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[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…

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I cannot believe that it has been 7 years! And yes, this is one drama that will stand up over time. I think there was only one episode that was a little weaker (the 'male pregnancies') even if it was entertaining, and the cast was very good. I has made me long for better, starring roles for Kim Ji-hoon.

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SEVEN years, seems like it was only yesterday...

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This has been on my to-watch list for so long, maybe it's just the thing to fill the hole left by Circle.

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I desperately wanted to watch it, but the shakycam directing made me motion sick and I couldn't watch more than half an ep without having to lie down and shut my eyes. Frustrating, because I heard it's great!

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This has been on my watch list for a while. This post has renewed my interest. :)

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Oh my god, the screenshots look like the movie Duelist, my favorite movie of all times (it's a 2005 movie starring Kang Dong-won and Ha Ji-won). Is it just my impression?
Thank you for the article javabeans! now I basically want to see this drama as soon as possible xD

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There should be a 'save to collection' button, so I don't forget to watch this drama later on. JB's excitement completely got into me there. ? And a show where even the costume and lighting directors managed to do something so remarkable? Now I have to watch it for sure. ?

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Joseon X-files is still on my top 10 list after all these years. Circle didn't put a dent on it. It reminds me of good it was.

Like you I'm a bit sad that those involved in the drama didn't get opportunities for better projects. The two main writers and their 5 assistants, the 2 directors, Kim Ji-hoon and Im Jung-eun...
I don't ever worry about our pipe smoker Kim Gab-soo. He has made his mark in this industry for his career to last till retirement.

I think this genre is still new and it'll take a while for viewers to accept or try it especially the older generation who like their sageuks grounded in realism or history related

The ratings gets a little higher on the last one so I hope they'll keep making more.

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Gaahh. I'm both really happy and excited about this post, and...just a little bit miffed. I was revving up to re-watch this drama, in order to write about it, but now that Javabeans has already done so, I'll have to challenge myself with another drama. I chose Joseon X-Files mainly because I wanted to put it on people's radar again, cos it really is a drama that fully inhabits the phrase, "underrated gem." And like a gem that hasn't been unearthed, it takes much digging to find, and earnest brushing away of encasing dirt and debris, to discover just how precious and rare it is.

I only watched it for the first time 3 to 4 years earlier, having read its rating on Dramabeans, so it hasn't been the same 7-year stretch for me as it has been for Javabeans. And several months ago, I re-watched just the first episode--fully intending, might I add, to watch the entire series, but not getting around to it in the end--so I can fully testify to Javabean's claim that it does not in any way look or feel outdated. The lighting director did an amazing job, so much so that I would say it is one of the most beautiful dramas to look at, at least for me.

Though I didn't manage to re-watch the whole series as planned, I feel strongly that it would hold up to a second viewing, despite one's knowledge of how the files solve themselves (or don't). Thanks again to JB for bringing this drama to my attention so many years ago, as well as for highlighting it again now!

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Lol, well, I was just gonna write that now I hope someone will do a rewatch post on episode 7 alone. I could discuss that single episode for hours. And definitely feel like watching it again now.

I did, in fact, rewatch the whole series a few months back when JB mentioned it in her Top Ten and so this post couldn't be more perfectly timed for me!

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I'm so impressed that you can write a post like this and not include any major spoilers =P
Definitely going on my to-watch list!

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such a great show. glad to hear you're re-watching it, had recent thoughts about it, as well. would love to get your updated thoughts on episode 7 -- what a complex, masterfully done story.

spoiler...

I still feel that some of the poignancy comes from seeing Im Jung Eun's character in the time flip sequences, since I have the feeling that she's coming from a place after the ending of the series as a whole, filled with longing to see KJH's character again and that's part of what triggers his getting stuck in that world, until she lets go. A bittersweet ending of that episode, and the series, in many ways.

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Thanks JB!

I've enjoyed the US series X-Files like a crazy anti-conspiracist (yes, I made up this word) and your re-visit watch review has made me decide that I must taken on the Joseon version as well.

You say get a tight script, a mystery a week, (with an overall arc?), a believer and a skeptic and a cigar-smoking man as well? I'm sold!!! ?

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I watched Joseon X-files a long time ago so my memories of it are very vague but the one thing I remembered vividly was one of the opening scenes involving rain drops. It was one of the most beautifully shot scenes in K-drama history (seriously in HD quality it was at an awe-inspiring level). I agree wholeheartedly when you say it's so ahead of its time that it won't look dated even when compared to today's standards.

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Will give this a watch. I struggle to watch kdramas that aired pre-2014 which is weird since I started watching dramas in 2012 and I can easily breeze through American sitcoms from the 80s. There's something about the camera quality and clothes that always puts me off. But I am willing to give this a try.

"(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.)" --> You had me at 45 minutes. Idk why current dramas need to be so long when there's a few unnecessary scenes that can easily be cut out. If all dramas were 45 minutes it'd be a lot easier to watch. But those 90 minutes Goblin episodes were a cinematic masterpiece.

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I feel ya. I'm such an HD elitist. It's prevented me from watching older dramas that I know are good because it's so hard to find them in good quality. The story has to be good enough to distract from the fact that it looks like it was filmed with a potato ?

