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.” —Cheon
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.
Uninspired Performances & Characters: I’ll start by openly stating that I am not a fan, nor a supporter of Park Shi Hoo. I only allowed myself to re-watch this drama because it aired prior to his rape allegations. However, it is my policy to boycott any dramas that cast actors/actresses that have been accused of sexual assault (eg. My Golden Life, Because This is My First Life, Voice 2, Misty, etc.) If that bothers you, feel free to exit this page.
For review purposes I will put his scandal aside and talk strictly in terms of his performance. Park Shi Hoo played the incredibly bland Ja Dol/Shi Hoo. I personally have never found Park Shi Hoo to be compelling or expressive on screen, and Iljimae was no different. Park Shi Hoo had one look for the entirety of the show. It was a combination of consipated, bored, and broody. He wore this for every scene, even those where he was supposed to be exhibiting other emotions such as concern, devastatation, or happiness. To add insult to injury, he was stiffer than steel. Simply looking at him was painful. I almost wanted to give him a gift certificate to the nearest spa so he could see the massage therapist. His body was so tensed up at all times, that he looked very uncomfortable and constrained in the role. However, even I can admit that the blame cannot be solely placed on Park Shi Hoo’s sour performance. The character of Ja Dol/Shi Hoo itself was as dull as dishwater. While I wanted to feel bad for Ja Dol/Shi Hoo’s predicament, he was just so unlikable in the way he went about things. His character didn’t do much developing, and was incredibly one note. Always uneasy, angry, and desperate to fill a high-ranking position, there just wasn’t anything very appealing about Ja Dol/Shi Hoo. Even worse was the fact that he always seemed to make poor decisions for the sake of seeking out a noble position. For example, his tattling on his half-sister (whom he didn’t know was his half-sister at the time), results in her execution. In all fairness, he was promised she wouldn’t be executed, but knowing the corruptness of the palace, and the nature of his (supposed) father Byeon Shik’s tactics, why take that chance in the first place? He was always moping about because he didn’t want to live with the noble family, and I can’t blame him since the mother and Shi Wan treated him pretty poorly. However, he was still treated better than Yong. Sure, Yong had loving adoptive parents, but Yong was put through much more hardship (in my opinion) and still maintained a postive, selfless, and personable attitude nonetheless.
I will say that I was pleased with the growth Ja Dol/Shi Hoo made in the final episode, where, once he finds out the truth with his own eyes, he assists Iljimae/Yong. It just irks me that it took Ja Dol/Shi Hoo so long to get with the program; to actively seek out this truth. There were so many red flags and warning signs, that even he pointed out himself. Even when he finds out Yong is Iljimae, he assumes it’s only for thieving purposes, rather than entertaining the possibility that it went beyond that. At one point, I was really angry, because Swe Dol told him not to be mad at Yong and to protect him. You would think that if your adoptive father said this as he was dying, it probably wasn’t because his son was merely stealing for funsies, and that there was some bigger meaning behind it. I wish Ja Dol/Shi Hoo had given this some extra thought instead of jumping to conclusions and assuming it was mere theivery without a cause. It’s particularly upsetting because he appeared to be pretty intelligent in terms of his problem solving/critical thinking skills, so this was one area where I felt they lost opportunity with his character. I think he could have deduced these things a lot earlier, and it would have been much better to see him as a full on ally a few episodes earlier than the finale.
Han Hyo Joo played the prim and proper Eun Chae, who sought justice for the people and often went against the wishes of her noble family for the sake of the underprivileged. I do like Han Hyo Joo, but I don’t think this was her most flattering role. Like Park Shi Hoo, there was something wooden about her performance. I don’t think she exhibited much chemistry with Lee Joon Gi, and most times her presence was marked with extreme awkwardness. This was most evident during the pseudoincestuous scenes she shared with Ja Dol/Shi Hoo. If you’re wondering what I mean by pseudoincest, the term refers to fiction that entails any sort of sexual tension, relationship or situation between family members who are not blood related, (e.g., siblings by adoption, stepparents and stepchildren, in-laws). Essentially, the whole plot involving Ja Dol/Shi Hoo and his feelings for Eun Chae, can be considered a form of pseudo-incest, because they are made to think they are blood siblings, and Ja Dol/Shi Hoo still harbors feelings for her while knowing this. Thankfully, this show kept it pretty tame compared to other dramas that have used this trope, but it was still uncomfortable to witness on screen nonetheless.
