The invitation went out and quickly met with mixed response.
One pal claimed he had retired as a pundit, but I suspect the real reason is because his cat’s fur stood on end every time the drama was playing in the room. (Dogs just lick you silly but cats see things that the human eye can’t.) Another pal thought she could evade the invite by distracting me with a bunch of Micky Yoochun clips. (She succeeded because I forgot to send her the question.) A third pal developed a strange rash that necessitated a trip to the hospital. (Apparently too much squealing over one Kim Gab-soo can do weird things to your body.) The fourth dropout (thundie) professed being so busy she could barely breathe, but of course the truth was that the drama made her feel all kinds of dim. (Dumbstruck with wonder but still dim; she didn’t get the ending at all.)
So only four reviewers remained for our third epic review this year. Wild applause, please, for langdon813, momosan, ockoala and Serendipity! With their usual eloquence and erudition, they have bravely attempted to answer the following question:
Solve this mystery: How did a little-known cable drama nudge its way past this year’s stellar offerings to become the best of them all?
How did a little-known cable drama nudge its way past this year’s stellar offerings to become the best of them all? That’s not an easy question to answer. I actually wrote (finished, even) another review entirely, and was about to hand it off to Thundie when something made me decide to start over. I may be relatively new to Korean dramas (although at last count I was over 100 completed, so, not such a newbie anymore). But I am certainly not new to being addicted to television. As far back as I can remember (and I have memories of being in a crib, if that tells you anything), I’ve been glued to the tube. Unabashedly, happily so. Anyway, there was something lurking in the back of my mind, something that Joseon X-Files reminded me of, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. Obviously there are similarities to the American TV show, but that wasn’t it. It was something elusive, like when you wake up too abruptly from a dream and are desperate to recall it, but it vanishes into the ether. When I finally stopped trying, there it was. And the word was: tropes.
If there’s anything I’ve learned about K-dramas, it’s that they love their tropes. The Humidifer of Serious Illness, The Overbearing/Overprotective/Crazy Because of My Son Korean Mother, The Piggyback Ride, The Withholding of Very Important Information (because It’s For His/Her Own Good), The Wrist-Grab, Eating while Crying, Happy Ending Destroyed By Cancer, Second Lead Syndrome, The U-Turn to Impending Confession of Love, and, last but not least, A Chaebol on Every Corner. You get my point.
Joseon X-Files has none of those. Of course, it’s not your typical Korean drama, either. But does it have tropes? Oh, you bet it does. Let’s discuss!
An Offer You Can’t Refuse
Initially, the (eventual) hero has no desire whatsoever to get involved in a particular gnarly situation, because he’s a rascal who can’t be bothered, or because there’s nothing in it for him. But inevitably, the hero has a friend, a family member, or True Love who is threatened with grievous bodily injury unless he carries out a nefarious plan when the villain is unwilling (or unable) to do so himself. In this story, our hero is Kim Hyeongdo, and the imperiled victim is his former mentor, Lee Hyeongwook. Hyeongdo knows full well that his former teacher, now Governor, would never fabricate a story about an Unidentified Flying Object, being of high moral character. And yet he’s imprisoned for having “aggrandized his report with mendacious claims of a bizarre flying object” and “divine retaliation against His Majesty’s alleged lack of virtue.” Hyeongdo is tasked with providing a reasonable explanation (and demonstration of same) to a distrusting, terrified, and skeptical public, thereby saving himself and his mentor from execution for high treason. And thus, Hyeongdo reluctantly embarks on a new (secret) career path as investigator for Shinmuhwe (see also: Powers That Be).
This particular trope finds the hero and his team traveling to a new place each episode, with a case to be resolved in approximately 45 minutes (or whatever the length of the episode, minus commercials), with the assistance of a local or two. Most of the episodes of Joseon X-Files take place in various villages and provinces adjacent to the capital city of Hanyang (Seoul). And the locals definitely play a large part in the telling. Which invariably leads us to…
Monster of the Week
This applies to monsters of the human or non-human variety; the point being that they’re usually separate from the overall story arc, and discovered and dealt with in a single episode. But as any science fiction or fan of the supernatural can tell you… dead ain’t always dead. Sometimes they come back.
~ Episode 1 and 2 “The Secret Light, Parts 1 and 2″ ~
The Big Bad in these introductory episodes is The Government. Politicians lie, coerce, threaten, intimidate and kill. Wow, I’m really glad things aren’t like that anymore… yeah. Never mind.
~ Episode 3 “The Curse of Shilla’s Gold” ~
Here we find buried treasure… that carries a (radioactive?!) curse. Anyone coming into contact with recently discovered cache of gold bars (dating from the Shilla Dynasty) comes down with a skin-ravaging, rapidly fatal condition. “All his blood has putrefied, clogged and stiff like fresh animal blood, while all his major organs were in a state of decay. I have never witnessed such a heinous ailment before.” Couldn’t agree with you more, dude. It was pretty heinous to look at from this end, too.
