Joseon X-Files: Episode 7
Oh man, this episode is brilliant. The more I think on it, the more brilliant it becomes. If we gave this the U.S. television treatment, this would be the episode winning a bunch of Emmys.
I understand if it was confusing for viewers, though, because it’s not an episode whose message is clearly spelled out at the end — there’s room for interpretation and although I’m fairly confident in mine, I’m sure there are other ways to read it. Plus, not only does this episode play with the concept of time, parts of it are told out of chronological order. Hopefully the recap is helpful rather than confusing.
SONG OF THE DAY
Misty Blue – “망각 (Obliviate)” [ Download ]
EPISODE 7: “Village of the fourth dimension”
A young boy stands still in the wet, holding a sword in his hand. The slow-motion cinematography and the lovely music give the scene a strangely beautiful look, even as it takes a macabre turn:
Policemen gape, shocked, motioning for him to stop. The boy ignores them, raising the sword to his chin, and then — thrust!
Blood splatters, mingling with water. His body falls, and slowly, the sound of the rain fades in, stripping the ethereality of the scene and letting reality sink in.
Hyung-do sits in an empty room, a haggard mess. Words ring in his ears — recently spoken by Yoon-yi — that warn him in hushed tones: “You must pull yourself together. You should not be in this place.”
Tiredly, Hyung-do makes his way through the village, and comes to a gate where the latest notice has been posted: It’s a drawing of a missing nobleman’s daughter, wearing a red ribbon in her hair.
Jang finds him here, and they head off together to the bookshop, where Yoon-yi notices how sick Hyung-do looks and offers him some hot tea. Hyung-do waves off his fatigue (Jang chortles at Hyung-do catching a cold when it’s not even cold season), and insists that he is fine to continue with work.
The case at hand, which Yoon-yi briefs him on, deals with the daughter of Lord Choi and a runaway slave boy. The young lovers had stolen off together, launching a search, and just recently the boy was discovered. He was found in an absent-minded daze, and it is rumored that the young couple had gone to a place they are calling New Land. This is the latest in a string of similar cases of so-called travelers to New Land who return in this dull state of near-catatonia.
Asked where the boy is now, Yoon-yi replies, “He’s dead. Smiling, he stabbed himself in the neck.”
A flashback shows us that she is indeed referring to the opening scene: Two police officers had found the boy sleeping (note a straw doll dropped in the grass — there was a straw doll cursing Hyung-do in the previous episode) and started to carry him away, but the boy awakened and grabbed one of their swords. With that curiously blank look on his face, he had stabbed himself.
Yoon-yi explains that the boy had claimed that he’d been forcibly removed from paradise. It’s a place without a difference in social classes, where time stops and you don’t grow old or get sick. The boy had declared he would return to paradise, and killed himself. The girl has not yet been found.
Hyung-do nods off toward the end of Yoon-yi’s explanation, the tea cup slipping from his hand and breaking on the floor. Yoon-yi advises him to rest today, but like a good workaholic he insists he’s fine. Together with Jang, he heads out to the scene of the incident.
As he examines the corpse, Hyung-do sniffs, catching a hint of something. This is his first clue, as everybody who came back from New Land apparently smelled like glue.
Off they go to a neighborhood called Banchon — and for those Sungkyunkwan Scandal viewers, this Banchon bears no similarity to that one. This one is a miserable place, characterized not only by poverty but also drug use (opium?) and gambling. Many of the denizens lounge around in a drug-fueled stupor.
Hyung-do has come here because there is a likely connection with glue, made of animal bones, and the butchers who make up a large portion of this local population (butchers, historically, occupied the lowest rungs in society). Hyung-do deduces Choi’s daughter is likely to be here in Banchon, which is so suited for secret activities.
He sends Jang to inquire after carpenters using glue, while he makes his way to an artist’s studio, as artists also use glue. Inside, a particular hanging scroll captures his attention — it’s a woman, who looks rather familiar. The artist didn’t draw her, and says it’s quite old. As he takes a seat, we see that the artist is currently working on a drawing featuring two youngsters.
Hyung-do moves on to his main purpose and asks if the artist has any glue. The man no longer deals the stuff, only making little bits when he’s painting, but he offers a small pot to Hyung-do.
