This is a really well-done drama. Suspenseful, taut, and wonderfully produced.
In addition to a story that intrigues, Joseon X-Files is really great to look at — love the pacing, the cinematography, the contrast of colors and light. It’s an example of a drama not just being pretty for the sake of pretty, but using every aspect — visuals, sounds, light, dark, even empty space — to serve the whole.
SONG OF THE DAY
Casker – “말할 수 없는 이야기” (Unspeakable story) [ Download ]
EPISODE 2: “Secret Light, Part 2”
In the forest, Hyung-do’s vision blurs from the drugged dart that has hit him, as the man in black steps forward to warn him to stop digging for info. With smoke wafting from his pipe, he tells him not speak a word of this — if he doesn’t listen, he risks his life.
Hyung-do and Officer Jang are tied up for questioning — and surprise of surprises, the man who steps in to face them is the Gangwon-do official he’d met in Episode 1. He warns Hyung-do to keep his mouth shut, as he’s been given the okay to kill him if necessary.
Furious and uncomprehending, Hyung-do demands to know who would give such an order. What are they hiding? He saw the empty village and the strange light flying around. There’s no way he’ll just back off now; he vows to find out the truth and right the false charge leveled against the governor, his teacher.
What a shock, then, to be told that the governor confessed to conspiracy.
Inexplicably, the official cuts the rope that binds Hyung-do, suggesting he help his teacher. Leaning in, he tells him he’ll allow him to escape, assuring him that he will not be held back. Go — and forget all this. (So it appears there is some sympathy after all, coming from one Gangwon-do official for another… or is there another reason?)
As promised, Hyung-do is allowed to leave, and he staggers out wearily. He drinks with Jang, who sees that he has fallen asleep and offers a few drunken words of advice, as the older hyung to his younger colleague:
Jang: “Even if what you say is right, if a hundred people say it’s not so, then it’s not so. It’s not that you’re wrong, but the important thing isn’t fact or truth, got it? What’s important is reality.”
Hyung-do’s eye opens in time to catch those words of counsel. In the morning, Jang awakens alone to find Hyung-do gone, with a note instructing Jang to hie himself back to Hanyang and deliver his message to an investigator with the police.
Meanwhile, Hyung-do races back to the mountain with five peaks, stopping short when he spies a gathering of masked men in the forest. He ducks out of view — and meets a man wielding a rifle.
This man is the lone resident still here from the mysteriously disappeared village — he’d gone out hunting, and come back to find a strange light. The ground trembled violently, and then the people were gone.
The man leads Hyung-do to a clearing in the woods where he saw the light. The man is intent to find his disappeared child, and becomes distracted by a fallen shoe. Hyung-do, on the other hand, is on alert for the small flying ball that hovers in the air above them — which then dives straight for them.
Driven by rage, the villager demands the light to return his child and fires a shot, which misses. Hyung-do defends himself with a club, though he is unable to connect with the flying ball.
And then, a big light.
Nearby, in a different clearing, the group of masked horsemen wait as a bright light shines down through the treetops from some source in the sky. Their purpose remains unclear, but their attentions are diverted by the sound of a nearby gunshot.
It’s been fired by the villager, who keeps shouting for the return of his child. Finally, the ball dives straight at him, and embeds into his chest.
Shooting electricity into the villager, the ball then detaches. With a big bang! it falls to the ground, now defunct, just a hunk of metal. The man collapses, dead, bearing a scorched mark on his chest; this explains the scorched dog in the previous episode.
At the sound of approaching horsemen, Hyung-do grabs the ball and hides.
The masked men find the dead man and carry his corpse away. The leader looks off into the distance toward Hyung-do’s hiding place; the latter sweats as his men approach. But the pipe-smoking leader — who seems aware of Hyung-do’s presence — orders his men to retreat.
Gulping a sigh of relief, Hyung-do makes his way out of the forest, where he sees a strange bluish light emanating from over the five peaks. He starts to climb.
Halfway up, a disembodied voice asks, “Must you see it?” It’s his teacher’s voice, but instead of being dissuaded, Hyung-do becomes more determined to find out what it is. Particularly when more small flying balls zoom through the air, passing him by on their way toward the big light.
Amidst growing shock as the balls whiz by, Hyung-do continues the steep climb, wondering if this is what his teacher had seen. As he nears the top, a rumbling, mechanical sound starts to grow and the light grows brighter.
A huge vessel rises from the mountaintop. At first it lifts slowly into the air, and then with a loud whoosh, it disappears.
Across the rocky terrain, our pipe-smoking man does his thing: observing Hyung-do and looking enigmatic.
As instructed, Jang delivers Hyung-do’s missive to the royal police; the message provides his account to back up what his teacher had seen. He appeals to them to reconsider the accusations leveled against the Gangwon-do governor.
Alas, this is naive of him. Instead, the minister to whom he appeals simply decrees, “We’ve got one more crazy man.”
Now Hyung-do is interrogated, and his sidekick Jang brought as a corroborating witness. He is asked to confirm the contents of Hyung-do’s account.
