I was really, really hoping that cable sci-fi period drama Joseon X-Files (aka 기찰비록, or Gichalbirok), would be good. To my relief/happy pleasure, I thought it was a solid start, and it appears the audience agrees — it scored a solid 1% premiere rating*, which is quite respectable given that it’s a cable program that airs on Fridays at midnight.
I was hooked on the premise — UFOs in 17th-century Joseon Korea! — but wary that this could all go wrong. Thankfully, I thought the first episode captured the right tone of intrigue and mystery, with a hint of creepiness that wasn’t too much for a horror-wimp like me. It’s a difficult thing to present the topic of UFOs and alien life through the eyes of Joseon inhabitants because a modern audience immediately knows what’s going on, so it’s to the drama’s credit for maintaining a level of suspense. Some slick cinematography helps.
(*Technically the overall household rating was 0.88%, though it peaked in the minute-by-minute ratings with a 1.72%. Shortly after airing, the drama also occupied the No. 1 slot for internet searches in various portal sites.)
SONG OF THE DAY
Yellow Monsters – “Late” [ Download ]
EPISODE 1: “Secret Light”
We begin in the year 1609, the first year in the reign of Gwanghaegun (Prince Gwanghae), a time characterized by political tensions and frequent occurrences of “bizarre and mysterious phenomena that cannot be explained.”
It’s August 25 in the eastern province of Gangwon-do (adjacent to Gyeonggi province, which is home to capital city Hanyang), where a man is given a death sentence. He begs for someone to listen to his words, but the governor remains unmoved and gives the order. The accused is forced to drink from a bowl of poison, although he fights back and spits it out, prompting the officers to make another attempt.
It’s at that moment that the earth begins to tremble and the skies light up with an unnatural light. An ominous, low sound fills the air and everybody gapes to see a huge mass zooming through the sky, seemingly toward them, speeding over their heads.
The enormous UFO flies over the village marketplace, sending people scurrying for cover while goods overturn in its wake.
A narrator reads from an excerpt of the official royal record (which is purportedly real and serves as the inspiration for this drama), which describes the mysterious object. After the large UFO is out of sight, a brief shot captures a small round object whizzing through the air — it’s the size of a tennis ball, metallic with flashing lights, and perchance a satellite of the larger vessel. It zooms away and leaves one person staggering in a daze.
In the Gangwon-do government building, the governor holds a secret meeting with other officials. The governor is of the opinion that they should alert the king, but the others protest that nobody at court would believe them, and this could create trouble for them. Dare they risk their own credibility?
Against some strenuous objections, the governor solemnly makes his decision, and stamps his seal on the document.
In Hanyang, this document is delivered to a high-ranking minister. His reaction is grim but odd, as it appears he means to cover this up.
Now we meet KIM HYUNG-DO (Kim Ji-hoon), who is gambling at in a crowded gaming den. At first glance he fits right in with the other uncouth gamblers, although we know better (mostly ’cause we’ve read the character description, heh).
A dispute arises at his table; Hyung-do loses a hand and accuses the winner of cheating. A quick look proves he is right, and the man has been playing with playing pieces up his sleeve. A third man intervenes, speaking with authority, and tells Hyung-do to step back; he’ll take care of it. He presents himself as an investigator for the ministry of justice, but Hyung-do won’t back down. In fact, he knows immediately that this dude isn’t an investigator but is a petty criminal himself, operating with a fake badge.
Now Hyung-do reveals his position — he’s a government official and investigator.
That night, Hyung-do is assigned a new case and summoned to a secret interrogation presided over by the royal guard and a high-ranking minister. An older man sits silently, battered from torture and about to endure some more.
Hyung-do observes the proceedings, and his eyes widen in recognition when the elderly man speaks. This is the governor from Gangwon-do, the man who sent the king his official account of the August 25 sighting of the UFO.
The man is accused of spreading false rumors, but he says weakly that he saw it clearly with his own eyes. Why would he lie to the king?
The minister replies that everyone else present at the execution denied the story. He believes that the governor is up to foul deeds and demands to know who his co-conspirator is. More torture is applied. Hyung-do is sickened.
A break in the proceedings allows Hyung-do a moment alone with the captive — who recognizes him and calls him by his first name. Hyung-do bows in respect with tears in his eyes, then leaves the room.
The minister asks an official for information on Hyung-do, who was recommended to him. Hyung-do has been at his post for about a year, and is known for being tight-lipped and by-the-book, which are considered assets.
The minister tells Hyung-do to wrap up the case quickly and rule for impeachment. He expects immediate obedience, but is a little taken aback when Hyung-do speaks up to respectfully say that it’s too early to impeach with the judgment still pending. The minister agrees smoothly, although it’s apparent that there will be no fair investigation, since he has already decided the outcome.
The other official says warningly that Hyung-do should play along and do what his superiors want.
A lone masked horseman rides through the woods, just as that metallic flying ball whizzes through the air. When the rider approaches, we get a glimpse of his face. We aren’t given an introduction to him yet, but he is Ji Seung (Kim Gab-soo), a mysterious man who heads a shadowy organization under the king’s orders.
