning what was going to happen, but it didn’t stop me from bawling at the impact of that ending. Right now, Iljimae Returns/Return of Iljimae/Moonriver is joining MISA in that category. Gosh, what a beautifully moving ending. There is nothing dramatic, no fanfare. It is quiet, and it stays true to what Iljimae Returns is, as a drama.
I think a good ending is very tough to pull off. Even my favourite dramas do not always have great endings. My Girl is an example. I don’t care what everyone says, but that drama is among my Top 5. I have to concur that its ending is just… blah, I’d go as far as sucky. Long drawn out, overly theatrical, and way too typical. I remember the first time I completed My Girl, I remember feeling ‘huh’. The out-of-the-blue love declaration, topped with the teary kiss after barely missing each other at the elevator is a contender for the cheesiest finale in history. Thank god, the parody at the end saved the ending from taking itself too seriously.
But anyways, I went off track. Let’s go back to Iljimae Returns.
Iljimae Returns is about the life of a fictional character in the Chosun era, Iljimae. Not unlike Robin Hood, Iljimae is a thief who steals from the rich, corrupt government officers and helps the poor society. Iljimae is born in Korea but is banished to China where he grows up. In his young age, he finds out that Korea is his native land, and returns to Korea. There begins his search for his parents, the people he will come to know and love, and his identity. With the war between China and Korea looming in the air, Iljimae rises up in these troubled times as a criminal for some and a hero for others.
Iljimae Returns is officially the first period drama I watched, finished, and loved. Nothing else has come as close as this. I didn’t plan on going with IR. In general, I approach saeguk with a lot of caution because the few saeguk I did watch were such borefest even if they are fantastic production. It also doesn’t help that many saeguk dramas are super long and blame it on my attention span, but I rarely bother with dramas that go for more than 30 episodes.
While I cannot call IR perfection, the drama is damn near. Some dramas have big open flaws where everything just festers in the face of them. Some have smaller ones that viewers can overlook because they do not affect the core of the dramas that much. In the case of Iljimae Returns, there is barely anything to go with. Big or small. Festering or insignificant. At the time of its first episode, IR had finished about 70% of the shoot. They had the benefit of time. So the finished product is something they have executed and edited well.
So, at the risk of being repetitive, I will just give a couple of ‘less than brilliant’ moments of the drama.
Slow start. Like I said, the first few episodes (4 to 5) are the point where you need to push through. These episodes lay out the foundations regarding the birth of Iljimae, the people who are important to him, the political circumstances between Korea and China, to where Iljimae will start his journey in finding himself in his own soil. The part where Iljimae will meet someone who is his first love (and lose her), who will become his saviour much later in the future, his enemy, and so on will only begin in episode 5. This is where things really get going. It took me a lot of time to pull through and I almost gave up.
The first episode starts with contemporary, modern world, and voila, Iljimae is kicking butt too over in this world. I actually like this intro, but yes, there’s a discrepancy in logic right away as to why Iljimae is here and there. From the modern world, we then transition to the old Chuseon, the Hanyang, not the Seoul. This is somewhat explained a little at the end, but yes this is still confusing.
This logic suspension is further challenged by the fact that Iljimae’s first love Dalyi and Iljimae’s ultimate lover Wolhee look way too much alike. Well of course they are played by the same actress and this lady is also in the modern world, seemingly narrating the story. Dalyi and Wolhee are not sisters nor do they know each other despite having similar name, so what is up with the similarities?
Yet again tho, I am not bothered by this because the drama plays this Dalyi vs Wolhee really really well. In the drama’s profound moments, Iljimae is forced to face the fact that he has not gotten over his first love Dalyi even though he is cohabitating with Wolhee now. In its lighter time, Wolhee is literally keeping a written tally between herself and Dalyi on ‘whose name Iljimae mumbles in his sleep’. It’s hilarious.
See, even with the supposedly cons, I am finding a lot of reasons to refute it back.
