[REVIEW] Iljimae: The Phantom Thief

Hey friends, I’m finally here with the highly requested Iljimae: The Phantom Thief review that I’ve been putting off for ages. Apologies for the wait! I wanted to make sure I had sufficient time to carefully re-watch it and craft a thoughtful, insightful review, but then graduate school got in the way and I ended up posting this MUCH later than I had originally intended. For those who may not know, Iljimae was the very first k-drama I ever watched back in 2008 when it first premiered, which means it was also my first Lee Jun Ki experience. Ever since then, I have grown to love k-dramas, especially sageuks. And—as you can see by the banner of this blog page, I also became an avid Lee Jun Ki fan as well. To this day, Iljimae is a drama very close to my heart, and probably my favorite drama because it served as my introduction to all these things that continue to be a huge part of my life. I’ve read various takes on, and, reactions to, this show over the years, and have come to deduce that Iljimae is simply one of those dramas that people either love or hate. There doesn’t seem to be an in between; you either grasp what it has to offer, or you don’t. This is now a ten year old drama, but I hope you will find this review to be a worthy read, or at the very least, I hope it will allow you to indulge in an enjoyable recollection of one of Lee Jun Ki’s greatest early works.

[Be Forewarned: Spoilers Below].


Praiseworthy Performances & Characters: The core of this show stems from the supporting characters. They are the keys which gave this drama heart. Veteran actor Lee Moon Shik played Swe Dol, and my blatant Lee Joon Gi bias aside—Lee Moon Shik was the real star of this show. Nothing can top his performance here. He was in his element, and he outshined the entire cast the moment he stepped foot into the frame. There is no denying that Iljimae would have been a completey different, and hollow experience, without the compelling performance delivered to us by Lee Moon Shik. To this day, I have never seen the role of a father portrayed as poignantly on screen as it was here. Swe Dol’s father figure role was a pivital part of Yong/Iljimae’s personal growth, and Lee Moon Shik not only embodied the essence of such a crucial role, but he truly became one with the role; It was impossible to separate the actor from the character.

“You don’t have to be a nobody like me. I’ll do whatever it takes to make my son a righteous man.” 
—Swe Dol

Swe Dol’s complete and utter devotion to his two adoptive sons was powerful and emotional to witness. Swe Dol harbored a completely selfless and pure love for both of his adoptive children, as well as his wife Dan Yi. He gave all that he had, and asked nothing in return. Swe Dol takes pure joy in the gift of having two adoptive sons, and it is clear that he cherishes them and never takes them for granted. Though Ja Dol/Shi Hoo ends up living with Lord Byun Shik, a day doesn’t pass by where Swe Dol isn’t checking up on Ja Dol/Shi Hoo or rooting for him. Swe Dol spends every day trying to push Yong/Iljimae to live a good life, and he tries to lead by example, putting his thieving days behind him, and taking on any odd job he can in order to send Yong/Iljimae to school. When he’s not having outrageously hilarious arguments with his son, they are laughing and jesting together as if they truly were related by blood. Especially touching, but absolutely devastating, is how Swe Dol is willing to sacrifice his life for his son, once he realizes Yong is Iljimae. Swe Dol recognizes the pain and suffering Yong must have gone through all these years and how agonizing it must have been to realize his biological father and sister were wrongfully murdered. Knowing the incredible danger to Yong’s life that being Iljimae poses, Swe Dol risks everything he has, teaching Yong all the tricks of the trade, and even going so far as to give up his own life in order to protect his son. Even on his death bed, Swe Dol worries about his son Yong, up until his very last breath, “Have the rice ready for when he gets home. He will be hungry” is his final request to Dan Yi.

