Joseon X-Files: Episode 10
I liked this episode a lot. I appreciate that the writers have taken the care to alternate lighter, funnier episodes with the darker, creepier, and/or more intense ones.
The plot in this one is of a stand-alone nature, but since it involves all three members of our Team X-Files, I’m happy. Plus, even though the entire drama has been a feast for the eyes, this episode in particular, with its beachside locale, was stunning to look at.
SONG OF THE DAY
Bye Bye Sea – “눈물바다” (Sea of Tears) [ Download ]
EPISODE 10: “Soldiers’ Homecoming from the Dragon King’s Palace”
We start out floating in space, hovering over Earth, giving us the hint that this episode incorporates an element of the alien, before landing miles below on a remote beach.
A young girl runs toward the water, scanning the shoreline and calling out for her mother, who’s somewhere out there. But she stops in her tracks when a great rumbling noise sounds in the distance. A huge light shines down from the clouds and beams down into the ocean.
The girl’s mother runs from the water and grabs her daughter as the light disappears, followed by the rumbling. Dead fish bob at the surface of the water, landing ashore in large numbers. Out of view of the mother-daughter pair, a transparent tentacle wriggles from the mouth of one of the newly beached fish. Yum.
News of this oddity reaches our team, who are dispatched to this remote island off the southern coast of the Korean peninsula. The island was once home to a navy post a decade prior to this drama’s timeline, during the Japanese invasions.
The ride is pleasant enough for both Yoon-yi and Jang Man, but Hyung-do…well, he spends most of the time feeling sick to his stomach and gagging over the side of the boat. He does not appreciate the sight of Jang chewing an octopus tentacle with gusto, but the other two look on in amusement to see their gruff leader humbled by something as mundane as seasickness.
The boat pulls in to the dock — to Hyung-do’s great relief — and they plan to secure lodgings for the night. Before they can even leave the pier, however, they are greeted by a smiling village elder, who welcomes them to their humble island.
The elder speaks with extreme (perhaps exaggerated) politeness, but there’s something in his smiling, solicitous manner that tickles Hyung-do’s Spidey sense. For instance, the man is aware of Hyung-do’s title as government inspector despite the fact that they hadn’t sent advance notice of their trip.
Furthermore, the elder presses rather insistently — though it’s couched in polite language — that they come with him. It’s all in the name of hospitality, but Hyung-do is not won over by his obsequious behavior. (Simple-minded Jang, on the other hand, is easily swayed. Heh.)
The elder seems to be under the impression that they’re here on official business about the island’s salt tax, and has taken it upon himself to act the part of the grand host. But his smile fades the moment Yoon-yi asks about something that fell from the sky a month ago. Suddenly the elder’s laughing tone turns shaky; he hems and haws before grudgingly answering that there are rumors of such an occurrence, but he didn’t see it himself.
He dismisses them as superstitious beliefs of the “Dragon King” coming down to the ocean from the sky, adding that at least the event brought about the boon of extra fish for the villagers. That’s enough to be thankful for.
The next day, our teammates take a look around, walking along the beach as they speculate on possible explanations for the great light. Yoon-yi suggests that it could have been a meteor — there’s no crater, but if it landed in the sea, they wouldn’t be able to see one.
Team X-Files notices a curious trend as they walk around, because all the villagers hastily turn away to avoid talking to them. Hyung-do calls after a few villagers that he only wants to talk to them, but without fail, everyone ignores his calls and hurries away.
Are they afraid? Or is there another reason for the avoidance? Hyung-do is sure they’re hiding something, and resorts to a new tactic — Bad Cop, Good Cop. That is to say, he yells harshly at a woman trying to run away from them, and berates her (using rude language) for ignoring him. This gives Jang the chance to approach consolingly, so that she might talk more willingly to him.
The woman has dropped her basket of fish in her anxiety, and as Jang helps pick them up, she explains that she technically didn’t catch them — she picked them up off the ground. In fact, there have been lots of fish coming ashore ever since “that day” — the day the Dragon King came down from the sky.
The woman confirms that something fell out of the sky and into the sea with a great noise, and sighs sympathetically for the plight of the mother-daughter pair — what crime did that little girl commit to end up in such a condition?
Before they can ask for clarification, the village elder shows up and cuts into the conversation. It’s pretty clear (to us, and to the team) that he’s trying to keep a tight rein over what his villagers reveal, but he’s shrewd about his methods of diversion, and offers them a tour.
