"On Air," featuring Kim Ha-neul and Park Yong-ha, topped viewer ratings last Thursday, when its final episode was broadcast. A strong script and four top-notch actors carried this miniseries to success.
The new drama also must compete with MBC`s "Spotlight." With big stars Son Ye-jin and Ji Jin-hee playing reporters and talented screenwriter Lee Ki-won at the helm, "Spotlight" may nab viewer ratings for the Wednesday and Thursday night slot, leaving "Iljimae" out in the cold.
But the verdict isn`t out yet.
Based on an ancient Korean hero of the same name, the historical drama "Iljimae" revolves around the good deeds of a Korean Robin Hood. However unlike Hong Gil-dong, a Korean hero who also stole from the rich and gave to the poor, Iljimae is primarily motivated by revenge.
Hallyu star Lee Jun-ki will be taking on the complex role of this hero. And with a less than lackluster cast of potentially talented but relatively minor actors, this drama is expected to rely heavily on actor Lee`s star power.
Lee may just be able to pull off this one-man show. At the press conference held last week, hoards of reporters and fans vied for Lee`s attention as he posed for cameras.
"When I saw `Iljimae` I had to do it," said Lee, 26, at the press conference, over the din of screaming fans.
Lee, who shot to stardom when he starred in the blockbuster "King and the Clown" (2005), acknowledged the challenges that he and his character faces.
"Everyone says Hong Gil-dong, Hong Gil-dong, so I want to portray Iljimae accurately," he said, aware that Iljimae is not as popular as fellow hero Hong.
"The impression that I left with `King and the Clown` was strong," he admitted.
But that didn`t stop Lee from taking on yet another period piece.
"I always had an image of Iljimae in my mind," he said, excited to tackle the challenging role of a national hero that is a petty thief by day and a gallant rogue by night.
A strong rival isn`t the only challenge that "Iljimae" faces. Good stories have a habit of getting around, and MBC is slated to air its own version of the classic tale in November.
According to MBC, their drama will be based on the original hit comic series by Ko Woo-yung with singer/actor Lee Seung-ki, 21, playing the lead.
But SBS "Iljimae" producer Lee Yong-suk remains confident that their miniseries has an edge.
"The `Iljimae` we are making is purely Korean," he said at the press conference, confirming that the SBS drama is not based on the comic series.
According to producer Lee, while the comic book`s hero picked up his martial arts skills in China and Japan and is more effeminate, their Iljimae stayed in Korea and grew into a man`s man.
"We focused on highlighting Lee Jun-ki`s and `costar` Park Shi-hoo`s masculinity," he said. "We tried to give it a very contemporary feel."
But producer Lee shied away from calling "Iljimae" a fusion drama.
"If you say fusion drama, it comes across as frivolous and light," he said. "But this drama is earnest. It is more like a traditional historical drama."
Exactly how SBS "Iljimae" screenwriter Choi Ran will revamp this classic legend to suit modern Korean tastes remains to be seen.
But judging from the preview, this drama will be action-packed and will remain true to the ancient Joseon dynasty hero, who swooped down in the night to steal from corrupt government officials, leaving behind a single branch of blood-red plum blossoms.
Actor Park Shi-hoo, 30, who debuted in KBS` "Sassy Girl, Choon-hyang" (2005) plays Iljimae`s rival. Actresses Han Hyo-joo, 21, who starred in MBC`s sitcom "Nonstop 5" and Lee Young-ah, 23, who recently starred in SBS` "Golden Bride" (2007) play Lee Jun-ki`s love interests.
"Iljimae" will begin airing tonight at 9:55 p.m. on SBS.
By Jean Oh