A wave of fatigue washes over Hyung-do briefly, and the artist offers him some tea to help his fever. Hyung-do drinks, although the music tells us to be wary of the man and perhaps his tea. The artist turns back to his work — a closer look shows us a girl and boy holding knives, and a box.
On his way out of the artist’s studio, Hyung-do catches a glimpse of a girl walking ahead of him. This drama is seriously making me wary of young girls in hanboks, but he spies the red ribbon in her hair, which makes him think of the drawing of the missing girl. He follows her through dark corridors, past butchers’ stalls, and outside — into the bright sunlight.
Wait, wha-? Hyung-do knows something is wrong, but he doesn’t understand what just happened, and looks around in bewilderment. He trudges along until he comes to the same gate from before, only now the girl’s missing poster is torn — has time passed?
Based on Hyung-do’s lack of a reaction, it seems like we are back at the top of the episode, when he first saw the drawing. Only, instead of Jang finding him here, this time it’s Yoon-yi.
She asks why he’s here, and he answers that he’s here to meet Jang — but she asks who that is. Hyung-do laughs at her joke, speaking in his usual familiar way, until he realizes that she doesn’t know who he is, either.
Alternate Yoon-yi is offended, thinking he’s taking liberties, and tells him curtly he’s better off going to a gibang (gisaeng establishment). Hyung-do looks around in alarmed confusion, and the scene ripples, like heat waves.
Realizing that something is very wrong here, Hyung-do goes to Yoon-yi’s bookshop, where he accidentally catches a glimpse of her changing her jeogori top, which reveals a scar on her shoulderblade. Not exactly the way to reverse that bad first impression, and she orders him to leave in a hard voice.
The camera lingers on the tea, which triggers a memory to the teacup he dropped, and he says, “I’m sorry. I think I’ve lost my way.” She figures that that’s typical of Banchon, explaining that this is at the edge of that neighborhood, and offers to draw him a map.
As she draws, Hyung-do tells Alternate Yoon-yi that she looks a lot like someone he knows. She interprets that as more smooth talk (lol at his uncomfortable reaction to that), and asks how he came to be here.
He answers that he’s looking for someone whom he hasn’t found yet. As he sits there waiting, we fade back to the flashback of the previous scene when he’d followed the girl through Banchon. (The fact that some of these flashbacks are coming to Hyung-do later suggests that he may have forgotten some of these things until later, which explains his dulled reaction in the aftermath.)
However, the events of this flashback differ from the scene we’d previously witnessed — this time, Hyung-do loses the girl but sees the boy and follows him to a hiding place within Banchon. The slave boy reunites with the young girl and tells her that the arrangements have been made with the palanquin bearers (a transportation service) for tomorrow. They’ll carry her away from here, but he’ll have to meet her separately, because slave hunters are on his trail.
The girl wants to travel together, but he says it’s more dangerous that way. With youthful innocence, the couple assure each other that it will work out and speak in loving tones. He declares himself satisfied with her safety, and she assures him that she’s happy right now, with him.
Hearing slave hunters approaching, Hyung-do hurriedly steps out into the main courtyard — into daylight, once again confused.
Emerging from the flashback, Hyung-do now asks Alternate Yoon-yi what’s going on — how can the slave who died now be alive? Intently, he asks, “Is this the New Land that people talk about?” She answers, “There are some who say that, but it is not new land. It has been here for a long time, but has merely been unseen.”
He says, “They call it paradise. It seems like a place that cannot exist.” She replies, “Places that are necessary are not always there from the start.” She adds that if you decide with your heart, your body follows naturally (which suggests that people’s desires have somehow contributed to the creation of this place).
New Land Yoon-yi: “In this village, the memories, fantasies, and desires that were earnestly hoped for become reality. What is it that you saw, and came here for?”
Hyung-do thinks of the boy who died and answers that it seemed the boy was asking for his help. He wants to help the two runaways — how can he?
Yoon-yi answers that he can go back to the place where they first intersected. At that, Hyung-do heads out immediately, though he pauses to turn back.
Hyung-do: “How did you come to be here?”
New Land Yoon-yi: “There is a person I want to meet.”
Hyung-do: “Have you met?”
New Land Yoon-yi: “I had thought I had, but it seems that I have not yet.”
Hyung-do heads out in the drizzly night to retrace his steps through Banchon, and spots the boy in the marketplace. Unfortunately, that also draws the attention of the two slave hunters behind him, and the boy runs into the forest.
Hyung-do follows, managing to tackle the boy, insisting that he’s here to help him. But the boy panics, his eyes rolling back in his head. He’s in no condition to listen to Hyung-do’s pleas to tell him where he’s going before the slave hunters catch up to them.
He can hear the hunters shouting behind them, but when he looks, he sees nothing. Where are the voices coming from? The landscape is empty, though he can clearly hear them yelling, “There he is!”
The boy manages to get up and runs off. Hyung-do, so bewildered by these strange events, looks around in a daze. Finally, the slave hunters appear and rush by him.
Hyung-do asks Yoon-yi what he can do to right this scenario, because he couldn’t stop anything from happening. She answers calmly, “Did you not see for yourself? It’s already too late.”
Hyung-do: “This isn’t paradise. Didn’t you say it was where you could be happy forever? But those two — why in the world must they encounter those things?”
Yoon-yi: “The happiness people wish for cannot always be the same. If the happiness wished for by one person differs from the desire of another, they cannot help but repeat their own ways.”
Hyung-do: “Then what happens to Lord Choi’s daughter?”
The answer is not pretty. The girl is carried in the hired palanquin by two men who pause for a break. Leering, one man grabs a knife and readies to use it, which alerts the girl to impending trouble.
Menacingly, the men ask for more fare — but it’s not money they want. With a lecherous laugh, they grab her, beat her, and tie her to a bamboo stalk.
Horrified, Hyung-do asks if this scenario is bound to repeat, over and over. Yoon-yi answers that “they” are also fixated on what they want for themselves. Ah, so there’s the rub — this New Land’s promise of “getting what you want” applies to evildoers as well. Quite a tricky Catch-22, isn’t it?
Handing him the map she has drawn, she urges him to hurry out of this place. Hyung-do, however, now has more important things to accomplish than leaving New Land, and declares that he will help the youngsters leave, too.
Yoon-yi reminds him that they came here because they wanted to. Hyung-do retorts, “How would they have known that what they wanted would turn into hell?”
She counters, “Is the outside world that much better than this?” She warns that if he continues to meddle in their lives, he will not be able to leave, either.
The boy runs through the woods, searching for the girl, and finds the palanquin empty. Racing through the bamboo forest (oh god, not that accursed bamboo forest again!), he finds her tied up and frees her.
The girl is badly beaten but smiles to see her lover. She presses a pouch of money in his hand (her fare, I presume), and tells him that it’s enough that he can leave here and live comfortably. She means on his own, though, because she’s fading fast. Weakly, she tells him, “I’m glad I got to see your face.”
With that, she slumps, and the boy cries out in anguish.
Hyung-do declares that he will sever the loop by making sure these events never begin in the first place. If this is a place where you only see what you want to see, well, that can work for him. Those kids may have thought this would be paradise, but how can dying every day — only to be revived, only to die again — be called happiness?
He burns her map, saying, “That wasn’t what I wanted to see.” Yoon-yi warns him that he may be hurt, but he is prepared for that. She says, “You were always that kind of person” — and that sure captures his attention. Eyes widening in shock, he asks what she means by that. So she DID know him? Who is she?
Yoon-yi doesn’t answer, and tells him to hurry if he wants to break the cycle.
When we return to the girl, we’re in the moment before she is attacked. Only, true to his word, Hyung-do appears in time to prevent injury, and fights off the two men, who scurry off.
Thus when the slave boy arrives, she’s still here, safe and sound.
And yet, that would be too easy of an ending, and we see Yoon-yi looking over a familiar drawing. It’s the same one that the old artist was working on, only now we get to see how the scene ends. Previously, the girl and boy had been facing an empty palanquin with knives in their hands. Now, blood pools around it, and a body lies inside.
In the forest, the happy couple leave together, hand in hand. They stop to bow their gratitude to Hyung-do, who waves them off feeling mighty gratified at this satisfactory outcome…
…until a knife is thrust into his back — by the slave boy.
Hyung-do gasps, “What are you doing?” And another knife stabs him from the other side — it’s the girl. Both look down at him impassively as he falls to his knees, mortally wounded.
