Iris (2009 series)

My nerd cred evolves as I depart from my usual stomping grounds in Japanese media to explore South Korea’s outlet!

I have a new passion in life: Korea. South Korea to be specific in case you thought I was really into North Korea for some reason. Then again, I’ve always said dictatorship is the simplest form of running a country for everyone involved. Yes… yes, soon my dream will become a reality. First Sweden, then… the WORLD!!! Muhahaha!

On a serious note, yes, I was totally joking, let’s talk about a romantic spy thriller tv-series from Korea that aired in 2009. Yes, now they’re distracted… ahem, anyway, IRIS.

IRIS BannerIris (2009, Taewon Entertainment)

Kim Hyun-Jun and Jin Sa-woo have been friends for a long time now, considering each other the brother they never had. Growing up side by side, they developed not only a strong kinship but also a fierce rivalry, always competing to be the better one. Never has this been more obvious than when they joined the South Korean Special Forces, training to be the strongest and best soldiers they could be. Before long they both catch the eye of the National Security Service, or NSS. When given the chance to become special agents they both jump at the chance. But things are complicated when they both fall for the same woman, Choi Seung-hee, another agent. Not telling each other about their true feelings, it’s not long before Hyun-Jun begins a secret relationship with Seung-hee as fraternizing between fellow agents is strictly forbidden.

But while on a mission in Hungary, Hyun-Jun is given his own mission: assassinate the North Korean Minister. Though he completes the mission he’s fatally wounded and the North Korean secret service are close to catching him. Making his way back to the safehouse, he calls for extraction only to find the agency has disowned him and have erased all evidence he was ever an agent at the NSS. Feeling betrayed, he swears revenge on the agency and country that left him to die and finds he is not alone in wanting revenge on his superiors.

IRIS Hyun Jun

When talking about Iris, it’s impossible not to touch on the subject of melodrama. Here in the west, we have a very negative view of melodrama, that it’s cheap and never really strives to do much more than primitively poke at our emotions. Poke, poke, these two lovers just broke up, be sad, poke, poke! For the most part we tend to keep such writing and ideas to the stuff we watch ironically, like soap operas or “unemployment TV” as I like to call it, all the stuff no-one but the unemployed are home in time to watch. Stuff like Emmerdale, Melrose Place and Sunset Beach (can you tell I’m not really up to date when it comes to soap operas?) are all prime examples of soap operas that relies heavily on melodrama.

However, in many other parts of the world melodrama is still very much alive and not in the least bit shunned. South America, southern Europe and Asia still embrace this form of storytelling and even try to include it where we might not think it fits… even remotely.

For instance, there’s a reason I put “romance” first when I describe Iris as a romantic spy thriller rather than any other way around. Partly because I think it simply sound better, sure, but primarily because the romance is at the very core and is almost more important to the story than everything going on around it. Whether Hyun-Jun and Seung-hee end up IRIS Seung Heetogether again after all they’ve been through is the question that continuously begs to be asked and the series continues to throw spanners into the works to keep the viewers from finding out too soon. And when we do find out, will it last?

Iris deliberately keeps the resolution at an arm’s length even when it seems like things are going to work out. When they finally do reunite, neither can say anything to the other in fear of blowing Hyun-Jun’s cover, for instance. And to further complicate things, Sa-woo’s continued attempts to woo Seung-hee and keep her safe means he’d rather see Hyun-jun dead than returned with honor.

There are, of course, a lot more spanners being thrown around haphazardly but talking about them or even mentioning that they exist is taking something away from the series itself. The setup is massive, I’d say the story doesn’t really get going until maybe the halfway point? It’s only then that the main character gets involved with the titular Iris, a worldwide terrorist organization that keeps countries at war to make money off of the weapon sales. However, again, talking about Iris and the organization and who’s in it would spoil a lot very quickly and I think that would damage your perception of it.

Let’s just say that there are a lot of parties interested in different things pulling the main characters in different directions. This is where the series really excels as it never really feels crowded and while other series would’ve been happy to cast all but one side as evil, Iris goes to great lengths to make you understand all sides in the conflict and show that maybe not everyone is an evil prick. We quickly forget how good and evil is more often than not just a matter of perspective, the difference between freedom fighters and terrorist is a negligibly thin line that’s decided simply on your own perspective. And history.

