Joseon X-Files: Episode 3
Another really strong episode. The plot thickens, and we start seeing the first hints of a romantic attraction — not too many, just enough little bits to intrigue.
The director really has a deft hand with building suspense and drawing out the tension of simple moments. The subject of this episode isn’t particularly scary in and of itself, but thanks to the whole package of editing, lighting, mood, acting, etc., this episode had more than a few creepy moments. And also a few drily humorous ones.
SONG OF THE DAY
Goldrush – “黃金疾走 (Goldrush)” [ Download ]
EPISODE 3: “The Curse of Silla Gold”
Now that Hyung-do is a part of Shinmuhwe, the secret government organization investigating X-Files, he is dispatched to a dark cave to investigate a curiosity.
He and Officer Jang both recoil when the subject of interest lifts his hat to reveal a grotesquely misshapen head that’s only vaguely humanoid. But human he is, and until recently he looked like a normal man.
The two men step aside while a doctor, Park Dae-su, inspects the patient, Chun Seok-beom. Park has been sent from the court to take a look at Chun, and states that he can’t be certain of the illness without an autopsy. What charming bedside manner.
Jang has difficulty watching without recoiling, but Hyung-do listens intently as Chun groans out that “it’s cursed,” and will afflict all who touch it. From the look of his open sores and the retching, this man is rapidly approaching the end of the line.
Yoon-yi joins them for a breakfast briefing session. I like this team format — while the bonds are still tentative between the three, they’re settling into a rhythm.
Yoon-yi refers to other events bearing similarities to this one, where men have been born with deformities. The difference this time, however, is that the man only came to be this way recently — ever since the “curse.”
The men react to that word — Jang sputters his breakfast all over Hyung-do’s face — as Yoon-yi explains about a recent discovery of gold bars. Chun Seok-beom was the first to find it, and said he was led there by the energy (ki) of the gold. The other men in the party have since become sick, but Chun is the worst off by far; at least the others haven’t become disfigured. Apparently he didn’t even report his gold discovery for two months — hoping to claim the gold for himself — until after his face started to become disfigured.
While the gold is transported to Hanyang, the team heads to the site of its discovery. The easily frightened Jang, already unnerved by the sight of Chun’s disfigurement, grabs a handful of salt from the breakfast table as they head out. Lol. I love little details like that.
Traveling through the forest, the trio reach the outer boundary of the site. Hyung-do intends to inspect it right away, but Yoon-yi holds him back. Cowardly Jang concurs (muttering about ghosts and such), while she points to more concrete evidence of danger: small dead animals lie in the sand around the dig site. It’s a wasteland for a reason, she believes.
Skeptical Hyung-do grumbles at what he considers unfounded superstition — what’s the point of coming here if he can’t inspect what he came to inspect? He starts to head off — only to get a fistful of salt rained on him. It’s superstitious Jang, doing his paltry best to ward off potential spirits. Just in case.
The gold has already been removed, but Yoon-yi fears that the bad energy may still linger. In exasperation, Hyung-do declares that he’ll have to feel that energy for himself.
The other two keep their distance and watch anxiously as Hyung-do walks right into the inner circle. He crosses the rope, past a dead rabbit, without any trace of fear.
Crouching to take a look at the sand, Hyung-do scoffs, “Curse, whatever.”
And yet…! Some unseen force hurtles his way, represented by low, shaky camera work that speeds toward him. It gives the impression of being in the POV of a feral animal making its attack, and when the force hits him, Hyung-do suddenly loses consciousness and collapses.
When he awakens, he’s a little groggy but otherwise fine. Despite his teammates’ reactions to the so-called curse, Hyung-do ain’t afraid of a little bad mojo. Or rather, he’s skeptical that such a thing exists and doesn’t read into his fainting spell.
Yoon-yi asks pointedly if he’s always been this hard-headed, then asks about the bad energy. With a worried expression, Hyung-do starts to explain how it felt like something hit his body… until she tells him to cut it out — she knows he’s just teasing. (It’s a small beat, but very cute — they’re getting familiar enough to joke around and read each other’s reactions.)
It’s not long before Chun Seok-beom dies, at which point Hyung-do and Yoon-yi head back to the cave. It’s the first time the doctor, Park, has seen a disease like this that rotted the blood of the patient.
