Return of Iljimae: Episode 21

This episode really gets the action going, which is welcome because, as I mentioned in the previous recap, I prefer more personal storylines to politics. Not that politics is bad — it adds depth and historical context, certainly — but I like both in a nice balance.


Return of Iljimae OST – “남자는 똑같다” (Men are all the same) by Park Jung-eun [ Download ]

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EPISODE 21: “Young man Iljimae”

Sung-kae drags Iljimae away to safety, and pauses to cook some food. Iljimae wakes up and tries to recall how he got here, remembering being drugged. He stirs from his temporary paralysis, walking stiffly toward Sung-kae, whom he regards with suspicion.

(If you’ll recall, they ended on quite bad terms in Episode 6 when Sung-kae tried to pin a murder on Iljimae, and later Iljimae repeatedly thwarted the gang Sung-kae had joined.)

Iljimae advances on Sung-kae and demands to know his intent. Iljimae is still weak, but Sung-kae is afraid of his anger and protests that he has the wrong idea. Panicking, Sung-kae brandishes his own weapon (an awl-like tool), which Iljimae knocks away. Sung-kae loses his balance and falls down a crevasse, dropping a fair distance to the ground below. He lands on his own weapon and, moaning that he was misunderstood, Sung-kae dies from the stab wound.

It’s actually sad — he’s a hoodlum and an untrustworthy sort, but he DID help Iljimae with good intentions. Even if he was going to kill him in the end.

Iljimae trudges onward, but he’s so weakened that he can’t continue. He collapses in the woods, exhausted.

When he awakens, he’s in the care of Baek-mae, who found him in the ginseng field and brought him home. As she applies medicine to his face, Baek-mae asks how he came upon his injuries. Since she knows him as the profligate from the inn (when they’d met back in Episode 15), he gives her the glib answer that he ran into trouble while chasing women.

Baek-mae chides him, saying if his parents knew the trouble he’d gotten into, they’d be heartbroken. She says this with concern, though, which stirs Iljimae’s curiosity — back in Hanyang she’d looked at him in disgust, so why is she taking care of him?

She reminds him of his own comment that he’s not such a bad guy, and that there are some things in the world that can’t be explained in words. His expression had seemed hurt, like she’d judged him wrongly.

Iljimae inquires after Baek-mae’s children, and she pauses for a moment before answering, “I have a son.” She’s not sure where he is, although reportedly he’s in Hanyang. Iljimae asks a few more questions, but Baek-mae turns the conversation away from the topic.

Baek-mae brings him food, the taste of which makes him pause and remember something. She asks if it’s bad, but he explains, “I’ve eaten food this delicious just once before. I was thinking of that. I’d love to eat like this every day.” (He’s referring to the one meal he’d eaten that had been prepared by his mother; Baek-mae had prepared dinner for Gu Ja-myung before leaving him in Episode 15.)

Baek-mae is pleased with the compliment, though she replies, “It can’t be as good as food prepared by your mother at home.”

Yes, this encounter drips with irony, and it’s loaded with suspense as we wish for something to prod them into recognition. For instance, later she packs Iljimae’s clothing away, looking right past the poem he’d left out, not noticing it.

At the forest shack, Yang-po and Wang Hweng-bo lie injured from their stabbings. Yang-po reaches into the fire and actually cauterizes his own wound with embers — dude is hardcore.

The monk Dok-bo wanders in as the two are recovering, and makes a proposal that they take him along on their return trip to China. Yang-po answers that they’re not in good enough shape to make the journey, but the monk says he can be helpful to them. He keeps his reason to himself, but we can surmise that this has to do with some treacherous plot, since we have seen him conspiring with Kim Ja-jeom in secret.

Gu soon learns of the explosion in the mountainside, but the information has been covered up by a higher bureau. Thus Gu guesses that this is the secret king’s activity carried out by Lord Choi. It also means that Choi’s plan failed, and whatever it was, it must have been very important to the welfare of the nation.

