Just finished watching Iljimae and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I went in expecting little more than a two-dimensional comic book hero in a campy fusion sageuk. Instead I got a light-hearted yet touching folk-hero novel that is amusing and moving — with plenty a wink and a nod yet full of pathos as well. And tropes, tropes and more tropes… yet sooo much fun to watch as the story of Lee Joon Gi’s Iljimae unfolds. The drama really does read like a comic book, complete with carefree childhood cruelly violated by deep trauma, insouciant youth full of mischief followed by the tragic blow that catalyzes the hero’s transformation into an avenger.
I started watching the drama compelled by my growing admiration for Lee Joon Gi (magnificent in both The King and the Clown and Arang and the Magistrate for completely different reasons!) He is pretty [and] impressive in Iljimae, especially in the way he plays our folk hero, the insouciant, amnesiac adopted foundling Yong-Yi. As carefree and careless as any maturing teenager, Lee Joon Gi’s Yong’s lost memory is knocked back into his noggin during a skirmish and he has to reconcile the at-first alien memories with the life he knows. I found myself especially moved by his decision to keep from his commoner adoptive parents the fact that he remembered his privileged aristocratic childhood with his slain father and lost family. You see that even while he resolves to discover his father’s murderer and avenge his family, he remains silent about his recovered memory simply because he is sincerely mindful of not causing his adoptive parents any pain or recrimination. Here is one instance where the KDrama norm of people not letting on that they know the truth (in his case about Yong/Gyum’s history and identity) and NOT talking about it amongst themselves clearly comes out of their love for one another and plays rather beautifully as an expression of that love.
And with that, I come to my favorite character (besides Yong-Yi himself) in the drama — Seo-Dol, Young-Yi’s adoptive father: a man of unmitigated paternal devotion heartwarmingly played by Lee Moon Shik. Everything about Seo-Dol shows that he was made to be a father. He is more than happy and even eager to be father to both his One-and-Only Dan-Yi’s son Cha-Dol (Si-Hoo) (who they later send to be raised by the Military Minister in order to afford him a better life) and then to the traumatized foundling Gyum who he choses to name Yong-Yi. Seo-Dol’s love for his sons knows no bounds; he remains a gentle watchful presence in the increasingly unhappy Si-Hoo’s life and he is unreservedly proud of every little feat Yong-Yi undertakes. So, for example, the campaign Seo-Dol orchestrates to cheer Yong-Yi on during the civil service exam is at once hilarious and deeply moving. And you can almost hear his heart breaking for his son when he discovers that Yong-Yi has recovered his memory but kept it to himself and also that — in order to avenge the father he saw murdered — the happy-go-lucky bum of a son he so dotes upon is also the intrepid hero Iljimae. Much later in the story, when Yong-Yi confronts the men who tortured Seo-Dol after catching him in a trap laid for Iljimae, he speaks of his devoted father as “my sky, my earth, my heart.” Having observed their relationship throughout the boy’s youth and coming of age, you know that these words are not merely a pretty formality. Seo-Dol would say the same of Yong-Yi and all told, this has to be the most beautiful father-son relationship I’ve ever seen on screen. A real treat! Of all the players in Iljimae, the vicissitudes of Seo-Dol’s life were the ones I found myself most invested in emotionally.
PS. The drama’s epilogue finally provides a date (1649, four years after the central story’s action). Helps put things in chronological perspective and makes me curious about The Return of Iljimae. I started the first (very rocky and disjointed, hyper-didactic, excessively-yet-not-quite-sufficiently-expositional) episode of The Return of Iljimae and from what I could gather, the main action here appears to be set primarily three years after the first Iljimae last appeared in public [1645?], but while Injo, the sixteenth king of the Joseon Dynasty who died in 1649, is still king, therefore in and around 1648…