He takes them to a salt refinery, which is the village’s primary commodity. Now that mention of the Dragon King has been made, the elder shares that they believe that the sea deity has chosen to come to dwell with them, and blessed them with their bounty.
Hyung-do is puzzled about the man’s reverence, particularly given the “condition” suffered by one of their own. But the elder replies that he’d told his people not to talk of it to their guests, thinking their beliefs would be misinterpreted.
The elder invites them to ceremonial rites, so they watch as the old man leads his villagers in a procession to the shore and preaches of the generosity of their Dragon King. People pray as he delivers a sermon about the Dragon King welcoming the souls of the dead soldiers who fought to defend their country, who make their new homes in his sea palace.
(It’s interesting how this sounds like the fables of provincial folk, but the florid imagery has a lot in common with Christianity — God the Father embracing the souls of the deceased to his eternal bosom in heaven, and so forth.)
At dinner, Hyung-do watches in disgust as Yoon-yi and Jang eat enthusiastically, the latter particularly excited to eat delicacies he can’t get in Hanyang. Hyung-do can’t bear the smell and taste of the seafood and nibbles at a pepper, but the other two smile in amusement — given how he got seasick, he clearly doesn’t have a strong enough stomach for this kind of stuff.
I like that this is played for humor here, because its use as a recurring joke masks a more important point. The camera lingers on a shot of the fish Jang is picking at to reveal one of those clear, slimy tentacles poking out, but nobody notices.
Feeling sickened, Hyung-do goes out for air and sees a woman — the same one he’d scolded earlier — being approached by the elder. Only, she’s pregnant now, when she hadn’t been earlier.
Curiosity piqued, Hyung-do follows as the woman is led away by the elder and his men…but looks like our investigator has to work on his stalking skills, because as he arrives at a house, he finds the elder waiting there for him.
He’s welcomed inside, where the elder starts speaking of the naval war against the invaders where so many of their men died. Among those was his own son, but the elder just chuckles ruefully and says that all those fallen soldiers have been since welcomed by the Dragon King. Though he knows that it must sound silly to the fancy folk from the capital, his people believe that the thing that descended into the sea was the Dragon King.
The elder pauses to confirm that the state still beheads those people who cite bizarre stories, as though about to divulge a secret but wary about its consequences. Hyung-do answers that that’s true, but he is here to make sure no such occurrence happens.
That opens the door for the man to speak — but just then, his man interrupts their conversation with some news. The elder excuses himself, citing a problem with the salt refinery.
And yet, strangely enough, the elder doesn’t go straight to the refinery but instead heads to a gated area. The strange sight catches Hyung-do’s eye, and he watches in growing alarm as he sees that a number of villagers are being kept there. And they’re all pregnant — even the very young and the very old.
And, more shockingly, even some men. The group sits in dull silence, being fed fish, which makes the next scene all the more creepy:
Hyung-do returns to their quarters to see Yoon-yi and Jang eating ravenously. While earlier they’d been eating with a normal amount of enthusiasm, now they tear into the seafood with voracious appetites.
That night, he dreams an unsettling dream involving a corpse at the salt refinery, and awakens in a cold sweat. He doesn’t have time to reflect on what this means, because anguished groans sound from the other room. Rushing to Jang’s quarters, Hyung-do finds him crouched in a fetal position, moaning.
He tries to ascertain whether his friend is hurt, but the answer is much worse: He’s…pregnant?
Hyung-do angrily confronts the village elder first thing in the morning, which officially makes him a lot more polite than you or I, since I’d be tearing down doors, night be damned. His anger is aggravated by the realization that the elder is not at all surprised.
The man explains that he knew of such things happening, but had assumed that it only concerned his people. Unfortunately, now that Jang is also in the, uh, family way, he’s going to insist that he retain custody of him.
The elder assures Hyung-do that he will be taken care of, speaking as though only he and his people know how to handle the matter. Hyung-do, on the other hand, is not about to relinquish his colleague to a bunch of shifty types, and refuses to hand him over.
Too bad he’s outnumbered, and to complicate matters, Yoon-yi also starts feeling faint. She keels over, and Hyung-do rushes to catch her — but that means he can’t go after the men taking Jang away.
