IRIS (2009) Korean Drama Review, Pictures, Music OST


(2009) KBS 20 Episodes
Melodrama, Crime, Romance

Masterpiece, Grade: A+

Korean Drama Review By Jill, USA

A Super Powerhouse of an action thriller, IRIS (the name for a North Korean top secret national security agency), is filmed like a movie, not a conventional Korean drama. IRIS (2009) remains the most expensive Korean drama ever made, and the quality shines forth in every frame. All the actors are first-rate, the writing powerful and succinct and never wastes a minute with non-essentials, the scenes on location in Budapest and Japan are gorgeous, and the editing team must have been the best in the Korean industry, for the whole production is taut and professionally executed, smoothly building suspense endlessly throughout the whole show.

It will be hard for you to say goodbye to this K-drama after its twenty episodes are over, and practically impossible to let go of the characters completely or ever forget them. I never thought going in that the character I bonded with the most in IRIS would be a North Korean communist agent, but there it is. Amazing! IRIS won top ratings consistently throughout its broadcasts in October through December of 2009. (Korean dramas traditionally air their episodes back to back twice a week, with a week break in between dual episodes). 

Byung Hun Lee in his best K-drama role

The Story: IRIS gave internationally known Korean star Byung Hun Lee the most incredible role of his lifetime, which won him the top acting honors in 2009. He plays Hyun Jun Kim, a young man who is going to college while undergoing military training along with his best friend Sa Woo Jin (Joon Ho Jung, The Last Scandal Of My Life). While in classes on politics and history, Hyun Jun is amazed at a beautiful fellow student named Seung Hee Choi (Kim Tae Hee, My Princess), who always has the right answers to every question the teacher asks, whereas Hyun Jun flounders. Seung Hee sometimes even contradicts him in front of the class when he presents his incorrect answers. His male ego can't let this rest, so he studies harder, but still she always seems to best him at every turn. Little does he know that she is not really a student but an NSS (National Security Service) scout who is keeping an eye on him and testing him as a possible NSS recruit. At the same time she conveniently runs into Hyun Jun's best friend Sa Woo and flirts with him, which stirs HIS interest in her too, but all the while her interest in the two men is more professional than personal (at first!).

In some of the most shocking scenes you will ever see in any Korean drama, the two men are captured by the NSS and subjected to laborious torture sessions to test their personal stamina as potential agents. Despite their terror and pain both men pass their tests and then meet the acting director of the secret agency, known simply as Baek-san (Yeong Cheol Kim), who informs them why they went through their torture sessions and gives them each a chance to leave the building immediately of their own free will, or to join the NSS permanently as agents.


Despite the torture both men agree to join the NSS and serve their country. Then both men are further amazed when the cool as a cucumber
professional agent Seung Hee shows up and informs them that she was the one who scouted them for the agency. By this time both men are sexually attracted to her, though Hyun Jun seems the most hurt because he feels she toyed with him unnecessarily. Seung Hee continues to ignore their personal interest in her, because it is the motto of the agency that one agent should never fall in love with another agent, until one night at the agency's private celebration dinner when Hyun Jun confronts her and embraces her in a dark corner. They begin a clandestine affair, which is rare to see in a Korean drama (the majority of K-dramas rarely show pre-marital sex between the two leads since many of the dramas air in the family hour in Korea).


Hyun Jun quickly climbs the ranks at the NSS and then really feels his laurels when he saves the life of the current South Korean president Myung-ho Cho (Jung-gil Lee). He is rewarded with a leisure trip to Japan and Seung Hee quietly leaves with him. While in Akita they stay at the small bed and breakfast inn and spa of a couple who have a gentle, smiling twelve year old little girl named Yuki (Karen Miyama), who immediately develops a schoolgirl crush on Hyun Jun (an affection which will ultimately cost the girl her life when a North Korean assassin named Vick (actor T.O.P.) shoots her to get at Hyun Jun). The couple's vacation is shortened by a command to return to the agency to prepare to undertake a secret mission in Budapest, Hungary: kidnap the North Korean nuclear scientist Seung-ryong Hong visiting that city and bring him back to South Korea.

All the while Hyun Jun's best friend Sa Woo has been jealously stewing about his best friend's romantic relationship with Seung Hee. His feelings deepen even more to include professional jealousy against his best friend due to his huge success at the NSS, which ultimately leads to a profoundly bitter betrayal with long term professional and personal consequences for both men. The jealous rivalry reminded me very much of the classic Ben-Hur story of Judah Ben Hur and his boyhood friend Messala who betrayed him.

The scenes in Budapest are very hard to take because by this time you've grown fond of both men and really don't wish to see this "bromance" fade away. I personally feel the Sa Woo character suffers from some form of mental illness, perhaps paranoia, but it's never really defined. Watch and see if you agree with me. The actor does an impressive job with this difficult role, however.

Not only does Hyun Jun have to deal with Sa Woo's betrayal, but the very head of the agency, Baek-san, betrays him too and sets him up to assassinate a North Korean foreign minister in Budapest, which causes Hyun Jun to have to flee for his life. Hyun Jun is so bitter about his betrayal by Baek-san that he even ultimately decides to join the North Korean side to get back at the NSS!!! This is yet another decision with long lasting, haunting consequences for Hyun Jun and Seung Hee and Sa Woo. When you betray your country there are always negative consequences down the road.


The Budapest assassination scene provides us with our first glimpse of someone in the story who eventually eclipses everyone else in the cast (at least for me!) by her completely captivating and sensual performance, the out of this world beautiful North Korean agent Seon-hwa Kim (the glowing actress Kim So Yeon, pictured above) who is part of the IRIS security detail for the North Korean foreign minister who is the target of the assassination by Hyun Jun.

Eventually on the run together, Hyun Jun and Seon-hwa team up in the wilderness and while their first encounter is violent they ultimately develop a strong affection for one another. Hyun Jun does not forget Seung Hee, not by a long shot, but as he shows Seon-hwa the first tenderness she has ever known in her life, their ensuing deep friendship borders on the physical as well as the emotional. I strongly feel their relationship in IRIS is symbolic of the love-hate relationship both South and North Korea have for one another. By the time Kim So Yeon as Seon-hwa was in the picture she blew Kim Tae Hee out of the water, as far as I was concerned. Sarang, sarang, sarang!

IRIS has many suspenseful subplots and interesting secondary characters that I will forgo telling you about, since you really should watch it and enjoy this Essential Masterpiece for yourself. The cinematography (especially one breathtaking sequence at a water dam), music, acting, direction, are all perfection. The entire show is realistic and thrilling.

Making Of IRIS Documentary

There were some loose sequels made after IRIS but I have not bothered to watch them. To me a sequel -- any sequel -- can never capture the beauty of the Original. Also, stay away from the awful 2 hour truncated "film" version, where they cut down 20 episodes to 2 hours - it's an abomination! If you have never seen the original you wouldn't know what anything meant by watching that 'movie' version. Plus they tack on an awful, different ending that made no sense. Thankfully last time I looked Netflix finally started carrying the whole series and ditched the 'film' version. Hooray! Eventually Netflix will be dropping it, for they usually only run K-dramas for two years at most, so buying the DVD set (I did!) will be your best bet for always having access to the series whenever you want to watch it again. (And you will!).