Korean Drama Review: The Return of Iljimae


**This will be the last post from my old blog that I will upload onto wordpress. It’s the first review I ever wrote for a Korean drama and after rereading this, I’ve noticed how subtly my writing has changed. Just think of this as a kiddie review, if you do read this. I would rewrite the whole thing from scratch if I could, but alas, I don’t have the time. It is, however, a drama that has made a lasting impression a year later, and a drama that I still think about from time to time. **

After being entertained in SBS’s version of this Korean Robinhood folk hero in Iljimae, unbeknownst to me was that The Return of Iljimae wasn’t actually a sequel but MBC’s version of the drama. Early on, there was already a notable difference between the two because SBS’s Iljimae did not have the original license of the Iljimae manga to use as the foundation of their story. Since I thought that Lee Junki’s Iljimae was pretty hilarious, I wanted to see how Jung Il Woo would portray his character in contrast. The first episode pretty much summed up the tone for the rest of the drama. While Iljimae was comical, light, and poorly acted albeit entertaining in many scenes, in comparison, The Return of Iljimae was poignant, beautiful, and well portrayed. The tone of the latter was so much more mature than Iljimae that after watching the two, the former seemed almost childish. Whereas Iljimae glorified its hero on the surface level, The Return of Iljimae portrayed a much more complex character than what meets the eye.

The Iljimae presented in this particular drama isn’t necessarily a genius or the best in martial arts; he’s the kind of person that continually changes and discovers parts of himself. He’s constantly trying to attain a higher consciousness so that he can evolve into a better individual. He helps others not because he’s righteous but because he cannot stand to live in a corrupt world. The title of this drama in itself is symbolic because it foreshadows Iljimae’s perpetual journey and his endless returns to “home”. Believe me, Iljimae himself has plenty of faults but he’s humble enough to admit them. His character (played by Jung Il Woo) emotionally captivates the viewer and brings this drama to another level altogether. His acting isn’t over-the-top like Lee Junki’s Iljimae but he somehow is able to reveal emotions simply with his gaze. That kind of acting is certainly rare and extraordinary. There’s great acting, fabulous directing, gorgeous music, and… it’s not for everyone.

Believe me when I say this, The Return of Iljimae is not for those who want to be entertained but for those who want to be intellectually challenged. I came to this conclusion after watching the drama so it’s based on my personal opinion, and not an indisputable rule of thumb. Here, I’ll give you a (lame) example (since making comparisons are so much fun!) comparing SBS’ Iljimae and MBC’s The Return of Iljimae. The former is like the Twilight series and the latter is like Shakespearian plays. Yup, that’s right! It’s a huge disparity! However, in our current society, most people would take reading Twilight over Shakespeare any day.

I’m not bashing those who may make that choice (or maybe I am. Just kidding!) because who doesn’t like populist material sometimes? I certainly do and plus, my brain would be fried if I only read Classic novels. Anyway, since I’m on a roll, I think that the observation I just made can be justified because most people, including myself, don’t take/have the time to actually read or analyze philosophical works. We would much rather read or watch a piece of work that is easily digestable. Hence, just like literary works, a drama that’s satisfactorily entertaining rather than profoundly challenging is more likely to be accepted, though not in all cases. This may be one of the reasons that explain the low ratings for MBC’s version when compared to SBS’s.

There’s only one or two particular points that I didn’t like about this drama, and they may not be that important or bothersome for others who watch it. Perhaps I’m just fairly nit-picky at the moment but my first irritation has to deal with the narration. In the very beginning, the narrator’s voiceover grated on my nerves. I would have ignored the unseen Voice if it sounded beautiful but the narrator’s voice is…plain-old nasty. Maybe some would find it to be refreshing because it’s not a high-pitched/cute voice found in most dramas but a deep female’s voice. I would say that she has a low alto to a high tenor tone so it was something that I wasn’t used to, although I should be, since my own voice is deeper than some females too. However, I gradually warmed up to it because the narration would sometimes say something beautiful or make a couple of thoughtful comments.

For me, this drama didn’t necessarily “WOW!” or turn me into some crazy fan girl. This drama was something that I wanted to savor, which I find to be the case whenever I read a Classic or watch a memorable film. I also can’t say that I could relate to every character, especially that of Wol-hee, Iljimae’s love interest. The only individual that I focused on was Iljimae, who captivated my heart. His every movement, his goals, his maturation kept me moving forwards.

The second most aggravating thing about this drama was some of the side characters. I know that they were all important aids in Iljimae’s growth as a person but characters like Wang Hweng-bo, Bae Sun-dal, and Cha-dol, really annoyed me. Some of these characters were written in to provide some comic relief but I just couldn’t help but roll my eyes whenever some of them were given some screen time. On occasion, I could handle their overacting and stupid scheming plots but on other days, not so well. In fact, whenever I think of Wang Hweng-bo, my fists automatically tighten and I clench my teeth. Blegh.

Okay, now onto the good stuff. I can’t really put my finger on why I do love this drama besides that it slowly penetrated itself under my skin. For a couple of days after I finished the drama, I kept mulling over the scenes and the thematic messages. It’s just THAT amazing and definitely brings much to the discussion table. Furthermore, I think that I love this drama because it is realistic but not overbearing. There’s romance but not over-the-top-gag-me kind. It includes much suspense and action but it’s enjoyable to watch. Unlike Chuno, the scenes don’t repeat themselves nor do they get dull. The lush background and well-written plot makes The Return of Iljimae much more appealing for me.

Let me remind you that I personally don’t think this drama is for everyone but it certainly is worth a try. Some of you may find the scenes tedious and repetitious but others like me, may find it to be a perfect fit. Since every person has their own opinions and interests, I cannot guarantee that it will be explicitly satisfying to you. I believe that this drama is for those who truly appreciate art and are able to patiently grasp the thematic messages within this masterpiece. It may even be for those who are weary of watching the same clichés. Maybe you’re the type of person who jumps right in to watch romantic comedies or thrillers but you want to search for a new adventure. Guess what? Here’s one within your reach and you might be able to enjoy this thoroughly! The entire ride is mesmerizing and you will definitely be intellectually challenged! Oh, and watching this will increase your exposure to fighting styles and awesomeness. Heehee!

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