Thursday, March 21, 2013

Drama Review: Joseon X-files (2010)

Grade: A

Fusion sageuk/supernatural thriller

What it’s about
Working on behalf of a shady government agency that collects evidence of otherworldly doings, a young official is drawn into the investigation of supernatural occurrences. This mind-bending drama was inspired by the American show The X-files and covers some of the same ground—Vampires! Aliens! Ghosts! Mysterious smoking men!—but has a plot and characters of its own.

First impressions
Audacious and fun, this is an intriguing chimera of sageuk trappings and sci-fi soul, focusing on the appearance of a mysterious “flying ship” that happens to be an exact match for modern-day depictions of alien spacecraft.

Final verdict
As outlandish as its premise may seem, Joseon X-files is actually a perfect blend of occult detective story and sageuk mystery. It’s full of intriguing characters, compelling mysteries, and looming threats. A delightful homage to The X-files, it deftly weaves stand-alone “monster of the week” episodes with an overarching series mythology.

I’m not crazy about most Kdrama fusions, which tend to put a silly, tongue-in-cheek spin on whatever story they’re telling. Joseon X-files, on the other hand, takes itself seriously. It’s gritty and grimy and occasionally even grotesque, a thousand light years from all those historical dramas that star perfectly coifed flower boys running around in spotless, jewel-toned hanboks that are clearly fresh from the dry cleaner.

This tense (and sometimes downright scary) drama has stellar production values, sharp storytelling, and a lovely cast of both characters and actors. But perhaps most miraculous is its series-level plot, which actually manages to tie together most of its free-standing episodes into one grand conspiracy theory that’s both satisfying and deliciously open-ended.

Too bad the second season begged for in the finale never materialized, because I’d be watching it right now.

Random thoughts
Episode 1. So far, there are two not-so-great things about this show—the quality of Dramafever’s video, which is grainy and a little blurry, and the subtitles, which are full of silly faux-medieval words. Knave? Varlet? Palaver? With S2 is usually the best source of subtitles on the intenet, but I think they dropped the ball on this one: Their overly showy, “I just learned how to use a thesaurus!” translation actually distracts from the show’s dialogue.

Episode 3. This show has a different visual feel from most Kdramas, and a lot of it stems from its use of light and dark. In most television shows, every interior scene is lit the same way: with a flat, all-over fluorescent glow that has very little personality. The use of light in Joseon X-files is almost painterly—it’s textured and thick and full of shadows. That’s also reminiscent of the original X-files, a show that practically made the shadowy not-quite-seen part of the cast.

Episode 5. “One single utterance and I shall extirpate that viperous tongue of yours.” Is this the special SAT prep set of subtitles? Because Dramafever’s version of this show full of this kind of ridiculous, belabored language. Maybe the subber is trying to capture the charm of old-timey Korean, but it just ends up being obnoxious. “Historical fiction-ese” is my least favorite thing about historical fiction.

Episode 7. This show has been great so far, but this particular episode really raises the bar. It’s lush and creepy and all intriguing jagged edges that never quite fit together. More than the X-files, it reminds me of the “crazy” episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, like “Restless.” From a narrative perspective, it’s all frustrations and wild dream logic that doesn’t hold up to any kind of scrutiny. But there’s something totally arresting about it, and you feel like if you could just peer a little closer, look a little harder, everything would snap into focus. It’s the best stand-alone episode of Korean drama I’ve ever seen.

Episode 8. So crazy episode 7 would have been wonderful on its own, but it turns out to be the root of transfixing episode 8. Pure drama crack.

Episode 10. A new superlative in a show full of superlatives: that was the single most impressive vomit scene since the Exorcist. Ick.

You might also like
The Princess’ Man, for its movie-quality cinematography and serious sageuk storytelling


  1. I was never a fan of horror movies. I watched the Exorcist with my hands over my eyes because I was afraid of what I would see. I never watched the X-Files for that reason. I may give it a go if I get up the nerve.