When the gold reaches Hanyang, something’s fishy: one of the men who was part of the transport team, Bang Joon-seok, hasn’t returned. Furthermore, the king himself has taken an interest in this matter, because of the gold’s origin: It is said to have been first discovered 1,000 years ago during the Silla dynasty.
Hyung-do and Yoon-yi are allowed a look at the Silla gold, which is engraved with drawings. The drawings depict village people looking up at something, but what’s so significant about it that it merited recording?
Furthermore, there’s a blank space where one of the pieces has gone missing. The guard suspects that it was taken by the missing Bang Joon-seok, who is said to be suffering much more severe symptoms than the others.
While Hyung-do talks with the guard, Yoon-yi surreptitiously places a live chick in the space left by the missing gold piece, then closes the trunk. Moments later, she exclaims in alarm — the chick has died, for no apparent reason.
The proximity to the noxious gold also has an effect on Hyung-do, who feels faint and nearly falls over. Yoon-yi presses him to rest, but Hyung-do is determined to find Bang Joon-seok — they have no time to waste.
She protests, saying that he may already be affected by the evil energy, and after a brief argument, grudgingly Hyung-do gives in. He may not believe in the curse with his mind, but he can’t deny that he’s feeling some kind of effect with his body. He decides to leave Jang in charge of the case for now.
Yoon-yi reads his frustration and tells Hyung-do not to insist on working alone, “Because that means you can’t trust the person you’re working with.”
We know full well that there’s more to the story than she’s offering so I think he’s smart in hesitating to trust Yoon-yi, but admittedly we have more reason to be suspicious since we’ve seen her withholding information from him. It remains to be seen whether she’s operating for good or shady purposes, but we are right to be wary of her, I think. And yet, the intriguing thing about Yoon-is that I feel she’s being earnest in this moment; there’s an urgency to her demeanor, as though it matters to her that Hyung-do trust her. (Furthermore, while this scene has no romantic overtones, this episode shows the growing rapport between these two that will surely pave the way.)
As they leave the storeroom, they witness two officials in a heated argument about the gold. One of them, whom we will come to know as Choi, is upset that nobody believes him, and vows to prove himself right.
Hyung-do wouldn’t have relented about taking a break unless he were truly feeling ill, and sure enough, his vision is clouded and his body weak. As he rests and drinks the restorative tea Yoon-yi gives him, he remarks that she sure knows a lot about this case. For instance, she know the location of the dig before she was told by the officials.
Yoon-yi answers that there were sufficient clues, and explains that people subsist on food and drink that comes from the earth, which we share with animals. Being in tune with them will lead us to our sustenance.
A thoughtful answer, but he asks how she remembers such words of wisdom when she can’t remember her own past. She doesn’t know either: “Those thoughts just come up in my mind.”
Temporarily in charge of the case, Jang leads the search for Bang Joon-seok, posting wanted signs throughout the city. He gets particular satisfaction in altering the initial image to project the changes his face will have undergone, so that the eventual poster looks more like a goblin than a man.
Turns out he’s pretty on the mark, as we see when the real Bang Joon-seok staggers through town. With his grotesque sores and bloody cough, he keeps his head down as he struggles to keep going. And why yes, he does carry the missing piece of cursed gold. Looks like avarice is its own punishment.
He spies two armed men who approach with menacing gait, and that gives him the burst of energy needed to run away. These two men are doctor Park and official Choi, who chase him through the village but ultimately lose him in the crowd.
Feeling better from the rest and the tea, Hyung-do is eager to get back to work. The next place to check out: Hongmungwan, a royal institution that maintains a library, as Choi is one of its advisors.
Choi has been studying the gold, but he hesitates to disclose the full depth of his knowledge and speculations. Bitter about sharing his findings with the other advisors only to be deemed crazy, Choi is reluctant to talk more about it. Hyung-do and Yoon-yi try to draw him out with pointed questions about the engravings — what could the villagers be seeing? Why were the pictures engraved in the first place.
Choi briefly hesitates, then decides against confiding in them. He gives a vague answer about how the drawings are old and an explanation may never be given. He dismisses them coolly, declining to humor any more “useless talk.”
But then, a wave of dizziness washes over Choi, too. Our investigators notice, and Hyung-do asks if he often goes to study the gold. Choi regains his bearings and waves them aside.
