Joseon X-Files: Episode 9
This episode starts out seeming more disconnected from the others, making me think at first that it was a filler-type episode — but trust this drama to find a way to tie it to the secrets of the bigger picture as well. I’ll never doubt you again, Joseon X-Files!
This was also a pretty funny episode, despite the subject matter. It reminded me of Episode 4 in that respect, finding ways to sneak in dry bits of humor in between the tension-building and mystery of the case. Kim Ji-hoon really is great doing grouchy humor.
(I did, however, miss not having Yoon-yi and Jang Man around this time.)
SONG OF THE DAY
Lucite Tokki – “B.I.S.H.” [ Download ]
EPISODE 9: “Attack of the Chang-gwi”
Knocking sounds at the door of an out-of-the-way inn. An elderly woman opens the door to a tired-looking couple and welcomes them warmly. The dour-looking man chops some wood for the grandma innkeeper, who takes up some food to the sickly wife.
The woman is skittish and turns away from the grandma as the baby nurses, and the elderly woman interprets her wince of pain to mean that the baby is teething.
Until, of course, blood drips on the ground.
Realizing that this is no ordinary baby, the innkeeper’s eyes open in shock, and she stutters, “M-m-monster!”
Behind her, the husband raises his ax and says, “I’m sorry.” He swings the blade.
Not too far away, Hyung-do walks through a sandstorm, covered up to protect himself from the harsh winds. He’s fatigued and worn, his lips chapped from the exposure, and finally, he collapses in exhaustion.
His vision blurs out of focus, but he does see the dark outline of a figure in the distance who approaches.
When he wakes, Hyung-do finds himself in bed in a familiar-looking inn. Well, familiar for us, right down to the hatchet used for chopping wood. He makes his way down to the main room and finds the woodcutter-husband there, who explains that he found him outside unconscious, and brought him in.
Hyung-do thanks him for saving his life, and learns that this place is not far from Baekdu-san (a famous mountain located in the northeast, right on what is currently the border to North Korea). This places them in Hamgyeong Province, the significance of which is only to say that he’s a fair distance from his home base in Hanyang.
The woodcutter has taken on the position of innkeeper, but Hyung-do isn’t particularly suspicious until he hears a woman’s gasp sounding from one of the upstairs rooms. The man explains that his wife is ill, but he sighs in seemingly genuine sorrow that he doesn’t know what she suffers.
Intuition kicking in, Hyung-do’s curious and a bit unnerved, but first things first: He’s missing his identity tag and asks if it’s been seen. The innkeeper advises him to ask the man staying next door to his.
The man isn’t acting especially strange, but Hyung-do does notice blood staining the back of his hat.
Knocking on his neighbor’s door gets no answer, but it does draw out another guest, who pokes his head out of a room. Only… it’s Hyung-do’s room he’s in.
Well, isn’t that odd. Hyung-do’s bafflement increases as the man blithely goes about rearranging the furniture as though this is completely normal behavior — and then he mentions Shinmuhwe. Given that their organization is super-top-secret, this means that this man, who introduces himself as Lee Bang-hyun, is also part of this Joseon X-Files project; he’s affiliated with their Hamgyeong Province branch.
Lee directs Hyung-do to peer through the hole he’s drilled in the wall, but it turns out to be useless (unless all he really wanted was a close-up of a candle). Lee declares that he’ll have to drill another, which brings out Hyung-do’s grumpy-faced exasperation.
As they eat downstairs, Hyung-do listens to Lee’s speculations of what happened to their missing neighbor with his trademark skepticism, wearing his classic “O RLY?” face (at above left).
Lee leans in to ask pointedly how his meat soup tastes, asking “what kind of meat” he thinks it is. Hyung-do knows what he’s getting at but takes it as some kind of immature prank, retorting sarcastically, “So are you suggesting I’m eating human meat?”
But hilariously, just one moment later, Hyung-do reassesses the situation and spits out his mouthful and casts a doubtful look at the innkeeper, noting that his companion is sticking to crunchy vegetables.