A third figure joins them — the artist who gave him tea. Hyung-do glares up at the man and asks if he’s the one deluding people into thinking there is such a thing as New Land. The man tells him that he merely opened the door a little; Hyung-do came of his own free will.
Smiling, the artist tells him, “From now on, you’ll have to enjoy rescuing these children. Welcome to New Land.” Meaning, of course, that Hyung-do is now sealed into this New Land paradise of never-ending loops.
The world blurs around him as Hyung-do loses consciousness, and it begins to rain…
When the world fades back in, Hyung-do is standing in the rain again, at the entrance of Banchon, looking at the (torn, old) drawing of the missing girl.
A familiar scene: Yoon-yi pours him tea as he sits in a daze. Ahhhhhh, and now we understand why he’s so “sick”! Traveling back from New Land saps the spirit, and Hyung-do’s illness isn’t a cold so much as it is the aftereffects of such “travel.”
The scene progresses almost identically as it did at the top of the episode, with Yoon-yi filling him in on the case of the runaway who killed himself after being dragged back from paradise. Yoon-yi and Jang’s words are exactly the same as before, but this time Hyung-do’s reaction is different as he registers this eerie sense of deja vu.
The word “paradise” rings a bell, and Hyung-do looks up sharply as he puts together the pieces. Previously he had dropped the teacup out of fatigue, but this time it crashes to the ground because he loses his grip. And, creepily enough, this time there’s a fluttering insect that falls out of the tea (ewwww).
He bends down to look at the mess, but (thankfully!) the insect is not there. Yoon-yi’s whispered voice speaks to him the same words he’d heard in the beginning of the episode, saying urgently, “You must be sent back. You do not belong here. You must be sent back to where you were.”
Speaking these words is New Land Yoon-yi on the other side of reality, who whispers, “No, this is not what I wanted.”
Now Hyung-do glances around warily, looking around with new eyes. He sees the tea set, which triggers his memory of the artist’s tea, the chase in the forest, and all the events from New Land. Mixed into those “memories” is the image of a bloodstained Hyung-do, dying from his stab wounds.
Hyung-do makes his way through the bookshop as the truth falls into place, and pushes open a door in the back, coming face to face with… himself.
The two Hyung-dos stare at each other, stunned, for a moment.
Then, blackness opens upon a different image — of a worn, battered Hyung-do awakening in some sort of pit, whcih appears to be in, or linked to, Yoon-yi’s bookshop. This tired Hyung-do stares up, and then Yoon-yi finds him there in the well, asking worriedly if he’s okay.
We are taken through these moments in brief flashes, and land on one memory in particular. It’s the parting of Hyung-do and New Land Yoon-yi, who repeats those words from before: “You must leave quickly. You must come to your senses. This is not where you should be.” She warns, “If it’s not now, you cannot ever leave.”
The Hyung-do in the well says, “At first, I thought I was called to this land because of that gaze.” (He refers to the woman in the painting.) The Current Hyung-do also repeats those words to New Land Yoon-yi — it’s as though some things remain constant, no matter which “cycle” one is caught up in — and he realizes, “It was you who called me. Why are you letting me go?”
New Land Yoon-yi admits that it was her own personal greed, but adds that he does not belong here. The moment is fraught with emotion as he realizes that their connection runs deeper than he’d known, but that they’re about to part ways again.
Hyung-do asks, “Will you go with me?” With sadness, she shakes her head no. He asks, “Can we meet again?” Handing him her necklace, she tells him that since they have crossed each other’s paths once, perhaps they’ll meet again. She leaves him with the last words, “I was glad to see you again.”
Now we’re back in the present, with Hyung-do at the doorway between his world and New Land. He sees New Land Yoon-yi through the open passageway, and they keep their eyes fixed on each other, with tears in hers, as Hyung-do slowly closes the door between them.
Rain again. Hyung-do finds himself in an empty room, just like the one from the opening scene.
He’s tired and out of sorts, but reacts when his caretaker turns out to be Yoon-yi — the real one, or one more iteration of her?
Hyung-do asks what happened, and she explains that a hallucinogen was slipped into the tea the artist gave him. In disbelief, he asks, “Are you saying I was just hallucinating?” Yoon-yi answers that she doesn’t know what he saw, and he replies firmly, “It wasn’t a dream.”