~ Episode 4 “Behind Those Crimson Eyes” ~
In which we meet the “Yangjubak”, described as a “wild horse-like creature which appeared in Yangju three decades ago, desultorily devouring both men and beasts.” The villagers attribute a rash of violent deaths (leaving behind mutilated human remains) to tigers. Interestingly enough, all of the victims are criminals, already marked for execution. And there’s a very sick young boy whose father behaves rather strangely…
~ Episode 5 “The Sealed Tale” ~
A storyteller holds court, weaving a tale of a woman’s murder that occurs on a dark, densely foggy night… a brutal beheading. Elsewhere, a man scribbles on a pad, clearly in a fugue state. He is a “mudang”, or psychic; a condition inherited from his mother. The tales he relays to the storyteller are remarkably similar… no, identical in every detail, to a recent spate of murders, therefore he is clearly the murderer. Or… not?
~ Episode 6 “Ghosts of Yidu” ~
If the title isn’t enough of a clue… there were ghosts. And it was SCARY.
~ Episode 7 “The Arcane Village” ~
Not so much monster as total mindfuck (thanks, X!). From the first frame, in which we hear Assistant Heo say, “You must get a hold of yourself. You don’t belong here.”, as we gaze at Hyeongdo, who appears as if he’s coming off a three-day bender. (“Here” is Banchon, a place that we might call “the ‘hood” in these modern times, and yet, it’s a place where dreams come true. Problem is, it’s a place where ALL dreams come true. And sometimes dreams… aren’t very nice. There is extreme poverty and an overwhelming sense of melancholy and depression in this place populated by shifty tradesmen, gamblers, and citizens who merely lie around, ostensibly in an opium-induced haze). To the last frame, in which Hyeongdo gazes at Assistant Heo the way a man crawling from the desert might gaze at a glass of water, with a mixture of extreme relief and uncertainty that what he’s seeing is real. I’ll never again hear the word “Banchon” without getting goosebumps.
~ Episode 8 “The Immortal Prophet” ~
This was a very unnerving episode to watch for many reasons, but especially from a female perspective. Hyeongdo is missing, and in her attempt to locate him, Assistant Heo is led to Dongbang Sak, a seemingly immortal man who has been imprisoned for 150 years. His visage is terrifying to behold; he is withered, craggy, and blinded by a white film over his eyes (cataracts, or maybe just extreme old age). He is also leering, lascivious, and downright vulgar, but clearly he can see… something. And he’s willing to help, sort of, if Assistant Heo is willing to go… tit for tat. So to speak.
~ Episode 9 “Attack of the Changgwi” ~
Sustained by human blood, a “changgwi” is a creature that comes to life when the soul of a child who dies before his parents is possessed by a cat. Well, isn’t that cheerful? But hey! In this episode, we do have one Korean drama trope, one I forgot to mention in my list. Toilet Humor! Despite the darkly hilarious moments of this episode (“How does it taste?” “Like every other meat soup.” ” But what kind of meat?” “Are you suggesting I’m feasting on human flesh?” *spit*), the changgwi itself is no laughing matter. Child monsters are always so creepy and disturbing.
~ Episode 10 “Return to Dragon Palace” ~
Since the first scene of Episode 10 begins in space, with a glorious view of Planet Earth, I think it’s safe to assume that we might be dealing with aliens this time around. And so we are… the squiggly, squirmy, transparent, worm-ish, likes-to-hide-in-food-and-make-you-pregnant-yes-pregnant kind of alien. No one, no woman, nor child, nor man, is safe.
~ Episode 11 and 12 “Rebirth of the Dubak God, Parts 1 & 2″ ~
As we near the denouement, the last two episodes introduce us to the Cult of Dubak, a clandestine organization believed to be behind a series of gruesome murders in which the victims are found with the head of another victim surgically attached to their bodies. The Cult of Dubak was formed when a clan leader was imbued with healing powers and the ability to resurrect the dead after being struck by lightening. Subsequently executed because he “spuriously inveigled people with his perfidious black art”, the cult members went underground. But now they believe the time has come to bring their leader back to life, and for that, they need our Cigarette Smoking Man. This brings us right back to square one (or: An Offer You Can’t Refuse). This time, Hyeongdo has to save… pretty much everyone.
What do all of these “monsters” have to do with what’s REALLY going on? Well, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?
This trope is when a character is so well known, either for a particular outfit or a particular accessory, that you can’t possibly imagine them without these things. Think Marge Simpson’s pearls, Harry Potter’s glasses, Columbo’s perpetually wrinkled trench coat (and if you don’t know who Columbo is… sorry. I’m middle-aged. My pop culture references may be different than yours.). In Joseon X-Files, for many of us, Kim Hyeongdo’s rumpled, much-the-worse-for-wear hat is as much a part of his character as his smirking, harrumphing skepticism.
The Powers That Be
“I can’t see you, but I know you’re there.” The shadowy, all-knowing, omnipotent powers-that-be, usually fronted by a person whose motivations are ambiguous at best. And in both the American X-Files and the Joseon X-Files, our frontman is The Cigarette Smoking Man. Which, in my opinion, is possibly the coolest thing about this show. The fact that it’s Kim Gab Soo in the role? Priceless!
Failure is the Only Option
This only indirectly applies to Joseon X-Files because it’s (sadly) a one-off series. But if you’ve watched the drama, I think you’ll agree that it’s still kind of a familiar concept. It’s the “two steps forward, one step back” method of storytelling that never allows the hero to achieve his Ultimate Goal. He may win a battle, or uncover a secret or two, but there’s always a setback that prevents him from winning the war or discovering the Ultimate Truth.