Lee lays out his theory, saying that the guest next door disappeared a few days ago, prompting Hyung-do to make a sarcastic crack about digging up graves out back. Lee is on the case of a person/monster that drinks human blood, and his implication is that the innkeeper is involved.
There’s a technicality at work here — if the innkeeper is killing men and selling human meat, it’s “simply” a matter of murder and trade. The government can handle that. But if he’s somehow feeding on human blood before his victim dies, that makes him a monster, which is a matter for Shinmuhwe.
Hyung-do is skeptical of this flimsy conjecture — but, it must be noted, not skeptical enough to resume eating. The problem is that Lee’s just working on a theory with no proof. It IS strange that they hear the wheezing sound again, though neither of them has seen the sick wife.
A new party of travelers arrives in the inn, tired from weathering the sandstorm outside. There’s something odd about their behavior as well, as they whisper to each other and remain secretive about their activities. Plus, one of them has a conspicuously bandaged face, which he tries to hide by keeping his head down.
Hyung-do makes a casual comment about their appearance, asking if they’ve been in battle, but the leader deflects. Stranger still, the two subordinates check out the inn and report that nothing is amiss — and that whatever they’re looking for could not have made it here in this weather.
The leader puts his men on rotating guard duty, warning them to be alert. Curiosity piqued, Hyung-do approaches the group and speaks in a chatty tone. These men are hunters, but aside from that they won’t say anything about their business here. In fact, when one mentions that they’re coming from Baekdu-san, the other shushes him, and they advise Hyung-do to go talk to their leader if he’s curious.
Back in Hyung-do’s rented room, Lee is busy drilling another hole in the wall — oh, the jokes I could make — and this time, the view is much better. On the other hand, this actually further dissuades Hyung-do, because he sees the innkeeper giving his sick wife medicine, which suggests that all is just as the man says and they are being needlessly suspicious.
Lee sticks to his belief and tells Hyung-do about something called a chang-gwi, a type of malevolent ghost or spirit that leads you to food, or to bad deeds in a metaphorical sense (whoops, almost wrote meataphorical, which would also be apt). The story goes, if the spirit of a dead child is possessed by a cat, it becomes a chang-gwi and feeds on human blood.
Unsurprisingly, Hyung-do isn’t buying it, scoffing to even call this a proper “case.” Lee argues that he was an eyewitness and tells a story of a woman who was walking home carrying fresh beef, who felt the uneasy sensation of being watched despite seeing nobody around her. Then she looked down at the meat, and stuck there was a shaggy child, sucking on the blood.
Seeing that Hyung-do is unconvinced, Lee shows him one bit of hard evidence. Shoving the bed back, he reveals a bloodstain on the ground. How to explain that, then?
And… out digging graves they go. (Love the deadpan humor of this episode, which is as much about witty editing decisions as it is about wry commentary by Hyung-do.) They’re looking for evidence of the missing man, although they’re not sure what to expect. If the body is drained of blood, they’re dealing with the chang-gwi. But failing to find any body at all isn’t automatically good news, either, since that supports the idea that Hyung-do really WAS eating human. Lovely choices, aren’t they?
As Hyung-do digs (and Lee just sits there, shirking work — Hyung-do even calls him on it, lol), Lee shares the story of the first time he ran across this monster. It started ten years ago when he was called to investigate a cow born with seven legs. He ran into a band of savage people who killed the people living in a neighboring village for their blood, and he’s been pursuing the chang-gwi ever since.
Hyung-do grumps at doing all the dirty work himself and leaves the shovel with Lee, heading off to pee. Hilariously, Lee joins him in relieving himself — never has a pissing scene been so beautifully lit, am I right? — and they aim down into a ditch.
Let me just say: How frickin’ hysterical is it that they discover the dead body by peeing on it? (More specifically, on his face? And it doesn’t even end there, because then they have to go down and uncover the pee-spattered remains from the dirt. Oh, Korea. Will you never tire of the almighty toilet gag?)
