There’s nothing more fascinating to an audience than the idea that wealth can be redistributed. Not unnaturally, the wealthy deeply resent the notion and will do their utmost to prevent it from gaining common currency (pun intended). In modern times, for example, the elite of the US stigmatise the idea of redistribution as the worst conceivable aspect of communism, rejecting even a modest use of taxation to achieve any degree of social justice. Yet, albeit in a subversive way, the idea runs through many different forms, perhaps most often emerging in the myth of Robin Hood. In this, I note the imminent arrival of yet another film version. This time, Ridley Scott and the often-cast Russell Crowe are having a crack at it. All of which neatly brings us to Iljimae, the Korean version of Robin Hood which takes a slight detour through Shakespearean-like confusions over a prophesy and the identity of brothers and their parents.
The primary question asked and answered in this Korean television serial is the ever-popular nature/nurture. Is the way in which character develops inevitable given the package of genes handed down by parents, or do people become the sum of their experiences, learning and adapting to the environment as it rewards or threatens them? So, as is the way of things when you want to set a cat among a flock of pigeons, you start off your journey with a long back story. We see the king and his always honourable brother who sires three young children, all of whom lead privileged lives. Unfortunately, rather like Macbeth, the king is given a prophesy which he assumes means his brother will betray him. As any self-respecting villain would, he sends paid killers to terminate this potential threat. The brother dies but, through a combination of circumstances, the rest of the family survives.
Displaced into an unfamiliar world, the children follow different paths. Some thirteen years then passes in the blink of a flash forward. With his identity concealed by his mother, one son is adopted into a wealthy family. The other is raised by a retired thief and his wife. The older sister only reappears later in the story, bent on vengeance but quickly betrayed. Although we lack the element of twins, this takes us into the territory occupied by Comedy of Errors as both sons struggle to relate their pasts to their present surroundings. The charity case is despised by his corrupt adoptive family — although their daughter plays against type to become the Maid Marian figure and a demonstration of the conundrum of character as a rich girl afflicted by a social conscience. In ignorance of his true parentage (which would have caused his immediate execution), the rest of the family still treat him like dirt and he reacts by growing into a pillar of moral rectitude, outperforming all-comers intellectually and, under the supervision of one of the men who killed his father, developing into a fearsome warrior with the skills to become a killing machine. He sees no moral difficulty in killing anyone who is less righteous than himself. Played by Park Shi Hoo, who went on to co-star in a high-octane romantic drama called Family’s Honour where he played a young man who finds redemption (albeit through the love of a slightly older woman), this is a solid performance in a role not designed to be sympathetic.
The other son suffers a traumatic loss of memory and only slowly remembers his past. Before and during this awakening, he’s a classic underachiever, electing to work as little as possible. He does not immediately follow his adoptive father’s profession as a thief, and most people in the city surrounding the royal palace think him likeable but slow-witted. However, when spurred into entering into a locked building where a nobleman stores his wealth, his lack of experience traps him. Without thinking of the consequences, he removes a valuable ink drawing and then abandons it. Another young man picks up the drawing and, not unnaturally, is accused of being the thief. When he is tortured and imprisoned, guilt forces our hero into action. After blundering several times, the innocent man is exonerated.
Unfortunately, as our hero grows in confidence and breaks into more homes, one innocent victim in the community is the harbinger of many others to follow. He must learn new skills in a surprising range of different trades to become a Robin Hood figure, being called Iljimae because of the calling card he starts to leave at the scenes of his thefts. He robs the rich to help the poor and, where necessary, uses his fighting skills to defend the innocent. Played by Lee Jun Ki, some of his early scenes as the simpleton are a little tedious but, as his memory returns and a steely resolve emerges, he grows into the role of a hero (ironically going on to star in another Korean drama with the title Hero).
What distinguishes the serial is the genuine humour surrounding the increasingly sophisticated thefts and one spectacular rescue of people from jail. They are worthy of David Copperfield on steroids. In a story supposedly set in the early Joseon Dynasty, presumably in the fourteenth and fifteen centuries, our hero is supposedly able to produce major special effects that, in modern times, would require teams of men days of effort to set up and then execute. This superhuman quality enhances the initial sense of naive enthusiasm surrounding our hero but, as is always the way, it soon turns dark as the state begins the inevitable crackdown to identify and capture the thief.
The central dynamic driving the story is the rise of the self-righteous brother as the detective to track down the thief. He is increasingly humourless and driven. Worse, he is manipulated by the King who ordered the death of his father. When the detective finally works out his relationship to the thief and comes to understand how their father died, the serial heats up to a violent and tragic conclusion. In this, some characters find redemption while others find only pain and death. The plot is correctly structured to give initial drama, some pathos interspersed with comic interludes, and then increasing tension moving towards the final series of confrontations as identities are unmasked.
This is not to say the serial is a complete success. It runs for some twenty hours and would probably have been better if it had decided to focus more completely on the brothers, the good-hearted ex-thief (Lee Mun-Shik) and his wife who protect the boy raised as their son, and the surviving men who killed their father. While opening out the pool of characters gives even relatively minor characters their moment and adds to the richness of the tapestry of the life described, it dilutes the intensity that would otherwise have been achieved. We cannot care about everyone, particularly when they only feature early on to become sacrifices later in the story. One point of interest is the appearance of Han Hyo-joo as a lost childhood friend who eventually recognises the grown up Iljimae. Nevertheless, the whole is reasonably entertaining and an interesting commentary on the paranoia and corruption that so often afflicts the ruling elite of many countries throughout time and around the world.
You can download the OST main theme called Lonely Footsteps here. It’s a great balance between a tender piano melody and a pulsating adventure theme.
For those of you who are fans of Park Shi Hoo, there’s a fan site at http://parksihoo4u.com/