To Hyung-do’s shock, Jang disavows knowledge and stutters that he knows nothing. Jang hangs his head in cowardice as he suggests that perhaps Hyung-do mistook what he saw. (It’s a beautiful bit of acting on Jo Hee-bong’s part; he plays Jang with nuance as one torn between loyalty to his friend and abject fear for his life.)
Next, we are officially introduced to the pipe-smoking man, who joins the investigation. Hyung-do sputters in recognition, but is sharply told to mind his place — this is Ji Seung, who occupies one of the top government posts as the court’s financial officer.
Agitated, Hyung-do exclaims that Ji Seung also saw all this, but the official feigns ignorance: “Have we met?” The more heated Hyung-do grows, the more crazy he’s starting to seem as he insists that Ji Seung has a hand in this, and that a man’s life hangs in the balance.
Unperturbed, Ji Seung chuckles and calls him “an interesting fellow.”
The minister (of rites? — apparently this is Lee Yi-cheom) charges Hyung-do with plotting in league with the accused governor, who is currently imprisoned. The minister knows the truth, but he presents the situation as interpreted by the court: that the governor saw a comet in Gangwon-do but made up false claims of a monster in the sky, which agitated popular sentiment and therefore endangers national stability.
Moving in for the kill, the minister asks, “You want to live?” There’s one way for Hyung-do to settle public agitation, and success will enable him to protect himself and his teacher. The minister declares him the only suitable man for the task, because if he fails…well, Hyung-do’s life is already on the line. No extra risk. I’m starting to get the sense this minister’s a little unhinged, maybe. Crazy for power, and all that.
Hyung-do is released, but advised not to go far since he’s not a free man just yet. Jang hovers around the gates upon his release, and I find something very pathetic and stirring about how miserable he looks as he stammers out an apology for forsaking his friend. But Hyung-do tells him it’s all forgotten — and, repeating Jang’s words from earlier, reminds him that what’s important is reality.
Jang takes him to a place where he can get help for his secret task, and I think that the very fact that he was tipped off by someone at the police should raise his hackles.
Passing through a butcher’s shop, they find a bookshop — the one run by Yoon-yi, the mysterious woman who spied on Hyung-do previously.
She has been apprised of the situation and ushers him in, showing him drawings of his particular area of interest: strange flying objects. He asks if similar objects can be made, though he’s not in a situation to divulge why he needs them.
Thankfully Yoon-yi doesn’t press, and replies that she knows some weapon-makers who should know how to make such items. Hyung-do asks her to keep this matter secret, saying earnestly that a precious life hangs in the balance.
The weapons-making team gets to work, assisted by Yoon-yi. A metal ball is forged with holes that shine light from within, and once completed, the flying metal ball is prepared for launch.
As they ready the proceedings, Hyung-do wonders what kind of person Yoon-yi is, given what he knows about her: she’s privy to these mysterious books, and she knows how to make unusual weapons. It doesn’t add up.
Yoon-yi says that she can’t answer that question, but it’s not meant to be coy; she means it literally: “I can’t remember my past.” But she doesn’t elaborate.
Launch time approaches, and Hyung-do’s team waits for his signal. Across town, the minister also waits for the promised display.
Hyung-do orders the launch, and the fuse is lit on the metal ball, which is then loaded into a cannon. The force of the cannon propels the ball through the air, lit from within, and curious citizens look up as the ball of flame soars through the night sky.
Hyung-do looks upset with himself, or at the least conflicted over his actions. On the other hand, the minister appears satisfied, while the governor sees it from his prison cell with dismay.
The next day, a court herald announces to the populace that this was a testing of new artillery, as was the incident in Gangwon-do. This explanation seems reasonable, and appeases the people’s curiosity.
Hyung-do may not feel good about being part of this deception, but he is in a good mood because he believes his actions to have saved his teacher, per his agreement with the minister. Thus he is horrified — and confused — when Jang gives him the governor’s belongings, weeping that he is being executed by the court.
True enough, the minister has reneged on his word (or, perhaps cleverly maneuvered the situation so that Hyung-do acted according to his plan) and prepares to execute the governor. Hyung-do races there, but he’s too late: the deed is done and the body already laid out. His disbelief turning into anger, Hyung-do fixes his gaze on the duplicitous minister, and starts following him with dogged steps.
But it’s probably a good thing for his own sake that he is stopped. A drugged dart catches him in the neck, and we’re given a brief glimpse of a police officer behind him as Hyung-do falls.
When he awakens, he is in a room with Ji Seung, who tells him not to resent him — Hyung-do was about to attack the minister of rites.
Hyung-do can’t understand — he did what was asked of him! Why was the governor killed? Ji Seung replies, “It wasn’t what I wanted either, but I didn’t kill him. They were just governing by national law.”
As far as Hyung-do’s concerned there was no crime committed, but Ji Seung returns with the official line — that the governor purposely incited the public by making that fireball to confuse them.
Hyung-do bursts out that he was the one to do that, not his teacher. Ji Seung informs him, “For your sake, your teacher confessed that he did everything alone. He knew that both of you could not live.”
Ah, so now we understand why the governor looked saddened at the sight of the fireball — he realized that Hyung-do had sealed his own fate in trying to save him, and that the minister would have him exactly where he wanted him.