It’s not until Choi asks why they’re studying the gold that Hyung-do shares his thoughts, and he’s deliberately frank, as though that might get Choi to trust them. He explains the rumors they have heard about a strange energy emanating from the gold, with some people even whispering of a horrible disease that afflicts all who touch it.
That elicits no reaction, and our investigators understand that they aren’t going to get any more out of Choi. On their way out, an observant Hyung-do makes note of an arrival — Dr. Park.
The doctor had arrived to take a look at a sick patient; Bang Joon-seok has been caught and lies in his death throes. Park emerges from the sickroom carrying a package, which he delivers to Choi.
Choi opens the box and chuckles in satisfaction at its contents — the missing gold piece taken from the dying Bang, whose engraving Choi now traces onto paper. He warns the doctor, however, that it appears that some people have “caught the scent” — meaning Hyung-do and Yoon-yi.
The two return to home base (Yoon-yi’s bookshop), but head out almost immediately when Jang delivers word that Bang Joon-seok has turned up, but is at death’s door.
Hyung-do and Yoon-yi race to speak to the man before he dies, and Hyung-do urgently asks about the gold. The man sputters, as though trying to gurgle out some words, but the two strain to understand what he’s trying to say.
The doctor joins them, and they step aside to give him room to treat the patient. Park deems the situation very dire and reaches for his acupuncture needles, asking for the other two to help hold the man down. Hyung-do watches anxiously as Park administers several needles, hoping for improvement.
But instead of helping, the body goes slack. Hyung-do and Yoon-yi watch in horror as the man dies.
The suddenness of this turn has Hyung-do stunned and confused, and he tries to puzzle out the sense in Park’s behavior. First off, why would a doctor leave the side of a dying patient to go to Hongmungwan? Furthermore, Park was present at the deaths of both men, Chun and Bang. Could it be possible that killed them rather than treating them? Hyung-do deduces that he used poisoned acupuncture needles, which they can test and confirm within a day.
This also means that the gold is now with Park… or Choi.
Now this odd collaboration starts to make sense. The two conspirators meet, and Choi confides that the gold harbors “an enormous secret.” The dynamic is thus: Choi is the scholar who has been studying the gold with near obsession, while Park is the uncomprehending lackey who really doesn’t care that much about the particulars, but has been swept along by Choi’s charisma and power.
Choi explains to Park Dae-su what he wouldn’t explain to our investigators: A thousand years ago, something appeared in the sky and caused chaos. He has also made the connection between the Silla UFO to the recent light spotted in Gangwon-do. The key is not the gold itself, but something melted in the gold. Finding that will prove that he was right all along, Choi says with satisfaction — being dismissed by his colleagues has imbued him with an obsessive need to vindicate himself.
Park is a simple man — he is to Choi what Jang is to Hyung-do — and worries that these claims are groundless and unprovable. Instantly, Choi’s smugness fades and he slaps Park across the face, angry at his impudence.
Park immediately cowers and apologizes profusely, and Choi is placated. Being discredited by so many has made Choi super-sensitive to disbelief, to an excessive degree that makes him, frankly, pretty terrifying. It’s not the violence that makes him a scary fucker, but his volatility.
As Park hands over a map to a blacksmith “who can be trusted,” he worries that Hyung-do may be on to him. See, he was forced to use a poisoned needle…
Team X-Files needs to find out what Choi is hiding, so Hyung-do instructs his team to split up. When Choi leaves his quarters, Hyung-do slips inside to search his office while the other two are instructed to follow him.
The search leads Hyung-do to Choi’s collection of tracings from the Silla gold engravings. The pieces start to fall in place in his head as he reads the note, “a huge light came down from the sky,” which evokes images of the massive flying disc he saw above the five-peaked mountain. Last of all, he finds a map.
The other two follow Choi all evening as he eats dinner, then makes his way toward a hut on the outskirts of the town — the trustworthy blacksmith Park told him about.
Yoon-yi peers into the hut as Choi entrusts the blacksmith to melt down the piece of gold, intent on discovering its secrets.
Instead of simply melting, however, the gold starts to emit a blue light, which spooks the unwitting blacksmith. Choi, on the other hand, laughs maniacally to be thus vindicated, teetering on the very brink of madness wrought by his obsession.
