[Revisiting Dramas] Is Joseon X-Files still brilliant 7 years later?
Answer first: IT IS! Oh my gosh, you guys have to watch Joseon X-Files (also titled Secret Investigation Record). It was flipping amazing when it came out, and if anything, it feels even better now. I don’t know how that’s possible, but it is and I’m thrilled about it.
I was a little loath to pick this drama for this month’s theme, in that the show had left such a strong impression in my memory and I feared that a rewatch wouldn’t do it justice and might ruin one of my favorite things. But I was also wary of tackling a drama I’d remembered to be terrible, because that felt like setting myself up for failure, or at least a frustrating watch.
But this show came to mind recently, particularly as I was in the throes of a Circle-induced high; that show blew me away with its tight plot and surprisingly emotion-stirring character arcs, and as I was watching, I thought to myself, “I haven’t been this excited by a drama since Joseon X-Files. Man, I should rewatch Joseon X-Files.”
Sci-fi is one of those genres that I find absolutely riveting when done well, but isn’t a genre where I watch every offering indiscriminately (say, unlike rom-coms, where I’ll watch pretty much anything no matter the quality level). So you could say I’ve been in a sci-fi drought, where I’ve wanted to fall in love with a show but had a really hard time finding anything to do the trick. Maybe it’s because science fiction has, necessarily, more moving parts to keep in place than, say, a standard romance or slice-of-life story—more story to uphold, more need for maintaining suspense and mystery and plain old visual interest (given the prevalence of supernatural or extraterrestrial plot elements), and the more parts to juggle, the more difficult it is to ensure that every part remains high-quality. Or maybe it’s because science-fiction stories are fundamentally higher-concept and thus need to feel fresh and innovative—I’ll watch a hundred couples bickering and falling in love, but I’m not sure I’d watch a hundred alien body-snatching mystery whodunnits.
But on the flipside, when a show does pull off everything successfully, with all those moving parts working in tandem, for me it elevates the level of satisfaction, because I’m not only feeling satisfaction at a good story, but also admiration for the accomplishment of a difficult feat.
I haven’t watched Joseon X-Files since the original viewing seven years ago, and the first thing I noticed upon firing up the first episode was how well the visual quality held up. It’s remarkable, really, considering that seven years can feel like light-years in the entertainment industry: Compare the quality of, say, 2000’s All About Eve versus 2007’s Coffee Prince, or Coffee Prince against 2014’s You From Another Star. Night and day!
Joseon X-Files not only avoids looking dated to the eye, it actually looks like it could fit into the current drama landscape—the HD picture quality is sharp, the editing tight, the visuals gritty in a really appealing cinematic way. (For instance, the clothing doesn’t look costumey the way that they do in so many sageuk dramas, dirt is dirty rather than applied prettily to the face, blood spatters realistically.) Which just reinforces my belief that this show was way ahead of its time.
Side note: This drama aired before tvN began its push into weekday prime-time dramas, when most of its dramas were aired as late-night offerings (see: Harvest Villa, Once Upon a Time in Saengchori, Rude Miss Young-ae). Joseon X-Files was a Friday-night series with a midnight airtime and drew modest interest as a cult show, though not mainstream popularity. I’d been hoping to see that everyone on its production team had gone on to more success, but sadly, that hasn’t been the case: The two PDs have both continued to work in dramas, but there hasn’t been a real hit in the mix (titles include Mushin, Everybody Say Kimchi, First Wives Club, Dating Agency Cyrano). And there’s very little information available on the team of writers. Like I said, maybe they were just ahead of their time. If nothing else, I hope the lighting director went on to an illustrious career, because this has to be one of the most beautifully lit dramas I’ve seen. (Night scenes where you can actually see things! Light that creates mood and shadow!)
I’d wondered if a rewatch would reveal to me a host of flaws I’d ignored or missed seeing the first time around—perhaps I’d been so caught up in following the story initially that I missed plot holes. And admittedly, because I knew what the setup was and how our taciturn hero, a principled government official, would come to join a mysterious team that investigated unexplained phenomena popping up over Joseon, I was impatient through the introduction.
But then our hero (a beautifully grumpy Kim Ji-hoon in my favorite role for him) comes into contact with unidentified flying objects and is inducted into the X-Files team, and the story turns episodic as the team tackles a new eerie phenomenon every week, and things fell into place again.
(It helps greatly that back in the day, tvN valued tight plotting and 45-minute episodes, whereas today they would have bloated the premiere into a 90-minute spectacular, hyped it as cinematic, and taxed my patience.)
There are also some things I appreciate now, which I’d missed the first time while I was still getting my bearings in this world. For instance, now I see that this drama bears all the hallmarks of a classic underdog thriller, where one man fights against a corrupt system that seeks to cover up truths, finds himself given up as a scapegoat, and then is taken in by a rogue team (or is it?) where he is useful and needed, but not entirely sure he’s not being used. There’s a big sense of satisfaction in rooting for him to uncover the truth and retain his autonomy and sense of righteousness, without caving to the powers above him exerting pressure from all directions.
To that end, I appreciated the pipe-smoking man character in a way I probably hadn’t earlier; played enigmatically by Kim Gab-soo, he’s perhaps the most cryptic character and verging on amoral. He’s not immoral, but he’s working for a higher purpose than an immediate justice, dedicated to creating records for posterity even if they hold no usefulness in the current world. He’s kind of like that documentary producer you might scream at in nature programs to save the animals from misery, who remains stoically out of the picture.
It’s a perfect setup structurally, with Kim Ji-hoon’s skeptic paired against Im Jung-eun’s believer, working under the coldly detached leader. And once the stories settle into their episodic rhythm, the drama teases out little threads of humor and unexpected poignancy. I’d recalled that I’d cried in a particularly emotional reveal regarding one of the monsters of the week, and despite knowing what was coming ahead, found myself having the exact same reaction this time—it’s not the surprise that spurred the emotion, but the fact that the story had been crafted to resonate with our sense of what makes someone human.
I haven’t made my way through the full series yet, though I fully intend to continue—particularly to see how the complex Episode 7 holds up on rewatch. That was perhaps the series’ most ambitious storyline and it absolutely blew my mind the first time I saw it, and I’m eager to see what I can catch this time to make it even better.
Because what I’ve learned from this experience is that when something is excellent, it’s not the novelty that makes it rewarding—I think perhaps I’d placed a lot more subconscious emphasis on novelty and innovativeness than they deserved—but the quality of the storytelling, the way it touches emotions, and the skill in the execution. CG technology and picture quality may change over time, but a great narrative doesn’t go away.
Now, to schedule a Circle rewatch for 2024…