A group of noblemen hold a secret meeting and discuss the disappearance of some people. Among them is Heo Yoon-yi (Im Jung-eun), a bookshop owner who is also a member of this group.
Yoon-yi presents the fruits of her research, which are Japanese records of a strange flying vessel that they call utsuro bune. There are drawings of the UFO, all from different locations and sightings but characterized by similar details. It’s possible that the drawings were all of the same UFO, but Yoon-yi surmises that based on other records, there appear to be more than one. There are even similar sightings from Ming China.
As for the imprisoned governor… Hyung-do kneels before him, this time addressing him as “Teacher.” He asks if everything is true, desperate to understand.
The governor is resigned to his fate and tells Hyung-do to let this matter drop, for his own good.
Yoon-yi looks over the UFO records, and when she rises from her table to exit, she bumps into Hyung-do. That sends her papers to the ground, and he kneels to help pick them up. He freezes when he sees a drawing, and there’s a curious moment when she looks for his reaction that makes me wonder if she planned this encounter. (I’m only speculating, but I hope she did. It adds another flash of intrigue to her character.)
Demurely, Yoon-yi picks up her belongings, thanks him, and leaves him staring after her in surprise.
Hyung-do sets out with his sidekick Jang Man (Jo Hee-bong) to continue his investigation in Gangwon-do. The two men have an appealing dynamic together — Hyung-do’s the dry, sardonic one while Jang Man is the nervous ‘fraidy-cat.
That evening, they set up camp in the woods to avoid paying for an inn, and settle down for the night. As they sleep, a UFO can barely be seen in the sky — it’s much farther away than before, barely a speck against the moon’s backdrop, but there. Flying. Watching?
They next day, the two men arrive at their destination, where an official (the new governor?) is awaiting him. Jang Man waits outside while Hyung-do has his meeting, where he goes over the records of that August 25 sighting. This official is firm in his belief that it was a meteor. Hyung-do counters that the other man clearly saw the machine flying in the sky.
The official presents written statements from four other locations. They all conclude the same thing — that it was a mere meteor. He says a bit patronizingly that it’s understandable that a man might mistake a meteor for something else the first time he sees one.
Hyung-do doesn’t believe this explanation — what about the sound, then? Again an explanation is offered, but from the way the man takes a moment to react to Hyung-do’s protest, it appears he may be in on the cover-up.
Hyung-do notices police rope cordoning off a section of the building and asks about it. It turns out to be the accused governor’s rooms — the area was roped off at the orders of the royal police force, to search for evidence of a conspiracy.
Knowing that it’s best to act uninterested, Hyung-do lets matters drop, and then sneaks out that night to do some snooping.
He slips into the roped-off room, and it’s to his benefit that the majority of the police force is occupied with some secret task of their own; they set up the proceedings while Hyung-do reads a book — his teacher’s diary. It’s filled with descriptions of things he saw, as well as records he had researched, accompanied by drawings.
Jang Man joins him and together they read of an account of five UFOs flying in formation. This is no comet or meteor.
Neither man sees that they are being watched — by Yoon-yi. They are too preoccupied reading of the various boats, round saucers, and other strange flying objects. There was even a curious case of a village whose entire population simply disappeared.
Hearing a sound, Hyung-do grabs the diary and leads his sidekick outside quietly.
There’s an almost-funny moment when the two men come face to face with a guard and freeze, expecting to be in trouble. Thinking fast, Jang Man pretends they saw someone else passing by, and the dim-witted guard accepts this explanation.
The guards have bigger worries on their minds, because a prisoner has escaped. The officers scatter in pursuit, and our hero and sidekick are advised to retire to safer areas.
As Hyung-do walks along, he hears the escaped prisoner, hiding in the dark. He assures the man that he’s not going to call the guards, and tells him to show himself.
The man who steps out is the same one who had almost been executed by poison on that fateful August 25. He pleads for help, insisting that he did nothing wrong — all he did was tell the truth of what he saw. Sensing that this has a correlation to his old teacher’s wrongful accusation, Hyung-do is immediately alert, intent to hear the man’s explanation.
The scared prisoner cries that “they” will come drag us all away — those in that silvery fireball. The man has seen the mysterious beings several times, in fact. Now desperate for details, Hyung-do asks where one can see these things, and the man opens his mouth to reply…
Alas, neither man sees the governor standing in the distance, armed with a bow and arrow, who lets fly his weapon at the crucial moment. The arrow lands in the prisoner’s throat with a sickening squish (eww), and Hyung-do’s face splatters with blood.
Hyung-do exclaims in frustrated fury, “How could you just kill a person so carelessly?!” He was so close to finding out critical information…
Of course, that was exactly the point. The governor explains that this is the man who was slated for execution tomorrow anyway, so no loss in getting it done a day early.
This only makes Hyung-do more intent to find out the answers to his growing list of questions, and he heads to the dead prisoner’s home. Cowardly Jang Man protests, fearing the haunting of ghosts, but those appeals fall on deaf ears.
