Joseon Exorcist: Episode 1
It’s here, but also gone. Joseon Exorcist premiered this week as an ambitious saguek embedding evil and gory spirits into a fictional retelling of history. We meet the royal family cursed with the presence of evil spirits threatening to destroy Joseon, and we’re also introduced to characters unfamiliar to history — exorcists and of course, the demons. While the inaccuracies in a historical fiction are a given, the liberties taken with this version seemed to have landed poorly, to put it mildly.
Though the show is now cancelled, we’re still recapping the first episode as a nod to sageuks, in hopes that the sageuk trend will stay strong and make their long-awaited comeback. Sorry to see you go so soon.
Entering an ominous castle, King TAEJONG ( Kam Woo-sung) leads his troops through a crowd of entranced commoners. The commoners suddenly break out of the trance and contort into zombie-like demons. King Taejong orders his men to slay the demons, and a Spanish priest among his troops exorcises them.
After the bloody battle, the troops move the demon corpses, covered in their blue blood. The human survivors come out of hiding and bow down to King Taejong in gratitude. Among the crowd, King Taejong spots his dead father, dressed in white. His father calls out to him as Bang-won (King Taejong’s birth name), and despite his advisor’s warning about the hallucination, the king insists on the presence of his father.
The late King Taejo reaches out his bloody hand and tells his son that this is the blood of his younger brother, Yi Bang-seok (known to be King Taejo’s favored son). The late king laughs hysterically, and King Taejong curses the demon for scorning his father. He slays what he thinks is a demon, but the red blood on his sword indicates that he’s just killed an innocent man.
The hallucination of the late king returns, blaming King Taejong for the death of his younger brother. King Taejong continues his killing spree, and the priests recites “Our Father” as a plea. After beheading innocent civilians that he mistakes for his father, King Taejong asserts that he killed the “saengshi” (zombie-like demons) to save Joseon.
Ten years later, Prince CHUNGNYEONG (Jang Dong-yoon), son of King Taejong (and later known as King Sejong), rides with his entourage toward the Ming border to meet with foreigners. As he dismounts, his foot gets stuck in the saddle, and his clumsy fall and recovery completely undermine the stern face he puts on afterwards.
At the royal palace, Prince KANGNYEONG (Moon Woo-jin), the youngest son of King Taejong, prepares to hunt with his hawk and wishes his older brothers were around to judge his training. The released hawk immediately identifies prey, and Prince Kang-nyeong orders his guards to retrieve the hunted prey.
The guards follow orders, and after sounds of fighting, one guard reappears grasping his bloody neck. Behind the dying guard, a demon emerges and ruthlessly stomps on the guard’s head. Prince Kang-nyeong stands frozen in fear as the demon slays the guards and crushes the skulls of his servants.
His eunuchs, the last line of defense, sacrifice themselves, and the demon literally sucks the life out of one of them. Prince Kang-nyeong finally comes to his senses and runs for his life. He trips and crawls back in fear as the demon quickly approaches him.
Meanwhile, oldest brother Crown Prince YANGNYEONG (Park Sung-hoon) starts to get steamy with his concubine, EO-RI (Lee Yubi), when he’s interrupted by his father-in-law, Minister Han Jung-heon. Annoyed and intoxicated, Yangnyeong accuses Minister Han of monitoring him, but the ministers deliver chilling news about a monster village.
The ministers describe these monsters as dead bodies that are still alive, known as “saengshi.” The bodies feed on other humans, who then transform into saengshi. This spread caused the death and disappearance of a whole village.
Back at the palace, King Taejong shoots arrows at the saengshi approaching his youngest son, Prince Kangnyeong. The saengshi dies and collapses onto the prince, and with its last bit of life, the saengshi scratches the prince’s hand. King Taejong rushes to Kangnyeong and looks grim when he discovers the scratch. He orders his guard to make sure this incident remains secret.
Prince Yangnyeong looks further intrigued by the ministers’ talk about the saengshi and learns that his younger brother, Prince Chungnyeong, was sent on a mission to uncover more about the mysterious saengshi. A disturbance brings Prince Chungnyeong outside the gate, where he finds palanquin bearers struggling to lift the heavy palanquin and claiming that it keeps getting heavier.
Yangnyeong learns that the woman and newborn child inside the palanquin are coming from the village next to the monster-infested village. He tries to approach the palanquin, but a hunchbacked loyal servant blocks him. He’s also discouraged by the ministers to force open the palanquin because of the woman’s relation to Lord Ha, a political ally, but then, he notices blood dripping from palanquin.
