OH MAN. This episode is sofa king good.
Not only is it plotted tightly, staying one step (or, let’s face it, five) ahead of us, dropping well-placed hints, it has a strong emotional throughline. Despite having the most intense plot yet, it’s also the funniest episode thus far. I laughed, I cried, I gaped in awe.
SONG OF THE DAY
Na Yoon-sun – “강원도 아리랑” (Gangwon-do Arirang). When I heard this song, I immediately thought of this drama. Gangwon-do is an eastern province adjacent to Kyeonggi-do and the capital city Hanyang (Seoul), and is an important location in this drama, since it’s where everything began with the strange light in the sky. Arirang is a famous Korean folk song characterized by a simple melody and mournful quality.
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EPISODE 4: “The Red Eye’s True Identity”
A man runs through a forest in the middle of the night, and comes upon a small pool. The tattoo on his forehead indicates that he is a criminal, and he’s on the run from the authorities. As he splashes himself with water, something watches him from the shadows with glowing eyes. A wild animal?
It bides its time before it pounces — but surprisingly, the figure is humanoid, though grotesquely warped, like an alien with a melted face. The figure leaps at the fugitive and drags him through the forest, leaving behind a severed arm and mangled corpse when it’s done.
Team X-Files heads to the location of this attack, Yangju, not too far from Hanyang. There, they confer with the local authorities regarding the man belonging to the arm, who remains unidentified.
While Jang freaks out like the scaredy cat he is, Hyung-do speaks with the magistrate, who informs him that this is the fifth such incident. The magistrate, who believes it to be a tiger attack, is frustrated with the lack of urgency with which Hanyang is treating this matter, not responding to his request for professionals to capture the menace.
Hyung-do finds that a few of the magistrate’s conclusions don’t add up with the facts. For instance, if a wild beast attacked the dead man out of hunger, why is it he took the head, with no meat on it, rather than the guts?
The magistrate doesn’t appreciate his skepticism and pointedly says that this isn’t a matter for his jurisdiction anyway. A second man, a local official wearing blue, speaks up to concur with his boss; it could have been a pre-emptive attack in self-defense.
As Hyung-do and Jang leave, they catch a glimpse of a young teenage boy retching. Jang is particularly sympathetic, saying that the horrific sight of the victim’s remains is enough to cause that reaction, particularly given that the boy looked sick to begin with. A girl his age tries to give him something, but the boy shakes her off.
At home base, Yoon-yi brings out a book that refers to a “Yangjubak,” a monster that purportedly feasts on people and animals. Hyung-do rules it out because of its physiognomy, which doesn’t jibe with the details of the corpse.
Hyung-do turns his attention to their newest toy: a gun. Jang is proud of his acquisition, but hilariously, he hasn’t actually learned to use it. Face falling in disappointment, Hyung-do tells him to go back and find out how.
He heads out with Yoon-yi to patrol, anxious because the attacks have occurred monthly and it’s been roughly a month since the last. He gets a perplexed response from Yoon-yi when he says he’s out to find “a monster that eats people regularly.” It’s not the words so much as it is the matter-of-fact way he says it, like there’s nothing at all weird about him — the skeptic! the pragmatist! — going out in search of fantastical, mysterious creatures.
While making their rounds, Hyung-do sniffs something foul in the air, which comes from outside a house: a bloody organ has been placed in a bowl next to medicinal packets. Ducking out of sight, they watch as the owner emerges to fix the medicine, which he carries inside to his sickly son. Hyung-do recognizes father and son from the autopsy scene earlier.
Sneaking forward, Hyung-do grabs the bowl containing the bloody contents, taking it with him to investigate.
Local jail. Late at night, a figure (whose face remains unseen) drops a piece of paper into a cell, where the tattooed prisoner grabs it. Reading the instructions and using the key wrapped inside, the prisoner frees himself, then knocks out the wooden bars of the jailhouse. He sneaks over the wall — and curiously, the girl in the red hanbok sees the man escape, ever present and watchful.
The prisoner races through the woods, meeting his helper — the man in blue — at a place marked by a wooden totem pole. He thanks him and guesses that he was let out for a reason. Do they want him to perform some duty for them? Perhaps kill a man?
The man in blue indicates the way, and the prisoner heads off in that direction.
He’s caught completely unawares by the monster, which leaps at him. It’s even freakier since we barely see the attacker — we’re in its point of view, hunting the prisoner down.
