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Jun Ji-hyun in a still from Jirisan, one of the most anticipated K-dramas of the year. Photo: iQiyi

K-drama Jirisan: Jun Ji-hyun’s mountaineering action drama, featuring Kingdom co-star Ju Ji-hoon, gets off on the wrong foot

  • Jirisan jumps straight into the action as a missing student kicks off a search and rescue by a legendary local ranger, Jun Ji-hyun, and a rookie (Ju Ji-hoon)
  • Save for some cheeky comedy between Jun and Ju’s characters near the end, the opening episode lacks levity – but hopefully some will find its way into the show

Korean dramas have always had a tendency to be earnest. As the industry has matured, storytellers have injected a tongue-in-cheek sense of fun into shows, which can help temper this tendency.

At the start of Jirisan, one of the most anticipated series of the year, we are presented with a very earnest video extolling the virtues of Jirisan, the tallest mountain on the Korean mainland and long a symbol of pride for the country.

The video, narrated by a voice that some will immediately recognise, is cheesy and patriotic. It feels like a government-produced cultural ad and, while establishing the venerable nature of the backdrop to the series – one from which it draws its name – is no doubt important, we keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, and for a gag to deflate the pomposity.

It never arrives. Instead, after seeing the face of the cameo narrator, we jump right into the story of Jirisan, which sees Jun Ji-hyun return as a drama series lead for the first time since 2016’s The Legend of the Blue Sea.

Jun appeared earlier this year in a stand-alone prequel episode for Kingdom, subtitled Ashin of the North, and Jirisan sees her reunite with Kingdom writer Kim Eun-hee and series lead Ju Ji-hoon – the pair briefly crossed paths at the end of season two. Lee Eung-bok, known for Descendants of the Sun and Sweet Home, directs.

It’s no surprise that, with such blockbuster credentials, Jirisan launches straight into the action as Kang Hyun-jo (Ju) rolls up to the mountain ranger headquarters of Jirisan National Park as a rookie ranger – and the team immediately goes on red alert when a student goes missing.

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Leading the charge from HQ is grizzled ranger captain Jo Dae-jin (Sung Dong-il), who sends Hyun-jo out with veteran rangers Jung Goo-young (Oh Jung-se) and Park Il-hae (Jo Han-chul).

In the mountains, Hyun-jo gets his first peek of legendary local ranger Seo Yi-gang (Jun) when she rappels down a steep cliff face, recalling Sylvester Stallone in the action classic Cliffhanger – a hit in Korea, where it was the most successful film at the box office in 1993.

Hiking is a popular pastime the world over, but it is hard to overstate how integral a part of the Korean experience it is. The whole country is covered in mountains, whose striking morning hues have earned them the nickname “blue mountains”. Many city parks are in fact mountains, each filled with avid hikers year-round.

Ju Ji-hoon in a still from Jirisan. Photo: iQiyi

Hiking stories have proven popular in Korea before, such as the mountaineering epic The Himalayas, but Jirisan, with its home-grown location and added star wattage, is poised for even more success.

In the south of the country, Jirisan holds special meaning for Korea. Among other things it was the last place where tigers, a symbol of Korean pride, roamed on the peninsula before being exterminated by Japanese colonisers in the early 20th century.

As the day wears on without any clues, the search for the student intensifies and takes on a melodramatic angle when his frail grandmother comes to the ranger lodge.

Sung Dong-il in a still from Jirisan. Photo: iQiyi
Dae-jin bangs on about the importance of “golden time”, the crucial window of time following a disappearance, beyond which the statistical probability of finding someone alive plummets. “Golden time” is an investigative trope we’ve seen before in Korean dramas, particularly in the Voice series.

As night and an incoming storm threaten to scupper the search, Yi-gang sneaks out to track down the boy, and Hyun-jo secretly shadows her. The senior-junior pair soon join forces, facing off against a typhoon as they scale steep trails in the dark. Other rangers soon find their courage as Goo-young and Il-hae sneak out as well.

In its opening episode, Jirisan manages to build some tension through its mountain- face adventure sequences, but the show’s seriousness, and some occasionally dodgy visual effects, give the proceedings a faintly ludicrous atmosphere, one that is sorely lacking in humour.

Jun Ji-hyun (left) in a still from Jirisan. Photo: iQiyi

When the show’s opening search-and-rescue operation comes to an end, the story takes a few radical jumps and turns – but, more importantly, it allows for some cheeky comedy between Jun and Ju, which goes a long way towards making their characters relatable and their relationship engaging.

Since we meet all the characters in a high-pressure action scenario, we don’t get a sense of who they are beyond being brave and capable. While there is time to get to know them, the lack of character detail doesn’t give the audience much to hang on to.

Still, while Jirisan doesn’t get off on the best foot, the levity lacking in the opening episode is likely to find its way into the show in the coming weeks – especially with seasoned comedy stars like Oh Jung-se in the mix.

Oh Jung-se in a still from Jirisan. Photo: iQiyi

Jirisan is streaming on iQiyi.