Curiously, Jang has been quiet this whole time, standing there in a lifeless daze. Now he addresses Hyung-do in a dull voice, saying that it’s fine — he will go willingly.
Yoon-yi is still of sound mind, but after Hyung-do leaves, she looks down at her belly worriedly, suspecting that the process has already begun for her as well.
Hyung-do goes back to the elder to demand some answers. Is this affliction contagious? What is it? The elder responds that it’s not something to worry over — those involved are being well cared for, and they’re not sick. They’re pregnant.
Sure, that might explain the adult women — but what of the young children? And, you know, the MEN?
Ignoring Hyung-do’s incredulity, the elder answers that the babies-to-be are the precious children of the Dragon King, as though that explains everything. The woman and her young daughter were the first to be impregnated — the two from the opening sequence — but alas, the mother unfortunately miscarried the other night.
That night, Hyung-do discusses this with Yoon-yi, who describes one occasion involving similar circumstances wherein a Baekje king was said to be the son of a dragon. She tries to keep up with the conversation, but feels out of sorts and has to warn Hyung-do that the same fate may await her. She can feel her thoughts dulling and a change coming over her. Sometimes strange memories pop up into her mind, as though something is inhabiting her body.
Yoon-yi feels that her time is running out, and sure enough, she’s soon overcome with headaches and dizziness. As she collapses, her eyes lose their focus, and her stomach inflates all at once, like a balloon. (Those stretch marks have got to be killer.)
Hyung-do tries to rouse her, but like all the others, she is now essentially catatonic. Even when she’s awake, she has no awareness — it’s like she’s lost all control over her mind.
Hyung-do decides that enough is enough and furtively leads her to the dock the next day, determined to take her back to the mainland and figure out something there. But he’s not fast enough, and a mob of villagers catches him on the pier before he is able to set sail. The elder confronts him with righteous anger over his “theft” of the Dragon King’s child. He believes that all the pregnancies are actually reincarnations of their young soldiers who died fighting in the war, and are the Dragon King’s “gifts” to them.
Hyung-do argues that this isn’t a problem that can be solved here — but he knows people who can help. If they let him go, he can consult with them to find a solution. But the elder is suspicious, accusing him of laying a trap that would end in his villagers being executed as traitors.
Hyung-do tries to appeal to the villagers, pointing out that for a Dragon King who is supposedly so benevolent, how could he bring the “pregnancies” upon little children and men? Would he grace the people with such a gift, only to require them to cut the babies out of people so brutally?
The elder cuts him off, but Hyung-do presses, reminding him that the dead soldiers in the sea are not only stalwart Joseon patriots but also the foreign invaders. Doesn’t that mean that they could very well be nurturing the reincarnation of their enemies?
The elder talks over him, preaching to his people that the Dragon King is reviving their dead soldiers, who will in turn protect their people from further invasions.
As the man pontificates about the Dragon King’s deeds, Hyung-do breaks free of his captors and grabs Yoon-yi, but his escape is prevented. Someone strikes him, and the blow pushes him off the dock and into the water.
Hyung-do struggles underwater, and a curious light shines from its depths, glowing bright and illuminating little creatures that swim up to him. They are the same little tentacles that had wriggled from the dead fish, and now one of those slivers of alien material shoots into Hyung-do’s nostril.
The moment of impact is marked by the following images:
In a few frames, we shoot through outer space, interspersed with frames of what can only be described as a computer screen that loads in response to making contact with Hyung-do. Just like in the opening scene, we see Earth from an outer-space perspective, reiterating the point that we’re dealing with some sort of extraterrestrial force.
Thankfully, Hyung-do is rescued by someone who dives in after him and drags him out to the surface. It’s the mother of the young girl, who was said to have miscarried.
The elder had considered her miscarriage an unfortunate loss, but unlike the other villagers, she is of clear mind and lacks the distended belly.
Hyung-do asks how the being left her body, and she outlines her symptoms as the same dimness of thought and lack of energy that Yoon-yi had described. But then she began to crave salty food, so she went to the refinery and ate the salt, and that brought her back to normal.
Aha, finally a breakthrough! Hyung-do rushes back to the elder’s estate to address the villagers being held there. He declares that the babies are not the souls of the dead soldiers, nor are they the Dragon King’s children. They are creatures from a faraway world who dropped into the ocean, and have borrowed the villagers’ bodies.
Promising to prove his point, he shoves salt into Yoon-yi’s mouth. The moment the salt makes contact, it has an effect, and the organism living inside her reacts.
Yoon-yi starts to retch, and then — to the horror of all the villagers gathered there — starts to spew a massive amount of water, like a fire hydrant suddenly tapped. As the water gushes from her, we can see the little tentacles of alien matter slithering along in the resulting puddles, heading toward the ocean.
Hyung-do feeds Jang salt too, and gets the same reaction — Jang retches a stream of water, then returns to his normal faculties.
Spurred into action, the rest of the villagers grab at the pile of salt and consume, ridding themselves of their parasitic visitors in the same way. As the tentacles squirm their way back to the sea, a loud, low roar sounds from the ocean.
Hyung-do’s relief is cut short by the elder, who has watched the proceedings with bleakness, knowing that it — whatever he believed IT to be — is at an end. He holds a sword up to Hyung-do’s neck, and draws back to deliver a blow — only to be stopped by the young girl, their Patient Zero.
The girl looks at him calmly and speaks with words that are mature for her young age, saying, “It’s time to go now. Thank you for taking care of us all this time. We’ve healed enough to return.”
The man looks up at her, devastation mixing with hope, and asks, “Are you my son?”
The girl answers, “You people are quite interesting, strange creatures.” And then, she adds (perhaps to lessen the blow), “Thank you. Father.”
The elder clutches the girl to himself tightly, sobbing his son’s name.
Upon the discovery of salt’s potent effects, Jang leads his group of liberated villagers to the salt mill for more, while the roars increase from the sea. They pause at the sight off in the distance of a bright light much like the one from the opening scene — whatever brought them down into the sea is now calling them back up to the skies.
They watch, fascinated, and Jang wonders, “So that’s what was in my belly?”
After a cleansing rain, our trio makes their way back home, their work done here. Hyung-do’s in a much happier frame of mind now, positively giddy, while this time it’s Jang who fights his nausea — no doubt more psychological than physical as he deals with the idea of what had happened to him.
Hyung-do has decided there’s no reason to report the elder, who could technically be tried for treason, because it seems he’s suffered enough. These events have affected him severely anyway.
Seeing that Jang is making friends with the boat’s railing, bracing himself with it as he retches, Hyung-do can’t resist teasing him and brings out something from his pocket. Shoving it in Jang’s face, he asks cheerily, “Would you care to chew on another octopus tentacle? I remember how much you enjoyed it before, so I brought one for you.”
Jang gags and heaves over the side of the boat. Chuckling, Hyung-do takes it for himself.
This episode is less complicated than some others, but I found that there are still little details worked into the plot that fleshed out the story, and I appreciate the attention to detail. For instance: the issue of salt, which is a curious thing given that the village is located right on the coast of a huge body of saltwater. But maybe that’s why the beings needed refuge in healthy, hearty human bodies while they “recovered” from whatever ailment required such convalescence. In the scene when Hyung-do attempts to eat seafood, he notes that the fishy smell is made worse because the food is so bland and unsalted. You’d think that a salt-making village would be liberal with their seasoning, but it goes to show you that the parasites were looking out for themselves, and working their way into their hosts’ bodies via unsalted fish.
What this series has always done so well is injecting these stories with a healthy dose of pathos, which is remarkable given that they have less than an hour to introduce character, set up plots, and tell a story. To do so with emotion and humor is really pretty remarkable. Yet they manage to do it again here with the village elder, who is really a grieving, broken man. It would have been so easy to make him into a simple villain, and a lot of other shows would have stopped there, figuring that it was enough to explain that the alien being was controlling the humans.
But in this episode, we are given a story set up against some rich cultural backstory — the Japanese invasion and the naval ports are well-known bits of Korean history, and also where Admiral Yi Soon-shin fought and died — and the elder is a man grasping at straws out of sheer love for his dead son. It’s interesting that when he first mentions his son’s death, the elder says so with a light, almost casual tone — it’s enough to make you wonder how he can be so blasé about it. So the revelation that his fervent preaching of the Dragon King was all based in a desperate desire to believe his son was returning to him is all the more touching and sad.
Not content with that, the drama also drops some of our funniest moments into the episode, ending with that fabulous bit of taunting by Hyung-do, who’s finally let himself unwind. It’s pretty great.