Hyung-do recognizes the man as his disappeared neighbor, but makes a curious note: the tooth marks are small. Not like a man’s.
Meanwhile, the hunter assigned to guard duty squats in the outhouse, minding (and doing) his business, when the barrel of a dart gun pokes inside and shoots him in the back. Down he goes.
This puts the hunter team on high alert, and they accost Hyung-do and Lee the moment they enter the inn, demanding to know what they’ve been doing. Per their secretive Shinmuhwe rules, Hyung-do and Lee can’t divulge the truth so they lie about being in the outhouse (together — snerk! — because Lee was scared and wanted company — double snerk!).
The agitated leader asks if they killed the guard and fed off his blood, assuming that our Shinmuhwe guys are both chang-gwi. Conversely, the mention of blood has Hyung-do’s attention, because it means they’re aware of the monster and are looking for the same thing.
Thankfully for our guys, the situation defuses when the so-called missing guard stumbles in, a little groggy but alive and well. He explains that he’d been in the outhouse and must have fallen asleep there, and is unhurt except for a cut on his hand that probably came from the fall.
Hyung-do, on the other hand, notices that the cut looks like the work of a knife, and Lee mutters that the chang-gwi got to him.
All is not well, however, because another member of their party (the man with the bandaged face) bursts in, gasping about something he found. One of their men is dead in the stables, his throat slit.
Ignoring Lee’s warning not to mention the blood-sucking monster — since they don’t have the proof to present this as fact — Hyung-do tackles the matter head-on. He identifies himself as an investigator of the state and brings up the chang-gwi, figuring it best to share information.
The hunters are more forthcoming with their own information now, and say that they are from this province, where a few days ago they came upon an injured man (the bandaged man in the party) who’d had his whole team killed.
A noise sounds from outside, putting everyone on alert. The men all grab weapons and head outside into the dusty night, where visibility is obscured by the thick, sandy winds.
Inside, the innkeeper finds the bed empty, to his dismay — the boy who had been chained there is now gone.
All this while, Lee has been curiously silent as Hyung-do speaks with these men. Separated from the group, Hyung-do senses a presence behind him and whirls around, only to find that it’s Lee. He’s relieved, but by now we know enough to be wary of him…
The lead hunter suspects that the monster headed back inside and returns to the stable, where he finds the boy feeding from the dead body. Lighting the fuse on his gun, he aims at the boy and shoots. The boy darts away, and the bullet misses.
Not far away, one of the other men falls, attacked by some unseen person.
Inside the inn, Hyung-do steps inside the room they’ve been spying on — the sick wife’s — and sees the shackles attached to the wall, which are now empty. The mother lies in her bed, covered in bloody bruises and cuts.
A weary voice cuts in and tells Hyung-do to leave her alone, because she’s dying anyway. It’s the innkeeper, resigned to his fate and out of ideas. Hyung-do is horrified to hear that his wife has been feeding the boy her own blood all this while, but the husband asks what else he could do about it — the boy was born that way. The innkeeper begs to be let go to find his son and to escape from the hunters. Hyung-do can’t agree to that, because while he can sympathize for the man’s fatherly heart, he can’t condone that he has killed.
In the stable, the lead hunter grabs a second fuse and stealthily tracks down the boy, who has taken cover and warily watches his predator. The boy leaps straight for the hunter and flies at his head, but the gun fires midair, the bullet landing in his gut.
The boy writhes on the ground, grunting and wheezing, until a second gunshot puts him out of his misery.
The ugly deed done, the hunter staggers out of the stable… only to be stabbed himself. The man holding the dagger is Lee.
Hyung-do makes one startling observation as he examines the bite marks riddling the mother’s body — they don’t all come from the son. For instance, one set of marks is too big to come from a boy, and belong to an adult. He suspects that there’s another chang-gwi among the group, who probably freed the boy from his chains and killed the man in the stable.