As a result of Han Hyo Joo’s rigidity, I couldn’t connect with her as a character, and the way she spoke made Eun Chae feel very artificial (though I will say, she looked absolutely beautiful in hanbok). Like her counterpart Ja Dol/Shi Hoo, Eun Chae was another character that was lost on me, because there wasn’t much personality injected into her. So once again, not all of the fault lies with Hyo Joo, but instead, it is a combination of both mediocre writing and acting. Eun Chae was undoubtedly a good person, which already set her up to be likable, but everything about her felt phony. I also didn’t care for the way she wrote Yong off so quickly. Often times, I felt like she only chose to see what she wanted to see, and ignored all the clues and hints that could tell her a different story. When she had opportunities to consider other factors, she always took in Yong’s actions at face value, rather than bothering to consider the situation within the full context. An example of this is when Yong appears to be beating a child when the Caster Oil gang is picking on a crowd of poor townspeople. However, Yong is not actually harming the child, but instead beating his own leg to make it appear to be so. Bong Soon is able to pick up on this, but Eun Chae immediately chastises Yong without second thought. Had she taken just three footsteps forward, she would have realized he was protecting the child, but she does the bare minimum by making brash judgements out of context. Even looking to his past behaviors should have made her think twice, considering how mature he was when he told her the story about the bird in the tree, and when he tried to save her from the Chinese envoy’s son.
Bewildering Bloodlines: There are an immensely confusing bloodlines to get straight within the first few episodes. This is a complicated part of the show’s plot. If you are new to dramas, this whole arc is sure to baffle you. Not only are the bloodlines convoluted, but they don’t come to light in the most coherent fashion. For those who may still be struggling, Lee Gyeom/Yong/Iljimae, is the biological son of Lee Won Ho and his wife (later known as Ms. Han in order to hide her identity). They also have a daughter, Yeon Yi, who is Lee Gyeom/Yong/Iljimae’s older biological sister. Ja Dol/Shi Hoo is the biological son of Lee Won Ho and his former servant Dan Yi, which makes him the half brother of both Lee Gyeom/Yong/Iljimae and Yeon Yi. Both boys are the adoptive sons of Swe Dol. Dan Yi lies to lord Byeon Shik, telling him that he is Ja Dol/Shi Hoo’s father, in order to give Ja Dol/Shi Hoo a better life as a nobleman’s son (though this completely backfires). Even though Ja Dol/Shi Hoo is not actually Byeon Shik’s biological son, he spends most of the show believing he is, which also means he was assumed to be the half brother to Lord Byeon Shik’s biological children, Shi Wan and Eun Chae. However, he is not truly related to them at all. Finally, the King is the brother of Lee Won Ho (which makes him Lee Gyeom/Yong/Iljimae’s Uncle). The King frames and murders his brother in order to obtain the throne, assuming that the prophecy given by the blind oracle was about his brother (Lee Won Ho) being a figure loved by the people who will overcome him. The King is mistaken in his assumption, as the person revered and loved by the people actually turns out to be his nephew, Iljimae (Lee Won Ho’s son), and not Lee Won Ho himself. Below is a diagram I’ve made outlining the character relationships. Hopefully it will make things easier to understand (you can open the image in a new tab to enlarge it).
Tacky Sound Effects & Special Effects: There were a few little elements of this drama that detracted from its overall quality in these departments. To start, gorgeous cinematography aside, some of the special effects were…lacking to say the least. I know this was 2008, but that CGI frozen lake scene had me chortling on the floor as I gasped and clutched my stomach in a desperate attempt for air and relief. Really, it was pretty crude in terms of visuals in the special effects branch. Along with that icy slip-up (pun intended), came some of the most awkwardly animated birds I’ve had the misfortune of witnessing on screen. While I appreciated the whole story surrounding them, and their relation to the peach blossoms, they were so poorly exceuted that I couldn’t help but lower my head in shame and disappointment for what we were given, and what could have been, had some higher grade CGI technology/techniques been put to use. Moving on, there were plenty of campy sound effects to induce a cringe every now and again. I believe these were mostly evident during the fight scenes. Punches and swords sounded very over the top, as if we were watching a nineties children’s cartoon. On the one hand, it was kind of fitted to the whole legend/comic vibe the drama embodied as a whole; on the other hand, it really took away from the legitimacy and seriousness that I was seeking to find in the brawl scenes. I wanted them to feel authentic and dire, but every time I heard the loud oafish sounds they were tacking on to the punches, sword swings, and clashes, I ended up snorting in half-amusement, half-defeat.