    1. The Joseon X-files is a less scary than the American version (which literally gave me nightmares more times than I can count), so you might not mind it.

      I'm a big lover of science fiction and horror movies, so I knew I'd get around to watching this show sooner or later. I'm glad I did...even beyond being a genre series, it was just plain old good.

  2. Love this show. I don't think I've seen a concept (historical + sci-fi) like this anywhere else before, and the cinematography (esp. the lighting) was gorgeous, as you mentioned. Apparently they filmed this on a shoestring budget, which is even more impressive.

    Lol, I see you have been introduced to Mr.X's sageuk subs. It threw me off a bit at first but I got used to it pretty quickly. Conspiracy in the Court had much more difficult subs -- I actually had to use a dictionary.

    Ep 7 & 8 were the standout eps for me as well. I found the pacing of each episode to be very brisk and refreshing -- 45 min per ep means no filler and no unnecessary flashbacks. I do wish they squeezed in some more shippiness though. I wanted to see Yoon-yi teach Hyung-do how to shoot a gun!

    1. I thought Mr. X must have been the "Anarchist" who subbed this series ;) I had to look up a couple of words used in the subs myself, just to be sure I was understanding them correctly. And that's saying something—I'm a professional editor of academic books who has been obsessively reading since essentially birth.

      I wonder if his "antique" word choices are representative of the language used in the show, or if they're just Mr. X's personal calling card? I'm betting the latter, which is one of the reasons why I found them so frustrating.

      I would have liked more shippiness, too, although I guess this show's low-key, not-quite-romance is in keeping with the American X-files. In fact, more Yoon-yi period would have been nice. The show never did really explain what was going on with her...

  3. I miss this drama so much and still loving it because of the mysteries. I like it when a drama gives me the chance to think and get involved in a guessing game. Joseon X-Files is a rare gem among the romance-filled kdramaland. Here's anticipating more dramas like this one!

    Another thing that makes this drama a standout is that it doesn't attempt to shove the answer in the viewer's face. Instead, it gives the viewers the freedom to ponder about the answer, leaving it for us to decide on the explanation.

    1. This show really was a refreshing change of pace—its stand-alone mysteries were great on a single-episode level, and the whole thing fit together beautifully on a whole-drama level. You hardly ever see that on TV, Korean or otherwise.

      One of the best things about it was that the screenwriters did a nice job walking the fine line between being frustratingly obtuse and giving viewers a sense of closure. I was sad to see that none of the people involved with it have written any other dramas, at least based on their Dramawiki entries. That's a tragedy.

  4. Wow, yesterday i suddenly felt this longing for X-files and today i get this in my email. The universe heard by call through the great cyber-ether. I feel so in sync. (With what, I don't know.) Am definitely gonna try to fit this in. Thanks.

  5. o man. I too feel that eps 7&8 together were altogether the best k-drama eps I've ever seen. I couldn't stop talking about it for days to my husband, who did not care :P though now, I kinda want to make him watch it, though the memory of the subtitles x_x makes me hesitate (for him).

    1. o, and i heart kim ji hoon

    2. I like that Kim Ji Hoon played the same curmudgeonly nice guy in both this show and Flower Boy Next Door ;) He's aces at the role, and super cute, too.

      I just wish there was more to watch!

  6. I've heard about this drama, but I never really looked into it! This sounds like a great drama to watch. I was going to Watch School 2013 next, since I just finished Flower Boy Next Door, but now I'm not so sure. Great review as always!

  7. I really want to watch this drama, but I was curious about the sub quality once I realized it was a saguek translated by WITH S2. I'm currently struggling with Conspiracy in the Court, which I'd probably love to death if the subs were clear instead of a vocabulary test. A vocabulary test that I'm totally failing. It's sad that the subs are actually hindering enjoyment. It's a barrier for people who want to try out sagueks when the already tough/boring political scenes are purposefully made unclear by using antiquated language. Language that takes longer to process than the amount of time that the subs are on the screen.

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