The strange light also scares Yoon-yi, who turns back from the house and hurries away, running into Hyung-do, who has arrived following the map. He sends Jang to fetch the police, then starts to make his way to the hut, only to be stopped by Yoon-yi. Reaching for his hand, she insists that they have to get away from here, which gives rise to another argument. He wants to investigate, but she’s unnerved and feels that something bad is in the air.
Hyung-do shakes off her hand, asking if she’s hiding something from him — the trust issue rears its head again. While this conversation echoes their earlier argument, this one’s a heightened version, the emotions intensified with the urgency of the moment.
Yoon-yi fumbles to respond, saying that she can’t think of anything at the moment. Hardly a convincing denial, and it only increases Hyung-do’s mistrust of her. He refuses to walk away and says he must see this for himself, his voice growing heated as he declares that this is something that could right the injustice of his teacher’s death.
Yoon-yi’s genuinely spooked and near tears as she begs him to stop, because it’s dangerous. Hyung-do refuses and strides purposefully toward the hut — inside which Choi’s fragile hold on sanity finally makes a break. He revels in the green-blue light, seemingly unaware or uncaring of the little streaks of blood that are spattering his face, its source unknown.
But it doesn’t matter, because then the hut explodes.
Thankfully, Hyung-do and Yoon-yi are at enough of a distance to escape harm, but it shakes their nerves badly. Particularly Hyung-do, who looks on in blank shock, and perhaps disappointment.
And, at a distance, that ever-present pipe.
Hyung-do debriefs with Ji seung, and asks about the Silla gold. Connecting some mental dots on his own, he asks if the engravings in the gold have anything to do with the light he saw in the sky. Choi died in a mysterious explosion, and the gold has disappeared. Was there something inside that gold?
Ji Seung scoffs — rather unconvincingly, I might note — that gold is just gold. Hyung-do presses — is there something that is being kept from him?
By way of explanation, Ji Seung shows him a woodblock engraving, which appears to be of a UFO. According to Choi, this is a depiction of the huge light seen in Silla times.
Ji Seung asks some loaded questions without clear answers: Why would Choi have made a tracing made when he could just look at the gold? Why would the gold disappear? He doesn’t understand Choi’s actions, either.
All this has shaken Hyung-do’s composure and perhaps even worldview. He sits in confusion, puzzling over the mysterious parts that don’t add up. He tells Yoon-yi, “I want to know what it is I don’t know.” Does she know what that is?
I believe that Yoon-yi is hiding things from Hyung-do per upper orders, but she seems to be sincere as she answers, “That is… something I would also like to know.”
His expression at that response is full of despair.
Meanwhile, elsewhere the Silla gold is buried once more into the ground… under the watchful eye of a pipe-smoking Ji Seung.
This was a great episode to introduce us to deeper storylines, now that the first two episodes introduced us to the premise. For instance, the curse has left us with more questions than answers, but not in a way that leaves me dissatisfied.
For example: What does Ji Seung know? What is Yoon-yi hiding? How much of her past is a total blank, and why does she seem so nonchalant about it, rather than being completely freaked out about it? (I don’t necessarily have a theory about what made her forget, but it would fit into the whole concept of alien abductions and missing village people.) These are all things we don’t know yet, but I have faith that the explanation will satisfy.
I love that the episode provided enough of a story to sustain an episode in a standalone fashion, but ties into the larger mystery of the huge light. Plus, it broadens the scope of that plot — these suckers have been around for a millennia, not just a month — so it’s no longer a matter of finding out what happened in that isolated incident, but piecing together long-buried and -scattered puzzle pieces.
But most of all, what made Episode 3 stand out is the relationship developing between Hyung-do and Yoon-yi. They’re not a romantic pairing (yet?), and they’re not friends, but there’s a mutual respect there. There are little hints that suggest we’re going somewhere with this (yay), but I’m content to let the big mystery carry the drama and let the undercurrents remain, well, undercurrents.
I don’t need this to turn into a romance drama, but I appreciate that there is obviously thought being put into the slow build-up, from Hyung-do’s frustration with Shinmuhwe’s secrecy (and her part in that), to Yoon-yi’s appeal for him to trust her. I love that there are layers complicating matters, such as their opposing worldviews (he the skeptic, she the believer) and personalities (he’s the rigid rule-follower, she’s more about getting to the goal). And, of course, there’s always Jang to balance things out and provide some wry comic relief.