Kim Ja-jeom’s rejoicing at Iljimae’s defeat turns into alarm when he learns that Iljimae has disappeared. Park Bi-su reports that he was seen collapsing before the explosion, though not because of injury. Iljimae has also collapsed once before, when trying to free Wol-hee. They mull over the possible explanations, and wonder if drums have anything to do with it.

Kim calls back the fortuneteller to get details on Iljimae’s condition. She hears the beat of a drum and sees visions of Dal-yi’s beheading, tying in Iljimae’s reaction to the drumbeat to his trauma over losing his sweetheart. Since Kim is a Machiavellian bastard, he tries to figure out how to use this to his advantage, and realizes that if he captures the girl, Iljimae will come to him on his own.

Kim prods for information on how to find Iljimae’s girl, but the fortuneteller hedges, insinuating that she needs something from him. Kim laughs at the simple solution when she admits that she’d like a man. True to his word, Kim hooks her up with one of his men, whom she seduces (with frightening zeal).

Wol-hee and Keol-chi sneak back to the deserted hideaway to await Iljimae’s return. Keol-chi is uneasy about staying and wants to head for safety, but Wol-hee promised Iljimae that no matter what, she would wait for him here. Unable to stand to see Wol-hee so sad, Keol-chi advises her to meet a new man and get married. Iljimae is like a son to him, and she’s like a daughter, but it’s better for her to move on.

Wol-hee answers that she won’t get married: “If it’s not Iljimae, I won’t marry. Even if I turn to stone waiting, I’ll wait for him here. Because he said he would come. He’ll come soon.”

Baek-mae suggests that Iljimae remain at her home for a few more days to recover, but he is determined to leave straightaway, as he has someone waiting for him in Hanyang. They’ve formed a friendly bond, and just as he’s about to leave, he wonders, “By any chance, have you heard of Iljimae?” He hands her a golden plum blossom, saying, “I’d like to give this to you. Please take it… It’s one of the golden plum blossoms that Iljimae gives away.”

Baek-mae becomes alert, asking how he came upon it, but deflates in disappointment when Iljimae makes up a story that he picked it up at a gisaeng house. Baek-mae puffs up in Iljimae’s defense: “Iljimae may be called a thief, but he helps the poor. How can your story be true? If that’s how you came by it, take it back.”

So Iljimae has to revise his explanation, saying, “Actually I came upon it by chance, but if I just gave it to you, I thought you might mistake me for Iljimae. I don’t mean anything else by it, so please accept it.” This mollifies her, and she says half-disapprovingly, half-teasingly, “How could I mistake such a playboy like you for Iljimae?”

He makes her smile by saying outrageously, “I haven’t seen him myself, but Iljimae is supposedly good-looking like me.”

After Iljimae departs, Baek-mae looks at the golden stem while the narrator tells us, “She didn’t know whether it was fake, but touching this golden plum blossom twig felt like holding her son’s hand.”

She takes out Gu Ja-myung’s letter again, thinking of the day when they might all live together.

It’s quite sad, and somewhat pathetic, to see Wol-hee refusing to leave while waiting for Iljimae to return. She tells herself that he’ll walk in by the time she counts to ten. If he doesn’t, she’ll count to a hundred million… a billion… or forever.

So when Kim Ja-jeom’s men burst in, their faces covered by their large bamboo hats, Wol-hee is easily apprehended. They leave a message with Keol-chi: if Iljimae shows up, he should seek out Kim Ja-jeom. If he doesn’t come, they’ll kill Wol-hee.

When Iljimae arrives at the hideout, he hears the news from Keol-chi, then heads immediately to Kim Ja-jeom’s household. A quick look around shows him that Wol-hee isn’t being kept here.

The only information he has to go on is that the henchmen wore bamboo hats with eye slots cut out (to keep their faces hidden). Bae Sun-dal recognizes their description as a certain group of swordsmen, but they’re so secretive that not much information is available about them.