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I feel you, I can't watch older drama pre 2000. not because of the camera or bad CG. merely their fashion is so odd to me. i can watch drama around 2000 onwards. heck because the fashion is no longer i find it odd haha.

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If they can cut all the product placement scenes in Goblin for example how many minutes can be saved??

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Thank you for this! I'd been interested in seeing this show but couldn't find it anywhere. I'll look again. It sounds amazing (and if those screenshots are anything to go by, it's also beautiful to look at).

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It's also being called as Secret Investigation Record. ?

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i haven't watched it yet but reading this post makes me want to give it a try since i'm in saeguk mode on right now hehe and it's been a while i don't watch retaled to sci-fi
thank you @javabeans for sharing ?

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What a good timing. I'm planning to re-watch it this weekend (maybe tomorrow). I really really love this drama.? and Kim Ji Hoonnnn... I wish he will do more sageuk.

It is OTT, I hope sageuk nowadays will be more creative and exploring more. Not necessary to be a scifi, but try to have a wider scope. If in one year you have 5 sageuk, and 3 of them are all heavy on romance and fight to get the throne..it is boring because basically it is about more or less the similar thing, the only difference one probably is better executed from another one. Among all genre, I'm worried more about this genre. I hope jTBC & tvN will do this genre more often & hopefully will offer us more instead of re-cycling the same thing over & over again.

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I had to point this out: Coffees Prince is way better in quality (and I'm talking about production values because narrative and other things...YFAS doesn't hold a candle in that regard) than YFAS.

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To be honest, I never heard of this drama until I joined DB. Maybe because I was not a fan of saeguk drama before and whenever there's news about saeguk drama, I didn't bother to read what's all about.
Anyway, a lot of beanies seem to love this drama, and it's on my watchlist right now! I wish I've time to binge-watching this drama.

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My first thought at seeing the theme of the month was Joseon X-Files! (Especially since I recently binge-rewatched Flower Boy Next Door and kept thinking about how I wish Kim Ji-hoon had done more decent projects.) But then I remembered how much JB loved this show and I figured there was about an 80% chance that you'd do it instead.

Scifi is an especially tricky genre in that a lot of times the things that seem mind-blowing or forward-thinking can end up seeming really silly and outdated a few years down the line. I think one of the strengths of Joseon X-Files is that there are no gadgets or futuristic theories or highly advanced aliens. Things are just...weird. Extremely weird. And instead of the writers spending all their time trying to explain every little thing that we see, they mostly just let the audience figure things out (or not) themselves. Not everything gets or even needs an explanation, because that's not really the point of the show.

Ugh, I don't have time to rewatch this on top of everything else! I need two (or three or four) of me!

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This drama has long been on my to-watch list too, seeing as how JB has often recommended it and has mentioned in numerous occassions that it is one of her (if not the most) favorite show. Now this has made me wanna watch it sooner, which I think I will! ^^

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I began watching it last week and as a X-Files fan I'm not disappointed !

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moral of the story- time flies! and it will continue to do so! and there's nothing you can do about it except maybe revisit an older drama and in a way revisit your own life's past. :D

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Re-watching this drama now! Although I just finished 1st epi only for now lol. Come join me, beanies!

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I read this post earlier today and decided to give it a try. I'm on episode 3 and it's really good so far. Then again I never watched x-files. But I don't know whT to watch now that Secret Forest and 7 Day Queen are done. ???so I thought I'd try something different! Yeah!
I'm watching along with you @sera the ms temper!!!

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hi which website u use to watch? i cant find it online :( and viki/dramafever doesnt work in my country

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One of my all time favorite dramas! Hard to believe it's been that long.

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definitely one of my favorites as well. i wish there were more of these type of dramas

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This was one of the first Korean dramas I ever watched. If I remember correctly, I wasn't impressed and hooked until episode 5?, maybe? Anyway, I also remember it fondly, especially Kim Ji Hoon's intelligent performance. I wanted maybe another episode, not 20, just one more. Now that Forest of Secrets is over, and I'm feeling lost, I'll try a rewatch.

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I love this new revisit feature - there are so many k-dramas I want to catch up on but I'm afraid the older ones just won't be as good watching them now. Thanks for the confirmation!

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I think you mistyped Im Jung-Eun as Im Joo-Eun

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So where can I watch this show?

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Thank u Javabeans!

Since i kinda fell in "luf" with Kim Ji Hoon in "Flower Boys next door" (i so badly wanted Oh Jin Rak to get the girl!) - and watching him currently as a kinda grumpy brother to Ji Hyun Woo in "Bad Thieves, Good Thieves" - i will start to watch this drama for him!

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@peridot We should watch!

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time to rewatch joseon x files hehe thanks javabeans!!

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This show was a trip. Wish they would make another like that.

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Thank you, JB! I'm off to watch it now...found it on DramaFever as Secret Investigation Record. Also, what you said is so true: Everything begins with a story following an idea. And that story must then be WRITTEN for it to come to life with actors, directors, cinematographers....the entire staff gets behind the story and makes it happen. Writers are persistently undervalued, and it always surprises me, especially in the Hollywood community.

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Yes!! I was just thinking about this show a couple of weeks ago. I really need to dig out my old HD with it saved...

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Thanks for the recommendation and for reminding me that this is on my list of dramas to watch. Thanks also for the alternative name which hopefully means I CAN get to watch it! :)

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