Before Yangnyeong can open the palanquin, a guard from the royal palace interrupts and delivers the Queen’s urgent summon back to the palace. The king is beheading Prince Kangnyeong. Yangnyeong orders his soldiers to hold the palanquin and escort Eo-ri back home while he visits the palace.
Queen Won-gyeong blocks King Taejong from beheading their youngest son, insisting that Kangnyeong is not a saengshi. Taejong orders his son to show the scratches on his hand, and Kangnyeong claims that they were from his hawk. The queen begs the king to save Kangnyeong, at least until Chungnyeong returns with the exorcists, and King Taejong finally yields.
Prince Yangnyeong greets his father, and King Taejong smells the alcohol on him. Disapproving of his son, King Taejong calls Yangnyeong pathetic for spending his time drinking rather than protecting the fortress. He reveals that the saengshi soldier that attacked Kangnyeong entered the palace through the gate Yangnyeong was supposed to be guarding.
Yangnyeong blames King Taejong for keeping him in the dark about saengshi and says that he’s entitled to hear this information first as the heir to the throne. He’s clearly bitter that his younger brother received this security information before him, but King Taejong responds that he’s entitled to choose who he shares this information with.
After his father leaves, an angry Yangnyeong orders his guard to track down who opened the gate to the saengshi soldier. He vows to punish all the soldiers who tarnished his reputation.
Prince Chungnyeong and his guard, JI-GYEOM (Oh Eui-shik), meet with the foreign guests, a priest and the Latin interpreter, Marco. Chungnyeong explains the emergency with the saengshi and their vitality despite being dead. Marco seems familiar with the demons but doesn’t seem to be in a rush to translate this to the priest.
Marco and guard Ji-gyeom are amusing adversaries, sizing each other up and figuring out who’s got the upper hand. Marco wins this bluff with the argument that the priest was summoned as a royal guest of the king. With the upper hand, Marco makes his first stop at the gisaeng house. Ha!
At the royal palace, Prince Kangnyeong is tied up in the ice chest and yells for his mother and brother. King Taejong confirms with his advisor that no one else in the palace witnessed the saengshi incident and seems concerned with the new saengshi outbreak. The advisor urges the king to kill Kangnyeong to prevent a potential outbreak in Hanyang, but the king decides to wait until Chungnyeong returns with the exorcist.
Chungnyeong is in no rush to return to the palace, as he’s entertaining his exorcist guests at the gisaeng house. Ji-gyeom suspects that the guests are frauds, seeing their gluttony and preference to visit a gisaeng house. He worries about Chungnyeong ruining his image, but Chungnyeong says that gisaeng relations run in his blood, citing an ancestor who ran away with a gisaeng.
Chungnyeong lightly considers learning how to enjoy a gisaeng house experience, since he won’t be inheriting the throne anyway. He jokingly asks Ji-gyeom to teach him how to play at a gisaeng house, but it’s both of their first times there.
Outside, Chungnyeong recalls receiving the order from his father to escort the exorcists. Covered in blue blood, they had just battled the saengshi, and King Taejong was depending on the exorcists to provide answers to this inhuman condition.
Marco stuffs his face with all of the food and then asks for the head gisaeng. Chungnyeong nods to his soldier to follow this request, but when the soldier enters the gisaeng room, he finds them all unconscious. He hears a struggle behind a curtain and unveils those behind it.
At the palace, a shaman, MOO-HWA (Jung Hye-sung) conducts a ritual for Prince Kangnyeong, and we see flashes of a dark prince, almost like an alter ego. At the end of the ritual, Moo-hwa holds the princes face and asks, “Who is it?”
While Marco waits for the head gisaeng to arrive, Chungnyeong learns more about the potential source of the demonic plague. The exorcist priest presumes that the spirits from the West have caused the demon transformations, and Chungnyeong looks hopeful about finding a cure to the infected village.
Inpatient Marco barges outside to look for the gisaeng, and he finds two gisaengs, except one is sucking the blood out of another. Ack! I knew it was too quiet. The priest begins his exorcism, and the demon gisaeng squirms in pain. Chungnyeong and Ji-gyeom hold the gisaeng back as the priest continues his prayers, and the blue veins seem to subside.
Just when the gisaeng seems defeated, it comes back roaring and lashes out at the priest. Marco cowardly hides under the table while Ji-gyeom and Chungnyeong try to fight the demon. The gisaeng pins Chungnyeong to the wall strangling his throat, and he looks done for until someone beheads the gisaeng.
Chungnyeong holds the giseang’s head in shock and meets his two saviors, commoners who seem familiar with the saengshi. He chastises them for killing someone who could be saved, but they’re not convinced. One of his saviors punches him and carries him out. Ji-gyeom gets up just in time to chase after them.