This is when Cha-dol steps up, offering to find out where the men’s headquarters are — he has connections with the local kids. Cha-dol buys a group of village kids dumplings as incentive and instructs them to look for the bamboo-hatted men. He promises a reward of more dumplings to whoever is able to follow them and discover their whereabouts.

The boys scamper off to get started. One girl, Soon-yi, is also part of the gang, though the boys look down at her because she’s a girl.

Iljimae sneaks up on Kim at home and demands to know where Wol-hee is. Kim tries to take charge of the encounter and orders him to lower his weapon and kneel before him. Iljimae ain’t falling for it — he concedes that his stronghold fell and Kim won that time, but Kim won’t get his way where Wol-hee is concerned.

Kim says, “Shall I tell you what I really want? Bring everything you’ve ever stolen from me.” He wants every bit of gold that was taken, and he wants it by tomorrow afternoon. This is an impossible task (not least because those gold pieces have been remolded into Iljimae’s plum blossoms), but Iljimae agrees.

The village boys have had no luck finding anyone wearing that kind of hat. But this is where the girl, Soon-yi, steps up and announces that she has been successful. She used her brains and asked the hat salesman who bought the hats.

This leads Cha-dol to a well-guarded, out-of-the-way building. Employing some of his own smarts, Cha-dol sees a delivery boy emerging from the building, then approaches the guards and pretends to be his brother.

Cha-dol says that his brother hadn’t gotten the correct payment for the delivery and their father is furious. If he doesn’t go back inside to retrieve the correct amount, he’ll be beaten. Cha-dol offers a jug of liquor as a bribe to get the guards in a good mood, and they let him through.

He finds himself in a secret gambling den — the same place Wang Hweng-bo and Sung-kae once joined (and left after eating the cockfighting roosters). He sneaks through to an underground area, hiding as he overhears a few be-hatted men talking.

He’s caught by a hat-wearing swordsman, but he talks his way out of it (saying he was looking for the toilet) and makes it back outside in one piece. Phew!

Iljimae finds him there, having been tipped off by Soon-yi. She had followed Cha-dol to the gambling den, and it’s adorable as Cha-dol wonders if that means something: “Does she like me?”

Cha-dol reports his findings to Iljimae: he didn’t see Wol-hee, but there’s an underground room that’s being heavily guarded. Iljimae gives him a fist-bump of approval, and sneaks inside.

Stealthfully, Iljimae maneuvers to the area above the underground room that Cha-dol mentioned. Peering into the space below, he spies Wol-hee gagged and bound, watched over by Park Bi-su’s warriors.

He isn’t able to plan an escape mission right now, so he makes note of the surroundings and returns home that night, where he mulls over his difficult situation. It won’t be easy to bust Wol-hee out this time, plus he knows that the opposition is strong — Park Bi-su is more formidable than anyone he’s fought yet. Bae Sun-dal has heard of Park Bi-su’s sword technique, and calls it practically unbeatable.

Iljimae stays up late worrying over his next step. We’re not sure how dire a move he’s planning, but we get the sense it’s drastic based on his last speech to a sleeping Keol-chi:

Iljimae: “You raised me. Don’t be too sad to hear that I have died. If not for you, I would have died as soon as I was born. This may be the last of me.”

In the morning, Gu Ja-myung receives a letter delivered under the name Baek-mae, whose contents are so startling that Gu races out to find the messenger. He springs into action; it’s clearly urgent and important news.

Meanwhile, Kim Ja-jeom waits for the deadline he’d given Iljimae to return all his gold. Not surprisingly, Iljimae doesn’t show up, so Kim orders his men to prepare the drum.

But suddenly, Iljimae does appear. The men spot him on a rooftop, and Park Bi-su races out to confront him. Iljimae lures him out, running through the streets in a deliberate cat-and-mouse game, moving impossibly fast.

After chasing Iljimae for a while, Park Bi-su loses sight of him… and we realize that this is only an Iljimae impersonator!

Cha-dol isn’t acting alone, though — he’s operating as a decoy to give the real Iljimae the chance to infiltrate the guarded room. Iljimae sets off a smoke bomb, using that for cover while he frees Wol-hee. He deflects their pursuers by scattering pronged nails on the floor, which drive into their feet.

Iljimae urges Wol-hee to run to safety, saying that he’ll be along shortly.

However, almost immediately after she rushes out of the room, she is confronted by a henchman wielding a sword.

Iljimae stays behind and faces off with Park Bi-su, who is joined by his backup team.

So Wol-hee is cornered, and Iljimae is outnumbered. OH NOES!


I’ve been thinking all series long how impressive Jung Il-woo’s effort is. I don’t think he’s the most naturally talented actor, and at points the intensity of his effort shows through the acting… For instance, his friend Lee Min-ho seems to be the more naturally gifted actor between the two. But Jung Il-woo just tries so damn hard that you can’t help but respect him for it.

Sometimes I have even thought that he exerts himself more than is necessary, that he could give himself a bit of a break, but he just isn’t into half-assing it. When Iljimae is in pain, he actually looks pained rather than just clutching himself and groaning. When Iljimae collapses due to the drumbeat, Jung actually makes it seem like he is fighting his own body to stay conscious. Not an easy thing to do, just like it isn’t easy to inject his fierce glares with so much energy all the time — honestly, sometimes my eye muscles hurt just looking at his. But he doesn’t let up, even a little. Jung Il-woo seems to have seen Return of Iljimae as his make-it-or-break-it role as a legitimate actor, and he isn’t about to waste that by slacking off. As if.

I normally hate when dramas draw out the meeting of two people (such as that dreaded kdrama cliché when two lovers miss each other by THIIIIISMUCH in a crowded scene), but for some reason I really love the touch-and-go quality of Iljimae and Baek-mae… Of course it’s a contrivance to keep them apart, but it doesn’t seem like a cheap shot — I’ve definitely seen dramas where it IS a cheap contrivance and it frustrates me because there’s no good reason for these people to be apart. It’s emotionally manipulative. But in this drama, it feels acceptable — perhaps because these near-misses feel organic to the story and reasonable within context.

They’ve spent so little time in each other’s company but their longing for each other is so strong, and there’s a simple beauty in that. I think this is the heart of the drama — not Iljimae and Dal-yi, or Iljimae and Wol-hee, or even Iljimae fighting for his country — and this is where Return of Iljimae‘s beautiful, painful *jjan* feeling comes from. (I also think that as much as I love this drama, the reason I fell so behind for so long — aside from my own, um, laziness — is because some of the more recent episodes in the latter teens have lacked this emotion. I am so thrilled that it’s back.)


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I was up late last night catching up on all the recaps so far (I'm such a wimp when it comes to cliffhangers) and wow, I'm loving your recaps of the Return of Iljimae! They're - to use a word from the previous recaps - BREATHTAKING. I'm looking forward to My Fair Lady so this is a good introduction/transition for me. Thanks so much!


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Just finished reading 20 and then *BAM* I see 21 posted. Nice timing! :D


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Aw, I'm kinda sad that the thorn haired bandit is dead. The guy is creepy, but I actually do like his dynamic with Wang Hwengbo.


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thanks JavaB!

Quite fast indeed! ^-^
trying to catch up....


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Thanks for the recaps! Good to see them back, it's been a pleasure reading them.


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The beauty of the Return of Iljimae (to me) is that every time I watch it I discover something new and inspiring. It goes beyond just a work of fiction, but a compelling story with realistic characters that we (at least I) can relate to, one way or another.

For one reason or another, some great dramas may not receive the good rating that it deserves on their initial run (For an example: Winter Sonata, which later on becomes a mega hit in Asia); however, a well-produced and well-written drama is able to stand the test of time.

I hope in the future more people get to watch this “Return of Iljimae” (with an open mind), and grow understanding and appreciation for this excellent mini series.

Thanks for the "Fast" recaps. It means a lot to me.


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am i the only one that wished Wol hee would just DIE!!!


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