Inside, he finds that the place has been ransacked. But even creepier is what they find affixed to the ceiling beams —
— drawings of aliens, UFOs, and other strange beings.
Grabbing his teacher’s diary, Hyung-do compares the book to the ceiling. They match, and one drawing in particular captures his attention. It’s a saucer-like vessel hovering over a mountain with five peaks.
Again we see — but they don’t — that they are being watched. This time the third party doesn’t appear to be a person, however, and from its perspective we see the two men through a red-tinted lens. Curiouser and curiouser.
Hyung-do sets out to find the five-peaked mountain, ignoring Jang Man’s violent complaints all the while. Jang Man doesn’t see why their recent discoveries must require confirmation, but Hyung-do knows his teacher would never say such things if he didn’t truly mean them. He has to at least check up on things.
Deeper into the woods, they finally come to the spot that allows them the view of the five peaks — though no UFO — and a dead dog with a charred side. Continuing along, they find a village. Except that nobody is there. It’s not a ghost town in that it doesn’t appear to have been deserted for a long time, but there is no person in sight. The only sign of life is a snake, which freaks Jang Man out.
Hyung-do inspects the various huts, noting the details like hanging laundry and dinner tables set out as though mid-meal. All the clues lead Hyung-do to deduce that everyone disappeared at the same time. This must be the village his teacher had written about in the diary.
Jang Man is eager to be off, but Hyung-do decides they’ll have to camp in this village overnight — it’s too late to descend the mountain before dark.
Two separate beings watch from a distance. First, a man trains a rifle on the pair, his finger on the trigger, about to shoot. Second, another flying silver ball hovers in the air behind them.
Hyung-do and Jang Man see the flying ball, jerking back in alarm. Hyung-do grabs a sword and holds it at the ready. When the ball swoops at him, he takes a few desperate swings, but misses.
From the flying ball’s point of view, the world is tinted in dark colors — which explains the red-tinted view in a previous scene. The ball takes a few fierce dives at the men, who duck out of the way. And just as Hyung-do is poised to take a mighty swing at it, time seems to stand still and the ball flies away.
The two men, frozen in position, flicker where they stand. And when time resumes, they’re standing in different positions, and it’s daylight.
Not only do these UFOs seemingly have the ability to mess with people’s heads, they can somehow shift time, because the two men come out of their frozen stupor to find themselves at the entrance of the village, as though they had just arrived. They blink and come to their senses slowly, not sure what happened but knowing this is wrong.
Jang Man spots a shoe on the ground, just like when he first arrived, and another snake. He rears back in fright, and exclaims the exact same words he’d exclaimed earlier. This sense of deja vu freaks them both out.
Hyung-do is first to gather his wits — admirable feat, since he had more to begin with — and decides that those things somehow messed with time. And if time has indeed skipped backward, this means they’ll be able to see that light again.
He arms himself with the sword again and heads out, intent on his mission, rushing down the mountainside. Hidden men throw darts, the first hitting Jang Man in the arm and sending him collapsing to the ground.
Hyung-do gets another dart, and he fights the effect of whatever drug it was laced with. He looks up as a group of black-clad, masked men approach him. As his vision blurs and his consciousness starts to fade, he looks up at the leader, who addresses him, “Kim Hyung-do…”
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but this first episode had me leaning forward, thinking hard in an attempt to guess what happens next, breathing just a little bit faster in suspense. The drama isn’t outright creepy or scary, which is a good thing since I don’t do well with those types (one of these days, Hon, you’ll get watched). It does do a very good job building tension and mystery, however, and even though I got sick of myself for using that word (mystery) a ridiculous number of times to describe things in this show, it’s really the best word.
On a surface level, a few things make Joseon X-Files attractive, such as its running time. With 12 episodes at 45 minutes each, the episode is taut and fast-paced. None of that dragged-out sluggishness you often get in long-running series. I did think they overdid the hand-held camera in many instances, but on the upside the shaky-camera effect adds energy to the scenes. That’s better than having the drama be too static, since the very nature of the premise really needs and benefits from that added nervous energy.
The cinematography is nicely done, with sharp contrasts and interesting use of light — the image above is a great example. It’s not the best I’ve ever seen, but it’s very appropriate to the ambiance of the show and complements it well.
Perhaps being a cable program also helps in the grittiness department, because this is the first drama I saw where the torture actually looks painful. It’s not so gory that it makes me squeamish to watch, but at least for once I’m not wondering how that punishment is actually supposed to be painful.
And we can’t leave out one big draw: Kim Ji-hoon! Yeah, that’s my superficial side exulting, although ultimately he is the least of this drama’s appeals given the intriguing story and tone. But I’ve been dying to see Kim Ji-hoon act in something interesting for ages now — my affection for him has often been in spite of his roles, not because of them. (I enjoyed many of his previous dramas, but he hardly played challenging or captivating characters in them.) I’m sure there are other actors who could have done this role just as well or even better, but I’m really looking forward to seeing what HE does with it.
And honestly, the man has such incredibly beautiful features. The camera LOVES him: