Joseon X-Files: Episode 12 (Final)
Finally, we reach the end of what I feel confident declaring one of the best shows I’ve seen in recent memory. I’ve seen a lot of dramas in the past year, and although there have been a lot of disappointments, just having one this good come along every year makes it worth it. (Last year I had two such dramas: Story of a Man and Return of Iljimae.)
The ending didn’t wrap everything up in a neat bow, and I suspect some may not be happy with the open-endedness. I’ll join you in having wished for a few more answers, but ultimately I’m too impressed with this drama to be upset. I do have some lingering questions, but they’re questions that really can’t be given concrete answers anyway. What this drama did do was raise them in an intriguing, thought-provoking way with wit and style, which is pretty remarkable in and of itself.
SONG OF THE DAY
Yellow Monsters – “아무것도 아닌것을” (It’s not anything) [ Download ]
FINAL EPISODE: “Rebirth of the Dubak God” (Part 2)
Having been led astray in the woods, Hyung-do’s teammates despair, since they have no way to save him or Ji Seung. In their distress, they don’t notice that a man watches them from a distance.
Hyung-do awakens in the cult’s lair, tied to a column and utterly helpless. The leader receives confirmation that his would-be rescue team has retreated.
With the cult’s secret artifact in her possession, the shaman sits at the altar before the frozen head of her father (never thought I’d type that sentence), praying to her predecessors who were wrongly accused and killed, promising that resurrection is near. With barely contained excitement, she cuts through the seal and opens the red box, revealing… nothing.
It’s empty. Ji Seung had, in fact, made sure to swap out boxes prior to his kidnapping. Now the shaman starts to sob, screaming in her fury.
Angered to be thus thwarted, the shaman has Hyung-do brought before her. She doesn’t get the answer she wants, however, because Hyung-do is utterly confused when his captors accuse him of messing with their artifact. He risked much, and violated laws in the process, to bring it to them. The shaman sees that he’s telling the truth, and decides to try another strategy.
As Ji Seung sleeps in his chair, the shaman creeps up behind him and places her hand at the back of his neck. She shoots electricity into his body, her face twisting in hatred. She doesn’t kill him, though it’s undoubtedly painful, because she has bigger plans in store for him.
Yoon-yi and Jang meet with Shinmuhwe’s interim leader, who warns them that Hyung-do is wanted for stealing from the official archives. Deciding that their best way into the cult is to make use of the court shaman’s apprentice, Yoon-yi paints a false tattoo on Jang’s neck to match those on the cult members. He makes his way to her chambers, disguised as a cult member disguised as a police officer.
Jang makes it a point to show the tattoo to the apprentice, who immediately understands that he’s an ally. She asks if has a message from the leader, and Jang fumbles to answer correctly. He’s not so good at this masquerade business, which gives this scene a humorous tone as he tries to maintain the ruse without giving himself away. He flubs the moment by referring to the shaman by the wrong term, but thankfully the apprentice isn’t too suspicious.
For instance, when she asks where she is supposed to meet the shaman — which Jang has no idea how to answer — he blusters, “You should already know that!” Lucky for him, she accepts that and hurries away to the cult headquarters.
Yoon-yi and Jang follow her, excited that their plan is working — but they fail to see that someone else has seen them, and that they are in turn being followed. It’s only when they’re far along the mountain trail that Jang spots their pursuer, but it’s too late. The man raises a whistle to sound an alarm.
Immediately, armed men emerge from their hiding spots, surrounding the duo, and hold them at swordpoint.
When Ji Seung comes to his senses following the electric shock, the shaman instructs him to look at her, and asks, “Do you recognize me?” He does: “Su-hee. So it’s you. Kang Yu-seok’s daughter.”
Ji Seung had spared Su-hee’s life twenty years ago, but she scoffs at it now, calling it a petty mercy to keep her alive after her father and the entire cult had been wiped out. Was it an act of pity, or did he perhaps realize that the cult had been right along? Na matter; that Dubak and her father will be revived soon, on the night when the energy in the heavens is at its peak. She has waited twenty years to avenge her father.
Ji Seung urges her to stop these “meaningless acts,” but she laughs in his face and demands the return of her artifact. By now, she has even greater leverage to use against him, because Yoon-yi and Jang are dragged into the building, as well as Hyung-do. Ji Seung may not value his own life above the artifact, but perhaps he’ll change his mind to have the lives of these three at his mercy.
Well, they say all’s fair in war (also love, but something tells me we won’t be bringing love into this argument), but still, Ji Seung finds this a low blow and accuses Su-hee of repaying his mercy with wickedness. He tells her insistently that there was nobody to blame for her father’s death.
She understands that he’s not going to hand it over, and gives the signal. A noose is slipped around Yoon-yi’s neck and her head pulled taut against a wooden beam. She screams in pain as the rope is pulled.
In a panic to save her, Hyung-do shouts to Ji Seung about divulging the artifact’s true location — is it truly so important to him that he would sacrifice Yoon-yi? With a haunted expression, Ji Seung looks at Yoon-yi crying against the rope, his inner principles fighting with his desire to save her life.
For long moments it seems he may sacrifice her, but finally, Ji Seung can’t take it and yells for them to stop, tears in his eyes.
The shaman smirks in victory, but still she holds back, not giving the signal to let go of the noose, wanting more from him. So reluctantly he gives in, telling Hyung-do to go and fetch the artifact. It’s at the temple — the one in the mountains that he visits every year.
Ji Seung hangs his head in defeat, and a flashback takes us back twenty years, when he had faced Kang Yu-seok, then a more junior government official. The cult leader had been condemned to death for inciting rebellion, and Ji Seung had tried to persuade him to admit that everything he had been saying was merely lies, in order to spare his own life and save the lives of many.
Kang had refused to renounce his beliefs, and stated that his powers began ten years ago, on the day he saw a grand light in the sky. Declaring that he has not been telling lies, he insists that he is innocent of any crime.
Ji Seung had countered that he stirred up the people an incited rebellion, but Kang argued that as the “Lightning Man,” all he had done was heal injuries and bring stopped hearts back to life. What is there to fear? Him? The citizenry?
What they fear is the unknown, Kang had said, bursting into wild laughter.
On execution day, the executioner had had trouble delivering the deathblow; his blade had stopped at Kang’s neck, where electricity had shot through the metal and paralyzed the man. Ji Seung, standing behind them, had stepped up swiftly to finish the deed with his own sword — and that’s when he felt the electricity himself.
Later, Ji Seung had sought out the monk at the temple.Realizing that Kang had been right about man most fearing the unknown, he had announced to the monk his intention to record the things they don’t understand. That’s the only way he will be able to move past fear, and to atone for his sin against the young daughter.
As he had said this to the monk, playing out in front of the temple had been young Su-hee — who had begun to discover her own power to shoot electricity through her hands, and to command metallic objects toward herself.
Hyung-do leads two cult members through the woods to the temple, hurrying because his team’s survival depends on the success of his mission. He periodically casts glances back at his guards, but it’s not a good time to attempt escape.
The cult prepares for their resurrection night, during which Dubak will be resurrected through the body of his enemy: Ji Seung. However, since Daddy Dearest’s head is on hand to be sewn onto the new vessel, they can discard his head.
With his usefulness nearing an end, Ji Seung is led outside to a noose. He bears his fate with silent dignity, although Yoon-yi and Jang struggle in vain against their ropes, understanding that he is being led to his death. It won’t occur for a while yet, though, because he is placed on a block of ice, ensuring that his strangling will be long and slow as it melts in the sun.
Arriving at the temple, Hyung-do begins searching for the artifact’s hiding place. Recognition sparks when he sees the monk’s gourd — that wooden sphere that monks strike in rhythmic chants. There’s a hole in its side, revealing a glint of something metallic inside. But Hyung-do acts casual, not immediately alerting the guards as he takes a closer look.
One of his captors slowly reaches for his sword behind Hyung-do’s back, but his shadow gives him away, and Hyung-do whirls around in time to avoid injury. He knocks him out with a blow to the head, then turns to deal with the second guard, who comes at him with a sword.
Hyung-do evades, managing to unarm him and knock him to the ground. It’s only then that he sees the gourd that has split open, revealing the metal ball lodged in the center. He recognizes this object, having seen several of them up close in Episodes 1 and 2 — first at the deserted village, then on the mountaintop where they whizzed by to join the strange ship in the sky, and then when it lodged itself into that hunter’s chest and killed him with an electric charge. He recalls how the man had shot the ball, which was the lifeless hunk of metal Ji Seung had pretended not to recognize on his first official meeting with Hyung-do.
Leaving the guards unconscious at the temple, Hyung-do races back with the ball tucked in his sleeve. Briefly changing his mind, Hyung-do turns and starts on another path — is he heading away? Fighting his exhaustion, Hyung-do powers through and keeps running.
Ji Seung spends the day awaiting his doom on his icy pedestal, forced up on his tiptoes as the block gradually shrinks. The cult members anxiously await Hyung-do’s return, swearing in frustration to see that their promised storm is already beginning to brew — they can’t proceed with the resurrection without their artifact, and they’re running out of time.
Finally, Hyung-do bursts through the gates and holds up the ball, later than intended but here after all. He demands Ji Seung’s release before handing over the ball, while the cult demands just the opposite. Since neither side trusts the other, they find themselves at a standstill, the quickly approaching storm infusing the exchange with added urgency.
Hyung-do draws out a gun — ah, the thing he must have turned back for — and points it at the metal ball like a robber taking a hostage. The cult members scoff at his threat to shoot their precious artifact if they don’t release Ji Seung first, and the man closest to Hyung-do advances to claim the ball by force. Hyung-do shoots him without a moment of hesitation.
That momentarily shocks the man, but the leader points out that he’ll have to reload the gun. The gang advances again, albeit more cautiously this time. Yet Hyung-do smirks and tosses the gun away — and then produces a second gun. He shoots the man in front, and now the cult baddies are genuinely worried.
The gang backs away fearfully when Hyung-do produces his third gun, which he wields while making his way to Ji Seung, whom he releases from his noose. And then the thunderstorm breaks.
Still inside, Yoon-yi and Jang struggle against their ropes. With their backs to each other, they are able to free each other, and make their way outside.
The shaman retrieves her father’s head from its box, announcing that the time has come, and carries it outside, she finds her men engaged in standoff. Hyung-do’s advantage is slowly slipping away as the cult gang’s confidence grows, while his diminishes. Ji Seung is conscious but weak, and can offer no help.
The shaman orders her men to retrieve the artifact, urging them not to fear death because they will be revived. With that, her Number 2 gives a battle cry and starts to attack. Hyung-do shoots him.
He has used his last gun, but he grabs the man’s sword and threatens to smash the artifact to pieces. The men stay back warily, but the shaman advances steadily. Registering the intensity of her gaze, Hyung-do asks incredulously, “Do you really believe in resurrection?”
Ji Seung realizes too late what the shaman means to do when she reaches up to touch Hyung-do’s sword with her bare hands — he yells a warning, but it’s no use. The shaman’s hands shoot electricity into the blade and into Hyung-do, who tries to hang on as long as he can, finally letting go and falling to his knees in pain.
Deciding to rid herself of the pesky troublemaker, the shaman grabs Hyung-do’s sword. She swings it at Hyung-do in a downward slash…
At the last moment, he reaches up to block the blade’s path — with the alien ball. Both metallic objects spark, conducting the current along its surface and into Hyung-do. Still, he refuses to let go and powers through the agony.
Behind everyone, Yoon-yi and Jang creep out of the building quietly, and knock down one cult member from behind. They’re outnumbered but at least they’re armed, and start fighting from the rear. Yoon-yi loses her sword and a man holds his blade up to her neck…
But she’s spared as the secondary battle pauses while the primary one — between the shaman and Hyung-do — escalates.
The light grows between the metallic objects, and is such a surprising sight that everybody stops fighting as they watch the showdown in shock and awe. And then, an even greater light emerges, this time coming from above. It’s the great vessel in the sky, arriving as though summoned.
The white light blinds everyone for long moments, transfixing everyone, and then disappears with a loud whoosh! Just as it did that day atop the five-peaked mountain. And when the scene returns to normal, Hyung-do is no longer there.