To me it was quite surprising to see them cast the North Koreans in such a positive light. Let’s not kid around here, we all probably have a good idea why North Korea will never be crowned the most humanitarian country in the world… except by itself. And the series never tries to suggest North Korea is anything but a pretty nasty place but at the same time characters from that side are just as fleshed out and relatable as any other characters. They have dreams, aspirations and fears just like everyone else and it was refreshing to see them talk about their country and how they justify their methods. After all, when looking at it through an unbiased lens, North Korea’s methods were not all that different from the methods employed by the NSS. But I think it’s hard not to find skeletons in any country’s closet if you look far enough in.

But even if you accept the melodrama and even like it, there’s such a thing as relying on it too much. The romance, the brothers at war, betrayal, duty, honor, I can accept all that in abundance but the show goes out of its way to point them out far more than necessary. I can accept that Hyun-jun and Seung-hee fell in love at first sight and that they engaged in a whirlwind romance that neither were particularly prepared for. But the show apparently assumes that we’ve forgotten everything by the end of the episode. Never is this more glaring than in the first few episodes where they keep pushing montages of their romantic escapades that happened just the previous episode or, hell, even in that very same episode.

IRIS Couple

And the montages never let up. At times it seems like every episode has one or two montages and it’s always set to one of three songs. Songs that are featured in many other parts of the show as well and not just montages. So by the end of the series, even those not fluent in Korean will be able to sing along to certain parts. Whether it’s to show just how much Hyun-jun and Seung-hee love each other or to show how deep a bond Hyun-jun and Sa-woo have, be ready for a lot of montages.

This may seem like just a cheesy thing rather than a really big issue but it becomes an issue when they’re as frequent as they are, don’t really remind you of anything important and they break up otherwise important scenes and kill the pacing. I don’t mind the melodrama but it’s when such obvious attempts to pluck at my heartstrings get in the way of me actually feeling something for the characters that it does becomes a problem. Otherwise really emotional scenes are destroyed by montages rather than letting the actors themselves do what they do best. Lee Byung-hun, Kim Tae-hee and Jeong Jun-ho, the main characters’ actors, are in no way bad and any fault on them is owned completely by the at times stilted dialog. So cutting away from them to a montage of things we’ve already seen is just doing them a massive disservice. At times entire scenes exist solely to bring about a montage, whether it’s a piece of information that makes a character reminisce or looking at a picture that triggers it, the scene simply ends after the montage is done.

I don’t hate montages, they’re a good tool to inform the viewers of information in a quick way. Whether it’s to show a passage of time really fast or of things that happened a while back, there are good ways to use it effectively. And when your series is twenty episodes long, an hour an episode, montages at certain points to get those who missed the first few episodes or whatever, up to speed is certainly prudent. But the series isn’t that complicated and the exposition that we do get from actual acting is more than sufficient to explain the situation even to newcomers.

But this isn’t the only problem the show has with its pacing. The setup is huge, the real story taking forever to get going, spending far too much time just getting all the pieces on the board and not doing much of anything with it. It takes way too long for the love triangle between Sa-woo, Hyun-jun and Seung-hee to actually matter despite being introduced in the first or second episode. And by the time it takes effect, it doesn’t affect nearly as much as it should. Sa-woo is far more understanding than he should be given his feelings for Seung-hee and it doesn’t really seem to change him much, his conflicting feelings coming more from his relationship with Hyun-jun than any feeling of betrayal or love. If certain things hadn’t happened I’m pretty sure it never would’ve amounted to much of anything and though it’s supposed to be a huge part of his character later, the acting and writing make it seem like his relationship with Hyun-jun is far more important. Bromance over romance, I guess. Maybe that’s not intentional but that’s definitely what Jeong Jun-ho’s acting brings forth.

IRIS Sa WooThough Sa-woo certainly develops a bit of a stalker syndrome eventually, again it doesn’t feel like he does it out of love but rather out of guilt for his part in everything going on. His relationship with Seung-hee is extremely poorly handled and we’re more often told that he’s truly in love with her rather than shown it. Which is just a big, big no no.