Lee Joon Gi played the multi-layered role of Gyeom/Yong/Iljimae. This is one of my all time favorite Lee Joon Gi performances because he got to play a more light hearted, mischievous, and cheeky character. I always find Lee Joon Gi satisfying when he gets to make a fool of himself for comedic purposes, and it’s not often that he’s given the chance to do so on screen. I acknowledge that, as Yong, he tended toward over the top mannerisms and intonations. This probably would have bothered me in different circumstances, but considering Yong himself was a dramatic and exaggerated character, I rather enjoyed the outrageous gestures he used and the great gusto with which Lee Joon Gi approached this role. Lee Moon Shik and Lee Joon Gi also exhibited excellent chemistry together, which resulted in endless gutbusting laughs on my part. It may have been ridiculous at times, but it made for great comedy and entertainment—and at the end of the day, folks, we’re all here to be entertained. Likewise, overacting in comedy doesn’t put me off the way overacting in melodrama, crime, or other more serious generes/situations would. Also to be taken into consideration, is the fact that Lee Joon Gi was able to tone things down, and emit a completely different, more mature and ominous vibe, when he wore the mask and became Iljimae. This implies that his caricature-esque performance as Yong was intended and purposefully executed to establish a stark contrast between the two personalities or facets of his character’s identity.

I found Yong very humorous, threateningly relatable, and dependable. When he wasn’t chasing down the latest editions of the most popular erotica of the time, he was getting into other kinds of dirty trouble, courtesy of Bong Soon and Kong He’s bootleg sex shop. Getting his backside whooped by dad was also high on the achievment list. Sadly, Yong was also—quite violently might I add—pummeled to a pulp on a frequent basis. Some people found this aspect of the show hard to swallow. I concur that seeing Yong (and Lee Joon Gi’s pretty face at that) dragged through the mud and bloodied up by the hands of bullies, traitors, and scumbags was indeed difficult to watch. If it wasn’t Shi Wan and his troupe, it was his own half-brother, and if it wasn’t his half-brother, it was some arrogant prick like the Chinese envoy’s son. Despite all his troubles, Yong proved himself to be a lot more mature than he appeared at first glance. Often times, he hid his beatings or other near death experiences from his family, in order to prevent them from worrying about him. Moreover, his constant shielding for the sake of the greater good resulted in him bearing the brunt of many lectures, judgements, and beatings that he didn’t actually deserve, and probably wouldn’t have had to endure had he been able to tell the truth. Yong often selflessly smiled and jested to assure those around him that he was just fine, even when he wasn’t. Many times he cried alone, and carried his burdens on his own back, unable to share them with others. His Iljimae persona was more suave, reserved, and resolute, probably because of the grave mission that brought this piece of his identity into existence. Still, bits of Yong’s cheekiness poked through when he’d have a go with some of his opponents, and often times he would provoke and humiliate Shi Wan while in this disguise. Overall, I really became enamored by all the components of his character, and felt Lee Joon Gi excelled in this role.

Lee Young Ah impressed me as Bong Soon. Like Lee Joon Gi and Yong, Lee Young Ah and Bong Soon were on the more caricatural side of the spectrum, but as stated above, I found this worked in their favor.

Bong Soon was the perfect spunky match for a character like Yong. Someone needed to be there to put Yong in his place, and Bong Soon was tailored to that role. Eun Chae was much too drab to fill such a position, and I found that even in scenes where she was supposed to be the main focus, her character didn’t have much charisma or presence. Because Bong Soon was an uncouth tomboy, there was no need for her to mince words. She was blunt, direct, and unabashed. Unlike the typical leading maiden, Bong Soon was courageous, witty, and capable of one-on-one combat. One of my favorite scenes involves Yong’s time learning battle skills from Kong He on the remote island. When Bong Soon offers to help teach Yong a few moves, he foolishly makes fun of her. He stupidly agrees to engage in a quick match, where she easily beats the absolute shit out of both him and his dignity. Another reason I preferred Bong Soon over Eun Chae, was because she wholly loved Yong/Iljimae for who he was. She loved all sides and parts of him abundantly, so much so, that she was willing to sacrifice her own life for him. She ends up getting a pretty serious and lifelong injury because of the risks she took to protect him, and if that doesn’t scream commitment, I’m not sure what does.