King Taejong interrupts the shaman’s ceremony for Prince Kangnyeong and dismisses the shaman. The queen insists that Moo-hwa is a reliable royal shaman, but King Taejong asserts that this demon cannot be extracted with the royal shaman’s powers. He orders the queen to wait for Chungnyeong and retreat to her quarters, leaving fearful Kangnyeong alone once more.
As he leaves the ceremony, King Taejong confirms with his advisor that the remaining casualties were beheaded, burned, and buried away from the palace. He also orders the ministers to close all the gates to the palace and only let in Chungnyeong when he returns. Without further explanation, King Taejong simply says that the fate of Joseon depends on them and heads off to guard the palace.
Back at the gisaeng house, Chungnyeong meets the ragtag group of commoners who saved him from the saengshi at the gisaeng house. They mistake him for Wang Yoo, the illegitimate child of Goryeo’s last king. Ji-gyeom announces that Chungnyeong is a royal prince, but the commoners refuse to believe that the king would let his precious son fight the monstrous demons.
Chungnyeong acknowledges the doubt and honestly shares that he’s a disposable son. As the third son with two superior older brothers — the eldest as the king’s successor and a noble second eldest brother — he’s easily used and discarded. He apologizes that he’s not the person they’re looking for, and they confirm that the prince looks nothing like their sketch of Wang Yoo.
They decide to call it even, and the prince thanks the commoners for saving their lives. Chungnyeong and Ji-gyeom join the priest in his inspection of the dead bodies, and one of the commoners, BYEO-RI (Kim Dong-joon) observes the priests curiously.
Prince Yangnyeong visits his youngest brother inside the ice chest and looks alarmed by the treatment. Kangnyeong whimpers that he’s scared, and Yangnyeong promises to save him. He urgently leaves at the news about an incident at the gate he guards, and the doors close on the ice chest containing Kangnyeong.
The priest performs an exorcism on Chungnyeong’s solider, who’s still alive and transforming into a demon. Strapped to the table, the solider contorts at the priest’s anointment and prayers. When demanded to reveal himself, the spirit speaks through the soldier, “We are one but ten, one hundred but one thousand.” The priest demands a name, and the spirit responds, “We are the soldiers of Azazel.”
When Yangnyeong opens the gate to his post, he finds the aftermath of a massacre. He looks frightened by the piles of corpses and cautiously approaches a snarling sound. He finds the hunchbacked servant sucking the blood out of a recently killed human. Yangnyeong slays the demon, which leaves a stain of blue blood on his sword.
Then, Yangnyeong notices that the palanquin is empty, where the suspicious woman had been hidden. He looks ominously at the open gate, and his worst fears come true. We see the palanquin woman feed on a noble and emerge from the shadows.
The exorcism ends with a terrifying burst of wind that blows into the room, and the exorcised soldier goes limp. Chungnyeong asks the priest who Azazel is and learns that Azazel is a Western spirit. He wonders how this spirit infiltrated Joseon, and the priest says that this is question for his grandfather and his father, the king.
King Taejong leads his troops to defend Joseon while his sons, Prince Yangnyeong and Prince Chungnyeong, start to discover the truth behind this plague.
When I first saw the promos for this show, I thought this was going to be a Kingdom rip-off, which was reinforced when I saw that the show was rated 19+. Mainstream broadcasters don’t do that often, so I was hoping to see something visually comparable to the shock factor of Kingdom. Though the cinematography feels inferior to the original zombie sageuk, the shock factor of the brutal demon attacks did not disappoint, and I was okay with this show being the younger sibling of the original. The blue blood gave me flashbacks of Arthdal Chronicals, and I thought (pre-cancellation) that this show would probably end up more like Arthdal: high budget, mediocre results.
I generally liked the first episode as an introduction to the world and the main characters, though I found the emphasis on Western exorcism curious. The ending clarified why this Western priest was necessary — a problem introduced by the West warrants a resolution by the West — while also launching the show in an interesting direction. The priest implied that the rulers of Joseon were somehow responsible for the introduction of this evil Western spirit. This implication encourages Prince Chungnyeong to examine history, which is ironic, considering the position the drama is in now.
The production costs and ambitions must have been very high, so the cancellation of this show is a shame. The historical inaccuracies and props may have flown under the radar, had this been a different time when profuse apologies may have salvaged the show from being completely scrapped. The production team and cast are pouring out their apologies this week, and I feel bad for their tough luck. This is a hard way to learn a lesson about cultural sensitivities around history, political relations, and poor timing. Unfortunately, the younger sibling of the OG zombie saguek turned out to be more like a third cousin twice removed and banished. Raise your glasses for lessons learned, banished dramas, and for sageuk posterity. Bottoms up!
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