Sadly the melodrama never really goes where it could’ve. Seung-hee’s relationship with Sa-woo could’ve been used to greater effect instead of her playing the lovesick puppy pining for Hyun-jun despite everyone else figuring him for dead. At first I assumed the show takes place over the course of… a year or something. The biggest confirmed leap in time is six months but we later find out that Hyun-jun has actually been assumed dead for TWO years. I get that she doesn’t want to believe he’s dead and what they had was true love and all that but for a show centered on melodrama, I can’t believe they missed the obvious move of having Seung-hee shacking up with Sa-woo after searching in vain for her true love for years. Only to then come face to face with him rather suddenly. The emotion. The pathos! THE BETRAYAL!

And the same can be said for Hyun-jun: he also believes that Seung-hee is dead and he starts to develop something for someone he meets along the way, a relationship that feels far more genuine and interesting than the montages of shit he did with Seung-hee years ago. I was honestly disappointed that they didn’t take this opportunity to really mess with our emotions by forcing them to put what they had years ago against what they have now. And if they chose to return to continue what they had, fine, but the fact that they didn’t go down that route at all blows my mind. Especially since they totally set it up and it would’ve taken less than a scene or two to establish what I think most people were already thinking.

Not to mention that they have a false ending that doesn’t utilize its true nature to its fullest potential… something I’m starting to realize this show failed to do a lot. I can’t really go into it too much but the show ends and then goes on for a while and… it doesn’t really add much of anything to the plot… or relationships. They had a far more powerful ending with how it turned out at the false ending than what they ended up doing but it seems that they felt they needed to redeem just about every single character regardless of their previous actions. And they kept throwing spanners into the relationship between Hyun-jun and Seung-hee in ways that doesn’t make sense and comes rather out of the blue.

At this point it probably sounds like the show is pretty bad but honestly, it isn’t. When the drama is free to work its magic it works really well up until… well, really, the third act. There’s a sinister atmosphere blanketing the entire series in a feeling of dread, of characters constantly being on the edge of bad things happening.  Even when things are happy it feels like the next crisis is just looming over the horizon. It can be a bit heavy handed with the drama at times, being rather obviously manipulative, but it works and I can honestly say it had me hooked for most of the show.

There’s no denying there’s a naivety to the script, a strong belief that true love wins over all but at times it does become a bit more serious and mature, toying with a lot of “what ifs” that I wish were more present throughout the show. The relationship dynamics are powerful enough to keep you engaged which is more than a lot of shows can claim. And the mysterious organization Iris makes for a powerful villain even if it mostly works out of the periphery.

IRIS North Korea

And whenever the show finally relents and throws in an action scene or two, it’s well done and the shootout between Hyun-jun and some terrorists on a busy street in downtown Seoul is one of the finest action scenes I’ve seen in a long time, properly gritty and exciting, hitting all the right notes and will continue to live on in my memory for a long time. Some action scenes do suffer from “TV budget”-syndrome but for the most part they do exceptionally well and most of the actors get right into it rather than use a stuntman, something I’m a huge fan of. In today’s media with all its glorious HD resolutions and whatnot it’s painfully obvious when stuntmen are involved so it’s nice to see when this isn’t the case.

So overall, I liked it. It had its flaws, I’m not going to insult you by pretending it doesn’t after all them words. But, in my opinion, the good definitely outweighs the bad but beyond that it’s really a matter of personal preference. I’ve left much of the plot vague because it’s simply something you should find out and enjoy yourself, getting caught up in all the drama, action and melodrama. And if you like montages, you’ll love this series.

At this point I don’t feel like there’s anything left to say that’s of value. You either want to see it by now or you don’t and no more words of any kind will change that. Obviously I saw it subbed as I do not speak Japanese. I mean, Korean. But there are very good subs out there, for some reason Korea has a very dedicated community of amateur subbers so tracking one down shouldn’t be difficult. I highly recommend WITHS2’s (Written in the Heavens Subbing Squad) sub and it shouldn’t take much cyber sleuthing for you to find out where to get a hold of them. I’ve kind of given you the biggest clue already.

Luckily for me, IRIS was so successful that it didn’t just spawn a sequel but also a spinoff, Athena, which I’m currently watching and so far, they’ve definitely addressed a lot of my issues so expect a far more glowing review in the future!

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