Review: The Truth Is Out There (And So Are Creative Dramas!)

Review originally written for The Korean Quarterly

The cable drama “Secret Investigation Record” (조선X파일: 기찰비록, or Gichalbirok, and popularly known as “Joseon X-Files“) makes a promise to be addictively mysterious early on in episode one and keeps true to its mission throughout the entire 12-episode run.

This is a highly ambitious drama; it time-shifts the premise of aliens and supernatural beings to 17th century Joseon Korea, with a wink and a nod to the popular Fox sci-fi series, “X-Files.” “Secret Investigation Record” looks to the source materials for inspiration and makes the concept feel both homage and yet at the same time an original work of fiction.

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The events recounted in the drama occur in the early 1600s and purportedly recount (in part) a series of inexplicable and bizarre events recorded in historical documents of the period. The most significant of these are the recorded sightings of UFO-type shapes occurring in various locations around Asia.

The story, in fact, begins with a scheduled execution about to take place in the province of Gangwon-do. However, before the prisoner can be dispatched, a brilliant light splits the sky and a familiar (to viewers of sci-fi everywhere) saucer-shaped machine appears in the heavens, creating chaos on the ground. This event is duly recorded by the governor, against the advice of his staff, and sent to the king.

Unfortunately, no one appreciates that the truth “is out there,” least of all a group of mysterious figures at court. They see the news of this kind of phenomena as something that must be suppressed at all costs. The governor is brought before the courts and tortured to make him recant and an investigation is called for to discount the claim and therefore find a reason to execute the governor as a liar (therefore guilty of treason against the king).

The investigator chosen for the assignment is the stolid, duty-oriented and grounded Kim Hyung-do, played by Ji-hoon Kim. Those choosing him for the task no doubt assume that they’ve picked the kind of investigator who will be not predisposed to flights of fancy, and would dismiss the seemingly illogical reports of space machines readily. Unfortunately for them, and fortunately for the viewer, Hyung-do is not one to let an unexplained experience go; he’s like a dog worrying a bone over things that cannot be reasoned through and soon he finds himself on the ground in Gangwon-do province, sneaking into the former governor’s rooms (now off-limits), stealing private diaries as evidence, and basically doing the opposite of what officials hope he’ll do to put this case firmly to rest so that they can go ahead with their plans.

If you’re looking for a comparison to “X-Files,” you could say that Hyung-do is the more grounded, fact-based observation and detail-oriented Scully of the story, with a dash of the occasionally more impulsive Fox Mulder thrown in when the situation warrants it!

He’s accompanied in this investigation by his assigned officer, Jang Man, played by character actor Hee-bong Jo. Jang Man is a cross between the canny civil servant who knows how to keep his head down, an aide who will follow orders loyally when asked (even if he really, really doesn’t want to do so), and an outright bumptious coward. He doesn’t like any of the situations they increasingly find themselves in, and voices that alarm most readily, but in general he’s surprisingly loyal and as dogged in his own way as Hyung-do, and in that makes a good sidekick.

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During the first episode, Hyung-do has a brief encounter with a young woman, Heo Yoon-yi, played by Jung-eun Im, the owner of a bookshop. He’s startled to see in the materials she’s dropped, images similar to those drawn and described by the governor, however there is no opportunity to pursue this discovery – until they meet again.

Yoon-yi is destined to become his partner in investigation, they are brought together later through the machinations of Ji Seung, the head of a covert organization known as Shinmuhwe. Ji Seung, played by Kap-soo Kim, is a top-class puppet master, and Kim plays him with a steely eye not unlike his role as the spy agency head in “Time Between Dog and Wolf.”

Our first glimpses of Yoon-yi show her to be influential, a member of a group gathering to discuss the appearance of the flying saucers, and an expert of sorts in the subject – or at least as a librarian of the arcane. Her interest and knowledge in this field is impressive, as is her calm, intelligent manner.

As the drama progresses, she is also much more than that; she is an equal to Kyung-do in terms of contributing to an investigation. She is not there as the romantic interest; there is actually very little in the way of romance within the various story arcs, but there is a definite connection that speaks more to partnership and understanding.

