DramaFever Staff Pick: The Return of Iljimae
To try and categorize The Return of Iljimae as solely a historical, romance or an action drama would be a disservice to this brilliantly nuanced show. Released in 2009, The Return of Iljimae was a cinephile's delight, overshadowed by the popularity of Boys Over Flowers despite having a provocative cast, stunning visuals and a timeless story that is sure to enchant and spellbind you.
This drama follows Iljimae, a young man who ends up becoming Korea’s Robin Hood by taking riches from the wealthy and giving it back to the commoners. Born out of wedlock to a Joseon nobleman and his servant, he is abandoned by his father in a tree to protect the family honor, hence the name “Iljimae” which means “one blossom branch.” He is later adopted by a wealthy family from the neighboring country of Qing, that is at war with Joseon. In his adulthood, he returns to Joseon in order to come to terms with his identity and allegiance, as well as to fight the ruling class for the good of the common people. The show chronicles how he journeys across Asia learning martial arts from China, Korea and Japan, all the while picking up colorful characters and friends that hold “The Return of Iljimae” up as an ensemble cast.
What makes “The Return of Iljimae” stand out from all the K-Dramas I've watched is its unique narrative style, powerful characters and the great way the show is able to balance heart wrenching tragedies with moments of humor and mirth. The show is adapted from a popular comic book and pays homage to its origins in it’s voiceover narrative style that moves the pace along quickly and minor characters, such as a young Lee Hyun Woo, who provide much of the comic relief and background context for the show. Unlike most sageuks, which focus on political manipulation, scheming and intrigue, “The Return of Iljimae” is far more focused on action, with brilliant cinematography, lush sceneries and a stunning soundtrack moving the show. If you pause any scene from the show, it is as if you are looking at a moving work of art, and that just adds to to the narrative style and execution of this drama.
If you've ever seen “High End Crush” or “Flower Boy Ramyun Shop,” then you are well aware of Jung Il Woo’s roles as a charismatic chaebol. “The Return of Iljimae” showcases another side of Jung Il Woo with him portraying a quiet, humble, sweet and tortured soul. You get a very multifaceted lead character-- and there is one scene in this drama where Iljimae witnesses the death of someone he loves before his very eyes, that truly molds Iljimae into who he will be and defines much of his metamorphosis over the course of the show. Iljimae is a very easy character to fall in love with-- his shyness, charm and innocence all endear the character to his viewers and even after the tragedy he endures, he still provides moments of mirth. A recurring joke in the show is that Iljimae is too beautiful to be a man and he is consistently confused to be a woman, which leads to him taking up disguises as a gisaeng in order to gather intel or save his friends. It is small themes like this that diffuse all the tragedy and politics of this show and make the characters more human and relatable.
Like Robin Hood, “The Return of Iljimae” has many of the markers of a beloved fairytale. A noble warrior, a damsel in distress, dashing sword fights and a love story that would resonate with any K-Drama fan. That each character’s story and own personal journey is equally fleshed out and given its due attention is what makes “The Return of Iljimae” stand out. There are no second leads, or background roles-- everyone is integral to the ensuing events, and each person’s challenges are equally important. It is this melange of lovable characters, memorable stories, and heartbreaking emotion that casts a magical glow on the story and leaves its viewers spellbound-- myself included-- for a long time to come.