Two other characters I very much enjoyed, Kong He and Cheon, were the perfect foils for each other, and I love how this dynamic played out on screen. Is there anyone who doesn’t like Ahn Kil Kang? I certainly hope not, but if your answer to that is yes, I don’t have any interest in getting to know you. Ahn Kil Kang always has a strong performance no matter what role he takes on. Kong He was no different. I really enjoyed the character of Kong He and how he grew to recognize what being an assassin for a corrupt king truly meant. It was risky for him to walk away from that situation, but the fact that he did, speaks to the wisdom of his character. While he did kill people, I feel he significantly redeemed himself by the end. Kim Roe Ha is another one of my favorite supporting actors, so I loved revisiting the show and watching his delivery of Cheon, who had a completely different philosophy from Kong He. Kong He tells Yong/Iljimae that in order to kill, a person can’t harbor any beliefs. He teaches Yong/Iljimae how to fight to defend and escape, not to kill, asserting that there are two kinds of swords—one to save others and one to kill others, just as Yong/Iljimae’s father had told him as a child. Contrastingly, Cheon teaches the opposite to Ja Dol/Shi Hoo. His belief is in the king and he tells Shi Hoo to kill everyone and anyone in his way, whether it be friends or enemies—that’s what a sword is for. When Kong He confronts Cheon, and tries to give him an opportunity to give up being the king’s assassin, Cheon struggles. Cheon’s dilemma lies in the fact that he has served the king his whole life, so to abandon ship and admit the king’s wrongdoing, would also signify the wasted years of his life spent as an accomplice to a criminal king. It is pitiful, and of course ironic, to watch Shi Hoo coldly cut down Cheon while repeating the very same lines he told him as his mentor.

“If I admit he is wrong, what becomes of me? What about me? I devoted all my life to him. I become a simple murderer. That is why he has to be my lord and the work I do for him has to be a great cause. I will bet everything I have and am to protect His Majesty.” 

The last few accolades are for Lee Won Jong as Byeon Shik and Kim Chang Won as the King. These two veterans have sufficient experience playing villains, and this was evident here. Lee Won Jong has such great expressions when it comes to playing a diabolical, noble who loves to kiss up to his superiors. The sheer giddiness in Byeon Shik’s voice was always so irritating yet amusing to listen to. Lee Won Jong has a way of making even his pettiest and most deplorable villain roles have charm. I couldn’t help but enjoy Lord Byeon Shik, because Lee Won Jong is so good at being so bad. Similarly, I’ve seen a trillion dramas with Kim Chang Won, and I can honestly say I’ve never seen him portray a hero, or even a somewhat decent human being. There’s a reason for that, and it’s because he makes the most captivatingly greasy and enraging villain you could possibly imagine. That certainly proved true here, where he plays a disgustingly ruthless and manipulative King. The King was an intriguing character who dug his own figurative grave and the literal graves of many others. Trying to maintain power you wrongfully obtained in the first place is difficult. You always have to be looking over your shoulder in fear that the truth will come out, and that is exactly the dilemma the King became faced with. When confronted by Iljimae about killing his own brother and son, the King retorts, “If it can protect my throne, I am willing to do worse than that.” Pretty chilling. Maybe that’s why he goes manic by the end. There’s no way that kind of stuff won’t catch up with you at some point.