Breathtaking scenery. Overall, the direction is great, but the visual scenery is just gorgeous. Even just houses at Hanyang, the river border between China and Korea, or simply the plum trees are shot in such a way that they just come out really stunning. I notice how the director is fond of shooting through an open window or door. Since Goong had quite a few scenes with that angle, I think it’s becoming a habit and perhaps a signature touch. Oh, the fighting sequences are great too! They are quick and reflexive and they are really fun to watch.
IR is not a comedy by a mile, but there are a lot of funny instances here and there. I mentioned about the narration before and I totally heart it. A fortune teller (Harisu) is seducing an officer in her room and the narration goes ‘This drama is only rated 15, so we can’t go in’. Another example is when two kids note Iljimae as the man they found unconscious. I was trying to place when and where that was, and suddenly the narrator goes ‘Go to episode 18’ LOL
The supporting characters are another shining quality about IR. Kim Namgil and Lee Hyunwoo as Bae Sundal/Chadol duo are heeeelarious, a little slapstick at times, but a thousand times lovable. I have always loved Lee Kyein because he’s an adorable old man. He is equally funny and cute here as a beggar who found Iljimae baby. Oh Yeongsu as the dry and witty Monk Yeolgong sometimes annoys me with his blunt realistic view, but dude tends to always be right!
But my favourite supporting character has got to be Park Chulmin as Wang Hwengbo, a Chinese spy who followed Iljimae to Korea. Just the sight of him is enough to bring me laugh. Be it his sidewalking, his supposedly ‘Chinese’ way of speaking Korean, his mannerism, everything about him is funny.
Jung Ilwoo. Out of his fighting and ‘thiefing’ scenes, he is often awkward in terms of body language, sometimes even stiff (something I’m noticing as well in the newly aired Lady Castle). But this gives Iljimae, who is dubbed as ‘looks like a girl’, a certain innocent and endearing nature. His eyes are what help him the most. He expresses anger, serenity, happiness, vengeance, agony, all through his eyes. I saw him in a variety show and he seems to be the type who laughs a lot, in fact he’s known for his smile/laugh I think, but this series doesn’t allow him to laugh or even smile very much. So the few smiles he managed to sneak in have a big impact. It’s heart-warming. BTW, while I was watching Soulmate, I noted how alike Shin Dongwook and Jung Ilwoo are, only the latter are prettier and softer in looks.
Yoon Jinseo. It must be tough playing two characters. You need to look similar, but you cannot act the same. There are some similar traits between Dalyi and Wolhee, they are open-minded, though Wolhee is the more conservative/shy of the two. Dalyi is a pure girl, in the sense that she barely interacts with a lot of people, living on the mountain with his father only. Wolhee knows more about the good and the bad that is going on, living in the middle of the city. Yoon Jinseo has the ability to distinct her Dalyi and her Wolhee so even though they are played by the same person; they do not feel like the same person.
The chemistry between Jung Ilwoo and Yoon Jinseo is sizzling. Seriously. In this kind of drama and with the kind of portrayal of Iljimae and Dalyi/Wolhee, I was not expecting much. As long as they look good together. But JIW and YJS are perfect. Whereas Iljimae is quiet, Dalyi and Wolhee are more talkative. Whereas Iljimae can’t quite show his feelings, Wolhee is brave in telling him how much she loves him. They complement each other when sometimes Wolhee can’t quite see things objectively, Iljimae reminds her of what is realistic. It wasn’t until halfway the series and I began researching for the series that I connected that YJS is older by 4 years. Just goes to show that age is only a number.
All in all, IR is an amazing journey, both in the story as well as in the enjoyment. Such a travesty that ratings were low for most of its broadcast. It deserves a lot more recognition. Though it might not be likely, I hope come the award season, Iljimae Returns will be lauded for its quality. I enjoyed it greatly and it’s become one of my favourite dramas.
To buy the original DVD (no English subtitles unfortunately T___T): YESASIA The Return of Iljimae DVD
Wanted to go all out with 10 out of 10, but I’ll be objective. 9.5 out of 10.