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
PPS. (Tuesday April 9) Taking a short break from watching. Not a bad thing – I actually got through to episode 5 (or was it 6) and find that the story has finally settled into a fairly engaging flow. Certainly, melancholy Jung Il Woo’s quiet charisma is carrying this story and making even the narrative and structural sour notes sound without completely undermining what looks like fairly good raw material. I’ll be back…
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Notes on The Return of Iljimae: (chapters 4 ff.)
Am back after a short intermission with Take Care of the Young Lady (아가씨를 부탁해), also known as My Fair Lady, a thoroughly enjoyable romantic comedy with four actors I like very, very much: screen darling Yoon Eun Hye and smart alecky Yoon Sang Hyun in the leads with Jung Il Woo and Moon Chae Won in the secondary roles. All in all a fortuitous palate cleanser I chose in order to see Jung Il Woo in something else before returning to his Iljimae which, as noted above, was given a somewhat rocky start.
Happy to say that from chapter 4 on, once the obtrusive voice-over is reduced considerably and the seemingly random elements from the introductory chapters start to be more securely anchored to the principle story, the narrative flow improves and the drama becomes more engaging. (Unsurprisingly) Jung Il Woo is indeed much more beautiful in this piece than he was in My Fair Lady — don’t know if it is the quietly melancholy soul he exudes in this drama, or the mane-o-glory hair… Certainly, his evolution from impetuous boy into a (somewhat) sagacious man (with recidivist tendencies) is beautifully handled and compelling to watch.
Another especially compelling element is the recurrence of the integral role of books and the written word in this drama: the story of how Iljimae chroniclers Bae Son Dal and Cha Dol Yi become a team is well presented; Wol Hee’s job as a manuscript copyist shines a light on the book lender’s (and probably seller’s) business [where I also picked up another currency denomination besides the nyang, the pun]; ultimately, the one piece of writing instrumental in Iljimae’s ongoing wanderings is the poem his mother wrote about how she felt upon losing her newborn — Ijimae keeps it folded close to his heart and when he brings it out occasionally, we are reminded of his personal motivation to find his mother.
And so, as of chapter 5 on, I can say that I do now enjoy the story without any real reservations.
Notes on The Return of Iljimae: (the Martial Arts)
Summarized in chapter 8 are the martial arts that Iljimae practices:
Ugh … the dates for The Return of Iljimae are all screwy… I’ve been looking for some stable index of the dates of this story’s setting – at first to confirm the above hypothesis and then, as I realized that the historico-political events alluded to throughout had to have occurred well before 1645, to just figure out when the story really belongs on my timeline. Now one may say, “What difference does it make, it’s just fiction, and from a comic strip at that…” Well, I would really like to develop a proper grasp on how fusion sageuk storytellers use historical events. I imagine that if I can appreciate what they are doing with real history, I can perhaps develop some insight into how they (as a proxy for Koreans in general), read their history.
For details see the comment “Notes on The Return of Iljimae: (dates — finally!)” below.
Notes on The Return of Iljimae: (banned books and the written word)
In chapter nine there is a curious scene in the bookseller’s shop where Wol Hee quietly and objectively points out the iniquity of the corrupt government official who extorts local businesses. The embarrassed bully has the shopkeeper arrested and then ties up Wol Hee and begins to pick out the banned books being distributed in the shop to demonstrate that he can make the case that the shopkeeper is in fact breaking the law by distributing those books. The titles he mentions are:
The scene has a charming prelude set in Wol Hee’s home where Iljimae arrives to find a trail of notes from the front door leading him indoors where she set the table for his repast. The first note simply says, “Come this way” and the last one one the table say “Eat.” Raising the covering napkin another note says, “You know where the rice is.” And underneath the rice bowl Iljimae finds the last note in which she has written:
There is something enchantingly domestic and erudite about the whole scene. And given that it immediately precedes the confrontation in the bookstore, also narratively rather well placed.
Notes on The Return of Iljimae: (chapters 9-20)
Yes, I know, huge leap. Let it be read as evidence of just how engrossing the story is proving to be. (Been nursing a stubborn sore throat since Thursday and was bedridden all weekend so, why not?) Am going to sleep after episode 21 since I have an early early morning so I thought a thought or two was in order.