It’s All Up to You
This is the nail biter, the Ultimate Suspense (See also: Episode 8, “The Immortal Prophet” and How We Got There). It’s when the hero is captured, imprisoned, or otherwise rendered helpless, forcing his sidekick(s) to step up and save the day (and the hero’s ass, usually). To be fair, I actually don’t consider Assistant Heo and Magistrate Jang to be sidekicks so much as the other two sides of an equilateral triangle. (See also: Badass Bookworm and Plucky Comic Relief).
How We Got There
To be such an admitted spoilerphobe, I am really a big fan of this particular trope, in which the last scene comes first, and everything that follows is in order. We see a similar setup in Episodes 7 and 8. At the end of Episode 7, we know that Hyeongdo is alive and well, but in Episode 8, we back up a bit to see how it all went down. And when you know the hero is alive and yet you still spend the entire episode on the edge of your seat? That’s quality. Two of the best hours of television EVER. Absolutely brilliant.
Badass Bookworm (or Hot Librarian?)
This type of character is described as smart, softspoken, naive, and physically unimposing, but with hidden depths of physical and practical skills. That’s our Assistant Heo almost to a T (To quote hjkomo: “How about Heo being badass with the gun?!”). But then again, we could also consider her to be a Hot Librarian. You know, the prim and proper, super-buttoned-up intellectual female who is often forced into sexual situations in spite of (or perhaps because of) these traits. (See also: Episode 8, “The Immortal Prophet”). Discuss amongst yourselves.
Plucky Comic Relief
I think this type of character is pretty self-explanatory and perfectly describes Magistrate Jang (albeit with a touch of Cowardly Sidekick, on several occasions). And in Episode 9, an episode which doesn’t feature Assistant Heo or Magistrate Jang at all, the role of Plucky Comic Relief is temporarily (and quite hilariously at times) filled by a fellow Shinmuhwe agent named Lee Banghyeon.
Or: “What do YOU think happened in the end?”
You know what? I decided that it doesn’t matter if I never figure it out. How could a drama about unexplained events spanning centuries be expected to end with everything tied up in a neat little bow? And, yes, I’m aware that I just… well, left you hanging. But sometimes, we’re not supposed to get all the answers. It’s either meant to be left up to our own interpretation, or we’re meant to realize that, in the end, we’ve only been handed a small slice of a much larger pie. And even though it may have only been a sliver, it’s obvious that the baker knew exactly what he was doing. Why get bogged down trying to figure out the ingredients? When you think back, all you’ll remember, anyway… is that it was delicious.
BEST DRAMA OF 2010.
Somewhere along the line, little cable channel tvN had the bright idea of handing out a wad of cash and letting a writing and production team go to town with it. Luckily for them, the little show in question was a winner. For me, this has been the best show of the year, although it’s running neck and neck with two other shows for that title, it’s still holding on. For the sake of clarity, I’ll call it Joseon X Files, or JXF, but it is lurking around the web under at least 4 other names including Secret Investigation Record and Secret Book. And as River Song warns the Doctor in Dr. Who…”spoilers!”
This isn’t a show that inspired a mass following. The rest of my household bailed out on episode 1 scene 1. It was occasionally hard to find, and it was as mind bending as Twin Peaks or the best seasons of X Files. Those of us who were pulled in to it were captured and left begging for our next dose of this drama. It was truly absorbing, and wonderful on as many levels as it could be funny or horrifying on others. (At one point I drove several people on Twitter to near homicide as I tried to deduce the exact nature of a particular firearm on my laptop screen in the dead of night, all the while knowing that what I really needed to do was wait until the next day to take a look at the offending object on the big HD TV screen. My apologies. I can only plead insanity caused by JXF induced insomnia as the niggling detail tossed in my brain.)
JXF could be described as saguek/sci-fi. Or possibly period/fantasy/horror. I was drawn to the show as a saguek junkie and a fan of the X Files. I had no idea how the two could possibly be combined. What could have been a disaster mashup of genres became a unique show that managed to combine genres without betraying any of them. I can’t think of one real misstep this show made in acting, casting, writing or production. It drew me in immediately and once I was done with episode 12, I immediately started to watch it all over again knowing that there were bits and pieces of information I had missed either visually or in the dialogue that might explain more of the mystery.
Trying to evaluate just what was special about JXF is both easy (UFOs in a saguek?) and difficult (describing the exact nature of the overall plot). The quality of the production was really outstanding. It had special effects that are rarely seen in a k-drama much less a saguek. The direction was theatrical and very striking but not overdone. It’s beautifully shot and edited. There were vistas and landscapes of truly striking beauty, and the lighting in particular was outstanding. The sandstorm with the overall browns and dust of episode 9 that so contrasted so vividly with the rich blues and clarity of the water scenes in episode 10 is just a small example. The soundtrack was scored as a motion picture would be. The music and sound effects were mood setting and enhancing, not irritating pop music inserts and silence was also effectively used. There was a lovely balance in all of the elements so that one particular thing never annoyed or overwhelmed the whole.
This is an onion of a show – when you peel back one layer, there are more layers to go. There are several mysteries going on in JXF at the same time. Some of the events are explained completely, some partially, some not at all. Some events have multiple possible explanations. It is mind-twisting and absolutely genius.