The innkeeper is horrified, never suspecting additional culprits, and pleads to be allowed escape. He swears that he never killed — if he had, would his wife be in such a condition? He insists he’s innocent of the murder from ten years ago as well, and says he only came here in order to escape their hunters.
The man explains that he came from a village that witnessed many peculiarities, like a cow born with seven legs. Men came from Hanyang to investigate, then left mysteriously without a word. Shortly thereafter, a group of men wearing black clothes came and burned their village to the ground.
Hyung-do reacts to this news, recognizing what it means and realizing Shinmuhwe’s involvement. But just then, Lee’s voice cuts in, followed by a gunshot.
The father is shot in the chest and crumples to the ground. Hyung-do is outraged, explaining that the man didn’t pose a danger, but Lee corrects him to say that the danger would be to Hyung-do himself — if he found out too much, he could be putting his own life at risk.
This is all because Hyung-do revealed secrets that ought not have been revealed, which means he’s responsible for the lives that have been lost tonight. Lee speaks frankly, as though sorry to have done this but dispassionate about his duty all the same.
Lee lights his fuse for one more shot to finish off the dying man, but just as he fires, he’s fired upon. The bandaged man has shot him from across the hallway, hitting him in the arm, then charging him with a sword raised. But Lee is unperturbed — cool as you please, he points a second gun over his shoulder and fires off a series of shots, downing his attacker sight unseen. Wow, Shinmuhwe, you’re pretty badass.
It’s only now that the bandaged man reveals his identity by commenting that Lee failed to recognize the person he’d been chasing all these years — it’s him. He’s the adult chang-gwi, but he defends himself by saying he was only trying to survive.
The man falls back, dead. Hyung-do looks at Lee with indignation, calling him brutal, only to get back Lee’s response that Truth is brutal.
Lee informs Hyung-do that their work isn’t just about investigation and records — they need someone to clean up the dirt as well. Hyung-do is appalled that the “clean-up” extends as far as killing those who know too much, but Lee answers that there’s a time for everything.
As Lee turns to leave, he cautions Hyung-do that people will come by tomorrow to clean up and get rid of the evidence here. It’s best Hyung-do avoid them. And with that, he saunters off clutching his injured arm, while Hyung-do looks after him in disbelief and disillusionment.
For the first time, I have a complaint — albeit minor and ultimately not that much of a complaint — in that I thought this episode was familiar. The monster and even the setup weren’t that far off from Episode 4’s man-eating mutant boy, whose father lured men to their deaths so his son could eat them. I suspect that without the memory of that (very moving, poignant) story, this one would have packed more punch.
What mitigates that feeling of letdown, at least, is the fact that this episode actually ties into the larger mystery pretty well, and does manage to fake us out about the ending (somewhat). I thought pretty early on that we’d probably be wise not to trust Lee, and about halfway through I thought that it was clear he was going to be the baddie. It was kind of disappointing to have such a tightly plotted and complexly written show give us such a… straightforward villain.
But then it surprised me by keeping Lee who he said he was — only the twist wasn’t in his identity, but in the role he played as a member of Shinmuhwe. He contrasts with Hyung-do’s principled worldview, and despite Hyung-do’s skepticism about the paranormal, he is really an idealist. Whereas Ji Seung and Shinmuhwe are coldly, even heartlessly, logical. Their motto may as well be “By any means necessary,” which is not the way Hyung-do operates.
It’s always fascinating to see the moment that a hero (or any character) is disillusioned, as he is here — about his work, his purpose, even the cause he thought he was working for. Is Truth still noble when all manner of ugly deeds must be carried out in the preserving thereof? Will his noble, honorable self be able to continue with Shinmuhwe? Will he find his own morals being compromised? Can he reconcile himself with the cause he has found himself entangled in?
All great questions that are raised by the episode, which is why I am not more bothered by the simplicity of this particular plotline.