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To recount more of the story would diminish the discovery aspect as Hyung-do pursues one mystery after another and tries to make some semblance of logic out of his experiences. It would also involve an overuse of the word “mysterious.” However, it is worth noting that each episode introduces multiple hints – sometimes just the briefest glimpses of a face, an action, or an object – that will have significance later in the drama.

The plotting is carefully laid out to reveal information; this is one drama where it would be worth watching all the way through and then, after finishing, going back and watching it from the beginning to see the many clues placed throughout. The strongest story arc of the series begins with episode 7 and continues through episode 9; it’s some of the strongest writing, acting, and production work I’ve seen in Korean dramas, and it stands out for its uniqueness in tone as well – though there are small flashes of clues earlier in the series. It’s that level of intricacy and detail that make this drama a standout.

Of course, this may not be the drama for everyone. A fellow devotee of Korean dramas was watching it at the same time and struggled with some of the plot. The biggest complaint was directed at the actions of some characters in given situations.

Why, for example does Hyung-do persist in his investigations (when there is another government squad that comes in to clean up and hide all evidence of the supernatural phenomena, including killing all who know the answers). Is the “wet-work” cover up squad working in parallel or does the work that Hyung-do inadvertently lead them to their victims. If so, why doesn’t he stop? My answer: he can’t stop until he finds the truth. It’s his personality and his obsession since his own first encounter. It is who he is, right or wrong.

The other criticism was that there was not enough attention paid to the back-story for Hyung-do and Yoon-yi. Even if this were not intended as a sci-fi driven romance, the emotional ties to the lead characters would have been stronger if the viewer knew more about their pasts.

How did Hyung-do come to be who he is? How did he know that governor? Yoon-yi knows nothing of her past, we learn, but how does she come to know so much about the arcane?

The series sheds no light on these questions, but for this reviewer (and her spouse), the lack of information was not a detriment. In a way, not being so closely tied in to the history of Hyung-do or Yoon-yi meant that you could focus on the story as it unfolds. You are, in a sense, experiencing the emotional jolts and shocks to reason that the characters do, as they experience them. You “live in the moment.”

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The final criticism is that after the incredibly strong story arc running through episodes 6 through 9, episode 10 was out of place in tone and the two-episode arc to close the series was weaker and left more to many questions.

This is a valid criticism, though one might argue that after the intensity of the previous episodes, the relatively lighter tone of the tenth episode calms the story down in order to set up the climax. The ambiguous ending allows for personal interpretation – just what does happen to Hyung-do in those final moments? What was the truth to his relationship (past and/or present and/or future) with Yoon-yi?

This decision is up to the viewer, though the series cries out for continuation. Unfortunately, with Ji-hoon Kim entering the service shortly after the drama wrapped, such plans are out of the question.

It’s worth noting that, as a cable drama, the production team used the opportunity to up the ante on style, camera direction, and occasionally the gruesome.

The hand-held camera work may generate some criticism, but for this reviewer it added that sense of things being off-kilter in a way that was perfectly in keeping with the shocking discoveries, fearful moments, and palpitating heartbeats of those involved.

Much of the set decoration and costumes were exceptionally lovely; the color palette and tones for this drama are particularly notable. A particularly humorous bit of wardrobe creativity comes in the form of Hyung-do’s gat coming in for regular beatings. The increasingly shabby and crumpled look of his headgear is a subtle running theme throughout the drama and it becomes a part of his detective persona, not unlike the rumpled raincoat worn by Peter Falk’s detective, Columbo.

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Secret Investigation Record” deserves much praise for the imaginative setting, fresh and compelling characters, and yes, risk-taking, for gambling on a sci-fi tale that is willing to look to a cult classic and marry it to the familiar setting of Joseon Korea.

The success of the project is undeniable; months after watching this series, my non-drama-watching spouse still brings up how he wishes there were more episodes to watch! And in writing these details I find myself longing too for a revisit to this world, and this time to pay even closer attention to the clever clues laid throughout the piece.

This is one tale that’s not going to be “written and filed away” forever; it’s going to be watched again soon and no doubt many times in the future.

You can watch “Secret Investigation Record” at Dramafever.com.

Not Happy

Street Scene

Snapped from the bus as I traveled through Itaewon in Seoul, the expression on this gentleman’s face says anything but “happy” even if he is flanked by the joyful image of one of more famous paintings of Joseon artist Danwon and the coincidental command HAPPY of the shopping bag on offer to his right.