This review originally appeared in the Korean Quarterly
The production team for “IRIS” (KBS 2009) spent every penny of their reputed $20 million budget wisely because this drama shines with class and sophistication. Every episode brings suspense, action, and yes, romance to the screen, providing something for every adult viewer. (Note: scenes involving violence make this drama inappropriate viewing for younger or more sensitive audiences.) And like many Hollywood blockbusters, the gloss hides some flaws.
The ambitious plot combines spy games, betrayal, political moves for and against reunification, assassinations and conspiracies, and oh yes, a love triangle, all told in 20 episodes. The principle players in the very large and talented cast are: Byung Hun Lee (“All In,” “The Good, the Bad, and the Weird”), Tae Hee Kim (“Stairway to Heaven”), and Joon Ho Jung (“Last Scandal”) as NSS agents Kim Hyun Joon, Choi Seung Hee, and Jin Sa Woo, respectively. Hyun Joon and Sa Woo meet in the service and are recruited by the NSS, with Seung Hee, an expert profiler for the agency, part of the team vetting the two men. Both fall for her but it is Hyun Joon’s bad boy charm that wins her heart. But there is little time for romance in a spy’s world, not with the threat of North Korea possibly ready for a successful nuclear weapons program. Rounding out the main cast members are Seung Woo Kim (“How to Meet a Perfect Neighbor,” “Hotelier”) and So Yeon Kim (“Gourmet”) as Park Chul Young and Kim Sun Hwa, members of the North Korean national guard, Young Chul Kim as Baek San, head of the NSS, and T.O.P from the pop group Big Bang in his first role as IRIS assassin, Vick. Other familiar faces in the cast include Je Moon Yoon, Joo Sang Yoon, Jung Gil Lee, Jyu Ni Hyun, and Gab Soo Kim.
The action sequences are where the drama really shines. There’s a dash of “24,” a smidgen of James Bond, a pinch of “Time Between Dog and Wolf,” and a nod to “The Fugitive.” And the drama kicks off with some outstanding location work and a series of dramatic action sequences. Given an unusual “wet work” assignment to assassinate a key figure in the North Korean government by spymaster Baek San, Hyun Joon (Lee) sets up the operation in spite of the high risks involved. The setting at the Budapest History Museum captures that classic spy versus spy element of Cold War dramas, as he tours the massive stone building and narrow streets of a central European capital that has seen many intrigues in its long history. He narrowly avoids contact with the North Korean security service, headed up by the sharp-dressing Park Chul Young and his stern sidekick, Kim Sun Hwa on several occasions, and manages to complete his task and eliminate the target, but not without consequences. In his escape, he is wounded and narrowly avoids capture, but with his wound as severe as it is, he will need backup from his fellow NSS agents. Only that help is not coming…
The story takes a step back at this point to identify the major characters, provide the back story for the friendship between pals Hyun Joon and Sa Woo, their recruitment into the NSS (in a harrowing sequence involving physical, chemical, and mental torture to test their endurance), and to set up the romance between Hyun Joon and Seung Hee, leaving Sa Woo on the periphery and jealous. We learn that Hyun Joon is an orphan and his parents, scientists in South Korea’s nuclear program, died mysteriously. And, that he’s driven, intelligent, loyal to a fault, and yes, very charismatic. (Of course.)
After the successful resolution to a mission in which the president’s life is saved, Hyun Joon and Seung Hee take off for northern Japan to get away from the deadly seriousness of espionage and play in the snow. They spend an idyllic time playing in the snow, enjoying the hot springs, bonding with a local family, and getting to know each other. At one point in their explorations, they come across a statue guarding a lake and Seung Hee explains the legend behind the figure. Her story reveals a fear she harbors that the work they do may turn them into monsters, and her vulnerability. He too recognizes this, but at this point in his career, feels that they will always be able to walk away at some point in the future. But then, he’s not become involved with IRIS. They return from their vacation to head to Hungary on assignment and from there, Hyun Joon is on a trajectory with fate.