Ji Seung tells him that if he feels this is unfair, then write down everything he saw. Hyung-do doesn’t see the point of this exercise, but Ji Seung prompts him to comply. And so he writes.
When he finishes, he is instructed to fold the paper and put it in a cylindrical container, which Ji Seung then seals with wax. That accomplished, Ji Seung says, “Now nobody can see this.”
Er, what now? What’s the point in writing something that nobody will read?
Ji Seung answers that this is a vault of secret records: “Bizarre and mysterious incidents that nobody can explain. These are records that contain the truth,” but which cannot be revealed. (This is also where our drama gets its name; I’ll talk more about it below.)
This vault, however, differs from the official annals of history: “Far off in the future, when all of these things can be explained, they may become nothing.”
He explains that these records started back in the reign of Taejo — the first century A.D. — and is showing Hyung-do this “Because you must work for these records now.” By whose order? “The king.”
Apparently the king respects Hyung-do’s seriousness and adherence to rules, “although we were a bit worried.” That is a curious word — “we” — but Ji Seung merely says that Hyung-do will come to learn of it in time.
Now begins his double life — as government investigator, and as an employee of these X-Files.
Hyung-do declines harshly: “I have no wish to live for the sake of a truth that I cannot reveal to anybody.” Ji Seung counters that they aren’t revealing the truth for the sake of the royal dynasty, “but for history.” He asks, “Won’t a time come when our descendants accept this with gratitude?”
Hyung-do is not really given much of a choice, and he tries to come to grips with this new information as he heads to Yoon-yi’s bookshop carrying his teacher’s diary. He asks a favor of her — to keep his book in safekeeping, because he can’t keep it himself. She agrees.
Apologetically, he thanks her for her work in that “useless” errand of making the fireball. Yoon-yi demurs, saying simply, “It’s how I met you.”
Yoon-yi invites him to have some tea with her, and heads to stir the coals in their warming pot… where she drops the diary he just gave her.
Hyung-do doesn’t see her burning the book, but she does give the camera the creepiest stare as she does it, just in case you weren’t sure there was some major shiftiness going on. (I can’t even look at that screencap. She freaks me out. Enjoy!)
And then, Ji Seung steps inside the shop, which strikes him as odd. Hyung-do looks around with growing misgivings, starting to wonder if something is off here….
RUN AFTER THE BOOK! Go get your book back! Don’t trust the mysterious albeit pretty woman who is totally working behind your back for reasons which may or may not be nefarious but who in any case don’t deserve your trust!!
Regarding the title: Some of you may wonder why I’m calling this “Joseon X-Files” instead of the literal translation of the Korean title [기찰비록, Gichalbirok], which means (as Ji Seung explains) a secret record of events that cannot be explained. Which is basically what X-Files are. The word exists in our lexicon, so I figured I’d use it instead of going with an unwieldy literal translation.
I’m sort of in love with the look of this drama, which works so well with the skillfully built suspense. It’s sharp, and dark, and feels more like a film with its assured pacing than a drama series. Sure the actors are pretty to begin with, but the visual appeal is enhanced by the immediacy of the drama’s vibe, which is not quite raw but still a bit gritty.
Plus, the story is shaping up nicely, giving us hints of intrigue and mystery, but keeping things shadowy enough to pique our interest.
For example, there’s Yoon-yi and this shadowy secret organization, which is called Shinmuhwe. I know that Hyung-do’s a part of them now, but I’m not convinced that they’re all on the same side, particularly with Pipe-Smoker pulling his strings and Yoon-yi acting in accordance to higher orders. Perhaps Hyung-do hasn’t earned his place in the organization yet, but just because they’ve accepted him doesn’t mean they’re suddenly looking out for his interests. If I were Hyung-do, I’d be wary of trusting anyone, especially after even his sidekick turned on him.
One thing I really appreciate about this drama is that it doesn’t hit us over the head with its clues. Often, I feel like dramas underestimate their audience and set up clever clues, then point them out overtly to us as though they’re afraid we’d miss the point. Here, some details may evade us at first glance, but the fact that they are laid into the plot without fanfare is appreciated.
In fact, sometimes I don’t catch certain things until I go back and rewatch certain scenes. Usually I get everything in a first watch, but I’m finding it necessary to make a second pass to grab details I may have missed.
For example, there’s an officer who remains in the background, plot-wise, who is more significant than he appears on the surface. He’s a part of the royal police force, dressed in blue, and at first his actions make us think he’s against Hyung-do — he rips up his missive detailing his eyewitness accounts, and he’s the one who darts him at the execution. He’s also the one who gave Jang the tip sending them to Yoon-yi. Sketchy indeed. However, it appears he’s actually a part of Ji Seung’s secret organization, and if you go back to rewatch his scenes, what once seemed menacing could be reinterpreted as wary and watchful. It could be that he knew the greater picture and was trying to warn Hyung-do before he created bigger trouble for himself — but then again, the story might prove otherwise later. As I said, trust no one.
- Joseon X-Files: Episode 1
- End-of-year army enlistment for Kim Ji-hoon
- Preview trailers for Joseon X-Files