To lay out the scenario in general, as in the X Files, Kim Hyung Do and his group are tasked with investigating those events that are beyond the normal, from the odd to the strange and into the paranormal, for Shinmuhwe, while ostensibly attached to the Inspector Generals Office. Hyung Do and his assistant, Jang Man, as the newcomers to the organization, are our doorway into the series, and for about 80% of the show we learn things from Hyung Do’s viewpoint. He rarely has all the information he needs, and the contemporary viewer also gets to observe the scene watching for those things that Hyung Do wouldn’t notice or understand completely.
Normally when I comment about a show there is a high fangirl content involved. Despite my fondness for Kim Gab Soo and liking Kim Ji Hoon well enough as an actor, I’m not going all fluttery fangirl here. That is very odd since they are actually fantastic here. In fact, it’s the best role I can recall seeing Kim Ji Hoon in. The whole cast is fantastic, but for me the actors are so deeply sunk into their roles that it’s only in retrospect that I realized that I had totally cast off their identities as actors and was watching their characters. That is the mark of really good acting as well as well drawn characters and fantastic dialogue.
Kim Ji Hoon was impressive as the slightly grumpy, honest investigator Kim Hyung Do who is thrust into incredible situations. I honestly hadn’t noticed the other members of the team, Im Jung Eun and Jo Hee Bong, who were Heo Yoon Yi and Jang Man respectively, in other roles. Yoon Yi held her own as the quiet, smart and enigmatic foil to Hyung Do. Jang Man added some required comic relief as well as legs and muscle for the team. Before the show even aired, we were joking that Kim Gab Soo would be Joseon cigarette smoking man, and we were floored when they went there with Joseon pipe smoking man Ji Seung. Unlike many sagueks, which seemingly have a cast of thousands, the core of JXF was these four characters and their interactions.
Hyung Do is the core of the entire series. If we couldn’t empathize with him, the whole show would be worthless. Fortunately, the character was both well written and well acted. His deadpan humor and rationality grounded the series. Even episode 8, which he barely appears in as his compeers search for him, wouldn’t mean anything if we didn’t care whether or not he was found. (In a lighter vein, I would like to express my admiration to whoever chose to let him wear the TV saguek world’s most battered gat. Even the poorest yangban in most sagueks would have a pristine hat. Hyung Do’s hat had character and went through every trial and tribulation with him. )
The central story of JXF is Hyung Do’s entry and assimilation into Shinmuhwe, and in particular his relationship with Yoon Yi. At the end of episode 3, Hyung Do tells Yoon Yi (more or less, freely translated) “I want to understand these things I know nothing about. That includes you.” Yoon Yi replies, “I feel the same way.” Hyung Do starts by “accidentally” meeting her, then seeking her help, and by being betrayed by not knowing she was already a member of the group, coming to trust her, and at least admire her, and in the end he has a revelation about her and her role in his life. In parallel, through the course of the show Yoon Yi is shown growing attached to him, and we learn more about her (or possibly less, as her actual position becomes more complicated and less obvious as the show proceeds).
In the course of 12 episodes, they are sent out looking for several UFO sightings, a couple of monsters and mysterious illnesses, ghosts, a psychic and legendary village. The episodes each run the gamut from mysterious to horror, while maintaining the ability to shade in lighter humor along with the dark. Often the humor has to do with teasing or making light of each other, helping to build a picture of their working dynamic.
For me, the most literally frightening of the episodes was episode 6. It is right up there with Dr. Who’s “Blink” episode as television I would advise never to be viewed alone on a dark and stormy night. While the particular story there involves a corrupt official, revenge, a ghost (or 2), magnetism and thunderstorms, it also added several items to the overall series arc. Even here there are a few moments of levity, as Jang Man freaks out at the prospect of encountering ghosts.
I have seen a few comments complaining that perhaps the show was repetitive. Many of the later episodes do refer back to previous ones, which does help keep the story arc flowing. But I found that rather than being repetitive, the series purposely mirrors themes across the episodes in a way that shows a depth of planning and thought in the writing that is impressive. Episodes 1 and 2 mirror episodes 11 and 12. Episodes 7 and 8 are 2 sides of the same story. Episodes 4 and 9 are thematic mirrors. The difference is in the points of view, experience and reactions of Hyung Do and his team.
The show starts by the sea with the execution of a man who has been disturbing the populace with his story of the coming of the gods of the sea (a story revisited in episode 10 with the dragon king). Episodes 1 and 2 set up Kim Hyung Do and introduce him to Shinmuhwe via the arrest and torture of his former mentor who is accused of treason for reporting a paranormal event.
Episodes 11 and 12 end the show with the kidnapping and torture of his current boss/mentor Ji Seung by a cult whose leader had been executed for treason. In both cases he ignores the pleas of his mentor to let things go, he makes similar journeys and, ironically, ends up dealing with the same artifact.
It’s a rare television show that invites closer inspection for clues and Deep Hidden Meaning. Because JXF is essentially a set of mysteries, there are clues and hints strung like a treasure map throughout the series. Some clues help to explain mysteries, others make things more difficult to explain, some clues are dangled in front of you and are never explained. The first episode has a moment where Hyung Do and Jang Man are set back in their own timeline by a few minutes. Artifacts from what is clearly the present era (radiation warning signs, a modern revolver, etc) also are collected and even used by characters in the show. A Foucault’s pendulum is working, and completely uncommented upon, 250 years before it is invented. A 400 year old painting on a scroll shows up and yet it looks like Yoon Yi.