At home base, Jang ponders possible explanations for the bloody organ — mayhap the father is doing everything he can to cure his son’s illness, which includes killing a person for whatever reason. But that explanation doesn’t work for Hyung-do.
Jang brings out the gun again, having learned how to load and shoot it: You put in the bullet, then the gunpowder… No wait, the gunpowder goes first, then the bullet, pushed down with the rod… Then that wire is for… uh… well…
Wryly, Hyung-do tells him to tell him when he’s got it all figured out. This gun humor may be one of those things you have to watch to fully appreciate, because it’s all in the delivery with Hyung-do’s excitement, then exasperation.
Yoon-yi arrives to tell them that they’d jumped to the wrong conclusion. Those materials were merely medicine, which dismays Hyung-do to hear because it means they’d stolen medicine from a sick boy. Oops.
Learning that more screams were heard near Yangju, Hyung-do sets out to investigate. Jang protests — he’s not keen on finding out firsthand that it was a ravenous tiger — but just then, in his lapse of attention the gun’s wick lights on the nearby candle. The fuse ignites and the gun goes off. Bang!
Jang quakes in his boots as he looks up nervously — he has put a bullet hole through the rim of his own hat. HA!
In the Yangju forest, Yoon-yi catches a glimpse of someone walking through the woods — that girl again.
Following her through the woods to a bamboo forest, Yoon-yi finds her kneeling by a pond — the same one where the first convict had paused to wash himself. The girl reaches out to touch the water, then pulls back tentatively. When Yoon-yi asks why she’s here, the girl gets skittish and flees.
Yoon-yi looks curiously at the pond, and draws out her compass as she walks closer to it. The needle goes crazy as something glimmers beneath the surface of the water, as though looking up at her.
The magistrate inspects the cell of the escaped prisoner. He’s displeased at this disappearance, but tells the man to keep this quiet.
Back in town, Yoon-yi happens across the girl again, who dashes off into a house, which identifies her as the magistrate’s daughter. Yoon-yi speaks to the closed window, earnestly asking her to tell her what she knows, and if it has anything to do with these deaths.
The girl opens the window to say she doesn’t know anything, but her eyes widen in alarm when Yoon-yi asks about the thing in the pond, confirming that she saw it too. That unleashes a flurry of questions by the girl: Really? She saw? Does she know what it is? But seeing the magistrate appear behind Yoon-yi, the girl gets scared and shuts the window.
A massive hunt is put into motion to find the tiger/monster/attacker. As usual, Jang quivers at the thought of joining the hunters, saying he has a feeling something bad will happen. Unaffected by that reaction, Hyung-do asks if he’s ever had a good feeling about anything. Touché.
Thus, Jang eagerly takes the first excuse to back out: Yoon-yi has been unsuccessful in trying to deliver medicine to the official they’d stolen it from. Jang offers himself, leaving Hyung-do with the gun.
Hyung-do grumbles that this is a pointless weapon since they don’t know how to use it, at which point Yoon-yi draws her own. With a jaunty smile, she says that she could have told him how to use it if he’d thought to ask her.
Hyung-do looks at her slack-jawed, then chases after her, asking, “Wait, you knew how to shoot the gun? Why didn’t you tell me?” LOL. It gets funnier and funnier. I love know-it-all alpha males put in their places by sassy ladies who know how to handle them.
At Yoon-yi’s suggestion, they split up. Hyung-do spots that girl walking through the forest on her own, and with his curiosity piqued, he follows.
He loses sight of her but forges onward, arriving at the bamboo forest — and by now, we know that strange things happen in the bamboo forest, don’t we?
He spots something in the distance — a small figure with a slimy head crouched on the ground. It growls to see Hyung-do, and when it staggers forward into the light, Hyung-do rears back in horror.
Falling to the ground, Hyung-do slashes at the thing wildly with its sword, then fumbles for his gun. He finds another severed arm and screams, and despite the horror of the moment, it’s completely hilarious.
The thing is, the red-eyed monster is no longer the fast-pouncing predator but staggers slowly, blood dripping from an injured arm. And then, poof, it’s gone, and Hyung-do falls back in relief.
That night, Yoon-yi and Jang fight their growing worry over Hyung-do’s long absence — well, Yoon-yi does, while Jang is in hysterics. Finally, Hyung-do stumbles in looking catatonic, not responding to Jang’s cries of concern. Hyung-do hands over a bloodstained bag, and out comes a severed arm.
