Okay… the first adjectives that come to mind during episode 1 and most of 2: “weird” and then “bizarre” and then “camp.” I barely made it past the first (structurally very rocky and disjointed, hyper-didactic, excessively-yet-not-quite-adequately-expositional) episode… Were it not for the fact that I have committed to following this drama through, especially since I enjoyed SBS’s Iljimae so much, I would have had a very difficult time moving on to episode 2.
The Return of Iljimae may be read as either a reboot or just a variant of a folk myth. Many have noted that this retelling is faithful to the originating manwha so that may account for some of what we find here. Common elements with the SBS series include the specific period of the setting, the hero’s birth secret, and the coincidental names of the protagonist (in Iljimae the apricot blossom name is just the super-heroic alter ego, thus named by the people themselves; here the baby is actually given the name Iljimae by his adoptive parents). So far, the overlap stops there. And though they both wield swords and stay masked, this Iljimae even uses a different kind of martial arts than our vigilante from the first series.
Certainly, the landscape is stunning in The Return of Iljimae and Iljimae himself (played by an earnest, melancholy Jung Il Woo) is beautiful beyond belief (quiet breathtaking to behold, really). However, there is something somewhat clunky about the way the story is being told. For some reason our storytellers have adopted a rather heavy-handed narrator whose purpose seems to be to verbally vocalize everything we observe on screen, offering a running commentary that is neither terribly insightful nor the least bit revealing. I think that it is supposed to sound like the retelling of an age-old legend, what with the flashbacks from the modern context that opens up the entire series. The problem is that all of that — the narrative voice-over, the on-and-on-and-on about the duo who observed and recorded Iljimae’s life and exploits, the visual reversion of the urban landscape to its pristinely undeveloped yesteryears — it all just comes off as gimmicky. Aristotle said it best: drama’s greatest strength lies in its ability to show rather than tell. When it can simply show and thus fully engage the viewer, then it needs not ever tell the audience what or how to feel.
It is not until the end of episode 2 when Iljimae, who grew up in Qing, is about to board the ship to Joseon with that atrociously conspicuous and tastelessly campy Qing spy Wang Hengbo (who finds reason to screech and meow at every turn) that it feels as if the writers, directors, producers and editors finally have a clue what story they want to tell and how. Shouldn’t all that already be decided beforefilming begins, or at the very, very latest, in the editing room? The meta element — telling us the story about the telling of the story before actually telling the story itself — seems like a pointless affectation that only serves to thunderously hammer home the (obvious) fact that we are hearing a folk legend.
I will continue to watch to see how well this story inspires the enjoyment and satisfaction I have heard so many who review it speak of. [(Sun April 7 ) Ugh! Am now at the beginning of ep 3 and the narrator feels more obtrusive than ever — like a fly buzzing in you ear when you are trying to read. And that spy…! This is going to take a while to get into, to get through… oh, well…]
NB: See the original comment for notes on the timeline for The Return of Iljimae