A painting of Kali is featured in episode 6. Kali is the Hindu goddess of several things that could be seen as pertaining to the show: eternal energy; death; and being beyond time. It is a lovely touch that the show went to the extent to use a painting with meaning, and then have it become part of the mystery.
The date of the show is 1609, but records of the group date back 200 years, and at least some of the artifacts they find go back farther than that. Time travel by someone is being implied in some of the events. The fact that supernatural, alien or anachronistic things actually appear rather than just being implied or described take the show beyond just myth telling well into the area of science fiction. I love that the squad that comes through and wipes out people with knowledge of these events are men in black. Nods like that and some visual nods to classic sci-fi like Close Encounters were fun.
Narratively, the theme of water is strung through the show. The viewpoint of the earliest shots of the show is actually from something in the ocean, and that viewpoint is frequently repeated. Things lurk in the water. Vessels crash into the water. Water poisons people, it infects them. Storms activate events and devices as well as presaging the turn of events and the arrival of vessels. In episode 7, Hyung Do is told that water washes away traces so that he can’t be followed. And in the end, the show finishes by the sea.
Visually, the moon shines brightly and ominously over many shots in the show. Metaphorically the moon is used as lanterns and as the opening to wells. The moth that shows up in 2 episodes is also a moon creature. The moon also looks really, really good in the dark background. I had a screenshot of Kim Gab Soo smoking his pipe with the full moon over his shoulder as my computer wallpaper for quite a while just because it was just such a gorgeous shot.
Hyung Do himself journeys from disbelief and skepticism in the first episode to a someone who, in episode 10, can flat out tell the villagers that they are being used by aliens from another world, and then not fulfill his actual duty to the crown of punishing the village leader. He has not lost the compassion he had in episode 1, unlike perhaps his fellow investigator in episode 9, who has no problem calling in the clean up squad. Hyung Do still questions the need for covering up the truth of events right up to the end.
The fact that the show ends ambiguously is both wonderfully appropriate and marvelously mind bending. Ji Seung is shown retiring Hyung Do’s ID tag. Jang Man is shown strolling happily down the road, but with a momentary bit of disorientation. Yoon Yi doesn’t disappear into the light but then appears with Hyung Do on the beach.
In a scene that replicates some of the dialogue from the end of episode 7 but in a totally different context, Yoon Yi asks him if he will leave where they are. Hyung Do tells her that he saw and, “I know who you are.” Presumably he saw this truth in the light of the UFO, just as he saw the truth of the water aliens when he contacted them in the water. But that merely dangles the question of who Yoon Yi is in front of the viewer. She certainly is more than she appeared in episode 1 and yet her exact nature seems unknowable. Do we really know where or when Hyung Do has gone? He is by himself, by the shore, but is he on board the craft, dead, in the future, or in some alternate reality?
In the last 2 episodes, there an emphasis on rebirth both by the cult and in the dialogue of the final scenes. Clearly what the cult meant by rebirth (physical resurrection by making Frankenstein-style creatures) and what Hyung Do and Yoon Yi are speaking of are different. Can he really return to his place in reality or would it be another time and place? Are they referring to a Buddhist style rebirth cycle, or a physical resurrection, or a reinsertion into the timeline? Or none of the above?
Early on in the show, Jang Man says and then Hyung Do repeats (again, more or less) that “neither truth nor reality are important. It’s what you believe that matters.” In the end, Hyung Do says that “Life is a precious thing you are only given one try at, “ and that he would choose to live for reality, not illusions.
Just what in JXF was reality and what was an illusion is up to the viewer to decide as scenes of Yoon Yi and Hyung Do from throughout the series are shown as the credits roll to lilting music. Significantly, the last scene from episode 7 is cut this time so that instead of saying, as she originally did, that they had met before and would meet again, this time Yoon Yi is shown shaking her head no to the question. However, while the frozen shot at the end of the episode is of Hyung Do alone on the beach, the closing shot of the credits has them together on the beach.
How you interpret that last scene depends to some extent on how you interpret episodes 7 and 8. If the arcane village was merely a hallucination of a dying man, then this might be as well. If it was an out of body experience to another reality, then that’s a possibility here. If you think that the Yoon Yi of the arcane village came from the far future, then she isn’t with him anymore. When the psychic in episode 8 finally sees her, what he tells her clearly alarms her. She is the crossroads of events, but she apparently has no awareness of her own nature.
Not serving up easy answers for the audience is a daring and intelligent thing for a show to do. Ultimately, the show leaves it to the viewers to decide if answers have been given to many of the questions it asked.
The real secret of the show was that it was a truly great drama hidden away on a cable channel like a gem. Each episode was fascinating and well done. The overall story arc was beautifully done. It was beautifully shot and edited, and effectively scored. The thought that was given in the writing and production to symbolic details like the painting or the moth just accentuates the care that was taken in this production.
Most importantly, the story and characters drew you in and made you want to know what was going to happen next. The show was so fascinating, absorbing and detailed that I went back and watched again. And again. That was the true circular nature of the show.
What do I think happened in the end?