The story has become increasingly heavy — in terms of the hero’s psychological journey, his lady love’s insecurities and singleminded focus on being with her man, constantly crossing paths with his mother without recognition by either party, political conspiracy, deep-rooted corruption, outright criminal activity… heavy indeed. But the narrative manages to hold the increasing weight without buckling or tipping over. The occassional dissonant notes still clang much too loudly — like when the freaky Qing spy Wang Hengbo repeatedly tells the gathered market crowd that the (very bogus) cure-all he’s hawking is, and I quote, “Made in China, made in China!” The pedantic, chronologically displaced narrative voice-over given to quoting William Wordsworth and the like is bad enough; Wang Hengbo is in mid 17th-century Joseon and his “Made in China, made in China!” is uncommonly jarring.
Am not particularly invested in any of the players, although I do find myself hoping that IlJimae’s mother gets to finally meet her son and live with the Lieutenant who loves her. The woman has had a difficult, difficult life, has experienced the depths of quiet despair and now there is a glimmer of hope for her happiness and peace of mind. I will continue to hope…
Notes on The Return of Iljimae: (chapters 21-24)
So it’s the last impressions that stay with you. The ground shifted for me a little when Iljimae finally meets his mother with recognition. The hope of happiness I nurtured for Baek-Mae was fulfilled, even if only momentarily. Tears welled up in my eyes at the reunion of Cha-Dol and Mr. Bae and finally spilled when Wol-Hee was reading the story of Iljimae to her son.
There was a significant measure of redemption for Wol-Hee whose single-minded clinginess to Iljimae (despite him having only her in his heart) was beginning to set my teeth on edge. Does it matter that the way she first found solace was through the promise of matrimony, i.e. discovering the Iljimae did indeed intend to return from his urgent secret mission in Qing; through the discovery of her imminent motherhood shortly after his departure? I am glad that we got to see her rediscover her enterprising spirit and establishing a successful paper-making business in response to the post-war shortage — a business inspired by her work as a scribe for the book seller who had run out of paper; a business that flourished because even the government had run out of paper and she produced a product of quality while employing war-displaced workers. All this during Iljimae’s protracted absence. Hooray for the entrepreneur over the damsel in distress!
Back to our hero: Jung Il Woo remained breathtakingly beautiful throughout and played Iljimae with subtlety and heart, being superbly insufferable when he had to be (gosh, how could Iljimae help it when the first thing everyone noticed about him was his beauty?) and being movingly soul-weary and heartbroken when the world crushed him underfoot. Through it all, he remained truly captivating to watch. ‘Tis a strange thing, beauty…
Notes on The Return of Iljimae: (dates — finally!)
So all the way in chapter 24 a couple of things are mentioned that help relocate and narrow down the time line. The first that made me sit up was the invitation Iljimae receives to meet with the Crown Prince Sohyeon who is said to be in Shenyang. It so happens that the Crown Prince was one of the hostages kept in the Ming court as per the peace treaty following the second Manchu invasion in 1636. This same Crown Prince (son of Injo) is prominently featured in Chuno, his infant son becoming the one that General Tae-ha has to see to safety. Anyway, Sohyeon died in 1645 shortly after his return to Joseon, making my earlier location of this drama after that date null and void.
So the war from which Iljimae tries to save Joseon is the Second Manchu invasion, undertaken by the Great Qing Empire in 1636. And this happens about four years after the death of Dal-Yi, meaning that Ijimae, who is 21 at the time of the Qing invasion, was born in 1615 and the story we pick up is set from 1632-1636.
Conclusion: this story is actually set about a decade earlier than Iljimae and, if the tone, narrative and general plot were not enough to indicate that Iljimae and The Return of Iljimae are independent stories, then this little chronological reversal says it all. The return in The Return of Iljimae is all internal to the story being told in this series and in no way correlates with the end of the first series.
Of course both SBS and MBC could have more precisely articulated this point, but — oh never mind! It has been interesting and sort of fun realizing it on my own. My timeline will look strange to those who now see this:
One of these days … well, maybe when I go into retirement, it will be nice to retrace my steps through this marvelous journey through KDramaland by watching these sageuk dramas in their historical chronological order. (one can always dream…)
PS. midway through Chapter 24 there is a 9-year leap forward to 1645, the year Crown Prince Sohyeon returned to Joseon along with other Korean POWs and slaves released in amnesty following the triumph of Qing over Ming in 1644, a triumph catalyzed by the fall of Beijing to a rebel army led by Li Zicheng. Naturally, this means a slight adjustment of my timeline.