In a nutshell: It’s an old-fashioned story that feels almost like an ancient myth. But it’s anchored in an actual historical period (framed by the two Manchu invasions of Korea during the 17th century) with characters that are too fully-fleshed to be reduced to archetype. It’s an action-story with well choreographed fight scenes that build in complexity as our hero grows more proficient. It’s a coming of age story about an abandoned boy’s searching for love and belonging. In sum, it’s a must-see, not-to-be-missed drama.
Important note! This drama has nothing to do with SBS’s 2008 Iljimae. They are two entirely separate takes on the same manhwa.
The Framework: The old-fashioned feel comes not so much from the main story (though Iljimae’s quest for a home and a purpose is a timeless one) but in the stories surrounding his narrative. First, there’s a classically romantic love story between his mother, Baek-mae (Jung Hye-young), and a man almost too noble to be real, Officer Gu (Kim Min-jong). It’s filled with pathos and tragedy and once you throw in the quiet, pining love of the man’s faithful right-hand female officer or damo, Soo-ryun (Jun Soo-yeon), it’s the stuff of bards and tapestries. (In fact, the drama makes early reference to a Chinese opera that practically foreshadows this love story.)
Honestly, it’s the kind of ill-fated love story I tend to dislike. All those missed chances and the constant drumbeat of “not to be” is usually too melancholic for me. But by placing this story in the background it adds a nice depth of flavor to our main storyline and I ended up quite enjoying the pathos. It’s like how I’m not a fan of licorice candy but enjoy fennel as a seasoning.
Then there’s the comedy, which relies on sight-gags and physical humor. (Comedy at its essence, in other words.) There’s the odd-couple duo of Mr. Bae (an amusingly clumsy nobleman who’d win the “most likely to step on a rake” contest any day of the week) and Cho-dol (a wisecracking street-kid who assists Mr. Bae). They’re both obsessed with Iljimae and they both get into exactly the sort of incidents and accidents you’d expect from their character descriptions while trying to keep up with Iljimae’s various quests.
And on another comedic note there’s the recurring villain constantly complicating Iljimae’s life, Wang Hweng-bo. His martial training is so peculiar he can only walk sideways (seriously), he frequently makes an odd meowing sound while contemplating his next act of villainy (which is certainly different from twirling his mustache), and he’s prone to dropping a bit of current S. Korean slang or the odd English phrase or two into his conversations.
All of the above should be eye-roll worthy but I found myself highly enjoying each of their scenes, no matter how slapstick. For one, the scenes served the exact purpose they were created for — breaking the intensity of the story surrounding them. For another, the three characters gain depth as the story goes on, becoming something more than mere comic relief or a fly in the ointment. It helps that the two adult characters were played by highly talented character actors, Kang Nam-gil and Park Chul-min — part of a core set of actors that help create the one degree of separation that is S. Korean film and television production. And even the young actor Lee Hyun-woo shouldered his role well. (It’s not surprising that he’s continuing on an impressive trajectory. Like his role in The Equator Man.)
And finally, it’s beautifully but also classically filmed. The beauty comes mostly from the surroundings rather than any fancy camera work. The settings are used as framing devices. And the director allows the camera to linger on the characters as they think and/or react to what’s going on around them. The pace calls back to older movies when stories took their time being told and audiences weren’t hungry for quick cuts and flashy effects. Even the narrator reminded me of story time at the local library with a librarian who was knowledgeable and just a touch intimidating.
The Hero: The main story is, of course, Iljimae’s. And it’s the organic way his path unfolds that grabs you in. (Helped by the nuance and subtlety Jung Il-woo brought to the role.) One of Iljimae’s gifts is his martial arts prowess. But it’s not something he just does. We see him learn and train and each skill builds on the other. He also sacrifices a great deal to earn each skill. He travels great distances, usually under heavy duress, to fall under the tutelage of various teachers. Though it’s always through accident (or fate — which is probably the more proper way to read it) that Iljimae finds his teachers. He doesn’t ever set out to learn a skill, which was actually a nice touch. Iljimae is a formidable fighter, but it’s important, I think, that becoming an accomplished warrior was never his driving goal.
His other gift is his extreme beauty. And that added an incredibly interesting flavor to the story. It’s commented on a lot that he’s as beautiful as a girl (often by stunned enemies). And he disguises himself as a girl — as a gisaeng actually, which is about as feminine as you can get — without any macho posturing. So while he has this extreme male-associated fighting skill, he’s also very comfortable with his female-associated beauty. And he uses it as naturally a woman would. It was never treated as something to be ashamed of, rather it’s a tool to be used.
In the use of those gifts, the story does a great job building the difficulty and challenge of the foes he faces. And the tasks he takes on evolve as well. He starts off as a boy against boys, but he grows to confront men and then political cabals and finally squares off against a nation. Which is so important with a martial-arts story — a skilled fighter can’t just face off against the same level of foe again and again or it gets repetitive and boring. And, in the same way Iljimae builds his fighting skills, the size of his challenges grows organically, within the story.
The Romance: I adored the love story and how atypical it was. It contrasted nicely with the classic romance in the secondary storyline. With Iljimae, as with everything else in his life, there’s a certain meant-to-be aspect to his loves. (That they’re both beautifully brought to life by the same actress, Yoon Jin-seo, helps of course.) But there was also a refreshing overturning of social norms. His first love, Dal, is the aggressor (though he’s by no means reluctant) and the pace-setter (and it seems to be a pretty fast pace, reading between the lines).
His second, more mature and complex love, Wol-hee, is just as socially unencumbered as Dal. Which is surprising, because while Dal was practically a nature sprite, raised in the mountains away from most people, Wol-hee is a lady of a fallen family. She’s educated and refined and well informed of what’s expected of her. So that she takes Iljimae so quickly into her home and her bed was fascinating to me. There’s a feel of cutting through all the usual red-tape of wooing and what have you because Iljimae simply doesn’t have the luxury and Wol-hee doesn’t feel the need. And it feels just as natural as Dal’s childlike fascination with Iljimae. Like they are all somehow separate from the society they’re moving through.
Both Dal and Wol-hee are names associated with the moon. And Yoon Jin-seo plays the reporter following modern-day-Iljimae’s exploits in the drama’s opening scene. So my sense is that Iljimae is linked to these women in a way that goes beyond love. Almost like the role he’s been given to play by fate (or the gods or whatever powers that be) is so massive he’s given a steady and steadying love to lean on as he fulfills his tasks.
The Mythological Aspects: That aspect of Iljimae’s love story, plus the way he blurs gender-roles, plus the strength of his gifts and the size of the challenges he takes on, strike me as the making of a more than mortal figure. I’d look towards the pantheon of Ancient Greece for his roots, but that’s looking in the wrong direction. It’s Eastern myths and Buddhist traditions that birthed Iljimae and I’m unfortunately too ignorant to do any kind of sourcing.
But (fortunately for me!) you don’t have to know this sort of stuff to enjoy the drama. All by itself, the story of Iljimae is fascinating, exciting, heart wrenching and beautiful. By the time it’s over you’ll feel a deep connection to the world he moved through and the people he knew. This is one of those dramas where it’s hard to say goodbye. And that is definitely a recommendation. This is a drama to watch.