I think Yoon Yi is a time traveler being used to keeping tabs on society and the anachronisms caused by other time traveling folk. She is like a researcher. She’s human enough to bleed and react more or less as a human would to the water aliens (although able to resist them to some extent). Until the last scene, her access to knowledge seems to have been artificially blocked to only what is useful in the moment, so even her own awareness of her identity is limited through most of the show. Whether she is truly human is unknowable. I think the Yoon Yi he encounters on the beach is the true Yoon Yi, not a construct to communicate with him and that her questions about leaving and believing in rebirth are an offer to reinsert him into reality in some time or place. I think in the end that Hyung Do has decided that his reality has ended, and that that sort of rebirth is an illusion, so he has died. Now, what happens to him at that point is a question the show leaves entirely open as he is left on the beach alone.
An Unfinished Review:
Expectation and reality are almost always completely differently things, especially in the world of K-dramas. As an avid drama fan, the more we consume K-dramas, the more we build up our expectation for upcoming projects. We develop a preference for our favorite actors, quality writers, successful pairings, interesting directors, and preferred genres. It can’t be helped – having an opinion is the first step in learning to develop your own taste and identity.
I miss the days when I was a newbie (I am by no means professing to be a seasoned watcher), when I randomly picked dramas and found more entertainment in them by sheer surprise factor. You can’t imagine how many “I can’t believe I’m watching this” moments I had. These days, I can’t help but compare new projects with more successful predecessors or alternatives, finding myself less awed by the mundane and more critical of the ordinary.
In this environment, I thought I had seen it all. Then came Joseon X-Files (Secret Investigation Record or JXF), a drama so unlike any previous K-drama I have ever watched. From the very first frame I was taken back. After watching the entire first episode, I sat there rather with a startling clarity that comes from watching something that challenges your perceptions. My understanding of K-dramas has added a new definition to include JXF. Beyond being crowned my pick for Best Drama of 2010, JXF was a welcome breath of awe-inspiring air, reminding me that there is always the possibility of being wowed and mesmerized.
I have not finished watching JXF (I’m up to episode 8, if anyone is curious), and it’s a combination of being enamored of a fluffy cotton candy named Mary, and JXF being a drama I need to be in the right frame of mind to watch. It’s so rich in detail that a casual watch isn’t even worth the effort. Thundie asked me a simple question: How did a little-known cable drama nudge its way past this year’s stellar offerings to become the best of them all. But the answer is infinitely complex. Even though I am not finished with JXF, I figure I can throw my opinion in the ring, and you can take it for what it’s worth. Go right ahead and pour a giant shaker of salt on it, and maybe toss it around a few times for good measure.
The most obvious answer is that it’s not by ratings, star-power, or success factor, that’s for sure. JXF is a show that stands toe-to-toe with the best science fiction and mystery offerings from Hollywood in recent years, many of which I have watched so I can stand behind this claim. Strip away the cultural and historical aspects of JXF, and what is left is a show that uses 45 minutes a week to tell a compelling, deft, and intelligent story that would be judged as objectively superb in any context. You have to watch to understand.
I started watching K-dramas because they were so different from the shows that were available on American television. It’s like apples and oranges comparing the two, but as a consumer I was happy to have expanded my selection of fruit snacks. I turn to Lost and Battlestar Galactica for my big-budgeted (compared to K-dramas) immersive viewing experience. I turn to K-dramas to satisfy my craving for emotional and intimate stories. Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine a K-drama can bridge the gap and effectively bring together the best of both worlds. And do so within a decidedly Korean cultural and historical context by setting the drama in the Joseon era and probing unsolved phenomena.
I’m not saying that JXF is groundbreaking because the mysteries are mindboggling, setting new standards for science fiction and mystery yarns. Just the opposite, the stories themselves are an amalgamation of oft-used sci-fi concepts paired with Korean cultural mythology and folklore. What elevates JXF to the top of the drama heap is two very crucial elements: (1) precise and engaging cinematography, and (2) elegant and intelligent writing. The viewer is not so much emotionally engaged or mind blown, as much as we are riveted and awestruck by what we are watching.
The director uses every trick in the camera bag, creating an immersive lens that captures both the actors in a scene but often times chooses to linger on a cup of hot tea, a corner of a room, the hidden visage of a face beneath a wide-brimmed hat. In turns both expansive and intimate, each story unfolds with tension balanced with levity, moments of danger tempered by comedic flashes.
The acting from the three leads is outstanding, blending seamlessly into the story so that we’re not watching a hottie like Kim Ji Hoon convince us that he’s government investigator Kim Hyung Do, we are watching Kim Hyung Do, a guy who happens to look like a K-hottie named Kim Ji Hoon. There was careful thought put into crafting these nuanced and multi-faceted lead characters, and the actors put their best foot forward and delivered performances that were exquisitely on-point yet never heavy-handed. Kim Gab Soo, as usual, delivered a Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love performance (minimal screen time, maximum presence – hey, that should be his tagline!).
It’s immediately clear upon watching just a few episodes of JXF that the writer had a overarching mystery in mind, and managed to deftly weave it into each vignette that oftentimes are standalone stories in and of itself. On the surface it’s about a cynical government investigator (played by the wry and hot-even-when-dirty Kim Ji Hoon) investigating unexplainable occurrences, but the story is built upon the foundation of a political intrigue, historical norms, and interpersonal connections.