We fade away from the scene, and when we resume, we pick up with Jang walking through the marketplace. It’s an ordinary day, but he pauses to cast a long, saddened look up into the sky. And then he calls himself back to normal life, continuing onward with a happy smile to regard his food purchases for the day.
Ji Seung enters the record hall to add another sealed file into his vault of secrets. He lingers there for a moment, taking out an identity tag with a sorrowful expression. The tag is Kim Hyung-do’s… which he can only have if Hyung-do is dead.
And yet, perhaps he’s not entirely dead… Elsewhere, we join Hyung-do as he opens his eyes in the sunlight, as though he’s just becoming aware of his surroundings.
Hyung-do looks along the deserted beach, his body the only one dotting the long expanse of sand.
And then, turning his head, another face becomes visible in the mist. Yoon-yi stands a short distance away, and he calls out her name.
She smiles at him and says, “I knew you would come. Do you believe in rebirth of the dead?” (The words she uses connotes that she’s really asking him, “Now will you believe in rebirth?” as though asking him to believe.)
His reply is in keeping with the logical Hyung-do we have come to expect:
Hyung-do “Might not the truth hidden in those library records be merely illusions created by our own desires? However, our lives have not for one moment been illusions — because it is something precious that I am given only once. I will live not for those illusions but for reality.”
A wise answer, or perhaps more of a decision. Yoon-yi understands the implication, and asks, “So will you leave this place?”
He looks out at sea, and this scene is perhaps just as eloquent in its pregnant pauses as it is in its words. Hyung-do answers, “I saw it.” Yoon-yi asks, “What did you see?” He replies, “I know… who you are.”
Facing her now, Hyung-do walks toward Yoon-yi, closing the gap between them. He stops when he’s an arm’s distance away, and they both turn to look out at the sea.
The intense whiteness washes over them, and Yoon-yi disappears into the light, so that when Hyung-do turns back to face her again, he’s finds that he’s alone.
First, the ending:
What does it mean? Is it an allusion to rebirth, just as the episode was about spiritual rebirth? Is the beach a representation of the afterlife, or maybe some spiritual in-between? Are he and Yoon-yi from different dimensions? And most pressingly, did Hyung-do die?
Honestly, I don’t think there are solid, definitive answers, and I’m not even sure that the writers intended that. The finale didn’t wrap everything up in a pat way, and I expected as much because that has been the pattern in the individual episodes: the mystery was solved in one sense, but often it opened the door to an even greater mystery. Which is in keeping with the spirit of the original X-Files, a show I went back and started watching after beginning this one.
Speaking of which: At the outset, I’d wondered if Joseon X-Files (aka Secret Book aka Secret Investigation Record) would be too much of a ripoff of the X-Files concept, and you can’t deny the obvious inspiration and similarities. But the whole Joseon part of it? That’s a hugely compelling part of this drama, because it imbues the paranormal question with added significance, back in a time when questioning the official government line was tantamount to suicide.
But back to the ending. At first I was left puzzling over what it meant, but as is the case with a lot of the episodes, the more I think about it, the more I like it, and am even moved by it.
Hyung-do is taken from his world and seemingly “awakens” on the beach — not from sleep, but as in awareness. He squints, looks around, and finds himself in this strange place. Is it real? If he’s the one who died, why is Yoon-yi also here? Is she here to guide him to the next dimension, or to send him off? One likely explanation is that he has been plucked from his reality into some in-between state, which I don’t mean in a metaphorical sense (i.e., purgatory) but in an actual sense given the UFO’s appearance and departure. Yet I also think there’s room for interpretations of other kinds as well.
He has spent the series battling between the physical truth and this hazy, confusing Unknown Truth out there that Ji Seung is set on pursuing. In an early episode, just after he has failed to save his teacher and is drinking in depression, Jang offers him up some startlingly wise advice: that the “truth” is not as important as reality. Even if the dead governor’s words were true, if everybody believes him to be a traitorous insurgent, that is the reality that matters.