Hyung-do says numbly, “I saw it clearly with my two eyes.” Yoon-yi asks what he means. He answers, “The monster.”
The girl in the red hanbok comes upon the official’s home — the man in blue, the father of the sick boy Goon-chul — and sobs, “Ajusshi, save me.” She’s frantic, and blood stains her right arm.
Ladies and gentlemen, now for our “holy shit” moment — it’s HER???
Team X-Files does some research: Hyung-do flips through a book of monsters, scanning descriptions of dragons with women’s heads, griffins, snake creatures — and one shriveled creature that supposedly takes human shape. Thinking of the girl, Hyung-do wonders if the human form it assumes is male or female.
Yoon-yi reports the results of hunt: an armless corpse, two wolves, and a tiger. But there was an oddity — instead of running, the tiger stayed still as though sick.
Hyung-do overhears two policemen whispering about the captured tiger, which had been bitten by another beast. Fearful of what animal could have the power to bite a tiger, the men wonder if it’s a mythical monster.
Meanwhile, the official in blue carries his son Goon-chul home on his back, the boy’s arm dripping blood, while the girl trails them.
AHA! Another “oh shit” moment! (The girl’s arm was bloodied from contact with Goon-chul, the true monster. He must have been injured in a fight with the tiger.)
Yoon-yi calls in a specialist to inspect the bloody arm, and a few conclusions are drawn. First off, the thing was motivated by hunger, as indicated by the pattern of teeth marks. Yoon-yi deduces that the creature was human — and one with a small face, at that. The expert points out that the victim was a criminal, as evidenced by the tattoo.
I love the rapid exchange between Hyung-do and Yoon-yi as their minds whirl, filling in the blanks together as they make important deductions. The victims are all criminals, which explains why they haven’t been able to identify the dead. This also means the authorities are somehow involved.
Onward they go! Armed with these findings, they head off.
Outside the hut, Goon-chul’s father mixes powder into the medicine, then takes it inside to the boy. With shaking voice and tears in his eyes, knowing he’s about to kill his own son, he tells Goon-chul to take his medicine. He’s probably telling himself it’s all for the best, to put his son out of his misery.
Goon-chul sits up weakly and retches blood, then takes the bowl. He looks at his father with teary eyes and shakes his head no — perhaps aware that the medicine is poisoned. Dad lets a tear fall and says, more pleadingly, to drink.
Jang comes by with the replacement medicine and tries to drop it off nonchalantly, but the man sees and invites Jang in for a drink. The glint of hope in his eye makes my stomach drop — Dad has just had An Idea. Perhaps he’s found an easy way to satisfy his son’s craving tonight?
Hyung-do arrives at the magistrate’s quarters, announcing that he is here to return the arm since it belongs to one of the magistrate’s criminals. He cuts through the bullshit and cites the relevant facts — how all the criminals who died managed to escape the jail — and orders them to show him the jailhouse.
An officer provides a lame excuse about being stumped by the escape, but Hyung-do easily finds the window with the loose wooden bars. The officer protests that the men were locked into their neck blocks, but Hyung-do points out that someone could have helped them. The hole in the wall is not big enough for a full-grown adult, but surely could admit a child.
The magistrate bristles, asking if he’s insinuating that his daughter helped criminals escape from jail. Hyung-do says shrewdly, “I never said that.”
When Yoon-yi comes in to report that the girl is missing, Hyung-do starts to put all the pieces together — in a BRILLIANT bit of effective directing that sends chills down my spine — as he thinks of how the girl is always nearby…
He imagines the young boy crawling through the hole… dropping a key into the cell… being helped by his father, the local official.
He also realizes that since they didn’t find something to eat last night, he’ll be looking for something tonight… and remembers that Jang is with them.
Back at the house, the father exchanges a look with Goon-chul, who watches from inside and wipes his mouth. Dad suggests that Jang, by now very drunk, needs a guide and sends his boy to show him a quick route home.
Ugh, the tension is superb as Goon-chul leads Jang along, all the while Hyung-do races to the man’s hut to stop the murder.
Hyung-do finds the house empty and addresses the father sitting outside. He demands to know where Jang is, ordering him not to lie since he knows everything. The man looks at him impassively and says, “He is on his way to die.”
Hyung-do furiously charges the father with leading men to their deaths so his son could eat them. The man answers that they were condemned lives anyway, and might as well have filled the belly of his dying son.