That’s not to say JXF is a holier-than-thou drama, touting its high-brow pedigree with an air of superiority in its self-proclaimed excellence. Quite the contrary, JXF is like that hidden maestro who prefers to exhibit his craft in small clubs and street corners, understanding that it’s not the grandeur of the presentation hall but the unparallel talent of the performer that stands the true test of time.
This is a fascinatingly well-done drama, folks. It’s innovative and thoughtful, taking science fiction and mythology and placing it creatively within a Korean cultural perspective and wrapping it appropriately within the Joseon setting. Even knowing that I haven’t put as much thought into a careful examination of each episode I’ve already watched, and aware that the ending of the drama is quite open to discussion and interpretation, I remain confident that I’ve watched something special.
Let the other reviewers here today dissect the story, peel away every sublime layer, deconstruct every camera angle, and offer up intelligent and thoughtful discourse about the plot and the aforementioned ending – I am neither equipped to do so, nor have I the brain power. JXF was the second K-drama that made me think about every line of dialogue during each watch, all the while cognizant that I probably didn’t even fully absorb all the details and nuances so carefully constructed by the PD and the writer. I am here today just to share my first impression (and likely my final impression as well) of JXF.
JXF is proof that K-dramas are not all the same, some really are qualitatively better than others. In this case, this is one drama that I encourage you to watch and treasure. Each episode of JXF makes me feel like I’ve enriched my viewing experience, all the while learning something new and entertaining my mind, eyes, and senses. Now if you will excuse me, I’ve up another episode of JXF to watch.
If you had told me 15 years ago that I would now be watching a worthy successor to the classic X-Files tv series, produced by Koreans and set hundreds of years ago in history, I would have snorted in disbelief. But like a bolt of blue lightning out of the sky, here we are.
The original X-Files was itself an unlikely success, if you stop to think about it. Flying saucers, alien abductions, paranormal phenomena and mutant monsters? Oh, please! But it confounded the sceptics and rose above its ridiculous premises through sheer smarts and wizardry. It was slick, it was scary, it was clever and deliciously subversive. It had wit, banter, and on a good week even an endearing self-deprecation. It had scorching lead-couple chemistry. It was a heady blend of the mind-bendingly inexplicable and the intensely rational, of scare-me-shitless and make-me-laugh-out-loud. At its best, it was wry commentary on the way we live, and our fears and hopes.
But that was years ago and the X-Files franchise is now faded and lame. (Personally, I think it went downhill from Season Five when it started taking itself too seriously, lost its way and ended up eating its own tail.) When I heard that k-drama land was making a Joseon version of the X-Files, my heart sank. I just could not see how it could be done without exploding in a ball of cheese or self-importance. But to my amazement this crazy, audacious “Joseon X-Files” concept has been pulled off, and beautifully. Now, I believe.
One of the first things one notices about JXF is how seamlessly the concept has been transported to a different time and culture. Confounding events pop up in the 17th century and people react to them as 17th century Koreans. Not very differently from 20th century Americans, as it turns out, in their fears, superstitions, and hopes; but through their 17th century lenses and with their 17th century Asian attempts at analysis and explanation. The story cleverly serves up timeless myths in such a way that we don’t feel that they have imported 20th century conceits or constructs. In fact, in some ways it has the advantage of the original X-Files. For instance, I was never convinced by the need for governments to cover up the existence of UFOs in the 20th century, but if inexplicable celestial occurrences are questioning the emperor’s very Mandate of Heaven, the necessity for a full-scale government conspiracy of silence is pretty convincing. It helps that the special effects are serviceable (as best as one can hope for from a non-big budget production, though at times barely escaping being risible).
Right from the start, we also notice the sheer quality of this stuff (apart from said non-blockbuster special effects). The terrific camera work is raw and immediate. The sets are thoughtfully put together, the lighting luscious and the colours eye-smacking. The script is tight and the editing deft. The acting is strong across the board. And like the original X-Files the soundtrack is fabulously atmospheric, skilfully enhancing rather than detracting.
By the end of the series, I was particularly impressed by the water-tight plotting. An immediate re-watch is practically mandatory and yields a crop of lovingly-placed clues and signs which gratifying fall into place in the context of the whole. It is no wonder, the doomsayers scoff, that the series was so terribly under-rated in the polls, for who can expect the average mindless goggle-box viewer to pay such close attention to such a finely constructed product?
I was struck by how true JXF is to the original series. And I don’t just mean the aliens, the ghastly monsters, the psychic powers, the mass abductions, the government conspiracies to cover up nefarious plots, and the creepy human gestations. I also mean the ethos and feel of the show. It delights in shocking its viewers, but not so much to gratuitously horrify as to carry forward its plot and even to provoke thought. It has a very adult sensibility in that while there is good and evil, there are few plain saints or villains. It has a sparkling intelligence – it doesn’t spoon-feed or patronise you, you have to pay attention, and just as in the original X-Files even when I think I am getting the hang of its game I can still be delightfully surprised by the clever turns it takes. It has deceptions, plots and counter-plots to make our heads spin. It mixes the historical and scientific with the unimaginable. And in the midst of all this cleverness and chicanery, it tells very human stories of real people and real relationships; a skilful blend of the heart-stopping and the heart-breaking.