Ji Seung occupies the other end of the spectrum, always choosing that elusive, eternal, absolute Truth. He’s not so cold and principled that he doesn’t falter at times, because he cares for Yoon-yi enough to cave for a moment, but ultimately he sides with the greater truth. He says that uncovering the unknown is the way to defeat man’s fear of it, and is therefore the way to defeat the ugly weakness of human nature that drives man to hurt his fellow man. Perhaps in that sense he’s the noblest of them all, because he wants to get to the root of the problem, and is willing to make smaller sacrifices in pursuit of the greater good.
I don’t argue that Ji Seung’s is the right way, because that line of thinking can lead us down some slippery slopes; I just point out that Hyung-do makes the opposite decision, to do good in his own life. That he can’t be sure of that greater Truth out there, and what if it turns out that he’s been pursuing a falsity all this while? No, he chooses to act for what he values precious, his reality.
So Hyung-do chooses life over Truth. Or rather, he decides that more important than Truth is living his life with meaning.
In short, we give our lives meaning. We decide what we value, and we fight for that.
That’s why I believe that the beach is where he parts ways with Yoon-yi and Ji Seung — physically, sure, but also ideologically. Maybe you can see it as akin to taking the blue pill and returning home to the familiar rather than pursuing the big black vastness out there. But I think it’s a bit nobler than that, because he makes his choice with open eyes: perhaps he isn’t convinced that Ji Seung’s ends-justify-the-means outlook is the way that gives his life most meaning. So Yoon-yi, on the side of Truth, goes back to wherever she was. After briefly sharing the same plane of existence with each other (as they did in New Land), they’re off pursuing their separate truths.
At least, that’s how I see it. For now. Other interpretations welcome!
That sort of takes care of the question of who Yoon-yi is. I hadn’t initially thought of the New Land episodes (7 & 8 ) beyond the plot level, but it sort of fits with the overall message, doesn’t it? New Land Yoon-yi tells Hyung-do, as she ushers him back to his own reality, that she cannot go with him but that perhaps they might meet again someday. They seem destined to cross each other’s paths in various “realities,” but not to stay together.
I read a Korean blog where the writer wondered if Hyung-do were destined to keep being “reborn,” and that things would repeat. I’m not sure I subscribe to that theory, but it’s an interesting one to consider, particularly since rebirth is such a big theme.
In that way, I love that the drama went out on a message rather than a plot. Because I’m not sure that there’s a way that the plot of an X-Files type story — this one, or any other — could be resolved to satisfaction. It was enough for me to see that there was an overarching theme, and to admire the way that we gradually saw how the seemingly disparate plots were linked together.
For instance, the mark of Dubak-gyo: We saw it in the haunted house in the red talisman dating back to the Goryeo era, as well as painted on the wall underneath the mural of the many-armed god. (It’s not the main large circular painting, but off in the corner.) It’s also the mark in the prophet’s den, the pattern that indicated where to find Hyung-do when he was lost in the well, after he’d made his trip back from New Land.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that a tiny part of me holds out hope for a season 2, which isn’t SO outlandish because it’s a cable show, and generally cable dramas are more likely to produce multiple seasons (see: Rude Miss Young-ae, Chosun Police). But with Kim Ji-hoon off to the army for two years, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
I’ve liked Kim Ji-hoon for a while, since seeing him first in the underrated 2007 drama Flowers For My Life, after which he acted in a string of dramas playing good-looking but somewhat flat characters (Golden Age of the Daughter-in-Law, Love & Marriage). He didn’t blow me away here, but I do think he was solid in the role, and it’s the best I’ve seen him act. His dry sense of humor and his gruff, sorta-stodgy air really worked with Hyung-do’s straitlaced personality.
This is also my first time seeing Im Jung-eun act, and even though the romance angle was given almost no time at all to play out, I loved the relationship between the two characters, and the unspoken bond that sprung up between them. It’s not a love story; their affection, or however they choose to define it, is one more thread connecting them, but it doesn’t take the fore in this story. There are bigger decisions to make and realities to pursue.
It’s been a while since I’ve watched a drama that’s been so well-written and -executed — often dramas can be entertaining and addictive without being written strongly — so I’m happy to have found one in Joseon X-Files, and a little sad to let it go.