Hyung-do angrily draws his sword and holds it to the man’s neck, threatening to cut his head off if he doesn’t tell him where they went. But the man just smiles, and tells him to go ahead. He has no reason to live anyway.
I doubt Hyung-do would have done it, but he isn’t given the opportunity because Yoon-yi finds him to tell him that the magistrate has launched a search for his daughter.
As the two teammates hurry off, the official takes up the bowl of medicine intended for his son and drinks.
Goon-chul arrives at the totem pole in the woods, his eyes glowing red. Jang follows drunkenly as they continue to the bamboo forest, where the boy completes his transformation.
Hyung-do and Yoon-yi hear Jang’s shout of horror and race to find him. The boy hisses grotesquely as he approaches, about to attack.
Before he does, however, the girl steps in front with her arms outstretched, begging him to stop.
Goon-chul lunges at her and knocks her to the ground, readying to take a bite — but then he recoils, as though conflicted, as though his human self inside the monster is telling him not to do it.
Hyung-do and Yoon-yi arrive and see him making a second attempt, but again he jerks back, this time staggering away. Unhurt, the girl looks up to see the police approaching. Grabbing his shriveled hands, she sobs, “I’m sorry, Goon-chul, everything is all my fault.”
And now we see how this began:
The two youngsters had been at the cursed pond, happy young sweethearts. He had given her a pretty ornament, but she had dropped it into the pool.
Goon-chul had reached down into the water to retrieve it — at which point the thing inside had taken hold of his arm, and that force began to infect him.
Facing his monstrous form now, she cries one more time, “I’m sorry.”
He lunges for her again, but this time a gunshot sounds — the officers have arrived in the distance and shoot him in the back. Goon-chul falls, while the girl blocks him from the officers, begging them not to continue.
The boy starts to sob, and she cradles his face to wipe the tears. OH GOD this is breaking my heart — what a way to wrench your emotions. Young children in love robbed of their youth and innocence! Way unfair, drama gods.
Seeing the officers advancing, she hurries Goon-chul to his feet and urges him to run away. He does, staggering deeper into the forest.
Now safe from danger, Hyung-do rushes forward to check on Jang — thankfully he’s just unconscious — while Yoon-yi cradles the sobbing girl to herself.
Some time later, Yoon-yi heads back to the forest to the mysterious pond, looking down at the thing inside, while it looks back at her.
What I find refreshing is that this series isn’t going out of its way to explain the supernatural. The nature of the premise means we can’t have concrete answers, so it makes sense that while Team X-Files gets to the bottom of the individual case (Goon-chul is the killer, and the authorities are complicit), the larger culprit remains shrouded in mystery (the force in the pool). We’re given little hints that we may be dealing with the Yongjubak monster, sort of like if an American sci-fi show took a look at the origin story of Bigfoot, for example.
I loved the story in this episode, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without the director’s mastery of pacing and editing — it’s incredibly difficult to string viewers along without giving the whole thing away, yet not confusing them too horribly until the moment of reveal. Some of you may have guessed how this would end up, but I was happy to be swept along for the ride and surprised at the right moments. Plus, what amazing use of music and lighting and sound effects — just wonderful.
I have never wanted a kdrama to be extended, because frankly in my book dramas need concrete ends. Finite plots are best. And even though the option of another season negates some of the concerns of an extension, broadcast dramas haven’t had much success with the multiple-season format. (There’s Goong S and Athena and Queen of Reversals, but none of those are true sequels; they just borrowed the term for marketing purposes.)
That said, I TOTALLY want another season of Joseon X-Files. The writers (there’s a team of six) have been doing a great job plotting out these standalone cases that are strung together with a loose overarching arc — a lot like American dramas, actually. That’s the formula for longevity, since there’s no finite end built into the premise.
Cable dramas have historically done better in Korea with the multi-season format than the broadcast stations, probably because they are produced with slightly different expectations — those aren’t the blockbuster miniseries or the long-running epics. Examples: Chosun Police (Byulsoongeom, 벌순검) has three seasons, and Rude Miss Young-ae (막돼먹은 영애씨) a whopping seven.
Alas, I’d be more hopeful for another season if only Kim Ji-hoon weren’t up for military service soon. True, this drama is strongly written and directed enough to survive without him, and I recognize that he’s not the only actor who could do this role, but I’d miss him. It just wouldn’t be the same with cast changes.
Oh well, at least we’ll have 12 great episodes.