Exquisite Cinematography: This is a relatively old production, but the visuals hold up well when compared to recent sageuks. For a ten year old drama, I’d dare say the cinematography was nothing short of outstanding. What made this show really amazing was the wide variety of colors maintained and used throughout to fill the frame, as well as the fact that all four seasons were clearly depicted at one point or another during the story. Peach blossoms blowing in the wind, light snowfawll amidst the forest, and vivid leaves of reds and oranges falling from the autumn trees added a beautiful cinematic touch. So too, did the bright, vibrant costumes which popped against complimentary backdrops. I must say many of the costumes were extraordinary—particularly Eun Chae and her father Byeon Shik’s wardrobes were expansive, striking, and exquisitely made. Iljimae’s costume left a little to be desired, with the face mask being more on the clunkier side, but overall, I didn’t have as many bones to pick with it as others did. It was based on myth and legend, it’s not supposed to epitomize realism, but rather aims to be something more analagous to “the comic book hero”—but I digress. Much thoughtfulness went into the directing, as there was constant use of positive and negative space, perspective, and depth which were not only applied skillfully, but allowed viewers to feel as though they were actually immeresed and present, witnessing everything firsthand.

Amazing Soundtrack: I really enjoyed this soundtrack because it was subtle, yet beautiful, and took full advantage of traditional instruments. “웅산” by 인연 was probably my favorite of the vocal tracks. I absolutely loved this soft, heartfelt ballad, with gentle piano rifts to compliment the more romantic or contemplative and melancholic scenes. “산촌별곡” was a tune as funny as the comedic scenes it was applied to. It totally encapsulated the tomfoolery exhibited by Yong, Bong Soon, Kong He, and his other outlandish friends. I really enjoyed the way this instrumental perfectly captured the jestful nature of our quirky hero. The opening song, “외로운 발자국,” was used as Iljimae’s main theme and I thought this fit the whole “comic book hero” vibe quite well. Some other tracks I enjoyed were “붉은 그림자,” which made great use of drums, trumpet and violin; “은행나무 언덕 유열” which had soft mesmerizing vocals paired with traditional instruments; and finally, “회상 원제 아도니스 놀이터,” which was predominantly traditional instruments without any vocals. I’ve only named a few tracks here, but honestly there wasn’t a disappointing one in the bunch for me. Overall, it was a really nice selection that was perfectly appropriate for the historical setting.

Non-Romantic Focus: Many will have objections to this, but I’d consider the lack of romance in this drama to be a strength. This is a story which could have easily been bogged down by unnecessary fluff material, so I was glad the love stories were kept to a bare minimum. That being said, I did somewhat appreciate that there was a touch of this kind of thing included. Personally, I was team Yong x Bong Soon. Eun Chae was far more infatuated with the concept of Iljimae being a sort of social justice figure for the people, and therefore became enamored with this facet of his persona. However, she did not have very fond feelings for Yong, whom she was quick to pass wrongful judgements about. On the other hand, Bong Soon was in love with every piece of Iljimae’s identity. Gyeom was her childhood savior and first love, Yong was the troublemaker playboy that made her laugh but also gave her a run for her money (quite literally), and Iljimae was a hero who helped relieve some of the burdens from which the lower class people, like her, were suffering from. I feel as though Yong/Iljimae had love in his heart for each woman. The Yong part of his personality being more suited to Bong Soon, while his Iljimae side was more in tune with Eun Chae.

Engaging Plot: I thoroughly enjoyed the narrative. While it was one of those shows that was slow to start and a bit confusing toward the beginning, it was all worthwhile to me. There were certainly elements that called for a drastic suspense of belief, but this can all be attributed to the fact that this show was based on myth, legend, folklore—the same kind of aura you get when reading a superhero comic book. There were supposed to be surreal and fantastical elements, such as the invisibility cloak. It’s not supposed to be taken as realism. Anyone that viewed it thinking it would be an authentic portrayal of what a real life superhero would be, is setting themselves up for misunderstanding the show’s purpose. Iljimae went through the standard hero arc—loss, romance, thoughts of revenge, training with a mentor, and returning to avenge the deaths of his loved ones. We see this kind of narrative in western films such as The Dark Knight trilogy or Gladiator, just to name a few off-hand. I enjoyed watching Yong go through this process, and was thankful it wasn’t rushed. I’ve seen this kind of sequence play out too quickly in other Korean dramas that follow this type of hero pattern, which makes things a little less believable. Here, we were really able to track Yong’s growth, and that’s what allowed us to connect with him on a human level. I enjoyed the episodic missions and the flashbacks, cluing us in on how Iljimae managed to break in the noblemen’s houses and overcome obstacles by using his wit. There were some elements of the plot that I felt could have been executed better, but overall, everything managed to entertain me and keep my attention. Even if the script was lacking at times, I don’t think it was to the point where the drama suffered any significant loss. I appreciated the mix of comedy, suspense, and tragedy. There was a really good balance between these elements, which kept the show goofy, but at the same time, mysterious and dire.


