I just finished the final (20th) episode of the K-drama, IRIS, last night, and it was indeed a roller coaster of a television series. IRIS is a spy thriller with LOTS of violence. Engineer Husband, who heard the show’s soundtrack coming from my Kindle as I watched, commented that there certainly was a lot of gunfire. I could have told him, but didn’t, that there was also a lot of blood, gore, and death in the program. I think as a movie in the U.S. it would get an “R” rating just for the violence.
So why did I continue to watch? Well, the characters were fascinating. Best friends Kim Hyun-Jun (Lee Byung-hun) and Jin Sa-Woo (Jung Joon-ho) are training to become some kind of Special Forces soldiers in the South Korean Army when they are recruited to become part of NSS, a fictional counterpart to American CIA (although Korea does have an NIS, National Intelligence Service which is similar to the NSS portrayed in the TV show). During the recruitment process they both, unbeknownst to the other, meet and fall in love with Choi Seung-Hee (Kim Tae-hee), who is already an NSS agent. Hyun-Jun is the one who finds that his affection is returned by Seung-Hee.
The remainder of the series finds Hyun-Jun and Seung-Hee and Sa-Woo weaving in and out of alliances and (violent) confrontations as they work within and without NSS to fight against the super-powerful, super-secretive, evil IRIS organization. The three fellow agents encounter traitors within NSS and unusual alliances, specifically with North Korean agent Kim Seon-hwa (Kim So-yeon), outside. There’s also some doubt about whether Hyun-Jun, Seung-Hee, and Sa-Woo are traitors allied with IRIS themselves at any given time during the series.
The themes of the series seem to be enduring love and loyalty, friendship, and the legacy of violence. Hyun-Jun is a conflicted character, believing himself betrayed by his own country, but also in love with Seung-Hee who is a part of the organization that betrayed him. The violence is the series intensifies over the course of the twenty episodes, and Hyun-Jun becomes as much a perpetrator as a victim. All of the characters, in fact, are caught up in a spiral of violence, and Hyun-Jun at least is not sure what it all means or why he does what he does. Is he seeking revenge? Maybe. Is he trying to protect Seung-Hee? To some extent. But he says a couple of times something to the effect, “I didn’t join NSS to do good or to be patriotic. I just wanted to enjoy doing something that I do well.” He’s good at “spy stuff”, so he takes up the invitation to join NSS. In doing so, he places himself in a web of violence and deceit that can only be unravelled or ended by more death and bloodshed.
Matthew 26:52 “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”
I found IRIS fascinating, even though it had a few dropped plot threads and holes. And, warning, the ending is horrid, although maybe appropriate in both its ambiguity and tragedy. The filmography is beautiful, with scenes taking place mostly in Seoul, but also in Japan and in Hungary. There is a second season of IRIS, with different actors for the most part, but I’m not sure it will be worth all the blood and bullets that must be waded through in this series. I would recommend season 1 for those who don’t mind the violence (and some strongly implied premarital cohabitation).