If you enjoy romance and watch Korean dramas to escape the drudgery and horrors of daily life, then DO NOT watch Iris.  OH MY GOD. This series was highly popular during its run, and managed to be a commercial success even with its $17 million dollar budget.  The production value definitely shows. We get to see our top agents battle the bad guys in exotic locations like Hungary and Japan. There are plenty of explosions and blockbuster worthy chase and fight scenes. But the writing … where to begin?

The first few episodes had me expecting a cross between City Hunter and La Femme Nikita, the Canadian version.  Basically a dark spy thriller combined with your typical Korean love triangle romance.  We have our hero, Kim Hyun-jun (Lee Byung-hun) rocking his abs during special ops training.

And his best friend Jin Sa Woo (Jung Joon-ho), who ultimately betrays their friendship and turns to the dark side. His reasons for doing so are blurry until his brutal death, and all we can assume is that he did it out of his desire to protect their mutual love interest.  Supposedly Sa Woo also desires power, but this ambition is never clearly expressed so his motives don’t seem very compelling.

Their mutual love interest: Choi Seung-hee, played by Kim Tae-hee, who is often considered one of Korea’s most beautiful women.  She isn’t glammed up at all in this series, so her natural beautiful shines through. And she gets to destroy the usual kdrama stereotype of the love interest being an innocent, incompetent girl. Seung-hee acts her age, is not a virgin, and even gets down and dirty when she has to kill men twice her size.  She kicks ass in a few amazing, albeit brutal, fight scenes.

Too bad Hyun-jun spends a good portion of the series SEPARATED from her and working with ANOTHER female spy, Seon-hwa (Kim So-yeon).

I know a lot of viewers liked Seon-hwa’s character. She’s a cold-hearted North Korean spy who stays by Hyun Jun’s side because she secretly loves him.  Her love is unrequited though since Hyun Jun never gives up on his love for Seung Hee ever after he thinks she’s died.  Seon-hwa knows that Seung Hee is alive, but she doesn’t tell Hyun Jun, thus contributing to several episodes of him wallowing in unnecessary angst. She also keeps Seung Hee in the dark and even knocks her unconscious in the one moment when you hope she can finally be reunited with her love.

But enough about Seon hwa. The problem with Iris is that it’s a spy thriller where the spy scenarios can’t be taken seriously, or are just plain laughable. Take the final episode for example, where the terrorists hold a bunch of civilians hostage in a shopping mall. Every shot of the “bad ass” terrorists included suburban merchandise in the background, from mannequins wearing discount clothing to backpacks. Makes for a weird juxtaposition.

There are definitely some very funny scenes that help to balance out all the brutality.  These two really like to let loose by drinking.

It’s a shame there weren’t more episodes exploring the possibilities of teamwork within the anti-terrorist organization NSS. Their first mission included a great casino scene where Hyun Jun is shocked to see Seung hee seducing their mark. Unfortunately, within the first few episodes, all of the agents are plunged into a nightmare where no one can be trusted or held accountable.

I know the viewers are supposed to be kept in this state of suspense, but for me it was just unsettling and rather depressing.   Towards the end of the series, when the possibility of Seung-hee being a part of IRIS was revealed, I almost stopped watching because I couldn’t bear to see Hyun Jun get hurt or Seon-hwa become the heroine.

The main villain in this series, Baek San, really made my skin crawl.  Especially in this scene, when he smothers a defenseless invalid.

The problem with Baek San is that he never shows remorse.  And he doesn’t really get punished. Even when he’s finally arrested and taken away from NSS, the chief director stops the authorities from handcuffing him. When Hyun Jun finally confronts Baek San, all he does is shoot him in the leg. I really wanted to see him at least punch Baek San in the face once … but instead, Hyun Jun starts crying, thus giving Baek San the upper hand once again.

Luckily, one of the villains (T.O.P.) does his bad boy role justice.

IRIS is a great series and I really did appreciate the production value, but the ending destroyed any inclinations I may have had for watching its sequel (IRIS 2) or spin-off (Athena).  If you’re going to spend a quarter of a series showing us amazing romantic scenes of a couple that gets tragically separated time and time again, you better give us a happy ending. Nope.  Instead, the writers left the viewers hating a world where the bad guys  get the last word and love is merely a weakness that can be exploited by evil.

Grade: B-

Pros: Really beautiful romantic scenes that aren’t stiff or awkward. Women kicking ass instead of acting like ditzy 13 year olds. Some pretty cool fight scenes and stunt work. Props to Lee Byung hun for his screen presence, although I found him most compelling when paired with the emotive Kim Tae hee.

Cons: Too many flashbacks. And ending that will leave you depressed for at least a week.  If you watch kdramas to escape the shittiness of real life DO NOT watch IRIS. Don’t expect a spy thriller along the lines of Bourne Identity or James Bond, IRIS is more like a soap opera with an underlying espionage theme that’s hard to take seriously.


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