The supporting cast, production value, traditional soundtrack, thoughtful cinematography, and entertaining narrative all come together to deliver a compelling and memorable watch. Iljimae may not be the perfect sageuk, but it is one that I can still find exciting and meaningful with each watch. In this case, the strengths of this drama easily outweigh any of its flaws. Even if you dislike sageuks, there is much to appreciate about this show, from its stunning visuals, to its tear-inducing comedy. I recommend giving this hearty 2008 period piece a fair chance, especially if you’re looking for something new to watch during the recent sageuk drought. And of course, if you’re a Lee Joon Gi fan and haven’t yet had the opportunity to give this one a try, now is definitely a great time to experience one of his most heartwarming and hilarious roles.

Rating: 8.5/10 

Did you watch Iljimae: The Phantom Thief? What did you think of the drama? If you haven’t already, you can check out the preview for it here.


  1. [On the review]
    Comprehensive review which takes into account all thematically significant aspects of the film
    Better attempts could have been made to analyse use of literary devices like dramatic irony, foreshadowing juxtaposition etc.
    Agreed that the ending was a bit rushed and left a lot of loose ends. Could have included a scene or two with Yong in it (I’m using Yong here to clarify the distinction between II Ji Mae and his normal day-to-day self) to give some form of closure to the relationships
    It is important to separate the art from the artist. Although knowing that one of the cast members are involved in a sexual assault scandal does taint the experience a little, no judgement on the film quality should be made based on that fact.

    [On the film itself]
    Use of visual cues to convey information subtly is commendable.
    Ending, while failed to deliver on everything, still stands out from overly cheesy and cheery endings seen in most films today.
    Brave of the director to choose a bittersweet ending which exemplifies the theme of the sacrifice of a hero, the need for detachment from the real world and loved ones to keep them safe.
    Plot was compelling and moving albeit not without plot holes.
    The romance was kinda half-assed, and no resolution was given to the love triangle between II Ji Mae, Eun Chun and Boon soon.
    Progress of the story felt a bit slow in the middle. Could have increased screen time and placed more emphasis on the raiding of the palace rather than relegating to the length of a single episode (the last third of episode 19 and the first 2 thirds of episode 20)
    Tension created from the dramatic irony of Eun Chun not knowing Yong was behind the mask has audience begging for release that was never achieved in the last episode, perhaps another reason why the ending was so unsatisfying.


    • Hello, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I don’t think any comment is pointless, so I appreciate you taking the time to voice your opinions. I am glad you found the review comprehensive. I am sorry to disappoint in the literary device department. While I would have loved to jump into all of that, I don’t always have the time and energy to do so. This site is merely an outlet for me, so that’s why it mostly consists of casual, scattered ramblings. Still, I am grateful for the feedback.

      As for separating art from the artist, I both agree and respectfully disagree with you. When reviewing a piece of work, as I explained in this review, I do not judge the actor’s performance based on his or her personal life. An actor’s personal life has absolutely nothing to do with their acting capabilities, so I agree in that aspect. However, I still stand by my policy to boycott any dramas or films that cast actors/actresses that have been openly accused and/or found guilty of sexual assault. In that sense, I don’t think the art can be separated from the artist. I refuse to consciously partake in supporting any kind of project that involves a rapist. That’s just my personal decision and what makes me feel most comfortable, so if you feel differently, it’s up to you to do whatever you are most comfortable with. Cheers.


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