Clumsy Fighting Scenes: To top it all off, some of the action scenes themselves were a travesty. There were some real clunkers tossed in that made me wonder if two different people had taken turns choreographing them. I found that most of the fighting scenes involving large groups, or Iljimae versus a group, turned out to be awfully clumsy. It was like watching drunkards brawl in a bar, or maybe even drunken ballroom dancing. Not good. The camera did a lot of shaking and whirling in these scenes as well, which only added to their ungraceful nature. That’s not to say there were no good action scenes, which is why I purposely mentioned that I felt like there were two different people putting them together. For example, one of my favorite action scenes was the very opening scene of the first episode. It was so awesome how Iljimae used a wet cloth to extinguish the candles and escape in the dark before switching his clothes with one of the guards. The execution of this skirmish was really well done, and not only showcased great action and skill from Lee Joon Gi, but also made for a clever showcase of Iljimae’s wit. I also found most of the one-on-one action scenes to be higher quality. The battle between Iljimae and Cheon in the finale was particularly ehxilerating to watch, as were the sequences involving Kong He’s training of Yong on the island.
The Ending: The general consensus on Iljimae‘s ending seems to be that it flat out sucked. Very few people I know actually enjoyed, let alone, tolerated the ending. I admit, it definitely wasn’t my favorite, and it surely could have been better executed, but I’m not as salty as the majority when it comes to this, especially when considering the circumstances it was filmed under. In case you didn’t notice, Lee Joon Gi’s voice was on the brink of death by the last few episodes of this show. He was about two seconds away from full on laryngitis. I was shocked he even managed to croak out the last of his lines, because his voice had gotten so hoarse. This was due to the fact that Iljimae fell very behind on its filming schedule and the team had to really speed things up and cram a lot of hours in, in order to get things finished on time. In fact, the PD revealed that the last episode was actually filmed on the day it was aired. I’m sure you can imagine how that created a lot of obstacles in terms of delivering a coherent and well wrapped up ending. As a result, they were forced to use scenes from episode one as filler at the very end of the finale. I think it’s important to keep this in mind when digesting the ending. Since they were pressed for time, they couldn’t deliver everything they wanted to in terms of the ending, and I imagine that it was probably a lot more frustrating for them, than it was for us. Nothing’s worse than having an ideal vision in your head, but not having the time or means to bring it to life. I give them props for giving us the ending we got in the first place. For something that was filmed so last minute, I don’t think it’s all that bad, and it’s still better than some endings given to us by recent higher budget, pre-produced dramas, so hey. I’ll take it.
For those that are completely in the dark as to what actually happened in the finale, here is my take. I am merely speculating based on what I witnessed, and could be completely wrong, but I feel like the clues were enough to enlighten us on a few important elements. Personally, I think Iljimae is alive because he was hit by the sword with the dulled blade given to him by Kong He. There was no blood to be found in that scene. I think he’s living on the island with Kong He, and I believe the second pair of shoes was intended for him. I think the townspeople were just covering up for him so that he won’t be caught, because with the corrupt, manic King on the throne, Iljimae would certainly be Joseon’s most wanted criminal. That would explain why the townspeople were able to jest, laugh and make so many rumors about him without tearing up or feeling some sort of moral dilemma about slandering the deceased. If he were really dead, I feel like people would have been more emotional when talking about him, and cautious about letting all kinds of rumors spread about a dead person. When Iljimae appears in the final scene that resembles the first, he has new gadgets that he didn’t previously have, I think this is a sign that he has returned, to get back at the King as he’d said he would, years before.
Some of my thoughts were later confirmed by both the director and Lee Joon Gi in an interview. They both made references to Iljimae being hit by the blunt sword, and the cause of Iljimae’s fainting being due to the blow, rather than a fatal wound. The director also revealed that the second pair of shoes given to Kong He were in fact for Iljimae/Yong. So at the very least, we have full confirmation that Iljimae was alive by the end of the series. I can’t speak on whether or not he’d had contact with Bong Soon. I’m leaning towards a no, since it seemed like she was returning from some long journey, and didn’t look like she’d be in the know as to his status and or wherabouts. I’m inclined to think that his two mothers know he is alive, but I’m hesitant about Eun Chae. Something tells me she doesn’t know, but I’m not fully sure. Many were put off by the fact that there wasn’t proper closure in regards to the romantic relationships that were dangled about. Does he end up with Eun Chae? Does he end up with Bong Soon? I think the answer is neither by the show’s end. Sure, it seemed as though Eun Chae was the winner toward the end, but by the finale, it seemed like he hadn’t been in contact with either woman. If I could have chosen, I would have preferred something along the lines of Bong Soon having made up with her foster father so that the three of them could live together in the mountains as Yong had alluded to, but since I wasn’t too invested in the romance plot to begin with, I’m okay with it being up in the air.
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.
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.