While the plot of “IRIS” is not so complicated that one needs to take notes to keep straight what is going on at any given moment, or who is on what side, but to explain further the plot points would rob the new viewer of the thrill of wondering what will happen next. With only a few episodes just past the midpoint of the drama occasionally bogging down in exposition, most hours end with a cliffhanger that forces the viewer to continue on with the next one. There are more than a few surprises along the way, and not always pleasant ones. This is a deadly serious business, with consequences for those involved.
The performances from the cast make this drama worth watching as well, with few exceptions. Critics have weighed in both positively and negatively regarding Tae Hee Kim’s capabilities as a leading lady. Although she excels as in commercial work, there are times when she is given to overacting – particularly when she is called upon to perform in a high-tension scene – and this makes her less compelling as a leading lady. However, when she is relaxed and playful in her romantic interludes with Byung Hun Lee, she is much more credible.
She does not, however, come across as strong as So Yeon Kim, as the loyal Kim Sun Hwa who throws in her lot with vengeful fugitive Hyun Joon. So Yeon Kim’s large, luminous eyes shine convincingly with emotion. Her expressions are perfectly scaled for the small screen; whereas Tae Hee Kim’s broader facial expressions might be more at home on the stage. The role of Sun Hwa understandably became a fan favorite during the show’s airing, and many a viewer secretly hoped that Hyun Joon might see her true worth and toss over Seung Hee for Sun Hwa.
Another performance that received some buzz in pop circles was that of T.O.P (real name Seung Hyun Choi) of Big Bang. As the stone cold killer Vick, he certainly has a glamorous bad boy vibe down and this plays well in some scenes with the impressionable junior NSS officer, Yang Mi Jung. However, in some sequences with the more experienced Lee, it’s clear that – while this is a promising start – he has some work to do yet to be completely convincing for an extended period onscreen. It will be interesting to see what he does with his considerable potential in future efforts.
The other performances from the major cast members, as well as supporting players, are generally excellent. Joon Ho Jung as Sa Woo brings a wealth of film and television experience to play here and is highly credible as a very intelligent yet ultimately weak and conflicted agent. His interactions with Byung Hun Lee illustrate how good the level of professional acting is in Korea: both men bring a dynamic personality, conviction, and physical presence to the screen. It is impossible to watch their performances and not be moved. As mentioned earlier, Lee also has tremendous rapport with So Yeon Kim, and his dealings with Seung Woo Kim as the North Korean agent Park Chul Young also reveal two mature and professional actors at the peak of their game.
One of the interesting aspects of “IRIS” for this viewer is the role of North Korea and its agents and how varied and interesting they are. From the moment you see Seung Woo Kim in his crisp, elegantly tailored attire, neatly groomed mustache, and intelligent demeanor, you realize that this is not your typical communist-bashing plot. His character is thoughtful, balanced, resourceful, and ethical. His junior, Sun Hwa, with her modern, angular haircut and neat, black, Hillary Clinton pantsuit, is equally passionate, loyal, and true. There are unethical types on both sides of the border, looking to advance their own agenda by whatever means possible – and hang the consequences. This makes the viewing more balanced and ultimately more rational.
Is “IRIS” a perfect drama? Not entirely. It does reveal some plot weaknesses in some moments of repetitive themes. Hyun Joon takes (and survives somehow, uncrippled) some horrific beatings and the story as a result treads a little too far into the unbelievable. But the action-driven plotting, the beautiful use of location shoots, and the efforts of a highly capable and talented cast push this into the “Must See” list for lovers of action-oriented drama. It’s also the perfect drama to introduce a skeptical male into the world of dramas – you’ve got “take no prisoners” action for him and the romance for the traditionalist!
Finally, what or who exactly is IRIS? Well, that would be telling… You’ve got to get to the bottom of that mystery yourself!