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.
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.
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.
• 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.
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The Princess’ Man, for its movie-quality cinematography and serious sageuk storytelling