And here is where JXF gets to me personally. I love the thrills and the big exciting moments, but what I end up thinking about are the common-place but powerful human beats that under-gird the stories. A frightened servant betrays his master. A righteous man is driven to recklessness by injustice. A man is driven to insanity by his need to prove that he is not insane. A father who will do anything for his blighted son. A man’s protective love for his gifted / cursed half-brother. A politician whose fear and ambition leaves no room for familial compassion. A daughter who can not let go of the father who let her down. The hopelessness of poverty. The strength of a love between a man and a woman. The power of a bereaved father’s yearning. It’s the deep humanity of JXF that impresses me the most. It’s not just turning tricks (albeit very clever tricks). It is telling authentic, timeless stories.
I like how our Joseon couple don’t blindly replicate Mulder and Scully but mirrors them in their sum total. You couldn’t really say which of Kim Hyeongdo or Heo Yoonyi is Fox Mulder or Dana Scully. The point is not to replicate “The Sceptic” or “The One Who Believes”, but they mirror the fabulous Mulder-Scully tag-team in their combined quickness of mind and action. They dance round each other, they out-wit their opponents, and they out-wit us the viewers. They challenge one another and bring out the best in each other. They feed each other’s stubborn drive to find out the truth. And not to mention, their physical gorgeousness, individually and as a pair. They each have elements of each of Mulder and Scully, but they are very much their own people. Brave and quick-witted, flawed and humane.
What of the end? Spoiler alert!
So, what does it all mean, and what about that ending? To some extent, I don’t care because I just enjoy the experience of the show and I feel that the ending was right in a visceral way if not a linearly logical way.
But for what it’s worth (and I’m probably way off base and you’ll all laugh at me) here’s my (crude) take: The aliens from outer space who have been buzzing our planet with their flying saucers for centuries have the power to bend time. Quite possibly they pop up in Joseon times from the future, since the alien bullion in Episode Three is re-buried along with a 20th century nuclear hazard sign. For where there is funny alienish stuff, there is time-warping: The flying alien balls at the empty village of the abducted bent time in Episode One, a 20th century man and his very 20th century gun make an appearance in Episode Nine, and Episodes Seven and Eight do nothing if not mess with the time-space continuum (and our heads).
The alien force messes not just with time but with natural order itself, e.g., the boy who turns into a monster in Episode Four, or the man who acquires the power to see into the future in Episode Five. They also use human beings, abducting whole villages (Episode One), borrowing bodies to gestate their young (the fishing village in Episode Ten), and using the bodies of souls who have departed for the “Valley of Happiness” for their mysterious rites (such as Hyeongbo himself in Episode Eight). They have built installations in remote parts of the country; possibly signal stations or landing facilities of some kind (the “Haunted Villa” in Episode Six).
The Left State Secretary or Pipe-Smoking Man is probably not from the future: In the Last Episode we see how he had his epiphany of “Something is Out There!” in his Joseon life-time. Nonetheless, I have my money on him as the man who knows more about the mysterious happenings than anyone else in Joseon and who is in cahoots with the aliens and/or conspirators from the 20th century.
Heo Yoonyi on the other hand is almost certainly not from the Joseon period. In Episode Two we are told that she has no recollection of where she came from. Episode Seven at first suggests that she is from the past (her old portrait, her not acknowledging Hyeongdo at first) but then indicates that she is also from the future (her shoulder scar, her knowledge of his nature, her knowledge that they would meet again). I read the Last Episode as saying that she stands outside time. As, I surmise, does anyone who is “abducted” by the aliens as Hyeongdo is in the Last Episode, or at least thrown in to the fourth dimension by colliding with their force. Yoonyi herself was presumably abducted / thrown into the fourth dimension some time in the past (leading to memory loss) and returned to Joseon times.
The Joseon Yoonyi of this world knew more than she was wiling to admit to Hyeongdo (e.g., she was not surprised by the monster-making pool in Episode Four, or by the pendant-attracting magnetic stick in Episode Six), but her knowledge was limited too; hence she joined forces with Hyeongdo in order to get at the whole truth. The Yoonyi who stands outside this time and space, however, seems to be waiting for Hyeongdo to renounce the world and his desire to make it better (see Episode Seven, when he was still fervently interfering and she said the time wasn’t ripe for her to find him) and the Last Episode. But his quest for life and truth trumps any tempting nihilism and even his attachment to Yoonyi.
That’s my stab anyway. I could be completely off-base. But I don’t care. I’ve re-watched the ending a number of times to try to make sense of it, and every time I find I’m not much closer to enlightenment. But every time I’m struck by the sheer beauty of the closing beach scene, and I fall a little more in love with its delicacy and mystery.
JXF may have borrowed heavily from the original series in terms of plot ideas and execution style, but has earned the right to stand proud on its own. For it has its own unique creative genius. It shines with its own exquisite light.
If you haven’t watched JXF, what are you waiting for? It is a whole new level. Like graduating from Enid Blyton to Jane Austen. Why waste time with empty romantic comedies with random plots when you can have Joseon Crack?!
In terms of 2010 k-dramas, Comrades is still the winner for me in terms of emotional impact. But in terms of sheer skill and quality, getting better and more impressive with every re-watch, it has to be JXF. Best k-drama of 2010.