Lightly, with a smile, Yoon-yi says, “Then you must have seen New Land.”
Hyung-do’s eyes widen to see the necklace Yoon-yi wears, which is the same one that New Land Yoon-yi had given him. This Yoon-yi explains that she’d lost it a while ago, but thankfully found it recently.
She rises to exit his room, leaving Hyung-do puzzling at this odd sense of deja vu…
Pretty damned brilliant, if you ask me. I love how all the little details fit into place. At first watch, it’s a bit puzzling, but as you wade through the episode, things click into place so securely, so intricately, that I’m left amazed. But first let’s clear a few things up:
New Land. Is it a real place, or a state of mind? A metaphysical in-between? Is it merely the work of a hallucinogenic drug that trips everyone out into thinking they’d been somewhere when they’re just strung out on some psychotic brew?
It seems to me that New Land is somehow parallel to this hallucinogenic state, but it’s not ONLY a hallucination. It’s not all in the head. I think of it as akin to the Matrix, where there are two realities occurring simultaneously, linked and yet separate. The hallucinogen may “open the door,” as the artist said, but it’s not merely a bad acid trip. And what happens in New Land has an effect on what happens in the real world, which would not be the case in a dream. It also makes sense that Banchon, which sits at the entrance to New Land, is littered with junkies, no? I’m sure some of those laggards aren’t just druggies, but feeling the dullness that comes with the return trip from New Land.
It appears that Yoon-yi’s bookshop is the gateway, which is a very interesting detail. Let’s not forget that there’s the “very old” painting of her in the artist’s studio — plus the fact that both of them offer Hyung-do that very suspicious tea. So what’s the connection? Are they in cahoots? Or is Yoon-yi using the artist? Vice versa?
Whatever the case, it’s clear that Hyung-do and Yoon-yi’s connection goes back farther than he’d suspected. No surprise, given her mysterious past — and the fact that the Current World Yoon-yi has no memory of her past may play into this. Perhaps it’s not that she’s deceiving him, but that she isn’t aware of the connection in this world. When Hyung-do first meets New Land Yoon-yi, she says that she has not yet met the one she’s waiting for. She means Hyung-do, but this version of him hasn’t recognized their link — whereas, at the end of the episode, he has realized their connection. That must be the one she wanted to see, the one whom she was “happy to see again.”
The nature of this story is what also makes the episode confusing on first watch, but so awesome on second watch. The “flashbacks” that we occasionally see are from previous loops, which explains why they’re told technically out of “chronological” order. For the Current Hyung-do, his memories and flashes are occurring chronologically, if we take him as the linear standpoint — we see them unfold as he sees them. But in terms of the “loop,” it seems they’re occurring out of order. If that makes sense.
As for the purpose of New Land… I think it’s bloody brilliant how they constructed this episode to show the paradox of everybody getting what they want. First of all, it’s a nasty sort of paradise, to be held up by a technicality — sure, it’s a place where time stops and nobody ages, because nothing ever moves the fuck on. If you’re doomed to die, then live, then die again — I suppose technically you never die, right? And the thwarted lovers will always end up together… until the loop takes them back to the beginning, when they’re apart.
Plus, if you open up this world to everybody getting their selfish desires, then how do you reconcile the slave who wants to escape, and the slave hunter who wants to catch him? By letting them both get what they want, of course! And to keep the “promise” of eternal wish fulfillment, you just lock them into a continuous loop so that they keep getting what they want, forever.
Likewise with Hyung-do. He enters New Land late into the game — notice that the picture of the missing girl gets increasingly tattered, because each time he arrives at that gate, he’s in a new “cycle.” So Yoon-yi warns him that he can’t stay too long, or he’ll get stuck into that cycle, too. When he decides that his earnest wish is to save these two kids, he locks himself into their loop. In order to keep saving them forever, he has to fail… forever.
See, in the real world, time is linear and the very nature of that linear time makes desire and ambition and striving worth the payoff in the end. Because we achieve it. But to KEEP achieving it? You have to keep finding yourself in the same situation. Literally.
It’s a clever way of making true literally what is already true on a philosophical level.